George Carlin dies at 71

Read Heather Havrilesky's last great interview with Carlin, in which he talks about cocaine, being a fallen idealist and the "exciting" Obama story, even though he didn't plan to vote.

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My family moved to Milwaukee, Wis., from Long Island, N.Y., late in the school year in 1972, and I hadn’t made many friends by the time classes let out, so I was hostage to my parents’ whims much of that summer. Strangely, they had good, fun instincts, and they took all of us frequently to Summerfest, then a fledgling music festival on Lake Michigan. We saw Ella Fitzgerald there, but most memorably, we were there July 21, 1972, when Milwaukee police arrested comedian George Carlin for doing his routine about the seven dirty words you couldn’t say on TV.

We knew we were witnessing history. And even though my parents were a little bit uncomfortable, watching along with three young kids, they knew the arrest was wrong. (Judge Raymond Gieringer ultimately agreed and dismissed the charges, after Carlin’s album “Class Clown” was played in the courtroom to giggles.) I’ve loved George Carlin ever since, and I was very sad to read he died Sunday at 71. Just last week the Kennedy Center announced he’d won its Mark Twain humor prize.

I wanted to pull Heather Havrilesky’s great interview with him out of our archives ASAP. So here it is. I remembered her last, great question:

Do you feel like you’ve accomplished what you want to accomplish during your time on Earth?

Yes, I have. There’s a quote from Pablo Casals — that probably shows up in research on my stuff, but — Pablo Casals, he was a past master of the cello. He was the virtuoso in the 20th century. He was in his 90s and he was still practicing three hours a day, and one of his friends said to him, “Senor Casals, you are such a past master, a virtuoso of this instrument, everyone knows it and acknowledges it. Why do you practice three hours a day?” and he said, “Well, I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” When I read that I said, “What a wonderful thing to file away as a kind of attitude to have.” Yes, I’ve accomplished all the things I’ve wanted to and way more, I couldn’t have really predicted some of the paths. But I know that there’s a restlessness, you know, artists are never finished. There’s this vague sense of being incomplete, of not having done it yet. You know they say a poem is never finished; it is abandoned. You just kind of move on. There’s this restlessness. “OK, that’s finished, what am I going to do next? Oh, here’s a good thing, I’ll do that.”

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And I have a couple of ideas for some writing I’d like to do that aren’t in the usual mold of what I’ve done. I don’t really want to talk a lot about them, but one of them is a comic novel, and one is a reminiscence, as opposed to an autobiography, a series of reminiscences. If I get the shot to do that, that’d be great. You’ve always got to have something next. You’ve always got to have something out there that’s worth going for.

I’m not sure what he’ll be doing for where he’s going next, but we’ll sure miss him. Oddly enough, I’m going to Summerfest again this year, for the first time in 12 years, and we will figure out a way to honor him there.

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