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“That's my job: thinking up goofy shit.”
– George Carlin

By Mary Smuniewski


George Denis Patrick Carlin is said to have been “the most influential stand-up comedian of all time” (“Biography for George Carlin,” 2011). This social critic, actor, comedian, and author was born on May 12, 1937 in the Bronx, where his mother raised him and his younger brother Pat as a single parent. He was raised to be Roman Catholic and attended catholic school. He developed his strong aversion towards Christianity while he served as a Roman Catholic altar boy, eventually completely denouncing the idea of God. He never completed high school, having dropped out in the ninth grade (“George Carlin Biography,” 2011).

At the age of 17, he joined the US Air Force as a radar technician. Within a year, he got three court-martials before being discharged in 1957. He then became a disc-jockey at a local radio station a few years after enlisting the Air Force, where he received many disciplinary punishments for saying inappropriate things on air. He took radio jobs in Boston and Fort Worth, Texas. “In 1959, Carlin got together with a Texas newscaster named Jack Burn. The pair collaborated on a morning radio show in Fort Worth before relocating to Hollywood, where they attracted the attention of the legendary Lenny Bruce. Bruce helped Burns and Carlin secure appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. 1960 was the year that Carlin began to flourish as a stand-up comedian” (“George Carlin Biography,” 2011).

Throughout the 60s, Carlin was featured as a stand-up comedian on various television sitcoms, talk shows, and night clubs. This brought him moderate success. His success expanded in the 1970s when he re-created both his physical image and style of comedic routine, going from a clean-cut average comedian to a shaggy haired, obscene critic. “His routines became more insightful, introducing more serious subjects. As he aged, he became more cynical and bitter” (“Biography for George Carlin,” 2011). His scripted monologues began to reveal his true cynical thoughts on a multitude of topics, including politics, modern-day America, religion, the English language, death, and hypocrisy, to name a few. He used an excess of profanity in his acts, and would often talk about the things that everyone thinks but no one says. He was the first host of Saturday Night Live in 1975, starred in HBO Comedy Specials, published books, and starred in television shows and movies. He had a history of heart complications and died on June 22, 2008 of heart failure (“George Carlin,” 2011).

Trait -Skill Approach

After hearing a single act of his stand- up comedy, it’s easy to gain a clear sense of how George Carlin is characterized as a person in addition to how he perceives the world. He can be described using many different adjectives, including critical, cynical, blunt, crass, and honest, and because of these characteristics, he can further be described as absolutely hilarious. Carlin embodies many of the facets that the Trait-Skill Approach to Psychology comprises of.

Gordon Allport, a trait and skill psychologist, said that there are traits that can describe individuals on a broad spectrum, called “central dispositions.” He also said that there is one specific trait that defines a person, called the “cardinal disposition” (Friedman, 2009, p. 266). The cardinal disposition is the one that dominates and shapes a person’s behavior, or in Allport’s terms, the person’s ruling passions of life. Allport might say that Carlin’s cardinal disposition is his drive to question and criticize mankind. As can be seen through any of his comic acts, interviews, and books, Carlin loves to highlight the flaws in modern-day America, including his thoughts on politics, religion, America’s obsession with fame and celebrity, and fast-food diet (“George Carlin,” 2011). He thrives off of the downfall of others, and has “given up on his species.” When commenting on his book, “Fuck Hope,” he stated, “My interest in issues is merely to point out how badly we’re doing, not to suggest a way we might do better. Don’t confuse me with those who claim to hope. I enjoy describing how things are, I have no interest in how they ought to be, and I certainly have no interest in fixing them. I sincerely believe that if you think there’s a solution, you’re part of the problem. My motto? Fuck hope. I view my species with a combination of wonder and pity, and I root for its destruction” (MaggieThatcher, 2007). His drive to criticize the flaws of mankind and society have even inspired him to write this book. I’d say that it is this cardinal disposition that defines Carlin.

