David Jay Brown
Interviews George Carlin
George Carlin is a writer, standup comedian, actor and proponent of free speech. His irreverent, controversial, and thought-provoking standup routines have gotten him arrested, earned him four Grammy Awards, and tested the limits of free speech in America.
Carlin grew up in uptown Manhattan, in west Harlem. He began his performance career as a disk jockey in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1956, not long after quitting high school at the age of sixteen. After a few broadcasting jobs, Carlin left for Hollywood, to pursue a career in comedy. There, with his partner Jack Burns, he began doing offbeat comedy team routines. In the early 60’s, the comedy team of “Burns and Carlin” was a huge success. They had a radio show, did night clubs, and had an album, Burns & Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight. With the help of Lenny Bruce, they got an agent and began touring nightclubs around the country.
Carlin decided to go solo with his career in 1962. He appeared on The Tonight Show, and started playing nightclubs around the country. Although, by conventional standards, Carlin became a great success during the Sixties, by the end of the decade he began to question what he was doing as a comedian. He wasn’t content performing tame comedy routines to mainstream, conservative audiences. He wanted to begin to speak to his own generation, and the youth culture with which he identified.
Carlin risked his successful career, to break away from the traditional comedy routines, and do something entirely new. He completely re-created his approach and his material, and, in the process, helped to recreate standup comedy. Over a two-year period, Carlin went from being a clean-cut, suit-and-tie, mainstream entertainer, to being a bearded, long-haired, casually-dressed comedian who incorporated politics, philosophy, and material into his act that some people called “profanity”. Some of his old fans found his new material offensive.
Although he was fired from the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969 for saying “ass”, and again in 1970 for saying “shit”, his risky gamble paid off. He soon found a new, much larger audience. During the early Seventies, Carlin’s riffs on sex, drugs, language and politics gained him an avid following among his own generation and the counterculture. His first album, FM & AM, went gold in 1972, the first of four that earned gold status and won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. Carlin had numerous successful albums produced, such as Occupation Foole and Class Clown, which featured the recorded debut of the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine.
Carlin is probably most well-known for the “Filthy Words” routine, which was aired on WBAI in New York in 1973, and almost cost the radio station its broadcasting license. The legal battle that ensued went all the way to the Supreme Court, and although the Supreme Court ruled in the Federal Communication Commission’s favor–so it remained a crime to broadcast those seven naughty words over the air–this controversy, along with Carlin’s arrest after a Milwaukee concert appearance for violating local obscenity laws, only served to elevate his popularity. Carlin became a counterculture hero.
In 1975 Carlin hosted the debut episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Since then, he has written and performed in 13 HBO specials, and has appeared in many films, such as Car Wash, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Dogma, Prince of Tides, and Jersey Girl. In 1987 he received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star at the corner of Vine and Selma Streets. In the early 1990’s Carlin hosted the PBS children’s series Shining Time Station, and in 1994 he starred as a cab driver in the Fox television sitcom The George Carlin Show. Some of his other albums include A Place for My Stuff, Playin’ With Your Head, Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics, Back in Town, Jammin in New York, and You Are All Diseased. His newest album is Complaints and Grievances. He is also the author of several books that made The New York Times bestseller list, including Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help, Brain Droppings, and Napalm & Silly Putty. His most recently published book is When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?
At the age of 67, Carlin continues to tour, doing ninety concerts a year, and turning out a new HBO show and CD every two years, and he continues to act in films. I’ve been a huge fan of Carlin’s work ever since I was a teenager, so it was quite a thrill for me to spend this time with him. I spoke with George on September 28, 2003. For someone who has such a sharp tongue during his performances, and who defines himself as an antiauthoritarian lawbreaker, George is a really nice guy, and his charisma simply shimmers. He has an extraordinary mastery of the English language, and he can be simply dazzling with his use of words. Although George can’t seem to help being funny at times, he took the questions in this interview quite seriously. He put a lot of thought into how he chose each of his words when he answered my questions. He also kept making me laugh. I spoke with George about the process of creativity, the relationship between shamanism, altered states of consciousness and comedy, the joys of language, politics in America, and why he thinks it’s important to destroy authority and shatter taboos.
David: What were you like as a child?
George: I came from a family where my father was not present in the home. He could not metabolize ethanol effectively, so he was given his hat early on. My mother raised my brother and me in the 40’s–late 30’s, 40’s, 50’s–on a good job she had in advertising. So I was alone most of the day after school, except for some playmates I had. But I would have the house to myself. I listened to the radio. I was kind of sweet kid, according my mother, and my recollections. Thoughtful and good, but kind of alone–although I didn’t interpret it that way, as such. Children never interpret these things. They think they understand logically.
So my father wasn’t there, and my mother had to work, and underneath I felt somewhat alone and unlooked out for. So I became very independent, and very self-sufficient. I did a lot of thinking, and used mental activity to relieve whatever feelings I had. I became very left-brained, and I was good in school. That is, I was a smart kid. I went to a very progressive Catholic school–not the kind we always hear about–where individuality was encouraged. I was good at class work, but I was a distraction. I was a class clown, of the classic term for it. I would get the work done easily, and then I would try to deprive other people of their educations. I developed skills for mimicry, and I was a good showoff. I knew how to get attention, and I knew how to do it in a positive funny way.
David: How did you become interested in doing comedy?
George: Well, it became apparent to me that there was a reward in being like that. You get people’s attention and approval, most of the time. So I gravitated toward being a funny guy. I liked the radio comedians. I lived in the Golden Age of radio, and the Golden Age of television came along when I was still in my early teens. I listened to comedians on the radio. I watched comedians in the movies–Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Red Skeleton. My friend Roger Hogan had an collection of Spike Jones record albums, and I thought they were fabulous. And I became a guy who wanted to be a comedian someday, or a comic actor. The way I put it was, I’ll be like Danny Kaye. He was kind of the model I had in mind.
