George Carlin king of provoking people, thought

That's but a fraction of the jargon-skewering, self-referential rap that George Carlin rattled off at warp speed when he hit the Fox Theatre stage in 2004. More than just a tilter at taboos or connoisseur of cussedness, Carlin was a man who played with language with the glee of a toddler discovering fresh paint, a comedian who could do 15 minutes on the notion of "stuff."

Carlin, who died of heart failure in Los Angeles on Sunday at age 71, summed up his worldview in a 2004 interview with the AJC. "I always say when you're born into this world, you get a ticket for the freak show," he said. "And if you're born in America, you get in the front row.

"I sit there with my notepad, and I review the freak show."

Some people thought he was a philosopher offering real wisdom; to others, he was just a comedian. Some found him offensive. But none could deny that his transformation in the early '70s from straight-arrow Vegas act to long-haired establishment-basher was a key moment in the radicalizing of comedy, which in turn reshaped much of pop culture.

Carlin's first incarnation in the mid '60s was on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and its ilk, seemingly as straight as the Brylcreemed part in his short hair, playing characters like sportscaster Biff Barf and Al Sleet, "the hippy-dippy weatherman." There were winks to hipsters even then. "Tomorrow's high," slurred Sleet, "[is] whenever I get up."

But he felt strangled by his skinny tie and reinvented himself in 1970 as the first major hippy comedian.

"He was the great heroic figure" of comedy in the '70s, Richard Zoglin, author of the book "Comedy at the Edge," told the AJC earlier this year. "A successful Vegas comedian who decided to give it all up and start over again playing coffeehouses and campuses. His agent thought he was destroying his career, but he remade it and blazed a trail."

His most famous routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" (and still can't in a newspaper) appeared on Carlin's record album "Class Clown" in 1972, and led to a Supreme Court obscenity case. Carlin was arrested several times in the '70s for performing it live; yet another indication of what a different world we live in today.

He was also the first host of "Saturday Night Live" when it debuted in 1975, and the focus of its first battle. He wanted to wear a T-shirt, NBC wanted him to wear a suit. They compromised and he wore a jacket over a T-shirt. That was rare though; Carlin rarely compromised.

In his live shows, he could be problematic. When he played the Fox in 2004, he was brilliant in patches, but also took off on a very long train of thought about suicide that was sometimes thought-provoking, but not particularly humorous.

Had he been confronted with that assessment, he probably would have shrugged (he was a great shrugger) and maybe even agreed.

"I do this for me, not for them," he told the AJC last year. "I enjoy getting these thoughts off my chest in my own unique way."

Although most influential in the '70s, he continued to snarl and provoke and play with words right up to his death, whether in his ranting HBO specials or best-selling books like "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" That particular title, he explained, was chosen because it was potentially offensive to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

He paused. "Then someone pointed out it offends vegetarians, too."

He chuckled. That pleased him.

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