Love him or hate him, George Carlin has a knack for getting under people’s skin. Since the ’60s, when he decided to forsake the comedic mainstream, he’s never looked back, and never shied from speaking his mind or using his chosen form of expression, standup comedy, as a means to shake his audience into self-examination, whether through fiercely irreverent provocation or by inducing gut-splitting laughter.
The 70-year-old icon is a professed lover of words, linguistically bobbing and weaving—as graceful and fluttering as Ali in the ring or Elvin Jones behind the trap kit—through his record 13 HBO specials (look for the 14th in 2008) and his 50 years in show business. Now, highlights from his epic body of work have been compiled for the 14-disc set, George Carlin: All My Stuff. Carlin recently spoke with Paste from his home in Venice, Calif., to discuss the ins and outs of comedy, and his long, satisfying journey in life—a journey the ambitious entertainer/artist had already mapped out by age 11.
Looking back, how do you feel about the work you’ve done in your career?
GEORGE CARLIN: The nice thing is it really shows a growth curve. The HBO [period] starts at a later time, when the hair’s already out of my head and down to my shoulders, so it picks me up at a certain time. But I’m very happy with it; most of it stands up very well; there’s only a little that isn’t timely. There are some things that have an anachronistic sound, but not many. I am who I am, and was who I was—past tense of Popeye—and I’m happy with it and proud of it. I only wish I were two people, so I could’ve done twice as much.
Watching your standup over the years, the rhythm and the wordplay, it sometimes feels like I’m watching a poet. Do you think good comedy is poetry?
GC: The thing about what I do, and this is true of some other spoken-word artists—this is more than just standup comedy. There’s an element of rhetoric, of oratory in it. It’s an essay, a spoken essay and it’s supposed to have some persuasive power, like a lawyer’s closing statement. So it’s not only a statement of what I believe, but it’s an attempt to make the beliefs I have seem more reasonable and acceptable. Now, as they say, I’m preaching to the choir anyway because I get people who are pre-sold on my way of looking at things. But it’s nice to find ways that are still novel to describe things we all know. That’s what’s fun about it, it’s speechmaking in a way, but with the saving grace of a lot of comedy: a lot of good lines, I really pride myself on good strong jokes, powerful words, not necessarily cursing—they’re necessary ’cause they’re great intensifiers—but words that carry picture power. Strong adjectives, multiple verbs.
You’ve said that you came to realize at a certain point that you “didn’t give a f— what people thought anymore.” When was this, and how did you reconcile that with your desire to be the center of attention?
GC: I needed attention as a kid because I had an isolated life, which I enjoyed at the time. I liked the autonomy, the independence of being alone in the house. My mother had to work all day because my father was out of the picture. And I developed my left brain—mental activities, to be a little melodramatic, saved me. Loneliness could drive you crazy. So I used my brain to work my way out of that. I noticed I had the ability to get the attention of adults and amuse them, and I thought that was nice because it’s like, ‘isn’t he cute, isn’t he clever’—it’s an acknowledgement of yourself, and praise and back-patting, and it’s a good way for someone like me to first notice these skills that he had. And the guys in my neighborhood felt the same way the adults did earlier when I was a little kid—it was approval. It was applause, approbation, adulation—all the A’s I wasn’t getting in school, I was getting on the street corner. In school I was a clown, too, and I got their attention and never failed to deliver because when I did say something disruptive it was usually pretty funny. So I knew I had that ability, and how good it made me feel, so it was a natural homing process to go toward that. The plans I made were decidedly mainstream—to be like Danny Kaye was the oversimplification I gave it. But underneath that, what I became was a rebellious kid who swam against the tide and didn’t like authority and rejected it, got kicked out of preschool, kicked out of the altar boys, the choir, the Boy Scouts, summer camp—kicked out of the Air Force ultimately when I was 20. So the pattern was that I was a lawbreaker/outlaw type, and yet my dream was to be a people-pleaser like the people in the movies. [The two] didn’t go together, and I never noticed. I experienced it as dissatisfaction as I became more successful as a mainstream comedian, getting a lot of television work and getting on to variety shows. I only felt comfortable doing my bits on stage, but even they were very superficial because that was the era I lived in, comedians did that kind of stuff. They were good, I liked them, and they had a little edge of irreverence in them, but they were still people-pleasers. Then all of that changed in the ’60s, along with everything else in this country—this place underwent great changes, and it had to do with the very qualities I was denying: the anti-authority, out-of-step, “we don’t buy it” attitude. So I was able to surrender to that once I saw I had something to offer there, that I had other thoughts that could be in my comedy that weren’t just nice, happy, “how are you” things.