I’d look at him in the movies, and I’d say, I can do that. I liked him because he had a verbal fluency, and he was fast. He could do accents, funny faces and body postures. So early in life I decided to be a comedian, with the goal of becoming–I called it–an actor. But comedian was really the dominant trait, the dominant part of this skill package that I had.
Then I quit school. In your teenage years, early adolescence, there’s a differentiation that has to go on between you and your parents, especially with the parent of the opposite sex. In adolescence you have to separate yourself and establish your identity. So, being very independent anyway, I took charge. My mother and I had a lot of distance between us emotionally, although, on the surface, most of the time, we appeared good and friendly, and all that. But I was a problem. I was a street kid.
So I quit school in ninth grade, even though I was good at the studies. I knew I didn’t need school for what I wanted. I knew I had a command of English. I knew I could think well. I knew enough arithmetic so that I could balance a checkbook, as they say. So I just quit school in ninth grade, and worked for a year at Western Union at a desk job. Then I went in the Air Force at seventeen to launch myself. It was to get away from my mother a little bit too.
I had run away from home three times. I had been kicked out of three different schools under different circumstances. I was kicked out of everything that I didn’t quit. Kicked out of schools. Kicked out of summer camp, the Boy Scouts, the alter boys, the choir, and something else that I can’t think of, that I’m proud of. Anyway, that was my pattern. I just began to invent myself early in life, and went out and did something about it.
David: What inspires your comedy writing?
George: The impulse comes from within, from the need to express yourself, as with any artist. Now, I am an entertainer by definition. However, there’s a difference between entertainer and artist. Sometimes they go together, and sometimes they don’t. Some entertainers just do that. They sing songs that other people wrote, and they act in parts other people wrote. There’s a bit of creativity in their interpretation, but it’s not seminal. It doesn’t really come from them.
Then there are the people who create their work–painters, composers, and, of course, writers. Originally I described myself as a comedian who wrote his own material, and it was true. That was a distinguishing feature among comedians. A lot of them didn’t do that, and a lot them weren’t very prolific. They didn’t have a constant flow of new things. So I stood out, certainly in my own mind, as someone who had something extra going on.
I used to describe myself as a comedian who wrote his own material, but over the years I discovered that what I really was, was a writer who performed his own material. This was a key distinction for me to discover, because it gave me a kind of artistic confidence, that I had something special. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I had some special gift for expression and verbal fluency–whether the verbs and nouns are on a page, or whether they’re in a microphone. It’s all verbal, and my father and mother gave me that to me. They had very highly pronounced verbal traits–that is, a facility and ease with language–and they were funny.
So I inherited that, really. I never take credit for anything, because it’s mostly genetic to my way of thinking. Even the need to work hard with some genetic talent you’re given–the need to go out and develop it, and push hard to bring it to people. That could be a genetic trait too–the trait to strive, and to be aggressive with your pursuits. So it’s very nice, all these achievements–but down deep I know this thing is heredity.
David: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?
George: Here’s how my creative system works. I’m going to talk about my own case, although I sometimes think it applies to all of people who create, and it probably does. But I can best speak about my own situation, what happens over the years, if you’re curious, you read, and try to absorb and soak up information. I quit school when I was sixteen, yet I had a good mind, so I had the need to educate myself, and fill myself with just plain facts and information. I found it interesting to learn secondhand all about Shakespeare, and then some of the classics. Not that I know much about them, but I know the references when I see them.
When you quit school at an early age, I think you have a lifelong need to show the world–and maybe yourself–that you’re really smart after all. So there was this drive to interpret the world. Most art is an interpretation of the world around the artist, whether it’s in paint or in music. I’m not trying to sound grand here with this overuse of the word artist, but I think there’s no other good word for it. So I’ll use it, and risk sounding somewhat self-important. It’s an interpretation of the world around you. It’s the world through your filter. You recreate the world and say, here’s the world as it comes through me.
Now I’m 66, and over the years I noticed that what occurs as you age is an accumulation of information, data, knowledge, and what I’m going to call the matrix of the mind. There’s just a rich, textured, field of information and impressions that have been all networked by the brain. The neurons are always working, creating new neural networks, and working out connections between things. You don’t even have to work on that. So a person who’s in his Sixties has a much richer interpretation of life as he sees it today, than he did when he was twenty, because at twenty he had less in his matrix. It just wasn’t there experientially. So that’s what happened to me over the years. I developed and matured as an individual/creative person, and my writing matured as well. First of all, my technique improved. For one thing, I got better at the actual writing. And secondly, the comparisons, the information that comes in now is compared against this richer field in my brain. So it has more life to it. There’s more discovery and reality in it for me than there was when it was a little more simplistic.
Now, in terms of actually functioning day-to-day, here’s what I do. If you buy that brain hemisphere theory–and there’s some question about it now–then I’m right-brained, because I have this free-flowing, creative side. But I’m also extremely left-brained. I’m very organized. I have what you would call obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Now, I don’t have a problem with it. A shrink once taught me to use this to my benefit, not to my detriment. Because it can hurt a person’s life. It can interfere with life. But it can greatly benefit you if it’s channeled correctly.
So what I’ve always done is try to channel my compulsive need to have order in my physical world and in my work. The more organized my files are (they’re now computer files, although they used to be hard pieces of paper), the more I have to draw from. Because you don’t remember–certainly not consciously–everything you ever heard. So you write things done. I write notes down all the time–anything I think of that has promise for me. Anything that I think fits into my world of what I want to comment on, or know about, I write it down. If I’m in a car, I’ll use a little hand recorder.
Then, regularly–every couple of weeks–I harvest these accumulated notes. Every two weeks or so I put them in the proper places in their files–whether it’s under “animals”, “colors”, “clothing”, “male/female”, “race”, “politics”, “driving”, or “cats and dogs”. These things go in their proper files, and as you put them in, you see the rest of the file, and it makes an impression on you–even if you’re not consciously trying for it. It goes through the system once again. It goes through the neural system, and so these things just become richer and richer.
