There were an obscene number of celebrity deaths in 2008, but very few of them hit quite as hard as the loss of George Carlin. He’s one of those guys who I just kind of figured would be around forever, secretly suspecting that he couldn’t die until he had nothing left to grouse about. So much for that theory. It’s particularly bittersweet that, only four days before his death, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that Carlin would be the 2008 honoree of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The good news, however, is that the decision was made to give him the prize posthumously, the first time such a thing had been done.

As you can imagine, it didn’t take much effort to accumulate a star-studded list of names to pay tribute to Carlin, and the PBS panel to promote “George Carlin: The Mark Twain Prize” included two of them: Richard Belzer and Lewis Black.

The first question posed was one that should’ve been expected by anyone familiar with Carlin’s work: how can PBS properly pay tribute to a man whose most famous routine involved the seven words you can’t say on television?

“I learned a long time ago that if you’re in a church, you don’t do certain things, and if you’re in someone’s home, you don’t do certain things,” said Belzer. “If the philosophy of the network is not to offend people who they think might be offended, I don’t think this hurts this show. George Carlin is so brilliant, his use of language is vast and compelling, that a few bleeps might even be enticing. I don’t think it diminishes how great George is, how important the show is, and the function that PBS serves over time. I mean, civility in manners are defined in different ways. If it were up to me, we’d have all the words you’d want, but I am not a network.”

Executive producer Peter Kaminsky followed up on Belzer’s comments, clarifying, “It goes beyond the
network. It’s the law. The Supreme Court will come down on you heavy. This case is…I mean, I think one of the legacies of George is he started something in the Supreme Court and 40 years later, or whatever, 30 years later, we’re still arguing about it. It’s very much front burner, and we hope to see that change in a new administration.”

Black, unsurprisingly, chimed in on the matter as well. “What will happen if the words were actually said?” he asked. “Children would panic? They don’t hear the words at home? I think what Richard
said is absolutely true, and I think it’s bullshit.”

For her part, Kelly Carlin McCall – George’s daughter – finds the whole matter hilarious. “My dad’s view on this was that if you actually bleep the words, they become dirtier, so it’s a beautiful irony for me,” she said. “I just find it very strange.”

She also acknowledged that her father was extremely happy when he got the news about the Twain prize, which is impressive, given that he didn’t tend to take awards very seriously. “He saw the game of it all,” she said. “It was a bunch of bullshit. But there was something about this prize that meant something to him. He did call me when he found out about it; he was very excited. I think in the last five years he really started to take in that he was the elder statesman of this genre, of these people. He took that seriously. I think he was really getting that, wow, these people really want to honor him in that way. I don’t know how he would have sat there and taken it all in. I would love to have known.”

The best series of comments from the panel…?

When one of the critics asked Belzer and Black if they saw any George Carlins amongst the current crop of comedians, he added the caveat, “I assume not Dane Cook.”

“That’s a good assumption,” said Black. “That’s pretty solid. Do you agree?”

“I wasn’t aware that Mr. Cook was a comedian,” replied Belzer.

After the laughter faded, however, the two of them took the question seriously…more or less.

“I think you can take parts of certain people working out there and put them together and you might have George — I mean, there’s some really good people coming up — but what he did takes time,” said Black. “You get to get through the first hump, and then the second hump, and then you got to be humped, and then you might get to where he is.”

“When you think of the breadth and depth of what George accomplished, arguably he is the most influential comedian ever in terms of longevity, the body of work, the multitudes that were influenced by him,” said Belzer. “You know, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin…I mean, you have maybe five people who practiced this art form that set an impossible standard for others. We only aspire to reach certain peaks of the heights that they scaled. I don’t think…it’s not to denigrate the question, but it’s really kind of saying, ‘Who is the next Rembrandt? Who is the next Miles Davis?’ It’s very hard to get that stature. I think somebody like Chris Rock in a few years might be considered that. But George’s body of work, the permutations he went through, coming on first with the suit and tie and being this kind of straight…not straight, he was never straight-laced, but you have this kind of a conventional look. And then he progressed and evolved into his other characters, and over time he was reflective of the culture. He was a little bit ahead of everyone else in terms of language and what you could talk about. It’s a tall order, but certainly, as Lewis said, there are aspects of George in a lot of us, thankfully.”

“George Carlin: The Mark Twain Prize” airs on February 4 on PBS.