George Carlin Performing the Way He Was Meant to Perform
Chris Pandolfi | Los Angeles, CA | 03/19/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I first saw George Carlin's "Playin' With Your Head" after I saw his newest special, "Life is Worth Losing," the latter of which was sad to watch. It was a dark and dismal ordeal, seemingly for both Carlin and the audience. Its tone was drastically different from those of his earlier specials, the ones where he actually entertained the crowd with commentaries on life's little events instead of depressing them by pointing out humanity's weaknesses. "Playin' With Your Head" shows the mellower side of Carlin's personality, the one I prefer to see when he's performing. I think that's why I latched onto this special: it became a sort of document for me, a preserved testament to the former genius of Carlin's comedy.
Some have said that Carlin has always been bitter about life, and to a degree, I agree with that; no one with such satirical and dry observations could go through life without being somewhat cynical about things. However, there's a fine line between satire and a hostile attack, and I think Carlin has finally crossed it. Case in point: in "What Am I Doing in New Jersey?" he has a bit called "A List of People I Can Do Without," whereas in "Complaints and Grievances" he has a bit called "A List of People Who Ought to be Killed." The point I'm making is that the subtler, less antagonistic approach of the former bit is the same kind of approach he uses in "Playin' With Your Head." Basically, it makes use of his satire to show how we're all connected as human beings instead of separated.
Take, for example, his piece of material on losing things, probably the best of the whole special. It certainly works well as a straightforward comedy bit, and it's helped by his trademark ability to cleverly deconstruct the situation. Why do we repeatedly check the same place when we know the item won't magically return there? Why is a child scolded for being expectantly negligent (phrases like, "Well, it must be somewhere," or "Well, it didn't just get up and walk away," are very prominent here)? Those are the kinds of qualities I'm referring to, the ones that make the bit work. But it gets even better when you consider he's speaking about a problem we've all had to deal with at one time or another. That sense of connection works in his favor, especially since he didn't resort to anger or hostility (which he's been doing a lot lately).
Another bit that works well is his analysis of the various ways to say hello and goodbye. He effectively tries to show that, for the number of times we actually use them in everyday conversation, we never actually stop to count just how many ways there are. And isn't it interesting that we've continuously come up with our own terms, using colloquial words that only certain people would understand? To this day, I'd like to know who came up with, "How's your hammer hanging?" not only because it's one of the most unique greetings out there, but also because I have no idea what the hell it means.
If there are any drawbacks to this special, it's that it's one of his shortest, with roughly fifty minutes devoted to actual standup material. The other ten minutes are reserved for the prologue and epilogue, a send up of 1940s Film Noir movies entitled "The Envelope." Carlin plays Mike Holder (an overwhelmingly obvious attempt at a joke), a private eye in possession of an envelope that a group of mobsters want to get their hands on. It's never really explained what the envelope contains, but it's certainly hinted at that jokes and comedy routines are included. While the skit works in and of itself, I didn't really think it meshed with the actual concert. To me, it seemed like it should have been its own separate short movie, something you'd only find playing in an obscure art theater.
Despite my nitpicking, "Playin' With Your Head" remains one of Carlin's best and wittiest standup specials. It portrays the George Carlin that I always want to see on stage, the man who doesn't have to resort to unfounded anger or disgusting commentaries on bodily ailments to connect with his audience. I'm sure that those days are over; his last three specials took full advantage of those kinds of bits, and that indicates a permanent shift in style. Why he feels the need to be so downtrodden, I have no idea. But as long as we have specials like these preserved on DVD, then I guess Carlin's good ol' days will always be with us."