George Carlin

George Carlin, the man that made jokes that made history, the razor-witted comedian with little patience for the daily annoyances of life or people who take themselves too seriously died of heart failure in Santa Monica, California, on Sunday at the age of 71, according to The Associated Press.

The iconic American comedian was perhaps best known for his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine, a list of profanities that got him arrested in 1971 and later led to a Supreme Court case that helped set the regulations for what obscene language is appropriate to broadcast on the nation’s TV and radio stations. But his edgy style has influenced generations of filmmakers, writers and comedians.

“Nobody was funnier than George Carlin,” Judd Apatow said in a statement on Monday (June 23). “I spent half my childhood in my room listening to his records, experiencing pure joy. And he was as kind as he was funny.”

In addition to starring in a record-setting 14 HBO specials, multiple Grammy winner Carlin was a best-selling author (“When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”), the voice of alternative-fuel-loving hippie microbus Fillmore in Pixar’s “Cars” movie, Mr. Conductor on the children’s show “Shining Time Station” in the 1990s and this year’s recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which he was scheduled to receive in November.

George Dennis Carlin was born on May 12, 1937, in New York City and raised, along with his older brother, by their single mother. He started his career as a traditional stand-up comedian in the late 1950s, when his act was full of wordplay and stories about his Irish working-class upbringing, according to The New York Times. But by the early 1970s, Carlin’s act radically changed, morphing into a poignant, often irreverent dissection of social hang-ups and commentary on “straight” society, pushing the boundaries of what was then considered good taste.

Gone were the suits and ties and in came T-shirts and flared jeans, accented by his shoulder-length hair, bushy beard and a rebel spirit that appealed to the hippie-fied children of the nightclub and “Tonight Show” audiences, who had been coming to see him for a decade. After years of playing bit parts on the biggest TV shows and filling the swankiest clubs, Carlin was blackballed from some of his former stomping grounds in Las Vegas and across the country, according to the Times. He gave up on those venues for a time and started doing his act in coffee houses, college campuses and folk clubs, where the audiences looked like him and appreciated his edgier jokes about drugs, the Vietnam War and the oppressive hand of polite society.

The infamous “Seven Words” routine appeared on his 1972 album “Class Clown.” He was arrested in July of that year for performing the routine at Milwaukee’s Summerfest and was unapologetic about it after being released with no charge. But the litany of offensive terms, some of which seem tame by today’s standards, others which we still can’t print continued to shock and led to a landmark 1978 Supreme Court decision. In that year, the court took up the case of a 1973 Federal Communications Commission fine on New York radio station WBAI for playing the routine, which had drawn a complaint from a father who said his son had heard it on the station.

The case, F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, lead the court to examine government regulation of indecency over broadcast airwaves. The Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s decision and decided that regulation was allowed to protect children, ruling that the routine was “indecent, but not obscene,” but it was Justice John Paul Stevens’ advisement of restraint (“We simply hold that when the Commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene.”) that became a ruling standard for 25 years thereafter, ironically loosening up content on TV and on the radio, until recent events have caused politicians, lawyers, and judges to once again examine the issue.

That was exactly the kind of action that enraged Carlin, who continued to perform the bit — and get arrested for it — throughout the decade. With his signature all-black outfit and jokes about every formerly taboo subject from religion to sex, Carlin, along with Richard Pryor, became the wisecracking voice of a generation and one of the most popular comedians in the country. Carlin later said, “My name is a footnote in American legal history, which I’m perversely kind of proud of.”

He was the host of the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 and was a favorite of directors looking to put a bit of bite into movies ranging from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and religion-skewering comedy “Dogma,” in which he played the irreverent Cardinal Ignatius Glick.

Kevin Smith had this to say: “In 2001, George did me a solid when he accepted the part of the orally fixated hitchhiker who knew exactly how to get a ride in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” When he wrapped his scene in that flick, I thanked him for making the time, and he said, “Just do me a favor: Write me my dream role one day.” When I inquired what that’d be, he offered, “I wanna play a priest who strangles children.” It was a classic Carlin thing to say: a little naughty and a lot honest. I always figured there’d be time to give George what he asked for. Unfortunately, he left too soon. He was, and will likely remain, the smartest person I’ve ever met. But really, he was much more than just a person. Without a hint of hyperbole, I can say he was a god, a god who cussed.”

“Some people think the routines were all about saying dirty words, but it wasn’t about that at all,” says Jamie Masada, who as owner of the Laugh Factory comedy clubs knew Carlin for more than 20 years.

“He had a different motivation,” Masada continued, “and the motivation was free speech. George believed when he was on stage that was like being in his church and he could say anything he wanted there.”

