The Complete Carlin
What you can learn from watching 800 minutes of George Carlin.
The future scholar of comedy who sets out to publish The Complete Works of George Carlin had better be prepared for a multimedia endeavor. A truly comprehensive collection of the comedian's work would have to include his Grammy Award-winning albums, his best-selling books, and a transcript of his argument before the Supreme Court in defense of his immortal "Seven Words" routine. In the meantime, mourners of Carlin, who died of heart failure earlier this week, can make do with the recently released George Carlin: All My Stuff. The retrospective box set, weighing in at more than 800 minutes of material, is comprised of 12 HBO specials, beginning with a 1977 performance at USC and ending with 2005's Life Is Worth Losing. Carlin's assiduous touring schedule (he was sometimes on the road for nearly three-quarters of the calendar year) gave him a staging ground where he could hone his material. But it was the HBO specials that gave him a truly national audience and a chance to showcase his best stuff.
Carlin's career spanned more than 40 years, remarkable longevity for a stand-up artist, and All My Stuff offers a window on how his routine adapted across the decades. Though the infamy of "Seven Words" may doom Carlin to be remembered as a blue comic, early in his career he pioneered a form of observational humor now often classified as Seinfeldian. At the USC show, he describes his vocation as sharing "little ideas that occur to me." ("Why aren't there any Chinese guys named Rusty?" he asks at one point in the performance.) In 1982's At Carnegie Hall, Carlin discusses his craft in more philosophical terms—his expertise, he says, lies in "reminding you of things you already know but forgot to laugh at the first time they happened." The bulk of the material in his early shows was concerned with such pedestrian acts as grocery shopping and, yes, walking. In one early performance, he constructs a bit around the phantom stair phenomenon, when we accidentally trick our legs into thinking a staircase has one more step than it actually does.
The stair bit works on an observational level because we have all experienced it. But Carlin also makes it work on a physical level, embellishing the joke through his wild gesticulations. Unlike Seinfeld, Carlin was also a gifted physical comic, and in his early performances, the influence of Carlin's idols—Buster Keaton, Danny Kaye, the Marx Brothers—is particularly evident. He contorts his face into wrinkly malformations. He squats slightly and mimes masturbatory motions. He freezes onstage in strange postures, an American ambassador to Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks.
Carlin lost a step or two over the years, but to his credit, the substance abuse and heart trouble that plagued him offstage never really managed to slow him down when he was on it. Physical comedy remained part of Carlin's repertoire throughout his career, as did his special brand of scatological humor. He got almost 30 years of mileage out of examinations of the words cornhole and dingleberry. Yet over the years, Carlin's routine evolved from a collection of whimsical, if often R-rated, observations into longer, more pointed set pieces, often on politically charged material. Take the evolution of his abortion rant. In the 1982 Carnegie Hall performance, he begins the night by asking: "Have you noticed that most of the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn't want to fuck in the first place?" In '82, he leaves it at that, quickly moving on to other musings. Eight years later, the line has blossomed into a slightly longer treatment in What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Another eight years later, in 1996's Back in Town, Carlin not only opens with abortion but meditates on it for nearly 10 minutes, poking holes in the logic of the pro-life cause: "If a fetus is a human being, how come the census doesn't count them? If a fetus is a human being, how come when there's a miscarriage they don't have a funeral? If a fetus is a human being, how come people say 'we have two children and one on the way' instead of saying 'we have three children?' "
Whether he's discussing misleading euphemisms, license plate mottos, or the sounds of foods he wouldn't eat (yogurt, squash, wheat germ), a common thread in Carlin's best material was his close attention to the uses and abuses of language. Occasionally, his linguistic observations can come off as pedantic, as when he takes issue with a box of cookies labeled "open here" by asking if the manufacturer really thought that the consumer might move to Hong Kong just to open the box. More often, however, he uncovers some nonsensical or lily-livered phrase in common use and attacks it mercilessly. The victims of Carlin's linguistic sorties range from the inaccurate ("You don't take a shit. You leave a shit.") to the redundant ("Personal belongings. What other kinds of belongings are there?") to the semantic ("If crime fighters fight crime, and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?"). Often, he will organize a series of such observations around a theme, as in this Philippic from Jammin' in New York (1992),in which he deconstructs the mindless array of airport and airline announcements:
All My Stuff offers evidence of Carlin giving similarly withering treatment to lacrosse, New Jersey tollbooths, and the Reagan administration. Yet the institution he challenges with the greatest fervor over the course of these 12 specials is religion. Carlin attended parochial schools, though he says that he was only "Catholic until the age of reason." The early specials don't take on religion directly, yet the heavy burden of his upbringing can still be felt—such blasphemy and bombast could only come from the mind of an altar boy in apostasy. In the later HBO specials, Carlin takes on organized religion directly. In this bit, from 1999's You Are All Diseased, he describes Judeo-Christian theology as "easily the greatest bullshit story ever told":
Joshua David Mann is a writer living in Concord, Mass.
Photograph of George Carlin by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.