The Big Five Personality Theory is a contemporary model that encompasses most of the spectrum of human personality. The five major personality traits within this model include Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness (Huntington, 2011). Extroversion is a measure of how enthusiastic or dominant a person is (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Carlin would be high in extroversion, given the nature of his occupation—a stand-up comedian. We can clearly see that he is a very talkative person, and he is very enthusiastic and energetic about whatever it is that he is saying. Agreeableness is another dimension of the Big Five. Agreeable people are considered to be cooperative, warm, and pleasant (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Carlin seems to have low agreeableness, because he would not be considered a “warm” or “cooperative” person. Whatever Carlin has his mind set on is the only thing that he deems important. He can come across as a grumpy old man, especially in his later stand-up acts. In his act entitled, “People are Boring,” he proudly states, “I like people… but I like them in short bursts. I don’t like people for extended periods of time. I’m alright with them for a little while, but once you get up past around a minute/ minute and a half, I gotta get the fuck outta there” (Andyp1986, 2008). Conscientiousness is another dimension of the Big Five. Conscientious people tend to be cautious and lack impulsivity (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Carlin would not be considered to be conscientious at all, as the things he says are unfiltered, in a sense. He holds nothing back and doesn’t care what people think. Neuroticism is defined by how nervous, moody, or emotionally instable a person is (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Carlin might fall somewhere in the middle on this dimension—he is far from nervous or high-strung, as we can see through his sheer confidence and pride in everything that he says. However, he can be interpreted as “moody,” specifically after listening to the things that he rants about, but essentially his rants are all part of how confident he is. In one of his skits entitled “We Like War,” Carlin rants about how we, as Americans, like war because we’re good at it. He notes that the country is only 200 years old and we’ve had 10 major wars. He babbles, “We like war ‘cause we’re good at it, and it’s a good thing we are, cause we’re not good at anything else anymore! Can’t build a decent car, can’t make a TV set or a VCR worth a fuck!” (Danielada2003, 2007). The topics and subjects that Carlin enjoys ripping on can make him seem like a moody person, when in reality, his cynicism and negative attitude are what people love about him. Openness defines a person in how open to culture and experience they are. Open people are considerably more witty and original than those who are not open (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Carlin would be considered high in openness. As can be seen by listening to the topics he chooses to speak of and the crass way in which he delivers his thoughts, Carlin is a true original and is far from plain or simple.

According to Henry Murray, a different Trait-Skill psychologist, people have four different types of motives that drive their actions. These motives include the Need for Achievement, the Need for Affiliation, the Need for Power, and the Need for Exhibition (Huntington, 2011).Carlin seems to be motivated by the Need for Exhibition. People high on this need want to entertain, excite, or even shock others (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Carlin has said many times that his purpose for existence was entertainment. “I have always been willing to put myself at great personal risk for the sake of entertainment” (“George Carlin,” 2011). Carlin also embodies what is called “Expressive Style.” Allport believed that a lot could be told about one’s personality by paying attention to their vocal characteristics, facial expressions, and body movements (Huntington, 2011). Expressive people tend to be seen as charismatic and attractive, and extroversion and dominance are related to expressiveness as well. Carlin captures the expressive style perfectly. A major aspect of stand-up comedy is how the acts are delivered. By listening to the various different inflections, tones, and volume changes that he uses in his acts, it can be assumed that Carlin is confident, dominant, and expressive. There’s never a dull moment, and he’s always changing his delivery. By watching Carlin, it’s clear to see that he’s physically expressive as well. He adjusts his facial expressions according to what he’s saying, he’ll enact different personas when he’s trying to impersonate someone, and he’s very animated and exuberant the whole time he performs.

