When people discuss the greatest stand-up comics of all time, the first two names that usually pop up are Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. As great and groundbreaking and painfully honest as they were, in my opinion there is no greater comedic mind than that of George Carlin.
I was thirteen years old when I first discovered Carlin. Up to that time, my exposure to comedy was sitcoms, Monty Python and the odd Tonight Show. When I heard Carlin for the first time, it was like an awakening. Class Clown was the album (8-track tape, actually) that made it happen. Suddenly I was listening to an entirely different kind of comedy. Not the sanitized-for-TV stuff I was accustomed to. Not comedy with a British accent, either. This was raw comedy from the heart and soul of a truly inspired man. He had a gift for not only being able to see through bullshit better than anybody else alive, but to be able to talk about it and expose it in a way that made you laugh out loud. To be able to take the mundane and make it funny is the mark of a great comic mind. Few people have that gift, and even fewer are able to stretch that gift over the span on an entire adult life.
Carlin was such a man. From FM & AM through his last HBO special, his mind was keen, his perspective was skewed, and his material was sharp and incredibly funny. For one reason or the other he never made it big in television or movies, despite many valiant attempts. Maybe it was just as well. He was at his very best when he was alone on a stage, performing in an environment of his own creation, working his own brilliant material.
I think that what impressed me the most about him was that he had built a highly successful career in comedy, then took a dramatic turn away from the “safe” material that had made him a star and started really expressing himself onstage. He was able to mesh his comedic gifts with his insights and forge a brand of comedy that was true to himself at the deepest level. He traded commercial success for creative expression and ended up a comic legend.
So goodbye, George Carlin. And thank you. You made me laugh and opened my mind to more critical thinking, at a time when I really needed it.