Thursday, July 10, 2008

Award-winning comedian George Carlin dies

Award-winning comedian George Carlin dies

Story Highlights
George Carlin dies of heart failure at age 71, publicist says
Comedian known for "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" monologue
"Seven Words" routine led to landmark indecency case at U.S. Supreme Court
Carlin was to receive Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in November

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- George Carlin, the influential comedian whose routines used profanity, scatology and absurdity to point out the silliness and hypocrisy of human life, has died. He was 71.

Carlin, who had a history of heart trouble, died of heart failure Sunday, according to publicist Jeff Abraham. Carlin went to St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica on Sunday afternoon, complaining of chest pain, and died at 5:55 p.m. PT.

Carlin performed as recently as last weekend at the Orleans Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, and maintained a busy performing schedule, which included regular TV specials for HBO.

"He was a genius and I will miss him dearly," Jack Burns, who was the other half of a comedy duo with Carlin in the early 1960s, told The Associated Press.

Carlin was "a hugely influential force in stand-up comedy. He had an amazing mind, and his humor was brave, and always challenging us to look at ourselves and question our belief systems, while being incredibly entertaining. He was one of the greats," actor and comedian Ben Stiller said in a statement. Slideshow: The life of George Carlin »

Carlin was often quoted, his best lines traded like baseball cards. "Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?" began one famous routine. Another pointed out the differences between the pastoral game of baseball and the militaristic game of football: "Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium."

Then there were the non sequiturs: "The bigger they are, the worse they smell," he observed. Watch Carlin in action »

He filled three best-selling books, more than 20 record albums and countless television appearances with his material. How Carlin changed comedy

He appreciated the impact his words made on fans.

"These are nice additional merit badges that you earn if you've left a mark on a person or on some people," he told in 2004. "I'd say it's flattering, but flattery implies insincerity, so I call it a compliment."

Carlin was probably best known for a routine that began, "I was thinking about the curse words and the swear words, the cuss words and the words that you can't say." It was a monologue, known as "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," that got Carlin arrested and eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The "Seven Dirty Words" bit prompted a landmark indecency case after New York's WBAI-FM radio aired it in 1973.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that the sketch was "indecent but not obscene," giving the Federal Communications Commission broad leeway to determine what constituted indecency on the airwaves.

"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," Carlin said. "In the context of that era, it was daring.

"It just sounds like a very self-serving kind of word. I don't want to go around describing myself as a 'groundbreaker' or a 'difference-maker' because I'm not and I wasn't," he said. "But I contributed to people who were saying things that weren't supposed to be said." Watch the impact of Carlin's seven dirty words routine »

In November, Carlin was slated to receive the 2008 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, given by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

"In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer and actor, George Carlin has not only made us laugh, but he makes us think," Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen Schwarzman said in a statement. "His influence on the next generation of comics has been far-reaching."

In a typically wry response, Carlin said, "Thank you, Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people."

Carlin was born on May 12, 1937, in New York. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and joined the Air Force, where his misfit ways continued -- he received three courts-martial and several punishments.

After leaving the military, he spent a few years in radio, where he met Burns. In 1960, the pair left to pursue a comedy career in Los Angeles. Burns told the AP that the Carlin of those years was "fairly conservative," but things changed when the two saw Lenny Bruce in the early '60s.

"It was an epiphany for George," Burns told the AP. "The comedy we were doing at the time wasn't exactly groundbreaking, and George knew then that he wanted to go in a different direction."

Carlin remembered a similar feeling, he told

"[His career] represented a lot of such honesty on the stage, the willingness to confront a lot of sacred cows and expose them," he said of Bruce. "He did it with a great deal of irreverence and with a lot of brilliance."

Carlin went solo in 1962. For most of the decade, he was a conservative-looking presence: clean-shaven, attired in jacket and tie, making his amused observations to audiences on "The Tonight Show" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

But as the times changed, so did Carlin. He let his hair down, grew a beard and dressed in jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts. It was this Carlin who became a hit with college audiences in the early '70s and made such albums as "FM & AM" and "Occupation: Foole."

Carlin hosted the first broadcast of "Saturday Night Live" in October 1975.

He also appeared in movies, including "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989), Kevin Smith's "Dogma" (1999) and "Cars" (2006). For the latter, he was the voice of Fillmore, the Volkswagen bus.

He starred as a cabdriver in his own sitcom, "The George Carlin Show," which ran from 1993 to 1995. He also played the character of Mr. Conductor on the PBS series "Shining Time Station" and lent his voice to two episodes of "The Simpsons."

Carlin was blunt about his own struggles. He suffered several heart attacks, one at Dodger Stadium during a baseball game. He also underwent treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

He was relentlessly amused by humanity -- in one of his most famous lines, he pointed out that "if you're born in this world you're given a ticket to the freak show. If you're born in America, you're given a front-row seat" -- but refused to consider himself a cynic. He preferred "disappointed idealist."

It all went into his comedy. He was fascinated by language and euphemism, noting that "there's a reluctance to confront reality and a desire to soften unpleasant realities." In a different life, he said, he may have been a teacher.

Which he was, anyway.

"Part of what my impulse is with things I've said or done, I think it is an attempt to demystify these things, to take them out of the realm of the forbidden and the disgusting and the off-base, and to at least bring them into the discussion," he told

He is survived by his wife, Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; son-in-law Bob McCall; brother Patrick Carlin; and sister-in-law Marlene Carlin. Carlin's first wife, Brenda, died in 1997.

CNN's Ed Payne contributed to this report.

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