Thursday, February 21, 2013

George Carlin is Still Dead, and Still the Funniest Man in America

The late, great George Carlin
Last night, while watching a stand-up comedy routine on Comedy Central, I noticed something strange and revealing: I wasn't laughing. A few smiles here, a few snickers there, but no real laughter. Not from the gut. At that moment I realized something that I guess I've subconsciously known for quite a while: stand-up comedy is dead.

Yes, the golden days of stand-up are history. It's pretty slim pickings these days. Sure, there are a few comedians out there who still can raise the roof. But for the most part, it's all over. Do you remember the last time you watched a comedian who made you laugh so hard you cried and could hardly breathe? 

The unofficial end of stand-up really came five years ago. That's when George Carlin died. America's greatest stand-up comedian, ever, Carlin's demise left a huge comedy void that will likely never be filled. Ah, George. We need you now more than ever.

I may be a bit biased when it comes to Carlin. He and I have a history, of sorts. I first met him at the impressionable age of 13. During our five-minute conversation, which took place backstage in Las Vegas, he asked me all about my family, friends, and school, and when I made a joke about one of my teachers, he retraced for me some of his hilarious steps through catholic school which he had made famous on his legendary Class Clown record. 

Kind and sincere, Carlin didn’t seem at all put off by the fact that this little kid wouldn’t let him leave. He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say; it was a conversation, not just an autograph moment. We connected. It may have helped that I recited for him a few of his own routines, verbatim, including his famous “hair” poem (I'm aware some stare at my hair, in fact, to be fair, some really despair of my hair....).
Carlin was visibly pleased that I knew his poem by heart. Frankly, I knew it better than anything from my 8th grade English book, which should tell you something about how I was doing in school at the time. When we parted, Carlin smiled at me warmly, looked me in the eye and said, “Go kick the world in the ass, Jamie.” It’s the best advice I ever got during my shaky junior high years or, really, ever. And I still try to live up to it.

I can’t say Carlin and I became friends after that brief encounter, but when I became a journalist, first in college, I interviewed him every chance I could and we established a nice rapport. I reminded him each time we chatted of our first meeting behind that stage at the Las Vegas Hilton in the 1970’s. He assured me each time that he remembered the meeting with “the smart, long-haired little blonde kid.”

Carlin’s public persona, especially as he aged and his material darkened and became increasingly subversive, was that of an angry, alienated, solitary man. But I never found him to be any of those things. He wore the weight of the world’s bullshit on his shoulders, yes, and was disgusted with the hypocrisies, absurdities, and cruelties of life. But there was a kindness within him that some of his fans may have been unable or unwilling to see. And his anger was entirely justified. He was mad as hell but for all the right reasons. If pure anger is ever righteous, his was.

There was simply no filter for George Carlin, in or out. When he saw someone acting like an asshole, there was no internal machinery that prevented him from just saying, out loud, “you’re an asshole.” He was out there, to be sure, perpetually dangling on some of society’s thinnest limbs as he railed against religion, big business, feminists, golfers, politicians, environmentalists, animal lovers, kids, grandparents, clergy, celebrities, political correctness, America, and so much more. He exposed all the world’s countless delusions in his inimitably smart yet hilarious way. 

Sizing up virtually everyone and everything in the insane asylum that is our popular culture, he was an equal opportunity blaster who did not belong to any clubs or tribes. He even railed against people who rail against people.

Carlin bemoaned the misery and meanness of the world, but within his own little universe he was actually a relatively happy and sweet man, a loving husband and father who for the most part had his shit together. He did not hate for hate’s sake. He wasn’t just about ranting and rage. He was equally fascinated with and bemused by life’s banalities as he was the big-ticket stuff. 

His love for the curious and confounding minutiae of our language, for example, and his propensity for pure goofiness and silliness all demonstrated a slightly twisted but enduring sort of joi de vivre that I suspect kept him from going totally bonkers as he explored the darkest corners of the human condition.

In one-on-one conversations, Carlin was neither pissed off nor mean-spirited. He was gracious, engaging, even hopeful. And that sets him apart from so many of the comedians and social critics living and dead with whom he is so often compared. So many other comics who are filled with that fire – from Lenny Bruce to Sam Kinison to Carlos Mencia – have had a difficult time turning off the stove when they step off stage. They generally don’t have that inner joy. Carlin, one-on-one, was in many ways the opposite of the man he was under the lights. That’s what many people who knew him better than I say, too.

Carlin wasn’t a pushover, but he was kinder and gentler when he spoke with folks on an individual basis. This sounds paradoxical, but it isn’t. “I love people,” Carlin once said. “I hate groups. People are smart, groups are stupid."

There’s the rub. Even in his most pessimistic moments George still had hope for the individual. He rightly felt that people, individually, hold great promise, but that when they get together in groups of two, or 2 million, well, that’s when the shit starts hitting the fan.

Unlike many of my other childhood heroes, including professional athletes who more often than not disappoint when you meet them in person, Carlin’s status never diminished. He is one of my only true lifelong heroes besides my father. And the news of his death five years ago hit me hard. It was like losing a relative. The world just suddenly felt like a slightly lesser place, a place where fools, fakes, hypocrites and jerks are a little freer to celebrate and be their stupid selves. They surely celebrated his demise. And I still miss him.

