George Carlin was wise for a jester, and unpretentious for a philosopher.
While not his original plan, the stage is where the New York boy made his cultural fortune. Yes, Carlin had a partner in the beginning, but they split. He guest-hosted the Tonight Show more than a few times, but never landed his own TV desk. He did movies because Danny Kaye did movies, but none (besides a supporting role in the Bill & Ted flicks) really made an impact. Sitcoms held his name, but neither held on for more than a year or two. There were the books, notable radio and interview appearances, and even a voice gig along the way – but at the end of the day, the love story was between Carlin and a never-ending parade of microphones. After stand-up, everything else simply became an afterthought.
For many, George Carlin is stand-up. So it's only natural that he'd become one of the art form's most transformative voices — a grand master. Now, Carlin has a set worthy of his pioneering journey: MPI Home Video's monster 10-disc retrospective Commemorative Collection, featuring his 14 HBO specials from 1977 to 2008, a recently uncovered CD and heaps of never before released bonus content not release (or in some cases even seen) in decades.
The arc of Carlin, and his various creative eras are pretty well known. He would re-invent himself from a starched white collared comic of the Camelot era, making frequent appearances on Ed Sullivan and a myriad of short-lived summer series (a few of which make it to the bonus features discs of the set). His early material was worlds apart in some regards — pop-culture drenched and making full use of the joker’s gift for impressions (Carlin does a spot-on Mort Sahl and a broad strokes JFK) – but in other ways familiar, full of verbal dexterity and often aimed at subtly jabbing those in positions of power. But network censors and the limits of imagination kept Carlin grounded. At times, it appeared that the forming counter-culture was already passing the amiable TV “square” by — until he elected to throw it all away.
In 1970, Carlin let his hair grow long and allowed the decade to alter his perspective – and his prospects. He traded his big contracts at the casinos of Vegas for packed coffee houses along the California coast that were offering him a simple (but sizable) cut of the door. This culminated on vinyl with the back-to-back releases of FM & AM and Class Clown in 1972, and a whole new type of Carlin follower was formed. No longer a familiar (and passive) figure on television, Carlin now came to YOUR college and intended to goof about in person. All the bits were looser and hey, if you’re willing, you could even toss a few joints on the stage to show your appreciation (which happened with frequency).
The records continued near annually as the '70s wore on, and the comic picked up good habits (full touring calendar, connecting with the young folks who would become life-long devotees) and a few bad ones (Carlin admits in an interview that between the aforementioned Clown in ‘72 and the next album, Occupation Foole in ‘73, cocaine had re-entered his equation in a major way). Lesser hits Toledo Window Box and An Evening with Wally Lando Featuring Bill Slaszo followed, with the former being Carlin’s final gold record. He was creatively re-vitalized but even still, hitting walls and ceilings in his current routine.
Of note during this transition, Carlin recorded his only network special, The Real George Carlin (1973), which is thankfully included (and released for the first time on disc) in the Commemorative Collection. Featuring bits about growing up in New York, the material is neither profane nor squeaky clean – but has a slice of life element obviously lacking in the cuddly Carlin of the '60s. There’s a gold star moment of longhaired George mocking a cardboard cutout of the suit and tie version, and so take-em-or-leave-them musical appearances by BB King and Kris Kristofferson. Certainly, worth a modern glance.
At 40, when Carlin recorded his first concert film in 1977 for “Home Box Office”, he was already coming off the high of that blossomed second act renaissance. While the pay cabler did offer a bit of that necessary green (not the type being thrown onstage), they primarily offered the freedom not to return to the tight-fitting blazer of late nights on the big three. Instead, their tape captured Carlin as he was in performance: profane, interactive and ad-libbing with his crowd. By and large, the George Carlin arc depicted on MPI’s Collection starts here.
Despite HBO’s modern reputation for no-holds-barred content, the 85-minute On Location with George Carlin, is more trepidatious than later Carlin offerings: it makes use of a timely introduction, done by Newsweek columnist Shana Alexander, about the conflict leading to Carlin’s decision to record an unmodified act for the small screen. “Some would say that tonight’s language is really strong, others would say it goes beyond this and would find it vulgar,” Alexander explains, before adding, “Aristophanes, Chaucer and Shakespeare were vulgar at time too.” Before the issue made it to the Supreme Court in 1978 as FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, Alexander informs us of Carlin’s victory at an the Federal Court of Appeals that has given HBO the right to distribute the unadulterated (and updated) “Seven Dirty Words” bit for the first time on television.
