George Carlin has died of heart failure. Considered one of the two or three greatest stand-up comedians ever, he started doing comedy in 1960 and recorded his first solo album in 1967. Long an astute observer of hypocrisy, language usage, and material avoided by most comics as too controversial, Carlin became notorious for his use of taboo words when that was a rarity in mainstream comedy. His routines involving the "seven words you can never say on TV" provoked an FCC lawsuit in 1973 that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against radio station WBAI in 1978.Carlin won four Grammy Awards for his comedy albums, hosted the first episode of Saturday Night Live (in 1975), and had 14 acclaimed shows on HBO, many of them also producing albums. Over the last few decades he also built an acting career.
I interviewed Carlin twice in 1999 for a defunct website. Since nothing I could write about him could possibly have the impact of his own words, here are those interviews. The first came on the heels of the release of his CD You Are All Diseased. Following that, his seven-CD box set The Little David Years (1971-77), a collection of the classic albums (along with a bonus disc including previously unreleased recordings) that made him a counterculture hero, provided an opportunity to look back at his career.
The sticker on your new album calls you "our last best angry man." Do you think you've been getting angrier?
No. You know, "angry man" I think is a term that's in the cultural lexicon as having a particular meaning, and I know I play angry -- I don't mean I pretend; what I'm saying is, it comes off as anger to people. I think of it as theatrically exaggerated discontent. I'm definitely a discontented person. I don't live an angry life; I don't have people around me who would tell you they think I'm angry. I mean, no more than anybody else; we all have some of that in us, obviously. So I'm not really that angry, but the tone, the shrill tone and the stridency have increased since 1990, when I first noticed that I had to raise my voice to make the points I wanted to make. So it comes off as anger, and I don't quibble with the word except to kind of analyze it a little more.
I had noticed that you're louder, your delivery has sped up considerably.
There's a lot more energy onstage. I looked at it originally as being more energetic onstage, not waiting a long time for things to happen, but just plowing on and having a lot of energy.
I had been listening to some of your older albums for comparison, and on one of them you say, "Nobody goes right to work," but you sure leap right into this album.
Yeah, I'm past taking a break now, past that stage. It's fun, it's what feeds me and keeps me feeling fully alive and expressing myself. I don't need to be taken seriously to be happy. All I need to do is know some people think it's funny, and some people can take something from it, in a sense. I don't aim for people to be thinking about what I'm saying. But I hear enough people say, "You know, you changed my mind about something," or "You made me think about that," so there's some of that that happens and I'm glad it does, although, as I say, it would be death to try to set out to do that. If that were your main purpose, you might as well make legitimate speeches, you know.
Well, certainly it would be frustrating, since you've been talking about some things for decades and we still haven't gotten our act together and fixed them.
[Laughs] Right, good point, yes.
Speaking of which, any comments on our adventures in Kosovo?
It's just good to see we're doing that humanitarian bombing again. We like to help people, and it's always good to test these weapons. Most of these were -- I forget the nice term they use for them, it isn't coming to mind immediately, it's not just "smart bomb" or "laser guided," there's some other term. And 90 percent of these weapons are that type, and in the Gulf War they weren't, it was the other way around, 10 percent were. These little things are a way to test weapons systems and see if it was a good sale, how to correct it and how to fix it. And of course the people who own everything every now and then need to slap some people around in order to keep it going, and this part of Europe is not part of our marketplace yet. So getting it all straightened out so we can sell refrigerators and salad shooters to people is an important mission and that's why we're doing it.
And of course now that we've found out that they don't work so well, we can go back to the drawing board and get them to aim straight and not hit the wrong embassies.
Yes, that was a lovely little chapter, the Chinese embassy. It's always fun to consider conspiracy. A certain amount of it you have to take seriously, because people with a lot of power do get together and say, "How can we do this, how can we do that?" But a lot of them don't need to do that, because they all belong to the same clubs, they all own the same stocks, they're on the same boards, they went to the same universities, and so they have a common interest without having to have meetings.
I saw yesterday in the New York Daily News that kissing bolsters your immune system, and I thought of your observations about our germ paranoia.
Yes, there should be more, you'll pardon the expression, kissing and fucking, absolutely. I wish I had known that at the time I started on the immune system piece.
