Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin, 71

George Carlin's LP "FM & AM" was in my record collection from the moment it was released in 1972.

Back before the proliferation of cable television and the invention of the Internet, you heard new comedy two ways: live or on vinyl. There were some AOR radio stations that would play cuts from comedy records, but they were constrained by broadcast rules that in 1972 were almost as draconian as they are today. And television variety shows would allow comics a three-minute routine prior to an interview to plug a tour or an album, but the three-minutes was always sanitized.

The FCC had drawn a line in the sand, and no network was going to cross it. Carlin approached that line, looked at it with contempt and obliterated it. He picked-up the mantle thrown aside when Lenny Bruce died and he carried it with the brilliance of a prophet.

The huge success of "FM & AM" led to the almost-immediate release of his more popular "Class Clown" LP, which also landed in my record collection upon release.

"Class Clown" crossed lines that only Richard Pryor had dared to approach in recordings, and included his famous routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."

This wonderful routine was broadcast by WBAI radio, part of the Pacifica chain, in 1972, and the FCC received a complaint. The FCC warned the station that further use of vulgarity in their broadcasts could lead to sanctions. Pacifica appealed the decision to the US Court of Appeals, who sided with the broadcast outlet and overturned the FCC's ruling. The FCC then appealed the case to the Supreme Court and the highest court ruled in favor of the FCC and the case led to the formal establishment of decency rules for broadcast (which rules, you might have noticed, are enforced selectively and always against entertainers who are outside the mainstream).

The prosecution of the case opened the floodgates for comedians like Pryor, who's 1974 release "That Nigger's Crazy" compares to Carlin's "Class Clown" in the social commentary department. The Court may have ruled against Carlin's routine, but the broadcast and entertainment worlds were changed forever because of it.

Carlin's routines were hysterical. His 11:00 news broadcast (from FM & AM") includes an appearance by the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman, and a sports broadcast that includes the line (paraphrased here): "And now for a partial score: New York 9." If you have not heard this routine, you must. It holds-up to the test of time.

Carlin's "Stuff" routine seems to have been included in every tour, in some form or another. He explains: "My stuff is stuff, and your stuff is shit. So, move your shit to make some room for my stuff." I do it no justice in this article and you must see it if you have not.

His quick-tongue delivery and brilliant affectations were a joy to watch.

Later stage performances suffered a little when routines informed by his theophobia and disdain for his Catholic heritage exposed a hatred seemingly rooted, like the experience of so many American Catholics, in innuendo and tales rather than personal adventures. Still, he would deliver discussions of sexuality, drugs, politics, manners, and social mores that made even the most uptight viewer laugh out loud. Carlin broke all the rules and the world is a better place for it.

At the shrine of George Carlin, let there be engraved in marble the seven words (common to everyone) that became his alone: "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits." Nobody delivered that line like Carlin and anyone hearing that line knows the provenance.

It's odd to have such a brilliant mind remembered for such a seemingly shallow line, but that line changed the world (for better or worse), and we should all be grateful to Carlin for forcing the dialog about vulgarity.

No comments: