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The Afterlife of George Carlin

Nearly 14 years after his death, George Carlin's provocative humor is embraced by people as searingly honest commentary on the hottest issues of the day and as a moral compass

6 24 08 George Carlin Dies,Bearman2007 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the closing monologue from a recent episode of his HBO talk show, Bill Maher cataloged a series of social conditions that he suggested were hampering stand-up comedy and imperiling free speech: cancel culture, a perceived increase of sensitivity on college campuses, and Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.

Near the end of his remarks, Maher invoked the comedian George Carlin, a personal hero whose iconoclastic spirit, he seemed to believe, could never thrive in such a thin-skinned and overly entitled era. “Oh, George,” he said, “it’s a good thing you’re dead.”

Carlin, the cantankerous, longhaired sage who used his withering insight and gleefully profane vocabulary to take aim at American hypocrisy, died in 2008. But in the years since, it can feel like he never really left us.

On an almost daily basis, parts of Carlin’s routines rise to the surface of our discourse, and he is embraced by people who span the political spectrum — they may rarely agree with each other, but they are certain that Carlin would agree with them.Carlin’s rueful 1996 routine about conservatives’ opposition to abortion (“they will do anything for the unborn, but once you’re born, you’re on your own”) became a newly viral phenomenon and was shown on a recent broadcast of the MSNBC program “11th Hour.” A video clip of a Carlin bit about how Americans are ravenous for war (“so we’re good at it, and it’s a good thing we are — we’re not very good at anything else anymore!”) has been tweeted by Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota. On the right-wing website Breitbart, Carlin has been cited as an expert on bipartisanship (“the word bipartisan usually means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”) and hailed as a rebel who didn’t acquiesce to authority.

Carlin is a venerated figure in his chosen field who unites performers as disparate as Joe Rogan and Jim Gaffigan, but he’s also someone whose influence transcends comedy. He is a touchstone shared by the psychologist Steven Pinkerthe rapper and actor Ice Cube and people on social media who equate the pandemic with George Orwell novels. Carlin’s indignant voice feels so impossible to duplicate that quotes he never said and entire essays he didn’t write are often wrongly attributed to him.

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There’s a strange afterlife that Carlin enjoys, not just as a comic but also as a moral compass. Few of us care in quite the same way if our choices in life would meet the approval of Johnny Carson or Andy Kaufman.

That Carlin’s work endures long after him is not only a testament to his talents; it’s a sign that his frustrations, which he expressed humorously but felt authentically, still resonate with audiences, and that the injustices he identified in American society persist to this day.

“There’s something about his righteous aggravation — it’s a rare point of view, and it’s rare that it’s a natural point of view,” said Marc Maron, the comedian and podcaster. “It’s not something you can pretend to make happen. Aggravation is not always funny.”

And Carlin’s routines, particularly from his splenetic, late-period specials, have hardly lost their punch. It’s still bracing to hear the bitter wordplay in his lament: “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

When he spoke, “you always felt like you were hearing the truth, or his truth,” said the comedian Bill Burr. “He was giving you the truth of what he felt, which most of us don’t do. It’s refreshing to listen to another human being tell you exactly how they feel, even if it’s 180 degrees removed from what you agree with.”

But the durability of Carlin’s material can be dangerous, too. Dislocated from the time and circumstances that inspired his work, the arguments he delivered can be made to serve purposes he didn’t intend.

As those who were closest to him have learned, when he is unable to advocate for himself, he can be made to seem like he supported any opinion at all.

“It is a daily battle for me,” said Kelly Carlin, the comedian’s daughter. “At first I was like, I’ll be the interpreter and tell them what I think he meant. And then it was like, this is not my job. It’s like trying to push back a tidal wave sometimes.”

The continuing relevance of Carlin’s material is partly a result of how he learned to compose and refine it over a career that spanned nearly 50 years.

As he explained in a 1997 interview on “The Chris Rock Show,” he essentially saw himself as a playful provocateur. “I like to bother people,” he said, adding that he tried to figure out “where the line is drawn, and then deliberately cross it and drag the audience with you. And have them happy that you did it.”

Carlin is well-known for pivoting from a strait-laced, suit-and-tie approach to standup in the late 1960s and early ’70s and for immersing himself in the counterculture that shaped his personal politics.

