On Friday, June 13th, 2008, I had the extraordinary privilege of talking to George Carlin. As far as I know it was the last in-depth interview he gave before he passed away yesterday at age 71. Originally it was slated to run as a 350-word Q&A on the back page of Psychology Today. But I was so excited to talk to him—and he was so generous with his time—that I just kept on going. By the end I had over 14,000 words.
On stage, George Carlin came across as a grouch, often vulgar and sometimes misanthropic. But with me he was patient and warm, happy to talk through the minutiae of his creative process and eager to share stories about his childhood, his evolution as a comic, and his influence. What struck me most was the joy in his voice as he talked about the wonderful feeling he got in his gut while writing. I was also moved by the gratitude he expressed for his mother, who he said “saved” him and his brother—leaving her bullying, alcoholic husband when George was just two months old, getting a job during the worst years of the Depression, and raising two boys on her own.
He spoke about the pride he took in his work. As a ninth-grade dropout, he said, it was gratifying to see his words quoted in textbooks, classrooms, and courtrooms. And he was proud to have inspired other comedy greats, who routinely called him to say, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be doing this.” As he looked back on his astonishingly prolific 50-year career—which includes 130 Tonight Show appearances, 23 albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, and one Supreme Court case—the interview became a sort of retrospective of his life.
Finally, after two hours, he gently mentioned that his arm was getting tired from holding the phone. “I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into all these questions. Really, it’s the most complete interview I’ve ever done,” he said. “Is it tomorrow yet? I think it is.”
“It feels like it is,” I said, struggling to keep up with his wit.
“All this is for a quote unquote back page?” he said.
“This is for the back page, but, I don’t know, I just love you and your work so much!” I gushed. “I just had so much I wanted to ask.”
At the time, I was embarrassed by what I’d said. But when I heard the sad news this morning, my feelings changed instantly. I’m honored that I got to speak to him, and I’m grateful that I got to tell him how much I admired him before he died.
It would be impossible to overstate George Carlin’s contribution to standup comedy. Along with Richard Pryor and a few others, he essentially created the genre as we know it today. But he was more than just a comedy pioneer. He was a freethinker who never backed down, and he truly changed the course of American culture. He will be missed. —Jay Dixit
What follows are edited highlights. They represent a little over half of the interview.
How do you think about comedy and self-expression? Expressing what’s within vs. looking at the outside world and making observations?
Self-expression is a hallmark of an artist, of art, to get something off one’s chest, to sing one’s song. So that element is present in all art. And comedy, although it is not one of the fine arts—it’s a vulgar art, it’s one of the people’s arts, it’s the spoken word, the writing that goes into it is an art form—it’s certainly artistry. So self-expression is the key to even standing up and saying, “Hey, listen to me.” Self-expression can be based on looking at the world and making observations about it or not. Comedy can also be based on describing one’s inner self—doing anecdotes, talking about your own fears. Woody Allen taps into a lot of self-analysis in his comedy. But I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I think self-expression is present at all times, and whether or not you’re talking about the outside world or your responses to it depends on the moment and the subject.
Do you go around observing and trying to collect funny things? Or do you just live your life and then say how you feel about what you happen to have seen?
I’m 71, and I’ve been doing this for a little over 50 years, doing it at a fairly visible level for 40. By this time it’s all second nature. It’s all a machine that works a certain way: the observations, the immediate evaluation of the observation, and then the mental filing of it, or writing it down on a piece of paper. I’ve often described the way a 20-year-old versus, say, a 60- or a 70-year-old, the way it works. A 20-year-old has a limited amount of data they’ve experienced, either seeing or listening to the world. At 70 it’s a much richer storage area, the matrix inside is more textured, and has more contours to it. So, observations made by a 20-year-old are compared against a data set that is incomplete. Observations made by a 60-year-old are compared against a much richer data set. And the observations have more resonance, they’re richer.
So if I write something down, some observation—I see something on television that reminds me of something I wanted to say already—the first time I write it, the first time I hear it, it makes an impression. The first time I write it down, it makes a second impression, a deeper path. Every time I look at that piece of paper, until I file it in my file, each time, the path gets a little richer and deeper so that these things are all in there.