Of course, what it points out to me is that what sometimes seem on the surface to be outrageous statements are really common sense, but we've lost perspective and can't see that until it's pointed out to us by somebody like you.
First, thank you, and second, I agree. And see, kissing promoting the immune factor is a nice lesson from nature that kissing, which is an act of love and treating people well, is actually good for you.
This album mostly skips over jokes about Clinton and his impeachment. Too easy a target?
Yeah. Too easy a target, makes you sound like everybody else, and too fixed in time. I have references along the way on some of the earlier albums, along the way an occasional one here and there, that are fixed in time and therefore sounds somewhat obsolete or stands out. But I tried to avoid that as much as I could over the years, because I don't like picking up an album of somebody else's and hearing references that are clearly out of date. I like problems that will never be solved, topics that will always be with us: life, death, consumerism, big business, religion, government, probably a handful of others I could mention -- language. But I like things that stand the test of time, and I also don't like two months later to have to throw something out that I developed. Suppose I developed a nice two, three minutes of something about him and Monica and I loved it, because I wrote it and it's carefully written and it's nicely done and it's working well, and two months later, you feel stupid doing it 'cause it's out of date, or six months later. So I don't like throwing away things before their time. I don't like spending time creating something that's going to be thrown away too soon. That's part of it.
The booklet has some neat quotes. In a way it ties what you're doing into being thoughtful and philosophical. We have reached a point in our society where, if you think, you're automatically some kind of outcast.
That's right. We have words for people who think too much: dweeb, egghead, dork, geek. This is what we assign to people who use their brains. [chuckles] So it's a pretty good indication of how we feel collectively about brainpower, or thinking and reasoning and rationality -- well, rationality I think has a bad reputation, deservedly. But just sitting and reasoning -- it's just amazing that we have these words for people. Grind is another one: "he's a grind, he's always studying." And we make this a bad thing, we brand people, we stigmatize them for being smart.
The big news is Chicago Hope [with a script including the word "shit"], which I assume you know about.
Those who make the rules always break them whenever they want. People who claim there are standards always change the standards and I just think that is kind of funny. It doesn't surprise me that they are doing something like that. It's just a curiosity with me and nothing more.
It was probably the most likely to be the first one to go [of Carlin's "Seven words you can never say on TV"]. Wonder what the next one will be?
Well it won't be cock-sucker, we know that. Tits has been used a little bit. I understand Sally Jessy Raphael said tits recently. Pissed off has been used a long time. You can't generally say pissed on. You can say, "Are you pissed off at me?" on television but a person can't answer by saying, "Well, because you pissed on me." That's still not allowed. So there's a kind of selectivity.
There's also a kind of twilight zone of sports on TV.
Yeah, where you overhear in football games players and coaches cursing, and there's also always being able to read people's lips even if you can't hear them. They never censor for that. They bleep what they say, but you can still see the word fuck formed on their lips. The other thing is that on Nightline a few years back during the Iraqi War, they were playing bombing tapes from the missions over Iraq. They were playing the pilot's commentary. Besides hearing it, you could see it written out on the bottom of the screen. I noticed that they allowed the pilot to say fuck, but on the screen they put f***. I just don't understand that one at all. It's curious.
You've got this big box set out.
Ten years all in one box.
One of the things about your material on Occupation: Foole, especially the "New York Voices" track, is how completely non-judgmental it is. You do the voices and the mindsets. You don't make fun of them. You don't hold them up as ideals. You just put it out there and that in itself is funny.
Yeah, reporting. I think that little cluster of routines from Class Clown through Occupation: Foole is a very brief autobiographical period that I had. The FM & AM album was intended to introduce myself to a wider audience by saying this is where I was [AM] and now I'm becoming an FM person, because at that time the distinction was profound. FM was truly underground and different and radical. So I was trying to indicate that I was moving from the safe, familiar kind of comedian you knew to someone who was willing to take more risks. So I named that one FM & AM. Class Clown was autobiographical because it was about my childhood, my Catholicism, my schooling. Occupation: Foole brought that out into the neighborhood. I just had this little period where I had to say, this is who I am. I want to establish this with you outright. I'll be getting on to other things, I think, but for now this is who I am. This is how I got this way.
