Carlin was noted for his black humor as well as his thoughts on politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and various taboo subjects. Carlin and his "Seven Dirty Words" comedy routine were central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, in which a narrow 5–4 decision by the justices affirmed the government's power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves.
The first of his 14 stand-up comedy specials for HBO was filmed in 1977. In the 1990s and 2000s, Carlin's routines focused on the flaws in modern-day America. He often commented on contemporary political issues in the United States and satirized the excesses of American culture. His final HBO special, It's Bad for Ya, was filmed less than four months before his death.
Carlin placed second on the Comedy Central cable television network list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians, ahead of Lenny Bruce and behind Richard Pryor. He was a frequent performer and guest host on The Tonight Show during the three-decade Johnny Carson era, and hosted the first episode of Saturday Night Live.
Carlin was born in Manhattan, the second son of Mary Beary, a secretary, and Patrick Carlin, a national advertising manager for the New York Sun. Carlin was of Irish descent and was raised a Roman Catholic.
Carlin grew up on West 121st Street, in a neighborhood of Manhattan which he later said, in a stand-up routine, he and his friends called "White Harlem", because that sounded a lot tougher than its real name of Morningside Heights. He was raised by his mother, who left his father when Carlin was two months old. After three semesters, at the age of 15, Carlin involuntarily left Cardinal Hayes High School and briefly attended Bishop Dubois High School in Harlem. Carlin had a difficult relationship with his mother and often ran away from home. He later joined the United States Air Force and was trained as a radar technician. He was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana.
During this time he began working as a disc jockey on KJOE, a radio station based in the nearby city of Shreveport. He did not complete his Air Force enlistment. Labeled an "unproductive airman" by his superiors, Carlin was discharged on July 29, 1957.
In 1959, Carlin and Jack Burns began as a comedy team when both were working for radio station KXOL in Fort Worth, Texas. After successful performances at Fort Worth's beat coffeehouse, The Cellar, Burns and Carlin headed for California in February 1960 and stayed together for two years as a team before moving on to individual pursuits.
Within weeks of arriving in California in 1960, Burns and Carlin put together an audition tape and created The Wright Brothers, a morning show on KDAY in Hollywood. The comedy team worked there for three months, honing their material in beatnik coffeehouses at night. Years later when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Carlin requested that it be placed in front of the KDAY studios. Burns and Carlin recorded their only album, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight, in May 1960 at Cosmo Alley in Hollywood.
- The Indian Sergeant ("You wit' the beads... get outta line")
- Stupid disc jockeys ("Wonderful WINO...")—"The Beatles' latest record, when played backwards at slow speed, says 'Dummy! You're playing it backwards at slow speed!'"
- Al Sleet, the "hippie-dippie weatherman"—"Tonight's forecast: Dark. Continued dark throughout most of the evening, with some widely scattered light towards morning."
- Jon Carson—the "world never known, and never to be known"
During this period, Carlin became more popular as a frequent performer and guest host on The Tonight Show, initially with Jack Paar as host, then with Johnny Carson. Carlin became one of Carson's most frequent substitutes during the host's three-decade reign. Carlin was also cast in Away We Go, a 1967 comedy show. His material during his early career and his appearance, which consisted of suits and short-cropped hair, had been seen as "conventional", particularly when contrasted with his later anti-establishment material.
Carlin was present at Lenny Bruce's arrest for obscenity. As the police began attempting to detain members of the audience for questioning, they asked Carlin for his identification. Telling the police he did not believe in government-issued IDs, he was arrested and taken to jail with Bruce in the same vehicle.