Now at this age, I have a network of knowledge and data and observations and feelings and values and evaluations I have in me that do things automatically. And then when I sit down to consciously write, that’s when I bring the craftsmanship. That’s when I pull everything together and say, how I can best express that? And then as you write, you find more, ’cause the mind is looking for further connections. And these things just flow into your head and you write them. And the writing is the really wonderful part. A lot of this is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that’s our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.
Do you think that the richness you described comes from just being able to access more experiences, having information on file? Or is it judgment?
Well, that’s true, too. The machine that does all this learns what it is you want—it learns what it is that serves your purpose and it begins to tailor the synthesis. It synthesizes these observations and these comparisons. Comedy’s all about comparisons and contrasts and congruities and incongruities and heightenings and understatement and exaggeration. The mind has all of that stuff built in, and it learns which ones pay off the best for you. It’s probably related to the pleasure center. You get so much pleasure finding good observations and finding which things are the richest things you can say, that probably the brain remembers how that happened and learns to provide the best stuff. Maybe you have a little silent editor in there.
You talked about how comedy’s all about incongruities, contrasts, exaggeration. Do you think about those techniques or those principles of humor consciously?
It happens automatically. Sometimes there’s a conscious heightening, you’ll recognize you’ve just chosen an image to make a point. Then your mind will just suddenly throw something at you that’s stronger—a heightening, to raise the stakes, a stronger word, a more visceral image, something that lights up the imagination, much better than the original thought. So you’re aware that you’re heightening and exaggerating further but you don’t use the word exaggeration or anything like that. All that stuff is just happening. And sometimes, afterward, I’ll look at something and say, “If I were giving a comedy lecture, that would be a good example.” I often think in those terms.
Do you think there are any downsides to having gotten to the point where you are, where all of this is happening automatically? Or are there some advantages a 20-year-old would have?
Well, I would imagine there are some that I can’t put my finger on because I don’t remember what it was like. I was a different man. I don’t know—the advantage that a 20 year old would have would be more longevity to look forward to.
You talked about how wonderful it is, this feeling of writing. So what is your process like?
I take a lot of single-page notes, little memo pad notes. I make a lot of notes on those things. For when I’m not near a little memo pad, I have a digital recorder. Most of the note-taking happens while I’m watching television.
Because the world is undifferentiated on the television set. You may be watching the news channel, but it’s going to cover the breadth of American life and the human experience. It’s gonna go from suicide bombings to frivolous consumer goods. It’s a broad window on the world, and a lot of things are already established in my mind as things I say, things that I’m interested in, things that are fodder for my machine. And when I see something that relates to one of them, I know it instantly and if it’s a further exaggeration and a further addition, or an exception—if it plays into furthering my purpose, I jot it down.
When I harvest the pieces of paper and I go through them and sort them, the one lucky thing I got in my genetic package was a great methodical left brain. I have a very orderly mind that wants to classify and index things and label them and store them according to that. I had a boss in radio when I was 18 years old, and my boss told me to write down every idea I get even if I can’t use it at the time, and then file it away and have a system for filing it away—because a good idea is of no use to you unless you can find it. And that stuck with me.
And what’s your filing system?
There’s a large segment of it devoted to language, which is a love of mine. And a rich area for my work talking about how we talk. One of the files is called “The Way We Talk.” And it’s about certain voguish words that come into style and remain there. But then there are subfiles. Everything has subfiles. There’s one that says “Crime.” There’s “Crime” and there’s “Law,” there’s “Sex” and there’s “Race.” And there’s “Humans”—that’s obviously a big folder with a lot of smaller folders in it, it’s about the human race and the human species and experiences and observations I have about that, or data that I’ve found about it. You know, 6 million people stepped on land mines this year. Those things interest me.