It mentions in the liner notes that you went to a progressive Catholic school. What makes a Catholic school progressive?
This would be progressive even today, but remember, this was the 1940s. The school itself was actually founded in the 1930s. There were no report cards of any kind, no grades. The teachers were nuns specially trained and they could only have advanced education degrees from secular universities. The pastor wouldn't tolerate the Catholic higher education. So there was a special breed of them called the Sinsinawa Dominicans that he tapped for that. There was no corporal punishment of any kind. Boys and girls were integrated in the classrooms. There were no uniforms. The desks were not in a grid pattern, permanently fixed to the ground; they were movable and every month you had different neighbors. Everything was pretty much open to discussion short of math, although I remember some discussions there too. In the back of the room almost every day were two or three adults auditing our classes. They were doctoral and masters candidates from the teacher's college at Columbia University across the street from our school. Those things as a whole are pretty progressive compared to what we know as Catholic grammar school.
It's progressive compared to New York City today. We have uniforms now in public schools.
And it doesn't work, I'm happy to say. I had something to say about that on the last album where I mention that uniforms for school children are not a new idea. I first saw it in old newsreels from the 1930s and it's hard to understand, because the narration was in German. In Florida they found that in a four-year period, the kids with uniforms had twice as many fights. I always like to lay out those facts. They always think that uniforms are the answer. Well no, I'm sorry, but they are not the answer.
A lot of comics base their humor on this hip us versus clueless them way of sorting out the world, whereas you are more admirable and dangerous at the same time, saying everybody is missing the point and I'll tell you what the point is and you probably won't learn anyway but here it is --
You're all fucked. You're all diseased. Yeah, I think this species has wasted its gift -- the gift of course being the human mind, the ability to objectify and see things outside of ourselves and know that we're separate. I think we have misused this great, great instrument. I think this country has betrayed its promise. All those come closer than any previous civilization, I have to grant that. I think religion let me down. I like telling people that it's all a big superstitious game and that we are here by chemical accident and that we are now devoted to the pursuit of goods, that we are a nation selling things to each another all the time. That's about the extent to which we aspire. People have hobbies and interests on the side, and there's probably some good serious reading going on all the time, but the trivialization of the whole culture is astounding and disappointing. In fact, the next show that I do for HBO will be called The Great American Cattle Drive [in fact, it ended up being titled Complaints and Grievances]. It's about the fact that we are all prepared for market, fattened up for market -- but not to be brought there to be sold; we are there to do the buying this time -- and that it is indeed nothing but a consumer culture. Education is just a way to indoctrinate people to be better producers of goods and better consumers of good. Because I feel a sense of betrayal from those three sources -- religion, the nation, the species -- I like to expose them. I like to say to people that it's all bullshit. Even if I'm wrong in the degree to which I say it, the kernel is correct.
You've said that you're a perfectionist. Does it take you two years to get the routine tight?
The first thing I do is loaf. When I do an HBO show, I know it's going to run about 18 times and I know I'm going to put a CD out. I don't want to start pulling my show apart immediately, so I relax and loaf awhile and enjoy the benefits of what I've done and go out and do the show as it was on HBO for about six months. Sometimes I start tinkering with it earlier. It depends on if there are other things that I have to pay attention to. After about six months, I begin to pull something out and put something else in and begin to see. I've shaped a lot of these shows in my mind ahead of time. When I took out the things from the file that was called HBO 10 that I used in HBO 10, it was still huge. So it became HBO 11. When I took out those things, it became the HBO 12 file, and it's loaded. I've been very lucky to have this kind of prodigious output. I have a storehouse of things, and every time I begin to write on one of the ideas or something that's half developed, it gets five times longer. I think I could do this endlessly. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I begin then to change the show to amuse myself on stage and hear new things and to show off to the people who follow me closely. The ones who follow you closely are the ones you have to pay attention to so that they are entertained and satisfied that you are doing new things -- the same way I felt about certain comedians when I was a kid. I understand how people who like you a lot feel and think and what they need, so I try to satisfy myself at the same time, and pretty soon I have a new show. And yes, it does take me a long time, it's partly that I'm a perfectionist and it's also just the way I work, in that I like polished, finished, set pieces. I don't range around on the topic a different way every night and save the good parts and change the ric rac every night. I try for the economy of language. I polish it like a poem and get it so it's just right, and then it takes a little tinkering after that. That takes time. You have to do it on stage and then come home and listen to it and see what's wrong with it, where the holes are. So you have to work on it, and there are a lot of other things taking up your time, so it does take a while to get it right.
And the stuff recently has been much tighter and much more quickly paced than it used to be.
That's right. I really learned at some point in the early '90s -- I didn't realize until the '92 show was done, the Jammin' in NY show. I realized that I had taken a step somewhere more positive, an upward step in the development in my comic voice. It's a writer's voice, and I get to perform my own writing. In the '80s, Sam Kinison came along. My stuff was getting pretty tight then. At the '86 show in Beverly Hills called Playing with Your Head, I had some finely, tightly written things, but I hadn't yet tapped into the social anger, the criticism. There was a lot of playfulness, but it was still nicely tightly written. In '92, I noticed that the societal complaint voice began to assert itself. The files had matured over the years and they began to reach a mature stage where I thought I could pull that out and start to work on it. That's not a file anymore. That's the nucleus of something, kind of like an alchemical transformation. That was when it happened, 1992.
Anyway, the Sam Kinison remark: I was in this period in the '80s, I think of it as a drift, where I listened to the material but I didn't now where I was going with it or what I wanted to do with my writing and comedy. When I heard Sam Kinison, I realized, "Oh, you have to raise your voice." I took it both ways, literally and as a metaphor that it's a noisy, cluttered society and this loud media clatter was really beginning to be quite noticeable in the mid '80s. I noticed that you needed to rise above the din somehow and get their attention, as if to grab them by the lapels and shake them. So when I got to Madison Square Garden -- the old Felt Forum, the Paramount, it holds 6,500 people -- it was full of New York energy and it was a live show. It required trying to dominate them verbally and acoustically just to bring that level up. The material had been developed for eight or nine months with that feeling, but I could see that I really needed that. It was good that I was screaming at them almost and being very vehement. That's when I recognized that that constitutes a change in voice. So I've been using it a lot ever since.
Do you think that people are capable of laughing about something if they disagree with it?
Yes, sure. I think it's on a sliding scale that is dependent on how unfair you are being with your presentation. I like stepping across the line and really being unfair about my point of view and generalizing and being rhetorical and not cutting any slack for them at all. That will tend to turn someone off who is in deep disagreement. If you are being more playful and the reasonable side of the argument is more evident, then I think they are more open to it.
I would imagine you get a lot of flack for the last album with the bit about children.
Well the flack is out there to be had, but people don't present you with negative commentary about your stuff, at least not directly. They get all quiet in the audience when they realize that this is sacred ground for them, but there is a lot of logic in certain parts of it and I think they are affected by that. And there are good jokes in there. I have never, never retreated from the first obligation to have good, strong, what I feel are big jokes and to be funny as hell. And then if you have some ideas underpinning it, that's great. If you want to be a little poetic and write the words in a marvelous fashion and have bursts and runs and rhythmic things, that's all adornment, but it's got to be funny, and I think they come around on some of that.
I was wondering whether any of the organized religion types have gotten on your case.
You know, they leave me alone. It's a little disappointing. Over the years, I always think, "Oh, this'll get them." It's really just the occasional stray letter, and I really mean occasional. I will probably hear a little more about being in Kevin Smith's movie Dogma -- I'm playing a cardinal in that -- than I do about my own very vicious attacks on religion or specific religious characteristics or people's beliefs. I don't like them. I think they are foolish and superstitious. I think they don't use the good brain that they would say God gave them. They came in for a lot of contempt because that was the first betrayal I sensed in my life. It was First Communion. They said that you would feel different when the host is in your mouth -- that when the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ was in your mouth, that it was actually his body, that host, and that you would be transformed and feel different -- and it wasn't there. I took this host in my mouth and nothing happened. I was only seven at the time, but I remember the sense of confusion about that. Somehow something didn't fit right. I think that made me weary of their overstatement all the time. Everything you hear about God is all very wonderful. It was all cut and dry, and then I got older and I began to see it was the pain and pleasure thing that I mentioned in the cassock thing. So on that particular one I tend to have a little distaste in my voice.
