Curious George

Preparing for his 14th HBO comedy special, George Carlin waxes philosophic on the freedom that comes from not giving a #%&@.

Published February 28, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

We're not accustomed to thinking of comedians as cultural commentators, but a performer as sharp and defiant as George Carlin is just the person to call this outdated separation of high and low culture into question. Carlin made a name for himself with comedic bits aimed at provoking conventional Americans, but he cemented his status as a pop-cultural icon by digging deeper, illustrating his gripes about American politics and culture with the imagination and insights of our most ambitious contemporary writers.

Over the course of 50 years in show business, Carlin appeared 11 times on "The Ed Sullivan Show," hosted the first broadcast of "Saturday Night Live" in 1975, and pushed boundaries with his classic piece "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." He's written three books and recorded more than 20 albums, but at age 70 his passion for his work hasn't dimmed. On Saturday, Carlin's live special "It's Bad for Ya" will air on HBO, his 14th performance on the cable channel since 1977.

Speaking on the phone from Las Vegas where he had performed the night before, Carlin sounded much friendlier than his peevish onstage persona would suggest, and his voice took an unabashedly romantic tone as he discussed his creative process and looked back with gratitude over the long arc of his career as a comedian and entertainer. Could this really be the same guy who claims that when the apocalypse comes, he'll be cackling happily from the sidelines?

Do you have any subjects that you regret joking about?

No, not really. I'm very happy with everything that's happened. That's a good way to feel. I've had a very lucky life. I've been very productive as a writer, and I've been able to produce a lot of material. You hear about writer's block and you hear about someone who says, "I have a great 40 minutes and I can't get beyond that." Well, it just turns out that's not my problem. I found that out along the way. Somewhere in the '90s, I found my voice.

In the '90s?

Yeah, I had a voice of sorts until then and it worked fine, but I really kind of matured into a craftsman at that time. But the writing also matured. You know, for many years in interviews I would like to point out that I wrote my own material, because a lot of people don't. Even people who you think write their own material don't. I always pointed that out. But around then, instead of being a comedian who wrote his own material, I was really becoming a writer who performed his own material. It's a very significant shift.

I noticed that, looking at the older clips, the newer stuff is much more playful and vivid and full of imaginative digressions -- that feels like inspired writing.

They're like essays, or set pieces. In school as a boy, I was a smart kid, I could master the material, but I was a showoff and eventually a fuck-up too. I was always getting into trouble for this or that and I didn't do my homework. I was a smart but not a good student. So now, with these essay-type things, the good student is doing his homework, and at the same time, the showoff gets to perform it. So I'm complete. I'm integrated. And it just feels like a sure thing. It feels really good to know that about myself because they always said to me, "Oh, you're on the wrong path. You'll never amount to anything. You're not using your brain." And I knew that I wanted to be a comedian, and I knew that I had a way of going about it, and it worked out for me. That dream started in the fifth grade, so it feels nice that I've come full circle and I'm getting good marks for my work.

Do you feel that, now that the good student is doing his homework, you actually enjoy the process of creating more?

Yeah, absolutely. It's so much fun. That's because you're doing something you love, that you're good at. Anytime you're doing something you love that you're good at, the only thing you have to add to that is recognition for it, and you've got the package for success or happiness or whatever you want to call it. It's just so great! And when word processing came along, that's what pushed me from Stage 1, I think, to Stage 2. To be able to move text like that, it's just such a magic feeling as things fall into place, and then you patch them up and you polish them.

Was there a time when the ends or the success overshadowed the process?

This has been a path for me, and I wasn't who I am now before, in the '70s when my first real burst of being hot and being famous happened. I'd had pretty good exposure on television all through the '60s, I was on 11 "Ed Sullivan Shows" and "Flip Wilson" -- all the shows. I had exposure and what you would call a history of success. But my real blast came in the '70s with the albums and "Little David," and that's when I got into the cocaine. And I was kind of operating on autopilot then. I was producing things in a very haphazard way onstage, and piecing them together. I didn't type them out or anything. It was kind of chaotic. And then that slowly began to change.

Do you miss the fun of the chaotic times now that your life is more sane?

No, no, no, no. I mean, it was artificial fun, really. It wasn't real fun. It was just doing what you could do, what you had to do at that time.

What everyone was doing.

Yeah, and it didn't feel like a way to live.

How many years did you live that way?

I probably screwed around like that for three or four years. It doesn't seem like long for a person, but it's a long period of time, because you have to adjust after, when you're coming out of it.

You've been pretty consistently grumpy over the years. Do you hate a lot of people?

