Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Albums of George Carlin

George Carlin was, for my money, the greatest stand-up comedian to ever live.  Endlessly inventive, always willing to evolve as a performer (and in fact I think he thrived on it) and wonderfully honest, he really is someone I consider a comedy idol.

In this piece, I will be looking at his albums and how he evolved as a performer.  It won't be an autobiographical piece because for starters, you can get that pretty much anywhere.  Second, and more practically, I'd like this to not be roughly the same length as War and Peace.  As it stands, you're already looking at a good five minute read.

Also it won't be analytical because analyzing comedy defeats the entire purpose of the medium.  That's why I generally don't do longer My Favorite Era pieces for comedies.  Sort of kills the joke.

But enough of my BS, let's get to the good stuff.

Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight (1963)


George's first album is from his early days when he was working with fellow comic Jack Burns.  The stuff is pretty standard early 60's nightclub stuff though Carlin does have a few flashes of what he will become towards the end of the decade.  Honestly, there isn't a hell of a lot to say about this one.

Take-Offs and Put-Ons (1967)


George's first solo album is essentially what he was doing with Jack Burns only with a slightly different feel.  It's weird to hear an entire album from the guy with no swearing or social commentary at all but this ends up being actually a fairly decent way to kill 36 minutes.  He'd use variations on his weatherman routine in later acts.

The next three albums, however, show the first major change in the man's style and presentation.  Whereas he started off as more or less another comic in a suit who would make the usual runs of nightclubs and variety shows, in the early 70's, he let his hair down and really began to knock the ball out of the park.  Conveniently enough, the three albums were collected together in a set called Classic Gold.

FM & AM (1972) 


It begins, quite simply enough with Carlin noting he was recently fired from a Las Vegas casino for saying "shit" and noting that the big game is town is Craps.  He goes on to poke fun at TV, drugs and Ed Sullivan.  It's a great lead-in album.

Class Clown (1972) 


The second in what one could call "The Holy Trinity" if they were rather odd is quite simply the best set the man ever did.  It's more or less the kind of thing we got on the previous album but the closer is the classic "Seven Words" routine.  Tons of words have been written about it elsewhere and with much greater skill so I will just say that it lives up to the hype and call it a day.

Occupation: Foole (1973)


With this one, Carlin is fully into his 70's persona with a laid back (given the time and person you could spell that stoned) delivery with a lot of childhood memories stuff and an extended version of his seven words routine that's even better than the first one.  It's a hell of a capper to an amazing trilogy of comedy albums.

From here, George settles into a fairly nice groove with easy-going material that is a blend of stuff on language and the oddities of life.  This carries on into the late 80's and is my favorite phase of his career.  The big trilogy is great but for me, it really just sets the table for the feast to come.

Toledo Window Box (1974)


A little more drug humor than usual in this one as well as the bit he did on the first episode of Saturday Night Live about God.  It's a fun 45 minutes that may not be essential, but it's still funny.  Honestly, the album is a little disjointed but it's still a good listen.

An Evening with Wally Lando Featuring Bill Slazo (1975)


Equally disjointed, but still funny is this oddly named (George didn't like it either) album that introduces his "Baseball/Football" routine.  Honestly, that was never my favorite piece of material from him.  It's funny but a little overplayed.  It's about as close to middle of the road as he gets in this era.

On the Road (1977)


This would be the last album from Carlin for several years as he stopped doing as much performing (as well as drugs) and also suffered the first of three heart attacks he would have.  He also did his first two HBO specials during this period which used most of his 70's material in some form, especially his "Seven Dirty Words" piece.  The album itself is a gem though with long bits on dying, supermarkets, dogs and other various aspects of daily life.  It's easily one of my favorites.

A Place for My Stuff (1981)


I really love George's 1981 album, a good portion of which was used in his 1982 HBO show.  It's sort of an odd duck in that there is the usual stand-up with nice bits on him being a fussy eater and pets as well as his signature "Stuff" routine but there are also several interludes of what is more or less sketch comedy.  George throws out several funny ads and announcements and the highlight is a very funny interview with Jesus featuring of course, George as the man himself.  It's very funny and entertaining which makes this one of his best albums in my book.  It gets his 80's run off to a very good start.

