George Carlin did more than make people laugh—he made them think. Over the course of his long and storied career, the legendary comedian released more than 20 albums, recorded more than a dozen HBO comedy specials, and challenged both conventional American thinking and governmental procedure. From being described as a "significant social satirist" in a Supreme Court ruling regarding indecency to serving as the conductor in Shining Time Station, Carlin touched the lives of generations of fans. Here are some facts about the comedian/actor/author in honor of what would have been his 80th birthday.
1. HE INHERITED HIS LOVE OF LANGUAGE.
George's father, Patrick, was an advertising manager for the New York newspaper The Sun. He won a nationwide Dale Carnegie public speaking contest in 1935 with his speech "The Power of Mental Demand." "He had a real line of sh*t, boy," Carlin said of his father. "He could talk your donkey's ear off."
Carlin's grandfather, a New York City police officer, wrote out Shakespeare's tragedies in longhand for fun.
2. GROWING UP, HE WANTED TO BE LIKE DANNY KAYE.
"Danny Kaye was my childhood dream when I was 10, 11," Carlin said of the actor/singer/dancer/physical comedian/musician. "I kind of looked at that and thought, 'Gee, I can do that ... He makes funny faces, he talks in funny accents and he can do very, very intricate vocal pieces."'
3. HE WENT TO THE SAME HIGH SCHOOL AS MARTIN SCORSESE, REGIS PHILBIN, AND DON DELILLO.
Unlike Regis Philbin, Martin Scorsese, and Don DeLillo, Carlin didn't graduate from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx—because he was expelled.
In an interview with Playboy, Carlin admitted that he was failing subjects and running away from home for days at a time while he attended Hayes. His scholastic career included stealing money from the visiting team's locker room during a basketball game, and getting caught telling kids on the playground he had heroin. In 1983, Carlin performed at a Hayes school fundraiser in honor of Msgr. Stanislaus P. Jablonski—the very man who threw him out. Despite the fears of some in the alumni association, Carlin kept his act clean, and Jablonski enjoyed the tribute. Jablonski at one point read old detention slips he had issued Carlin. One read, "He thinks he's a comedian."
4. HE WAS COURT-MARTIALED (MORE THAN ONCE) IN THE AIR FORCE.
Carlin worked as a radar technician on B-47s at Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base. He smoked pot he had mailed to him from New York on the base; the others did not recognize the smell. He was court-martialed once after celebrating the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series by downing cooking wine and telling off his tech sergeant. He was court-martialed again after falling asleep during a simulated combat drill.
5. HE HAD A LIFELONG INTEREST IN CURSE WORDS.
He wrote down the "most colorful" profanities he heard in his neighborhood and put them in his pocket. When he was 13, his mother found them in the wallet. Carlin claimed he overheard her saying to his uncle that she believed George needed a psychiatrist.
6. HIS ARREST OVER SAYING THE SEVEN DIRTY WORDS WAS ALMOST A LOT WORSE.
Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1972 for obscenity after giving a stand-up performance at Summerfest. What the six cops didn't realize was that Carlin had cocaine in his pocket moments before they got to him.
During the show, Carlin's wife came up on stage to bring him a pitcher of water, and to inform him that he should go offstage to the right, because police were waiting on the left. When he finished his performance, he exited, stage right, and handed the drugs off to a band.
7. HE WAS THE FIRST-EVER HOST OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, BUT DIDN'T REMEMBER THE EXPERIENCE.
He was "loaded on cocaine all week long" leading up to October 11, 1975, when he performed stand-up and introduced the inaugural episode's musical guests, Billy Preston and Janis Ian. Carlin and the longtime SNL director Dave Wilson had gone to summer camp together as kids. For the Saturday night talent shows, a young George would do monologues. After years of Wilson winning the contests, Carlin finally beat him. (George eventually got kicked out of camp for stealing film from the owner's camera to take his own photographs.) When Lorne Michaels interviewed Carlin about performing the hosting duties, he said, "Well, I know the director."
Carlin was also the first-ever host of Fridays (1980-1982), ABC's attempted version of SNL.
8. HIS SECOND OF THREE HEART ATTACKS OCCURRED DURING A BASEBALL GAME.
Carlin was taking in a New York Mets/Los Angeles Dodgers contest at Dodger Stadium with his agent in May 1982—Carlin was a Mets fan since the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A.—when he had his second heart attack. After realizing the park's first aid station was, as daughter Kelly Carlin wrote, "nothing more than a glorified place to get a Band-Aid," their limo driver booked it to St. John's Hospital. George didn't believe it was as serious as a heart attack, but it in fact was an almost full blockage of the right descending artery. The doctors used an experimental anticoagulant, Streptokinase; they had gotten it that week. It did its job of unclotting.
9. HE LIED TO KIDS WHO RECOGNIZED HIM AS MR. CONDUCTOR.
A perk to Carlin taking the role of Mr. Conductor in Shining Time Station in the first place was that he didn't have to deal with other actors, as it was all green-screened. But he would inadvertently traumatize children, who spotted him at airports—out of uniform and much bigger than depicted on TV. "I'm not on the island of Sodor, I'm not working today," he would gently tell them. "But I am Mr. Conductor." This didn't lessen the kids' confusion.
10. THE IRS HELPED HIM BECOME A BETTER COMIC.
About the Internal Revenue Service taking a large percentage of his money after years of owing taxes, Carlin saw the bright side of it all:
"It made me a way better comedian, because I had to stay out on the road, and I couldn’t pursue a movie career—which would have gone nowhere—and I became a really good comic and writer eventually, saving all my files and thoughts and things. I had to be prepared for that, because HBO was coming along, and about every two years—at my choice—I had to have another hour ready. So my having to stay on the road turned me into a g**damn good comedian. So there’s a bright part of everything."