Then files have a way of maturing on their own, to where I really love it. I look at the thing, and I say, this is good. I got to tell people this. Boy, wait’ll they hear this. That’s the impulse behind the showoff–wait’ll they hear this. So I get that feeling, and I know I’m ready, or sometimes not, because I don’t have enough time in my shows. I have an hour and twenty minutes that I do. I do an HBO show every two years, and that’s an hour’s worth. So if you start out with an hour’s worth of stuff, by the time you get finished with it in a couple of years, it’s an hour and a half, and you don’t get to do it all.
So there’s this great surplus. And I just write all the time, in some form or another–whether it’s writing notes, harvesting the notes, or taking things from the files and actually doing the writing. That is what I do, and then I channel it on to the stage. The stage goes into HBO and CDs, and now I have this book outlet. I’ve done two books that have done very well, and I’m writing a third one now. It’s called When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?, and it’s another collection, but this the best one. I guess, unintentionally, I saved a lot of the best stuff from the first two books. I mean, I’m proud of those first two books, but I know I saved a lot of real gold, and now I’m going to get to use it in this book. So that’s the process.
David: In an interview with Larry Wilde you said that all comedians are motivated by a sense of justice. How has this motivated you?
George: Comedy is grievances. It’s a recitation of grievances–whether they’re inconsequential, superficial–like “my wife shops too much”, or “kids today”, all those old-fashioned themes–or, if it’s deeper, and somewhat more thoughtful, about social imbalance and inequities, and the folly of human behavior. It’s usually a complaint. So I think inherent in some of that complaint is a sense of wanting more balance, more fairness, and I guess that can translate to justice.
I’m sure there are examples in certain comedy we can find that would be specific to justice itself, in the broader sense of justice. Then there’s a lot, which is less defined, but leans in that direction–of things that look to redress imbalances and inequities. It’s all about dissatisfaction. My comedy is about being very dissatisfied with my fellow humans, and with the people in this country. I think, basically I think the human species is a failed species.
I mean, we had a great opportunity, with great gifts. We had this wonderful intellect that raised us up, that gave us the ability to objectify and say, I am here. It is out there. It hasn’t been used for the wrong purposes, but the emphasis has gone in the wrong direction. We were given two great things that distinguished us from other animals, or made us special–and that was the ability to cooperate, but then we also had the natural lower brain need to compete. So competition and cooperation together are what made this species leap, leap, leap forward. But now, I think, competition far outweighs the ability to cooperate.
There’s no real enlightened self-interest. There’s no foresight. There’s no planning. I mean, there’s a modicum of it you see. They’ll talk about this or that five years down time, but no one is sitting around making concrete plans for things that will happen. They wait for them to happen. They wait for emergencies. They wait for near-emergencies. Then it’s patchwork, and then there’s no money for it. Then some other group has a complaint. It’s just that the competing interests prevent a real, honest beneficent development of the species. I’m talking now partly about the culture, apart from the species, as I mention some of those things.
There are two things in our culture, I think, that lead us astray. I think we turned everything over–mankind in general, not just our culture–to the high priests and the traders. Everything was turned over to those who wanted to control us through mysterious beliefs. And we had an impulse to connect to the universe. They knew that. The clergy, in general, were very, very devious and clever. They knew people had a need to connect to the “One” of some sort. They know there’s this longing to rejoin nature, because we now feel outside of nature. We objectify. We say, man against nature. Well, that’s absurd because man is obviously a part of nature.
So when we distinguish ourselves, we set up this battle. And they knew we have underneath that a longing to correct that, to reunite. So they twisted and distorted that into these narrow, superstitious belief systems, where you have this invisible man in the sky who’s judging you, going to put you in fiery place. They manipulated people–some of whom were simply weaker, and some of whom were just easy to manipulate. The traders, the business people, the commercial, the merchant class, they turned everything into acquisition and ownership–and, to oversimplify, “having the latest thing”.
People have material needs, but you don’t need a deodorant for every different day of the week. You don’t need four hundred varieties of mustard. There are are over four hundred different varieties of mustard that some place in Menlo Park, I believe, has at some supermarket there. I counted 151 different choices in the cat food section alone, forgetting dogs. At the car wash I counted over 120 separate ways of changing the smell in your car, whether it was beads, or a little sashay thing, or oils, or sprays, or charms that you hang from the mirror. 120 of them, if you counted all the scents, and all these delivery systems. This is what I call too many choices. There are too many choices in America.
These are the trivial things that we’re given. We’re given many choices to distract us from the fact that our real choices have been diminished in number. Two political parties. Maybe three or four large banks now. Credit card companies, just a couple, a handful. Newspapers, reduced. Ownership of media, reduced, down to five or six big companies now. Big stock brokerage firms, reduced in number. All of these important things we have less choice. Then we’re distracted with these frivolous choices. 21 flavors of ice cream. 35 flavors of popcorn. You see specialty shops with 35 flavors of popcorn, like chocolate-walnut popcorn. These are absurd distractions from what we are doing to ourselves, because we engage in this. It’s not really all imposed. So that’s my feeling.
David: Why do you think it’s important to question authority?
George: I think it’s not only necessary to question authority, I say destroy authority–or at least attempt to. I think questioning is not enough, because first of all you have to get the right person to question it, and you have to question it in the proper setting. You have to be in a forum where questioning it will have some effect. Just sitting around saying this or that to yourself doesn’t seem to help. You have to act on those feelings. You have to live your life in an antiauthoritarian way, in a way that defies authority. I’m a rule-breaker. I’m a law breaker. I don’t respect any laws or rules unless there’s something that can get me in trouble. Self-interested, enlightened self-interest.