But a new two-part HBO documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” which will be shown May 20 and 21, illustrates how his professional trajectory consisted of numerous ups and downs — multiple efforts to rediscover his voice and refine his material when his personal radar detected he was out of step with the times.

“He would do that every decade or so,” said Judd Apatow, the comedian and filmmaker who directed the documentary with Michael Bonfiglio. “At the moment when it seemed like he was out of gas, he would suddenly recharge and reinvent himself.”

As he evolved from a fast-talking parodist of TV and radio to a rhetorical bomb-tosser, Carlin had a set of standards that remained consistent. “He had deep core values that were good,” Bonfiglio said: “Take care of other people. Take care of the planet. There was a sense of fairness and rooting for the underdog. Those would shine through, even in his darkest stuff.”

But over the decades, as Carlin watched America’s retreat from Vietnam and its entrance into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as corporate power grew more intractable and environmental catastrophe felt unavoidable, his feelings of bitter disappointment flooded into his routines.

At times, Maron said, “his anger became more pronounced than his ability to speak funny within it.” But in every hourlong set he performed, Maron added, “there would be one bit that was worth the entire special.”

Carlin’s personal politics were readily identifiable. Kelly Carlin said her father was “99 percent progressive” and that he raised her in a manner that today might be contemptuously dismissed as woke.

“He taught me from Day 1 that the Black and brown people have always been oppressed, horribly and systematically, by the owners of wealth,” she said. “He had a pure disdain and loathing for white men in America.”

That leftist bent was unmistakable in Carlin’s standup, too: He railed against police violence, championed prison reform and environmentalism and condemned organized religion.

But he was also critical of Democrats and “guilty white liberals,” while he endorsed other ideas that conservatives supported. He despised euphemism and the policing of language, reviled what he called “the continued puss-ification of the American male” and rebuked his countrymen who would “trade away a little of their freedom for the feeling — the illusion — of security.”

Using language that would later be echoed by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Carlin observed in a 2005 routine that the interwoven systems of American economy and government were not designed to ensure the prosperity of the average citizen: “It’s a big club and you ain’t in it,” he said.

“The table is tilted, folks,” Carlin added. “The game is rigged.”

Carlin didn’t hesitate to criticize presidents by name — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush among them — but, more often, he spoke in broader terms and addressed institutional failings.

“There were other court jesters before Carlin and alongside Carlin, but Carlin was more powerful and dangerous to the king,” said Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center, which is home to more than 25,000 items from Carlin’s archives.

What gave him his potency, Gunderson said, was that he turned his standup “into a call to action.” Carlin, she said, “taught everyone where to find the power that they have and encouraged them to use it.”

That approach gave Carlin’s comedy a longevity that not even the work of his esteemed predecessor Lenny Bruce has attained.

“It requires a scholarship to appreciate Lenny Bruce,” Maron said. “You’ve got to sort through a number of very dated impressions and news stories. Whereas George was always making things totally accessible.”

(Even in her father’s later years, Kelly Carlin said, if he had an idea for a topical joke, rather than put it in his act, he would share them with people like the broadcaster Keith Olbermann, who was then the host of “Countdown” on MSNBC. Olbermann confirmed this, saying that Carlin sent him “a couple of one-liners about Bush” and a sports joke he keeps framed on his wall.)

For the most part, Carlin left behind no protégés or appointed successors. When he died, no one else could say they spoke on his behalf. And while the generations of stand-ups that have followed may have a sincere reverence for him, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are fluent in the jokes he told.

“A lot of us know that you’re supposed to say Carlin is an influence, but I don’t think a lot of us can back that up,” the comedian Nikki Glaser said.

A lack of familiarity with Carlin’s words, his history and his values can lead to misapprehension when his arguments are stretched to fit present-day conditions he didn’t live to see.

Several times during the pandemic, Carlin has drawn attention for a routine from his 1999 special, “You Are All Diseased,” in which he mischievously suggests that a childhood spent swimming in the polluted Hudson River was the reason he didn’t catch polio.

(“In my neighborhood, no one ever got polio,” he fulminates. “No one, ever. You know why? ’Cause we swam in raw sewage. It strengthened our immune systems. The polio never had a prayer.”)

As Kelly Carlin explained, some viewers concluded — wrongly — that her father would have opposed coronavirus vaccines.

“Everyone’s like, see? George Carlin would have been anti-vaccination,” she said. “And I’m like, no. My dad was pro-science, pro-rational thinking, pro-evidence-based medicine. The man was a heart patient for 30 years. When he was a kid and the polio vaccine became available, he got the polio vaccine.”

