- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Joan Rivers seemed confused by all the fuss being made over the late George Carlin at the Kennedy Center on Monday night. “It’s everything he fought against,” she said of the extravaganza taking place in the official theater of Washington.

Indeed, comedian Lewis Black noted that “he hated government, I think he did. I may be wrong about that, but from his material … ”

One couldn’t help but feel a twinge of the ironic, both on the red carpet and during the ceremony itself: George Carlin - purveyor of the seven dirty words, detester of government stupidity and bureaucratic excess, defiant nonconformist - being awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in the belly of the beast he fought so long to slay.

That’s not to say that the award was undeserved or that Mr. Carlin didn’t wish to claim it; he learned of the decision just before his death in June and had already started composing his acceptance speech (an unfinished portion of which was read at the ceremony).

An all-star lineup of stand-up heavyweights took the stage to pay tribute to their friend and mentor. Some, like Jon Stewart, Lewis Black and Margaret Cho, are political satirists. Others, like Denis Leary, are influenced by Mr. Carlin’s caustic language and observational humor. Bill Maher, the star of this summer’s anti-religion documentary “Religulous,” was on hand to pay tribute to Mr. Carlin’s notorious hatred of the church (all churches, really).

Some took a more personal tack, like Garry Shandling. Mr. Shandling first met Mr. Carlin when the former was a college student looking to break into the comedy business; on little more than blind hope, he traveled two hours, from Tucson to Phoenix, in order to meet his idol and get some tips on writing comedy.

He showed up to the club early, and Mr. Carlin was already there, enjoying a drink at the bar. When Mr. Shandling said that he’d written some “George Carlin material,” the elder statesman said that he wrote his own stuff, but he’d be happy to take a look at the comedy and offer advice. Come back tomorrow, he told the young Mr. Shandling.

The next evening - after two more two-hour trips for Mr. Shandling - Mr. Carlin took him backstage and gave him notes for 20 minutes. “If you’re thinking of doing it, do it,” Mr. Carlin, impressed by Mr. Shandling’s work, told him.

Mr. Carlin didn’t need to be kind to nobodies asking for advice at night clubs: He was one of the most prolific comedians of all time. Over his career, he released 22 comedy albums, wrote three best-selling books, starred in an unheard-of 14 HBO specials, was the inaugural host of “Saturday Night Live” and turned up on “The Tonight Show” over 130 times.

“He’s the Babe Ruth of comedy, in terms of pure numbers,” said Mr. Leary on the red carpet. “The number of specials that he did, the number of albums, the longevity of his career.”

He was also a tireless worker, as Mr. Stewart recounted. “[From him] I learned that it’s work,” said the “Daily Show” host. “He punched the clock every day.”

Interspersed between personal remembrances and genial tributes were clips from Mr. Carlin’s long and illustrious career - with the “bad” words bleeped out. The irony of the censorship was too much for some of the honoree’s peers. “I was gonna try not to be irritated tonight,” sputtered Mr. Black.

More striking than Mr. Carlin’s salty language, however, was his lyrical way with words: Who else could string together three minutes of meaningless adman-speak and make it sound like Shakespeare? Is there another stand-up with a greater love of precision and distaste for obfuscation when it comes to the English language?

Probably not. Richard Belzer noted that “George’s great gift was his precision,” and Mr. Stewart praised him for being a “concise and surgical social critic.” Like the namesake of the prize he was awarded, Mr. Carlin knew that words have meaning, and those who subvert those meanings should be mercilessly mocked.

“He was smart,” said Mr. Leary, “and the ideas are the things that stay with you. I loved him.”

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