Eventually, Carlin changed both his routines and his appearance. He lost some TV bookings by dressing strangely for a comedian of the time, wearing faded jeans and sporting long hair, a beard, and earrings at a time when clean-cut, well-dressed comedians were the norm. Using his own persona as a springboard for his new comedy, he was presented by Ed Sullivan in a performance of "The Hair Piece" and quickly regained his popularity as the public caught on to his sense of style.
|“||Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.||”|
—George Carlin, Class Clown, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"
In this period he also perfected what is perhaps his best-known routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television", recorded on Class Clown. Carlin was arrested on July 21, 1972, at Milwaukee's Summerfest and charged with violating obscenity laws after performing this routine. The case, which prompted Carlin to refer to the words for a time as "the Milwaukee Seven," was dismissed in December of that year; the judge declared that the language was indecent but Carlin had the freedom to say it as long as he caused no disturbance. In 1973, a man complained to the Federal Communications Commission after listening with his son to a similar routine, "Filthy Words", from Occupation: Foole, broadcast one afternoon over WBAI, a Pacifica Foundation FM radio station in New York City. Pacifica received a citation from the FCC that sought to fine the company for violating FCC regulations that prohibited broadcasting "obscene" material. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC action by a vote of 5 to 4, ruling that the routine was "indecent but not obscene" and that the FCC had authority to prohibit such broadcasts during hours when children were likely to be among the audience. (F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978). The court documents contain a complete transcript of the routine.)
The controversy only increased Carlin's fame. Carlin eventually expanded the dirty-words theme with a seemingly interminable end to a performance (ending with his voice fading out in one HBO version and accompanying the credits in the Carlin at Carnegie special for the 1982-83 season) and a set of 49 web pages organized by subject and embracing his "Incomplete List Of Impolite Words."
It was on-stage during a rendition of his Dirty Words routine that Carlin learned that his previous comedy album "FM & AM" had won the Grammy. Midway through the performance on the album "Occupation: Foole", he can be heard thanking someone for handing him a piece of paper. He then exclaims "Shit!" and proudly announces his win to the audience.
Carlin was the first-ever host of NBC's Saturday Night Live, on October 11, 1975. He also hosted SNL on November 10, 1984, and also appeared in sketches, whereas the first time he hosted he only performed stand-up and introduced the guest acts. The following season, 1976–77, Carlin also appeared regularly on CBS Television's Tony Orlando & Dawn variety series.
Carlin unexpectedly stopped performing regularly in 1976, when his career appeared to be at its height. For the next five years, he rarely appeared to perform stand-up, although it was at this time he began doing specials for HBO as part of its On Location series. His first two HBO specials aired in 1977 and 1978. It was later revealed that Carlin had suffered the first of three nonfatal heart attacks during this layoff period.
1980s and 1990s
In 1981, Carlin returned to the stage, releasing A Place For My Stuff and returning to HBO and New York City with the Carlin at Carnegie TV special, videotaped at Carnegie Hall and airing during the 1982-83 season. Carlin continued doing HBO specials every year or every other year over the following decade and a half. All of Carlin's albums from this time forward are from the HBO specials.
Carlin's acting career was primed with a major supporting role in the 1987 comedy hit Outrageous Fortune, starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long; it was his first notable screen role after a handful of previous guest roles on television series. Playing drifter Frank Madras, the role poked fun at the lingering effect of the 1960s counterculture. In 1989, he gained popularity with a new generation of teens when he was cast as Rufus, the time-traveling mentor of the titular characters in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and reprised his role in the film sequel Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey as well as the first season of the cartoon series. In 1991, he provided the narrative voice for the American version of the children's show Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, a role he continued until 1998. He played "Mr. Conductor" on the PBS children's show Shining Time Station, which featured Thomas the Tank Engine from 1991 to 1993, as well as the Shining Time Station TV specials in 1995 and Mr. Conductor's Thomas Tales in 1996. Also in 1991, Carlin had a major supporting role in the movie The Prince of Tides, which starred Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand.
Carlin began a weekly Fox sitcom, The George Carlin Show, in 1993, playing New York City taxicab driver George O'Grady. He quickly included a variation of the "seven words" in the plot. The show, created and written by The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, ran 27 episodes through December 1995.