The first two specials (On Location, ’77 and George Carlin Again! In ’78) blend together more smoothly as far as content and style, compared to the other 12 HBO hours in the compendium (for the record, the set includes 8 DVDs, 1 Blu-Ray disc and the recently uncovered posthumously released CD, I Kinda Like It When A Lot Of People Die). Physically, Carlin looks of the period with his flowing brown locks, full beard and fitted polo shirt. He’s agile and wiry, with an energy one can only imagine on the audio only recordings. His material is more scattershot, with an emphasis on the micro-issues of “Supermarkets” and “Cats” intermingling with decidedly older school premises such as a string of jokes in the persona of a fake Newscaster and as his already well-known “hippy-dippy Weather Man,” Al Sleet.
Uniquely, the two specials both lead to the familiar Carlin ending of closing with slightly differing versions of the “ Seven Dirty (or ”Forbidden” or “Filthy”) Words.” Both performances run long at nearly an hour and a half, and the latter’s in-the-round space at The Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix has become rather iconic – but beyond this, these specials are marvels of looking backwards to the renaissance that happened for Carlin on vinyl, without paying too much focus on the future of his act. The best bits of the lot are likely both from Again! on the concepts of ‘Time” and “Death” – not a bad special title, actually.
Carlin’s journey on HBO lays dormant until 1982’s Carlin at Carnegie, followed by 1984’s Carlin on Campus, both of which see Carlin through a hair cut and a smattering of new bits - though, the majority of material is actually pilfered from Carlin’s final album-only release of A Place For My Stuff. These back-to-back middle-of-the-roaders find George in a transitional period; he opens Carnegie with an unusually candid story of his second heart attack (featuring some playful ribbing of friend Richard Pryor’s then-recent freebasing mishap). The location is highlighted in these hours, from the prestige that comes with playing Carnegie Hall, to the odd geometric shapes littering the UCLA stage. The comic also debuts several pieces that would later become standards of this middle phase, including the aforementioned “A Place For My Stuff,” dissecting the differences between “Baseball and Football,” and offering a one of a kind “Sports Cheer”.
A bit of a pit stop for the stand-up part of the set – and a real nice inclusion found on the bonus feature disc is Apt 2-C. This declined HBO pilot written by and starring Carlin as himself is indeed an oddball mélange of half-formed ideas, but also a bit revolutionary for the time. Playing essentially himself (or at least a New York writer named George), Carlin plays host to a never-ending parade of wacky building mates popping in and out of his apartment in desperate need of sage advice and dry wisecracks. Featuring young comics Blake Clark (Home Improvement), Lucy Webb (Not Necessarily The News), and Bobcat Goldthwait – the show is a misfire, but a highly entertaining one. Remember: this is still five years before Jerry Seinfeld played a stand-up comic on NBC, still two years before Garry Shandling was breaking the 4th wall with his own name on Showtime.
It has a sketch component too, beating Pee Wee’s Playhouse to the punch by using George’s “TV Time” as an opportunity to the let the stand-up play characters - example: Jesus Christ on a book tour in a half-baked sketch. If the execution was lacking, the inventiveness was certainly ahead of its time and may have indeed been HBO’s first hit sitcom had it been green lit. Alas, at least now it lives on as a preserved footnote of what could have been.
Nevertheless, this second act of Carlin the stand-up closes with his fifth special for HBO, 1986’s Playing With Your Head. While the product technically runs a full hour, nearly nine of those minutes are dedicated to “The Letter,” an extended (and frustratingly unrelated) short film featuring the now graying Carlin as Private Eye Mike Holder in a serviceable send up of noir-styled detective stories. Despite featuring a cameo from Victor Tayback, this short is a dud, likely here to cover a short show – a device implemented in Campus earlier, when Carlin donned a habit to be a piano-playing nun.
While Carlin's Head broaches topical issues like the rise of STDs and the revitalized need for a separation of Church and State under Reagan – much of this era feels like a throwback to now very distant days. Carlin is straddling between his Class Clown time and his darker future, trying to stay relevant and at times. It feels forced. Sadly, cartoon reinterpretations of his Newsman one-liners and further updates like “An Incomplete List of Impolite Words” aren’t gonna cut it.
