George Carlin: an appreciation

Legacy measured by more than seven words

George Carlin's heart gave out on Sunday. That a heart attack should claim the most important social commentator of his generation was both utterly predictable and ironic -- predictable because he'd long had a history of trouble with his ticker, ironic because no one put more heart and soul into his work.

But the good news is that Carlin, who was 71, departed very much on his terms. He was clean and sober and working a full appearance schedule. (As of Monday, his Web site listed 33 gigs between July and December.) He didn't waste away, nor did he "pass away," a term Carlin loathed as absurdly evasive and ambiguous.

It's difficult to adequately sum up Carlin's massive impact on the nation's entertainment culture and, indeed, on American society itself in a short appreciation. It began with Carlin's taking on the guise of a 1960s hippie counterculture comedy revolutionary replete with beard and ponytail. This was after he'd worked in radio and as a "clean" comedian. They proved mere stepping stones for what would become the New Yorker's legacy: ripping into the sacred cows that long defined purported indecency.

The sheer courage with which Carlin fought -- often alone -- to attack censorship and embrace free speech and expression leaves him in death as the most influential comedian of all time, surpassing even the venerated Lenny Bruce if for no other reason than Carlin stood the test of time in a remarkable 50-year career. He also never once modulated his voice to better fit in, driving himself to deliver a dissonant message often at the expense of his image.

Carlin's so-called "7 Words You Can't Say on Television" routine that grew into a Supreme Court test case should be a footnote on his bio and nothing more, as overemphasizing it serves to imply that Carlin was a mere rabble-rouser and provocateur when in fact he single-handedly exposed the hypocrisy of language suppression. In challenging an antiquated status quo, he succeeded in changing our airwaves forever.

You're allowed to swear today on HBO in part because Carlin helped pave that winding road. I came to idolize Carlin for his boldness, his fearlessness, his brilliance, his willingness to embrace an unpopular view (such as, say, being an uncloseted agnostic). And oh yeah, he also was breathtakingly clever and funny.

It was with both excitement and a slight trepidation that I agreed to moderate a tribute to Carlin at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills on May 8. I was concerned that, given his acerbic and aggressive stage style, he'd pummel me mercilessly if I asked a dumb question or accidentally implied disrespect.

I needn't have worried. Not only was Carlin warm and engaging and memorably animated onstage, but he also was equally kind and gentle backstage when no one was watching. I was told this was simply the way the man was. His act was no mere act, but it also didn't in any way define him.

At the end of the day, Carlin was just a regular guy who happened to make the world a more dynamic and colorful place by his having lived in it. His legacy is to assure us that the freedom to use the whole of the English language, no matter how objectionable it may be viewed by some, isn't merely a trendy concept but an inalienable right.