And there’s “America,” and America is a major category, of course. It breaks down into the culture, and the culture breaks down into further things. It’s like nested boxes, like the Russian dolls—it’s just folders within folders within folders. But I know how to navigate it very well, and I’m a Macintosh a guy and so Spotlight helps me a lot. I just get on Spotlight and say, let’s see, if I say “asshole” and “minister,” I then can find what I want find.
What’s the process of going from something that’s true about the world—observing it—to actually making people laugh?
I begin with the knowledge that my audience knows me thoroughly. I know the things they will trust coming from me, and I know they’ll allow me to do exposition that’s necessary to set the stage for the piece of material. The funny—that’s part of the genetic package. The genetic marker for language came through my family. My grandfather, whom I didn’t know, was a New York City policeman. I did not know him. During his adult life, he wrote out Shakespeare’s tragedies longhand just for the joy it gave him. And he asked questions about language at his dinner table, my mother told me. My mother had a great love of language, and a great gift for language. The Irish have a genetic tradition, it seems, an affinity for language and expression. And so I got that. The Irish say: “You don’t lick it off the rocks, kid.” It comes in the blood. So, I have that and I don’t have to do anything about it.
As Noel Coward said, “All I ever had was a talent to amuse.” I have a talent to amuse and I have a way of finding the joke, a way of expressing things through exaggeration, interesting images, whatever goes in, whatever the parts are that go into making these things work.
I try to come in through the side door. One of the voguish terms, which is so repellant to me, “thinking outside the box.” To settle for that kind of language is embarrassing. But that’s a very useful picture. I try to come in through the side door, the side window, to come in from a direction they’re not expecting, to see something in a different way. That’s the job that I give myself. So, how can I talk about something eminently familiar to them, on my terms, in a new way, that engages their imagination?
The jokes come. You don’t look for them. It’s all automatic, and, I think, genetic. My father was an after dinner speaker, was a great raconteur. He was an ad salesman for space in newspapers during the 1930s, when that was the primary medium of advertising, and my mother was in advertising her whole life. They both were very funny, and they both were very gifted verbally. So, those things come to you automatically. It’s like being a child prodigy with the violin or the piano. It’s not something you try for or you have to do too much about except work at it. And that’s what I try to do.
How is it that you find things that are unexpected?
I don’t know. But I want to add an element I overlooked. Psychology. We’re talking about a magazine called Psychology Today.
As a child, my father was gone. I had no grandparents; they were all dead. Had no real cousins to play with, and I didn’t give a shit, frankly. I experienced my life in a very happy way, but, what I want to say to you is, I was alone as a child. My father was dead. My mother left him when I was 2 months old and he died when I was 8 years old. He drank too much and he was a bully and she had the courage to take two boys, one of them two months old and one of them 5 years old and to leave him in 1937 and get back into the business world and get a job and raise us through the end of the Depression and through the Second World War. She did a great job, but she was at work until 7 or 7:30 at night many nights.
So I spent a lot of time on my own. In the house or out around the neighborhood or sneaking in the subway, going down to 42nd street, traveling around Manhattan Island, learning it as a youngster. And I experienced that—because psychologists ask you not if something’s good or bad, but how do you experience it—I experienced that as freedom, independence, autonomy. And I was brought up on that feeling. That’s what made me, I think, able to quit school, and go out and try to start my life and career early, because I had that strength.
And my mother had that strength. I witnessed it. I mean, what she did was she took us away from him and saved us. So, those qualities of being alone like that fostered in me a need for adult approval and attention. Now they say that it’s kind of a common cliché that comedians just want attention. But it’s an element that’s very important. The job is called “look at me.” That’s the name of this job. “Look at me. Ain’t I smart? Ain’t I cute? Ain’t I clever?”
I needed to be—not the center of attention—but I needed to be able to attract attention when I wanted it, through my stunts and my fooling around physically with faces or postures or voices I would do. Then it became funny the things I would say, and I became more of a wit than simply a mimic and a clown. And so, those things were all important in this. The fact that I didn’t finish school left me with a lifelong need to prove that I’m smart, prove it to myself, maybe to the world. “Ain’t I smart, ain’t I cute, ain’t I clever.” “Listen to me, listen to what I got to say.” So, those things are important elements in the drive behind all of this.
