During his nearly 50 years in show business, George Carlin has been a radio announcer, anchored a comedy duo, done a Las Vegas residency (from which he was fired), appeared in movies, guested on TV variety shows and talk shows, starred in a sitcom and a kiddie show, recorded multiple gold albums, and penned a string of linguistically playful one-liners that get quoted routinely. He's beaten addictions to cocaine, alcohol, and painkillers, was married to the same woman for 35 years until her death in 1997, and was at the center of one of the most famous obscenity cases in legal history when a Pacifica network public radio station broadcast one of his routines. The routine in question—titled a lot of different ways, but commonly referred to as "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television"—gets cited every time broadcast standards become a hot-button issue. Even with a legacy and a reputation fully secured, Carlin continues to work, writing books (his latest, When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?, was released late last year) and stand-up routines (his latest HBO special, Life Is Worth Losing, premières November 5th and airs throughout the month). Carlin recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his career to date, his comedic philosophies, and how Tony Orlando & Dawn gave him one of his best recurring gigs.
The A.V. Club: This is your 13th HBO special, and your first one was back in 1977, when the channel was still pretty new. Do you remember how you first got into business with them?
George Carlin: No, but I remember that my then-manager Monte Kay, who owned Little David, the record company I was at, said to me that there was this new service and they were going to do specials by comedians, on location, and that he expected that we'd hear from them. Which I guess he did. You know, there was an awful lot of cocaine, and I honestly don't remember a lot of detail about that time.
AVC: On your website's career timeline, you describe your first Saturday Night Live appearance the same way, saying that there was a lot of cocaine and you don't remember much about it.
GC: No, I really don't. Just certain highlights. It's like a lot of things in life, even without drugs or alcohol. Some things stay in your mind for some odd reason, and the rest of the detail is sort of gone.
AVC: Did you think Saturday Night Live would endure as it has?
GC: I don't think anyone ever does. It's a "keep your fingers crossed" business, the entertainment business. Somebody once said that Hollywood is based on a lot of producers deliberately making bad movies, and every now and then somebody gets lucky. Something like that. No, I had no idea that Saturday Night Live would be successful, even after that first year. It seemed like a very promising set of descriptive terms. Sketch comedy, late at night, with a little more license to take shots at the "establishment," whatever that means at any given point in time. Back then, it meant propriety and tradition and conservatism and "the way things are."
AVC: Do you remember why you didn't appear in any sketches in that first episode, and just did stand-up?
GC: Yeah, somebody told me I was going to be in an Alexander The Great sketch, but I think I bowed out of that in rehearsal week. And I know it was because of the cocaine. One of the effects it had on my personality—my moods, my behaviors—was that it inhibited me a lot. It kind of took possibilities out of my world, and made the focus of things very narrow. So I had no confidence in being able to play sketches.
You know, there's a thing about cocaine—when I was doing it secretly, it didn't make me very sociable. I forget how others were, but it made me very inner-directed. So being in a sketch and rehearsing and the "hail fellow well met" camaraderie and all that stuff, I couldn't fake that or force that. It was painful. So I told [SNL producer] Lorne [Michaels] that I didn't think I was any good at sketches and that I didn't want to do any, but I'd do a few more short monologues to fill in that time, so there'd be more of me on the show.
AVC: That's curious, because you should've been a perfect fit on Saturday Night Live, unlike a lot of your other early TV work, where you were an odd fit. Like The Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour, where you were a semi-regular a year after your SNL hosting gig.
GC: Oh, sure. But I'll tell you the attraction there. You can't be the fastest gun in town forever. There comes a time when you're not the golden boy, and you have to go off somewhere and figure yourself out. I did six albums [in the early '70s], and the first four were gold-selling, and the last two were not. I wanted to stay in front of the public in my monologue persona—"in one," as they called it in old-time show business—but I knew the dangers of variety shows were that they want you in the opening number and the closing number and the ensemble, and they want to see you with the other guests in a sketch or some shit. And I knew how bad I was at that, and how much I hated that, because before 1970, I was in that world and actually did that on a number of big variety shows, because I thought it was part of the price I had to pay.
But by 1976, I knew I didn't have to do that, so I told the Tony Orlando people that I just wanted to do my monologues. I didn't even have to be there on show night. I forget how it worked. I think I taped two or three monologues at a time after the main show was over, or during the break… I don't remember. But I was not in the bunny costume, and I was not in the crusades number. [Laughs.] It was just me, standing up. And that gave me two things: a prime-time presence in my chosen persona, and I didn't dilute myself with all that other variety show stuff.
