Here is something new; I’m not sure I’ve ever “reviewed” a comedy special, and I have no idea how to exactly, so I will do what I normally do and wing it! I got home from a rather long, but rewarding day of work at the Ohio State Fair yesterday, and I decided to wind down (and cool down!) with my all-time favorite comedian: George Carlin. Amazon Prime has what seems to be most of his hour-long comedy specials from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. Some are free, some are free with ads, and some are $2.99 to rent (or I think $4.99 if you wanted to buy it). I went with the latter, renting, so as to watch, 1992’s George Carlin: Jammin’ in New York, often considered the best of the bunch. In fact, George Carlin has to have the record for most HBO Specials at 14, right?
There are two reasons, at least, for why I think Carlin is the greatest comedian of all time:
- He did not give a single, solitary fuck literally: He became famous, and was arrested, for doing his seven dirty words routine on stage. It went to the Supreme Court! In another special, he starts off talking about abortion. He just doesn’t care if he is going to make you uncomfortable. In fact, you could argue his primary mission is to make you uncomfortable.
- He tended to punch up, with some rare exceptions. Yes, his ire was often focused at the American people and American culture writ large, but his ire and most biting, acrid routines took aim at the powerful, perhaps most prominently in his anti-war stances, and of course, free speech.
In Jammin’ in New York, filmed at Madison Square Garden in April 1992, Carlin starts off lampooning the ridiculousness of the Persian Gulf War, which had ended two months prior. He tells the audience he doesn’t feel about that war the way he was told to feel about that war. Carlin says he isn’t the type to just roll over. He then goes into an extended riff about how the only thing Americans are good at anymore is bombing brown people, and that war is a projection of insecure masculinity: a bunch of prick waving, with phallic imagery (rockets, bombs, bullets) being shot at one another. The insecurity over our masculinity is all over the language, too, in how we describe the problem with Vietnam as “pulling out.”
What I love about Carlin is that even when I’m not literally “laughing out loud,” I enjoy listening to him, even if I’m not always agreeing with him, either! On war, I do, of course. He ends the above rant with a fun word play on how those running the war were Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, and well, you can imagine where that image leads.
That said, his next routine is one I do find hilarious, and is perhaps my favorite of Carlin’s routines. Yes, he likes to throw fuel on the fire of our differences and poke fun at the ridiculousness of American culture, but in, like what I said, perhaps my favorite routine, he talks about our similarities, those little moments we’ve all experienced. It is laugh-out-loud hilarious precisely because we have all experienced many of these scenarios! Like how you go to pick up a suitcase you think is full and turns out, it’s empty, and for just a split-second, you feel really strong. Or when you’re going up (or down!) the stairs, and you think there is one more stair, so you end up tripping and/or planting your foot weird. Or the weirdness of the zooming in chain-link fence.
Another aspect that makes Carlin hilarious, and which makes the aforementioned routine that much better is the physical aspect of his comedy. Carlin isn’t just speaking; he’s changing his tone, his accent, his pitch, and importantly, his mannerisms and his body. It’s hilarious to watch, like when he demonstrates how men and women walking together have to change their walking depending on which side they are on. He’s a goofy dude!
He ends that hilarious routine by pointing out that our brains are literally incapable of peeing and sneezing at the same time. His eyes hilariously bug out when demonstrating how freaked out the brain gets.
The longest routine of the special is about the airline experience, and how superfluous much of the language we use in general, and especially throughout the airline experience, is, such as, “we will now begin the boarding process.” Carlin argues that process is unnecessary; “boarding” tells the whole story! Or as an aside, how the news will say there is an “emergency situation.” Carlin quips, “We know it’s a situation … everything is a situation.” But the whole routine is hilarious, especially when he’s dissecting the stewardess’s safety lecture. One of the language bits that has stuck with me when I first heard it is as a teenager is when Carlin points out that “near miss” between airplanes makes no sense. They didn’t nearly miss; they nearly hit!
From there, we get one of the rare times I’ve heard Carlin “miss,” at least for me. He lampoons those who have anorexia and bulimia as essentially partaking in a privileged white girl disorder that only stupid Americans could have come up with. The reason I think it is a rare miss is that ostensibly it seems like one of those punching up things (privileged white girls), but I see it as more punching down on those who have a legitimate problem. But that’s okay. Carlin can’t hit all of the time.
Next, he goes into homelessness, which he argues is really a houselessness problem since “home” is an abstract idea, and what these people really need are homes. He then (rightly!) lampoons NIMBYs, i.e., not in my backyard types. The same types who will say we need to build more prisons, but just … not in my backyard. If you’re a golfer or a golf fan, watch out; Carlin calls it more boring than watching two flies have sex, and worse than that, for a game with a little ball, it sure takes up a lot of space we could use to house the homeless.
Carlin then ends on one of my favorite routines that, admittedly, oriented my brain on the issue of climate change at a young age (I’ve since developed it more): How he disdains the elitist types who superficially are trying to save the planet. Carlin argues we can’t even take care of ourselves, and we’re going to save the planet? He argues the planet will be just fine; it has survived — and this is where Carlin excels as a comedian, too, when he can list a dozen or more things in a row; it’s impressive! — volcanoes, ice ages, asteroid impacts, and more. The people are screwed, sure, but the planet will be fine, and even regarding plastic, maybe the Earth created us so it could have what it really wanted: plastic.
He then ends his cynical, although at times heartening (because of the similarities routine), special with a rather touching note that, hey, we may be screwed, but, “We are just here for a little while, and that’s all right.”
And people like Carlin, who make me laugh and think in equal measure, help to make it just that much more all right.