George Carlin dies of heart failure

Iconoclastic comic was 71

George Carlin – the provocative, insightful stand-up who became a hero of the American counter-culture – has died of heart failure at the age of 71.

Carlin, who performed as recently as last weekend, was admitted to a Santa Monica hospital on Sunday afternoon complaining of chest pain. He died of just before 2am British time, his publicist said.

The iconoclastic comic had previously suffered a heart attack in the Eighties, and had undergone two open-heart surgeries.

The former cocaine addict had recorded 18 albums of stand-up, was the first ever host of Saturday Night Live – and provided the voiceover for Thomas The Tank Engine in the States.

His last stand-up special aired in March, It’s Bad For Ya, was a typically anti-establishment diatribe. He said: ‘I question American beliefs… If you are not offending anyone, you are not doing your job as a comedian.’

Carlin will be best known for his controversial Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television routine. He was arrested for obscenity for performing it in 1972, but its later airing on a New York radio station led to a groundbreaking US Supreme Court case in 1978, which led to a nationwide 10pm watershed for indecent material.

Of the case, Carlin said: ‘My name is a footnote in American history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of.’

Carlin began stand-up in the late Fifties, with a conventional act that revolved around wordplay and reminiscences of his working-class upbringing in New York. But in 1970, Carlin swapped his clean-cut image for a beard, long hair and a harder-hitting routine about drugs.

There was a backlash from the lucrative nightclub circuit he had been working, and bookings dried up. But he quickly found new fans in colleges and coffee houses, and rebuilt his career. His second album, FM & AM, released in 1972, had older material on the AM side with bolder, routines on the FM side.

He later said: ‘I was doing superficial comedy entertaining people who didn’t really care: Businessmen, people in nightclubs, conservative people. And I had been doing that for the better part of ten years when it finally dawned on me that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong things for the wrong people.’

In 2004, Comedy Central named him the second best stand-up comedian of all time, behind Richard Pryor.

Only last week it was announced that he would be awarded this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

‘In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer and actor, George Carlin has not only made us laugh, but he makes us think. His influence on the next generation of comics has been far-reaching,’ said the centre's chairman, Stephen A. Schwarzman.

Here is a clip from Bad For Ya:

And here is the original Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television routine:

Published: 23 Jun 2008

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.