AVC: Did you know there was a Tony Orlando & Dawn DVD out now, with a couple of your stand-up routines? Do you get residuals on that?
GC: I didn't know. I'm jotting that down right now. Just to make sure I get a nickel or two. I mean, everyone likes to get paid, but to tell you the truth, I really just don't want anyone getting away with anything,
AVC: Back in the '60s, when you were more straitlaced, or at least straight-looking…
GC: The Middle-American comic!
AVC: Yeah. Was there already an underground network of hipper comedians and nightclub acts forming in Hollywood and New York?
GC: Well, forget Hollywood. I lived there, but I wasn't a hang-out kind of guy. Actually, when you started asking that question, I went back to before television and I found each other, before '65 and The Merv Griffin Show. Back then, I moved around in the New York folk club and coffeehouse crowd, and though there weren't that many comedians, there was a guy named Ted Markland, and Hugh Romney, who later became Wavy Gravy, and the improvisational groups were getting some traction then, and they were all a voice for—let us call it "the underground." That's such a poor word in most instances, but it'll do. Subversive-type comedy, you know. People who are kind of, like, against things as they were. But aside from there being a few individual comedians around, it was the folksingers saying most of that stuff: "Fuck this or that." I don't know, maybe they had usurped part of the comic turf.
But comedy had already changed real big in the '50s, with people who weren't part of that big pre-'50s mold of "crabgrass, suburbs, my wife shops too much, but every now and then I get to fuck her." All those embarrassing kind of suburb jokes that the mostly Jewish Borscht Belt comics who inhabited that world were telling. In the '50s came Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Nichols & May, Bob Newhart a little later, and Dick Gregory, ditto. And then The Compass Players and Second City and all that stuff, out of which eventually came Monty Python, National Lampoon, and all the SNL and SCTV guys. All that subversive comedy came out of the '50s. So in the early '60s, when I was getting my feet on the ground, that stuff was really starting to gel.
AVC: Was there any awkwardness for you then, doing edgier comedy in the coffeehouses by night and by day playing a goofy carhop in With Six You Get Eggroll?
GC: Well, the space between them was considerable. You're talking about four years, which doesn't seem like much, but when you live it it's a long time, especially when you're, what, 30, 28, 25. I think I did that movie in 1966 or '67. But you have to understand this about me, to understand all these changes I went through. All my life, I had kind of been living with a dual purpose. It was these two things—and I want to call them "A" and "B," for simplicity's sake, class!
Person A would be the outlaw kid who broke all the rules, tried to get by with the least amount of effort, wasn't a big team player, didn't like the people who made all the rules, got kicked out of the Air Force, kicked out of the choir, kicked out of the Boy Scouts, kicked out of the altar boys, and all of that. That was the outlaw kid. The kid who started smoking pot when he was 13.
Now, I was smart enough in school, but I already knew what I wanted out of life, and school was not going to provide it. And when I got to my second year of high school and had all these brothers and priests who I saw smacking kids… I didn't have that in grammar school. I had great, fuckin' terrific nuns. Sweet women. I went to an experimental Catholic school with no report cards and no corporal punishment, so when I got to high school, I was disillusioned first of all by the discipline. And secondly, I said, "I don't need this fuckin' academic shit. I know what I want. I know how to speak, and I'm going to develop my speaking powers, my vocabulary, my knowledge of language, and everything. I want to be a comedian, and I'm going to use my voice all my life. That's it!" So I took my path and quit school in ninth grade. That's the outlaw kid. Pot-smoker, law-breaker, rule-bender. Okay?
At the same time, I wanted to be Danny Kaye. That's Person B. From when I was a kid, I wanted to be like Danny Kaye. Later, it evolved into wanting to be like Jack Lemmon. It had to do with being in the movies and being funny. I figured I'd become a comedian first, so they'll think I'm funny and put me in the movies. And in order to become a comedian, I'll start in radio, because there's no audience there. This was actually my childhood thinking, developed when I was 11 and 12. I remember the thought process because I went over it so much. "I'll be in radio, where it's safe. I'll develop my confidence and my voice. And once I get funny on the radio, I'll become a comedian in some local town, and I'll get known, and I'll get more famous as a comedian, and they'll have to put me in the movies."
So there's the Danny Kaye dream, the dream of going to Hollywood and being a hit in what? The. Main. Stream. The establishment, if you will. And I had never realized the dissonance between the two people I was. I just pursued that life. My life. And there in the '60s I began to live out the Danny Kaye part, being a people-pleasing, mainstream comedian in the mainstream of show business. But underneath, there's this pot-smoker who's now starting to hear folk music and protest songs and rebellious attitudes from other people who don't like rules and don't like authority. And that pulled at me too, so now I had a real clash between my two selves. This all played out in the late '60s as I realized more and more that I had to be true to myself, to my "Fuck you" voice instead of my "Ain't I cute?" voice. Psychedelics helped me to have confidence in those instincts, and to act on them. As it played out, it turned out that I was good enough to make the move.
All that came to fruition after With Six You Get Eggroll. In fact, I found out after With Six You Get Eggroll that I couldn't act in movies. That was also critical. I found out I can't do this shit. Man, they want you to change a little bit here, get out of Doris Day's light, don't lean in too far, lean back, you're off-mike, you're out of the light, you can't do this, stand there, keep your legs crossed, remember this, say it with a little bit of sadness… Fuck all that!
The trouble is that it's a collaborative art, and I was more of a soloist. So there was a clash there, too, that I hadn't ever thought of. I've done a few movies since, and it's not the most comfortable thing for me, but I like Kevin Smith, so I've done a couple of his films. And I still have that Hollywood dream going. It's a hard flame to put out, even after you've had all your rebellious period played out in public. "Gee, if just the right part came along!"
AVC: When you grew your hair and beard out, did it ever cross your mind, "This might be a marketable image now?"
GC: No. Of course not. That would be so inauthentic and un-genuine. No.
I knew there would be that sort of suspicion at the time. "Oh, here's a guy who's going to cash in on the hippie thing." I knew they would say that. So what I decided was, after I got fired in Las Vegas I said, "Good, now I'm out of here officially. I'm finished with this shit." So my wife Brenda and I made a press kit, I got a different manager, and I said to myself, to my inner world, and to Brenda, I said, "I'm going to go back to the coffeehouses and show them this material that I'm working on. I'm going to go for free. I'll go to their hootenannies. I'll go to their…" They didn't have the words "open-mike night" then, but… "I'll go, and I'll let them see not only that this stuff is good, but that it's coming from a genuine spot."
So by doing a few of those—it didn't take many, because those folks all talk to each other—it became apparent that I was attempting a genuine transformation.
Because here's the deal: I didn't do it all at once. I didn't go to the mountain and come back and say, "Look here, I'm different." I took two years, in public, on television, on daytime syndicated talk shows. Della Reese had a five-day-a-week talk show. Steve Allen had one of the incarnations of his five-day-a-week shows. Virginia Graham had the same thing. And they had celebrities on, just like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin did, and they had a panel. And I went there, and the beard got longer, and the hair got longer, and I talked about this when I sat on the panel. I would say I had been doing that, but it wasn't what I wanted, I wasn't happy, so this is what I need to do, and who I am now. And I explained it in honest and sometimes funny and entertaining terms. And I also had material that was changing. I couldn't do on television what I was doing in the coffeehouses or even the concerts by then, but I could at least do the themes. The Vietnam War, and all of the things that were part of the complaints that the youth culture was making.
Here's what you have to remember too: In 1967, the "Summer Of Love," I was 30. And what was happening was, I was entertaining these people who were 40. But my heart and my past behavior and my makeup is all with their kids, who are 20. I had a deferred adolescence because I became an adult at such a young age, planning and trying to execute a career. I never got to act out the stuff they were acting out. So I was made for them, and they were made for me. It was an easy choice. Once the culture had begun to swing, and I had a haven, it was an easy choice to make.
But it was not made cynically, and that just isn't the kind of person I am. I would feel very useless as a human if I were to be that kind of guy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was getting busted for obscenity in Milwaukee in 1972 kind of a validation of your new direction?
GC: Well, no, it wasn't a thrill in the sense of, "Oh boy, I've earned a badge of honor here, as this kind of comedian." It wasn't that. It was an interesting, exciting event, because I had just done a great concert for a lot of people who really enjoyed the show in an outdoor setting on the lakefront in Milwaukee. And I had gotten rid of all my cocaine to the band.
I don't know if you know this part of the story. While I was onstage, the police showed up backstage, and so during the show, my wife, who was on the road with me and our daughter Kelly, came out on stage to bring me a second pitcher of water, which she never did. And she said to me, "When you come off, don't come off on that side where you came on. Come off the other way. The police are going to be waiting for you on the right-hand side." So I went off on the left side, the safe side, and I unloaded all the cocaine in my pockets and gave it to the band, who were very happy. And then when the police caught up with me later, I was clean. So they didn't have their cocaine bust, they just had their, as it turns out, "disturbing the peace" bust. It wasn't an arrest for obscenity, technically. [Laughs.] Disturbing the peace. Of all things.
AVC: Still, whenever someone says "fuck" on TV, it's referred to as "one of George Carlin's seven words." That's quite a legacy.
GC: Yeah, and I'm in a lot of articles that are even more serious, about obscenity and indecency. It's nice to be a kind of footnote in legal history. That's how I think of myself. It's kind of interesting and fun. It's a perverse badge of honor to be the only comedian whose routines were the subject of a case in the United States Supreme Court. The august, history-ridden Supreme Court. And I hear all the time from college students that in their communications-law classes and even just plain old law classes, a lot of professors want them to study the Pacifica case. And sometimes they play the routine for them, from that third album.
You know what? It's nice, because I've insinuated myself into the furniture of this culture, and I kind of like that. Because a young kid who's 11, who wants to be famous… That's basically what the drive is: "I want to be famous, I want to be noticed, and I want to be approved of." That's basically what you're after. "Give me attention, give me applause, give me an audience. A. A. A. Straight As." That's all you're looking for. And this is the most interesting form of it that I can imagine. Much better than what… I mean, Bob Hope would be very proud of his career for all the reasons he would be proud of his career, but he couldn't be any prouder of that than I am of becoming a kind of a part of the fixtures here in America. It's an odd part. It's not part of the main building. [Laughs.] But it's in the fuckin' blueprints.
AVC: Just like you changed your comic style in the late '60s and early '70s, some have contended that you changed again in the '80s, becoming a little bit angrier. Would you agree with that?
GC: No, it's not so much anger. People read it that way, and that's the convenient word to go to. I understand that. Here's why it seems that way. There is a certain amount of righteous indignation I hold for this culture, because to get back to the real root of it, to get broader about it, my opinion that is my species—and my culture in America specifically—have let me down and betrayed me. I think this species had great, great promise, with this great upper brain that we have, and I think we squandered it on God and Mammon. And I think this culture of ours has such promise, with the promise of real, true freedom, and then everyone has been shackled by ownership and possessions and acquisition and status and power.
And perhaps it's just a human weakness and an inevitable human story that these things happen. But there's disillusionment and some discontent in me about it. I don't consider myself a cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist. But I understand the word "cynic" has more than one meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical. "George, you're cynical." Well, you know, they say if you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist. And perhaps the flame still flickers a little, you know?
And so, there's a part of me that is angry. Not in the sense of, "Gee, George is an angry guy!" I mean, anyone who's been with me five minutes, five years, whatever, they would tell you they've rarely seen me in a moment of anger. Yes, I can become highly irritated in a line that's moving slowly, or with a clerk who's incompetent. But I don't yell. I don't get rude. I am clear about what I expect. In a store, my mother always told me, "Ask for the manager immediately. It changes the tone of the conversation." [Laughs.]
So I am not a difficult man by any stretch, and I'm saying that with a full and honest inventory going on. I'm not. And I'm not angry on stage. There is a heightening. There is an intensification of the feelings on stage in order to let them carry the room. There is a theatricality about it. The whole thing is oratory, so there's persuasion involved. There's the art of rhetoric involved. And so, with hyperbole and with the desire to really punch the thing home, some of it reads a little more angry.
Now, it's true that the direction of the material changed, at least in part. Because I had always featured language stuff that was fairly simple and innocent and honest and even sweet and childlike, and other things like, "Oh, did you ever notice between your toes, you have these things." I still did all that stuff. But I began to tap into that other part of me that would've been a great protest singer. I just began to let that part of me grow and live. It was a natural thing, and it just went from one level to another. And there's a lot of that social criticism in the shows now, because what I'm really trying to say to people is, "Don't you see what the fuck you're doing here? What you've done to yourselves? Can't you see what you're letting them do to you?" I mean, that's sort of the subtext. "Aren't you aware of what the fuck is going on, you folks?" That's kind of what I'm thinking in my heart.
