Television

The Right’s Long, Misguided Attempt to Claim Comedy’s Greatest Iconoclast for Themselves

George Carlin’s anti-authoritarian polemics go viral across the political spectrum, but where did he really stand?

George Carlin on stage in a black t-shirt.
George Carlin. George Carlin Estate/HBO

When the draft opinion for the Supreme Court’s upcoming reversal of Roe v Wade leaked last week, an unsurprising thing happened: people started sharing an old but prescient George Carlin routine. The clip, which comes from his 1996 HBO special Back in Town, is a pointed, furious evisceration of the hypocrisy, double-talk, and transparent bullshit of the anti-abortion movement. “These people aren’t pro-life,” Carlin fumes in his nine-minute rant. “They’re anti-woman. Simple as it gets … They believe a woman’s primary role is to function as a broodmare for the state.”

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The clip went viral, news sites aggregated it, and social media users lamented, not for the first time, the late comedian’s absence and the uncanny timelessness of his commentary. The re-emergence of Carlin’s routine, and the discourse that quickly built around it, would fit snugly rapid-fire montage that opens Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s new two-part HBO documentary film George Carlin’s American Dream. Because so many of Carlin’s observations about political parties, police brutality, and the nature of comedy are always being shared, the comedian W. Kamau Bell explains, “It feels like he’s still talking to us.”

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One of those clips is from Vulture comedy correspondent Jesse David Fox, who notes, “People on both sides are sharing George Carlin clips to make their point.” And that’s where it gets tricky, because Carlin’s words regularly go viral among both left- and right-wing audiences. “He called out both sides,” one screen-shot commenter notes, and “both sides” have repurposed his words to their own ends, particularly in the current, heated discourse about who is allowed to say what on the stand-up stage. (As the mantra tends to go, “George Carlin believed in FREEDOM of SPEECH not Political Correctness.”)

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So as we might expect from a pair of unapologetically progressive (and extremely online) directors like Apatow and Bonfiglio, American Dream serves a purpose beyond the expected aims of biographical documentary and show-business celebration. It also seeks to take back Carlin’s legacy—and to take his name out of the mouths of a political faction with whom he almost certainly wouldn’t want to be associated.

This, however, is where the conversation gets complicated. Carlin’s career was long and rich, spanning several epochs of mass cultural and political change. He took pains throughout to respond to  those shifts, not only to remain relevant and topical, but to be true to himself. Like his contemporary Richard Pryor—the only comedian whose legacy genuinely warrants comparison to his—Carlin shifted personas often throughout his 50 years in public life, molting one for the next, in constant pursuit of a clearer, truer comic voice.

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Carlin first found fame as a buttoned-up, crew-cutted 1960s comic, doing impersonations and commercial parodies on television variety shows and in upper-class nightclubs. “I was a victim of my success, and here’s what I was missing,” he later explained. “I was missing who I was.” He fancied himself an anti-authoritarian, but as the mores and morals of that decade shifted, he realized he entertaining the enemy. So he grew his beard long, grew his hair longer, shifted from business suits to dungarees, and transitioned his act accordingly—to counterculture comedy, with material on adult topics, using adult language.

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But he didn’t stop here. By the mid-1970s, the comedy scene he helped define was shifting into a Saturday Night Live-influenced era of anti-comedy (Steve Martin), wild improvisation (Second City), and gross-out humor (Cheech & Chong). Carlin bided his time on goofy variety specials and whitebread talk shows, insisting, “You can’t be the hot new guy in town forever,” but as Patton Oswalt explains, “He was kinda in the wilderness … it sounded like someone doing a parody of George Carlin.”

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So the idea of “George Carlin” changed again. Inspired by the Reagan years and what he called its “ascendency of ignorance,” Carlin pivoted from an act that had become almost entirely observational musings and linguistic analysis into one of fierce and furious cultural commentary. That’s the George Carlin we remember now, the one who has truly stood the test of time and retained his cultural relevance. “Do you try to make people think?” he said at the time. “I say no, no no. That would be the kiss of death. What I want to do is let them know I’m thinking.”

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What Carlin was thinking about were the fundamental lies of American democracy, our predilection for war and conflict, the homogeneity of media. He was talking about income inequality, conspicuous consumption, police brutality, toxic masculinity, the desperation of the patriarchy, and the free-floating hopelessness that has become part and parcel of American life. And he was talking about them at a time when they were, to put it mildly, not hot topics of the stand-up stage—or on the form’s most prominent platform, the hour-long HBO special.

