George Carlin: Why Is He Comedy’s Moral Compass?

Fourteen years after his death, George Carlin is somehow still the barometer for when it's okay to cross the line.
George Carlin: Why Is He Comedy’s Moral Compass?

In all of comedy history, no artist has left behind a legacy as complicated, as prescient, or as unfading as that of George Carlin. No comic is as constantly (and often incorrectly) quoted on Twitter, on talk shows, in political speeches, or in terrible Facebook memes shared by an uncle whose profile picture is him in his truck wearing sunglasses and not smiling. Comedians and comedy fans across the internet will continue to argue over what Carlin would think about whichever topic is trending until the doomsday he so gleefully foretold finally arrives.

Whatever you believe to be true about the man’s politics, one point is clear – George Carlin is still comedy’s conscience fourteen years after his death. George’s bravery, his tenacity, and his deep empathy made him the most important figure in the history of modern humor, but it was his complete dedication to the medium itself and the bold actions he took in service of his beliefs that cemented him as the litmus test for every controversial comedian who followed in his footsteps.

Not every comic can say they’ve been arrested seven times for swearing.

In 1962, George Carlin had an early introduction to the world of iconoclastic comedy when he saw trailblazing, trash-talking comic Lenny Bruce get arrested on obscenity charges over the contents of his controversial act. George was in the audience during his hero’s infamous performance, and when a police officer asked for George to present his ID, he refused, leading to his own arrest. George and Lenny were taken to the station in the same police car – a fitting first encounter for two legendary troublemakers.

It was a long while before George earned his own charges for naughty language and dangerous ideas. In fact, he spent the majority of the ‘60s playing a straight-laced, suit-and-tie comedian on variety shows and family-friendly programs. George landed a gig as a house comic at Howard Hughes’ Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which earned him a massive $12,500 per week (over $100,000 in 2022) for delivering clean-cut comedy to Hughes' snooty patrons. But George wasn’t a caged bird, and singing wasn’t quite as much fun as swearing – in 1967, George was fired for delivering an obscenity-laden monologue to that night’s guests.

In Judd Apatow’s fantastic two-part documentary George Carlin’s American Dream, Bill Burr compared George Carlin to Miles Davis, saying he had “about five different phases” all with distinct styles. George’s discordant departure from the Frontier Hotel marked the first of these major shifts. George chose being himself over being rich, ditched the suit-and-tie for a t-shirt and jeans, and grew out his hair and beard to become the borderline beat poet and hippy preacher that took the next decade by storm.

George’s comedy during the ‘70s skewed sharply political as he sought to assault a stiff white America with rants about Vietnam and Muhammad Ali. George called out bigotry and rooted for underdogs, and through his comedy, he advocated for the disenfranchised, the discriminated against, and those people deemed distasteful by conservative society. George’s daughter Kelly said of her father’s choice in allies, “He taught me from Day One that the black and brown people have always been oppressed, horribly and systematically, by the owners of wealth. He had a pure disdain and loathing for white men in America.”

In 1972, George wrote his Magnum Opus during the peak of counterculture with his legendary routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." George was a masterful linguist with a deep curiosity for anything deemed inappropriate, which was all exacerbated by his early experience with censorship in a squad car with Lenny Bruce. George chose seven words with the unique power to provoke and joyfully shouted them in theaters, in stadiums, and on the radio, leading to his biggest controversy and one of the definitive court cases in the history of comedy.

George’s routine attracted outrage like nothing he had done before. It even got him arrested seven times, one for each word. When the New York radio station WBAI broadcast the routine in 1973, it inspired John Douglas, a member of the nonprofit censorship group Morality in Media and a notorious wet blanket, to file a complaint with the FCC, leading to the landmark Supreme Court case “Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation” which addressed the right of the government to censor language used in broadcasts.

In spite of George’s efforts to explain the importance of free speech and the arbitrary barring of individual words deemed “dangerous”, the FCC won the case and banned bad words from radio broadcasts. Nevertheless, the case proved to George that comedy could be used to start serious political and moral discussions. He would grow even more impassioned as his career progressed, even when that passion led to disappointment.

George reinvented himself multiple times during the ‘80s and ‘90s as he moved away from wordplay and focused on the anger and moral indignance he had about a world that refused to address its injustices, though never at the expense of being funny. As Marc Maron said, “There’s something about his righteous aggravation — it’s a rare point of view, and it’s rare that it’s a natural point of view. It’s not something you can pretend to make happen. Aggravation is not always funny.”

That aggravation would only grow as George aged, but his commitment to the craft of comedy and the unending effort to get better, more precise, and more effective with his work only intensified up until the very end of his life. In 2007, just one year before he passed away, George was asked about his dedication to his work when he referenced humanitarian and cellist Pablo Casals, saying, “Pablo Casals was 94 and still practicing three hours a day and someone said to him, `Why do you still practice three hours a day?’ And he said, `I’m beginning to notice some improvement.'”

George’s final few specials are notorious for their sheer nihilism – George cheered for natural disasters, for mass murders, and for devastation and destruction in a society he deemed to be past the point of redemption. Whether the change in tone was an effort to lead people towards hope through irony or a reflection of a genuine misanthropy that pervaded his entire career is a question without a definitive answer. But the disappointment George felt about a culture that had only grown more hostile and exploitative since his early years is palpable in these later specials.

Why, then, does this nihilistic, cynical comic set the bar for morality in comedy fourteen years after his passing? It’s because he lived an ethos throughout his entire career that defines the role of a comic in an unjust society. As Chris Rock said in George Carlin’s American Dream, “Man used to love philosophers. We don’t really have philosophers anymore. We have comedians.”

When George appeared on Chris’ show in 1997, he spoke about this spirit of comedy that he sought to embody, saying, “I like to bother people. I like to find out where their line may be and deliberately cross it, then make them glad they came.” But George was never one to cross the line just for the sake of crossing it. Too many comedians and comedy fans think that crossing the line is a merit unto itself – George did it to make statements about what he believed to be the rights of every individual in a society that was constantly preying on the vulnerable and disenfranchised. George attacked the powerful and selfish, not the suffering and marginalized. In George’s eyes, comedy should only punch up.

George was fired, arrested, banned, and blacklisted for staying true to his point of view. He was fully devoted to both his craft and his morals – he challenged himself to get better, more focused, and more effective as a comedian until the day he died while always fighting for what he believed to be right. For that reason, the moral compass of comedy can be defined by the question. “What would George Carlin do?”

Top Image: Apatow Productions

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