Not really. The word "hate," that's a convenient word we use. But I don't live angrily. I don't live with hate. I don't have any grudges in life. I've never held grudges. I've never had resentment. I see people who have that and I think, "What a waste of time." I've really never been in a fight.


Never, never. And I don't lose my temper. I mean, I can get irritated, I can get mad and angry about something, which is a good, healthy thing, I guess, but no. Anyone who's been around me for five minutes or five years would have to say that I'm pretty even-tempered, and I'm pretty open with strangers and fans and stuff.

The closest I can get to that [anger] is to say that, at some point there leading into the '90s, I divorced myself from any stake in the human adventure or the American adventure. That sounds kind of pompous so let me just break that down. What I decided was that I didn't give a fuck about what happens on this planet to these people. I mean, I see the nice things in people, I see the good things, but I also see what a depraved, sick species we are, the only species that kills its own for personal gain.

I'll go back to square one on this: We squandered a lot of gifts. Human beings were given a lot of great gifts. We were given the ability to reason, this extra-large brain, walking erect, having binocular vision and the opposable thumb, and all of these things, and we had such promise, but we squandered it on goods and superstition. We gave ourselves over to the high priests and the traders, and they are the ones we allow to control us. I think that's a huge mistake and it's disappointing to me. Now, the corollary is, America was given great gifts, this ideal form of government, this most improved form of self-government that has ever come along up until that time, and we squandered it. And once again, on the same two things: gizmos and toys and gadgets -- goods, property, possessions -- and also this country is far too religious for its own good.

So at some point, I drifted away from feeling any allegiance. Abraham Maslow the psychologist once said, "The fully realized man does not identify with the local group." Boy, when I read that, I said, that's me. I don't identify with city, state, government, religion, association, county, organization or species, even. And what I realized was that this feeling of alienation from all that gave me a kind of emotional detachment that was very valuable artistically. To be able to look at things and not give a fuck. To not have a rooting interest in the outcome. I don't really care what happens in this country. I'll be honest with you. I don't give a fuck what happens. I don't give a fuck what happens to this earth, because it's all temporal and it's all bullshit.

You sound like a fallen idealist.

That's it. You've got it exactly. I don't feel cynical -- I feel more like a skeptic and a realist -- but, if cynical I am, they have said that if you scratch a cynic you'll find a disappointed idealist. And that's a fact. I'm sure that flame flickers.

And I'm very excited, for the sake of itself, for this Obama story. It's very wonderful to watch and to follow and to read, because it is so different from what America has allowed itself to do. And I don't know that it goes anywhere, and I'm not investing in it, but I do enjoy witnessing it. I think it's a very exciting story.

Well, then, are you actually going to vote for him? [Carlin has said that he doesn't vote and hasn't voted for anyone since McGovern.]

No, still no. I can't do that. Because then I'm hooked into a result, then I'm a cheerleader. I don't want to be that. If that man is going to win, or if anybody is going to win or lose, it's not going to be by one vote, I don't give a fuck what they say about Florida. You know, one vote doesn't mean anything, and I can't throw in my hands with this process, because then I become a part of it, even to a very small degree, and a tool of it, and I don't want to do that. I like sitting over here on the sidelines.

But by sitting on the sidelines, you're depending on the others to participate, so that you can be a spectator.

Yeah, well, but if it all exploded today or tomorrow I wouldn't give a fuck.

So you're really just protecting yourself emotionally from caring about a country and a world that's falling to pieces.

That's a great analysis. That's beautiful. That's fine. I can't help it! I'm human.

I'm sure it feels better than giving in to the dread the rest of us feel over the sorry state of things.

It absolutely does feel much better. I see your point, and your point is accurate. I mean, that's the way I feel.

But I think most people would say that's an irresponsible stance, too. You're putting yourself above it and not taking responsibility by saying, "OK, I'm just going to be a spectator to this; my calling is to observe the madness."

No, I don't use words like "calling."

You're a stickler for words!

I do feel that when you're born into the world, you're given a ticket to the freak show, and when you're born in the United States, you're given a front-row seat. And some of us have notebooks. Some of us who sit there have a pencil and a notebook, and so that's what I want to do. Because we're dealing with an imperfect human animal and an imperfect human system. I'll never have the ideal form of the thing I'm describing, so there will always be threads hanging out the side of it that a person can unravel and pick at and say, "Yeah, but ..." That's fine with me, I have to cop to those things. But as close as I can get to having a system where I can operate in this manner, I think I have found a way to do that. But I agree with you, it's not perfectly ordained. It's not really ... Uh ...

Rhetorically unimpeachable.

