George Carlin was not content to follow the rules that society presented to him. Instead, he carved his own path to success. With over 100 late-night TV performances under his belt, 16 HBO specials, and over 20 comedy records, Carlin’s crude and anti-establishmentarian comedy stylings continue to bring laughter and inspiration to young comics around the globe. To get an idea of the true scope of his reach, here are 50 facts you may not have known about the always brilliant George Carlin.
Carlin could riff about almost anything onstage, a talent that may have come from his dad. In 1935 his dad won a nationwide Dale Carnegie public speaking contest for a speech titled, “The Power of Mental Demand.”
Carlin loved the English language. He may have gotten this love from his grandfather, who would write out Shakespeare plays in longhand just for fun. Whatever floats your boat!
Carlin got expelled from his high school at 15 years old. He wasn’t the best student, often skipping class, failing subjects, and stealing money from the basketball teams’ lockers.
Carlin attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. A few other famous faces have also come from the school, including Martin Scorsese, Don DeLillo, and Regis Philbin.
During the summer, Carlin would frequently attend Camp Notre Dame on Spofford Lake in New Hampshire, and he won the camp drama award regularly. The place was so meaningful to him that he requested some of his ashes be spread at the lake upon his passing.
Carlin left school and became a radar technician for the US Air Force. This didn’t work out either. He got labeled an “unproductive airman” and was discharged after three court-martials.
Carlin’s first steps into the comedy world came from a job as a radio DJ in Texas. He and fellow DJ Jack Burns teamed up and took to the stage at a Fort Worth coffeehouse, absolutely killing it. From there, Carlin knew what he wanted to do and the two went to California to try their hands at comedy for real.
Following his only comedy album with Burns, Carlin appeared on several variety shows. He played a few different characters on these, including a Native American sergeant, a hippy weatherman, and a stupid disc jockey.
The Tonight Show audience loved Carlin, and so did hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. Both of them frequently brought him on as a guest host when they weren't available.
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When fellow comedian Lenny Bruce was famously apprehended for obscenity, Carlin was there with him every step of the way. The authorities wanted to question Carlin, but when they asked for an ID he said he didn’t believe in government-issued identification. The cops weren't impressed, and they brought him in along with Bruce. They even took the same car to the slammer!
Carlin started his career clean-cut and wearing suits, but he later hired two talent managers to overhaul his entire persona. He grew out his beard and started wearing jeans and t-shirts on-stage to appeal to the youth. He also started playing small, "cooler" venues like the Troubadour in LA or the Bitter End in NYC. It was a bold move, but it didn't pay off right away: his income dropped by about 90% at first.
As a kid, Carlin used to write down the best, most colorful swear words and curses he’d hear. He kept the list in his wallet. Unfortunately, his mother found this list one day and took it as a sign that he needed a psychiatrist!
Carlin’s final acting role was the voice of the wizard in the animated film Happily N’Ever After. The film was critically panned.
In an interview with Vulture, Carlin was asked if he had any advice for young comics. He said, “The most common mistake they make […] is not writing your s*** down. […] I think it’s unimaginable that people who want to be funny aren’t writing down every little aspect of it.” Take notes, young comics!
Carlin’s album FM & AM solidified his new status as a counterculture comedian. The “AM” side of the record represented Carlin’s old style, with clean and zany jokes. The “FM” side, however, touched on subjects like marijuana and birth control and featured a much edgier styling.
The obscenity trial in Milwaukee over his “Seven Words” bit ended up getting dropped. The judge agreed that the language used was indecent, but free speech permitted him to say what he wanted. After the trial, Carlin started referring to the seven dirty words in the bit as “the Milwaukee seven.”
If anything, the obscenity trial only made Carlin love swearing more. He even set up a web page of his “List of Impolite Words.” The page features 49 dirty words. Clicking on these words will give you a list of fun synonyms for each one, giving you infinite new ways to offend your friends.
At the height of his career, Carlin mysteriously stopped touring. He did a series of specials at the time, but people became curious. It was later revealed he had a heart attack, which led to him taking time off.
Carlin suffered from three heart attacks throughout his life. The second came at a baseball game. Carlin didn’t think it was that serious when it was happening, but it turned out to be a near full blockage of his right descending artery. His limo driver rushed him to the hospital where they gave him an experimental heart drug to fix him up.
While mostly known for his stand-up, Carlin also had a successful acting career. He was cast as Rufus in the Bill & Ted movies, played Mr. Conductor on PBS’ Shining Time Station, and even replaced Ringo Starr as the narrator for Thomas & Friends for five years.
Speaking of Thomas & Friends, Carlin was pretty nervous to do his narration without an audience. To make him more comfortable, the producers put a teddy bear in the recording booth. What a softy!
TV work eventually led Carlin to his own sitcom, The George Carlin Show. It only lasted 27 episodes, but Carlin said of the experience, “I never laughed so much, so often, so hard as I did with cast members.” Conversely, he said he was glad it got canceled as it took him away from his true work.
Carlin’s Brain Droppings, a book of jokes, opinions, stories, and thoughts from the man himself, spent 40 weeks on the New York Times' best-sellers list.
Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” bit is so controversial it caused a California representative to introduce a bill to outlaw the seven dirty words on TV. The bill was ultimately tabled.
Partly due to his drug problem, Carlin owed the IRS a lot of money at one time in his life. In the end, he saw this as a good thing, though: "It made me a way better comedian, because I had to stay out on the road, and I couldn’t pursue a movie career…So my having to stay on the road turned me into a god**** good comedian. So there’s a bright part of everything."
