Standup for your blights

George Carlin talks about Littleton jokes, white-yuppie cocksuckers and why he still loves his BMW.

Published June 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lenny Bruce died. Richard Pryor got sick. Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy started making movies. At 62, George Carlin is the last comic of his era who still makes a living on a stage. When he discarded his successful suit-and-tie act in 1970, Carlin took Bruce's place as the fearless, thinking comic of the counterculture. He also became one pissed-off motherfucker, at least in public, striking a me-against-the-world pose that hasn't softened a bit -- not even when he's giving interviews to plug his own album.

Over the years, Carlin has branched out into tame television (a failed Fox sitcom, the children's show "Shining Time Station"), some minor film roles ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Prince of Tides") and bestselling books ("Brain Droppings"), but stand-up performances remain his main gig. And even with 40 years behind him, Carlin is as busy as ever. He recorded "You Are All Diseased" for HBO at the Beacon Theater in New York earlier this year and released a CD version last month. The set is vintage Carlin, peppered with clever slams on religion, advertising and cigar smokers, or, as he calls them, "White pussy businessmen smoking a big brown dick."

The "Diseased" get another piece of Carlin this fall, when Atlantic will release a box set of his classic '70s Little David-label comedy albums. And in the next year, the comic will appear in Kevin Smith's "Dogma," the religious satire dropped by Disney and picked up by the Weinstein brothers. In it, Carlin plays Cardinal Glick, a marketing hustler who runs a project called "Catholicism, Wow!" Carlin says he hasn't seen the film, but he isn't surprised that the Catholic League has already promised to protest. "It's very irreverent," he says from a hotel phone in Los Angeles, "which is probably an understatement."

You call this album "You Are All Diseased." Who are you talking about?

Everybody but me. The whole country. I never like to say, "They're doing this to us. We this, We that. Why don't we have more freedom?" Rather than this we're all under siege thing, I say, "Look what they're doing to you. First, they focus-group and find out what it is you're thinking. Then they take what you're thinking and they change it and then they have an advertising campaign and they re-teach it to you a different way. And then they take another focus group to find out whether it sank in."

But much of your audience must be the same cigar-smoking venture capitalists you criticize. They laugh, think it over for a few minutes and head home.

My purpose is not to change anything. I don't give a shit about this country. This country could explode tomorrow and I'd just move to Ireland. I don't care about America, I don't care about democracy, I don't care about the human race. And I don't care about religion or God or any of those things. I care about friendship, family ties and romantic love. Those are the things I believe in. And I love my writing.

Now the problem with that is that when you scratch a cynic, you find underneath a disappointed idealist. And there's still some little flame alive somewhere that says, "Wouldn't it be nice if only this or only that." But I gave up on saying that out loud because a lot of people say that and I don't want to sound like a lot of people.

I know what you're saying, but that idealist always seems to be leaking through.

And I don't try to completely stifle him because that's the lamp inside of me. That's the thing that makes me the human that I am. It's part of being a compassionate person. But as an artist, I like to push all of that aside for the sake of the rhetoric. That's the key word to what I do. It's rhetoric. It's exaggerated prose and it's done to make a point usually in a very, I hope, funny way. Or at least in a new, interesting way. And the point is not for you to believe it and take it and go home and act on it. The point is for me to hear myself say it. That's kind of a showing-off thing. This job's a job for show-offs. It's called, "Hey look at me. Hey, I only had nine years of school and I can think like this -- ain't that a bitch? And listen to how funny I am."

I notice you have a joke about school shootings on the album.

And I continue to do that material. On the night of Littleton I did that, too. It was great. I wasn't in Denver, unfortunately, that would have been terrific. I was somewhere else and I said, "I didn't worry about guns in school when I was a kid. We were tough. When kids got killed, we did the arithmetic: 35 minus three -- we got 32 kids in the class now." I had been doing that for some time so I prefaced it on that night by saying, "We've been hearing this stuff a long time about how these kids need counseling for their trauma, but you're hearing it even more these days." So I rubbed it in about Littleton. The first few times they were more silent because they thought reverence was expected of them. People are so trained in this country.

How can you still do that joke?

Boy, you need that joke more than ever now. The artificial weeping in this country, this nationwide mourning for dead people is just embarrassing, and these ribbons and these teddy bears and these little places where they put notes to dead people and all this shit. This is embarrassing and unnecessary, and it just shows how immature, how emotionally immature the American people as a class are.

Is stand-up comedy art?

It's not a fine art. but there's an artistic process at work with stand-up comics who write their own material. It's a process of reinterpreting the world so that people are seeing the world your way, through your prism. It's your vision, your way of seeing things. And I am very careful about my writing so I am technically a writer, which technically is an art form.

You know, Arthur Koestler, in the book "The Act of Creation," suggested there was a triptych and a three-part identity to certain artists. And one of them was the jester. And he said, the jester tells jokes and the jester is funny. If there is a bit of a serious idea or a philosophical underpinning to his jokes, then he is also the sage. But if he takes jokes that have ideas underneath them and puts them into what we call marvelous language, then he is a poet as well. There's some combination of these things at work in stand-up comedy.

I want to read you a letter sent to Mother Jones magazine a couple years ago. The writer calls you "a man who doesn't vote, doesn't seem to be politically involved in any way, rails against private property yet owns a BMW and flotation tank, and seems to be as whiny, sarcastic, narcissistic, self-indulgent, cold and bloodless as the baby-boomers in his jokes."

If a person does not want to participate in this culture to the degree that it's expected of him, he has a choice. I could have chosen to live in the woods and made my own clothing out of bark. That's one way of not participating. But once you decide that you're going to have an address, you have now joined the system and then it's only a matter of degree as to how much more you do. So when I drive I want to get around these cocksuckers. So I have a BMW 850. I also think it really looks nice.

It happens that I treat myself to a good car and a nice house. I don't have other extravagances. I have chosen my level of participation in this culture, and it's too bad that we have to do it that way. But things are on a sliding scale. It's not either/or. Aristotle's wrong. It's not black or white, there's a lot of gray and I'm guilty of whatever part of the gray I've chosen to use.

You're 62 now and you've had three heart attacks.

I haven't had one for about six years now.

Well, you don't seem to have quieted down. Do you ever contemplate life with a little more of "Shining Time Station's" Mister Conductor, a little less cocksucker.

No, because my nature is to stand up and be heard. My impulse is, "Listen to me, will you." I used to do it on the stoop when I was a kid in my neighborhood. I had about a 20- or 30-minute comedy routine that I worked up when I was about 12 years old and I would stand on the stoop and I would do it. The idea was, as I said earlier, to get their attention. That comes from not having a father in the home at all and my mother being at work all day. You're alone and you invent your own world but you're missing something and that's attention, approval. So you get it somewhere else. And I would not get it the other way. Something in me needs to do it the way I do it.

By Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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