The late comedian George Carlin finally got the hometown recognition he deserved with a Manhattan street block named after him. The 400 block of 121st Street was renamed “George Carlin Way” after a multi-year effort from Kevin Bartini, a warm-up comic on The Daily Show. Bartini, who realized that Carlin did not have a tribute to him in the spot where he grew up, jumped through all of the local government’s hoops and even battled a reverend at the Corpus Christi Catholic Church on the same block who knew and despised Carlin.
Bartini’s ordeal is a fitting tribute to Carlin: a battle with government and organized religion. Although the church and Carlin’s early home were on the 500 block, a compromise was reached to move the signs down a block. As fellow comedian Colin Quinn noted, “It’s like an old neighborhood solution: Take it down the block. Have your fight there. George would love it.” Bartini responded, “Symbolically, the sign is hanging somewhere else just because the powers that be didn’t want you to know who George Carlin was or what he said. It cements even more what a counterculture icon he was. And still is.”
Carlin’s debut in comedy dates back to the 1960s, when he appeared on the Tonight Show alongside Johnny Carson and on the Ed Sullivan Show. While he started as a clean-cut entertainer with a skinny-tie suit typical of the decade, he quickly changed course during the apogee of the hippie movement, shedding his clean image in favor of a darker type of comedy.
In 1972, this shift gained national attention and led to what would become a setback for both him as a comedian and for the civil liberties of all Americans. His infamous monologue, Seven Dirty Words, was broadcast on a New York radio station. John Douglas, a member of the anti-pornography group Morality in Media, was listening to the station with his 15-year-old son. Despite an advance warning from the host that offensive language would follow, Douglas did not turn the dial. Instead, he listened to the monologue and subsequently filed a complaint with the FCC. This case, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, went to the Supreme Court, where the FCC won a narrow 5-4 decision in which “indecent,” but not “obscene,” media can still be regulated by the FCC. In an interview with Larry King, Carlin recalls how the government “made up a whole new category of filth for me. It wasn’t ‘obscene’… ‘indecent’.” Although other comics like Lenny Bruce had also been arrested for obscene content in their standup routines, a vague FCC statute narrowly passed Supreme Court scrutiny over a previous appeals court ruling which gave the government power to regulate a wide array of material on the public airwaves.
In addition to being one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, Carlin’s critiques of government and organized religion pushed the boundaries of what constituted acceptable comedic fodder. In addition to his early controversies, he also had a respectable repertoire of monologues and one-liners. He once received a loud ovation when he told an audience, “I have certain rules I live by. My first rule: I don’t believe anything the government tells me. Nothing. Zero.” He also transcended the left-right dichotomy, criticizing the left’s effort to “save the planet” while also criticizing the right’s crusade against abortion.
To be sure, he also critiqued libertarianism. He said, “One of the more pretentious political self-descriptions is “Libertarian.” People think it puts them above the fray. It sounds fashionable, and to the uninitiated, faintly dangerous. Actually, it’s just one more bullshit political philosophy.” Although he may have been turned off by the perceived intellectual elitism of libertarianism, his monologues nonetheless made many people reconsider their views on important issues, and often towards well thought out and pro-liberty positions.
Although Carlin died in 2008, his legacy and controversy live on, even on the very street block where he grew up. He will be remembered as an unlikely hero for liberty, one who was not afraid to speak his mind in order to not only entertain, but make people think. When people stop by the 400 block of 121st Street and are first introduced to the name George Carlin, they will be exposed to a new way of thinking about the world: the George Carlin Way.