Saturday, October 02, 2004

The greatest stand-up comedian ever? George Carlin

I know that the standard answer to this comedy question has always been Richard Pryor, but after my TiVo recorded George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy, I’m going to have to say that I disagree. When judging by the characteristics of quality, quantity and longevity, no one is seeing George. No one. Honestly there are only two people even worthy of comparison.

Richard Pryor. I worship at the altar of Pryor just like everyone else who is even remotely serious about funny. But the harsh reality is that he hasn’t produced anything of note since the 80s. In that time, Carlin has done 6 more HBO specials to bring his total to 12. 12! This is not an indictment against Pryor. I’m sure that a healthy, motivated Richard Pryor could have been writing and performing on an extremely high level for all those years. It’s just that he wasn’t and didn’t. Carlin did.

Bill Cosby. Again, I can’t overstate my worship of this man. And he’s been at it just as long as George Carlin has. The difference is that Carlin is still touching you in that place that great stand up is supposed to touch you. While Cosby is basically your silly grandfather character that can entertain you with clever lines and some goofy faces, Carlin is the other, scary grandfather who was in the war and is just a little bit disgruntled and frustrated by his country. You’re almost afraid of him because of his attitude, but you know that he’s speaking the truth.
I understand that I’m leaving a lot of incredible comics out of the debate. And that doesn’t mean that I’m giving them short shrift. I do everything that I can do bring up guys like Dick Gregory and Bob Newhart in conversation. Even though I hate the modern day incarnation of Woody Allen, I treat his stand-up albums like necessary homework assignments. Of course every performer of any kind owes something to Lenny Bruce. I just think that Carlin, Pryor and Cosby were head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of overall ability, success and influence.


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