It’s George Carlin’s World, We Just Live in It

George Carlin died yesterday:

George Carlin, the Grammy-Award winning standup comedian and actor who was hailed for his irreverent social commentary, poignant observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and groundbreaking routines like “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” died in Santa Monica, Calif., on Sunday, according to his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He was 71.

There have been a lot of tributes to Carlin’s spectacular career today. But the one thing I don’t see many people mentioning is that George Carlin is one of the few people who could genuinely claim to have changed the culture he lived in.

Consider. When Carlin was just starting out, he attended the now-legendary show at Chicago’s Gate of Horn at which Lenny Bruce — the spectacular comic who directly challenged American middle-class morality — was hauled off stage to jail by the cops. Bruce’s crime? Telling jokes about religion. That was it; that was enough to get you locked up in 1962 in America. (The cops hauled Carlin off that night too, just for being in the place and refusing to produce ID on command.)

The system that struck them both that night drove Lenny Bruce to an early grave, but George Carlin spent the rest of his life taking it on, pushing its boundaries, forcing us to redefine the acceptable. He built a routine, “Filthy Words“, in which he discussed the seven words you weren’t allowed to say on television, that prompted a crackdown by the FCC — a crackdown which was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, putting the question of whether or not the government had the power to regulate “indecent” speech on the national agenda.

Carlin’s detractors were fond of writing him off as a shock jockey, someone out to get some cheap laughs by saying dirty words. But to say that was to miss the real meaning of Carlin’s work. He didn’t just throw around shocking language for effect — he deployed it like a general deploys his artillery, precisely targeted to strike the enemy where the most damage can be done. He was out to make a point, not just to get a laugh.

And it’s hard to argue that he was anything but successful. Today the culture has shifted dramatically from the days when Lenny Bruce could get locked up just for teasing organized religion on a nightclub stage. Indeed, by the 1990s, Carlin and others could take on the same targets much more sharply and directly, and nobody batted an eye.

Carlin’s philosophy and sensibility have become so much a part of the “conventional wisdom” that it’s easy to miss just how groundbreaking they were when he started out. He truly was a leader — a leader pushing society towards a new openness, a new frankness. And he lived long enough to see society catch up with his vision.

The culture we live in today — a culture in which free expression thrives, without fear of legal repercussion — didn’t exist when George Carlin began his career; Lenny Bruce’s life and death stand as mute testament to that. Beyond a few visionaries like Bruce, nobody even imagined it could exist. But Carlin and his contemporaries dragged society kicking and screaming along behind them by the sheer force of their wit and personality.

George Carlin was a legend. He will be sorely missed.