While many performers used The Ed Sullivan Show as a launching pad for their careers, comedian George Carlin used the stage as an outlet for his opinions. When considering the radical societal changes in the 1960s, Carlin’s own evolution acts as a perfect mirror to America’s cultural transformations.
At just 30 years old, Carlin appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. In his autobiography “Last Words: A Memoir,” Carlin reflects on the experience: “The Ed Sullivan Show’s worst weapon of torture was that it was live. There were no second takes on Sullivan. During your set, Ed would stand onstage over to stage right. Out of camera range but onstage. So the entire audience never watched the comic. They were watching Sullivan to see if he would laugh. And he never did. Playing comedy to the Sullivan audience was agony. You’d get more laughs in a mausoleum.”
His first appearance, on January 29, 1967, is the complete opposite of his act from the mid 1970s and beyond. A clean-shaven and upbeat Carlin took the stage and performed a series of acts and characters representing different television situations (i.e. commercials, daytime television, game shows, etc.) that he found irritating. His early performances were more sketches than stand-up comedy. Audiences roared at his (stoned) hippie weatherman, “Al Sleet,” and “Councilman Carl K. Copout,” jokingly the 27th person to run for president in 1968. From that point on, it was clear that Carlin had broken away from his squeaky clean image and wanted his opinions heard.
The looming election of 1968 and the Vietnam War provided the backdrop for a few jabs that Carlin took to show his disappointment in the lackluster candidates. While mocking the news on his October 27th 1968 Sullivan performance, Carlin mentioned how the theme of “law and order” was something that all three presidential candidates debated about when domestic crime should be the real issue. He went on say the real crime in America was those three candidates running for office.
Politics aside, this is what he remembers about one of his last appearances: “But the real milestone of my Sullivan career was the show where I followed the skating chimpanzees. There’s something I can say for the rest of my days: ‘I once followed skating chimpanzees.’” That happened on February 8, 1970 when Carlin appeared right after Mr. Jiggs, the smoking, skating chimp.
Finally breaking free of his former self, Carlin radically changed his act and physical look following his eleven Ed Sullivan Show appearances. He performed across the country and was the first host of Saturday Night Live in 1975. Like fellow comedian Richard Pryor, Carlin’s comedy career eventually led to movie roles, successful stand-up tours and Las Vegas engagements. In 2008, Carlin passed on due to heart failure, and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor posthumously.