Getting back to Kinison and some of the other "shouters." How do you feel about their routines as opposed to their presentation? Well, I thought Sam Kinison had some great points to make, and he used flashy and marvelous language to make those points. They were certainly passionately held and delivered. I thought he was great from top to bottom, start to finish. I always felt that Bill Hicks's stuff was unrealized. I realize he died young. It never had the flavor of finished work. I don't mean that he didn't get to finish his work, I mean that the things he did finish didn't seem fully realized for some reason. I was never able to enjoy them outside of the intellectual listening. The whole visceral thing of making it just didn't happen. That's what's funny about comedy. It's so subjective. It's got all these elements that there's no way to predict or profile in yourself. You're there with it or you're not.
I always felt like he was heavily influenced by you. The bits about "instead of dropping bombs on those people, let's drop food on them."
Which is of course, what I've veered away from: solutions. At one point, I said, "Thank God I don't believe in this." Because so many of these social comics seemed like they were preaching for a good result, and that's what bothered me about Bill Hicks. I'm talking about unknowns who you only heard a couple of lines from as well as people who were established. A lot of the political and social comics seemed like they were rooting for a liberal result, a social-democratic result. "We'd all be a lot better if we just passed these bills and vote like this." That's when I really leaped into my own in the early '90s. I realized I had no allegiances like that and I didn't care about the outcome. I honestly deep down don't care if it ever works out for this country, or for any country, or for this species. I honestly don't care. I know that underneath that attitude is a wounded idealist. I know that's a fact, but I can tell you sincerely that once I discovered that I had that degree of emotional separation from the outcome, it really freed me to be quite detached artistically. I never say "we"; it's always "you." It's what they are doing to you. I'm not in it, leave me out. I don't identify with the local group and I don't care whether that group is called the humans. I don't care if it's called the neighborhood improvement committee or anything in between -- state, county, city, country -- I don't identify with it. I'm very sentimental about my New Yorkers. I'm a chauvinist about New York. That's the one exception that tests my immunity. For the most part, I don't care, and I'm glad to be somewhat divorced from it. I know underneath it all I'm masking some wish to belong, but since I don't feel that very often I don't have to pay attention to it.
Somewhere in there I was reminded of the bit on your web site where you talk about your second heart attack at Dodger Stadium. And somewhere in there you say, "The Mets beat the Dodgers. Fuck the Dodgers." I was thinking, "That's a New Yorker."
Yeah, they tore a hole out of this city when they left. I was a young Dodger fan at that time. I was in my late teens, approaching 20. I had spent all of my young life adoring them for their non-corporate image and their warm, human, fallible, blue collar, beer-drinking image, whereas the Yankees were U.S. Steel corporate and the account executives and Wall Street guys were there. Now that has switched. Now the Mets, who were my National League choice, have that kind of suburban following, and the Yankees have the pot-smoking Third World people in the stands. It's a little generalization on both sides, but for the most part, there's some truth in it. They've traded places.
What do you learn from three heart attacks?
You learn a lot about heart disease, or rather coronary artery disease. I never had any profound wake-up call, and it didn't scare me. The thing about a heart attack is that once the discomfort in your chest is over, once they've aborted the heart attack and you live through it, there's no more discomfort. You feel fine. You're the same as before the heart attack. You don't feel weak. You don't feel hurt. You're not sore anywhere. You just lie there and say, "Okay, I'll eat better and I'll exercise. When can I go home?" It wasn't such a crippling heart attack that I had a bad rehab, I just had to take it easy. They did do an angioplasty, but I've had six angioplasties. I'm usually at work the next weekend. I'm definitely out of the hospital the next day. It's hard to take it all very seriously. It's plumbing. It's really mechanical. I know there's a disease process at work, but you get in and clean it. Everything I've ever had could be fixed: a hernia , a bad knee, they scrape that shit out of your arteries. I never had an organic disease/function where things are changing and getting weirder. I've always just had mechanical plumbing shit and carpentry. I'm a very positive person. I'm optimistic about my own life and the people who are close to me, yet I'm not that way about the world. That optimism takes me through the illnesses when I had them. That's really the only stuff I had, that and allergies. That stuff about my immune system from swimming in the Hudson -- it strengthened my immune system. It's tempered in raw shit. I'm lucky, I've got a great genetic package.
