As a stand-up comedian, there are a few comedy deities that one is expected to worship, namely Pryor, Bruce, Allen, Cosby, and Carlin. In regards to the latter I have to proclaim my enthusiastic blasphemy.
I must preface this by acknowledging the fact that he did clear a path for comedians long before my time, adopting a style that did not fit the mold. If not for his continuation of Lenny Bruce’s momentum, comedy would likely not be where it is today.
I would also like to acknowledge the fact that I am a quark in an atom compared to him; so who am I to critique?
I think the main sticking point is that he had accomplished most of his groundbreaking comedy well before I was even born. Therefore, when I watch his old specials most of his material seems to be cliché, even though he probably originated those very clichés that have since been copied by later comedians.
I guess my main motivation for writing this piece stemmed from watching his most recent HBO Special: It’s Bad for Ya! I had often bit my tongue at the worship levied upon this man and sat idly by while others praised him as a genius. I simply didn’t get it.
Watching Carlin in his later years it became clear to me that he had “jumped the shark” as a comedian. And I think I know how it happened. It is generally accepted that there are four stages of comedy (it’s a lot like belts in Karate). You generally start off doing material that you think the audience will find funny (MC-level). Then you graduate to making people laugh with things that only you find funny, the audience is just along for the ride (Feature-level). Then you get to a stage where people think your mere outlook is funny, you almost don’t even need to write jokes in the conventional sense, you simply share your viewpoint and people agree (Most National Headliners). Finally, there is a level that only a few have reached. It’s a level where people want to know what your thinking because it’s interesting, entertaining, insightful, but most importantly…it’s funny (Comedy Gods).
George Carlin has reached the later stage and has since progressed even past that. I say “progress” because it is the next step from Comedy God, but in terms of comedy, it’s actually a regression. This is a stage where, you have finally got people eating out of the palm of your hand, you think they are thirsty for your viewpoint, but you forget one thing…the funny.
Every time I’ve watched one of his specials, every point he tries to make seems so forced, using his trademarked vulgarity to spruce-up non-existent punch lines. Even the vulgarity seems out of place now. Every time he curses, it looks as though he wants to say “Oh yea…I just said that. What are you going to do about it?” Carlin is the perfect example of a comedian taking themselves too seriously.
Many comics, including myself, look to our ancient history for inspiration. The Jester, in old times was relied upon to entertain the king, while giving him subtle barbs about his leadership and what was wrong with it in order to correct the King’s behavior. However, this was always done through a joke.
The beauty of a great comedian is that they make you laugh while making you think, when you forgo the funny, you’re now a lobbyist, not a comic.