TV Review: George Carlin: The Mark Twain Prize

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I loved George Carlin, so it's a bit difficult for me to write an unbiased review of this special, taped Nov. 10 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

It's an honor that meant a great deal to Carlin, who learned of it shortly before he died June 22 of a heart attack. I know this because he told me so on a night in May when I was privileged to moderate a tribute to him at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills a mere six weeks before he passed -- one of the great thrills of my life.

Carlin would have been greatly flattered and at least slightly embarrassed had he lived to see "George Carlin: The Mark Twain Prize." The much-deserved, clip-filled tribute features testimonials from such comic greats as Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Lily Tomlin, Denis Leary, Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling, Lewis Black, Margaret Cho and Richard Belzer. The evening, taped for broadcast on PBS, struck just the right balance of reverence and mirth in paying homage to one of the greatest, most ingenious and clearly most revered (by his peers) comedian of the past half-century.

This 90-minute presentation culled from the event is attended by members of Carlin's small circle of intimates, including his daughter Kelly Carlin McCall, who sit high up in the Kennedy Center's version of the penthouse suite. All of the performers contribute something essential and wonderful, sharing stories and anecdotes that transform the venue into something far more intimate.

But any review of this Twain Prize accolade would be incomplete without calling attention to a truth at once obvious, ironic and more than a little bit ridiculous. The comics onstage are bleeped here not simply for public TV broadcast but also in the venue itself, as is pointed out in his inimitable blustery fashion by Black. If you didn't know what Carlin's infamous "seven dirty words" actually were -- the ones that ultimately would become a Supreme Court test case -- you'd never learn them here because all are censored, along with numerous other purportedly profane utterances from the stage.

Carlin no doubt would have been both disgusted by the utter lack of progress we've made in allowing "naughty" words to be heard on the airwaves and amused that a show celebrating his impact and legacy would be so ludicrously constrained. But the truth is we are no more evolved here in the journalism world than they are in broadcast. Here is how those notorious seven look today in print: s-word, p-word, f-word, c-word, cs-word, mf-word and t-word. Still puzzled? Look 'em up.

Sorry, George. I know it's insane. But trust that I'll keep fighting the good fight down here for ya.

Airdate: 9-10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4 (PBS)
Production: WETA Washington, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Mark Krantz Prods., Comedia
Executive producers: Mark Krantz, Peter Kaminsky, Bob Kaminsky, Michael M. Kaiser, Cappy McGarr, Dalton Delan, David S. Thompson
Supervising producer: Michael B. Matuza
Coordinating producer: Alvin I. Calo
Producers: Allen Kelman, Robert C. Pullen
Writers: Peter Kaminsky, Bob Kaminsky
Director: Linda Mendoza
Production designer: Mitchell Greenberg
Lighting designer: Alan Adelman
Editor: Yossi Kimberg