When I interviewed George Carlin for the Boston Globe in 2002, he was in the middle of a run at the GMG Grand in Las Vegas, and his 12th HBO special, “Complaints and Grievances,” was already out. He mentioned in the interview that he was working on a Broadway show called “Watch Your Language,” which would have covered his lifelong love of words, a subject that popped up often in his act. I was excited by the prospect of that, but it never happened. Some of it popped up in other work, like his “I’m a Modern Man” which was in his “Life Is Worth Losing” special.
If you read a bunch of Carlin’s interviews over time, you can trace his exploring of an idea and how it develops into what happens onstage. For example, this quote – “The role of comedy is to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross it. And I love doing that.” – wound up in his promotional interviews for his last special, “It’s Bad For Ya.” There was always plenty to talk about with Carlin, and here we discussed 9/11, one-person shows, and Carlin’s ever-shifting comic persona.
Where are you calling from?
I’m calling from Las Vegas.
You’re at your stand there at the MGM?
I do a certain number of weeks here every year and I do my regular shows too.
Does that make it easier to manage your schedule?
Well, it gives me a chance to continue to do what I do and not have to move cities everyday. Keep you from having to pack every day. You can sit and write and have a semi-routine life.
It gives you a chance to work on new material and such?
Well, I work all year round, but it gives me a chance to work in a concentrated fashion. It’s a way to not have to travel every day and still work at night.
I saw a note on your Web site that said your life and career are changing. How so?
Well, hmm. Traditionally what I’ve done – I’ve done twelve HBO specials. Been in partnership with them for twenty-five years. They’re changing their focus a little bit. The kind of shows I do for them are always shows with a variety of topics in them, and they’re always one-hour shows. You’re taping, aren’t you?
Good. A variety of topics, everything from one end of the spectrum to another. Some of them about language, some of them about what you might think of as large issues, some of them are little things about ever day life. So this has been my course, and their focus is changing because of all the series they’re doing now. I was the last stand-up comic they were doing with any regularity. They did occasional people in the last few years but I was the only one they were doing on a regular basis. Now they don’t want to do regular venues anymore, such as the Beacon Theater in New York, which is where I’ve been doing my last three or four shows.
So, I’ve been promising for five years to them that I’d be going to Broadway at some point, so they had always pushed me for that, and I was getting ready – I did a show in November, my twelfth show – and I told them I’ll have another one for you in two years. And they said, well, we don’t want to do any of the normal venues anymore. We want stand-up shows, if we’re going to do any of them at all, and we like you and we want you here, to be events, quote unquote.
That’s, of course, a big word these days in show business and sports. You have to have an event now. So that’s the way the Robin Williams show emerged, I guess, because he went to Broadway one day. And that’s kind of using Broadway as a prop. It’s not really a Broadway show. But it’s a way to use the name as a title and a promotional prop.
I said to myself, I was kind of happy because my own private schedule and my personal sort of plan to go to Broadway with one-person shows, so-called one-person shows, was forced into the front of my thinking. Rather than to continue to be a little bit lazy and just knock off these HBO shows, I needed to do the Broadway show for myself and to keep something out in front of the mass audience. So that’s what I’m going to do, and that’s what’s changing. In the fall of 2004, we’ll open a show on Broadway titled “Watch Your Language.” And it’s a normal ninety-minute to a hundred and fifteen minute show with two acts and an intermission and everything that is devoted entirely to one topic. That is what makes it different for me, for one thing. The length of the show makes it different. The thematic variety of show – the fact that it’s all language – is different.
It’s one of my strengths, actually, over the years, is talking about words and phrases and how we speak and abuse and use the English language in America. And all of the many branches that could come out of that topic. One thing that’s different about this show, too, is I intend to do it without any so-called “x-rated” language. Whatever is the right word for that kind of language. I don’t even know. I think of it as profanity. So I’m doing that because I want to signal that this is different. And I think that’s an important part of it. This is based on, I think, good sound observation and ideas, an exploration of things I see and patterns I see about American language. Nothing very profound, of course, but fun, and in some cases smart, I hope. Smart and somewhat sophisticated about this stuff. And a presentation that’s theatrical.