You made an analogy to playing the violin. I wanted to ask you about mastery. You’ve been doing this for, as you said, over 50 years, and it seems like you’ve only gotten better with time. So I’m wondering what you think has enabled you to do that. Is it like playing the violin? Is it just practice? Is it getting good feedback? Is it—you know, what is it that allows you to hone your craft?
The feedback that I’ve gotten has been through the success of the career. That’s a reinforcing factor. I say: Oh, that works, oh that’s what I do, I see. I think with anything you do over a long period of time, you should be getting better at it. I’m talking about craft, art, or drive that comes from inside.
What is your philosophy about physical performance? You walk around a lot, you make a lot of gestures.
It’s just second nature, you don’t think about it at all. And I don’t pace as much on stage as I used to, maybe it’s my age, I don’t know. I don’t feel limited physically, in that respect, but it’s just something I’ve grown into.
Were you always making people laugh, sort of automatically, just because of your personality?
Yeah. As I was describing, this is a job for a showoff. In those 8 years of grammar school that I had—the 9th year was kind of a it was a Irish catholic Christian brothers, and it was a much more brutal setting than these lovely nuns we had. So I think of those 8 years as my education. I got the work very easily, I didn’t have any trouble grasping the work, and so I had time to clown, time to signal to my buddy, make a face, make a fart under the arm, I was a bit of a class clown, I was a neighborhood cut-up.
I eventually started doing routines when I was about 14, 15 16. I would do routines on the street corner for my buddies on the stoop. My mother wanted me to finish high school, go to college, be an advertising man, be a businessman like the men at her office whom she admired. But she couldn’t stop this other machine that was revving up.
I had an 8th grade graduation from the grammar school—it was the only graduation I ever had. And in 9th grade, while I was at that school, I had a Brother, one of the brothers who taught, his name was Brother Conrad. My mother had said to me, now George, I didn’t get you a graduation present, and this was June 1951, this was now the fall of 1951, when I’m in first year of high school. She said, “I didn’t get you a graduation present, so you be thinking about what you might want.”
Brother Conrad was telling the class one day that because he had a clergyman’s discount rate, he could get cameras for people. Then he mentioned tape recorders and man, the bell went off in my head! Tape recorders at that time were virtually unknown to the average person. They may have heard about them here or there. They were not consumer items.
She bought me a tape recorder, a Webcor. And that became a tool for me to put some of these verbal impulses to work. I began to produce little radio shows on it at home by using the phonograph. Playing a record on the phonograph, like playing the Dragnet theme. Dun da dun dun. Dun da dun dun duuun.
Then I would fade the phonograph down and I would come in and I would do my make-believe announcer. I did newscasts, I did sports. A lot of the things that I ventured into professionally in my first stage of comedy I was doing on that tape recorder. I recorded a whole half hour of story—it was like a vignette, like a series of vignettes, a drama, about my neighborhood. And guess what: I made fun of authority figures.
So my mother—in spite what she wanted me to do for her, to be a great reflection on her, go to college and be a businessman—she knew this was something I needed. And she got that for me, and it helped accelerate the beginnings of my putting this dream together that I had. I was 14 when I got that tape recorder. They were the size of a Buick. They were not little handy things. And she was smart enough to get me one. That’s an important part of my development.
Can you remember the first joke you ever told?
No. But I do remember the first time I ever made my mother laugh. And unfortunately, it’s lost on me what it was I said. But I noticed the moment, I knew something had happened, this was when I was very young. My mother laughed fairly frequently. But I knew the difference between her social laugh and her really spontaneous laugh when she was caught off guard—which is the key to laugher, being off guard. And I said something to her, and I saw that in her and it registered with me. And it made the point. I wouldn’t have remembered it as well as I do if it hadn’t meant a lot to me. It was a kind of a little mark along the way, a little badge of honor. It meant I had said something witty. I didn’t clown, I wasn’t making a face or standing in a funny angle. I had said something witty. I had probably turned some situation around, exaggerated one element, and made a joke.