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That truth, while important, is established history—the conventional comic wisdom regarding the arc of Carlin’s career. What’s less established, and thus so brilliant about American Dream, is how Apatow and Bonfiglio draw the line, with crystalline clarity, from Carlin’s personal evolution to the current, choppy waters of comedy itself. No small number of “anti-woke” comedians (and their boosters) have used, as justification for their worldview, Carlin’s comments about how nothing in comedy should be off-limits, and that view is acknowledged here. “The line exists,” we hear him explain, “there will always be taboos, there will always be things that if you don’t handle them a certain way, people will reject you. But I always mean what I’m saying, and I just go for it.”

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As a result, not all of Carlin’s comedy has aged as well as, say, the abortion material. For years, conservatives have recirculated his 1992 routine “The Planet Is Fine,” a broadside against the “arrogant meddling” of environmentalism. It’s a tricky bit, which American Dream tackles head-on—approaching it, as he did, primarily as a piece of prose (penned at a moment when he was just beginning to think of himself as a writer), and one more rooted in the existential nihilism that would become more prevalent late in his career. To Apatow and Bonfiglio’s credit, they run the piece in full, not merely in the quick hits and buzzwords for which it’s often mined on social media.

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But there are other routines which are carefully sidestepped—and while it’s true one documentary can’t cover everything, it’s also hard to mount much of a contemporary defense of pieces like 1990’s “Feminist Blowjob” (“It does not take a lot of imagination to piss off a feminist—all you gotta do is run into NOW headquarters or Ms. Magazine and say, ‘Hey, which one of you cute little cupcakes wants to come home and cook me a nice meal and give me a blowjob!’”) or “They’re Only Words,” with its incantation of racial and sexual slurs and insistence that they’re “neutral” and dependent entirely on context and user—particularly his cringe-worthy dismissal of the modest loaded slur of them all (“We don’t care when Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy say it. Why? Because we know they’re not racists. They’re n—s!”). And the less said about his 1992 riff on eating disorders (“Rich cunt, don’t wanna eat? Fuck her”), the better.

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Should George Carlin be “canceled,” in 2022, for material like this? Of course not—but it’s important context for understanding how his voice, and thinking, evolved over the course of his career, and why we risk exactly the kind of intellectual simple-mindedness he abhorred when we reduce him to a voice of any single political persuasion. In “Feminist Blowjob,” Carlin lodges a complaint that sounds not out of place in contemporary discourse. “There’s a lot of groups, a lot of institutions in this country, want to control your language, tell you what you can say and what you can’t say,” he says. “Political activists, anti-bias groups, special interest groups, are going to suggest the correct political vocabulary—the way you ought to be saying things.” He is, unsurprisingly, not in favor.  But there’s a wide gulf between Carlin’s righteous anti-authoritarianism and the snarling, pants-wetting petulance of today’s “free-speech warriors,” and their presumption that his opinion on how society labels marginalized people circa 1990 would’ve aligned precisely with theirs circa 2022 requires a careful (and, I would argue, not accidental) disregard for how his tone, philosophy, and worldview matured over the course of literally any other period of his life.

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So as much as we may marvel at the thoughtfulness and timeliness of a piece about abortion or police brutality (“Wow, this was 1990!”) we can also remember that few things on this earth shift as quickly as attitudes about what is and is not funny (“Wow, this was 1990”). The presumption of a continuing evolution is not just theoretical. Not long after the special that yielded both “Feminist Blowjob” and “They’re Only Words,” , Carlin made a guest appearance on Larry King Live that prompted another recent viral video, in which he states his preference for comedy that picks on “people in power” over “underdogs.” He’s talking about the sexist, homophobic, xenophobic riffs of Andrew Dice Clay, but the clip exploded because it’s so easy to imagine him talking about the anti-trans crusades of Dave Chappelle or Ricky Gervais.

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“Comedy is about the present and the now,” Patton Oswalt explains in George Carlin’s American Dream. “And then life changes, and you hopefully as a comedian change and evolve with it. But if you solidify and calcify and go, this is as far as I’m gonna go, and dammit I’m still gonna say these words, then you’re not engaging with the world anymore. You’re engaging with a certain moment in time you’ve decided to live in forever.” It’s one of the moments when the film most explicitly ties Carlin’s past with our comic present. The other comes near the end, a powerful montage that artfully stitches the comedian’s most pointed and timeless commentary of the past with searing images from the present, to further underscore how the more things change, the more they stay the same. (It is, admittedly, a pleasure to imagine how his conservative fans will react to his words approvingly accompanying Colin Kaepernick kneeling and B-roll of George Floyd protests.) The sequence is a big swing, and it lands like a haymaker—an appropriate tribute to Carlin’s legacy, and a final reminder of his cultural achievement. As a comedian and commentator, you can adjust to the times, respond to them, and become the kind of figure they make documentaries about. Or you can dig in, and become whatever it is that Dave Chappelle has become.

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