I jaywalk, because I can do that skillfully, and I’m not disturbing anyone else’s pattern of life. If I think that jaywalking is going to make someone slow down or stop for me, then I don’t do it. I don’t want people doing that to me, and I don’t need help crossing the street. So, to me, authority is something that a freer spirit, a more independent mind, and a person who can handle the world, doesn’t need guidance from. I think it’s important to put your own situation in mind when you deal with authority. How does it effect me? How do I benefit or lose? Without hurting others, without imposing any inconvenience or hardship on another, can I get around this somehow? That’s just simple selfishness that I think has a good quality to it.
David: Why do you think people create taboos, and why do you think it’s important to break taboos–and find humor in many of the things that a lot of people wouldn’t dare joke about?
George: I’m not well-read enough, but I’ve heard passing references to the effect that there are taboos in all societies, and in primitive societies. It sounds like it’s related to the superstitious impulse behind certain religious things–like there’s a need to have things that are out of reach, beyond, or, in this case, unmentionable. I think it’s important to break taboos for the same reason it’s important to break laws and rules–because either you’re a slave to them, or you’re taking matters into your hands.
No one has to come see my shows who doesn’t like me talking about white Christians. They are free not buy a ticket. They’re free to leave at any time. So I’m not imposing anything on anyone. Therefore I feel free to cross the line. I’ve found out most of these things about my own comedy in looking back–either a year, two years, five years, or ten years–and finding out what it is I do. I don’t set out with these things in mind that are now ways I have of analyzing, but I look for where the line is drawn on any subject. I look for where the line is drawn by these taboos, and I deliberately cross that line. I try to do it with wit and humor, and good rational and logical underpinning.
I like good ideas. I don’t want just do something for it’s own sake to bother people, but if I can bother them with a logical argument about something they have agreed to in society simplistically–like children are sacred, the cult of the child, this cult of professional parenthood, and of course religion, and respect for policemen and the law, and all of these untouchable areas. I like attacking those beliefs, but in with good sound thinking, and an unusual approach. If I can find a new direction into an old subject, that’s what you’re up there for.
Now, all of these socially critical aspects of the work are secondary to the main thing you’re up there for–that’s to entertain. And that means two things to me. Not just getting laughs, which I love. I love big jokes, and I try to have good big fat home-run jokes. All of them. All the time. Fast. Lots of them. But when you’re not joking, you can also still engage their imaginations with thought, and dazzle them verbally–by showing jazz riffs, and verbal flights and passages that have an entertainment value of their own, that people aren’t even fully aware of. So the job is entertaining and engaging imagination. Laughter is part of it. Thought is part of it–not making people think. I never set out to do that. Sometimes interviewers will ask me, do you like to make people think with your shows? I say, no, I like them to know I’m thinking. Then I like to show them that. And they take and do what they want. But, generally, I try to make it entertaining.
Primitive societies, or social groupings, had shamans, and some of them even more recent in time. Shamans were tricksters. There was a tradition of the trickster, and the trickster was a clown, a humorous fellow. His task was to trick the gods, to humor the gods into laughing, so that there was access to the divine–because laughter is a moment when we are completely ourselves. It’s that disarming moment, or disarmed moment, when something strikes us, and we laugh without even knowing it, trying it, or being able to prevent it. It just happens. No one is more himself than the moment when he’s laughing at a joke. It’s at those moments that people’s defenses go down, and that’s when you can slip in a good idea. So if the good joke carries a good idea, the entrance is open at that moment. I learned that one time, and saw how it definitely applied. And I’ve always been kind of charmed by that notion.
David: You’ve said that America’s only public metaphor for problem-solving is declaring war. What is your perspective on the American government’s War on Drugs and War on Terrorism?
George: I’ve done some writing about the whole metaphor of war. I mean, they have a War on Trash, a War on Cancer. Some of them are absurd. I’ve kept track of them. I have about thirty of them, and I wish I could think of some of the more trivial ones. But let’s keep it with America for now. America is a kind of friendly aggressor. We’ve been very aggressive at taking over the world with our culture in order to impose our business structure on the world, for free market capitalism. Apparently, it’s one of the better systems, by the way, for getting more things to the most people. I can’t deny that. Some of these distortions have their own oddly beneficial aspects to them, and I don’t know enough about things to pull that that apart properly.
But let me just say that the white Europeans have always exploited the dark, the black, the brown, tan people. The northern hemisphere has always plundered the southern hemisphere. And there are interesting, or sound, historical reasons why this happened. But it doesn’t gainsay the fact that I think there’s a highly developed ability, for want of a better word, to dominate others, and use them for our profit. We want to impose democracy where we can, and we want to impose market capitalism, because, basically, I think we want to sell refrigerators.
I think we look at a place like Bosnia and we say, you know something, if these people all had fucking laptops, and cell phones, and microwaves, we could sell a lot of merchandise. I think that’s in there somewhere, this need to conquer and overcome other people in order to have them become part of the marketplace. I really don’t think there’s a lot of ideology to it. I really don’t think it has anything to do with “spreading democracy” and giving people “free choice”, because there are no free choices. The whole system is rigged. The whole system is rigged against The Little Man. There is an ownership class in America. I call them The People Who Own Everything.
And people say, oh your conspiracy thing. Listen, don’t be making fun of the word conspiracy. It has meaning. Powerful people have convergent interests. They don’t always need a meeting to decide on something. They inhabit the same gentlemen’s clubs or golf clubs. They sit on the same boards of directors. They’re on the same board of trustees at the university. They all have this common ownership background of the American enterprise, and they are very few in number. They control everything, and they do whatever they want. They have a system called the two-party system that keeps the people at bay. They give them microwaves. They give them fannypacks. They give them sneakers with lights in the heals. They give them Dustbusters, and whoopee cushions, to keep them distracted, and keep them just calm enough that they’re not going to try something.
Now, of course, the ownership class has all these fucking guns, and weapons, and helmets, and radios, and radars, and night vision and everything–so there’s never any hope anymore of a real revolution. They got that covered. But for a long time they just kept it all down by giving the people just what they needed, and then running things themselves. They give them this illusion of choice between liberals and conservatives. But you’ll notice that anyone who’s an extreme liberal, or an extreme conservative, is marginalized. They’re not on mainstream television. That’s why FOX has tried, I guess, so hard to push a very hard right-wing conservative line, and make it common place in America to be hearing those things. Right-wing radio does that.
