How George Carlin Changed Comedy In His First HBO Special
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Comedian Todd Glass doesn’t find any power behind saying “I swear to God,” he’s created a version of the phrase that allows him to properly express his sincerity. He says, “I swear to Carlin.” He’s not the first comedian to make the comparison between the two figures; they both loom as large as one can in comedy. We’ve looked at a few examples of Carlin’s very early appearances on television, but these represented Phase One of George Carlin. Back then he was clean cut. He wore a suit. He told jokes about observations. He did characters. In one example, he sang a song. Today we look at one the first television appearances of George Carlin: Phase Two, and one of the most important standup comedy documents of all-time, George Carlin’s first HBO special.
Recorded in 1977 as part of HBO’s On Location series, George Carlin’s ninety-minute special caused a stir in America before it even aired. When word got out about the kind of language Carlin had used in the performance, and the fact that it had been recorded for broadcast, word spread quickly, and a lawsuit was triggered at the FCC. Suddenly Carlin lost bookings in some clubs, and he was basically blacklisted from the major networks. So, how did we go from the guy who played the Hippy Dippy Weatherman getting dragged through the halls of Washington?
In the late sixties, George Carlin was huge. With his slicked-back hair and his nicely pressed suit, he was a mainstay on television, and played all the major clubs in Vegas. Sure, he was funny, but he didn’t do anything that really set him apart from the other guys on TV. At this point in his career, George was pulling down $250,000 a year (a cool million in today’s dollars) and owned his own private jet to fly him from gig to gig, but he was bored. No doubt Carlin could feel the winds of change blowing around him and was beginning to feel the call of the “counterculture movement.” He was in the audience the night Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity (he was arrested too, but because he didn’t have an ID on him).
So, Carlin decided to do something different. He got a new management team. He started doing smaller rooms, reducing his income by 90%, and according to Richard Zoglin’s book Comedy at the Edge, angered a few of the older comedy acts along the way. “In an instant he made them old-fashioned,” said Dennis Klein, writer for Vegas comics of the time. “He was seen as a turncoat. He was basically slapping them in the face.” But Carlin persisted, and a new persona was born. He maintained all the wit and commentary of his old voice, but married it with a hipper, more rebellious attitude that spoke to a new generation that was hungry to hear it.
But before they could see him while they heard it, HBO had to make some decisions. Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” routine was making headlines ever since a New York station decided to play it over the air and the resulting complaints forced the FCC to step in. When you think about HBO today you probably think of it as the channel where anything goes. Say whatever you want. Show pretty much whatever you want. 1977 saw a much different HBO. At this point they had been showing their own comedy specials for just over a year, and those were mostly from the old guard like Henny Youngman. But in spite of it all, they forged ahead and aired it (on Good Friday, too, just to be provocative, according to Michael Fuchs, HBO’s head of programming at the time) and struck a blow for the First Amendment. Mark one for the rebels!
Okay, so maybe the show starts with a nearly two minute disclaimer from journalist Shana Alexander. In it she warns the audience about the type of language they’re about to hear, and then basically tells people to decide for themselves if you want to see it: no one’s forcing you. “We respect your decision about whether you want to see it,” she says. With all of that out of the way, the show can begin.
It’s no secret that when a standup special or album is released today, it’s usually made up of several performances, cobbled together to produce the best results. Not so in this special. Filmed at the University of Southern California on March 5, 1977, this is very clearly a one-and-done situation. At times during the first ten minutes or so, George is hard to hear, prompting an audience member to shout “Louder!” Carlin then quips, “Is the Louder family here? They follow me everywhere. They’ve been to every city I’ve appeared in.” Eventually a stagehand comes out and hands Carlin a new microphone. They whole thing is left in. In fact, the only time in the entire special that the camera cuts away from George on stage is in the midst of the “seven dirty words” routine. I think it’s to conceal something being cut out, but I can’t say for sure.
For the first hour, George’s material occasionally veers into the kind of thing you couldn’t do on TV in the seventies. A routine on farting and blaming the dog is the kind of joke that would be cornball on a sitcom today, but at the time, this was not a thing you could talk about on television. There are a few drug references, but I actually think Doritos are mentioned more often than any kind of illegal substance. George’s chunk on strange trends in language is particularly inspired. In it he observes some of the stupider elements of the English language, such as how we have words for “flammable,” “inflammable,” and “nonflammable,” when we could get by with just two. Or why do we call it a “hot water heater” when what we actually want is a “cold water heater.”
This of course leads us to the “seven dirty words” routine, which is obviously the one HBO was getting us ready for with the disclaimer at the beginning. Apparently they didn’t think they had done enough, because just before Carlin launches into the bit, he freezes and the following text appears on screen: “The final segment of Mr. Carlin’s performance contains especially controversial language. Please consider whether you wish to continue viewing.”
I probably don’t need to tell you much about the “seven dirty words” routine. It’s one of the comedy essentials, and probably one of the most famous standup routines of all time. It’s also trotted out whenever there’s a news story to be written about censorship, loosening morals, cursing on TV, freedom of speech, or indecency in general. You probably already know the words by heart, in order (just in case, I suppose: “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits”), and the highlights of the bit, but the thing that struck me most was Carlin’s performance. According once again to Zoglin’s book, Carlin considered himself a writer first, then a performer. But in this special, he truly shines. The “seven dirty words” chunk begins with a list of the words we use to describe bad language, like street language, indecent, filthy, etc. Carlin recites a laundry list of terms from memory, with incredible speed, while giving each word a different inflection or character, imbuing each with it’s own connotation. It’s incredible to watch.
HBO was able to show Carlin’s special without getting on the FCC’s bad side, but this wasn’t the last time Carlin’s routine would raise some eyebrows. The airing of a recording on the radio would result not only in an FCC ruling, but also in a trip to the Supreme Court, which would result in the courts granting the FCC to control what can and cannot be done on the air at times at which children may be watching. Of course, this wasn’t the end of Carlin on TV. From his first in 1977, to his last in 2008, which aired four months after his death, George would record 14 specials for HBO, far more than any other comedian for the network. Additionally, the official Carlin website has recently posted previously unreleased audio from this period of his career, with the audio of many of these early HBO specials being aired on XM. Carlin may have passed, but there’s still plenty of material out there, allowing us to see how he changed comedy with just seven little words.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title and will be premiering a new season on Monday!