Famed for his landmark "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine, George Carlin filled the void created by the death of Lenny Bruce, honing a provocative, scathing comic style that bravely explored the limits of free speech and good taste. George Dennis Carlin was born on May 12, 1937, in New York City. While serving a stint in the military, he was stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he began working as a disc jockey; after working with fellow radio personality Jack Burns on a Shreveport morning show, in 1955 the duo began performing in clubs as a comedy team. Burns & Carlin made their recorded debut in 1960 with a live show consisting of their rendition of Lenny Bruce's "Dijinni in the Candy Store" routine (Bruce was an early supporter of the duo as well as a major influence), along with a spot-on impersonation of Mort Sahl and the sketch "Captain Jack and Jolly George," a spoof of children's shows inviting young girls to "send for your Lolita kit."
By and large, the Burns & Carlin team found little success, and eventually broke up; their album was released on the tiny Era Records label under the name Burns & Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight (despite having been recorded at Hollywood's Cosmo Alley), but failed to generate much attention. Meanwhile, Burns split to begin working with Avery Schreiber. Striking out on his own, Carlin initially worked in roles that cast him as a clean-cut, straight-laced performer; his proper solo debut, 1967's Take Offs and Put Ons (recorded at The Roostertail in Detroit, Michigan) offered clever if mild-mannered routines like "Wonderful WINO," about a mindless disc jockey. That year he was also tapped to co-star in Away We Go, a summer replacement series for The Jackie Gleason Show; still, despite his success, Carlin found his suit-and-tie image stifling, and began gravitating toward the image and ideals of the counterculture.
Re-emerging as a long-haired, bearded, denim-clad hippie, he lost many of his high-paying gigs, but his riffs on sex, drugs, and politics quickly gained an avid following among the fringe culture. While 1972's FM & AM offered an even split between the safer material of his past work and the more incendiary routines of the "new" Carlin, 1972's Class Clown and the following year's Occupation Foole marked his full evolution into a counterculture icon. Most notably, Class Clown featured the recorded debut of the "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" bit, the subject of a Supreme Court ruling after the FCC nearly stripped Pacifica Radio of its FM license for playing the routine on the air. At the same time, Carlin himself was arrested after a Milwaukee concert appearance for violating local obscenity laws.
The controversy only made him a bigger star, and in 1975 he was tapped to host the debut episode of the NBC sketch comedy showcase Saturday Night Live. The same year also saw the release of the LP An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo, highlighted by an early performance of what soon evolved into his popular "Baseball -- Football" routine. In 1976 Carlin appeared in the film Car Wash, and in 1977 he issued On the Road. However, as a new breed of way-out comedians like Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Andy Kaufman began to emerge, Carlin's brand of incisive sociopolitical commentary began to fall from favor; plagued by substance abuse problems, he did not record again until 1981's A Place for My Stuff, and gained a reputation for unpredictable, often abusive on-stage behavior.
By the middle of the decade, he resurfaced clean and sober for 1985's Carlin on Campus and 1986's Playin' with Your Head, which reprised material from recent cable TV and home video performances. After 1988's What Am I Doing in New Jersey?, he found a new following among teens thanks to his appearances in the popular Bill and Ted screen comedies; in the early '90s, he courted an even younger audience by assuming the lead role on the PBS children's series Shining Time Station. Still, Carlin did not neglect his core audience; 1990's Parental Advisory, Explicit Lyrics and 1992's Jammin' in New York found him as feisty as ever, and in 1994 he starred as an abrasive cabdriver in the short-lived Fox television sitcom The George Carlin Show. Additionally, he continued to tour constantly, and in 1997 issued the album Back in Town. Like many of his '90s recordings, 1999's You Are All Diseased was issued as a complement to an hourlong HBO special.
Carlin continued to perform throughout the country on an intensive basis, and issued his politically fueled Complaints and Grievances shortly after the September 11th tragedy. It was followed by 2006's Life Is Worth Losing and 2008's It's Bad for Ya. Both featured some of his bleakest material to date, the latter being driven by the subject of death. It was announced that Carlin would be the recipient of the 2008 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, to be awarded in November 2008 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Only days later, on June 22, 2008, Carlin died of heart failure in Santa Monica, California. The Kennedy Center announced that Carlin would receive the prize posthumously and that the November event would be dedicated to him. Carlin had been writing an autobiography before his death, and it was published as Last Words in 2009. In 2016, Carlin's first posthumous album, I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, was released. The album -- including material recorded live at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on September 9-10, 2001 -- had been shelved following the September 11 attacks. ~ Jason Ankeny