But essentially, the real freaks, on either side, are not heard from. They are marginalized. The Ralph Naders of the world, for instance. They give them a modicum of time to make it appear like he has a slight voice. But he’s ridiculed. They marginalize you by calling you a kook. Or it used to be a communist, or fanatic, or whatever the word is they use when you cross the line, and you really are radical. And radical just means root; it comes from the word root. So it’s root-thinking. If you’re a radical thinker they have no place for you.
So they control this center, and they keep the people relatively quiet. Even a Clinton–I mean, you say, well, what about Clinton? He was very oriented toward people’s needs and everything. Yeah, but he was backed by the Bilderbergers. I mean, they have bend in them. The ownership class has a flexibility. People say, well, I say people have no voice. And they say, what about the antiwar movement and Vietnam? Yeah, how long did it take? And it didn’t happen until the ownership class decided it was no longer in their interest. Same thing with the civil rights movement. They decided this is no longer in our interest to maintain this system. Let’s bend a little. And they bend a little.
David: What is your perspective on our vanishing Constitutional rights in America?
George: First of all, people are dreaming if they think they have rights. They’ve never had rights. There’s no such thing. They say God-given rights. If you ask them, where do these rights come from? They say well, they came from God. They’re God-given rights. And I say, well, let me tell you this. The American Bill of Rights has ten stipulations. The British has thirteen. The Dutch, the Germans, the Belgians–all of them have different numbers of rights in their constitutional guarantees, different numbers of rights. Why would God give different numbers, of different rights, to different people, in different places? Amusement? Oversight? What’s going on?
So clearly these things have nothing to do with a God, if there even is one. These are privileges, which are temporarily granted to the people to keep them placated so that the market economies, and market constitutional systems–the parliamentary or president, whatever kind of democratic institutions they are, parliamentary or otherwise–so that they can function. And the people are happy. There’s a balance. And that’s the way things are handled, but rights can be taken away. So they’re not really rights, if they can be taken away by human beings. The Japanese-Americans who went to the camps in 1941 had rights, but suddenly someone says, well, not that one they don’t have. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus.
It’s capricious and arbitrary, and people are wrong when they think they have rights. I say, if you think you has rights, you is wrong. I’ve written a thing on this; it’s going to be in the next book. In fact, it might even be in the next HBO show. It’s what I call the “Patriotic Suite”. I have this seven part thing, that’s all about red, white, and blue, swearing on The Bible, taking off your hat, saluting the flag, and all this stuff. And one of them is about rights. There has been a long progression of erosion of Americans’ stated rights–or the way they’re interpreted in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution–long time cutting away, cutting away, cutting away.
Now, it has taken a huge leap with the Patriot Act. The Ashcrofts, the disciplinarian, authoritarian, strict, Calvinist, Christian mindset is in a position of power now, and they’re just shredding that Bill of Rights. Not that it wasn’t under attack before they came along, but they’ve really jumped on the bandwagon with this 9-11. I would not be surprised if 9-11, if that whole thing–and this will get all the anti-conspiracy people interested– were not staged by the Bush-Carlyle Group empire. The Bush empire, the dynasty, that whole, entire secret society sort of ownership. I don’t know. I ‘m clearly in over my head here, because it’s it’s a thing that I think about sometimes, but it would make a lot of sense for them. Here’s The New York Times. On the front page today, “United States Uses Terror Law”–that would be the Patriot Act–“To Pursue Crimes From Drugs to Swindling”. So they’re branching out now.
You asked about the War on Drugs. Obviously, drugs represent a form of freedom and personal choice. So here’s one thing where you have no freedom of choice. You’re told you can do this, but you can’t do that. You can’t drink after 2:00 in this state. But you can drive across the border, and you can drink until 4:00 in that state. There are all these forms of control. People think they have freedom of choice in this country. Here’s your fucking choice–paper or plastic? That’s your choice. Will this be charge or cash? That’s your choice. Visa or Mastercard? Coke or Diet Coke? Smoking or Nonsmoking? Window or aisle. Those are your fucking choices America. You have no choices. They’re imposed.
David: Some of your humor stems from a playful deconstruction of language. Why do you think it’s important to reflect on our use of language, and how do you think our use of language effects our view of reality?
George: Well, we think in language. We think in words. Language is the landscape of thought. It’s how thought is realized, and, obviously, how we communicate ideas. It’s how we individuate ourselves, how we are human individuals that are separate from others. And there’s some virtue to it, in separation, earlier I was saying. We’re completely at odds with nature, and that’s true. But it is important to understand your identity, and your place in the scheme of things, and in the universe even. So that all comes from having language available for thought and expression.
The language attraction in me came from the family. It’s very heredity. My mother’s father, Dennis Bearey, was a New York City policeman at the turn of the last turn of the century, the 1900’s coming in. He was self-educated. He had quit school, come to America, young, and taught himself. During his adult years, he wrote out most of the works of Shakespeare longhand, copying them from a book, because of the joy the language gave him.
So that’s a pretty dramatic expression of appreciation for language. He was Irish, and the Irish have that gift, of perhaps, you know a little bit disproportionately to some other cultures–although there are great writers everywhere. But the Irish really have the gift of gab. The ratio of poets, playwrights, and authors to mechanics is much different in Ireland. So he had that. He gave that to my mother. She got it hereditarily, and it was reinforced at home, because at dinner time they would discuss–not all the time, I guess–but they would often discuss language, and Shakespeare’s use of it.
My mother was very careful with me to point out good writing. She would call me into her room. I’d bring her her newspaper, and she was tired after work. She’d be reading, and she’d say, “George come here. Look at this. Look at this word. Look how this sentence cuts”–she was dramatic the way she spoke–”this sentence just cuts right through”. So I had the genetic marker for it, and then she encouraged it by pointing out the joy in savoring the graceful and incisive use of language.
