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Carlin made you laugh while making you think

George Carlin died on Sunday of heart failure and the tributes poured in soon after. They were apropos for a man considered a comedy legend. But as the Associated Press obituary explained, he was much more.

He was a philosopher and social commentator, comedy his conduit. He was a skilled observer and a wizard with words, leading to simple but hilarious observations like: Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?

His routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" is legendary, his take on the genteel nature of baseball vs. the war-like nature of football brilliant. (Examples: "Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog... In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play." And: "Baseball has no time limit - we don't know when it's gonna end - might have extra innings. Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we've got to go to sudden death.")

While I liked Carlin and watched several of his HBO specials, I wasn't a rabid fan like some of my friends. But I appreciated his intelligence and enjoyed a lot of his routines, including one where he makes fun of what he calls silly first names, using very colorful language to take special aim at mine.

He wore dark clothes and a ponytail, cultivating a counterculture persona that he embraced. But it was just that, a persona, a character per se, that he developed over the years.

Carlin didn't start that way, however. And old pictures of him as a clean-cut, suit-wearing guy grab your attention, so different than what he became. That time when people have to make a decision - do I take the road less traveled? - is always interesting to me.

For Carlin, that decision, according to former comedy partner Jack Burns, came after seeing Lenny Bruce, regarded as the first shock comic, perform. After that he decided to take his comedy in a different direction, a much less safe one, which led him on a path that included 130 appearances on "The Tonight Show," 14 HBO specials and acknowledgement as one of the top comedic minds.

I assume Carlin was doing OK at the time of his epiphany, but he wanted more. Some people choose to be merely good, preferring it over the risk of trying to be great. Sometimes that risk is well worth it, as Carlin's prodigious career proved.

His off-color language wasn't for everyone, but if you could get past that and to the message, Carlin was sure to make you think, even if you didn't agree with him. And like I said, his ability to find humor in words by tweaking and twisting them was brilliant.

Carlin liked to skewer euphemisms, making the point that no one simply dies anymore, they "expire" or "pass away." I can only imagine that he would get a laugh out of the TV news reports, the ones saying a comedy legend has passed away.

And then he would make fun of them.

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Tuesdays.