For decades, George Carlin worked hard to say things that prompted a strong reaction — to the point that just saying his name could prompt a strong reaction. He was funny. He was also controversial. Some held him up as "Exhibit A" for the coarsening of discourse and speech in America. Others held him up as an icon of free speech.

Like Lenny Bruce before him, he was capable of saying anything to anyone, anywhere at anytime.

Carlin, who died of heart failure Sunday at age 71, seemed to embody the comic's creed: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

Carlin's charm as a comic came from an ability to blend a boyishness, facial expressions and jokes that were usually driven by his shrewd observations of language. He had a writer's way with words and a performer's gift for timing their use.

Almost everyone had a favorite Carlin "bit."

"Here's a sentence you've never heard before," he would say. "Is there room for another grand piano in your pocket?"

His most famous contribution — some would say most "infamous contribution" — was a sketch called "Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television." He uttered them in a nightclub and was arrested, then later released. When a radio station played the sketch, it led to a Supreme Court ruling about decency.

Carlin lived on the cutting edge and drove himself hard. Over the years — according to The Associated Press — he recorded 23 comedy albums, was on 14 HBO specials, wrote three books and was a guest on "The Tonight Show" 130 times.

His career itself reads like a comedy routine. He was court-martialed several times in the Air Force. Later he would sell peanut brittle, work as a disc jockey and also a keyboardist.

Not everyone was enamoured with his wit. Originally a clean-cut comic in a suit and tie, he said he realized he was "doing superficial comedy entertaining people who didn't really care." So he dropped the Mr. Nice Guy image and began taking potshots at big shots and pushing the envelope with a profane, risque style.

Love or loathe him, he was a true touchstone for the baby boom generation and an American original who demands, even in death, to be reckoned with.