In his final book, the posthumously published Last Words, Carlin said about The George Carlin Show: "I had a great time. I never laughed so much, so often, so hard as I did with cast members Alex Rocco, Chris Rich, Tony Starke. There was a very strange, very good sense of humor on that stage. The biggest problem, though, was that Sam Simon was a fucking horrible person to be around. Very, very funny, extremely bright and brilliant, but an unhappy person who treated other people poorly. I was incredibly happy when the show was canceled. I was frustrated that it had taken me away from my true work."
In 1997, his first hardcover book, Brain Droppings, was published and sold over 750,000 copies as of 2001. Carlin was honored at the 1997 Aspen Comedy Festival with a retrospective, George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy, hosted by Jon Stewart.
In 1999, Carlin played a supporting role as a satirical Roman Catholic cardinal in filmmaker Kevin Smith's movie Dogma. He worked with Smith again with a cameo appearance in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and later played an atypically serious role in Jersey Girl as the blue-collar father of Ben Affleck's character.
In December 2003, California U.S. Representative Doug Ose introduced a bill (H.R. 3687) to outlaw the broadcast of Carlin's "seven dirty words," including "compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms)." (The bill omits "tits," but includes "asshole", which was not part of Carlin's original routine.) This bill was never voted on. The last action on this bill was its referral to the House Judiciary Committee on the Constitution on January 15, 2004.
The following year, Carlin was fired from his headlining position at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, after an altercation with his audience. After a poorly received set filled with dark references to suicide bombings and beheadings, Carlin stated that he could not wait to get out of "this fucking hotel" and Las Vegas, claiming he wanted to go back east, "where the real people are." He continued to insult his audience, stating:
People who go to Las Vegas, you've got to question their fucking intellect to start with. Traveling hundreds and thousands of miles to essentially give your money to a large corporation is kind of fucking moronic. That's what I'm always getting here is these kind of fucking people with very limited intellects.An audience member shouted back that Carlin should "stop degrading us," at which point Carlin responded, "Thank you very much, whatever that was. I hope it was positive; if not, well, blow me." He was immediately fired by MGM Grand and soon after announced he would enter rehab for alcohol and prescription painkiller addiction.
For years, Carlin had performed regularly as a headliner in Las Vegas. He began a tour through the first half of 2006 following the airing of his thirteenth HBO Special on November 5, 2005, entitled Life is Worth Losing, which was shown live from the Beacon Theatre in New York City and in which he stated early on: "I've got 341 days of sobriety," referring to the rehab he entered after being fired from MGM. Topics covered included suicide, natural disasters (and the impulse to see them escalate in severity), cannibalism, genocide, human sacrifice, threats to civil liberties in America, and how an argument can be made that humans are inferior to animals.
On February 1, 2006, during his Life is Worth Losing set at the Tachi Palace Casino in Lemoore, California, Carlin mentioned to the crowd that he had been discharged from the hospital only six weeks previously for "heart failure" and "pneumonia", citing the appearance as his "first show back."
Carlin provided the voice of Fillmore, a character in the Disney/Pixar animated feature Cars, which opened in theaters on June 9, 2006. The character Fillmore, who is presented as an anti-establishment hippie, is a VW Microbus with a psychedelic paint job whose front license plate reads "51237," Carlin's birthday.
Carlin's last HBO stand-up special, It's Bad for Ya, aired live on March 1, 2008, from the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California. The themes that appeared in this HBO special included "American Bullshit," "Rights," "Death," "Old Age," and "Child Rearing." Carlin had been working on the new material for this HBO special for several months prior in concerts all over the country.
On June 18, 2008, four days before his death, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., announced that Carlin would be the 2008 honoree of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which was awarded on November 10, 2008. Carlin thus became the award's first posthumous recipient, a decision the Kennedy Center made after consulting with both Carlin's family and PBS (which aired the ceremony). The comedians who honored him at the ceremony included Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Lily Tomlin (a former Twain Humor Prize winner herself), Lewis Black, Denis Leary, Joan Rivers, and Margaret Cho.