So, that’s a long answer to your question, but it’s a big, big, big change for me. And it has implications for the rest of my life because I have a couple of other good ideas with a lot of material in files already on them for subsequent Broadway shows. But I would try to get a Broadway run out of this. I would hope that I have enough accumulated interest and following among the public to run this for six months, of maybe eight months, and then take it on the road. And of course, that’s a little different when you tour a Broadway show. Because you can stay in the city for a week or two weeks at a time. For instance, Boston, I could stay there for a week. Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, all over. So somewhere in the midst of that, between Broadway and touring it, I would … And we’d have to try to figure out how to balance the fact that it would probably stimulate some interest in the show on the road and it might hurt a little box office. You always have to balance that out. I think the interest it stimulates overrides the fact that someone sees it and says, “Well, I’ve already seen this.”
Is this, would you say, a new direction?
Yeah. Unquestionably. What it is, it’s a new use of the thing I’ve always done. And especially one aspect of the thing I’ve always done, which is the language stuff. There’s been plenty of that in the shows along the way, and I do think of it as a strength. And it’s a thing that a lot of people comment on, so I think that I’m building on something that makes a lot of sense for me. So it’s a new twist in a familiar road.
What’s going to separate this from other comedians doing one-person shows?
It doesn’t have to be separate. But every comedian is different. Lily Tomlin brought her and Jane Wagner’s sensibilities to a one-person performance. Jackie Mason brings his sensibilities to it. People who are perhaps lesser known but nonetheless extremely talented have brought their own central identities. Spaulding Grey, Eric Bogosian – certainly they’re well-known. But even lesser names had one-person shows off Broadway, off off, or on Broadway, and all it is is just an exploration of your own theatrical persona. Whatever it is you do is now in a new frame. That’s really all it is. It doesn’t distinguish you from others in that it’s me. And I’m sure that’s all I can do.
Are you planning on using any material from your act in the show?
There are a couple of things from the past that I will put in there because they really belong in there. I don’t know to name them yet because I haven’t settled on them. I have one hundred and ninety separate computer files on language alone, over the years that I’ve accumulated. I have eighteen hundred computer files on all my things. Probably I could do ten more HBO specials if you could snap your fingers over a computer and have the finished product. So I have a lot to draw from, and I haven’t settled on everything yet, but there will be a couple of things that make brief appearances, but that belong in the show. I would say ninety percent of the show will be new, and there are a couple of aspects of it that will be very theatrical. It’s not a laundry list of words and observations. Each separate subtopic such as euphemisms or political talk or media talk or marketing language or current American jargon – each of those and whatever other ones there are will be couched in separate sort of performance styles. It’s not just, “and then this, and then that, and then this.” It’ll have a feel of a narrative flow. Not a literal narrative like a story, but it will have a flow and a linear sense to it that makes it more of a theatrical experience.
So you mean theatrical more in a sense of narrative than spectacle.
Well yes, absolutely. It won’t be a spectacle. For instance, the opening piece is a sort of poem – it doesn’t rhyme, it’s more like free verse, but it’s a sort of poem called “I’m a Modern Man.” It’s spoken in the first person. “I’m a modern man.” And then this modern man describes himself in all of the terms that we have grown used to. Familiar terms from our past in the last twenty, twenty-five years that have become so much a part of our lives through media repetition and through the quick growth of language and not quite slang, but jargon and argo and the kind of lingo – my file for this is called Broadway Lingo. It’s my shorthand for this idea. And it’s really – that piece, for instance, has a performance quality because it’s done in a kind of a manner of an actor on a stage, as opposed to a comedian looking at his audience and speaking to them. And there are other parts that are like that, that I’m putting into a form that [makes them different] from the standard sound of my stand-up. It’s a little hard to pin down verbally here, but I know it in me, and I have a feel for what I have to do with it. So there!