I want to talk about the transformation that you did in the 60s when you went from what you once termed the “middle-American comic” to this different persona—it was much more subversive. How did that happen and why did that happen?
I was always swimming against the tide. I was always out of step. Not only did I quit school, but I got kicked out of three schools along the way. I eventually got asked to leave the air force a year early—it wasn’t dishonorable, but it was a general discharge, which is a step down—because I did not shape up, I didn’t like authority, I had three court-martials. I was kicked off the alter boys, I was kicked off the choirboys, I was kicked out of the boy scouts, I was kicked out of summer camp. I never fit and I didn’t like conforming. And sometimes it just broke through the membrane, and I was out.
By the end of the 60s, all of my friends, the musician friends of mine, had gone through a transition in their dress, and especially in their music, and what I noticed was that all of these great artists—Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Joan Baez—all of these people were using their art to express themselves politically and socially. And I was not. I was still doing people-pleasing.
I was 30, and I resonated much more truly with the 20-year-olds. I was more in line with them than I was with these people I was entertaining in nightclubs. I began to notice that. I began to be affected by it, and along the way, the judicious use of some mescaline and some LSD managed to accelerate the process. It gave me more of an insight into how false the world was I was settling for, and to see that there was something much richer and better and more authentic. And those changes happened, they just—they happened naturally and organically. It took about 2 years for the total changeover to occur.
My beard got a little longer, the hair got a little longer, the clothing changed, and then I suddenly found myself being as—the best combination of both, this person I really was who was kind of out of step, antiauthoritarian, who also had these skills and talents that he was honing to express himself. And so I started expressing those feelings.
In what way did the mescaline and LSD give you the insight and the confidence to make this transformation? What role did the drugs play?
Well, It was just passive, I don’t know. See, I had always been a marijuana smoker, a pretty heavy user of marijuana, all these years I’m talking about when I was in this other world of mainstream television, nightclubs. So marijuana is a hallucinogen and it is also a value-changing drug, as are acid and mescaline. They are hallucinogens and they are value-changing drugs. They alter, assist in shifting one’s perspective on the world which usually is informed by your values. And so I had already, my body, my mind, and myself—I already had a kind of a thick layer of this out-of-stepness.
And so I was already across that street. And I just hadn’t, you know, bought a house on that side yet. So, the LSD was a much stronger experience, and the mescaline, and I don’t know what they did or how they did it, I just know that going through that gave me the confidence in these changes I was feeling, in this direction, this metamorphosis, I was in the middle of. I gained confidence in it and I took strength from it, feeling that I was right that I was really on the right path, that I was being true to myself. And that was what counted to me, to be true to myself—my mother had always said that. To thine—Shakespeare—“To thine own self be true.” She loved quoting the classics, and she quoted Emerson or Shakespeare or whoever it was she thought was appropriate for her lesson. And to thine own self be true. And I just—I just had to be who I felt like I was, not who I had led them to believe I was.
So after that transformation, to what extent is the persona that you have on stage—to what extent is it your real personality? I know you’re making jokes and some of that involves exaggeration, but do you feel that you’re acting angrier, more bitter, more caustic on stage? Or are you just being yourself as accurately as possible?
I’ve addressed this before when the question is asked more bluntly: Are you an angry man? What are you angry about; what are you so angry about? I don’t live an angry life, not an angry person. I rarely lose my temper, can’t remember the last time, never had a physical fight in my life, don’t carry grudges, don’t carry resentment either. Very very lucky in those respects. But I feel a very strong alienation and dissatisfaction from my groups.
Abraham Maslow said the fully realized man does not identify with the local group. When I saw that, it rang another bell. I thought: bingo! I do not identify with the local group, I do not feel a part of it. I really have never felt like a participant, I’ve always felt like an observer. Always. I only identified this in retrospect, way after the fact, that I have been on the outside, and I don’t like being on the inside. I don’t like being in their world. I’ve never felt comfortable there; I don’t belong to that. So, when he says the “local group,” I take that as meaning a lot of things: the local social clubs or fraternal orders, or lodges or associations or clubs of any kind, things where you sacrifice your individual identity for the sake of a group, for the sake of the group mind. I’ve always felt different and outside. Now, I also extended that, once again in retrospect, as I examined my feelings.
