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Book review: James Sullivan's 7 Dirty Words

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When George Carlin died in 2008, lots of people who had grown up with the late comedian/writer/actor's sardonic worldview were stunned. It was as if they had realized too late how much Carlin meant to them. He had morphed from a successful comic into a counterculture icon in the 1970s, when his hilarious railing against conformity and constraints on freedom made him the obvious choice to host the very first Saturday Night Live.

Carlin wasn't just a baby boomer phenomenon, though; he became a favorite of younger fans, who found his combination of fierce commentary and gentle goofiness a reflection of how they felt, too. Carlin's insights, aside from the surprisingly infrequent long-haired doper references, were universal, and his delivery was both clear cut and unique. Through most of his career, Carlin's performances were open, giving events, which helped win over his millions of fans. In his later years, his shtick evolved into something more sour (one of his more popular HBO specials was titled "You Are All Diseased"), as the comedian's view of his fellow humans grew into late-Twain-style scorn and derision. Which is fitting, seeing that Carlin found out shortly before his death that he was being awarded the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Last year, a kind of posthumous autobiography, Last Words, was published, compiled by Carlin's acquaintance Tony Hendra from tapes the comedian had recorded. In that book, Carlin spoke eloquently of his rough-and-tumble 1950s Brooklyn Catholic upbringing, and his long struggles to let his inner self emerge onstage. Now, journalist and cultural critic James Sullivan has published a more detailed look at Carlin's life, which helps fill in some of the gaps in the comedy legend's own version. Sullivan does a good job of presenting a linear rundown of the various incarnations Carlin went through in his 71 years. The author's writing won't win a lot of style points, but he's smart enough to let Carlin's story tell itself -- and to put it in the context of how one man's inner growth matched the changes many people in America were going through at the same time.

Carlin joined the Air Force, which probably kept him out of jail, and was sent to Louisiana, where he became a radio jock in Shreveport. Later, in Fort Worth, Texas, he teamed up with another comic, Jack Burns, creating an act that allowed Carlin to go a little crazier than he'd been used to getting away with. The duo moved to the West Coast and although their act only lasted two years, until 1962, it was a pivotal time for Carlin. Building on what he'd learned while performing with Burns, he started a solo career, making up a cast of odd characters that, at first, puzzled many of that era's more staid customers. Gradually, Carlin let out more and more of his subversive insights and jokes, and became a staple of 1960s talk shows and clubs.

Personal satisfaction was harder to come by than financial success, however, and Carlin fought with club owners who wanted him to tone down his act, while struggling with himself over how much or how little to compromise. Eventually, Carlin grew comfortable enough to "come out" as the real rebel he was. His success grew, he got married, and his cocaine habit flew out of control, with all the clamor and paranoia that implies. He became a household name in the early '70s when he introduced club audiences to his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" routine, which bemoaned the fact that TV wouldn't allow you to say "Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker or tits." When a New York radio station played the routine, the broadcast became the center of a huge regulatory battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the FCC had every right to ban the seven words, but by then, American culture was changing enough that their decision was seen as nearly irrelevant. Thus, almost inadvertently, Carlin became a hero to defenders of free speech everywhere.

Sullivan's approach is that of the straightforward journalist. He doesn't pad the book with Carlin's comedy material, but instead focuses on how the man changed over the years, and how his influence grew. By the time he died, Carlin was the most revered comic in America, particularly among other comics, who speak with awe about his vast body of work, his backbreaking work ethic, and his courage. The author has a sharp critical eye, but frankly, his book would have been better had he decided to give more firsthand examples of Carlin's deadly wit. Oh well, I guess that's why Carlin's own Last Words, which is filled with his biting comedy, will remain a valuable source for students of Carlin in the future.

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