Do you think fans will be disappointed to not hear the “Seven Words” routine?
No. Absolutely not. No. First of all, I’ve done one hundred and thirty-seven, for instance, Tonight Shows, and probably a hundred other kind of television shows with routines, stand-up, not just sitting on a panel, I don’t mean that, where I haven’t used any bad language. So, people know in a sense, without having thought of it consciously, perhaps, that I can do that. No, they’re not going to be disappointed, because what people like in my material, I believe, the combination people have come to appreciate, is, whatever it is about my personality that they like, and secondly, the ideas. There are always sound ideas. Even when it’s the most bizarre sort of subject or something very risky, in a way, it’s usually based on some interesting twist of an idea we all know. That’s what interests me. That’s the kind of thing I wanna say. So even if I’m mucking it up with a lot of filthy language, and very irreverent references. For instance, the abortion thing, that goes back to ’96 I think. The abortion piece that opened that HBO show, even though that is just an attack on Christianity and its attitudes, and Catholicism in particular, because I was a Catholic, it is based on some very sound reasoning. It’s perverse, some of it. But, it’s a very well structured, logical dissection of this whole thing. I try to have that be one of the things that attracts people, and I think it’s in there. I think it’s in the package people look for. If they’re one of the people who says, “I really like him,” I think that’s one of the things they like. So this show will be just loaded with that.
Do you find yourself looking back to your archives very often?
Well, I own everything of my own. I own all of my albums. There are seventeen of them. All my HBO shows. So I was in the luxurious position of being able to do that sort of packaging myself, or supervise it. So I have, over the years, for various packages of that type, both audio and video, have, by necessity, been forced back to listen and see and experience some of the things. But it’s mostly a function of that, that I revisit them. Plus, they’re in my mind anyway as archives. You know, they’re in there. So sometimes I hear resonance between something I’m doing now and something I did and I want to see how I did and improve it. And I look back and I see that, gee I wasn’t writing as carefully then. God, I could have gotten another two minutes out of that subject. Why’d I leave it alone? So I think I’ve improved the craft part of what I do just by continuing, the same way I guess a violin player improves over time.
Is that what you think when you, say, see footage of yourself as a young clean-cut comedian doing Kennedy impressions?
Well, I’m proud of the fact that I was… I had a lot of things in those old stand-up television pieces, clean-shaven, suit and tie, that had good insight in them, and some interesting irreverence, that was sort of mild compared to later stuff I did, but for its time, which was a nice kind of a touch. I’m always very proud of what I did when I put it in the context of who I was when I did it. How old I was And I was operating purely by my instincts. I quit school in ninth grade, went into the air force, and got a job as a disc jockey when I was seventeen in the air force. So I kind of like invented my situation, and I’m kind of proud that I was able to push it along at such an early time.
Do you think it’s necessary to keep reinventing yourself?
I think if it’s part of how you function, it seems to come out of – I don’t know if the people who do that, and I think I’m among them, I don’t know how accurate, I use the word myself, “reinvent,” but I don’t know how accurate it is. I think it’s natural evolution, that you have more to do or more to say, not so much because you think the world is waiting for it as you need to say it. You need to say these things, you’ve got to get it off your chest. I guess that’s what all self-expression is about. I gotta sing my song, I gotta paint my picture, I gotta write my poem. And some people keep their poems and never show them to anyone, and some of us are more extroverted about it and need to have approval and direct, immediate gratification for it. So this is an ideal medium for me to get out there and hear it. And then you get to polish and fix, you know. A painter has to say, “Okay, the painting’s done.” A poet has to say, ‘I finished that’ and here it is to the publisher. But until the moment I get to perform it to the people who are going to appreciate it and change it along the way until I finally say it’s done and put it on a tape.
