George Carlin (1937-2008) was a pioneer in the modern observational comedy genre, along with such contemporaries as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Mort Sahl. George Carlin began his comedy career as a disk jockey during the late 1950s, often teaming with fellow comedian Jack Burns. The Burns-Carlin comedy team dissolved during the early 1960s, but Carlin developed several of his most popular characters, including an oblivious disk jockey at "Wonderful WINO" and Al Sleet, the "hippy-dippy weatherman," during those formative years.
Stand-up comedians who hoped to appear regularly on television during the early to mid-1960s were generally expected to present a clean-cut image and limit the scope of their routines to conventional topics. At first, George Carlin conformed to these television standards, but eventually found performing generic, self-edited routines to mainstream America to be intellectually and artistically stifling. By the late 1960s, George Carlin changed his public persona to that of a counterculture hipster with long flowing hair and a full beard.
One of George Carlin's favorite sources for material was the English language, and this fascination with words led to the development of one of his most infamous and controversial routines. Carlin noted that the FCC specifically banned seven obscene words from public broadcasting, and in his routine wondered how a handful of words gained so much power over society. His "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine included all seven forbidden words, along with graphic commentary on whether or not those words should have even been included in the FCC's list.
Although the routine is more of an indictment against arbitrary censorship than an extended "dirty joke," Carlin was arrested for public indecency after performing the routine at a concert. A radio station which broadcast the routine was also fined for violating FCC decency rules, a case which reached the US Supreme Court.
George Carlin hosted the premiere of a late night sketch comedy show on NBC called Saturday Night Live, although his duties were limited to introducing musical acts and performing stand-up routines between sketches. Carlin's primary outlets for comedy were live concerts taped for the HBO cable network, along with a busy tour schedule prompted largely by financial troubles with the IRS.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Carlin wrote a popular series of books which supplemented his HBO concert appearances and occasional tours. He also appeared in his own self-titled television series on the FOX network and performed as the conductor on the American version of Thomas the Tank Engine. When the producers of Pixar's animated movie Cars needed a voice for the hippyesque Volkswagen microbus named Fillmore, they turned to George Carlin.
Carlin's later routines were often punctuated with darker observations of the human condition, along with highly controversial references to religion, politics and sex. Although raised as an Irish Catholic, Carlin was strongly against many of the trappings associated with organized religion, viewing believers in God as intellectually suspect. Politically liberal, Carlin also openly criticized the Vietnam and Gulf Wars and the conservative, militaristic mentality which allowed them to happen.
In 2008, George Carlin was selected to receive the Mark Twain lifetime achievement award for his pioneering work in American stand-up comedy. Several days after the announcement of this honor, however, Carlin entered a hospital complaining of chest pains, and passed away from cardiac arrest that same afternoon. Per his final wishes, his cremated ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location and no public funeral or memorial was held. George Carlin was 71 years old.