There’ve been very few people in modern society – not just in the comedy world, but society at large - with Carlin’s courage, integrity and willingness to dissect bullshit at every turn. But more than all that, he was just so funny. As subjective as comedy is, it is nonetheless very safe to say that he was the funniest stand-up comedian of all time. Even Richard Pryor would defer, I’m sure.

Carlin's legend grows as the years go by. But in all the well-meaning tributes to Carlin since his death, journalists have focused understandably on his controversial side, his battles with censors and his infamous seven words you can’t say on television routine. For the uninitiated among you, they are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cock sucker, mother fucker, and tits

These are legit’ issues to ponder, of course, but what most writers always miss is that Carlin was not just a man obsessed with crossing societal boundaries. He had the mischievous but giddy soul of a child.

It was revealing that Carlin, who never stopped laughing at the idea of farting in church, would do such sweet, intimate things as share a swallow with his audience. He’d stick the microphone up against his throat and let the audience in on something so personal and seemingly innocuous and inane as the sound of a swallow. 

There was, along with all the fury, pure childlike joy in Carlin’s soul that seemed to belie his sometimes ferocious rants. The duality of George is the duality of us all - he just took it to both extremes whereas most of us stay a little closer to the center.

Talk all you want about Carlin’s brave, edgy material, but the ultimate litmus test for any comedian is of course much simpler. Did he make you laugh? No one ever made me laugh harder, and unbelievably he made me laugh consistently for more than 40 years, with smart, funny and new routines every year.

Carlin also loved his fellow comedians. He truly appreciated and respected his peers. Every time I interviewed him, we’d talk about other comics. His sad death created a comedy void that will never be filled, but there are a few other stand-ups out there who are doing their best to carry on his tradition. 

Is there anyone as adept at combining biting social commentary with truly funny and unique personal observations - being cynical and silly at the same time? No. Especially not that comic I saw tonight on cable. I won't name him. He probably already knows he sucks.

But there are comics who were influenced and inspired by Carlin who will carry on his tradition. The most obvious heir at present is Lewis Black, who I profiled a few years ago in San Diego Magazine. Black's righteous indignation and advanced bullshit radar capabilities are nods to Carlin, and, like George, Lewis sometimes betrays a bemused smile and caring heart beneath the hostility. Black’s angry man schtick works. He's great. But Carlin was funnier. 

There’s also Jon Stewart, who share’s Carlin’s cynicism and intelligence. Funny, clever and trenchant, and, like Carlin, likable, Stewart is a worthy heir, even though he doesn't do much stand-up any more. But Carlin was funnier.

Others capable of carrying on Carlin’s tradition include Bill Maher, who’s smart, and often funny, but more affected and takes himself a little more seriously than Carlin ever did and who can be off-puttingly snide and pretentious. There’s Steven Wright, whose deadpan, bizarro observations are funny and inventive but not necessarily topical or as consistent. And there’s Chris Rock, a gifted comic who combines justified anger with general observations about life and adulthood, but doesn’t quite reach Carlin’s level of insight.

Carlin was the greatest comic we had. He had no equal. And throughout his career he retained a populist likability that disarmed even his most scathing routines. There was no pretense in George, no arrogance. Just honesty. And even when you combine the talents of all these comics mentioned above, they do not measure up to the rare talent of one George Carlin. There’ll never be another comedian, or person, like him. 

He transcended the comedy world. He was in fact our most trusted and reliable social critic. And that short but meaningful conversation I had with him when I was 13 is one of the treasured moments of my life. I still miss George Carlin greatly, and probably always will. He kicked the world in the ass.


  1. I completely enjoyed reading ... Thank you!

  2. I completely agree with George still being the funniest. I smile every time I hear his voice on Thomas & Friends (when my son watches an episode he's narrating).

  3. I thought I may be crazy for enjoying Goerge as I do, but you confirmed what I hope all along he was and always will be the real King of comedy.
    The HARC

    1. Thanks. I totally agree. You are definitely not crazy! :)

  4. I was just thinking of George and found this article. Very well written. He was the best and I still miss him.

  5. Thank you for this article it brought back so many memories. George was truly the king of comedy. My favorite bit of his, the comparison between baseball and football, still makes me laugh. The first time I heard it I laughed so had I had soda coming out of my nose. I miss him dearly and fear we may never see comedy at his level again.

  6. Great article...

  7. George Carlin may or may not be god.

    1. very possible that he is. it would explain a lot... :)

  8. Replies
    1. Both of you can fuck each other to death for all I care.

  9. GOD YES---WE NEED HIM NOW MORE THAN **EVER**. With the endless erosion of our constitutional rights by global corporations, oppression by own OWN government, increasingly meaningless jobs and lives--we need George to snap us out of our gloom AND LAUGH AT THE STUPIDITY OF THE LEADERS AND OUR IDIOTIC GREED DRIVEN CULTURE Now more then EVER.....he was the prototypical artist out on the fringe waay ahead of the pack pointing out the trees instead of the forest.......MISS you George!!!!

  10. Reading this article made me very happy. George Carlin was one of the primary people who influenced me to give standup comedy a try myself. I know I can't live up to him, but I can at least honor him.

    1. searching for "I miss George Carlin" brought me here.I keep looking for someoneone that can make me think out of the box but I keep going back to his old routienes that still made me laugh. Most of all he made me think, about religion,, country, wars and sports. [comparison of baseball to football] has a lot of truth it that.too much stuff about material things was right on,buy a bigger house so you can buy more stuff still makes me laugh. But most of all he made me think out of the box which influenced me till today. I miss George Carlin