How much of the changes you go through, whether reinvention or evolution, is reactive?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s very consciously reactive. If you want to refer to the biggest and most obvious change that I went through, from the short hair suit and tie to the so-called ‘hippie’ part of my career, that all happened very naturally and organically, so to speak, over two years in front of people. It wasn’t like Bobby Darin. I didn’t go away in a tuxedo and come back in buckskins. My hair grew, my beard grew, my material changed, in front of people in two years. Because I was in the wrong place and I had to fix that. I was what I think of as a mainstream comedian entertaining mainstream audiences in mainstream venues, and what happened was, during the years of the sixties, which were the years of my coming of age as a comedian, I started in 1960, during those years, the world around me changed. And I had always been a rather out-of-step individual. This suit and tie person was kind of a way of going along to get along. Because in order to be what I wanted to be, which was, I wanted to be like a Danny Kaye as a child. In order to do that, I had to do what you do, and that was go through mainstream show business. And so I was going through those things and using my skills – Hippy Dippy Weatherman, Wonderful Wino, all these things I did – using my skills to excel in that arena, the mainstream arena. But underneath all that, I was a pot smoker, and I was a kid who was always swimming against the tide.
I was a lawbreaker, a rule-breaker, I was kicked out of the air force, I was kicked out of the choir, the altar boys, the boy scouts, summer camp, three schools, and I ran away from home three times. So I was always a kind of an outlaw, let’s call it, with big quotation marks around it. And yet I had to act like the mainstream guy. So as the world changed around me in the sixties, I realized there was a place for this other part of me. There was a place for this other voice. This, “You’re full of shit” voice. This “Can’t you see the fuckin’ situation here?” And that guy was very lucky to be alive and beginning to function as a comedian when those changes happened. So I just let myself join that flow. Because I looked around and I saw – I was thirty at that time, by the way. 1967, I was thirty years old. I was entertaining forty year olds and above in nightclubs. And I was in sympathy, philosophically and otherwise, in sympathy with twenty year olds. The countercultural part of me inside, the guy swimming against the tide, he began to realize, I’m entertaining the wrong people. I’m entertaining, so to speak, the enemy here. Whereas, there’s now a whole culture forming that I’m more in affinity with. So, I let myself drift, my material, my writing and so forth, into the world that would accept and like those ideas, rather than keep banging my head against the wall with businessmen on expense accounts.
Do you find being an outlaw or going against the grain is important or necessary to comedy?
Well, it certainly I think it’s necessary for the most interesting comedy. Of course, that’s a personal taste. I can also laugh – you know, W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx, the Marx Brothers, Groucho and the Marx Brothers, in the 1930s they changed something In the 1920s the comedians of the silent movies were mostly people who were victims of the system. Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton. These were guys that always looked like the world was about to spoil their fun. And in the thirties, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers came along and they were anarchic and they took over and they told the setting what was going to be happening. They became the aggressor against the system. And that is essentially what appeals to me in comedy, when comedy takes a stand, so to speak, and picks at the scab and looks under the rock. That’s what happened in the 1950s when comedy changed. Because all through the forties the famous comedians, they were nightclub comedians, a lot of them were borscht belt comedians, but it was all safe stuff. As risqué as they ever got were the “my wife has a headache” jokes. Or jokes maybe about the size of a guys wee-wee or whatever euphemism they used then.
In the 1950s, we began to get a mixture of things. You’ve got Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart, Nichols and May, and a group of people. Not all of them were social critics, but they all took different courses. They all became individual expressive artists of their own sensibilities rather than to do the thing that everyone did. So that was a big shift in comedy. And that is also when boomer humor began, which is the kind of Mad Magazine, eventually National Lampoon, Monty Python, all the improvisational groups, Second City. The ones that questioned authority. And I just think that’s always, the role of comedy is to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross it. And I love doing that.
How important was it, then, for you to get the free speech award with Dick Gregory?
