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The Complete Carlin

What you can learn from watching 800 minutes of George Carlin.

George Carlin
George Carlin

The future scholar of comedy who sets out to publish The Complete Works of George Carlin had better be prepared for a multimedia endeavor. A truly comprehensive collection of the comedian’s work would have to include his Grammy Award-winning albums, his best-selling books, and a transcript of his argument before the Supreme Court in defense of his immortal “Seven Words” routine. In the meantime, mourners of Carlin, who died of heart failure earlier this week, can make do with the recently released George Carlin: All My Stuff. The retrospective box set, weighing in at more than 800 minutes of material, is comprised of 12 HBO specials, beginning with a 1977 performance at USC and ending with 2005’s Life Is Worth Losing. Carlin’s assiduous touring schedule (he was sometimes on the road for nearly three-quarters of the calendar year) gave him a staging ground where he could hone his material. But it was the HBO specials that gave him a truly national audience and a chance to showcase his best stuff.

Carlin’s career spanned more than 40 years, remarkable longevity for a stand-up artist, and All My Stuff offers a window on how his routine adapted across the decades. Though the infamy of “Seven Words” may doom Carlin to be remembered as a blue comic, early in his career he pioneered a form of observational humor now often classified as Seinfeldian. At the USC show, he describes his vocation as sharing “little ideas that occur to me.” (“Why aren’t there any Chinese guys named Rusty?” he asks at one point in the performance.) In 1982’s At Carnegie Hall, Carlin discusses his craft in more philosophical terms—his expertise, he says, lies in “reminding you of things you already know but forgot to laugh at the first time they happened.” The bulk of the material in his early shows was concerned with such pedestrian acts as grocery shopping and, yes, walking. In one early performance, he constructs a bit around the phantom stair phenomenon, when we accidentally trick our legs into thinking a staircase has one more step than it actually does.

The stair bit works on an observational level because we have all experienced it. But Carlin also makes it work on a physical level, embellishing the joke through his wild gesticulations. Unlike Seinfeld, Carlin was also a gifted physical comic, and in his early performances, the influence of Carlin’s idols—Buster Keaton, Danny Kaye, the Marx Brothers—is particularly evident. He contorts his face into wrinkly malformations. He squats slightly and mimes masturbatory motions. He freezes onstage in strange postures, an American ambassador to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

Carlin lost a step or two over the years, but to his credit, the substance abuse and heart trouble that plagued him offstage never really managed to slow him down when he was on it. Physical comedy remained part of Carlin’s repertoire throughout his career, as did his special brand of scatological humor. He got almost 30 years of mileage out of examinations of the words cornhole and dingleberry. Yet over the years, Carlin’s routine evolved from a collection of whimsical, if often R-rated, observations into longer, more pointed set pieces, often on politically charged material. Take the evolution of his abortion rant. In the 1982 Carnegie Hall performance, he begins the night by asking: “Have you noticed that most of the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?” In ‘82, he leaves it at that, quickly moving on to other musings. Eight years later, the line has blossomed into a slightly longer treatment in What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Another eight years later, in 1996’s Back in Town, Carlin not only opens with abortion but meditates on it for nearly 10 minutes, poking holes in the logic of the pro-life cause: “If a fetus is a human being, how come the census doesn’t count them? If a fetus is a human being, how come when there’s a miscarriage they don’t have a funeral? If a fetus is a human being, how come people say ‘we have two children and one on the way’ instead of saying ‘we have three children?’ “

Whether he’s discussing misleading euphemisms, license plate mottos, or the sounds of foods he wouldn’t eat (yogurt, squash, wheat germ), a common thread in Carlin’s best material was his close attention to the uses and abuses of language. Occasionally, his linguistic observations can come off as pedantic, as when he takes issue with a box of cookies labeled “open here” by asking if the manufacturer really thought that the consumer might move to Hong Kong just to open the box. More often, however, he uncovers some nonsensical or lily-livered phrase in common use and attacks it mercilessly. The victims of Carlin’s linguistic sorties range from the inaccurate (“You don’t take a shit. You leave a shit.”) to the redundant (“Personal belongings. What other kinds of belongings are there?”) to the semantic (“If crime fighters fight crime, and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?”). Often, he will organize a series of such observations around a theme, as in this Philippic from Jammin’ in New York (1992),in which he deconstructs the mindless array of airport and airline announcements:

All My Stuff offers evidence of Carlin giving similarly withering treatment to lacrosse, New Jersey tollbooths, and the Reagan administration. Yet the institution he challenges with the greatest fervor over the course of these 12 specials is religion. Carlin attended parochial schools, though he says that he was only “Catholic until the age of reason.” The early specials don’t take on religion directly, yet the heavy burden of his upbringing can still be felt—such blasphemy and bombast could only come from the mind of an altar boy in apostasy. In the later HBO specials, Carlin takes on organized religion directly. In this bit, from 1999’s You Are All Diseased, he describes Judeo-Christian theology as “easily the greatest bullshit story ever told”:

Religion has actually convinced people that there is an invisible man, living in the sky, who watches everything you do, every minute of every day; and the invisible man has a special list of 10 things he does not want you to do; and if you do any of these 10 things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and HE NEEDS MONEY.

Carlin cites war, disease, hunger, poverty, crime, and the Ice Capades as proof that there is, in fact, no supreme being. Yet one of his favorite ways to lay bare the absurdities of organized religion is to invent his own esoteric systems of belief. In Jammin’ in New York, Carlin is a worshipper of something he calls “The Big Electron,” a nebulous entity that doesn’t punish, reward, or even judge—it just is. By 1999’s You Are All Diseased, he is a heliologist, a worshipper of the sun, though he submits his prayers directly to Joe Pesci. In 2005’s Life Is Worth Losing, he develops a Revelation-worthy vision of the end of the world. The rant at the end of this performance is perhaps the most impressive of Carlin’s diatribe-rich career, not for the sheer power of memorization it required (which is daunting), nor for Carlin’s use of the phrase “incendiary cyclonic macrosystem” (which is impossible to imagine coming out of the mouth of another comic), but for its utter bleakness. He describes an apocalypse that is part Stephen King, part Quentin Tarantino, and part George Romero. In the end, the world is consumed in a mighty conflagration. Only hedonistic New York, Carlin’s birthplace, is spared.

Despite his lack of faith, Carlin was rather upbeat when it came to the subject of death. “We’re all going to do it. It’s one of the few fair things in life. Everybody catches it once,” he says in George Carlin Again. Death, to Carlin, seemed like a pretty good deal—it brings instant popularity, lots of flowers, and the knowledge of where we actually go in the afterlife. In his final HBO special It’s Bad for Ya, which aired in March after All My Stuff had been pressed, Carlin warned that we need to be realistic about the hereafter. He certainly would not want us to think of him smiling down on us from the clouds. If we want to imagine where, precisely, George Carlin has gone, we’d do better to recall what he told us in a line from one of his first HBO specials, back in 1978: “I think when you die your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo.”