George Carlin: A Funny Man in an Unfunny World
The world lost one of its great comedians this week with the death at age 71 of George Carlin. Carlin had a career as a stand-up comic that spanned a half-century, in which he continually broke new ground, targeting those in power with his wit and genius. He impacted our culture, our media and our nation with a stream of material that skewered institutions of the left and right, from government to business and the church. He released 22 comedy albums, earning him five Emmy nominations and winning four Grammys. He was the first guest host of "Saturday Night Live," in 1975, and appeared on "The Tonight Show" 130 times. He starred in 14 HBO specials and authored three best-selling books. He also left an indelible mark on the radio station where I got my start in broadcast journalism, Pacifica station WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City.
On Oct. 30, 1973, WBAI broadcast Carlin's "Filthy Words" routine. Carlin wrote on his Web site, georgecarlin.com: "Lone professional moralist complains to FCC which issues a Declaratory Order against station. Station goes to court." That court battle would last five years, end at the U.S. Supreme Court and set the standard for broadcast indecency laws that are hotly debated to this day. It was neither accident nor coincidence that this iconoclastic comic would have some of his most controversial material broadcast over Pacifica Radio's WBAI. The Pacifica Network was founded in Berkeley, Calif., in 1949, with KPFA as the first truly listener-sponsored radio station.
Back then, radio was so overwhelmingly commercial that Pacifica founder Lew Hill and others found it worthless. As Hill wrote in his "Theory of Listener Sponsored Radio," "If we want an improvement in radio, the basic situation of broadcasting must be such that artists and thinkers have a place to work -- with freedom."
On July 3, 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission could punish WBAI for its broadcast of Carlin's routine, arguing that words relating to sex or excretion (i.e., piss) when children might be listening were prohibited. Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented, noting the court's "depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who do not share their fragile sensibilities." Remarkably, 30 years later, the same issues are before a decidedly more conservative Supreme Court.
Recent episodes of "fleeting expletives" from the mouths of celebrities like Bono, Cher and Nicole Richie have prompted the FCC to seek enhanced power to punish broadcasters. George Carlin pointed out what in our society was truly indecent: the behavior of the powerful.
Yes, he spiced his delivery with expletives. He was angry. He, like Pacifica, gave voice to essential, dissident perspectives that have been almost entirely blocked from mainstream media. He said: "We were founded on a very basic double standard. This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Am I right? A group of slave owners who wanted to be free, so they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people. You know what the motto of this country ought to be? You give us a color, we'll wipe it out."
His prolific output will continue to inspire for generations to come.