George Carlin's HBO Sendoff

The first time I ever saw George Carlin’s act was on HBO: 1983's Carlin at Carnegie, his third special for the channel -- and one of eleven HBO is running tonight and tomorrow, June 25 and 26, in a fitting tribute to the late comedian and his work. Before its airing, the program was promoted with these little filler interviews before movies; HBO still does this, but they’re shows unto themselves now instead of admitted filler -- a questionable intersection of marketing and art that it occurs to me Carlin would have appreciated. One of them showed Carlin saying something about him trying to be less profane for the sake of profanity -- more intellectual, more about the language we all used. My dad saw this, and bought it. I was 13. I was allowed to watch.

Thank god the “less profane” thing was bullshit.

Oh, Carlin was focusing ever more on the linguistic absurdity of American life; that much was true. But the profane was always -- and mercifully would always be -- part of his act. And more than that, Carlin’s act was about questioning why some things were considered profane in the first place. The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits. He got ten (brilliant) minutes of standup out of that list -- and more importantly, out of why they’re verboten to American culture.

Times have changed now, as times will. Of the Seven Words, at least one is fairly commonplace now (piss -- or more correctly, someone being "pissed"). And you’ll sometimes hear a sotto-voce "shit" in the police procedurals. "Cock" has popped up here and there, if not "cocksucker," and "motherfucker" has been at least suggested numerous times by characters saying the "motherfu…" part before either letting it trail off or being cut off by another character. All this, of course, does nothing to the genius of Carlin’s original bit. His observations in this matter and most others will stand the test of comedic time because they were right on for the time in which they were made.

In all, Carlin did fourteen stand-up specials for HBO over the years, from 1977 to just this year. And given that thirty-year relationship, it seems only right that HBO run a two-night marathon of his appearances. Here's the schedule:

Wednesday, June 25

8 PM: George Carlin at USC (1977) 9 PM: George Carlin Again! (1978) 11 PM: Carlin at Carnegie (1983) 12 AM: Carlin on Campus (1984) 1 AM: Playin’ With Your Head (1986)

Thursday, June 26

8 PM: What Am I Doin’ in New Jersey? (1988) 9 PM: Doin’ It Again (1990) 10 PM: Jammin’ In New York (1992) 11 PM: Back in Town (1996) 12:05 AM: You Are All Diseased (1999) 1 AM: It’s Bad for Ya

George Carlin was, put simply, one of the greats. He’ll be missed. But at least we can spend a couple more nights with him, laughing. -- Teague Bohlen

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts