As far as I’m concerned, the holy trinity of comedy consists of Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks. Carlin fans should immediately point out the paradox of using a religious allegory while describing this great comedian, actor, artist, performer, philosopher and all around fearless shit-stirrer, since he was once of the first fervent anti-religion advocates in mainstream entertainment. Yet Carlin didn’t just hate religion, he hated hypocrisy, bullshit and willful ignorance, especially the American kind. Religion just happened to fit the bill, along with evil, manipulative politicians, a materialist society, an overtly PC culture that softens language to build an overly sensitive world, and the all-around general stupidity of human nature.
Especially during the final two decades of his career, he proudly wore the badge of being the “cranky, unhinged, angry old man railing against a corrupt and misguided society” that made his performances seem like raw and unfiltered regurgitations of his innermost complaints and grievances. The brilliance of his method of delivery lay with the fact that he was always meticulous about his work, slaving over every word, almost never deviating from his writing, while performing it with the grace and dedication of a Shakespearean actor. It takes a special kind of genius to make painstakingly detailed material come off as heated stream-of-consciousness rants.
In order to celebrate Carlin’s timeless legacy, Paste let me rank all 13 of his HBO specials, which actually consist of all of his concert films, since he remained pretty loyal to the Home Box Office until his death in 2008. Before we begin: A 1997 program titled George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy is considered a special, but it’s mostly an interview Carlin gave to Jon Stewart, and has about a 25-minute-long performance, mostly 5 of which consists of new material. So I figured that it wouldn’t be fair to pit it against the hour-long specials. There’s also a 1996 video called George’s Best Stuff, but that’s just a clip show.
Watch a George Carlin performance from 1979, exclusively at Paste.
13. Carlin on Campus (1984)
During the mid-‘80s, Carlin went through a sort of identity crisis, as his trademark broad observational humor was beginning to seem stale and dated. He comes across as a bit desperate in this special, with his physical comedy being annoyingly muggy. However, it does contain two great, famous bits: A Place for My Stuff and Baseball vs. Football.
12. Playin’ With Your Head (1986)
A pointless noir-wannabe intro eats up 10 minutes of this already short and unfocused special. If Campus was too high energy, he’s too low-energy here. The closing bit where he lays out the astute argument that a lot of sports are not actually sports is the saving grace.
11. On Location: George Carlin at USC (1977)
A big chunk of this already overlong special is spent on warning the audience that Carlin will be using “salty language.” No shit, really? Carlin’s a bit meandering as he tries to cram almost all of his ‘70s material into one 90-minute special. The infamous Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV bit can be found here, but he did it with better effect in George Carlin: Again!
10. George Carlin: Again! (1978)
Speaking of which, this immediate follow-up to On Location is more polished and better paced, even though it uses much of the same material. His bit about how we identify and perceive time is classic Carlin in the sense that it dissects the absurdities and inconsistencies found in modern language.
9. Carlin at Carnegie (1982)
Hints of the angry, unhinged Carlin we know and love begins to show itself during this energetic performance. He’s crankier and raunchier than his previous specials, with one of his funniest one-liners (“You show me a pineapple and I’ll show you a cocksucker from Guatemala”) appearing for the first time here.
8. What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988)
This is the official beginning of “old man Carlin,” where he almost completely leaves his fairly benign observational comedy behind and goes for the jugular with targeted attacks on religious and political hypocrisy. The bit about road rage is a bit too long, and his philosophical rants will get better later on.
7. Doin’ It Again (1990)
This is where the righteously indignant, pissed-off and borderline nihilist Carlin comes out in full force. The opening bit where he lists lame and soft yuppie language contains some of the best biting satire of his career. His rant against euphemisms softening our society reaches its zenith with his virtuoso breakdown of the difference in impact between “shell shock” and “PTSD.”
6. Back in Town (1996)
This special really hammers in Carlin’s assertion that America is a freak show, with a grand midpoint bit where he suggests cramming all of the country’s criminals, dimwits, assholes and sickos into four different states and televise them killing each other. His attack on pro-lifer hypocrisy is also a classic.
5. It’s Bad for Ya (2008)
Carlin’s final special shortly before his death proved that he had no intention of softening up or slowing down. His bit about how he can take advantage of people now that he’s 70 is gut-bustingly funny. His rant against the self-esteem movement solidifies his legacy.
4. You Are All Diseased (1999)
Carlin has created various famous bits throughout his career where he spewed a rapid-fire series of words intentionally created to dupe and manipulate the masses. His Advertising Lullaby, where he goes after equally clever and evil marketing lingo, might be his best. His Religion is Bullshit bit is a staple amongst atheists.
3. Complaints and Grievances (2002)
This is more of a spiritual counterpart to Diseased, since it contains the same tone, as well as bits about similar subject material. This one gets a slight advantage thanks to the inclusion of Carlin’s glorious rant about how bloated the Ten Commandments are. The three commandments he distills them down to pretty much covers the tenets of Carlinism.
2. Jammin’ in New York (1992)
Carlin said that something in him clicked when he was writing this special, as he decided to become more brutally honest and open. This comes across during this powerhouse performance, which includes what I consider to be the best bit of his career: A glorious piece of dark poetry about how Earth doesn’t actually need us (“The planet is fine, the people are fucked!”).
1. Life is Worth Losing (2005)
Even a lot of Carlin’s most ardent fans find this one to be too dark and morbid to work as a comedy special. But as a performance piece, a one-man show about all of human folly, it’s as close as we’ll get to any piece of modern philosophy. From the ecstatic Modern Man rant, to a passionately absurdist depiction of the end of times, this is as unfiltered and razor-sharp as it gets.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter and two King Charles Spaniels.