Before I specifically get into the audio albums, I’d like to remind you of my general thoughts on George Carlin, as taken from my list ranking all of his comedy specials:
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.
As brilliant and meticulously constructed as Carlin’s written material was, it was his kinetic and carefully choreographed stage presence that really sold a lot of his bits. Of course a lot of the visual appeal of Carlin’s act is lost when experienced on an audio-only format. One clear example is from It’s Bad For Ya, his last special before his death in 2008: While engaged in one of his favorite past times, mocking the hypocrisy and stupidity of organized religion, he ridicules the belief that dead loved ones might be looking down and smiling on their still-living relatives. In order to further solidify his point, he puts on the goofy smiley face of a dead relative looking down from the clouds, waving and giving thumbs up like a drunk football fan at the nosebleed seats. This tiny bit of physical comedy that gives a hilarious button to the bit is of course lost in the audio release.
On the other hand, some of his performances might get a boost in intensity and clarity when listened to, like the pissed-off sermon of an angry philosopher who’s had it up to here with bullshit. His rant about how euphemisms soften the English language from the 1990 album, Parental Advisory, is a direct audio rip from his special from the same year, Doin’ It Again. Yet listening to it without any visual distractions makes his passion about the subject come through that much more potently. Therefore, as much as his albums after his first 1977 HBO special are basically audio-only versions of the specials themselves, their ranking might not be the same as my previous list. One of the advantages of ranking the albums as opposed to the specials is that it allows us to cover Carlin’s entire career, including his pre-1970 years as a clean-cut comedian. Some of the albums from his discography are omitted, such as compilation releases, bonus discs found in box sets, as well as interview-only releases, such as a 2002 album called George Carlin on Comedy. Otherwise, here’s a definitive ranking of all George Carlin albums:
This is for hardcore completionists only. The only album from Carlin’s early days as a dual act, performing with his partner Jack Burns, it consists of a series of silly sketch comedy bits that rely heavily on the “current” events of 1960, when the performance was recorded. Nowadays, its only real value is for Carlin historians.
A glorified single, this posthumous album finally releases Carlin’s 2001 material that was deemed too morbid to be put out right after 9/11. The runtime is padded out by interviews with Carlin collaborators, and Carlin himself repeated a lot of the same bits in his 2005 special. A home-recorded anti-police rant from 1957 is the true highlight here.
The only solo Carlin album from his clean-cut days, Take-offs and Put-ons showcases a list of his sketch comedy bits from the era. It’s an essential listen if you want to find out why he was tired of this material, enough to radically change his act into the foul-mouthed genius we now know and love. Otherwise, this stuff is too muggy and dated to be enjoyed on its own.
Carlin’s worst HBO special is also one of his least satisfying albums. This was Carlin desperately trying to cover the thinness of his material with overtly exaggerated physical comedy, which is of course lost on the record. This might sound like a blessing in disguise, until we remember that we’re still left with the sub-par bits.
This is the audio version of Carlin on Carnegie, which signaled the beginning of the “Angry Carlin” phase with some charged lampooning of human stupidity. The album ranks lower than the special because it’s filled with unnecessary sketch comedy bits that ruin the flow of the performance.
This is pretty much a direct audio transfer of the disappointing special. Thankfully, it omits any reference to the annoying noir parody intro from the video version, but the performance’s low energy also plagues the album release.
A lot of the material from Carlin’s first HBO special can be found here, even though it’s recorded from a different performance. On The Road essentially works as the greatest hits from Carlin’s ‘70s career, which relied heavily on simple but sharp observational comedy. If you eat up the earlier and better-performed albums, this one won’t offer anything new.
This is essential for fans who want to experience the transition from clean Carlin to “filthy,” long haired, college town-frequenting Carlin within the same album. The FM side covers the baby steps of his raunchy persona, recorded in a warmly intimate setting, and the AM side is a compilation of his most famous clean sketches
Among the usual benign, everyday observational bits, this album has Carlin playing around with more edgy material that became a staple of his career during the later decades. His take on religion being like a lift in one’s shoe once again proves his distinct ability to distill complex ideas into simple and concise descriptions.
Right off the bat, Carlin begins this performance from 1974 by stating his official job description: Thinking up goofy shit. This lively album provides a potent mix of Carlin’s self-described goofy shit with brave observations on social issues of the time.
Carlin spends a chunk of this performance on autobiographical material, openly inviting his audience to experience his unique take on his childhood. There is also an interesting race-based bit that covers his upbringing in an ethically diverse neighborhood. This is a good album to track down if you want to know George Carlin the man over George Carlin the comedian.
This is the best of the pre-HBO, audio-only material Carlin fans can get their hands on. This impeccably paced album begins with Carlin distilling the genesis of his career to being the class clown at his school, and ends with the first appearance of his iconic “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” bit.
If you want to go back to the beginning of the “cranky old man Carlin” who railed against stupid bullshit in politics and religion, just listen to the first track of this album, where he takes a well-deserved dump on the openly corrupt Reagan administration. The specific details of the bit might be dated, but the overall themes are as relevant as ever.
A direct audio transfer of the special with the same name, Back in Town truly shines with the handful of tracks in the middle, laying out a massive bit where Carlin proposes getting rid of the worst people in the country in “uniquely” creative ways.
As if he knew that this would be his last album before his death, Carlin tightens his material as much as possible in order to cover as wide a ground as possible. Therefore it makes sense for the performance to be split into 28 tracks, turning the album into bite-sized samplings of Carlin’s unique philosophy.
I picked Life is Worth Losing as Carlin’s best HBO special. It’s a bit lower in the list here because going through the whole A/V experience is essential in capturing the intensity and the overall point of this amazing one-man performance piece. Without seeing the appropriately morbid set design, lighting cues, and, most importantly, Carlin’s macabre demeanor, some of the magic is gone.
The opposite of Life is Worth Losing, where having to focus entirely on the audio raises the impact of the experience. This is basically listening to Carlin’s HBO special Doin’ It Again in its entirety, yet his righteous disdain for politically correct language comes across better in album form, emphasizing the punctuation he uses on society-weakening words he despises.
This one takes pretty much the same spot from the specials ranking, mainly because Carlin’s unhinged hour-long rant against willful and proud idiocy is just as efficient in audio-only form.
As I mentioned in my specials ranking, You Are All Diseased and Complaints and Grievances work as a double feature for those who want to experience Carlin at the peak of his angry ranting mode. Hence, you can treat the album versions as a kind of double LP.
Jammin’ in New York represents Carlin at his absolute peak, the moment where the consummate professional comedian and the pissed off philosopher with nothing left to lose converge to create one of the greatest stand-up performances of all time. Almost none of its blunt impact is lost when the video side of the experience is taken out.
Want to watch Carlin in action? Here’s a performance from 1979, available exclusively through Paste and Wolfgang’s Vault.
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.