Though she generally tries to avoid intervening in these kinds of disputes, Kelly Carlin has used her social media to correct this reading. “I felt it was important that people not use him to undermine what we needed to do to get through this virus,” she said.

On other modern-day topics in which George Carlin surely would have had an incendiary but clarifying take on — the Trump and Biden presidencies, social media, Elon Musk or the Marvel Cinematic Universe — no matter how much we might wish to know his thoughts, he remains frustratingly out of reach. Kelly Carlin said she could understand why audiences might long for her father’s particular brand of unvarnished honesty at this moment.

“I think we are in a time of exponential uncertainty as a species,” she said. “He’s a man who looked forward and said, ‘This is not going to end well.’ He saw the chaos coming.”

And Carlin remains almost universally admired as a free-speech pioneer: He was arrested in 1972 for a performance of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and that same routine would later play a key role when the federal government asserted its power to regulate the broadcast of indecent content.

Because of that status, Carlin is frequently summoned in contemporary debates over how comedians choose to use their platforms. When controversy engulfed Dave Chappelle’s 2021 special “The Closer,” which was criticized as transphobic and prompted walkouts at Netflix, Carlin’s name was invoked, even though no one could be certain what position he might have taken: Would he have criticized Chappelle as intolerant or defended his right to express himself?

In efforts to divine his opinion, some Carlin fans pointed to a 1990 interview he gave to Larry King, when he expressed his misgivings about the crude standup of Andrew Dice Clay: “His targets are underdogs, and comedy has traditionally picked on power — people who abuse their power,” Carlin said at the time.

Kelly Carlin said her father “always took the stand that more speech is better than less speech” and would have supported Chappelle’s right to perform the special. But, she added, “if you’re a comedian, you’ve got to be funny.”

“If you’re going to take the audience over the line, you’ve got to construct things in a way that they’re willingly crossing it with you,” she said. “Did Dave Chappelle do that for everybody? Clearly not.”

Even so, Kelly Carlin said, “is it dangerous when a culture wants to shut people down for speech? I think my dad would say that is dangerous.”

Like his friend and forerunner Lenny Bruce, who was arrested and convicted on obscenity charges (and who later received a posthumous pardon), George Carlin was battling the state’s power to discourage and punish his expression.

Maron contended that free-speech conflicts have shifted since Carlin’s era in such a way that it doesn’t make sense to drag Carlin back into them.

“That fight was already won,” Maron said. “What’s going on now is not that fight.” Today, he said, we live “in a world where anybody can really say what they want, whether anyone believes that or not.”

While Carlin would still probably be dissatisfied with the state of free speech today, Maron said, his barbs would have been aimed at “the corporate occupation” of discourse, with digital monoliths like Google, Facebook and Twitter “dictating how culture thrives and is consumed.”

And if a comedian wants to claim freedom of speech while using words that others deem hateful, Maron said, “you can say them all you want — you’re probably just going to be hanging around people who enjoy that kind of stuff. If that’s the company you want to keep, do what you gotta do.”

Without Carlin’s humanistic spirit to guide it, contemporary standup can sometimes feel like a ruthless place. “There’s this fearlessness in comedy now that is so fake,” Glaser said. “There’s so much sleight of hand and so many illusions happening onstage to trick an audience that you’re being brave.”

“There was never a cruelty to Carlin,” she said. “He always seemed filled with empathy.”

Gunderson, of the National Comedy Center, described Carlin as “a leader who didn’t want to hold all the power.” The ultimate lesson he had for us, she said, is that we have “the unlimited right to challenge everything, to never stop thinking critically about any source of power or any institution” — even Carlin himself.

Kelly Carlin cautioned that we should not be too beholden to any of the messages in her father’s stand-up: Of course George Carlin believed in much of what he said onstage, but what mattered most to him was that audiences learned to think for themselves. He never wanted to be anyone’s role model and was never a comfortable joiner of causes.

“The moment anyone gets in a group, gets together for meetings and puts on armbands, he instantly didn’t want that,” she said.

If George Carlin were around now to respond to the questions we have for him, “he would have schooled us on both sides and come up with a third-way truth that would have blown our minds,” she said. “But not solved anything. He was never looking to solve the culture wars or solve America’s problems. He was always looking to show off what he’d been thinking about at home.”