So, to me, language is just my instrument. I have the computer open here. I was working on the book, and I just have the greatest joyful feeling when I’m altering a sentence. When I’m fixing a paragraph, it’s just like some kind of union with something. I don’t understand it. I know there’s a joy. I have a woman in my life, Sally Wade, and we have a joyful wonderful life together. And that’s a separate form of joy, being with Sally, enjoying each other. But being at that computer, with the words, is just…I don’t know, somehow, it goes to my foundation.
David: I can relate well.
George: Yeah. Boy, when they came up with being able to highlight a whole paragraph, and move it somewhere else–holy shit did they change the world! I mean, you say, wait a minute, this goes at the end. I can’t imagine how people did that with yellow tablets, or dipping a pen or a quill. And these great things that came out of, what must have been such a long laborious process. Having to do something over, or delete something, and put an insert, and all; you know, it must have been a mess. I did it, and I don’t remember how messy it was. But, boy, my writing changed qualitatively, not just quantitatively, with my use of the word processor. I noticed that the thinking and the writing, as they are combined, became more complex and more interesting. And I’ll use that word textured again. It just really changed the quality of what it was, not just how fast I could do it, or how much I do. So I’m glad you know. Obviously you know that.
David: Yeah, it becomes more like sculpting.
George: Absolutely. Yeah, taking off things that don’t belong.
David: You said before that you’re not trying to get people to think in your comedy routines. However, I still wonder if you’re aren’t sometimes trying to educate people. Is this ever part of your intention?
George: Well, let me cop to one thing that I’m aware of. Someone once said, if you scratch a cynic, and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. That really rang a bell with me–because I recognized that, within me, there is this flame, of wishing it were better, wishing people had better lives, that there was more of an authentic sharing and harmony with nature. So these complaints, this thing that sometimes reads as anger to people, is largely a discontent, a dissatisfaction, sometimes a disappointment in what we have allowed, passively or actively, to happen to us, as a species and as a culture.
I know that I would have been a good teacher. Had I gone on and had a continuing formal education, I would have made a good teacher. I would have made a good trial lawyer, because I like persuasion. I like the art of forensics, of using language and thought to shape…I guess we’re talking about to shape other people’s thinking. Sure. I mean, it has such a potentially pretentious ring to it, to me, that I shrink from it. But words are words, and descriptions are descriptions. You have seen something that is true.
Someone recently–a woman at a dentist’s office–gave me, not quite a thesis, but a paper that her son wrote at Berkeley, comparing certain aspects of Kierkegaard to some things I said about religion and politics. And boy, I mean, I was a little flattered to be thrown into philosophical company like that, but the things he pointed out hit me, again, right on the button–because they were about the need to tell people that it’s up to them. It’s not up God. It’s your responsibility.
Whether it’s citizenship, or whether it’s morality, things don’t come from God. Things come from you, and things that you want to change in the world have to start inside yourself. You can’t just acquiesce. You can’t be at the mall, with a fanny-pack on, scratching your nuts, buying sneakers with lights in them. You have to be thinking. You have to be resisting. You have to be talking.
So these things are pointed out to me sometimes in passing, or directly, and, frankly, I’m impressed by them, and, naturally, I’ll use the word flattered here again. I think flattery is usually artificial, so I don’t like the word flattery. It usually suggests insincerity to me. But complimented, I mean, just really complimented by it. Because, to take myself seriously here for a moment, an artist, a creative person, I often don’t know the things that I’m doing. Not all artists are the same, but this is true in my case, and I’m sure it’s true in some other cases as well. They don’t know some of the underlying things that are happening. They just do it, because there’s a certain satisfaction, a certain joy. It fills some need.
And yet, another person can come along and point out things that they don’t see. I’ve seen this with people who wrote certain things about Lenny Bruce, that I’m sure Lenny didn’t sit around and think of. But they would interpret him, and they would say, do you see what he’s doing here? Do you see what this is? Do you see how this fits with that? So, to a person who’s looking carefully, it’s true that there are probably some things about my work that reveal idealism, and whatever the other qualities are that are more high flown, less concrete and earthy. Things that are more substantial.
David: How do you maintain a sense of wonder, and keep a fresh perspective on the world?
George: Well, the world never stops surprising me. I mean, it’s a two sided coin. I always say, people complain because they wonder, did you hear about this? Did you hear what they did? And I say, tell me you’re surprised. Are you really surprised at this? In this culture, in this country, does this surprise you? Then, on the other hand, my brother has an expression. I’ll point out something to him that’s absurd, or he’ll tell me something absurd he heard or read about, and he says, you know George, they never let us down. They’re always in there working–meaning the society, the culture is always devising new ways to amaze us, my brother and me. The people who think we’re all cynics, and who, underneath, have some really idealistic candle lit. So it’s both. It’s, how can you be surprised anymore? And, on the other hand, how can you not be? As things build upon things, everything is almost an exponential leap from from wherever it springs.
It’s just a lot of fun. I call it the freak show. I say, if you’re born in America, you’re given a ticket to the freak show. Some people are in the freak show. Those are the freaks. Some people, most of us, are there to watch the show. So sit back, and enjoy the fucking freak show. Now, there are some people who try to change the freaks. These are so-called do-gooders, environmentalists, the social activists, ACLUs and all this. We’re going to fix the freak show. We’re going to fix the freaks. And some of us get to just review the freak show. We write reviews about it. And that’s what I do. I don’t take a position necessarily that is moral. It usually stems from logic–this doesn’t make sense. Now, there might be a moral underpinning to it, but, generally, I don’t retreat to that concept of morality, or right and wrong, except fair and unfair. I don’t like unfairness. So that’s kind of a moral thing.