Thankfully, Carlin has been down this road before. He outgrew his clean-shaved button down in the late '60s, and in the mid '80s, he had (mostly) outgrown the long-haired rebellion of the fading hippie-era counter culture. It was time to re-access how the world looked, and a darker vision was on the horizon. He was trading in a bit of his idealism for a more cynical approach. Perhaps to him it was not cynical, but pragmatic.
Either way, the rock-n-roll entrance onto a chain-linked, graffiti tagged Union City stage was a stark departure from the light-hearted whimsy of past specials. 1988’s What Am I Doing In New Jersey isn’t a fully different Carlin yet – there’s still more low-key bits on driving – but the audience of raving, rowdy young people really thrill at the broadside attacks on dubious Regan appointees, white collar criminals, “the war on street crime,” a beefed up FCC and a country high on Christian values and “right to lifers.”
This is a Carlin pissed off about the way the culture is going and educating where necessary. There are still awkward one-off choices that still make this special feel transitional, like the awkward use of weatherman Lloyd Lindsay Young as his announcer, Carlin’s fashion flop of a giant baggy blue sweatshirt, to the “check ins” with how local bar Manny’s is enjoying the show (this is thankfully one of the last vestiges of attempting to integrate the hokey “framing device” with the stand-up itself). But undeniably, Old Man Carlin starts to furrow his brow and come into focus in, of all places, New Jersey.
By 1990, Carlin has essentially entered his final formation. With Doin’ It Again, we have a comedian fully in his element and looking the part. His gray beard shines against his simple black tee shirt, his “look” from now until his final show. There’s a clever opener that maps George’s predilection for going out in front of strangers and telling jokes with a lewd act that is effective (and mercifully short). Then, we’re in for a powerhouse 57 minutes of material ranging from the George HW Bush administration to shallow feminism among white middle class women, a dog named Tippy and Eskimo rapists.
Nothing demonstrates the change in Carlin’s attitude than the way his voice has settled by 1990 into a low register snarl. What for years was light, airy and fungible has settled into what was previously an act-out voice: the gruff persona he gave to the rough-and-tumbles he grew up with in New York. (Go back and watch the “7 Dirty Words” in George Carlin Again – you can hear the comedian’s future voice only when he utters the word “suggestive”) His audience call and response about the joy he feels that no one trusts the water supply anymore is a far cry from his bygone hapless musings, it is rooting for the devolution of society.
Whether or not this “new George” is fully authentic is to many still an open question – but regardless, the persona presented on stage is in-control and fearless. The audience hounds him to go farther into his joyful depravity, and cheers at all negative prognostications. It’s the relief of finally being offered a little bit of truth in advertising – it’s not a good deal, but at least you know where you stand.
No bit better exemplifies the marriage of Carlin’s clever past and his merciless future than his blistering ten minutes on “Euphemisms.” Tracing the American transitioning of direct language like ‘constipation’ and ‘shell shock’ to phrases completely buried under jargon, devolves into mouthfuls like ‘occasional irregularity’ and ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’ The observation get to the heart of the comedian’s gifts: not simply to note observations, hoping to stumble on familiar and relatable situations – but to guide audiences to less apparent truths and offer a motive.
With euphemistic language, Carlin lays his thesis bare: “Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins, its as simple as that.” Churning through examples and ratcheting up the severity, Carlin offers no catharsis (as has become a bit of the expectation in these modern times) – no great relief other than taking us to the euphemisms for death, the great equalizer. You may be powerless to stop the trend, but at least you can be aware to mock what affects us all. The run is a bit of a eulogy for language, a subject Carlin loves dearly, that is never truly topped by the writer/performer. It’s a defining piece that stands tall to this day, among his best – as is this stellar hour.
The comic returns in 1992 with Jammin' In New York, a favorite of both the performer and (it seems) Patton Oswalt, who writes liner notes for the set praising the closer “Save The Planet.” It is a natural sequel to Doin’ It Again – same black shirt, same billowing rage at powerful targets and just a few miles up the road at Madison Square Garden. Carlin’s targets range from the war in the Persian Gulf, the war on homelessness (another euphemism, Carlin preferred “house-lessness”), the arrogance of golf courses and the racist institutions that keep them quarantined, to the dire situation that humanity has found itself looking down the barrel of: a system in collapse. As Oswalt reasons, total entropy is a difficult premise to crack, but Carlin does his damnedest to get you to see it his way: root for the disaster!