In 1961, Carlin married Brenda Hosbrook (August 5, 1936 - May 11, 1997), whom he had met while touring the previous year. The couple's only child, a daughter named Kelly, was born in 1963. In 1971, George and Brenda renewed their wedding vows in Las Vegas. Brenda died of liver cancer a day before Carlin's sixtieth birthday, in 1997.
Carlin later married Sally Wade on June 24, 1998, and the marriage lasted until his death, two days before their tenth anniversary.
Although raised in the Roman Catholic faith (which he describes anecdotally on the albums FM & AM and Class Clown), Carlin often denounced the idea of a god and pointed out the flaws in any organized religion in interviews and performances, notably with his "Religion" and "There Is No God" routines as heard in You Are All Diseased. His views on religion are also mentioned in his last HBO stand up show "It's Bad for Ya" where he mocks the traditional swearing on the Bible as being "bullshit", "make believe", and "kids stuff". In "It's Bad for Ya", Carlin has a skit about the ironic differences in the types of hats religions ban or require as part of their practices. He mentions that he would never want to be a part of a group which requires or bans the wearing of hats.
Carlin also joked in his first book, Brain Droppings, that he worshiped the sun, one reason being that he could see it. This was later mentioned in You Are All Diseased along with the statement that he prayed to Joe Pesci (a good friend of his) because "he's a good actor," and "looks like a guy who can get things done!"
In his HBO special Complaints and Grievances, Carlin introduced the "Two Commandments", a revised "pocket-sized" list of the Ten Commandments ending with the additional commandment "Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself."
Carlin's material falls under one of three self-described categories: "the little world" (observational humor), "the big world" (social commentary), and the peculiarities of the English language (euphemisms, doublespeak, business jargon), all sharing the overall theme of (in his words) "humanity's bullshit," which might include murder, genocide, war, rape, corruption, religion and other aspects of human civilization. He was known for mixing observational humour with larger social commentary. His delivery frequently treated these subjects in a misanthropic and nihilistic fashion, such as in his statement during the Life is Worth Losing show:
I look at it this way... For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature: clear-cutting forests, strip-mining mountains, poisoning the atmosphere, over-fishing the oceans, polluting the rivers and lakes, destroying wetlands and aquifers... so when nature strikes back, and smacks him on the head and kicks him in the nuts, I enjoy that. I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. None. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it's natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse.
Language was a frequent focus of Carlin's work. Euphemisms that in his view seek to distort and lie and the use of language he felt was pompous, presumptuous, or silly were often the target of Carlin's routines. When asked on Inside the Actors Studio what turned him on, he responded, "Reading about language." When asked what made him most proud about his career, he said the number of his books that have been sold, close to a million copies.
Carlin also gave special attention to prominent topics in American and Western Culture, such as obsession with fame and celebrity, consumerism, Christianity, political alienation, corporate control, hypocrisy, child raising, fast food diet, news stations, self-help publications, patriotism, sexual taboos, certain uses of technology and surveillance, and the pro-life position, among many others.
Carlin openly communicated in his shows and in his interviews that his purpose for existence was entertainment, that he was "here for the show." He professed a hearty schadenfreude in watching the rich spectrum of humanity slowly self-destruct, in his estimation, of its own design, saying, "When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front-row seat." He acknowledged that this is a very selfish thing, especially since he included large human catastrophes as entertainment. In his You Are All Diseased concert, he elaborated somewhat on this, telling the audience, "I have always been willing to put myself at great personal risk for the sake of entertainment. And I've always been willing to put you at great personal risk, for the same reason!"
In the same interview, he recounted his experience of a California earthquake in the early 1970s, as "[a]n amusement park ride. Really, I mean it's such a wonderful thing to realize that you have absolutely no control, and to see the dresser move across the bedroom floor unassisted is just exciting."
