George Carlin, Johnny Carson, and Comedy ► Throwback Thursday

George Carlin, the man who challenged both censors and the institution of Stand Up Comedy, would have celebrated his 79th birthday today, had he not been so foolish to die in 2008. 

Carlin started his career in radio while he was still in the USAF. While it only lasted a few months, it gave him that first taste of Show Biz. Soon he teamed up with Jack Burns as a comedy duo, and the two of them went on to some success, appearing on tee vee and recording an album. After 2 years they went their separate ways. As his official biography tells us:

After splitting with Burns, Carlin spent about a year working in
nightclubs without much success and with no television exposure. In
1963, he branched out into folk clubs and coffee houses where the
audiences were more progressive, and where he could develop both styles
of material he felt capable of. He balanced mainstream material with the
more outspoken, irreverent routines that were closer to his heart. In
1963 in he found the Café au Go Go in Greenwich Village and spent the
better part of two years developing his comic style. Ironically, it was
in this folk/jazz setting that he developed the first bits which got him
on television, the ultimate establishment medium. The Indian Sergeant,
Wonderful Wino, and the Hippy Dippy Weatherman were all born during this
period. So was George and Brenda’s only daughter, Kelly.

At the time Carlin was still a straight comedian, with short hair, no facial hair, and wearing a suit and tie — a far cry from the way he looked later in his career.

However, he was already moving away from conformity. As the WikiWackyWoo tells us:

Carlin was present at Lenny Bruce‘s
arrest for obscenity. As the police began attempting to detain members
of the audience for questioning, they asked Carlin for his
identification. Telling the police he did not believe in
government-issued IDs, he was arrested and taken to jail with Bruce in
the same vehicle.[21]

Starting in the mid ’60s Carlin started to appear regularly on television. But . . .

During the late 1960’s, because of the influence television was
having on his career, Carlin’s new material grew bland and safe. The
rebellious, anti-establishment tone of some of his earlier routines had
disappeared, and increasingly he felt bored and dissatisfied with his
material and the places he was working. By 1970, his self-imposed
restrictions no longer applied; his acting and career had been put on
hold, and the country was changing. The people who had inhabited the
folk clubs and coffee houses of the early ’60s were now the
“counterculture,” a large ready-made audience which shared many of
Carlin’s out-of-step attitudes and opinions. He began to drift in their

During 1970 the irreverent tone returned to his material, he grew a
beard, and began to dress more casually. However, the “new” George
Carlin didn’t sit well with his middleclass audiences nor with nightclub
owners. A series of incidents with audiences and owners that year
culminated in his being fired from the Frontier Hotel in September for
saying “shit.” In December he worked his last “establishment” job: The
San Francisco Playboy Club. From then on, his comedic identity became
more and more associated with the counterculture.

Then came his most famous routine, Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television, which itself was subject to an obscenity trial when he was arrested in 1972 for performing it. Eventually, the case was dismissed. While the judge agreed the words were indecent, he affirmed Carlin’s First Amendment Right to say them.

Along the way Carlin took up acting, appearing in a number of movies, including the cult favourite Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Carlin died of a heart attack on June 22, 2008. Just 4 days earlier he was announced as the latest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He was the first to given the award posthumously at a star-studded affair in November.

Back in January Antenna TV, one of a several nostalgia stations that have cropped up in the last few years, started running entire episodes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, renamed Johnny Carson for these rebroadcasts at 11PM every night. As often as I am able — because it’s past my bedtime — I try and tune into the beginning of the show to catch who the guests are, and to watch the opening monologue. Tuesday night Carlin was Johnny’s guest and I forced myself to stay up and watch him performing a very funny routine of non sequiturs, small jokes that had no linkage.

Comedy has sure changed a lot since George Carlin started in the ’50s and he is one of the main agents of that change.

On Tuesday night, the same night he was being rerun on Carson’s show, his daughter Kelly announced at a private event that she was donating the Carlin’s archives to the newly formed National Comedy Center. According to NPR:

“Everybody’s gotta have a little place for their stuff. That’s all life is about. Trying to find a place for your stuff.” — George Carlin

It’s one of his most famous routines and, like all great comedy, contains more than a grain of truth.
he died eight years ago, the keeper of George Carlin’s “stuff” has been
his daughter, writer and performer Kelly Carlin. She says he kept
everything: Scrapbooks. Arrest records. The pink slip to his first car, a
Dodge Dart. VHS tapes.

From “handwritten notes of his actual working on comedy ideas to
his kind of OCD-esque way of making lists of things, like every routine
he ever did on a late night show,” she says. “When comedians would come
over to my house and I would say, ‘Do you want to take a glance at my
dad’s stuff?’ Their eyes would light up. I knew how to get to their
hearts immediately,” she says, laughing.

While he was alive George Carlin entered the pantheon of Great Comedians. His fame has only increased in the years since his death.

Here are a few laughs courtesy of George Carlin:

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.