George Carlin Strikes Back: The Comedy Special That Gave the Middle Finger to His Critics
For most stand-up comedians, say, the Jerry Seinfelds of the world, you work your entire life to establish a singular comic voice. Then, if it catches on, you ride that observational-comedy horse into the sunset. There are only a select few comics whose careers resemble those of jazz musicians, with distinct chapters that evolve from one style to the next. And no comic had more chapters than George Carlin.
Chapter One opened with Carlin in a suit and tie, appearing on nice network variety shows with material as clean as his carefully shaved chin. He might play out a scene featuring an indigenous army sergeant or a dumb-as-rocks radio DJ in material reminiscent of Bill Cosby or a stand-up version of Stan Freberg.
That chapter ended abruptly in 1970 when, like his counterculture counterpart Richard Pryor, Carlin decided that his squeaky-clean routines didn’t feel authentic to who he actually was. So he took the stage at the Frontier in Las Vegas and introduced a routine about all of the different ways to say “shit.” (Swearing at the time was strictly forbidden, an irony Carlin identified as not being able to say “shit” in a town whose biggest game is called “craps.”) By the time he started in on the Vietnam War, he’d done enough to lose his swanky $12,500-a-week gig. That night in Vegas marked the beginning of Chapter Two, a decade-long party when he became the poet laureate of profanity.
This phase of Carlin’s career alone would probably be enough to land him a spot in the pantheon of comedy gods. But as the 1970s came to an end, whispers started about how his once-brilliant wordplay had descended into cliche. “Say goodbye to wide lapels, say goodbye to disco and say goodbye to George Carlin,” read one article about the decade’s demise. Meanwhile, Rick Moranis, one of the stars of cutting-edge sketch show SCTV, introduced a devastating impression that crystalized the criticism better than any review ever could.
That “vicious take,” in the words of Patton Oswalt in the documentary George Carlin’s American Dream, began Carlin’s Chapter Three. The comedy world was passing Carlin by and he knew it. A new wave was coming, and in Carlin’s eyes, it was personified by angry spitfire Sam Kinison. The guy had energy, he had anger and he had opinions; to Carlin, Kinison represented how the game was changing. “Part of Sam Kinison inspired George Carlin,” explained Oswalt, “but part of him scared him a little bit. But like any true artist, if something scares you, you run toward it.”
Carlin had to change. “This motherfucker is good and he’s got ideas,” he realized, meaning that for his career to continue at a high level, he had to “run a little faster. Work a little harder. It’s not accumulated credits… I want to raise my level to where I’m not lost in his dust.”
All of which brings us What Am I Doing in New Jersey?, a special for longtime comedy home HBO. Carlin had been inching into Kinison territory for a while, but it’s the show that best personifies the big eff you he was shouting to critics who said he was washed-up — those lousy motherfuckers. “I’m going to make these people pay by getting better and learning how to really be a fucking artist,” Carlin said. “And it gave me an inner resolve to be terrific. To go to a new level. To just fucking show the world what was really inside me.”
One ticket-buyer who showed up for What Am I Doing in New Jersey was smart-ass punk Bill Burr, only about 20 years old at the time and not yet a comic himself. “We got tickets to go there and — I can’t believe this — to laugh at him,” Burr has explained. “That he was this older comic who was still doing all these old bits.” Making fun of the lame old guy? Sounds hilarious. But Burr didn’t get what he thought he was paying for: “George Carlin came out with a howitzer. It was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Impish wordplay? Not tonight. This was pissed-off Carlin, going off on the Reagan administration, the Moral Majority, the Teamsters Union, the FCC, the Catholic Church and war culture. And that’s just the first 15 minutes or so. A howitzer, indeed.
Carlin’s rants, or at least the subjects that make him angry, are strangely resonant today. Here’s Carlin on abortion: “When last we left (Ronald Reagan and his criminal gang), they were going to get government off our backs. Yeah, but when it comes to abortion they don’t mind government being in a woman’s uterus, do they? Yeah, backs are no good but uterus is okay by them. Doesn’t it strike you as mildly ironic that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?”
And Carlin on guns: “This is a country where gun-store owners are given a list of stolen credit cards, but not a list of criminals and maniacs! And now they’re thinking about banning toy guns … and they’re going to keep the fucking real ones.”
It wasn’t just the material. The old Carlin delivery could lull you into a hyper-relaxation state with its mellow musings. Now, he was practically attacking the audience, his finger jabbing the air with accusations: “(The United States was) founded on a very basic double standard. This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. A group of slave owners who wanted to be free so they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their Black African people so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, give them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people.”
Yeah, the color stuff doesn’t age well — yellow Japanese people? But the rants were new in their ferocity. The 1970s Carlin seemed amused by our collective stupidity; Chapter-Three Carlin didn’t find it funny anymore. He was pissed, and he wasn’t going to keep it locked inside anymore. (In fact, Carlin partly blames his two heart attacks in earlier years on suppressing his own rage.)
What was amazing to young Burr was Carlin’s complete lack of fear about leaving part of his audience behind. Old fans didn’t like Carlin’s new direction? Tough. “(He) was like a boa constrictor. It just got more pointed,” said Burr, walking away from that show feeling like “this guy’s scaring the shit out of me! Where’s this country going?”
Burr came to the show to ridicule Carlin but left reverential. “The courage it takes to do that — it’s like, ‘Hey man, I’m going in this direction, you either come along with me or you don’t, I don’t give a shit if there’s 3,000 or three people listening to this,’” Burr marveled about Carlin. “‘This is what I believe. This is what I want to say, and I’m saying it.’”