Farewell to a class clown

Our view : George Carlin shocked and informed a generation

June 24, 2008

For many who came of age in the 1970s, listening to the edgy comedy of George Carlin (ruled indecent but not obscene by the Supreme Court) was an important coming-of-age experience. Like Lenny Bruce a decade earlier, the pony-tailed Mr. Carlin pushed the envelope of humor with profanity, frank discussions of drugs and his Irish Catholic upbringing, and an unapologetically anti-establishment point of view.

His "Seven Dirty Words" routine would seem fairly tame by today's standards, but it was groundbreaking then. Even after the Federal Communications Commission censured and fined a station for airing it - a ruling later supported by the nation's highest court - Mr. Carlin would perform the monologue in public and was arrested for doing so.

For teenagers, listening to such biting commentary on Class Clown or his other albums was an opportunity not only to revel in a mocking of authority but also to probe social taboos. He was also not above being just plain funny with popular routines about TV news, such as the "Hippy Dippy Weatherman," and sports to genuinely clever word play and numerous guest appearances on television and film.

Mr. Carlin's death from heart failure at 71 is shocking not because his health was good - Mr. Carlin spoke openly of his heavy substance-abuse problems and entered a rehabilitation center as recently as four years ago - but because he continued to perform with such energy and passion.

There may be funnier comedians and more savage social critics, but no one of his generation accomplished both as successfully. He crossed lines, making his audience both laugh and think in the process. That's a rare skill, and he will be sorely missed.

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