Boston journalist James Sullivan has a gift for aiming the microscope at specific events and drawing out their implications, as proved by his superb 2008 book The Hardest Working Man, about James Brown’s Boston Garden concert of April 5, 1968, the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (Local TV televised Brown’s show, which is credited with helping cool racial tensions in the city; Boston remained relatively unharmed in the aftermath of King’s murder.) Sullivan’s new biography, 7 Dirty Words: The Life And Crimes Of George Carlin, does the opposite, offering a broad overview of the formative American stand-up comic. In particular, it covers Carlin’s troubles with the law over his free use of American vernacular, specifically his 1972 arrest in Milwaukee for swearing, and the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in favor of the FCC, after New York radio station WBAI aired Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine from his 1973 album, Occupation: Foole. (That bit modified Carlin’s earlier routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.”)
Sullivan spends a lot of space on the Supreme Court case, deservedly; it’s as important to Carlin’s legacy as his stand-up. But he tells Carlin’s story briskly enough that the lengthy treatment of the FCC complaint seems lopsided, especially since subsequent chapters go by in such a hurry. Carlin was a constant worker: He wrote all-new material for 13 stand-up specials for HBO between 1977 and 2008, the year he died at age 71. But his later years blur past—odd, considering Sullivan’s belief that his material deepened as his attitude toward the world grew more vinegary. It’s almost as if Sullivan wanted to focus exclusively on the FCC case as a point of departure for a study of Carlin’s work overall, but felt constrained, after the comedian’s death, to expand the material into a straighter bio.
Sullivan has decent insight into Carlin’s early influences, particularly when discussing the early radio comedians who shaped him, such as Henry Morgan and Fred Allen. Carlin’s impact on stand-up has been pervasive, but it would have been nice to see more specific examples of where his legacy has gone in recent years, rather than relying on the handful of friends and protégés interviewed here. Sullivan’s light hand makes 7 Dirty Words a brisk read; it also makes it seem more like an outline than a deeper look at a major artist.