When Tara and I were traveling last month, I read George Carlin’s splendid, posthumously published autobiography Last Words on the plane. I’m a mega George Carlin fan. There is very little of his material that I haven’t heard and I just miss his voice more and more with each passing year. Sure we’ve got some contemporary greats like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert taking on the political and cultural issues of the day (I happen to like Joe Rogan’s stand-up a lot, too, he’s really underrated) but just like there will only ever be one Mark Twain, one Lenny Bruce or one Richard Pryor, there will never be another George Carlin, either. Carlin was a wise-acre product of Depression-era New York City. It was the no-bullshit (yet filled to the brim with hypocrisy!) New Yawk Irish-Catholic milieu that George Carlin was raised in that produced such a unique comic mind. I think he was a great artist and a great American. If you want to understand how Carlin became Carlin, I can’t recommend Last Words more highly.
By the end of his life, George Carlin had become more than just a mere comedian or humorist, he’d become a stand-up philosopher equal parts Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Céline. The material of Carlin’s later years is the work he was the most proud of, and indeed, it was the finest comedy he ever gave us. The darkest, most nihilistic, most rip your face off and shove it down your fucking throat stand-up comedy…. probably of all time. How could you top it? Who would dare try?
The terminal view of mankind, religion and Capitalism expressed in his 1999 HBO special You Are All Diseased and 2005’s Life is Worth Losing was so bleak it was thrilling. There were several times during these broadcasts when I recall thinking “WOW, I can’t believe I just heard someone articulate that thought and in that way.” I wondered, too, what would happen to the brain of a conservative or religious person who might be unwittingly exposed to Carlin’s sneering premium cable mindfuck! (I mean how many Christians accidentally tuned into his HBO special with no idea of what to expect except cursing and watched him do “Religion is Bullshit” and promptly rethought how they’d been behaving for their entire lives? For certain people, hearing the ideas expressed in that one impassioned ten-minute-long rant must have been like having a nuclear bomb go off in their heads. It’s a more powerful argument against religion than anything Richard Dawkins has ever come up with, that’s for sure, and funnier, too!).
Carlin was never much of a topical comedian, so much of his material is evergreen and will stay that way because it expresses deep societal truths and expose hypocrisy so ruthlessly. No surprise then, that his rant about Wall Street, corrupt politicians and end-stage Capitalism is still so on the money. Watch this: