Once too raw, a George Carlin special resurfaces
By: Jason Zinoman
NEW YORK — On Sept. 10, 2001, George Carlin, the greatest political comic in history if measured only by stand-up specials, recorded a bracing hour of social commentary for his new HBO special. The next day, he shelved it.
It wasn’t only the title, “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die,” that seemed in bad taste after nearly 3,000 people were killed a day later in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Carlin also told a joke about a fart so potent it blew up an airplane. “You know who gets blamed? Osama bin Laden,” Carlin joked. “The FBI is looking for explosives. They should be looking for minute traces of rice and bok choy.”
If timing is everything, Carlin had nothing.
Fifteen years later, his lost special is finally being released. (It is on Sirius XM, though it will be for sale as a download or DVD on Sept. 16, at Amazon and iTunes, among other outlets.) It will be a revelation for comedy fans nostalgic for the days when you could expect a series of articulate salvos from Carlin about every two years. This special is not bonus track material. It’s a polished hour of new jokes with a virtuosic centerpiece, an intricate and elusive nearly 10-minute story that inspired its title, firmly in the tradition of Carlin’s comedy but also a fascinating departure.
A long-shelved recording of a George Carlin routine — taped Sept. 10, 2001 — will soon be released. In it, he makes a joke about Osama bin Laden being blamed for the downing of an airplane.
Carlin, who died in 2008, had always been a left-leaning comic whose skepticism of government would be right at home with the Tea Party. In a 1999 special, he even ridiculed airport security as a pointless charade, saying Americans are “always willing to trade away a little of their freedom” in exchange for “the illusion of security.”
But like so many other people, he was transformed by Sept. 11. He released an entirely new special only two months after the attack — “Complaints and Grievances” — in which he talks more about survival than freedom, setting up one premise by saying that dire events call for us to cooperate with “unsavory people” like George W. Bush. Carlin’s more tentative attitude toward the government is a reminder of the anxiety about even doing comedy after Sept. 11. All the late-night talk-show hosts went off the air for days. Multiple journalists wrote eulogies for irony and there was a sense among some that it was almost unseemly to respond to the attack in cultural terms.
Today, we have a more accelerated news coverage and politicized comedy scene. No one canceled a late-night show after the June attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and the sober way talk-show hosts speak after national tragedies has hardened into something like ritual, a part of the job.
In “I Kinda Like It,” Carlin addressed mass killings in a way that seemed on the surface out of touch with the tragedy that followed. In a cavalier tone, he says he enjoys news of disasters the way a sports fan raves about seeing breaking records. An earthquake, he says in an outer-borough accent, “put up some really big numbers,” adding that he’s “always rooting for a really high death toll.”
While this can seem like cheap provocation compared with his more famous bits, like the one inveighing against the seven words you can’t say on television, gleefully imagining mass destruction had been a regular part of his stand-up for years. “I watch television news for one thing only — entertainment,” he said in “Jammin’ in New York,” his 1992 special. “My favorite thing is accidents and fires. I’m not interested in the budget. You show me a hospital on fire and I’m a happy guy.”
What Carlin is doing here is satirizing American blood lust, bringing to the surface the impulse that makes professional wrestling and crime stories so popular. As he put it more bluntly in 1992, “At least I admit it.”
“I Kinda Like It” adds a more baroque voice to this satire of our dark, repressed thrills. After saying he enjoys the excitement of people dying, then comparing massacres and natural disasters in the voice of a demented sociopath, Carlin imagines the apex of calamity, putting every disaster movie to shame.
His dizzyingly dense story includes flood, power failure, traffic jams, global warming, cholera, typhoid fever, and a conflagration that wipes out North America. And then things go really bad. Shifting into a cosmically fantastical mode, Carlin imagines this disaster leading to the breakdown of the molecular structure of the atmosphere and changing the laws of nature. Burning clouds of flaming rain fly upward, the moon explodes and the dead return to life.
There’s a literary quality to the grotesque and often surreal imagery of this story (Carlin developed material in performance but began on the page), leaving behind punch lines and aiming for an almost metaphysical sense of the absurd in which people are inconsequential specks in a vast Lovecraftian universe.
What really distinguishes this from Carlin’s previous work is that it becomes totally unhinged from logic. He was nothing if not a rigorous thinker, who made you laugh by finding his way through arguments that led to outrageous conclusions like his brief against the sanctity of life, zeroing in on exceptions (“Doesn’t apply to cancer cells, does it? You rarely see a bumper sticker that says ‘Save the Tumors’”) while arguing that it’s really driven by the self-interest of the living. But in “I Kinda Like It,” his arguments gradually unravel, deconstruct, and are interrupted by supernatural details and then pure nonsense. What begins as satire devolves into madness, culminating in a nightmarish dinner party attended by bitter, resentful zombies, all named Uncle Dave.
At the end of this parade of catastrophes, these bitter men gather around a table and spew resentments about their children, parents, the government, and minorities. Their disgust spins out of them into what Carlin describes as a swirling “pool of hate” that expands beyond the universe and explodes in a kind of second big bang. The new world that emerges is utopian, and every Uncle Dave wins the lottery every week. Out of disaster comes nirvana.
This operatic yarn is less argumentative than most of Carlin’s bits, more open to interpretation. One way to see it, though, is as a sendup of the terrorist mindset that led to the attack on the World Trade Center and other sites that day, a biting take on an extremist view that imagines that a twisted form of deliverance will come from violence and hate. Seen from a certain angle, a story once too provocative to release might be the perfect example of comedy in the post-Sept. 11 world.
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