Some years ago -- maybe about the time Fleetwood Mac played "Don't Stop" at Bill Clinton's inauguration -- it seemed baby boomers would own pop culture until the last of them was in the grave.
But youth has a way of prevailing, and now Dane Cook is the stand-up comic who fills sports arenas. Comedy remains the one entertainment field where elder statesmen still have comparative sway, but George Carlin and Roseanne Barr are both quick to volunteer that they are old and in the way.
The very phrase "baby boomer" is now "a code world for 'old,' " Barr says from her stage at the Sahara, where she is a resident headliner at least through May. She's "wet where I should be dry, and dry where I should be wet."
But, she says, being "old and successful" (mind you, she's all of 55), means she has "earned the right to be drunk and on drugs and as big a (expletive) maniac as I choose to be!"
Carlin probably was yelling at kids to get out of his yard when he was 55, too. Now on the eve of 71, Carlin tells audiences at The Orleans -- where he returns today through Sunday -- he's happy to be the grumpy old man in body that he has long been in spirit: "Don't be afraid to grow old, it's a great time in your life."
In classic Carlin style, he doesn't merely invoke the "old ..." phrase that rhymes with "truck," but proceeds to explain why it's "a special term," dissecting its linguistic superiority to "old man" or "old fart."
Carlin speaks from a position of strength. He seems in better physical and mental shape than he was four years ago, when he was dismissed from the MGM Grand for the dark, downbeat set captured on HBO as "Life Is Worth Losing," subsequently checking himself into rehab to break a "wine and Vicodin" habit.
The comedian returned to HBO for his 14th special, "It's Bad for Ya," soon after working The Orleans in February (these comments are based upon one of those shows). HBO specials are watershed points in Carlin's creation cycle; this weekend's audiences are likely to see the bulk of the set reprised, but jokes will slowly but surely be traded out in the gradual march to the next HBO date.
Carlin stalks the stage with an unflappable rhythm, in stride with how he describes himself as "a writer at heart" who happens to deliver his own material. He serves up new twists on favorite topics, such as the dangers in mass complacency -- "Nobody questions things. We're way too fat and happy." -- and organized religion: "Anything we can't explain, we blame on God."
Up the street at the Sahara, Barr also muses on the dangers of an overmedicated society. "Ever think, maybe we're supposed to be depressed? Maybe we should do something to change the world instead of taking pills. ... Nah."
The big difference here is that Carlin is a consistent brand, while people aren't quite sure what to expect from Barr these days. Carlin takes the stage with a level of trust and respect; passages that go without laughs can mean people are simply thinking about what he says.
Barr is rebuilding bridges with all but the most steadfast fans from her erratic career, and much of the audience on this night seemed to need convincing.
Her 2006 HBO special, "Blonde and Bitchin'," carried a more topical, political slant. Now the comedian has retreated to a more familiar balance, mixing her political jokes with personal riffs on her own failed marriages and bad attitude, reminding audiences of why she first got their attention in the 1980s.
While Carlin is intense and structured, Barr quickly finds a bar stool and tucks one foot under her for a set (with no opening act) as relaxed as her posture. If her comedy is a little messy and contradictory, so is life, she seems to remind us.
"We shouldn't be having our own grandchildren," she says, but also explains she had the youngest of her five children at age 43. "I don't hate him yet," she volunteers.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 383-0288.