George Carlin, 71; comedian tested limits of speech and society

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

George Carlin, the acerbic, Grammy-winning comedian whose career spanned more than 50 years, died of heart failure Sunday evening after being admitted to the hospital complaining of chest pains, his spokesman said. He was 71.

Carlin, who had a history of heart problems, died at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica shortly before 6 p.m., said his publicist Jeff Abraham.

The comedian, who toured college campuses for years and made a name for himself using dirty language and delivering biting social commentaries, had released 22 solo albums and three bestselling books.


He finished a show at the Orleans casino in Las Vegas last week and was planning to take the month off to relax and work on a new book of essays and musings, Abraham said.

Carlin normally took summers off and was scheduled to tour again beginning with a July 20 performance at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay in San Diego. He had dates lined up through December, Abraham said.

“He was looking forward to it.”

Carlin went to the hospital Sunday afternoon because “his heart just didn’t feel right,” the publicist said.

Carlin starred in a variety of TV and movie roles and gained fame for a routine about the seven dirty words that could not be uttered on television.

“There are three ingredients in my comedy,” he said in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Those three things which wax and wane in importance are English language and wordplay; secondly, mundane, everyday observational comedy -- dogs, cats and all that stuff; and thirdly, sociopolitical attitude comedy.”

He earned several gold comedy albums and five Emmy nominations.

Carlin was arrested in 1972 in Milwaukee for using indecent language. In a separate case in 1973, a radio listener complained after a station played part of his album. That case went the Supreme Court, which in 1978 ruled in favor of the FCC, saying the radio station could not broadcast those words at times when children could be listening.


Of the Surpeme Court ruling, Carlin said, “So my name is a footnote in American history, which I’m perversely kind of proud of.”

Carlin first appeared on radio in 1956 at age 19, while serving in the Air Force.

In 1960, he and Jack Burns began appearing together in nightclubs as “Burns and Carlin.” The duo made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar before splitting up in 1962.

Carlin became a hit on the college circuit. He survived cocaine dependency in the 1970s and a heart attack and two open-heart surgeries in the 1980s.

In the 1990s he added acting to his schedule, appearing in the Barbra Streisand-Nick Nolte movie “Prince of Tides.” Other film roles came in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Dogma,” with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

He was the first host of “Saturday Night Live” and appeared some 130 times on “The Tonight Show.”

He authored three books, including “Brain Droppings,” a collection of essays and routines, and “Napalm and Silly Putty,” a collection of his stand-up material. Both won Grammy awards. His third book, “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?” was nominated for a Grammy.


The death of his wife of more than 30 years, Brenda Hosbrook Carlin, on Mother’s Day 1997 was particularly hard for Carlin. “See ya Dink,” he wrote on his website. “Miss you a lot.”

Last year, he said a highlight of his career was a 1992 HBO special titled “Jamming in New York.”

“That was the point where I probably became more of a writer who performed his own material.

“The material became more like essays, they became more socially conscious, and it was just a major jump from being what I think of as only an entertainer to being an artist-entertainer,” he said in a 2007 Times interview.

Last year, Carlin released “George Carlin: All My Stuff,” a 14-DVD collection of his HBO specials from 1977 to 2005.

He had shown no signs of slowing down.

Just last week, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced Carlin would be awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.


The center is scheduled to honor Carlin at a tribute performance by former colleagues on Nov. 10, which will be broadcast later on PBS.

Carlin was born May 12, 1937 and grew up in New York.

He is survived by wife Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; older brother Patrick Carlin; and longtime manager, business partner and best friend Jerold Hamza.