You can criticize it from several angles and good arguments can be made and I respect that. So now I'm the defiant adolescent again. Fuck you people.

Well, every stance comes down to that, right? It's just a choice -- you can either rationalize it or not.

Yeah. Fuck you people!

So that's your mantra.

Not one by one. Just as a group.

You've divested your interests in this world. When did this happen? You said the early '90s?

Well, in 1992 I had that piece called "The Planet Is Fine, the People Are Fucked" arguing that the creation of humans may have been nature's way of finding out how to make plastic. It was better stated and longer, but that was the period when I noticed that the writing had become very important to me. The 1990 show and the 1992 show. The 1992 show was the best example of the thing I'm talking about; that's when I grew into it. And I would say that this attitude occurred around that time, and I don't think it was a "Eureka!" moment, although at one point I must've put it into words for myself, but I think it was a slowly growing thing. And I was probably looking for a way to justify that I didn't give a fuck, so I created this nice system.

It's almost like a twisted version of Buddhism. You're not attached to the outcome.


But if there were an apocalypse, like the nightmare scenario you describe in your bit on natural disasters, you might have to dive into the fray with the rest of us, or pick up a rifle and defend the cans of beans in your cabinets.

I'm always practical.

Do you imagine these scenarios? Like, "I might have to blow my neighbor's head off if he comes over wanting to eat my cans of beans"?

I certainly have thought about variations on that, yes.

Who's your favorite working comedian?

The one I mention the most is Lewis Black, because he has a very coherent worldview, although it doesn't sound like it when he's doing it, and he has this wonderful controlled anger and frustration. I don't know how theatrical it is. I know him a little bit and he doesn't seem terribly screwed up or anything. But I just love his material. I love his work, the way he attacks things -- and by that I mean attack when you're playing the piano. His approach.

Have you ever seen a comedian on TV mention you as an influence, and you loved their work and you thought, "Yes!"

I've seen it sometimes, and it's just a nice, satisfying thing. It's nice to feel that you've added something to the thing that you do, in my case being a stand-up comic. It's a very ordinary kind of a vulgar art. The low art, a people's art. It's just nice that I've created my path myself. A lot of people have helped me along the way, but I set out the diagram for myself as a youngster, and I was able to follow it pretty faithfully and I hit on success that I never would've dreamed of or allowed myself to imagine.

Was your success a product of following your own impulses?

Yeah, you can't go wrong too much if you follow your impulses -- you know, if you inspect them and look at them and they're pure and on the money and you're not jerking yourself off. I knew from the time that I was 5 or 6 or 7 years old that I was funny, that I was a mimic, that I could get a laugh from people, and then slowly, that developed into using my brain to get a laugh instead of my body, instead of being physical I was being intellectual and I could get a laugh. I had a lot of good reason to say, "This is a sound decision I'm making" or "This is a sound direction I want to take, this makes sense, this is real."

How has your view of yourself changed or evolved as you've gotten older?

Well, I learned that all my little dabbling with movies and wanting to prove I could do that a little bit -- and I had a TV show in 1994 -- I realized it's all so much bullshit. What I do is I write, and I have two places for the writing to go, one is onstage as usual, and one is in books. And the stage stuff, HBO just takes pictures of it and sends it to your house, they make a DVD out of it, and I make a CD, which are just mechanical copies, so those are aspects and outgrowths of the art. But basically I sit down, I write something, I get up and I say it. And there's a simplicity to that that I really like, and all of the other things are so many sidetracks and diversions.

OK, time for a big, important question before you go: What's the meaning of life?

Ha. I don't know. The meaning of life is life itself. It has its own rationale. I think it [began] spontaneously from a number of chemical and electrical processes, coming together -- it seems that that's a fair theory that I've read, the other ones are harder to believe. It's just, here we are. And then, the age of the reptiles was in full swing when an asteroid -- that's another good theory -- an asteroid came along 65 million years ago, and wiped out the reptiles by blocking out the sun and killing the growing season and they ate greens so they couldn't get any meat and they disappeared, and the ferrets grew up into little mammals and the primate line developed and here we are. I don't think we're here on the divine order. I think we're here because a big rock hit the Earth, and I don't know what's next, maybe it'll be the cockroaches. It'd be nice if the insects had a chance.

But I think this is all happenstance, and the fact that we have consciousness and this thing we call a soul, this is also all part of the chemical and electrical process. I don't know that it has any real deeper meaning, but it sure feels different from ordinary physical life; I know that. There's something ineffable here. I don't know what it is or how to describe it or what to think about it.

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."

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.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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