10 Surprising Facts About George Carlin

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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."

13 Great Rockumentaries Every Music (and Movie) Fan Should See

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are rocking their faces off with nonfiction. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled films demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.

Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following around famous people, they aren’t immune to boredom and eye-rolling faux depth. Keeping it simple by showcasing the music can be good, but it’s no way to be great. The best of the best manage to deliver a stellar soundscape, offer a backstage pass to the real humans who make it, and hold our ears even if we aren’t already devoted fans. If a little history gets made in the process, even better.

Grab a seat next to Penny Lane on the bus. Here are 13 of the best documentaries that every music—and film—fan should add to their Must Watch list.

1. WHAT’S HAPPENING! THE BEATLES IN THE U.S.A. (1964)

A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America, where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.

2. DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, Don't Look Back helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician's infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.

3. GIMME SHELTER (1970)

The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can send up the current scene just like This Is Spinal Tap! did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”

4. WOODSTOCK (1970)

The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.

5. ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)

Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London's Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is, as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.

6. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981)

Instead of following the famous, Penelope Spheeris’s debut dug its nails deep into the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the decade. Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and other bands your parents have never heard of perform mosh pit-sparking anthems and show off their living conditions like a grungy proto-version of MTV Cribs. There’s a purity here missing from most music docs—a chronicle of people whose passion far, far outweighs their paychecks, and a screening that led the LAPD to request that the movie never be shown in LA again.

7. SIGN "☮" THE TIMES (1987)

Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring it’s one of the best of all time. There’s the music, of course. Hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look,” and Sheila E. beating the hell out of her drum kit. There’s also The Purple One's inexhaustible energy and stage presence. As a bonus, the film jumps between concert footage and (instead of candid hotel conversations) a sci-fi narrative where we get to go to Prince Planet. It’s a rocky, disorienting experience that could have only been held so tightly together by a master showman.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (1991)

It might be hard to explain to a younger audience just how dominant Madonna was as an artist coming out of the 1980s or the kind of landmark event this film represented because of her status. The travelogue of her Blonde Ambition Tour was like peeking into the insane world of the ultra-famous—not least because Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time and part of the film involves her hanging out with Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, and more. There are threats that the Canadian police will arrest her for simulating masturbation in her show, the Pope trying to get the tour canceled in Italy, and a slightly awkward return home to see family. All par for the course for someone whose personal life was carved up for public consumption.

9. RHYME & REASON (1997)

An unparalleled look into the lyricism and lifestyle of rap musicians from the genre’s rise through its global domination of the 1990s, the concert and party footage is fantastic, and the number of interviews is staggering. Peter Spirer spoke with more than 80 rap and hip-hop artists to craft a snapshot of what life was like for a group of musicians who discovered their voices could echo across the world as well as those who followed after to even greater success. Instead of going deep on one person behind the music, it’s a historical document of the culture itself as seen through the eyes of those at its very center.

10. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)

For those who don’t know Daniel Johnston’s music, this doc is a crash course not only in its stripped-down, anti-folk vibes but the head it all comes spilling out of. Instead of romanticizing or ignoring his bipolar disorder, Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie engages with it directly, drawing beautiful gems from a troubled mind. An absolute masterpiece, it’s less a vision of a musician giving glimpses into his real life than it is a vision of a human being who makes music.

11. AWESOME; I F*CKIN’ SHOT THAT! (2006)

Rockumentaries follow two major formats: the raw concert doc that’s like a ticket to a show you couldn’t attend, and the profile where artists drop quotables in between performances. They’re safe and familiar, which is probably why the Beastie Boys gave both styles the middle finger in favor of a grand experiment. A year before YouTube launched, the rap trio gave 50 fans in their Madison Square Garden audience camcorders to capture the concert. The result is a genuine, fans’-eye-view of the experience, and a chaotic mashup of perspectives.

12. THE PUNK SINGER (2013)

It’s astonishing how much time and ground Sini Anderson’s portrait of Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna covers. It’s so much that labeling her Bikini Kill’s leader is woefully reductive. Artist, pioneer, feminist, activist, and a dozen other titles swirl around Hanna’s sweat-covered brow as we get to know her both as an artist and as a person. It’s also a punk fever dream of riot grrrl greatness, featuring incendiary archival footage and excellent talks with members of Le Tigre, Bikini Kill, and Julie Ruin, as well as Carrie Brownstein and the Beastie Boys’s Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).

13. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)

A fairly recent addition to the pantheon, Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of the gravel-throated songstress. Narrated by musician Cat Power, instead of losing perspective to the fog of history, a blend of modern conversations and ghosts from the past offer fresh eyes and ears to create a heartsick celebration of one of music history's most beloved artists, whose career was cut woefully short.

20 Memorable Elvis Presley Quotes

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 40 years after his death, Elvis Presley remains a rock ‘n' roll icon and has yet to be ousted from his position as “The King.” Yet the Tupelo, Mississippi-born, Memphis, Tennessee-raised superstar never took his fame for granted, nor did he forget his roots. Here are 20 memorable quotes about Elvis’s life and legacy.

ON AMBITION

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

ON MAINTAINING YOUR VALUES

“It's not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it's who you are.”

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody's are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.”

ON THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

“I happened to come along in the music business when there was no trend.”

“I've never written a song in my life. It's all a big hoax.”

“I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to.”

ON THE ARMY

“After a hard day of basic training, you could eat a rattlesnake.”

“The army teaches boys to think like men.”

ON TRUTH

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.”

ON THOSE LEGENDARY DANCE MOVES

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it. That's what happens to me. I can't help it.”

“Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess.”

ON KEEPING POSITIVE

“When things go wrong, don't go with them.”

ON STARDOM

“If you let your head get too big, it'll break your neck.”

“I have no use for bodyguards, but I have very specific use for two highly trained certified public accountants.”

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It's very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”

“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”

ON LOVE

“Sad thing is, you can still love someone and be wrong for them.”

ON THE PITFALLS OF HOLLYWOOD

“I sure lost my musical direction in Hollywood. My songs were the same conveyer belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.”

ON GETTING OLDER

“Every time I think that I'm getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”

ON LEAVING A LEGACY

“Do something worth remembering.”

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