Stories about George Carlin routinely involve illicit substances, anti-authority sentiments, and seven dirty words. Universally regarded as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, Carlin was celebrated for his way with language. His material often dark and his comic tone memorably acerbic, Carlin was one of the most famous comedy crusaders during the 1970s, not just pushing content boundaries but helping rearrange expectations for the art of stand-up itself. During his decades-long career, he balanced soul-bearing introspection and scathing social commentary with his well-honed gift to deliver a simple joke.
Carlin's reputation as a class clown was established at a young age, as were signs of rebellion. After performing on "nice" shows like Ed Sullivan, Carlin scrapped his clean image and found his voice - a voice that included a lot of offensive language. "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" remains his most famous routine - and it's thanks to his love of language that the limits of obscene vocabulary were pushed all the way to the Supreme Court.
Carlin's career spanned 50 years, and while you may be well aware of the brilliant quotes and observations attributed to him, there's probably plenty of things you still don't know about him. That he was an influential funnyman unafraid to challenge society's beliefs and assumptions goes without saying; all the George Carlin stories and details and personal anecdotes that happened along the way may be a bit more surprising.
In 1972, Carlin appeared at Summerfest, an outdoor concert festival in Milwaukee. Earlier that year, Carlin released his album Class Clown, which contained his now-famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" act. Police officers were standing by at the Milwaukee show in case he decided to do the bit live. Carlin wasn't aware they were waiting backstage but wasn't one to back down when it came to matters of the First Amendment.
During the show, his wife walked on stage to give him some water and warned him of the cops' intentions. Instead of exiting on the left where they were waiting, Carlin headed right, handing off the coke he had stashed in his pockets to members of the band. The police nabbed him, and though it was only a verbal offense, six officers escorted him off the festival grounds.
Through much of his career, Carlin included a lot of political commentary in his comedy - commenting on, among other things, the separation of church and state and America's efforts to fight extremism. But at a certain point, he decided he didn't actually want to be a part of the political process. Carlin placed his last vote in the 1972 election; the fact that Richard Nixon was re-elected convinced him to never vote again.
He wasn't against politics but rather felt the entire government system needed massive changes and he believed not voting was the only way to make the voice of the public be heard. He argued:
If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain.
By 1975, Carlin's image as a counterculture icon was firmly established. He was given the honor of acting as host for a brand-new sketch comedy TV show called Saturday Night ("Live" was added later). He got the gig partly because of his comedic skills and partly because he went to summer camp with the director.
Unlike modern SNL guest hosts, Carlin didn't appear in any sketches but instead performed short stand-up routines sprinkled through the show. Although famous for his anti-authority approach to life, Carlin did bow to the studio's dress-code demands. Executives originally insisted he wear formal attire but were apparently okay with his choice of a suit/T-shirt combo.
Later on, Carlin claimed he didn't remember most of this historic night, mostly because he was "loaded on [coke] all week long."
Carlin joined the Air Force in 1954 after dropping out of high school and planned to use the GI Bill to pay tuition for broadcasting school. Carlin was stationed in Louisiana at Barksdale Air Force Base, but his lack of respect for authority and rules kept him from fitting into the military - and it resulted in three courts-martial. The first was an accusation of abandoning his post after he fell asleep inside a grounded plane nowhere near his sidearm. The second came after using some choice words.
Eventually, the Air Force gave him a general discharge, which is preferable to a dishonorable discharge. Carlin was comfortable with the decision, having already been asked to leave the Boy Scouts, an altar boy program, a boys' choir, and summer camp. He said, "I never fit and I didn't like conforming. And sometimes it just broke through the membrane, and I was out."