George Carlin: The Comic Who Buzz-Sawed Hypocrisy

"I believe you can joke about anything" -- it was a window to his mind and his world. It was why George Carlin was who he was -- a funny, irreverent, insightful and carefree comic who didn't let taboos silence him. "I don't like euphemistic language, words that shade the truth," he once said. Like his late friend Lenny Bruce, Carlin took great pride in lampooning hypocrites and hypocrisy. Now, his voice is silenced by the Great Censor -- death.

In November George Carlin was to receive the Kennedy Center's prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. "In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer and actor," said Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman, "George Carlin has not only made us laugh, but he makes us think." Indeed.

Carlin made us think about things like how, on the one hand, a nation could bestow its highest cultural award on a stand-up comedian, and on the other hand continue to penalize those who dare to broadcast his ribald satire on the public airwaves. What can one say? We live in a schizophrenic culture.

It all began 30 years ago, in a case named Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica. The Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could "impose its notions of propriety on the whole of the American people." Or that's how Justice William Brennan described it in his dissent.

It seems that one of Carlin's colorful skits, titled "Filthy Words," was broadcast on the New York Pacifica Radio's airwaves around 2 p.m. one day in October 1973. The head of the New York chapter of "Morality In Media" had been driving in his car with his 15-year-old son when he heard portions of the infamous 12-minute monologue and complained to the FCC. In its defense, Pacifica maintained that Carlin was "a significant social satirist" who "like Twain . . . examines the language of ordinary people . . . Carlin is not mouthing obscenities; he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our attitudes towards those words." The FCC didn't buy it. Carlin's Twain-like message was "patently offensive." The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, agreed.

The ironies surrounding the case are ripe for Carlin-like commentary. The justice who wrote the lead opinion, John Paul Stevens, appended a transcript of the "Seven Dirty Words" to his opinion. So there, in the official reports of the Supreme Court, anyone can read what his or her ears cannot hear on the radio. Even more ironic, Justice Stevens is one of the Court's greatest defenders of free speech. In 1997, he wrote for the Court when it struck down key portions of the Communications Decency Act as applied to the Internet. Because of that ruling, adults and children alike can read or hear or see George Carlin performing any and all of his most outrageous bits. To cap things off, about the same time that the Kennedy Center was to confer its Twain Prize on Carlin, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments in an indecency case -- FCC v. Fox. Meanwhile, in a lower court, the FCC is busy defending its $1.43 million fine against ABC for some "patently offensive" programming on the popular TV series "NYPD Blue."

In many ways, these broadcasting crackdowns are reminiscent of the time when government officials went after comedians in clubs -- for comic word crimes, that is. But those times passed. "Lenny Bruce opened all the doors, or he kicked them down," is how Carlin put it when I interviewed him (with my co-author David Skover) in May 2001. He was referring to the fact that after Bruce died in 1966 no comedian was ever again criminally prosecuted for off-color jokes in a comedy club.

In the tradition of his fallen friend, Carlin added: "I think the role of comedy is to go after all the powerful people, to puncture the pretentiousness and pompousness of the privileged. That's what comedy and satire have always been about." Later that evening, when I saw his performance at the MGM Grand, he ripped into the hypocrisy of our times like a runaway buzz saw, as colorful words flew in every which hilarious direction.

As far as his comic mission is concerned, I think time is on George's side. For there will come a day, I am sure, when we will look back and laugh at the idea that the government once barred everything from Carlin's routines to Allen Ginsberg's poems from the airwaves. Why am I so confident? Because America's popular culture rails against censorship. In that respect, our culture of free speech is ahead of our law of free speech. But as Lenny Bruce's legacy shows, the law eventually catches up with the culture and when it does censorship stops. What is truly criminal is that our greatest comedians must die before that day comes.

The First Amendment seeds of George Carlin's legacy are already stirring in the soil. May they sprout and then blossom soon . . . very soon!