The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
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. READ MORE