Happy Birthday George Carlin: Remembering the Iconic Comedian

by Jennifer Shea

Had George Carlin lived to see today, the iconic comedian would have been 84 years old. His birthday is May 12. But he died on June 22, 2008 at age 71.

Carlin died of heart failure at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, Reuters reported. He had gone in with chest pains earlier that afternoon. Carlin had a history of heart problems and drug abuse.

While he lived, Carlin was an anti-Establishment comic who became famous during the 1970s for his profanity-laced stand-up routines rife with drug references. His best-known routine was probably “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” A 1978 court case over the routine, Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation, went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Carlin’s Early Life

George Carlin began life in the Bronx in an Irish Catholic family. His mother, a devout Catholic, sent Carlin to parochial school. There he served as an altar boy and began forming negative impressions of religion. Carlin’s mother had left his father, a national advertising manager for the New York Sun, when Carlin was a baby. Carlin made it through two years of high school before he dropped out.

So he joined the Air Force. In the military, he would ultimately receive three courts-martial and multiple disciplinary actions. But during that time, he managed to earn his high school equivalency and moonlight as a disc jockey at a local radio station. Upon his discharge, he took a radio job in Boston and then Fort Worth, Texas.

It was there that he began shaping comedy routines, planning a nightclub act, according to Carlin’s website. He progressed to working Los Angeles nightclubs with Jack Burns, where they were discovered by Lenny Bruce, per Biography.com. Burns and Carlin eventually went their separate ways to pursue solo stand-up careers.

George Carlin Was an Avowed Atheist

Carlin became known for his disillusioned comedy routines covering topics such as religion, U.S. politics, drugs, the trajectory of humanity and free speech. But when he started out on the Las Vegas stand-up circuit in the early 1960s, his stand-up was relatively tame, according to Biography.com.

It was in the 1970s that Carlin gave himself a comedy makeover and became the mordant comic that global audiences later knew. He made his routine more vulgar and more confrontational, tackling sensitive issues like the Vietnam War. And by July of 1972, Carlin was even arrested for breaking obscenity laws in Milwaukee.

One frequent refrain of Carlin’s comedy was that there is no God and organized religion is absurd. “Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day,” Carlin once said. “But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money!”

“I don’t have any beliefs or allegiances,” Carlin told Reuters in a 2001 interview. “I don’t believe in this country, I don’t believe in religion, or a god, and I don’t believe in all these man-made institutional ideas.”

Over the course of his career, Carlin won four Grammy Awards, headlined 14 HBO specials, released 22 comedy albums and hosted the first episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Shortly before his death, Carlin learned that he would be receiving the Kennedy Center’s prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Watch a highlight reel of Carlin’s top bits here: