After speaking with George Carlin, it’s always tough to write just 800 words about him, as I did in today’s Boston Globe, covering his 14th HBO special, “It’s Bad For Ya,” and how he views his development as a jester, philosopher, and poet. Carlin’s a thoughtful guy, which is why when you’re making a documentary on comedy, whether it’s The Aristocrats or History of the Joke, you automatically seek him out. There were a lot of good thoughts that didn’t make the final cut, and I’ve mostly stayed away from reprinting them here. Click the link on the Globe story for that. And catch him tomorrow at the Wang Theatre, if you can.
It feels like there are so few constants in life, but I know that every two years, you’re going to come on HBO and tell something that’s interesting or funny that I’m going to want to hear.
It’s turned into a ritual with me. It’s turned into like the equinox or the solstices. You’re right, every two-and-a-half, three years. It’s been 31 years now and there are 14 of them, so I’m on schedule.
Is it something you look forward to, that you have an anticipation for?
If HBO weren’t part of the deal, I don’t know exactly the shape my career would be, but there’s a certainty that I’d be touring and doing these shows. And probably what I would be doing is turning each show into a CD and moving along.
I write for the stage show. HBO is just a way of taking pictures of my stage show and sending it to people’s houses. It’s just a delivery system. It’s for the stage, it’s for the performer. The writer gets to work and do its homework and be a good boy and cross the t’s and dot the i’s, and then the performer gets to show off, gets to take it out onstage and play and be the asshole in the fifth grade. So I get to exercise both parts of me now. When I was a young boy in school, I was a smart kid, but I wasn’t interested in doing the work. I wasn’t interested in doing assignments. I could pass a quiz, I could do certain things and acquit myself well in the classroom. But I didn’t do book reports. And beyond high school, the other half of me, the performer, had already begun to have concrete plans about how to go about things, how to set about in life to do what I wanted, so school took on even less importance in my mind. As long as I had a good grasp of the English language and as long as I remained curious and wanted to read and find things out and seek knowledge and inform myself, I knew I’d be okay. So I quit school after ninth grade. The bet paid off. But I just had a solid, certain feeling that I could do something with this show off talent. I didn’t know what it was for sure. I knew comedian was a possibility. I thought actor, announcer, disc jockey, impersonator. I wrote them all down when I was a kid. I just didn’t know which one. But I knew I needed to stand up and call attention to myself. So it worked out.
Do you think you definitely found the right path for you?
Yes, I forget whether they’re talking about happiness or success but it fits for either one -- if you do something you love that you’re really good at, and people recognize you for it, you’ve got the package. Those are the three elements that give you your real satisfaction, your real successful feeling. Whether or not there’s money involved. In a lot of cases, money comes along with the package. But the mains things – are you good at it, do you do a good job with it, and does everybody notice and say good job, pat you on the back. I’ve got that.
When you look back on all of your old specials – I know you had the boxed set last year – do you ever find yourself reflecting on that material, saying this part was especially good or that part was especially bad?
No. I’ve been very lucky in that, first of all, I chose deliberately not to do topical subjects, because they’re perishable. They have a shelf life, and after a very short period of time they seem dated and you seem dated and it seems pointless and stale and stupid. I don’t like developing something that’s useful for a month into a nice three or four solid minutes with good thoughts in it and have to throw it away because it got old. I’d rather talk about things that more or less will always be true about us, people, we Americans, we humans. I aim for that. Now there are sometimes in passing there are references to people who are of a certain time such as a Bush or a Nixon or whatever, but the thing never hangs on that. It’s just incidental, and sometimes those things hold up because they’re not tied to events, they’re not tied to a time, they’re tied to a person, and we know him for many years, so it’s still valid about him or her.
You’ve said recently also – and I know this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that you’ve sort of dropped out of the species so you can look at things as an observer. That was obviously tongue-in-cheek, but what is the practical, day-to-day effect or function of that outlook?
It seems to me, at least, in my personal ability to see things, it seems to me that it’s all rather pointless, that it’s all rather pointless, and that all of this is a temporal adventure. This stuff happens in a moment of time, when you look at the age of the universe and given the age of the Earth itself, and even the age since life has been around from the one-celled animal, this is rather meaningless, short-lived drop in the bucket, and I just don’t want to invest the importance in it that everyone does. You know, a lot of Eastern philosophy and stuff that’s grown out of Eastern thought talks about living in the now, living in this moment. And I understand mindfulness, and I understand the value that that offers. But I’d rather live in the always. I kind of feel like, at least I’ve chosen to think of it, that I live in the always.
