November 11, 2008

George Carlin

By Susan Wloszczyna

WASHINGTON -- How does one best celebrate George Carlin, the world-class funnyman who never stopped being relevant and whose influence can be felt in the observational humor of Jerry Seinfeld, the political putdowns of Bill Maher and the barrier-breaking raunch of Judd Apatow?

Tears? A few. Applause? Definitely. Laughter? Always the best medicine. Protesters with "God Hates Carlin" signs? Yes, they were two blocks away, but the avowed atheist would have appreciated that, too.

Monday night, a sampling of the country's top comics gathered to applaud and especially laugh as Carlin, who died in June at age 71, became the first posthumous recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center.

Those who were touched by the equally scathing and silly Carlin, whose evolution from strait-laced standup to controversial social critic was charted throughout the evening, included Jon Stewart, Lily Tomlin, Denis Leary, Margaret Cho, Richard Belzer, Lewis Black, Garry Shandling and Joan Rivers.

Proper respect was paid, namely f-bombs were dropped, and R&B music was heard, courtesy of Ben E. King singing one of Carlin's favorite songs, Stand By Me.

Irony was plentiful as well. Many of the participants, including Rivers and Belzer, had no problem using salty language on stage. But clips shown of Carlin's most famous routines were bleeped out.

The double standard riled the often-volatile Black, who proclaimed loudly, "And I was going to try to not be irritated tonight. To bleep it on TV, I kind of get. But here?"

Other highlights:

*Maher opened the show as the keynote speaker and covered Carlin's unflinching rants against religion and the existence of God. "What can you say about George Carlin that hasn't been argued in the Supreme Court," said the host of HBO's Real Time, referring to Carlin's famous Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television case. Carlin getting the Mark Twain award was appropriate, Maher added, because "both gave speeches about hating mankind to a large and appreciative audience."

*Stewart recalled spending time in Aspen with Carlin about 10 years ago for an HBO comedy special. As both men struggled with the thin air, Stewart said to Carlin, "Can you believe they built a city with no oxygen?" Carlin's reply: "Rich (expletive) can survive anywhere."

*Tomlin praised Carlin's playfulness with language. "I'm not worried about all hell breaking loose," she quoted him as saying. "I'm more concerned about a part of hell breaking loose. It's much harder to detect."

The star of the show had intended to be present. Carlin heard about the tribute a week before he died. His typically unimpressed response: "Thank you, Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people."

But his daughter, Kelly Carlin-McCall, 45, assures he was touched by the recognition.

"He never took the whole award thing very seriously," she says. "But this one made sense to him."

Even though her father was never one to covet fawning and back-patting, "he did get a thrill of being honored by his peers. His job was being a really good psychologist for our culture. Many people felt he got prickly, edgy and angry during the last five or 10 years. But he was trying to nudge us to wake up."

The taped show will air April 1 on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings).

Honorees have included Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>