I don’t really identify with America, I don’t really feel like an American or part of the American experience, and I don’t really feel like a member of the human race, to tell you the truth. I know I am, but I really don’t. All the definitions are there, but I don’t really feel a part of it. I think I have found a detached point of view, an ideal emotional detachment from the American experience and culture and the human experience and culture and human choices.
But even if I am a cynic, they say if you scratch a cynic, you find a disappointed idealist—that’s what’s underneath. That’s the little flicker of flame, has a little life in it, the idealist: I would love to be able to entertain that side of me, but it doesn’t work like that. I don’t see what’s in it yet, I mean I just like it out here.
I’m not an angry person, just very disappointed and contemptuous of my fellow humans’ choices—and on stage those feelings sometimes are exaggerated for a theatric stage—you’re on a stage you have an audience of 2500 or 3000 people: you need to project the feelings, the emotions it’s heightened, and people mistake it for a personal anger but it’s more dissatisfaction, disappointment and contempt for these things we’ve settled for.
So it sounds like it is your true personality, but it’s heightened for the stage.
It is my true personality, but it’s not an angry personality. Anger is a handy term and boy words are tricky, as we know. What one man perceives as anger, another person—in my case the deliverer of material—is, “Don’t you see it, don’t you see how badly you’re doing?” It’s like shaking a child—which you’re not supposed to do.
So let me latch onto that feeling. You’re grabbing somebody and you’re saying, “Don’t you see it?” But if you really don’t care about America, then why are you doing it? Why are you on stage? Is it just because you want to express yourself? Do you hope you can influence people in some way?
You’ve hit on the contradiction, and it’s one I don’t understand the resolution to, if there is one. Sometimes people say, do I try to make audiences think? I say: No no no, because that really would be the kiss of death. But what I want them to know is that I’m thinking. It’s part of that showoff and dropout syndrome. I think I need to show them that I have brought myself to a cleverer, smarter spot than they have. In doing so, “Can’t you see this? can’t you see?” And a lot of them do. I get amazing things said to me. And they’re frequent enough that I know these things are multiplied by those who have never encountered you. One person who says, “You really changed my outlook on things or the way I view X Y or Z,” for everyone who says that to you, there are a thousand, ten thousand who’ll never get to tell you that. There are people who take something away form what I do, and I know that and it pleases me and I am proud of that. And it means the student is a bit of a teacher.
But yeah, of course I care. Of course I care. My daughter has pinned me on that. She says of course you care, can’t you hear it? And I say yeah yeah yeah, but they gotta prove it to me first. Show me you care people and then I’ll let some of it out; right now I just want to scold you a little bit.
So how would you say that you feel towards people? You say on the one hand you are sort of contemptuous but on the other hand you want their approval in some way? Is that not a contradiction?
Yeah, it sounds like it has the makings of a contradiction; I guess by definition it does. I am contemptuous of the mass. That’s the thing I need to explain. One on one with people, I have great capacity and great compassion. I don’t like standing around 20 minutes talking to somebody, but when I see individuals, I see their individual beauty. I’m aware of the potential—and I don’t mean this happened every time I meet someone—but when I see people, I sort of see the potential for the whole species. When you look in their eyes, you can see a hologram of the human species and you kind of know what we could have been. It’s the group behavior that I’m talking about on stage.
Let’s switch gears a little bit and let me ask you about religion. I mean you were talking about it decades ago. Now, atheism and religion bashing have gone mainstream: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. You were way ahead of the curve. What’s it like hearing them saying many of the things you said in the 1970s?
I’ve read some of the books you’ve mentioned and some of the reasons of existence and God and what a bad name religion has given God. I just kind of do this, I just keep moving along. I don’t really judge it… I reserve my evaluations and judgments for the parts that I do, the lines I add. I don’t think about myself in the larger world very much.
