Review: George Carlin’s “It’s Bad For Ya”

Aug 5, 2008 1:20pm

  The death of George Carlin in late June left a huge void in the comedy world.  Over the last forty years or so he was one the most consistently, intelligently outspoken comedians of our time.  He had taken stand-up to a whole new level.   His albums would make you think as much as they made you laugh.  In fact, George Carlin was so brilliant that he could magically make you laugh at things which in other context you might otherwise find offense.  But Carlin was always an equal-opportunity offender and he wasn’t afraid to stir the pot.  His most famous bit, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” (from his classic 1972 album, “Class Clown”) pretty much proved that.  Over the years, people expected Carlin to make clever observations and tell it like it is with an honest perspective. He was always true to himself.  Like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, he was never one to sit and bow to social conventions if he had questions.  Questioning social conventions was one of Carlin’s favorite pastimes.  What he did over the years in the field of language analysis should have earned him an honorary degree in linguistics. He was a master at picking apart words and phrases that we commonly use and explaining why they make absolutely no sense.  “It’s Bad For Ya” is sadly Carlin’s last album, recorded just months before his death.  It also sums up all that was good about his work.  His no-nonsense approach was still intact.  Right from the beginning of the record Carlin comes out fighting, singling out Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Dr. Phil complaining that he’s sick of being told who his heroes should be in this country.  He doesn’t have kind words for his three subjects. It seems appropriate yet a little bit upsetting that so much of the album is about death.  Carlin had crossed the line of seventy and so maybe he had felt death’s approach, but to hear him make jokes about crossing dead people out of the address book after they’ve been dead for six weeks hits a little close to home when you consider that this album has been released roughly six weeks after Carlin’s own death.  For all we know, that may have been Carlin’s own idea of a sick little joke. He says that he’s sick of people saying old relatives are “smiling down” on them and says there’s got to be a more interesting afterlife than simply watching over the living. Age is definitely on Carlin’s mind as he explains the difference between an “old man,” an “old fart” and an “old f___.”  He considers himself to be in the third category.    He questions the existence of Heaven and Hell and wonders if there is a Hell, whether your parents and grandparents are there.  Elsewhere, he discusses how kids aren’t allowed to be kids anymore with play-dates, planned out schedules and specialized summer camps.  “When does a kid ever get to sit in a yard with a stick anymore?” he asks.  “Do today’s kids even know what a stick is? You sit in a yard with a … stick and you dig a … hole.  And you look at the hole and you look at the stick and you have a little fun.”  Only Carlin could explain such an act of child’s play so eloquently! (Please note my playful sarcasm!) Carlin then goes off on the “self-esteem movement” and how every kid has to be a “winner,” and how no kid is told he’s a “loser” until he’s in his twenties and gets fired from his first job.  To him, this is an important lesson. He goes out on a limb and says that “every child is clearly not special!”   Some may find his criticisms to be harsh, but Carlin’s got logic on his side underneath his grouchiness.  If it is true that “every child is special, what about every adult?  Isn’t every adult special, too? And if not, then at what age do you go from being special to being not so special?  And if every adult is special, that means we’re all special which means the idea loses all of its … meaning!” Elsewhere on the record, Carlin is in typical form, complaining about people who waste his time telling him endless stories he doesn’t want to hear.  He doesn’t want to hear about your kids.  He doesn’t want to see pictures of your kids.  He doesn’t want you to waste his time on the phone.  In short, Carlin comes off like your bitter, grouchy, yet hilariously endearing uncle.  Somehow beneath the bile, he’s able to still make you like him.  He can say the meanest, most horrifying thing and make you say, “That’s awful, but I understand why he feels that way.”  It’s his consistent point of view.  Later in the disc, he discusses contradicting hat philosophies in different religions.  He says as a Catholic he was told that he had to remove his hat in church “to honor the presence of God.” But he was also told that God was “everywhere.”  So he asks, “If God is everywhere, why would you even own a hat?” He then sums it up by saying, “Personally, I would never want to be a member of any group where you either have to wear a hat or you can’t wear a hat.” He ties it all into wondering why you have to take off your hat as a flag passes by.  Carlin questions these traditions because he wonders what they really mean.  He then goes into a lengthy bit about whether “God Bless America” really means anything more than “good luck.” He says that God is supposed to love everyone equally and why would he start playing favorites? This then leads us into our finale, a classic bit about how we have no rights.  Rights are not “God-given,” he says, because each country has a different number of rights on the books and in this country we have had to go in and add onto the Bill of Rights a number of times.  If rights were “God-given” no one would go hungry.  This is a fitting close to Carlin’s last record.  He was always about making big statements. All throughout, he continues to wonder why people don’t ask more questions when it comes to our “made up” traditions.  He says it is just as important to teach children to question what they read as it is to teach them to read.  In essence, this isn’t your average stand-up record.  This is also a civics lesson and a raunchy motivational speech.  Recently, even at times when every other word had four letters, Carlin had sounded like a wise prophet, telling you what you should know, picking apart society with a fine slice of wit.  He had no peers.  Most comedians of his caliber stopped being comedians and started being actors.  George Carlin was the trusty warhorse who continued to do stand-up until the very end.  He never ran out of fresh insight or things to say.  He never went soft.  He was always true to himself.  Most of all, even though he was grey and bald, he never let himself get old.  He was sharp as a knife.  Sadly there will never be another George Carlin.  At least he left us a large pile of comedy records and stand-up specials.  These should be studied and enjoyed for many years to come.  They will make some of us laugh and they will offend others.  Whether you agreed with his records or not, you had to admire his integrity.  On “It’s Bad For Ya,” Carlin sounds full of life.  It’s weird to think he is now dead.  It’s a horrible loss, but one thing is for sure. —   He’s definitely not “smiling down” on us.    

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