I’m very fascinated by the cosmos and the history of life and time and space and atoms and quarks and sub-quarks and so forth. I’m fascinated by all these things. Archeology interests me a great deal. I mean, I don’t study these things in-depth, but I read about them a bit to inform myself and I’m very interested in that. I’m interested in history. I like seeing the whole picture, and I’ll often say, ‘Gee, I wish I could live or observe another thousand years, it’s going to be so interesting, the rise of China, the decline of the white race on the planet, because the white race is not reproducing at a replacement rate that’s sufficient to sustain it. The other races reproduce more abundantly. Russia will come back and be strong again, China will rise, India will rise, the Moslemization of Europe is taking place, and the American empire is showing signs of being at the last stages. When you employ mercenaries, when you have bases in, I don’t know, 70 or 80 countries around the world, and you spend so much money on your defense, I mean, all of these are signs that a lot of the previous empires that have fallen have shown. The British empire, the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Spanish. All of them have shown certain characteristics that we’re now echoing. To me, all of that stuff’s interesting, and that’s what I mean about divorcing myself from what’s going on – I really don’t feel like I have a stake in this shit. It’s so much of a show. I’m here for the performance, I want to see the show.
It seems unusual that a lot of comedians aren’t really interested in all of the things that you’re talking about, that sort of macro picture, history repeating itself. It seems, of course you should be interested in that if your job is “comedian,” but it doesn’t seem like a lot of people are.
I don’t think I would try to figure out a template for all comedians because the first job is to get laughs. The first job is to amuse people, take them out of where they are and put them in your crazy little upside-down world that you created. In comedy, whether you’re doing very simple sort of club comedy, and there’s nothing wrong with any kind of comedy – Some people are performers, primarily, and some people bring a writer along for the ride.
It’s not fine art. It’s not high art, it’s low art. Stand-up comedy is a vulgar, people’s art, but if the writer is at work there’s artistry involved, and sometimes a person grows. I’ve been trying for 50 years get people to laugh and get people to be entertained and watch me and listen to me. So over those 50 years, I have grown and changed and matured and seasoned, and those things show. And I’ve been lucky enough to have the kind of career where I could do that. I didn’t get sidetracked into movies. I thought at one time that I wanted to be a movie actor and I wanted to be in a sitcom and all that kind of stuff, but after a long time of dabbling with those things, I could see that they were really a waste of time and they were besides the point. My point being, that I like creating material. Writing it. And performing it. Or putting it in a book now. I can do that. I have two delivery systems.
A lot of comedians make me laugh who don’t make me think. I don’t think the job of the comedian is to make you think. And I don’t think that’s my job. My job is to feel good about what I’m doing and enjoy what I’m doing. Sometimes an interviewer will say, “Are you trying to make the audience think?” And I say, “No, that would really be the kiss of death.” What I want them to know is that I’m thinking. Look at me, ain’t I cute, ain’t I smart, look how I’m thinking. I guess when you drop out of school, too, you have this deficit all your life. It’s not serious, it’s not crippling, but there’s this feeling that you’ve got to keep showing how smart you are.
Was there ever a time where you felt like you were doing comedy to try to change people?
No, never. It was always singing my song. That’s all it’s ever about, just sing your song. Hey, listen to me, this is what’s on my mind, this is what’s on my chest and in my heart, here it is, this is how it goes. Then when they like it, you just go home really happy.
Is it flattering to you that people keep coming to you as an authority on humor?
Well, it’s a good feeling to have lasted long enough that that’s true, I’ll put it that way. It’s a good feeling to know that the accumulated time and output puts me in a good spot with them.
Where exactly do you stand on the concept of god and religion? It seems to me that you reference it but you don’t exactly deny it.
Well, yeah. First of all, I think religion has given god a bad name if there is a god. That’s not my original thought, of course. I reference it because it’s a cultural artifact, it’s part of our common body of knowledge and information and theory. It’s part of what we have put in place. So it’s a reference point – something to talk about that everyone understands. And it has qualities, should it be true, has qualities that are quite spooky and outstanding and awesome. So it has a good dramatic potential. I’m like everyone else – even the ones who think they know – I’m in the dark. I don’t know nothin’. I don’t know dick. I was an atheist, but I realized that was a belief, so I fit more comfortably under the idea of agnostic. I just don’t know what the fuck’s going on. My brother calls it ‘the big electron.’ That’s as close as you can get, probably. That’s close enough for me.
It seems to me what you have a problem with is peoples’ concept of god.
Yeah. Right. Speaking for him and killing in his name. No. Just the worst acts on the face of the planet have been committed in the name of god. And god’s got a lot to answer for. I’ll put it that way. God’s got a lot to answer for. My partner, my ex-partner Jack Burns, who I started my comedy career with back in 1960, Jack once said, ‘If power corrupts, and if absolute power corrupts absolutely, where does that leave god?’ And I’d just as soon leave that out there for people to think about, too.