died ten years ago today, but sometimes it feels like he’s never been gone. His anger with society’s bullshit might be more relevant than ever today—in fact his last three specials, released in the ‘00s, often address the kind of close-mindedness and dishonesty that paved the way for where America finds itself today. Carlin’s most celebrated material might date to the ‘70s, but his insight into human nature and his incisiveness as a critic only grew sharper throughout his life. There’s a reason Carlin’s last three specials placed without the top five when Oktay Ege Kozak ranked his entire body of work for Paste last year.
You’ll find those, and all of Carlin’s specials, in the new DVD box set George Carlin Commemorative Collection. This comprehensive box features his 13 official specials, the George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy interview with Jon Stewart, the posthumously released CD I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, and a variety of bonus clips from throughout Carlin’s life, including TV appearances dating back to the early ‘60s. It’s basically the entire life’s work of one of the two or three most celebrated stand-up comedians of all time, all in one easily manageable box. If you watch it in chronological order, from the 1963 clip from CBS Talent Scouts through his 2008 special It’s Bad For Ya, which was released three months before his death, you can see not just the development of one artist, but a reflection of America’s changing values over that almost 50-year period.
In 1963 Carlin was a clean-cut, suit-wearing comic doing unconvincing impressions of Jack Kennedy and Mort Sahl. As time wore on his hair got longer, a shaggy beard hung from his face, and he stopped telling the kind of pleasant but aimless jokes that early TV audiences expected and started targeting all the pettiness and hypocrisy he saw coursing through our culture. The earliest specials in this box, including 1977’s On Location: George Carlin at USC and 1978’s George Carlin: Again!, essentially collect the most well-known material from the run of early ‘70s LPs that established him as a counter-culture icon. If you’re interested in seeing what made Carlin so vital in the early ‘70s, these specials include that material but without the climate and context that made it groundbreaking just a few years earlier.
If that’s the only Carlin you know, or the Carlin you primarily think of, this box should hammer home how the older, angrier Carlin of the ‘90s and ‘00s was the comedian at his best. Instead of growing complacent as he aged, Carlin saw society backsliding with the rise of the Evangelical movement and modern-style conservatism, and responded with blistering broadsides against religion, politics, advertising, and every other specious tool man created to manipulate his fellow man (and woman). As Kozak points out in his list, Carlin’s 2005 special, Life Is Worth Losing, is about as dark as comedy gets, and in that darkness Carlin finds a way to help us at least momentarily preserve our sanity in a broken, uncaring world.
And again: this is all a decade before Trump was elected. If Carlin hadn’t died in 2008 it’s hard to see how 2016 wouldn’t have killed him.
George Carlin Commemorative Collection is inconsistent, as almost any career overview would be. The quality of Carlin’s material can swing drastically even within the same special. That’s not uncommon with stand-up, of course. What matters is the sheer overwhelming amount of truth and fearlessness that Carlin displays across the decades, and usually while avoiding the kind of “smartest guy in the room” self-satisfaction that can make so much political stand-up a chore to sit through. Carlin was certainly bitter, but he wasn’t always smug about it. If you’re familiar with his work, but haven’t seen all of his HBO specials, or are just ready to dive headfirst into the man’s oeuvre, this is the right time and place for this kind of box set.
Watch an hour-long performance from George Carlin from 1979, exclusively at Paste.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.