How important is honesty in comedy, and do you think it’s your responsibility as a comic to tell the truth as you see it?
GC: Definitely yes to the second question. But with the first it depends. Think of how different comedians are from each other. If you think of the differences between Lenny Bruce, “Moms” Mabley, Carol Burnett, even Lilly Tomlin, Flip Wilson—every [comedian] who rises to a good height and lasts has something unique about their approach, their content, their outlook, what they want to do for you as an audience. That wasn’t true before the ’50s, and I was lucky to be in on the tailwind and to get propelled so that, when the time came to act as an individual, I was able to make that turn in the late ’60s. But I don’t think honesty plays into every comedian’s toolkit.
Should anything be off limits in comedy? Is there such a thing as going too far?
GC: I don’t think so. One of the tasks of a certain kind of comedian—I count myself among them—is to see where the lines are drawn and then cross them deliberately, and try to bring the audience with you across the line and make them happy you did. The other part is just getting them to laugh, and to see some things that they’ve seen in a different light up until that time. And part of it is to find out what bothers them, where their soft spots are, their hot buttons, and press them. I love doing that. That’s part of the rebellious ‘f— you people’ thing that’s somewhere in me: ‘You think that’s sacred? F— you. Your kids? This parenting shit? I love getting in there with a big gouger and just gouging out their insides and having them sit there, and having half the people enjoy it and the other half rethinking for a moment.
Since the late ’60s, there hasn’t been too much separation between the man you seem to be and the man we see on stage. Do you think that’s accurate, or is there a lot of separation for you between stage and personal life?
GC: There are a great deal of genuine similarities, but many people read the theatricalized impatience I have with a topic as anger. It’s an easy word to use, it’s a convenient catch-all, and they say, “What are you so angry about?” and I say, “I’m really not an angry person, I don’t live an angry life, I’ve never had a physical fight in my life.” Most things aren’t worth, to me, getting angry at, so what you see up there is a disillusionment and a sense of betrayal on the part of my fellow humans and my fellow Americans—that they had such gifts they were given and squandered them in the interest of superstition, meaning religion, and material gain. When I get onto those subjects it brings out that dissatisfaction, that disappointment, and because I’m on a stage and I have to accent it and theatricalize it, it comes out in a heightened form and sounds like anger. So that’s what they don’t know about me, that I’m rarely angry. No one who’s been around me for five minutes—or five years—would ever say they’ve seen me very angry very often. Life is too precious to be using your energy on stupid things.
Do you feel that part of the reason you’re not angry or depressed that often is because your work is therapy, a way of exorcizing the demons?
GC: Yeah. I think there’s no question about that. It’s an outlet. And there is the satisfaction of building on—it’s like a Christmas tree, adding a few more ornaments every week or so.
What do you consider the greatest moment of your career in show business?
GC: The thing I’m proudest of is lasting for a long time at a really high level, and being highly productive and getting better. There’s an interesting distinction between being an entertainer and an artist. On the face of it, I’m an entertainer, a standup comedian. I’m proud of that term. It’s one of the low arts, a vulgar art, an art of the people. But there’s also an artist at work in there. The artist is the writer—that’s the creative artist, and the performer is the interpretive artist. So there are two levels of art going on, and an artist is never satisfied and never content with the present. They’re in motion, heading somewhere, and usually they can’t tell you where, and they don’t know, so they’re just on this path of growth and evolution, looking further into themselves, and more deeply around them. It gets a little high-falutin’ here, some of these ideas, but they’re true. There’s an important moment for me, but it has nothing to do with the external world of show business. For years, I described myself as a standup comic, a comedian who writes his own material. I was proud of that because a lot of comedians don’t. And then, in the early ’90s, I realized what I really was—[the reverse], a writer who performs his own material.
For more riffs from George Carlin on HBO, disc-jockeying, the IRS, atheism, and his iPod, click here.