George Carlin left it all out on the field. The celebrated stand up comedian famously worked and reworked, refined and finessed an hour’s worth of material for months at home before he would introduce the material to an audience. And even when he took it to the stage, he was still tweaking bits and words, honing it all until he found the perfect sharp edge with which to drive his acidic socio-political commentary and wonderfully puerile jokes home. He wasted nothing and left less to chance.
That is, in part, why this new archival release is so interesting: we’re hearing much of this material for the first time. The material found on this new album was intended for his 2001 HBO special I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th of that year, he not only had to abandon the bits for fear of upsetting his fans, but also change the name of the hour to Complaints and Grievances.
The more important aspect of this collection is in getting a peek behind the curtain at his creative process. The album opens with such a glimpse with a recording from 1957 of Carlin working out an extended bit about the police. The points weren’t as blunt as he would be later in his career, but you can hear his growing distrust of authority and those who wield it.
Watch a video of George Carlin’s 1979 set from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, N.J.:
Much of the album was recorded literally in the two days before 9/11 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, one of Carlin’s favorite places to workshop his new material. Listening to it now, it’s quickly clear why he shelved this stuff. He opens with a bilious bit about living in a nation of stool pigeons who commit the worst sin possible: cooperating with the police. Carlin shifts into childish mode after. He moves from complaints about folks from economy using the first class bathroom on an airplane to joking that when a plane gets bombed, they blame it on Osama Bin Laden when it’s really the result of a dangerous fart.
The rest of the set is much less acerbic and avoids what became hot button topics. Yet, considering how overly sensitive we all were during the months that followed the attacks, he can be forgiven for leaving behind the sharp closing bit that begins with his enjoyment of disasters that kill masses of people, takes a quick turn into a breathtaking verbal barrage by Carlin, before somehow landing on a lovely hopeful sentiment. He eventually found a way to resurrect the piece for the 2006 special Life Is Worth Losing but by then it had lost the dizzying punch of the original version.
What should fascinate fans of Carlin’s and students of comedy is in hearing how he was still molding the material and finding the rhythm that would dominate the final filmed version. If you watch any of his later HBO specials, you’ll see just how much command he has of the bits, landing each one like a haymaker and knowing just when to ease up before taking another perfectly placed swing. He hadn’t quite got there with these bits though he was getting close. The best indicator of that is in hearing how the audience reacts to the jokes. They weren’t rolling in the aisles. Just clearly enjoying a nice night of jokes told by a famous person.
As well, the album offers up, as a bonus track, an even rougher version of the “Uncle Dave” bit recorded in bootleg form by an audience member some three months before the MGM date. The A/B testing of each is a wonderful lesson in the necessity of rewriting and editing.
There’s a wonderful kind of finality to the release of this album. Carlin didn’t leave behind hours of unreleased comedy or an untapped archive of improvised comedy and the like. As far as we’ve been told by his family, this is the sum total of the material that never made to a mass audience. By giving us this small gift, some eight years after Carlin’s death, we can now more fully close the book on his justly celebrated career and spend the rest of our time revisiting and more deeply appreciating the work he left behind.
Robert Ham is a regular contributor to Paste and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, out now via Regan Arts. Follow him on Twitter.