Richard Dawkins did use an excerpt of mine for a chapter heading. I noticed that. It’s nice. Not to overdo this thing, but when you’re a dropout and the culture accepts you and begins to quote and they teach some of your stuff in communications class and communications law and I hear this all the time and professors ask to use things in their textbooks, this is kind of my honorary baccalaureate. When these things happen I think good, well, there’s a little thumb on my chest, feather in my cap. I notice those things, and I feel good about what I’ve chosen and how I do it. As Lily Tomlin once said, and I am going to get this wrong so it’s a paraphrase, she said to be considered a success in a mediocre culture doesn’t say a lot for you.
You were central in the Supreme Court case in which justices affirmed the government’s right to regulate your “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” act on the public airwaves. How do you think about the role of vulgarity in your humor?
I used to point out that when I was a little boy in the 40s, I was told to look up to and admire solders and sailors, policemen, firemen, and athletes, were objects of childhood hero worship. We all know how they talk. So apparently these words do not corrupt morally. This was the thing I couldn’t put together.
I use the words because I’m from that ethos. I’m from the street in New York, hung around in a tough neighborhood. It was common to curse, you make your point. It’s a very effective language. I try not to overdo it. It’s never to shock. I know where it fits, it’s never to shock. There’s no shock value left in words. Humor is base on surprise, and surprise is a milder way of saying shock. It’s surprise that makes the joke.
What’s the funniest bit you’ve ever heard?
Sometimes jokes have a wonderful logic to them. I’ll give you one that, even to people that don’t mind mild cursing, bothers some people—especially women. Short joke. The wonderful thing about it is the logic of the joke, the ingenuity.
Father and son, little son are out on the back porch, passing the day, father says to son, “Do you have perhaps any questions for me about sex?” And he says, “Well, yeah Dad, what is that hairy area on Mommy?” And the father says, “Well, that’s her vulva.” And the boy says, “Well then what’s a cunt?” And the father says, “That’s rest of Mommy.”
And that joke strikes a nerve, hits a chord—men who’ve been divorced more than twice really like that. It makes beautiful use of that man’s thought. To arrive at that distinction—to take it from the real to the figurative. From cunt as a sexual part to cunt as a term of derision for women, just as men are called assholes by certain women—and they deserve it. It’s funny how we use words. The fact that a mean woman is called a cunt and a mean man is called a prick. I have a long thing I’d like to write someday about language and the way we address each other.
How has your comedy changed over the years?
You know for a guy who didn’t do homework, the thing that’s happened is this: that 6th grade showoff that kid who had to sing a song at meetings, who won the medal at camp for being funniest guy at amateur night 5 years in a row. He didn’t do his homework then. I didn’t do book reports, but now what’s happened is that showoff has a partner who does his homework and the left/right brain are allied, united, now in a way they weren’t. I’m using my organizational ability, and my writing ability which is careful process, informed by art, but still a craft of putting things together, I’ve somehow become more integrated. I do my homework now but I stand up and show off. So I got both, I got the best of both sixth grade worlds.
You asked me to remind you to tell me about Arthur Koestler.
That was another impact. I was doing nightclub comedy down in the Village. I was down there in ’63, ’64, and my friend told me about Arthur Koestler’s book about the act of creation and it had a section on humor.
He was talking about the creative process. There was an illustration on the panel that showed a triptych. On the left panel, there were these names of artistic pursuits. There were poets, painter, composer. And one of them was jester. I was only interested in the jester. What he said about each of these, he said these individuals on the left hand side can transcend the panels of the triptych by creative growth.
The jester makes jokes, he’s funny, he makes fun, he ridicules. But if his ridicules are based on sound ideas and thinking, then he can proceed to the second panel, which is the thinker—he called it the philosopher. The jester becomes the philosopher, and if he does these things with dazzling language that we marvel at, then he becomes a poet too. Then the jester can be a thinking jester who thinks poetically.