Cognitive Approach

George Carlin also falls under many of the facets that the Cognitive Approach entails. Julian Rotter’s Locus of Control Approach, which regards beliefs about one’s ability to affect outcomes, includes two opposing spectrums—the internal locus of control and the external locus of control. People who have an external locus of control believe that events are beyond their personal control, while people who have an internal locus of control believe that outcomes are the results of one’s one actions (Huntington, 2011). Carlin most definitely has an internal locus of control, as he proudly and profoundly rejects the idea of God and organized religion. He completely denounces the idea of God, saying that the Bible is “make-believe, and kid’s stuff” (Rgbda, 2007). In his skit entitled, “Religion is Bullshit,” he says, “Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of the day” (Rgbda, 2007). In this skit, he mocks and ridicules people who assign their faith to a higher being, which tells us that he is in full belief that we are in control of all outcomes.

Carlin also embodies George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory. This theory states that people actively endeavor to understand the world and construct their own theories about human behavior” (Huntington, 2011). It seems as though in all of Carlin’s skits, he is actively trying to understand people and why they act the way that they do and say the things they say. In his act entitled “Everyday Expressions,” he questions several sayings and expressions that we use in everyday language and wonders where they came from and how they make any sense in common terms. He questions the phrase, “selling like hotcakes,” in which he comically asks, “Is this really the fastest selling item we could think of? Selling like hotcakes. Go to a diner—a lot more people are ordering eggs than are ordering hotcakes—but it doesn’t sound right, does it. ‘Michael Jackson’s new album is selling like eggs.’” It seems to be in Carlin’s nature to be skeptical of things and to ask questions about every-day habits and behaviors. His outward sarcasm and cynicism seem to merely be his desire to understand human actions.


Though so much of the way Carlin feels about things is already made known to us through his comedic performances, the Trait-Skill Approach and the Cognitive Approach help us to further understand the type of person George Carlin is. Through Allport’s concept of dispositions, we are able to understand how a cardinal disposition, though it be only one trait, can shape a person’s entire character. We are able to see that this cardinal disposition further results in Carlin having the need for exhibition as well as embodying an expressive style. Rotter’s Locus of Control theory can suggest that the reason Carlin feels the way he does about religion and God is because he believes that only he himself can control future outcomes, and that every-day happenings are not in the hands of some higher being. Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory can shed light onto why Carlin is so skeptical and inquisitive about the ways in which we act, as he himself is trying to construct his own theory about human behavior.

George Carlin is truly one of a kind. He has made himself known to us by always pushing the limits of what comedy could be. He practically defines the term “edgy.” He is able to blend comedy and satire, and our laughter arises from his endless cynicism and skepticism. Despite the fact that he has self-professed his hate for mankind, he can still manage to keep mankind laughing out loud from the start of his career until his death. Though he completely tears the idea of God and organized religion into shreds, I, a devout Catholic, laugh until I cry when I listen to his “Religion is Bullshit” skit. I am partial to his sheer confidence, and I love how he simply does not care what people think and is never afraid to say what he wants—however critical, offensive, or degrading it might be.

I hope you enjoyed reading a bit about my favorite comedian.

"Thank you very much, whatever that was. I hope it was positive; if not, well, blow me." - George Carlin


Andyp1986. (2008, April 16). George Carlin – People are Boring” [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyWsFfd9pqE.

Biography for George Carlin. (2011). Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0137506/bio

DanielAda2003. (2007, October 8). George Carlin—We Like War [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDkhzHQO7jY

DoctrDave. (2009, July 4). George Carlin- "Everyday Expressions" [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHhYLJMi7CE.

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George Carlin. (2011). Retrieved April 20 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Carlin

George Carlin Biography. (2011). Retrieved April 20, 2011, from http://www.tvguide.com/celebrities/george-carlin/bio/151541

Huntington, A. (2011). Chapter 7: Cognition [1, 2, 4,]. Retrieved from http://lms.uconn.edu/webct/

Huntington, A. (2011). Chapter 8: Trait and Skill [3, 4, 7, 8,]. Retrieved from http://lms.uconn.edu/webct/

MaggieThatchers. (2007, December 18). George Carlin- Fuck Hope [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4W9Cs6KPTus

Rgbda. (2007, March 18). George Carlin - Religion is bullshit [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?