Most fans of the late standup comedy legend George Carlin are familiar with his famous “seven dirty words” that were deemed inappropriate for television and public airwaves.
Carlin, who died in 2008 at age 71, first unveiled his infamous list in 1972, when I was just 10. I remember an older kid in our neighborhood rattling off those seven words with unfiltered pride – and in perfect rhythmic order – during a garage band jam.
My young mind raced to try to understand them. At first, I thought those seven words were actually one long curse word, sort of an X-rated “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” I was a kid. Give me a break.
Still, I’ve been a fan of Carlin even though I didn’t understand most of the things he was lampooning on his series of comedy albums. I became a class clown thanks in part to his classic album “Class Clown.”
Between him and Cheech and Chong, my holy trinity of counterculture comedians, I learned how to properly curse, enjoy the smell of marijuana, and laugh until I cry. I was too young to appreciate the foul-mouthed godfather of such raunchy humor, Lenny Bruce, who I once thought was a comedy duo called Lenny and Bruce.
Forty-five years have passed since I first heard those seven dirty words, yet they’re still not allowed on network TV and radio. Sure, they’ve been voiced on cable television and other forms of mainstream entertainment and amazingly, they still shock some listeners.
Carlin obviously enjoyed shocking mainstream America in the ’70s with those blasphemous words, as well as with other words he later added. But he enjoyed even more the fact that mere words could incite the masses.
Only certain words, though. Certain words that we deemed dirty, offensive, crude or unspeakable. Carlin was enthralled by how one word can be perfectly fine to say in public while another one was outlawed.
I’ve been fascinated by words (and curse words) since Carlin pointed out this undeniable fact. He loved words like few other American comedians, and like few other Americans.
“Words — the thing he loved most,” wrote Tony Hendra, an old friend of Carlin’s who completed a book, “Last Words,” in 2009 that the comedy legend started writing many years before his death. It is page after page of Carlin riffing on everything in his life, or almost everything. He hoped or expected to live a little longer, to at least finish “Last Words.”
The book jumped out at me during a recent visit to the library. I could almost hear Carlin’s voice from the stacks: “Hey moron, don’t just walk past my book. Pick it up and read it, you (expletive).”
In fact, I could hear Carlin’s voice with every sentence, every dirty joke, every wry observation about life from his admittedly “weird” perspective. He took great pride in being called weird, almost as much as being called funny or a true artist.
“I have this real moron thing I do. It’s called thinking,” Carlin wrote early in the book.
Don’t laugh. He was serious. Not enough people actually think. He taught me this decades ago.
In 1980, when I was 18, Carlin performed at the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville. It would be the first of a dozen performances there. An older family friend, Rod Herzog, offered me an extra ticket and I jumped at the chance to see my comedic hero in person.
If I recall correctly, that show was the second of two scheduled. Carlin opened by noticing a lot of empty seats.
“It looks like we (expletive) up with this extra show,” he told the crowd.
I loved that he cursed openly in public, just like my dad did. They were born the same year — 1937. I figured it was a generational thing or maybe their hardscrabble upbringings. Both of their fathers had no idea how to be a dad so Carlin, similar to my dad, salvaged whatever he could from his father’s meager offerings.
“My father saw through the bull (expletive) that is the glue of America,” Carlin wrote. “That makes me proud. If he transmuted it to me genetically, it was the greatest gift he could have given.”
Carlin lived a conflicted, troubled, brilliant, often stoned or drunken life.
“I have a left-wing, humanitarian, secular humanist, liberal inclination on the one hand, which implied positions on myriad issues,” he wrote. “On the other hand I had prejudices and angers and hatred towards various classes of people.”
He took risks on stage, challenging us to think.When talking about abortion, Carlin once described it as “justifiable homicide.”
“I love that moment. Really risky, really disturbing,” Carlin wrote. “And showing why this has always been and will always be such a violent debate.”
He nurtured violent debates in his head, and believed if you first make people laugh, you can then slip in some heavy thoughts or controversial issues. Laughter, he said, serves as an innate portal to deeper understandings of life.
Carlin was wrongly defined by those seven dirty words. I choose to define him by seven other words that better describe his life and his work.
Anger. Wordplay. Honesty. Weirdness. Longevity. Hilarious. Disappointment.
These are the words that captivated me and agitated me while reading his book. Those other “seven dirty words” have less to do with Carlin and more to do with us. Our puritanical hypocrisies. Our double standards. Our feigned offensiveness.
As I read, a question kept popping up: What will our last words be?
Be selective. Be honest. Just like Carlin.