Carlin: Most overrated comic ever?


First of all, Carlin would understand — on “Death and Dying” from On the Road, a late ’70s album, he mocks the way people forget all the bad stuff when someone dies.

Second of all, George Carlin’s 1972 Class Clown is one of the very few standup albums I’ve ever played over and over — Woody Allen’s Standup Comic, Richard Pryor’s That Nigger’s Crazy, Lenny Bruce’s Live at the Curran Theater, Bill Cosby’s Why Is There Air? and I’ve no doubt missed something as I haven’t pursued that phonographic genre like the music I love (note that they’re all 60s and early ’70s). It’s possible that Chris Rock has one (does he even make albums?), but probably not Margaret Cho, whose best moments have been visual (her evocation of the first time she ate pussy, say).

Third of all, “overrated” applies in the context where Carlin’s only peers are Bruce and Pryor. Of course, I suppose this is true. But mainly because most halfway decent standup beginning in the early 70s quickly took off from either Bruce’s meta-comedy, his word play or his shock value, but rarely all three, never mind fusing them with a coherent analysis. Carlin had a coherent analysis once, but by the mid 80s if he was still the boldest standup guy out there, never missing a chance to attack U.S. racist-imperialism abroad (his 1991 HBO special made a lot of his audience nervous and/or confused when he dismissed the Gulf War as one more case of us bombing brown people because they’re brown — which he distinguished from WWII, the last time we bombed white people, which because they were muscling in on our game) , it was in the context of an increasingly cranky and humorless misanthropy. When you spend a fair chunk of your time complaining about the annoying habits of the people around you in various settings, no matter how reasonable your arguments, it makes your more overt politics seem too damn abstract, i.e. why exactly does what the U.S.  or organized religion does bother you if you don’t like people to begin with? (Bill Maher also suffers from this contradiction, never mind Lewis Black.)

In a moment when the person who most widely gets the “maverick” label is a senator from Arizona who’s as cozy with lobbyists as all those who never bothered to profess to be in favor of campaign finance reform, it’s also worth noting how this iconoclastic performer has kept up with the times.  In 1970 he expressed his undoubtedly genuine frustration with the contrictions of the Johnny Carson world by losing the suit and growing the hair. By 1977, he’d cut the hair and was downplaying the politics. And in the ’80s, he softened the return to politics by riding the decade’s wave of insult & shock comedy. No doubt, part of his crankiness was a response to his concern that he was becoming something of an elder statesman. Most comedians aspire to prove that they’re not as frivolous as their funniest moments would have you think — they demand more dramatic roles, run benefit concerts, run for senate from Minnesota. So I have to give Carlin points for resisting the impulse to bask in admiration by playing a basically unlikeable “old fuck,” as he called himself on his final HBO special earlier this year. Also, he was just plain there. Rather than fearfully rationing his material like he didn’t know where his next joke was coming from,  resting entirely on his laurels, or retiring altogether, he still seemed vital (if hardly important) past 70, always notable. And through all this, some of his best moments came from the sort of observation wit/wordplay that made Jerry Seinfeld pay tribute to him in a NY Times op-ed piece this week. Probably the funniest moment I’ve heard in the hours of specials that HBO has re-aired this week was where he was comparing various states’ licence plate mottoes. As I predicted, on one end was New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die.”  On the other, Idaho’s “Famous Potatoes.”  Carlin noted: “My guess is that the truth lies somewhere in between.”

Well, it was funny the way he said it.




2 Responses to “Carlin: Most overrated comic ever?”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    I just heard a replay of interviews Carlin did with NPR’s Terry Gross in 1990 and 2004. They further raise my estimation of Carlin as a person and public figure. Public intellectual, even. But of course his most public face was as a comedian, and his rather intellectual and caring interview just makes me more annoyed that his comedic persona since the mid-’80s was so reflexively negative. And just not funny enough.

    Of course, contrast this with most rock and rollers, whose interviews make them seem a lot dumber than you’d hoped they were.

  2. 2 Greg

    Carlin is easily my favorite comedian, in comedy (in my eyes) he is a god. Few stand as equals (Pryor, obviously and people who don’t come of the top of my head as quickly as these two). The only reason I’d say Carlin is the best is because my whole life has always consisted of his jokes. Only 4 or 5 years ago (probably longer, I’m 15, I’m not to open with stand up) can I remember hearing a whole show of his. Since his death, and luckily with the help of HBO I have seen hours upon hours of repeated, new and the same material of his shows. Almost ever joke and minute of each seem to be quite memorable. I can only remember 1 show where I wasn’t laughing through out and that was one of his last (one of the two where the premise was complaints.) I can only doubt that someone will ever take Carlin and Pryor stance as comedic gods (although it sounds like I gotta check into Lenny Bruce.)

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