Carlin performed as a headliner at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for a while…until issues with the audience led to his firing. After a bad set, he flat-out told the crowd he couldn’t wait to leave Vegas. He said, “People who go to Las Vegas, you've got to question their [bleeping] intellect to start with.” Harsh.
After the Vegas incident, Carlin decided to go to rehab citing drug and alcohol issues. He made this choice of his own initiative and came out two months later a sober man.
One of Carlin’s last film roles was as the voice of Fillmore in Disney/Pixar’s Cars. Fillmore is an anti-establishment VW hippy bus, undoubtedly a reference to Carlin’s life. Fillmore’s license plate is even Carlin’s birthday, 51237!
In an interview with Inside the Actors Studio, Carlin said his biggest turn-on was “reading about language.” Try putting that on your next dating profile!
Carlin has one offspring: his daughter Kelly. She worked with him on The George Carlin Show as a writer and wrote the script for the Rose McGowan film Devil in the Flesh. More recently, she hosted The Kelly Carlin Show on Sirius XM.
Carlin passed at the age of 71 due to heart failure, just a week after his last performance in Las Vegas. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in various places. In addition to the lake at his childhood campground, his ashes also ended up in front of various nightclubs across the US.
Nine-year-old Carlin attended summer camp with Dave Wilson, who went on to direct SNL. The two would perform stand-up routines together at the camp.
If there’s one thing Carlin tended to skewer on stage, it was religion. Considering this, it may come as a surprise that Carlin was an altar boy in his youth!
The Boston Globe fired writer Mike Barnicle from the paper for plagiarizing jokes from Carlin’s book Brain Droppings. Barnicle used a series of one-liners from the book in an article. This only raised sales of Carlin’s book, so Carlin wasn’t too mad about it.
When he was awarded his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Carlin requested it be put in front of KDAY studios. This was the radio station where he'd worked with Jack Burns back when he was getting his start.
The FCC owes a lot to Carlin. When his “Seven Dirty Words” routine aired on public radio, it triggered an FCC complaint by a dad whose son heard the routine while they were driving. This went to court, and nearly five years later the case was settled. It ruled in favor of the FCC and gave them the ability to censor radio and TV content.
Carlin won his fair share of awards throughout his career. His last HBO special, It’s Bad for Ya, won him a Grammy. He also won a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the American Comedy Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award!
Carlin continues to be immortalized by people across the globe. One of the latest moves is renaming the 400 block of West 121st Street in New York George Carlin Way.
Unlike many comedians, Carlin kept extensive files full of his thoughts, ideas, jokes, and other information he might have been able to turn into material. He claimed to have about 1,300 separate files spanning 44 years of note collection.
Carlin strictly hated many aspects of pop culture, but one of those was (maybe) not the show Survivor. In one stand-up special he riffs about being brain dead and wanting, “ice cream, morphine, and TV […] I wanna watch Survivor!” Is it an insult or a compliment? Only Carlin knows...
This might rile some people up, but Carlin was not a voter. He believed every politician “sucked” and said he stayed home every election day, claiming, “if you vote, you have no right to complain.” Being a professional complainer, it would have been a pretty bad move for Carlin to vote!
Carlin’s first marriage to Brenda Hosbrook lasted 37 years. She passed of liver cancer late in their lives, in 1997. The next year, Carlin remarried to Sally Wade, saying it was “love at first sight,” but was hesitant because his wife had just passed. Again, the softy shines through here.
Patrick Carlin, George’s father, was abusive. When Carlin was only two months old his mother took him and his brother and escaped from Patrick by climbing down the fire escape. His uncle drove them to safety, and Carlin never saw his dad again.
When Carlin's mother first found out she was pregnant, she decided that she wasn't ready to have a child and made plans to have an abortion. She even made it as far as the clinic waiting room, but while waiting she saw a wall painting that reminded her of her mother and took it as a sign that she should keep the baby.
Carlin was a heavy marijuana smoker and took up LSD and mescaline around the age of 30. He said the drugs helped him transform himself. They gave him more insight into how fake the world was and convinced him to stop settling for it.
Carlin’s mother and aunt worked in the New York office of the Philadelphia Bulletin. Because of this, his aunt would frequently show him newspaper comics four weeks before publication. Carlin said in an interview, “I guess you can realize the power this gave me in the schoolyard—to be able to predict weeks ahead of time precisely the way Mandrake the Magician would escape from the lost cave.”
While he’s remembered as one of the greatest comedians of all time, not everyone was down with Carlin. Once, during a show in Wisconsin, Carlin told some jokes about the Vietnam War that his mostly conservative audience didn’t enjoy. How much did they hate him? Soon after he got off stage, he was advised to get out of town quickly for his own safety.
After his passing, the Carlin tributes came pouring in. HBO broadcast a 12-hour marathon of his content, and SNL reran the episode he hosted. Sirius XM's Raw Dog Comedy ran a marathon of Carlin recordings, and have even devoted a whole channel to him now, called Carlin’s Corner. Jerry Seinfeld even wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, titled "Dying is Hard. Comedy is Harder", praising Carlin and his contributions to comedy.
Carlin was once apprehended on obscenity charges for performing his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” bit, but the charges could have been much worse. Carlin had drugs in his pocket at the time of performing! Thankfully, he was able to hand the baggy off to the band before heading backstage, where the authorities were waiting for him.
Carlin was Saturday Night Live's first host ever. That’s a pretty big deal, but one that the comedian couldn’t actually remember. He was on a crazy bender that whole week, including the night of the show.
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