Your Later Years: Death Takes Two American Icons

Published in All Pawtucket All the Time on June 27, 2008

In recent weeks, office conversations shifted from the Celtic’s win, the Boston Red Sox games, and Democratic candidate Obama’s run for presidency to focus on the untimely deaths of two  national  icons in the entertainment and broadcast industry.  Baby boomers were shocked when a sudden heart attack, on June 13th, took the life of 58 year-old Tim Russert.  They were even more dismayed when George Carlin, the comedic voice of their generation, died 9 days later.

“Did you take your daily aspirin? Or “how high is your  cholesterol?” or “blood pressure?” were questions swiring around the water cooler.  Many of the Pepsi generation figured that if a youthful-looking broadcast journalist, Russert or and older Carlin,” America’s Funny Man” suddently died of heart disease it might halppen to them, too.

Making Their Marks in the World

Russert, a resident of Northwest Washington, was one of the nation’s most visible baby boomers, serving for almost 17 years as Managing Editor and Moderator of the highly acclaimed “Meet the Press” and political anayyst for “NBC Nightly News.”

In his early politicl creer as a lawyer, russert worked as a special council to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and as a conunsel to Gov. Mario M. Como of New York.

A lifelong Buffalo Bills Football fan, Russert, a practicing Catholic, wrote an autobiography Big Russ and Me in 2004, a book about growing up in South Buffalo and the importance of his hardworking father, a World War II veteran who worked two jobs after the war to support his family. Russert’s father taught him the significance of family values and never to take the short cut to accomplish a goal. A book, Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons, published one year later would incorporate letters received from his fans in response to his first book about their own experiences with their fathers.

Russert also received 48 honorary doctorates and racked up scores of awards for his journalistic reporting.

On June 22nd, an irrervent standup comedian, George Carlin, 71, whose cutting social commentary and assute summation of life, who oftentimes stretched both the boundaries of free speech died of heart failure in Santa Monica, California.

Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine was key to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, F.C.C. v Pacifica Foundation, in which a narrow majority ruled the government has a right to regulate “indecent” material on the public airways.

During his long life, the very hip Carlin was recognized for his cutting edge comedy by receiving two America Comedy Awards, the Funniest Male Performer in a TV Special (1997 and 1998) and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy (2001).

Carline was the first host of Saturday Night Live. He made countless television appearances during his career.  As a prolific writer, Carlin wrote five books and produced 23 comedy records, winning four Grammy Awards. Throughout his career wit/word play, political satire and black comedy would be woven into his monologues performed in major nightclubs and theaters in New York and Los Vegs. He also starred in 14 HBO comedy specials.  Recently he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and was to receive the award at the Kennedy Center in November 2008.

Touching Lives

Lars Platt, 51, of Platt Realty Group, and  his wife Carrie, a television producer, were shocked with the sudden passing of Russert. “He was so close to our age,” Platt says, noting that his wife had worked with him, too.

Platt said that the unanticipated death of “an icon in the news reporting and broadcast industry,” made the Providence couple think of their mortality and “how important it is to be present in everday life.”

Carlin’s passing also put “a chink in my armor, too,” says Platt. “His humor was part of the fabric of my life growing up.”

Forty-year old Matt Thomas, Manager of Doherty’s East Avenue Café, remembers secretly listening to Carlin’s routine ion a transistor radio in six grade.  Thomas, laughing so hard because of the humor caught the attention of his parents who promptly confiscated his radio, sending him immediately to bed.  Fast forward to his early adult years, Thomas would subscribe to HBO Cable when Carlin’s Specials were scheduled ultimately canceling his cable contract after watching it.

Thomas, who considers himself Carlin’s biggest fan in Pawtucket, attended the comedian’s last theater performance last week in Las Vegas. “It was tremendous,” he said, joking how his sides hurt when he walked out after the show. “He had a lot of fun on the state and even put in a few new bits into his routine.”

As to his impact on society Thomas will always remember Carlin as someone who “shed the light into dark corners that people did not want to look at.”

“If you talked to any comic, they worshiped the ground he walked on,” Thomas said. “He really opened up a lot of doors for others to come through.”  Carlin took the comedic torch when Lenny Bruce died , Thomas says. “We’ll just have to see who will pick that torch up now.”

With their premature deaths, bereaved colleagues, friends, and family members went on the nation’s airways to publicity tout Russert and Carlin’s personal and professional accomplishments. Statements after they died were posted on hundreds of websites and printed in tens of thousands of articles. It is my hope that America’s Journalist and Comedian heard these praises when they were alive.