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Comedian George Carlin Is National Portrait Gallery's Newest Face


There's a new face in the National Portrait Gallery. A portrait of George Carlin went up today on a wall that commemorates Americans who have influenced politics, history and culture. Carlin's work as a stand-up comedian hit all three. His seven dirty words stand-up routine in the 1970s was central to a Supreme Court decision. That decision affirmed the government's power to regulate indecent material on public airwaves.


GEORGE CARLIN: I mean, there are a lot of words you can say whenever you want, you know? Pneumonia - nobody gives you...


G. CARLIN: All right, you can't yell it in a hospital a great deal, but what the hell? There are words that you can say no problem. Topography - no one has ever gone to jail for screaming topography.

CORNISH: To talk more about George Carlin's new place in the Smithsonian, we're joined by his daughter, Kelly Carlin. Welcome to the program.

KELLY CARLIN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Your father died in 2008, and a lot of his fans have actually speculated that he was a guy who was so anti-establishment, he might not necessarily appreciate being in the National Portrait Gallery. What do you think his response would've been?

K. CARLIN: Oh, I know he would have been thrilled, even though he was a man who stood up against all of our major institutions in this country. He was also a man who, because he had been kicked out of every institution he'd ever been a part of, like school and the Air Force, he had said to me and had admitted publicly that he craved acceptance from these places. So there's a small part of him that wanted to always kind of prove how clever and smart he was to these institutions, and the fact that they give him a little nod every once in a while, he always, always enjoyed.

CORNISH: You also, in a blog post ahead of the unveiling of his portrait, wrote that he was, quote, "a man who understood the weight of history, especially his own."

K. CARLIN: Yeah. I think that really came the last few years that he was alive. He always made it a point of acknowledging when some big moment had happened in his career. He enjoyed being a part of it all, and yet he didn't take it too seriously either. It didn't feed his sense of identity or his ego in that normal way.

CORNISH: He was so well-embraced by other comedians in the comedy community. Did he ever reflect on his influence on comedy?

K. CARLIN: I think so. I mean, I think, you know, seeing him kind of speak publicly those last few years, I could see that he was relishing a bit being the old professor guy. And I'm sure he saw that he definitely had some influence on the direction of it all. I mean, observational humor was his thing and, of course, in the '80s, it became the thing.

CORNISH: To coincide with this unveiling, I understand that there's going to be a release of clips of George Carlin's stand-up. Can you talk a little bit about it?

K. CARLIN: Yes. It's audio clips. And I have a box of audiocassettes that my dad had kept over the years, starting with shows in the 1960s, ones that were important him, kind of seminal moments in his career. And we've been listening to them and archiving them. And what's really surprising is that when most people think of my dad, they think of, of course, the albums and stuff, but really his HBO shows. And he was so polished and perfect on those HBO shows. And a lot of these audiocassettes and these concerts were from the '70s and '80s when he was playing on stage and experimenting still.


G. CARLIN: I just got to be honest with you. I'm not one of them show-business people, man, who makes believe everything is going OK, you know, because everything is not going OK, man.

CORNISH: Before this interview, I was watching some clips of him online. And, you know, it made me wonder what you think he'd be skewering if he were alive today, right? I mean, do you ever listen to the news and think, yeah, he'd be all over that?

K. CARLIN: Oh, I pray everyday (laughter) that he was still with us (laughter). Yes, of course, climate change, the denial of science, would have been, I think, a huge thing for him. You know, I'm sure he would've gone after Wall Street even more pointedly. I can't imagine what he wouldn't be skewering right now.

CORNISH: Well, Kelly Carlin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

K. CARLIN: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

CORNISH: Kelly Carlin is the daughter of comedian George Carlin. His portrait was hung today in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Kelly's memoir, "A Carlin Home Companion," is due out this fall. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.