A routine in Carlin's 1999 HBO special You Are All Diseased focusing on airport security leads up to the statement: "Take a fucking chance! Put a little fun in your life! Most Americans are soft and frightened and unimaginative and they don't realize there's such a thing as dangerous fun, and they certainly don't recognize a good show when they see one."
Along with wordplay and sex jokes, Carlin had always included politics as part of his material, but by the mid 1980s he had become a strident social critic in both his HBO specials and the book compilations of his material, bashing both conservatives and liberals alike. His HBO viewers got an especially sharp taste of this in his take on the Ronald Reagan administration during the 1988 special What Am I Doing In New Jersey?, broadcast live from the Park Theatre in Union City, New Jersey.
Death and tribute
On June 22, 2008, Carlin was admitted to Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, after experiencing chest pains. He died later that day at 5:55 p.m. of heart failure. Carlin was 71 years old. His death occurred one week after his last performance at The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and he had further shows on his itinerary. In accordance with his wishes, Carlin was cremated, with his ashes scattered, and no public or religious services of any kind were held. Two of the networks he performed on changed their schedule in tribute to Carlin. HBO devoted several hours to broadcast eleven of Carlin's fourteen HBO specials from June 25–28, 2008, including a twelve-hour marathon block on their HBO Comedy channel. Meanwhile, NBC scheduled a rerun of the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live which Carlin hosted.
Both Sirius Satellite Radio's "Raw Dog Comedy" and XM Satellite Radio's "XM Comedy" channels ran a memorial marathon of George Carlin recordings the day following his death. Another tribute was the "Doonesbury" comic strip on Sunday, July 27, 2008.
Louis C. K. dedicated his stand-up special Chewed Up to Carlin.
An episode of Larry King Live paid tribute to Carlin, featuring comics Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, Roseanne Barr and Lewis Black. Carlin's daughter and his brother were also interviewed by King. The next day, The New York Times published a tribute to Carlin written by Jerry Seinfeld.
An oral history, edited by Carlin's daughter, Kelly, was scheduled to be published in 2009. The book will contain stories from Carlin's friends and family and cover the considered high points of his career as well as the considered low, including his drug and alcohol addiction.
For a number of years prior to his death Carlin had been compiling and writing his autobiography, planning to release it in conjunction with a second, long-worked-on project, a one-man Broadway show tentatively titled New York City Boy, covering essentially the same topics. After his death his collaborator on the projects, Tony Hendra, edited the autobiography for release as Last Words (ISBN 1-4391-7295-1). The book covers Carlin's life up to around Life is Worth Losing, with the final chapter detailing future plans, including the planned one-man show. The book was released one year and four months after Carlin's death. The audio version of the book was read by George's brother Patrick and featured an interview with Tony Hendra and George's daughter, Kelly.
Collection of works
- 1963: Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight
- 1967: Take-Offs and Put-Ons
- 1972: FM & AM
- 1972: Class Clown
- 1973: Occupation: Foole
- 1974: Toledo Window Box
- 1975: An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo
- 1977: On the Road
- 1981: A Place for My Stuff
- 1984: Carlin on Campus
- 1986: Playin' with Your Head
- 1988: What Am I Doing In New Jersey?
