George Carlin is not stand-up comedy’s elder statesman. “Elder” and “state” imply a type of establishment, which Carlin has always successfully avoided.
There’s the old adage that all comedians secretly wish they were rock stars. As such, maybe Carlin is the Jimi Hendrix of stand-up. The gold standard. The undisputed great one. And like a benevolent guitar god, Carlin did indeed rock the crowd Sunday at the State Theatre.
Two years after his last HBO special, Carlin treated the audience to about 70 minutes of brand-new material. Almost unbelievably, his new observations, complaints and grievances remain as hilarious as any classic material from his exhaustive comedy catalog.
Unlike Lewis Black, who less-than-gracefully tried to weave test material into his act in November at the State Theatre, Carlin was upfront from the beginning. He glanced frequently at a huge stack of papers, confiding in the crowd that he’d rather tell the jokes as intended. Carlin said the notes could be distracting, but he rightly shrugged the anxiety off quickly. After all, with the respect he commands, no one came to heckle Carlin.
The comedian trudged on stage wearing a jacket and baseball cap, muttering profanely about how old theaters are always too cold. He referred to his body temperature and the mood of the crowd.
“I’ll take the jacket off when I get warmed up,” he said.
Once he knocked his first joke out of the park, off came the hat and jacket.
Much of Carlin’s set was a sharp departure from “Life is Worth Losing,” his previous HBO special, which though raucously funny, was not exactly the most uplifting comedy special. It was one man’s tirade against humanity, just good old-fashioned hating on the planet and fun with nihilism. He talked about his 18-month tour with that material.
“I got a little depressed,” Carlin said.
So what would Carlin’s cure for the doldrums be? Only some of the filthiest jokes ever performed for an audience. He made audience members laugh at incest and child abuse more than they probably ever had before.
“I hope some of you actually are deeply offended,” he said.
Pants-crapping and fellatio aside, Carlin saved the best material for his perennial topic of choice: religion. Making fun of religion is the greatest taboo in comedy. But religion is most deserving of ridicule since the topic has been avoided for years. And nobody delights in screwing with Christians like Carlin. A self-proclaimed “recovering Catholic,” Carlin has been making faithful Christians squirm in their seats since the ’70s, with his war stories from the Catholic school trenches and mockery of the pope thrown in for good measure.
His act included more than pointing out the stupidity of yarmulkes and the pointed hats of the papacy. Carlin expressed genuine fear about the power of religion in the world today, coupled with old-school nuclear paranoia.
“Every major religion has the bomb now,” Carlin said, referring to Muslim Pakistan, Hindu India and Protestant America. “How long before the fringe religions get the bomb?”
Historians can now cite Carlin as the first to ponder when Scientology will have a nuclear weapon to call its own. May L. Ron Hubbard have mercy on us all.
Of all the highlights of Carlin’s performance Sunday, it’s hard to gauge which aspect of the show was most satisfying. He still has fresh material after more than 30 years of performing. Any random 30 seconds of it is funnier than Dane Cook’s entire act.