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Carlin remains his old self, but is that enough?

George Carlin
At: the Wang Theatre, Saturday night

''George Carlin is ancient," a woman in the crowd said before Saturday night's show at the Wang Theatre. ''He's gotta be 70," said her companion, a proper-looking gentleman in an overcoat and glasses. ''He's older than I am."

In fact, Carlin is 68. His hair, what there is of it, is white and his shoulders are a bit stooped, and he only started touring again this month after recovering from angioplasty and a lung infection. He checked himself into rehab not long ago and says he has been sober for 14 months.

But rest assured, Carlin is as foul-mouthed and dirty-minded as ever, and his tongue is still salty and razor sharp. ''Calm down," he told a belligerent guy yelling from the crowd. ''It's not a [expletive] rodeo." His fondness for bodily functions and female anatomy remains, as does his ear for language.

''I'm a high-tech lowlife . . . on point, on task, on message, off drugs," he said in the night's opening bit, taken, as most of the show was, from his latest HBO special, ''Life Is Worth Losing." ''I've been pre-washed, precooked, preheated, pre-screened, preapproved, prepackaged, postdated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped, vacuum-packed. . . . I'm a rude dude, but I'm the real deal." His rapid-fire poems, testament to his extraordinarily nimble tongue and love of wordplay, were the highlight of the show. Dressed all in black except for his running shoes, Carlin talked a lot about suicide, about how one happens every 30 seconds (he looked at his watch) and how great an all-suicide channel would be. He railed on dumb Americans, fat Americans, and shopping malls, and reiterated his love of natural disasters. ''When you're watching a fire on TV, don't you hope it spreads?" he asked.

But what used to be stinging now seems bitter and curmudgeonly. His political rants were clever but hit too close to home to be funny (''It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it"), generating more applause than laughter. Does it qualify as comedy just because he throws in the F-word and other unprintable expressions a few dozen times?

Carlin's ''Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" will go down in history; his status as a comedy legend is secure. But, on Saturday night at least, something felt flat. Maybe it's because his material no longer shocks us, or because we've come to expect more depth from today's comedians. Most of them are cynical, many are political, but they somehow manage to make us feel good, to provide insight or at least an escape. Carlin just kept telling us how dumb we were, how fat we were, how he wished the world would be destroyed in a fiery inferno.

At the end of the show, he did the funny little dance he likes to do and skipped off the stage; it was an unnatural burst of joy from a dirty old man whose edge is less cutting than it used to be.

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