As you all know, we lost a true comic master yesterday when George Carlin died at the age of 71.
As I wrote before, he was the only comic who never seriously tried to be more than that. Sure, he did a few movies, and one failed sitcom which he had to know didn’t have a chance of getting off the ground. But standup was his true art form and his true gift, and no side project or diversion was ever allowed to overshadow it. Consequently, he had an unmatched capacity to reinvent himself, morphing from successful mainstream comic to countercultural icon, to warped observational comic (think Jerry Seinfeld with cursing and pussy references) to raging critic of the social scene. I don’t know that there’s been anything like it in the annals of American comedy. Richard Pryor started out as a Cosby imitator before finding his true voice, which he eventually lost to drug abuse and a shitty movie career; Steve Martin walked away from the stage while at his peak; Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams allowed themselves to be turned into noisome family entertainers, though Williams occasionally still trots out his decades-old shtick; Jerry Seinfeld did his greatest work in a TV studio, not on stage; and Jay Leno, despite doing some hundred-plus dates a year, hasn’t delivered any memorable material since taking over the Tonight Show. (Bill Hicks’ impersonation of Leno blowing his own head off with an Uzi (“What the fuck did I do with my life?! I used to be funny!! BRTRTRTRTRTRTRT!!”) was funnier than anything — perhaps everything — Leno has done in the last two decades.)
For the last 20 years, despite occasional flavors of the month, Carlin had no rival as the preeminent American standup. The ladder of American comedy has lost its top rung.