Well, I don’t want to use the word important. Let’s put that in its perspective. It was nice. But as I wanted to explain to them, I didn’t really do anything. All I did was do my act. The hotel in Vegas fired me. The FCC went after a radio station that played my record. And in Milwauke, the police arrested me for just doing my act. So I didn’t make a stand or risk anything the way you would think a person who gets a free speech award, freedom of speech, like he was a fighter like William Kunstler, you know? Or something like that. So it just felt nice. It was an honorary thing. I just don’t feel I was much of a pioneer. I just was in the right place with the right material at the wrong time, or the wrong material at the right time.
You’ve also said you don’t consider yourself a political comic.
Yeah, not politics in the sense of the two-party system, but political certainly in that, political in the broad sense of it, meaning that every act can be interpreted politically. Running a stop sign can be a political act. I don’t do, for the most part, there have been exceptions or lines or routines, but for the most part I don’t do topical humor about political personalities. I never did Hilary jokes, I never did Clinton jokes, I don’t do Bush jokes. Those targets are too easy. That’s simple. And you sound like everybody else. You sound like you’re just another Jay Leno, or whoever’s out there talking about these things. If I’m going to talk about something that’s sort of in the news, it’s usually something that’s in the news as an ongoing, overarching thing, like abortion, like people squealing and the Patriot Act and spying on your neighbor. It won’t be about that news story, it’ll be about that part of the zeitgeist. So that’s why I say I’m not really political. But it is, of course, very political.
Do you find political comedians funny?
Not really. Mort Sahl was a past master, present master even, and genius at that. I find things... Bill Maher has interesting attitudes, I think. And some of the writing is very crisp and I like it. But for the most part, I’m pretty bored by topical humor. Because it has to, it’s so obvious exploitative – I looked that up once and there’s two different ways -- exploitive and exploitative. They both sound wrong. But it does sound like it’s just pandering to people’s recent passions about the news. And it’s easy. Anybody can make a joke like that. Another problem with topical humor is you’ve got to drop something after a month because it sounds dated. If you’ve worked on something for a month, it’s grown and changed for a month, usually you’re kind of proud of it. You’ve got a minute and a half on this issue, and you’re kind of proud of it, and now it’s beginning to sound stale. And you have to throw out a good piece of writing. So I don’t like to do that. I’d rather do something that I know six months later I can be still improving.
In Complaints and Grievances you got all of your September 11th material out of the way early on.
Oh, yeah. That was just something that I could not avoid and I was in New York after all, two months after the event, with a live audience on live television. So, I knew that, as I said there, it would be like the elephant in the living room. Why completely avoid it? What I like about what I did was, I never waived the flag, I never talked about this country, I talked about New York City, I put on the New York City t-shirt, I switched the game on them, on these flag-waivers and these shield-sniffers. I switched the game on them, and I still managed to, in a sense, acknowledge the event and make very little of it. Because it’s very easy to just fall in line on these things. It’s just a real boring thing to me now. I call it 7/11. When I worked on that night here, this past week, I said, “I hope you didn’t come here to hear any of that seven-eleven shit, cuz I’m not going to do it.” And they understood and they laughed at that, and I just left it at that.
You’ve not written any more material on the event?
No. Well, I have a file on it because I keep thinking of things on terrorism or suicide bombers or Saddam Hussein, and of course, Bush and Cheney, and I have a file on that. Because when I go on Imus, I do like to say a little something, if I have what I think of as a really clever line or a good observation. So I have files on those things because… They’re rather short but because I can’t stop my brain when my brain thinks of something, but I haven’t tried to make a routine out of it. The other thing about it is, that too, is a very fluid situation, and I could end up eight months from now saying, “Jesus, I can’t even use this ten minutes.” Hey, Nick, I’m going to have to call a radio station now. They gave me a half an hour to talk. So I really apologize because I’ve been carrying on, but I bet you can find something in there.