But anyway, I’m all over the joint. Ah, the freak show, American freak show. That’s what this is all about. So I just enjoy the show. The world, to me, is a big theater-in-the-round, literally, spinning, on a little insignificant rock, around a second-rate star, in a very poor part of the galactic neighborhood, by the way. And we’re just living out our time, and it’s here to be enjoyed. Some people have to feel differently from that. I don’t say everyone can feel that way. But, for me, that’s where I found my happiness.
David: How has marijuana and your use of psychedelics effected your comedy career and your perspective on life?
George: What they did was effect my consciousness, obviously, and that effects everything about you. So, naturally, in this line of work it’s extremely important, extremely influential. Your consciousness influences the work.
I was an early pot smoker. I was smoking pot when I was 13 in 1950. It was an unheard of act in an Irish-American neighborhood. People didn’t know anything about it, and considered it to be on a level with heroin. I mean, it was just… (George speaks in a scratchy, old geezer voice) marijuana–you smoke one of those things, and yeah, boy, you’re gone for life. So, we were kind of a daring little group of us. We were on a new generational cusp.
We lived in West Harlem, white Harlem we called it, between Columbia University and all of the institutional establishments. Let me tell you what was in my neighborhood. Right across the street from my house, was the entrance to Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Barnard was there. Columbia University was there. St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in America. Riverside Church, a 23 story gothic tower was at the end of my block, with the biggest carillon in the world. Union Theological Seminary, the largest multi-denominational protestant seminary.
Literally around the corner from me, without crossing the street, was the Jewish Theological Seminary. Again, largest of its kind. Diagonally across the corner was Julliard School of Music, when it was still uptown. We played and fooled around at Grant’s Tomb. So we had this incredibly high-powered institutional neighborhood, full of learning and striving. Harry Emison Fasdigger was the Pasteur over at Riverside Church, and I know that it had an effect on me. But I choose to hang around the other direction. I went down the hill to Harlem, toward the latin, and black, and working-class Irish–because that’s were the fun was! There were good smells coming out of the windows. The music was great. And my peers were there.
So we were on the beginning of the generation. The kids who were a little older than us, my bigger brother’s guys–they were still street fighters and drinkers, and wore the big shoes. We had gravitated from the big shoes, and the peg pants, into conservative three-button charcoal suits, like the black dudes wore. We got into rhythm and blues. We got into pot smoking. We were a change. And that’s why that piece of material in one of my albums–Occupation Fool–is called “Grass Swept the Neighborhood”, because it changed us.
I think that marijuana is a consciousness-altering drug which has a cumulative effect. I also think it is a self-limiting drug, if a person is paying attention. It is a drug that suggests it’s own disuse, eventually. Some people maintain a certain consumption, at a good level, and they’re not just half asleep all the time, and can’t think. They save it for night time, or the weekend, or whatever, and that’s different.
But generally marijuana, and LSD, and they’re both, I think, essentially hallucinogenics. I’m not 100 percent sure of that. I wouldn’t be on record with that, but they’re certainly not in the narcotic classes, stimulants, or any of those things. They are separate. LSD–originally as unaltered by man–along with peyote, pot and those forms of hallucinogens, are all completely natural. They come from nature, and the only things that are done with them is they’re passed from one person to another. It’s these other drugs–where we get in the laboratory, or the garage, and we start altering their molecular structure–that are the deadly ones. The really deadly things have come from man’s altering of nature, of the parts he can manipulate.
Pot is an herb. It’s very natural, It obviously has some healing qualities and some palliative qualities. I think it changed my thinking. It fostered offbeat thinking, the kind of alternative thinking that was already an internal part of me–this disbelief in the received wisdom, and in the authority, as it was passed along. I think it fostered that. Then it changed my comedy. I was a straight, mainstream, suit-and-tie comic for ten years, from 1960-1969 or 70. I had a two tiered life going on, and I didn’t even know it.
One of them was this law breaking, school quitting, pot-smoking person, with no respect for authority. The other one was a mainstream dream. I wanted to be in the movies. I wanted to be Danny Kaye. Well, you can’t be Danny Kaye if you’re going to be this other thing. So I lived two lives. My professional life was this straight path of pleasing the public. It wasn’t until the late 60’s that things changed, and this was because of the alternative culture–the people I could really identify with, what’s called the counterculture. This began to manifest itself through the youth culture, with it’s disrespect for authority, free love–and “let’s get high”, and “here’s how I feel”, and “here’s what’s going on in my mind and my heart”. All those things had been suppressed in America–some voluntarily, some not–prior to that. The Fifties are notorious for that. But jazz and the beatniks were the exception. The bohemian world. But they were just starting.
Anyway, I was attracted to this other thing in the late Sixties, because all my friends were musicians who had gone through the changes already. I was a big pot smoker. But slowly I used a little peyote, a little mescaline, and these tendencies in me to be myself, and not play a fake role as a people-pleasing, mainstream comedian came to the fore. I became more myself. The comedy became more personal, therefore more political, and therefore more successful. I think you can never be successful unless you are yourself, at least certainly not successful in the good, rich sense of the word. So, suddenly, I also became materially successful. People started buying albums. I had four Gold albums in a row. So the LSD, directly–in conjunction with it’s role in the counterculture, and my taking of it, those two things–definitely changed my life, because my creativity shifted into a very high gear.
David: What do you think happens to consciousness after the death of the body, and what is your perspective on God?
George: I don’t know. It’s obviously one of the most fascinating things that we don’t know. I profess no belief in God, which by definition is true, especially if we take the accepted definition of God. But to be an atheist is to also have a belief, and have a system, and I don’t know that I like that either. And yet I shrink from the word agnostic, because it seems like a handy weigh station to park at. I don’t know. And I’m satisfied not knowing, because it allows me to be filled with speculation, and imagination, about all the possibilities.
I find it interesting to read about, or listen, to people who have highly developed beliefs in an afterlife–forgetting now Christians, God and religion–and second chances, reincarnation, other planes of existence, other dimensions. Now, we get into the physical realm of the universes–which is interesting because universe means one, and here we are talking about multi-universes.
