Think, Question, Challenge, Evolve – Branding Lessons from George Carlin

George Carlin

George was born in New York on May 12, 1937 – the second son of Patrick and Mary. When George was just two months old, his parents divorced, leaving George and his brother Pat to be raised by Mary, now a single mother. His mother’s work was necessary for her family’s well-being, yet it left George on his own for long hours every day. George occupied his time pondering a wide variety of subjects, listening to music and practicing impersonations. He attended a Catholic school in Morningside Heights, which George called White Harlem because it sounded like a tougher neighborhood. 

He eventually dropped out of high school, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. He became a radar technician and was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base. Over the next three years, George earned his high school equivalency, had several disciplinary issues and moonlighted as a radio disc jockey in nearby Shreveport, Louisiana. His Air Force commitment ended in 1957 and he moved on to radio work full time – first in Boston for three months and then in Ft. Worth, Texas. It was there that he met Jack Burns.

The two became a team both on radio and working in comedy clubs. They were noticed by the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce, who helped them get a spot on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar. During that time, in 1961, George met and married Brenda Hosbrook. A year later the duo would part ways so that each could pursue solo careers. While George continued to work nightclubs, additional television appearances eluded him. Moving to New York, he began to work coffee houses, whose audiences were more progressive than mainstream. It was at the iconic Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village where he developed the material which would lead him back to television. He had created several personas which appealed to mainstream America including the Wonderful Wino and the Hippy Dippy Weatherman. 

Performing in a suit and tie, George sported the clean-cut look of the day. His routines were a major hit resulting in 58 major television appearances in 1965 and 1966 alone. He made a foray into acting with modest results. Refocusing his efforts in comedy resulted in another 80 television appearances by the end of the decade. His career was skyrocketing – yet something was missing.

George had lost his edginess – his material had become safe. That would change beginning in 1970. George shifted his focus from pleasing television audiences and began to be true to his own beliefs and persona. The suit was replaced with casual and comfortable clothes. George grew a beard. Most importantly, George shifted his humor back to the edgier, darker approach that he had when he began his career.

For George, the transformation was natural and authentic, yet it wasn’t as accepted by his mainstream America. That impact was offset by a surge in popularity – and relatability – with the growing counterculture of the 1970’s. His ‘conversion’ was completed when, in 1972, he did a routine known as the ‘Seven Dirty Words’. It was genuine George at his best. That routine combined his love of the English language with his cynical view of the norm. It defined his true essence, got him arrested and resulted in a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which would impact all of society. 

George went on to set records for popularity and ratings for cable TV shows, including 14 HBO specials. He wrote three books which combined generated over 2,000,000 copies sold. Each year over 250,000 people attended his live concerts. More importantly, George became recognized as one of the most prolific and talented social, political and religious critics of our time. His impact on society, his popularity and his many accomplishments were only possible because George Carlin was a fearless brand.

Fearless Brands evolve over time

George Carlin is valued as a comedian but was much more than that. He was a thinker who challenged the norms of our society. He had a brilliant command of the English language, using its nuances to add intellectual subtlety to his sometimes harsh and direct commentary. 

As is the case with many highly intelligent and talented people, Carlin had his demons. His ‘black humor’ sometimes crossed lines which even his most ardent fans would question. After an especially terse altercation with the audience at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Carlin voluntarily entered rehab for alcoholism and drug use. That was in 2004. Sobriety may have brought Carlin a great deal of personal serenity, it did nothing to take the edge off of his humor and social commentary.

George Carlin died of a heart attack on June 22, 2008 in Santa Monica, California. His legacy and his impact live on through his thoughts, his unique insights and his humor. There’s much to learn from Carlin as you look to elevate your brand, achieve personal satisfaction and deliver greater value.

Allow your brand to evolve – Carlin’s path is more common that you might think. Most of us evolve over time as we experience life, learn lessons – often the hard way – and gain greater personal insight. George Carlin had realized a great deal of success early in his career but there was a problem. He wasn’t being true to himself. He compromised his principles and beliefs to be accepted as a comedian. It took him years to realize that was not true success. Fortunately, he allowed his personal brand to evolve and grow which is how he achieved true success.

Think, question, challenge – At the core of Carlin’s humor was his curiosity and skepticism. To be authentic and genuine, it’s imperative that we think for ourselves, that we question the norm and that we act on our own intelligence and experience. If Carlin did anything, it was to challenge the rich and powerful, to explore new and different perspectives and to have a mind of our own. Those who follow blindly – lemmings – will never be fearless brands. Think. Question. Challenge.

Be authentic – It took time for Carlin to find and accept his authentic self – that’s common. Once he did, there was no compromise. Carlin was consistent in his beliefs. He lived with unwavering conviction. His public and private personas were one and the same. Carlin could have literally made millions of dollars had he chosen to endorse products or companies. That went against his beliefs and no amount of money would sway his decision. That level of authenticity and commitment lead to a powerful attribute for any brand – trust. 

Let’s face it, there’s not much probability that you – or I – will achieve the stature and notoriety that George Carlin has. What’s important to realize is this – that’s just fine! As we evolve our own fearless brand, we’ll realize the success and stature that’s intended for us. Don’t fall victim to the Seven Dirty Words of branding “Creating a false facade to please others!” Be authentic. Be fearless. Be yourself.

Friday's Fearless Brand Personal Branding

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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