Speaking of your genetic package, at what point did your mother actually die and of what? Because on your web site, you've got about four or five choices.
My mother died at 89 out in California of accumulated stuff. I guess she might have had a small heart attack or a stroke again. She had had a stroke prior to that and someone repaired it. She knew it was time to go. My father had a heart attack at 57. His first symptom was a trip to the cemetery. That's the way it was; that's the way it can be sometimes. That's why I was lucky to get those chest pains. My mother and I were arm's length with a love/hate relationship most of our lives. She did great things for me, and she saved me from my father. She was unable to save my brother. He was brutal to my brother. She did magnificent, big, big things. She earned what was considered a man's salary in those days and brought up two boys, yet she tried to be very controlling with me and that pushed me. I'm very autonomous about how I feel and I couldn't take that, so we had a lot of trouble.
How did you pick the tracks for the bonus disc?
I own all of my own masters anyway, so it's all my stuff, and I own all of my HBO shows, which I'm proud of. I've always had a good sense of my stuff, and I saved a lot of show tapes from all the years. I probably have 100 shows from every year, maybe 50 in some years. I just have a nice record of all that stuff, not too neatly put away, but there. Over the years, certain things that were on the bonus tape that were finished products didn't make it onto an album because they were too long. The thing about "Losing Your Place" was a finished piece I did for a year onstage, but the show it was supposed to go in already had 20 minutes about losing things and being lost, so I didn't want to keep going with it. The same goes for "Lost and Found." They couldn't really fit on the album, so I saved them. Some I recovered and found. I just tried to think of it as I would if I was 19 or 25 and I was in my Jonathan Winters phase of loving every word that came out of his mouth. I knew how I would feel if he made a bonus disc like that, so I try to think of it from that standpoint: What would a really devoted young fan like to hear?
To a certain extent, it seemed like you were showing the early stages of how some of the routines developed. You even did the "Hitchhiking" thing twice on there.
That was a way of being like some music stars. That was the out-take, the remix, the slow version, the long version. But they are both very funny. One of them was very raw, and the other was more finished and was closer to the recorded piece. I recorded a thing called "Keeping People Alert." "Hitchhiking" was supposed to be a part of it, but there wasn't enough time for it. I did try to show that a little bit. "Guacamole" was also an out-take. It's just dabbling, and it's just fun, and it's nice to have some scraps and pieces of things that I could put together in a neat little package. And then the disc jockey theme with my opening, and the childhood ones, I'm really proud of them, I saved them. I think they are kind of charming, again, for someone who cares about your stuff. The childhood tapes were things I did in the little arcades around 42nd street and down at Coney Island. You put a quarter in for a minute and you could record your voice. Tape recorders were still being sold on fourth floor showrooms then. You had to go to Sixth Avenue and go up in an elevator and they had tape recorders in a showroom, because they weren't quite consumer products yet, although you could buy them. I had one when I graduated from grammar school. My mother got me a tape recorder. This was just before that era, when I was 12.
As a New Yorker, I wanted to see if I could get you going on Giuliani.
Well, I don't like fucking prosecutors to start with. I don't like that mentality. You're here to put somebody away. I don't like the whole police culture. I don't like the prosecutor/lawyer side of things, and I think he's a mean-spirited prick. And they spoiled 42nd Street as far as I'm concerned. They just changed the drug hustlers to tee-shirt hustlers and corporate animated figures. I don't know how much he and his policies are responsible for what they refer to as a more civilized, genteel feel of city street life. I do get to the fucked-up neighborhoods too, so I know it isn't uniform, but there's something a little bit different, and I don't know how much credit he or the demographic thing with the downturn of crack use is responsible for. I don't know all the pieces. It's interesting to notice. It works against my grand theory of everything evolving into chaos.
It might be that there are just more tourists around and they are naturally more polite.
I think that might be it. There's no New Yorkers left. There's still a great, gritty realistic kind of New York flavor that I get anywhere in the city. I try to have my antenna up to see and notice and hear things. I love being in New York. I know it's a cliche, but it's true. I'll come back here whenever I want to do my Broadway shit. I'll come back and live here and feed off that energy. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje was the Comedy editor (among other things) for CDNOW.com when he interviewed Mr. Carlin.