No. 2: George Carlin
What can you say about George Carlin that hasn’t already been said? You can cross apply pretty much everything we talked about with Richard Pryor for Carlin. He changed the game. He ushered in an era of no-holds-barred, raunchy yet brilliant comedy. He pioneered political talk on the stage. He hosted the very first episode of Saturday Night Live and was among the most frequent guests on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.
He served as an inspiration to probably everyone else on this list and he did so while releasing a new special nearly every single year of his comedic life including his final brilliant work, It’s Bad For Ya, filmed just four months before he died.
He has the classic bits like “Seven Dirty Words” or “When Are We?” and the more recent stuff like “Advertising” that it’s almost hard to believe come 30 years apart. The ultimate comedian’s comedian, Carlin is the greatest workhorse in the history of the business and is responsible for more elite-level stand-up than several other comedians on this list combined. No slight to them, he just produced that much in terms of quality content. He would also most assuredly hate the idea of anything he did being called “produced” or “content.”
A thinking man’s comedian, his words could be anything from flowing poetry to biting critique, and sometimes both at the same time. There’s no club he didn’t have in his bag and watching him on a stage is like watching LeBron James on a basketball court. He was just on another level. The greatest craftsmen in stand-up history.
So, with all that said, why isn’t he No. 1 on this list? For many early iterations of this list, Carlin was the top dog and I struggled for a while over whether or not to leave him there. I must admit, the issue comes down to a personal one. As much as Carlin is undeniably great and while I tend to agree with even his most pointed criticisms of society, there is just a bit too much cynicism in his work for me to put him over the person I truly believe deserves to be number one.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with cynicism as comedy, however, while I did claim there is no club Carlin does not have, I do feel like my top comedian does a better job of talking about some of the darkest corners of society without such an absolute certainty that people are fundamentally bad. It occasionally leads to him straw-manning people with a different opinion. For the most part, though, he speaks from experience. But his experience leads down a path of complete lack of faith in institutions and really in humanity, and I just can’t go that far with him.
Again, that’s a personal preference, but I just couldn’t give the top spot to a guy who I can only listen to for about two hours at a time before I become angry. And I don’t listen to or watch comedy to become angry.
Now, this is all splitting hairs which we have to do when we get this high on a list. Every critique I just made of Carlin could apply to my favorite non-stand-up comedian; Jon Stewart. These slight critiques should not be mistaken for a lack of respect for what Carlin accomplished in his life.
Truly one of the funniest people to ever appear on a television, George Carlin is a constant reminder that laughing and having a good time doesn’t mean turning off your brain.