Stand-up comedy in America is not, for the most part, a long-lived profession. Comics burn out, go stale, lose their edge. Some, like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, almost literally consume themselves. Others, like Steve Martin, prudently retire from the stage at the top of their form and then find other things to do. And a few old-timers, like Don Rickles, have turned themselves into living museums, doing a kind of humor that commemorates its own borscht belt roots.
George Carlin, who died on Sunday at 71, had a remarkably long and productive career of 50-odd years and was far from a museum piece. His last HBO special, "It's Bad for Ya," was broadcast in March, and like all the others, was an enormous hit. Carlin was beloved by the middle-aged, who had practically grown up with him, but also by young people whose parents weren't even alive when he began appearing on "The Tonight Show" in the 1960s and transforming everyone's notion of what stand-up could be.
That was still the era of bit comedy, of stories and one-liners. Carlin did routines that involved full-fledged characters of a sort that had seldom been seen on television before. There was Al Sleet, the hippy-dippy weatherman, for example, whose forecasts had an existential edge: "Dark. Continued dark throughout the evening."
Carlin delivered these lines with the eye-rolling and the slightly spaced-out voice that eventually developed into his trademarks, when he abandoned characters for a more free-form kind of humor. He didn't seem stoned, exactly, but a lot of his humor appeared to come from that part of the brain that lesser people need drugs to activate. He got tremendous mileage just from repeating certain words, dirty ones especially. His most famous routine was "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." You still can't say them or print them in most newspapers, for that matter even after the issue went all the way to the Supreme Court.
In later years Carlin added three more words to the list, but the comic principle remained the same, and the joke was as fresh as ever. These ostensibly taboo words, which are at the same time an unavoidable part of our daily discourse, used and overheard everywhere except on television and in newspapers, became unaccountably funny when Carlin intoned them onstage, pausing for dramatic effect and every now and then wriggling with mock horror.
Like all the great comics, Carlin had a gift for saying and thinking things that other people wouldn't or couldn't. He wasn't as threatening as Bruce or Pryor. Especially in his later years, when, mostly bald but with a white beard and just a hint of a ponytail in back, he would bounce onstage in a black sweater, black pants and sneakers, his persona was warmer, cranky rather than angry. He was like your outrageous beatnik uncle.
His humor was always a little subversive and aimed at puncturing hypocrisy and feel-goodism. He hated religion, self-help movements, corporate and government doublespeak, shopping malls, fast food and trendy child-rearing practices. Though he delivered it with a smile, his forecast was the same as Al Sleet's: dark and getting darker.
Carlin was a surprisingly effective physical comedian, prowling the stage with a microphone and delivering his punch lines with body English and facial acrobatics. But the heart of his humor was verbal. One of his favorite bits was an extended riff, a mock tirade, against what he called "soft language the language that takes the life out of life." Soft language was the substitution, say, of "bathroom tissue" for "toilet paper"; it was calling the dump the landfill and saying you were experiencing a "negative cash-flow situation" when what you really meant was that you were broke.
Carlin had dozens of examples, and he could cite them for minutes on end, alternately rueful and disbelieving. But what came through, even as he shook his head and used one or more of the seven forbidden words to say how stupid we were, was his love of language itself and how various and evocative it was. Even the expletives or perhaps especially the expletives.