- 1990: Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics
- 1992: Jammin' in New York
- 1996: Back in Town
- 1999: You Are All Diseased
- 2001: Complaints and Grievances
- 2006: Life Is Worth Losing
- 2008: It's Bad for Ya
- 1978: Indecent Exposure: Some of the Best of George Carlin
- 1984: The George Carlin Collection
- 1992: Classic Gold
- 1999: The Little David Years (1971-1977)
- 2002: George Carlin on Comedy
|1968||With Six You Get Eggroll|
|1989||Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure|
|1991||Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey|
|The Prince of Tides|
|2001||Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back|
|2003||Scary Movie 3|
|2005||Tarzan II (voice)|
|2007||Happily N'Ever After (voice)|
- The Kraft Summer Music Hall (1966)
- That Girl (Guest appearance) (1966)
- The Ed Sullivan Show (multiple appearances)
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (season 3 guest appearance) (1968)
- The Flip Wilson Show (writer, performer) (1971–1973)
- The Mike Douglas Show (Guest) (February 18, 1972)
- Saturday Night Live (Host, episodes 1 and 183) (1975 & 1984)
- Justin Case (as Justin Case) (1988) TV movie directed Blake Edwards
- Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (as American Narrator) (1991–1998)
- Shining Time Station (as Mr. Conductor) (1991–1993)
- The George Carlin Show (as George O'Grady) (1994) Fox
- Streets of Laredo (as Billy Williams) (1995)
- The Simpsons (as Munchie, episode 209) (1998)
- The Daily Show (guest on February 1, 1999; December 16, 1999; and March 10, 2004)
- MADtv (Guest appearance in episodes 518 & 524) (2000)
- Inside the Actors Studio (2004)
- In 1998, Carlin had a cameo playing one of the funeral-attending comedians in Jerry Seinfeld's HBO special I'm Telling You For The Last Time. In the funeral intro (the only thing being buried is Jerry Seinfeld's material) Carlin learns that neither friend Robert Klein nor Ed McMahon ever saw Jerry's act. Carlin did, and enjoyed it, but admits "I was full of drugs."
|On Location: George Carlin at USC||1977|
|George Carlin: Again!||1978|
|Carlin at Carnegie||1982|
|Carlin on Campus||1984|
|Playin' with Your Head||1986|
|What Am I Doing in New Jersey?||1988|
|Doin' It Again||1990|
|Jammin' in New York||1992|
|Back in Town||1996|
|George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy||1997|
|You Are All Diseased||1999|
|Complaints and Grievances||2001|
|Life Is Worth Losing||2005|
|All My Stuff||2007||
A boxset of Carlin's first 12 stand-up specials (excluding George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy).
|It's Bad for Ya||2008|
|Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help||1984||ISBN 0-89471-271-3|
|Brain Droppings||1997||ISBN 0-7868-8321-9|
|Napalm and Silly Putty||2001||ISBN 0-7868-8758-3|
|When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?||2004||ISBN 1-4013-0134-7|
|Three Times Carlin: An Orgy of George||2006||ISBN 978-1-4013-0243-6 A collection of the 3 previous titles.|
|Watch My Language||2009||Posthumous release|
|Last Words||2009||ISBN 1-4391-7295-1|
For several years before his death, Carlin had been working on a memoir, Last Words, in collaboration with writer Tony Hendra. Hendra secured permission from Carlin's family to go ahead with the book. It was published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press imprint on November 17, 2009.
- Brain Droppings
- Napalm and Silly Putty
- More Napalm & Silly Putty
- George Carlin Reads to You
- When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?
Since the birth of spam email on the internet, many chain-forwards, usually rantlike and with blunt statements of belief on political and social issues and attributed to being written (or stated) by George Carlin himself, have made continuous rounds on the junk email circuit. The website Snopes, an online resource that debunks historic and present urban legends and myths, has extensively covered these forgeries. Many of the falsely attributed email attachments have contained material that runs directly opposite to Carlin's viewpoints, with some being especially volatile toward racial groups, gays, women, the homeless, etc. Carlin himself, when he was made aware of each of these bogus emails, would debunk them on his own website, writing: "Nothing you see on the Internet is mine unless it comes from one of my albums, books, HBO specials, or appeared on my website," and that "it bothers me that some people might believe that I would be capable of writing some of this stuff."
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- Template:Title without disambig at the Internet Movie Database
- Rotten Library - George Carlin
- George Carlin Archive of American Television Interview
- George Carlin at Find a Grave
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