Carlin on Campus (1984)


This is a fun one as it is more or less the same as the HBO version only some jokes are a little different and in general, the HBO special is more in line with how his previous album was presented with animated interludes.  The album version of the special is quite good with more or less the same set: driving, general oddities, etc.  It's not his best stuff but it's still quite funny.

Playin' With Your Head (1986)


Another gem from the man as he's well into his 80's groove here (basically his 70's groove minus the drugs) with a solid set that flows nicely with the usual stuff on language as well as a funny routine on sports.  It really says something that in an era where comedy albums were easier to find that sand in the desert, George was able to make an album that really stood out.

What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988)


This was my first exposure to Carlin and it's really one of his better albums, as far as I'm concerned.  It's a nice mix of the sort of thing he was doing earlier in the decade with a slightly more edgy tone. He sort of tests the water with the new stuff (the structure of the album is different from the HBO special, as it is in his other 80's shows) before going into some lists and finally an extended piece on driving that builds nicely on a similar bit from a previous album.  Overall, it's a real good bit of comedy from the man.

Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics (1990)


I quite like this one as he keeps the tone relatively playful, even as he drifts a little more into his later stage persona.  He covers more or less the same territory he covered in the 80's only with a little more of an edge.  Pets, words, some topical stuff, euphemisms and general silliness.  It's an amazingly entertaining album.

Jammin' in New York (1992)


Right here is where the 80's George and the 90's George converge and the resulting show is a miracle of comedy.  We get the usual fun with words and a little topical stuff, but by the end the man has transitioned fully into the comedian we will see in the next few albums.  I honestly can't say it's my favorite album due to a few cases where George sort of repeats himself more than he needs to but overall, it's a great listen.

Back in Town (1996)


Back in Town is the last really great George Carlin album for me.  It's fairly dark but in a playful way and his routine on capital punishment and state prison farms is classic.  He ends the album with a rather long list (a bit he repeats in a future album) and while it's funny, there is a certain grumpiness that will soon become rather off-putting the next album.

You are All Diseased (1999)


Not a bad album as the first third is quite good but it sort of bogs down the last two thirds.  There is some good stuff like his stuff on germs, kids, TV and religion but for the most part it's sort of a middle of the road show for me.

 Complaints and Grievances (2001)


This is a pretty strong album with some good stuff and, like Back in Town, another long list routine.  There is some silliness as he goes back to a revised version of some of his 80's stuff (which I always welcome from the man, especially given how I feel about his later work) and a really good closer on the ten commandments and the end result is a modestly great album.

Life is Worth Losing (2006)


George's next to last album is my least favorite of his solo albums.  The darkest of all his sets, it's actually more depressing than genuinely amusing.  More tiresome than entertaining.  I shouldn't feel exhausted and tired after a show that is, ostensibly, supposed to make me laugh.  George apparently recognized this as his next (and sadly last) album was much lighter, at least for him at this point.

The best track is the first one which is a nice bit of linguistic athleticism but apart from that it's really hit or miss.  The title was Life is Worth Losing and sadly, the album is sort of worth missing.  About the nicest thing I can think of to say about this one is that he doesn't fall into the trap of incessantly repeating himself that he tends to get stuck in during his later albums.  Well, not as much.

It's Bad for Ya' (2008)


The last album from George is a marked improvement over the last one.  A little lighter, certainly funnier and way more laid back.  Helping even more is that fact that there are actual laughs.  He doesn't cover too much new ground here with the exception of the first few minutes where he's talking about death and getting old but it's still a consistently high-quality album.  It's not his best, but it was a nice way to end things.

George Carlin was simply amazing to watch and listen to.  Funny, insightful, smart and agreeably silly, he was truly one of a kind.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.