AVC: The material doesn't seem to favor any particular political side. It's not overtly leftist, and it's certainly not overtly right.
GC: Yeah, you know, actually, if you dropped me off a space platform onto the ground where a line was drawn, I would fall to the left side of it. I believe the difference between right and left is that the right, for the most part, the bulk of their philosophy is interested in property, and the rights of people to own property and gain and acquire and keep property. And I think on the left—though they blend and mix—on the left primarily you will find people who are more concerned about humans, and the human condition, and what can be done. And if I had any choice to make, I think I would always be on the side of, "Gee, can't we figure something out?"
Let's suppose we all just materialized on Earth and there was a bunch of potatoes on the ground, okay? There's just six of us. Only six humans. We come into a clearing and there's potatoes on the ground. Now, my instinct would be, let's everybody get some potatoes. "Everybody got a potato? Joey didn't get a potato! He's small, he can't hold as many potatoes. Give Joey some of your potatoes." "No, these are my potatoes!" That's the Republicans. "I collected more of them, I got a bigger pile of potatoes, they're mine. If you want some of them, you're going to have to give me something." "But look at Joey, he's only got a couple, they won't last two days." That's the fuckin' difference! And I'm more inclined to want to share and even out.
I understand the marketplace, but government is supposed to be here to redress the inequities of the marketplace. That's one of its functions. Not just to protect the nation, secure our security and all that shit. And not just to take care of great problems that are trans-state problems, that are national, but also to make sure that the inequalities of the marketplace are redressed by the acts of government. That's what welfare was about. There are people who really just don't have the tools, for whatever reason. Yes, there are lazy people. Yes, there are slackers. Yes, there's all of that. But there are also people who can't cut it, for any given reason, whether it's racism, or an educational opportunity, or poverty, or a fuckin' horrible home life, or a history of a horrible family life going back three generations, or whatever it is. They're crippled and they can't make it, and they deserve to rest at the commonweal. That's where my fuckin' passion lies.
But I'd rather give up on the whole thing. [Laughs.] Because I'm not going to be here to see it play out. I just kind of like talkin' about it.
AVC: Does it irritate you then to see all these e-mails floating around with your name on them, like the recent one about the Katrina victims, which attributes a bunch of callous anti-poor jokes to you?
GC: Yeah, the "Sittin' On My Butt In New Orleans" e-mail. I don't understand why a person would want to do that, unless they were thinking, "Let's embarrass George," or "Let's try to give George a bad name," or something. Here's what I want people to know, and if I did nothing else in this interview, I'll get this across: If anyone e-mails you something "by George Carlin," there's a 99 percent chance I did not write it. I didn't write "Paradox Of Our Time." I didn't write "George Carlin On Aging." I didn't write a eulogy for my wife after she died. I didn't write the New Orleans thing. I didn't write "I Am A Bad American." None of them.
You know what I've decided to do? I'm going to get a little cheap put-it-together-yourself website called NotMe.com. I haven't done this yet, so anyone who goes there won't find anything… and somebody will probably just steal the domain name now. [Laughs.] NotMe.com. What I'm going to do is mass-mail everybody on my e-mail list—all those people who know me and like me—and get them to mass-mail everybody on their list. I'm going to create a pyramid, Ponzi kind of a fuckin' scheme, completely blanketing the world by the multiplicity of people's mass mailing lists, with a little descriptive paragraph, nothing too long, just a little descriptive paragraph from me, telling them I did not write these things, and saying "Go to this website." I think that's the way to have a little fun and combat that.
AVC: What's bothersome about the Katrina and "I Am A Bad American" e-mails is that they sound kind of bullying, which raises a tricky question: Do you think it's possible to be truly funny from a position of power? For instance, Dennis Miller, who's always been a smart, funny comedian, has undergone a political conversion over the past decade, and now his comedy is rooted in his support of the Bush administration. And he seems less funny.
GC: For some reason, there aren't as many right-wing comedians as there are left or center or non-political. I read something about this recently that made sense, and I've forgotten what it said, of course. I have great respect for Dennis Miller's mind and ability as a comedian, but I agree that I am not as personally entertained his new material, which you describe as "coming from a position of power." Of course, he always did come from a position of presumed superiority, and I don't necessarily say that pejoratively. He did come from what appeared to be a smartass, superior platform. That's part of what made him work, as a stand-up.
I think your premise is correct, that it's harder to be funny from the position of power. That's a good description for it. Might be a couple other ways of describing it that I can't think of.