NEW YORK » Before the dirty words came the classroom pranks. The petty theft of subway riders’ fedoras. The visions of sneaking into confessional and acting as de facto priest for a day.
George Carlin, the hell-raising comic who died in 2008 at 71, was once George Denis Patrick Carlin, the hell-raising child in Manhattan — a boy in a Catholic school on West 121st Street long before he famously declared: "I used to be Irish Catholic. Now I’m an American."
Carlin’s early work and childhood experiences have come under scrutiny in recent weeks, as a petition to rename a street after him in his Morningside Heights neighborhood has encountered opposition from members of his former parish and school. The comedian’s vulgarity and open disdain for the church, critics say, disqualify him as a worthy recipient of the honor and an appropriate role model for children.
"I don’t think we have to open their minds to the debasement of the English language and attacks on religion," said the Rev. Raymond Rafferty, the pastor at Corpus Christi Church, whose school and church Carlin attended through eighth grade. "His early comedy made mockery of Corpus Christi parish and its priests."
A closer look at Carlin’s work, though, suggests that the comedian’s view of his Manhattan upbringing was more nuanced. To be sure, portions of his 1972 album "Class Clown" poke fun at Corpus Christi ("It could have been any Catholic church, ‘Our Lady of Great Agony’…"), recount his youthful attempts to stump one priest ("Hey Father, if God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?") and heap praise on another who kept sermonizing to a minimum at confession ("You could see the line move, that’s how fast he was working").
Rafferty, who became familiar with the comedian as a priest in the New York archdiocese during the 1960s, said any slights were particularly egregious given Corpus Christi’s reputation as a more liberal parish than most.
"This is not someone who was oppressed," he said.
But Carlin did, at times, express appreciation for his Catholic education, remarking in 1995: "They gave me the tools to reject my faith. They taught me to question and think for myself and to believe in my instincts to such an extent that I just said, ‘This is a wonderful fairy tale they have going here, but it’s not for me."’
Furthermore, according to Carlin’s posthumously released memoir, "Last Words," much of the Corpus Christi population seemed to embrace his early work. When his mother became outraged at his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine, Carlin wrote, the nuns of Corpus Christi assuaged her concerns.
"What he’s saying is these words are part of the language anyway," the nuns told her, according to Carlin. "He’s trying to liberate us from the way we feel about these things."
Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, said he kept in contact with some of the nuns long after he left Corpus Christi. According to a classmate, Randy Jurgensen, 75, Carlin also acted as a sort of surreptitious godfather to the community after he became successful, covering bills for funerals, seeking care for a Morningside Heights resident who was paralyzed in military service and even flying another out to see his doctor in California.
"His roots are in that school and in that neighborhood," said Jurgensen, who recalled that the nuns always kept an eye on Carlin, no matter how big the class. "He never, ever forgot."
Shortly after her father’s death in 2008, Kelly Carlin said, she imagined a street being named for him as she scattered his ashes at a few choice locations around New York City: in Riverside Park, on Bleecker Street and along his old block on West 121st Street.
But Kelly Carlin, who lives in California, did not pursue the idea until she received a call during the summer from Kevin Bartini, a Morningside Heights resident and comedian who introduced the petition. (Decisions about renaming streets are ultimately made by the City Council.) The two have tried to persuade opponents that much of George Carlin’s comedy, insults and all, was meant as an homage to the city of his youth.
"Their school produced one of the most prolific not just comedians, but minds, of a lifetime," Bartini, 32, said of Corpus Christi. "His style wasn’t making fun of the neighborhood. It was embracing the neighborhood, the characters, the voices."
Of course, tales of Carlin’s exploits with neighborhood peers — smoking marijuana outside Grant’s Tomb, groping a girl in the school hallway in seventh grade, swiping dark fedoras from the heads of subway travelers on 116th Street — have contributed in rendering the comedian an unfit honoree, opponents to the street naming have said.
Still, in recent weeks, Rafferty may have provided the most striking tribute yet to Carlin’s influence. The priest was interviewed on television about his opposition to the petition and thought of a quote in which Carlin likened religion to, shall we say, the waste matter of a bull. Rafferty said he would have proudly used the line during the broadcast.
"But of course," the priest said, "you can’t say that word on television."