George Carlin

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  June 25, 2008

A FUCKING SHAME: Carlin’s 1972 mugshot.

Among scads of other, more important achievements, George Carlin deserves full credit for my comfort with and penchant for salty language, and most of the credit for my reverence for the First Amendment. Since he died, so suddenly, so cruelly, of heart failure on Sunday, at the age of 71, I have read dozens of obituaries, and observed as Facebook has emerged as an online mourning parlor, with tributary groups cropping up like goose pimples all over the social-networking site.

Every tribute highlights “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” Carlin’s dirty diatribe that resulted in an arrest, and, ultimately, a decision by the Supreme Court, which established “indecency regulation” standards for American television and radio.

To me, though, Carlin’s allure was not shock value, but the diversity of his talents. As a preteen, I first encountered Carlin playing Rufus in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. His slick ponytail looked familiar, and I was tickled when I realized that I’d seen him before, having crept downstairs after bedtime to watch a few stolen moments of late-night television. This man was a potty-mouthed ranter, my secret hero, who taught me all kinds of titillating words and challenged me, even at 11, to think about religion, corruption, and social graces.

Soon after, I babysat some kids who were obsessed with Shining Time Station, a snappy little sing-along show that featured a six-inch tall train conductor named, of course, Mr. Conductor. Could it be? Was this tiny, smiling man in a jaunty cap the same grizzled gruff who plowed through all of those forbidden words so unabashedly, so pointedly, so nearly poetically?

A person who can throw himself so wholly into such vastly different roles is surely blessed with the mark of genius.

I absorbed every morsel of Carlin’s that I could — memorizing his albums, recording his TV specials, giggling (somewhat obligingly) through his short-lived eponymous sitcom. Every irreverent, antiestablishment word out of his mouth fanned my burning confidence that I am constitutionally guaranteed the right to express even my foulest ideas, and that I should never stop pushing the boundaries of free speech.

RIP, George Carlin, and I hope that, wherever you are, you’re saying whatever you want.

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