And, for the man who loved wordplay and frequently riffed on such simple absurdities as the oxymoronic phrase “jumbo shrimp,” he too was a bit of a contradiction in life, struggling with serious drug addiction at several points in his career while also finding time to play the kindly conductor on such kid-friendly programs as “Shining Time Station” and “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.”

Jerry Seinfeld wrote in the NY times “THE honest truth is, for a comedian, even death is just a premise to make jokes about. I know this because I was on the phone with George Carlin nine days ago and we were making some death jokes. We were talking about Tim Russert and Bo Diddley and George said: “I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.”

A stand-up at heart — he performed live onstage just days before his death — Carlin never stopped looking for new ways to describe, demystify and deprecate the world around him.

“Stand-up is the centerpiece of my life, my business, my art, my survival and my way of being,” Carlin once said, according to the Times. “This is my art, to interpret the world.”


Nike, Movies, And Neil Gaiman For Phil Knight

Co-founder and longtime chief of Nike, Phil Knight, unveiled plans for the future of his Portland film studio Laika on Tuesday. Laika’s first production, Coraline, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, due in theaters in February, will be followed by a trio of movies and the new production house has a total of 6 projects in the works.

While Laika plans to mix in an occasional traditional, family film, the company hopes to differentiate itself from the competition with offbeat pictures and oddball humor. “There’s a very Portland feel to the kinds of things that we are doing,” said Fiona Kenshole, Laika’s vice president of development and acquisitions, who moved to Northwest Portland from England this spring. “We have a slightly quirky take.”

Animation giants Pixar, Dreamworks and Sony engineered a revival in feature animation with clever, richly illustrated movies drawn largely by computer. Laika, by contrast, plans to film many of its movies in an old-fashioned, stop-motion style with stories devoid of the pop culture references that sustain hits such as “Shrek.” It’s a risky strategy, the Portland company acknowledges, but one Laika says provides the best chance of distinguishing the studio and providing commercial and creative success. “It’s very easy to get a joke out of a fart. But that’s not what we do,” Kenshole said. “We want the story to emerge from the situation in which the characters find themselves.”

Knight acquired the financially strapped Will Vinton Studios (Christmas With The California RaisinsThe Adventures of Mark Twain) in 2003 and renamed it Laika two years later. His son Travis Knight, an animation industry veteran, is a Laika animator and executive. 

Animated films cost upwards of $50 million to make and sometimes a great deal more. Knight is bankrolling Coraline himself but wants to partner with a major Hollywood studio to underwrite development of Laika’s next three movies. “We’re looking for somebody that is willing to take some risks, both creatively as well as from a standpoint of broadening the movie audience,” said Dale Wahl, a former Nike executive who runs Laika.

Coraline is in the late stages of filming at a Hillsboro warehouse. It’s being directed by Henry Selick, a veteran stop-motion director who developed a cult following among animation junkies after making such stop-motion films as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Knight’s son Travis is serving as lead animator.

For its next three movies, Laika plans to hand the reins to a pair of experienced Hollywood directors and make the third from an in-house concept nurtured by Selick and a member of his “Coraline” team. One movie will be a computer-generated family picture directed by Barry Cook, who made Mulan for Disney. The other two are about misunderstood boys with unusual backgrounds or powers.

Coraline tells the story of a girl who passes into a mirror world where she meets sinister, alternate versions of her parents with buttons for eyes. Based on a novel by children’s writer Neil Gaiman, it will be distributed by Focus Features with lead characters voiced by teen star Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives. “It’s an unusual movie. It’s an unusual story,” said Wahl. “But from my own, personal perspective, I think it’s a fun story.”

Laika’s alternative approach to animation is a risk, said Maureen Selwood, co-director of the experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts. “The real gamble is stop motion,” Selwood said. “As well as being alternative, stop motion can be hard to pull off in a feature.” On stop-motion productions, animators painstakingly arrange puppets on miniature sets and then film them, a single frame at a time, moving the puppets incrementally to simulate motion. If Laika’s stories and directors create a coherent, original vision, she said, there’s no doubt its films will find an audience. And she said Portland’s animation community, which dates back three decades to when Oscar-winner Will Vinton started Vinton Studios, is a natural place to try something fresh. “If there’s any city outside of Los Angeles that’s an animation town, it’s Portland,” Selwood said. “It’s just loaded with people who have been in animation for a long time.”  

Knight, who’s worth about $8 billion, will start building a 30-acre studio campus in Tualitin, Oregon, later this year, around the same time he releases Coraline.  Laika’s other projects include Here Be Monsters!, a 19th-century steampunk thriller set in London, and The Wall and the Wing, adapted by Lost co-creator Jeffrey Lieber from the Laura Ruby novel about a Manhattan girl who can make herself invisible.