As the '90s wear on, this becomes a bit of a banner for the gray master. Back in Town (1995) has a bit of a religious fixation, with the scandals of the Roman Catholic Church front and center. Plus, Carlin pairs the conversation about abortion’s pro-choice and pro-life wings, with the hypocrisy of those who rally behind the death penalty. 40 Years In Comedy (1997) is a bit of an odd gem – a special unavailable previously, and in many ways, it is just a preview show of what Carlin has cooked up for his 11th title, 1999’s You Are All Diseased. 40 Years does feature a young, pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart conducting a star-struck interview at the end of an hour full of highlight clips from past specials, and a working 25-minute set on advertising and his latest pup.
Diseased on the other hand, is a fully realized prospect that zeroes on Carlin disdain for the weaknesses he perceives in the American experience. He could do without germaphobes, helicopter parents, airport security (put a pin in that one) and Harley Davidson theme restaurants. “Euphemisms” is echoed positively with “Advertising Lullaby” and “American Bullshit” – again, an indictment on the way language is masked to dupe us. But Carlin reckons with his Catholic upbringing head-on with the revelation that “There Is No God” The comic prays to Joe Pesci instead.
Carlin’s next venture was set to record in the fall of 2001, and already had posters under the title: I
Kinda Like It When A Lot Of People Die. As you can guess, that title was quickly dropped, along with about nine minutes of Carlin’s closing material (“Uncle Dave” later reworked into “Coast to Coast Emergency on his next special, before a working print was released under the original titles, found as a bonus here on CD). The renamed 2001 special, the generic Complains and Grievances fills the material vacuum with fresh riffs on the terrorist attack in New York that includes scattershot observations like a special ops military operation made up of cheese-filled NFL fans called F.A.R.T. and a pro-Giuliani stump speech (“Put the Italian from Brooklyn in charge!”). The New York audience, eager to laugh and show support, prop up an uneven hour filled with less rage and more helping of the humor of grotesque: tumors, lip scum, toe scabs, oh my!
Finally, we get to the final two entrants in the Carlin canon: 2005’s Life Is Worth Losing,
and his final hour, It’s Bad For Ya (2008). Physically, Carlin appears small and pale, but the quality of his writing may be his strongest. Life If Worth Losing featuring the powerhouse “Modern Man” speech that zips along more as music than even as a single joke, soul-searching musings on suicide and other “Extreme Human Behaviors.” In an apocalyptic tone of a man who knows too much, Carlin spins beyond the initial dark premises into absurd fun houses of mock grief and seemingly real pathological delight.
The closer, It’s Bad For Ya, underlines the same paragraphs from before, deconstructing doubts about unalienable rights, the thoughtlessness of patriotism and the fallacy of self-esteem. The pitch-black underbelly Carlin revels in final struts across the stage belies a full metamorphosis hinted at throughout. There’s a joy in destruction and Carlin argues the best way to survive the human condition is to find zeal in the unraveling of the malicious and the innocent alike. Root against the house, so to speak. It is a hard pill to swallow, considering the goofy figure he once was.
There are those who will argue that the man you see in his final years was simply “playing a part" for our entertainment — a great satire of the ugly American, exaggerated beyond recognition merely to shine a light on how far culture has already fallen. To believe the performer holds nothing in common with the character we see on stage, well, that may be a bridge too far. Only he knows for sure. But I'll bet that Carlin would happily swear on a dozen bibles that his onstage rage WAS the truth, and nothing but, so help him God! Or, Joe Pesci.
The Carlin chronology presented by MPI on this collection is still incomplete - it lacks the earlier years captured only on albums, beyond a few selected clips presented on the final DVDs. Yet, it is an improvement over the premature (and now ironically titled) Carlin set, All My Stuff. The specials themselves are as valuable as the minute they were committed to tape — sign posts on the timeline of a very enviable and full career. There's immense rewatch value with Carlin's many layers bits and as George's daughter Kelly Carlin seems to have offered her stamp of approval to the collection — this set is essentially George's final statement.
And if so, those are seven words we can all live with.