David: I actually asked Stephen Hawking–the renown physicist–about that once. He often writes and lectures about multiple universes and baby universes. I asked him how there could be more than one universe, when, by definition, the word universe means everything that exists. He told me that “a universe is a set of related events”. Apparently, you can have many self-contained, “sets of related events”, that have no influence upon one another, and each one is considered its own universe.
George: Well, it’s just fascinating, and you get lost in the possibilities. There’s no way to hang your hat on any of these things. There’s just no way to say, ah, this a good one. I’ll go with this. Because they’re all titillating, and they’re tempting. And they’re all entertaining to the way I’ve developed my mind. I find it highly entertaining to consider wormholes, and alternate parallel universes, and all the things that Robert Anton Wilson sometimes writes about.
It’s just endlessly entertaining and fascinating. So I’m quite content in being in this position. I think there’s a certain arrogance of spirit that says, here’s the way it goes. Here’s what happens. Or to narrow it down to two things or so, maybe it’s okay. I don’t know. But for me, I can’t live that way. I have to keep all the doors open, just for the fun of it.
I don’t care what happens to me after I die, but I know this. I know that if there’s some sort of moral reckoning, I know I’ll come out clean. I know I’ve never done a mean thing intentionally to anyone. I know I’ve only tried to make people feel better, and be more at ease. I don’t mean professionally. I mean in personal relationships. I try to put people at ease, make them feel good. And I know that if there’s some sort of reckoning by something, that says, well, let’s look at your record here, I’m clean. So I’m happy with that.
David: Do you think that the human species is going to survive the next hundred years, and if so, how do you envision the future evolution of the human race?
George: I would guess that some cataclysm, man-made or nature-made might happen. Obviously not real original thinking here, but I’ll try and give a personal shape in a moment. Some sort of cataclysm will alter this thing. There are too many people. Let’s say that the American Dream–and they call it a dream because you have to be asleep to believe it–is spread everywhere, and everyone in India, and everyone in China, has a car. Actually China–everyone has a car, or two cars, and big cars.
Okay, now, I’m a little bored by environmentalists. I’m a little bored with the whole, almost Christian fervor of these people. I do like vandalism, by the way. I like the big spikes in the trees. I like vandalizing the SUVs. That’s fun. But the idealistic sitting around–all that shit–it kind of bores me. I understand the importance of it, but it bores me. But I also understand the fact the earth is an organism, and that life is completely interdependent, everything upon everything. And if you alter one thing, in some minute fashion, you alter everything. And sometimes it’s not so minute. And there comes a tipping point. And if everyone has a car, and everyone is spewing out shit, think of the consequences. And even if they try to fix that, and then they go to the next thing, they’ll fuck it up. We will always overstep. We will always use our brains to our self-disadvantage, ultimately.
And they’ll be a tipping point. It’ll either be environmental, or one of these lovely germs will get loose. Let’s face it, if everybody, if all these countries in the world–and there’s a lot of them now–are playing around with all of these different lovely microbes. We don’t even need to list them, because we all know what they are. Ebola, Jesus. Plague. Smallpox. All these things for which there is no cure or prevention, at least not now. I’m sure the people in charge have gotten their shot. But, sooner or later, someone drops a vial. Sooner or later, somebody takes something home. Sooner or later, a window is left open in building. Something in the perfection of the system slips, and they’ll be, perhaps, that kind of a disaster. It could be locally contained. They might be able to put a ring around it, and say, well, this part of the world is unlivable for the next thousand years.
But hey, we’re all going to eat, and we all get fucking hats, and we’re all in good shape. So things will go on. But then there might be something wide enough, whether its nuclear, or any of these lovely chemical things we have. Or nature, like just plain old volcanoes coming of age again, or some other huge geologic disturbance. Nature usually works very slowly. But suddenly, the slow process becomes a very rapid change. Volcanoes, and magma, and all that stuff build very slowly. But when they reach a threshold, they look–vvwoooom–and it’s happening instantly. A mountain range has come up.
But anyway, what I’m trying to say is, what might happen to the human species is that it is greatly reduced in numbers, greatly reduced in it’s ability to use technology to any benefit. I mean, people may sit around, and still have their laptops, but if there’s no internet, or if there’s no electricity, then you can’t charge whatever the fuck it is.
I’m just saying, the systems will be compromised enough, and the numbers reduced, so that a–not a fresh start, because it won’t be that–but a re-gearing. Maybe they’ll be a hundred thousand people left. Maybe they’ll be ten million. Maybe they’ll be scattered. Maybe they’ll all be in one corner of the world. Maybe they’ll have a little technology. Maybe nobody will have anything. So, I mean, it’s just, again, one of those wonderful things to speculate on. I have no idea. But I hope it’s dramatic and funny. Please God, let it be violent, and let it be funny. That’s all I ask.
David: What are you currently working on?
George: I’m working on my third book, When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops? I’m doing 90 shows a year. I do about 80 or 90 concerts a year, in theaters and concert halls, and then I do about eight weeks in Las Vegas, because it’s a different scene there. I can sit in my condo for two weeks at time, and write all day. I don’t have to get in a little plane each night, although I don’t mind that. So it’s a little different down there, but it’s another eight weeks of working that I do. And every two years this stuff turns into an HBO show. So I’m currently between show #12 and show #13. Number 13 will be in the Fall of 05.
The book will be in Fall of 04. Next Spring there’s a movie, Jersey Girl, where I play a kind of serious role. I play Ben Afleck’s father in the movie, which is about raising a little girl in New Jersey. People are starting to take me a little more seriously in acting now, so I get these extra little entertainment things. For me, going and doing some acting, collaborating, and interpreting some other part that other people have thought of, is like using different muscles. And that’s kind of fun to do. So those are things I’m currently working on. The movie is done, the book is in progress, and the show takes care of itself.
To find out more about George Carlin’s work, visit his Web site: www.georgecarlin.com