Stand-up comedy attracts the young, but it only suffers the bitter. Even the comics who seem well-adjusted harbor a bubbling hatred of their fellow man; it just so happens that it sometimes manifests itself in the smashing of watermelons or wisecracks from a woozle named Peanut. But there’s nothing anodyne in their efforts to amuse you. They’re doing it for your fleeting approval. And once the laughter’s dissipated, they’re back to lamenting your existence.
The important thing is to not take it personally: they feel the same way about their own existence. That’s why they’re stoned and/or drunk most of the time. One requires benumbment to consistently find the humor in human idiocy, especially when they’re complicit; otherwise, it’s 24/7 rage and lots of forfeited security deposits from the punched-through walls. No matter how deafening the laughter, this is a zero sum game; if the ridiculing of society’s foibles could beat a path toward collective enlightenment, George Carlin would’ve saved humanity decades ago.
But he didn’t. And now, at the hip-shattering age of seventy, he’s got no choice but to lambaste the species as an outsider (such has been his dour wont since the death of his wife, Brenda, in 1997). Carlin’s sunk below bitterness; he’s living in resignation. He swears that he’s content with severing his ties to the living, telling The Hollywood Reporter that “The divorce has resulted in personal growth. I believe it has also helped me to become better at my art.” It’s impossible to dispute the former, but the latter assessment is inarguably false when one compares the mirthlessness of his last three HBO specials – “You Are All Diseased”, “Complaints and Grievances” and “Life Is Worth Losing” – to the glory of “Occupation: Foole”, “Class Clown” or “Jammin’ in New York”. It’s the difference between a man who reveled in the fight versus a vandal who’d just as soon burn it all to the ground.
Most folks would give up on an artist after three straight disappointments, but Carlin demands loyalty; before the nightly, sanity-restoring palliative that is The Daily Show existed, the loose-limbed jester with the wild expressions was an ever-flashing beacon in the fog of conformity. Carlin wasn’t the first, or the best, anti-establishment comedian, but he remains the most accessible. Unlike Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce, one doesn’t have to place his routines in context for younger listeners (this datedness also afflicts the great Bill Hicks); and though his Catholic School material has been ripped off and repurposed by the brick-wall multitude, no one’s matched the smart-assed brilliance of his man-desperate-to-take-communion-at-sea bit (“But then he crosses the international dateline!”). Even the younger breed of comics working today will instantly cite Carlin (along with Pryor, Cosby and Hicks) as the reason they took up the microphone in the first place.
And if they were truly born to the profession, they’ll be blathering away on a stage when they’re seventy, too. But instead of seeking approval, they’ll likely be airing grievances and regrets as they make peace with their dimming existence. Or maybe each time on stage is just one more cherished opportunity to excoriate the rabble for dragging the world deeper into the morass. Carlin effortlessly does both in “It’s Bad for Ya”, his most honest hour of stand-up since “Jammin’ in New York”, and probably his funniest, though the laughs are all tinged with a little sadness. Carlin’s “divorce” from the species is for real, but, as with many failed marriages, there’s lingering affection for the bitch who ruined his life. Early in the set, Carlin does a bit on outliving his friends that stings more than it amuses; when he jokes about observing a six-week grace period before expunging the deceased from his address book, there’s genuine sentiment there. It adds weight to the next bit, where he irreverently skewers the cliched pleasantries exchanged in the wake of someone’s death (“If there’s anything I can do…”, “How ’bout coming over and painting the garage?”).
“It’s Bad for You” is far from a flawless hour. Carlin’s need to desecrate sacred cows – he opens his set with harsh words for Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods – is just knee-jerk contrarianism; he may really hate these guys, but he doesn’t mount much of a case against them (which is a shame, because there’s room for deflation when it comes to those two). Meanwhile, Carlin’s old crutch, shock value, has collapsed under the vulgar weight of all the potty-mouthed comedians he inspired. Even though Carlin was always about more than the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”, he did have a tendency to rely on a well-timed f-bomb, or just a ridiculously obscene thought, for a big laugh. That doesn’t work anymore.
Carlin isn’t at the cutting edge of his craft anymore, but it’s wonderful to see him out there keeping the imbeciles… not so much honest, as on notice. For those that strive to live a bullshit-free life, this is a great comfort. Long may he inveigh.
“It’s Bad for Ya” is running all month on HBO.