There’s a depressing moment for anyone who’s ever aspired to be funnier than “get a few chuckles from the family at Thanksgiving.” It’s the moment you realize that no matter how much you work, you’ll never be as good as George Carlin. Even Patton Oswalt, one of the best working comics today, recently cited stand-up’s other “greatest ever,” saying, “I think, after nearly 25 years pursuing my craft, that I’ve become very very good at this. But I’ll never … reach the plangent brilliance of a Richard Pryor.” Hell, even Hemingway once said he’d never be as good as Tolstoy. So at least take solace in the fact that if you’re suffering from what lit critic Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence,” you have a lot in common with a suicidal alcoholic.
June 22 was the five-year anniversary of Carlin’s death at 71 of heart failure. It’s as good a time as any to remember just how goddamn good he was, even when everyone (wrongly) said he was at his worst.
The first time I saw Carlin in Las Vegas was at the Stardust in the summer of 2005. It was his second-to-last residency gig in town, performing there for a year and change, until the hotel closed its showroom in 2006. But Carlin went all the way back here. He was famously fired from the New Frontier in 1969 for cursing. It led, in part, to him embracing his anti-establishment side. In a 2005 interview Carlin said, “So what I decided was, after I got fired in Las Vegas I said, ‘Good, now I’m out of here officially. I’m finished with this shit.’” He was also once fired from the MGM Grand. His last show was at the Orleans.
I was in one of the back booths in the Stardust showroom, seated with some random couple, the way showrooms will do. They avoided eye contact like they were afraid I’d ask them about their relationship with Jesus. Carlin was maybe about six months sober and came out to the stage slow and frail. I’d already seen him once, and knew how good he could be in person, but this was a different Carlin. “Vulnerability” wasn’t the kind of word you’d ever want to associate with the guy. Batman shouldn’t get winded after beating up The Riddler, you know?
But then he launched into “A Modern Man,” a rat-a-tat poem that could’ve been Rodgers and Hammerstein, if Rodgers and Hammerstein hated you. It’s a brilliant, nasty little bit of structure-as-joke: Nothing is said, but it’s said so quickly, and with such confidence—which is the point.
It turns out most of the material that night was him working out what would become his 13th HBO special, Life Is Worth Losing early in 2006. It’s typically considered, among the people who track these sorts of things, to be his weakest effort.
Hey, Roger Ebert didn’t like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly when he first saw it.
It’s a breathtaking hour that’s among Carlin’s most consistent. It’s just that consistency is the same reason it’s been slammed so hard since it came out: It’s consistently dark.
“Bitter,” “cynical” and “misanthropic” get thrown around awfully easy. And sure, at least four of the 11 cuts on the record involve suicide, but to really understand the brilliance of the show, you have to look at his masterful closing bit “Coast-to-Coast Emergency.”
“I always hope that no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow into bigger and bigger proportions and get completely out of control,” he starts. It’s a hypothetical think piece on the end of the world that begins with a water main break in Los Angeles and ends when the laws of physics give out. Everyone’s bitter, dead Uncle Daves gather and … :
All the hatred and bitterness drips out of these people and forms a big pool of liquid hate, and the pool of liquid hate begins to spin round and round it spins, faster and faster. And the faster it spins, the bigger it gets. Faster and faster, bigger and bigger until the whirling pool of hate is bigger and bigger than the entire universe and then suddenly it explodes into trillions of tiny stars, and every star has a trillion planets, and every planet has a trillion Uncle Daves. … Now do you see why I like it when nature gets even with humans?
Leaving the Stardust showroom after that bit, jaw on the floor and giddy, that’s when I knew trying to approach anything like that would be like trying to climb a ladder into the sun. It’s a joy to listen to for the way he swings from vine to apocalyptic vine in and of itself, but it’s such a perfect distillation of the Carlin ethos: Humanity is mostly bullshit, and things would be better off without us, but it’s wildly entertaining to just sit back and watch it go.
Bullshit was Carlin’s muse, whether he was talking about the way people manipulate language or the way we lie to ourselves or the way our institutions screw us. It at least partly explains his relationship to Vegas. He often said this wasn’t a good city for him to work. That he was far more likely to get dabblers trying to get off the floor for a bit instead of his true fans. Yet he kept coming back for week-plus runs. Why? Well if you were looking for a place that specialized in bullshit, where else would you pick?