Comics Pay Tribute to George Carlin, 71

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People who like to laugh, and to make others laugh, are mourning the death of comedian George Carlin. The rebellious stand-up comic who picked apart the way we act, speak, and think was 71 years old when he died Sunday night in Santa Monica. KPCC's Brian Watt reports.

Brian Watt: Many stand-up comedians, like Lewis Black, credit George Carlin with making it possible for them to hone their craft.

Lewis Black: He basically made it so we weren't stepping back into vaudeville for the rest of our lives.

Watt: Carlin, who served in the Air Force, started out as a pretty straight-laced comic. All that changed after he watched comedian Lenny Bruce at work almost 50 years ago. Lewis Black told KPCC's Patt Morrison that while Bruce made American comedy edgy, Carlin made that edginess more palatable to the masses.

Black: Without Bruce, you might not have Carlin. And Carlin really takes it into the world of television. He's the one who breaks open TV for us.

Watt: Comedian Tim Bedore places George Carlin in the same influential category as the Marx Brothers. If Harpo, Chico, and Groucho skewered the powers that be and broadened the appeal of Jewish humor, George Carlin's shift from suit-and-tie propriety to bearded "hippiedom" also represented a sea change. Bedore says Carlin's appearances in the early 1970s on NBC's "The Tonight Show" proved his countercultural irreverence could work.

Tim Bedore: That's unbelievable. That you could cross over to that point into that straightest of straight worlds and the most mainstream thing, as a hippie, with a ponytail, and beard, and his attitude.

Watt: Language accompanied the attitude. Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television" got him arrested in Milwaukee in 1972. The judicial response to their broadcast on a New York radio station scored him a footnote in First Amendment history.

Thirty years ago, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed the federal government's authority to punish broadcasters for airing offensive language. Fortunately for Carlin, the emerging medium of cable television afforded him more freedom. During Carlin's first stand-up special for HBO, director Marty Callner was determined to put those Seven Dirty Words on television.

Marty Callner: If you go back and look at that special, we had to freeze it in the middle and say the following language is explicit. And, you know, so even then, we were rolling a rock up hill. And that's when HBO was just sort of finding its center and its core.

Watt: After that 1977 outing, Carlin performed 13 more specials for HBO. Marty Callner says that without George Carlin breaking the language barrier, the network's later characters like Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw would've expressed themselves very differently.