I didn’t see that and say, “That’s what I am going to do,” but I guess it made an impression on me. I was never afraid to grow and change. I never was afraid of reversing my field on people, and I just think I’ve become a touch of each of those second and third descriptions and I definitely have a gift for language that is rhythmic and attractive to the ear, and I have interesting imagery which I guess is a poetic touch. And I like the fact that most of my things are based on solid ideas, things I’ve thought about in a new way for me, things for which I have said “Well, what about this? Suppose you look at it this way? How about that?” And then you heighten and exaggerate that, because comedy’s all about heightening and exaggerating. And anyways I guess I was impressed that there was another thing from my early life that probably at least influenced me to some level.
It sounds like you think of yourself much more as a writer than a performer—is that true? How do you think about performing?
It’s my primary delivery system. I used to, in my early years, when I would do an interview I was always proud to tell the writer that I wrote my own material, if they asked me or even if they didn’t. I wanted to be distinguished from the ones who didn’t do that, and I was proud of it, so I would say I am a comedian who writes his own material. And then at some point, I discovered what I really had become was a writer who performs his own material.
This was a really important distinction for me to notice—it happened way after the fact. I’m a writer. I think of myself as a writer. First of all, I’m an entertainer; I’m in the vulgar arts. I travel around talking and saying things and entertaining, but it’s in service of my art and it’s informed by that. So I get to write for two destinations. The writing is what gives me the joy, especially editing myself for the page, and getting something ready to show to the editors, and then to have a first draft and get it back and work to fix it, I love reworking, I love editing, love love love revision, revision, revision, revision.
And computers changed my life, the fact that you can move text as easily as you can move text, and say, “Wait a minute, these two things belong together, these two things go together, page 2 and page 5: similar ideas, put ’em together!” But the person who is most a part of me is the performer, is the standup, the guy who says, “Hey look at me, listen to this!” I do that because that’s what I do, I love doing it.
And I love the feeling I get in my gut when I’m watching on the computer screen that is close to being realized the way I would like it to be. the feeling I get in my gut is “Wait’ll they hear this, wait’ll I tell them this, I can’t wait to tell them!” It’s like the guy on the end of the bench: “Put me in coach, put me in!” They call to me, I can tell which ones are pregnant, which ones need to be moved up to a higher level of readiness, and it’s because I can’t wait to say them, I can’t wait to share them with people.
You know, you get 2500 people, acting as a single organism: the audience is a single organism and it’s you and it. And to have that feeling of mastery up there—it’s an assertion of power: here I am, I have the microphone, you came here for this express purpose. You’re sitting not in tables at nightclubs with waiters and glasses, you’re seated all facing forward in order to enjoy this and here I am, and wait till you hear this! There’s nothing like it in my experience that I could aspire to. It has as much a payoff as writing, which has a big payoff.
So, sitting in front of a computer, “Wait till they hear this, this is great material.” What’s the difference between that and actually standing on stage hearing the audience roaring with laughter?
The difference is, at the computer you can stop, think back, think forward, look around, turn the page as it were, you can see the whole world all at once. On stage you’re only in a single moment ever—your mind can hear what you just said. This is a funny thing that happens for me: when I’m up there doing something I’ve memorized perfectly, and it has pauses in it—and of course the laughs are all the pauses. As you’re going along, you’re thinking of what you’re saying, you want to give it the proper vocal values, so you are kind of thinking about it, not reaching for the words, but kind of thinking about them. You’re also aware of the echo of what you just said, and whether it worked or not, and what that might mean. It’s all part of the trigonometry, I guess. And then there is the faint anticipation of what comes next.
It’s like the feeling of conducting an orchestra. It’s like conducting an orchestra, this group of people who already like you, predisposed to appreciate you, at your service, at you’re command, and you’re just waving the baton and bringing them in, leading them forward and it’s just a nice kind of feeling.
Let me ask you about your influence—how do you feel that you have influenced other comedians?
I hear that from some of them, who say, “I wouldn’t be doing this were it not for you.” I talked to a very prominent name in comedy today who wanted to pay me some kind compliments about the recent HBO show, he hasn’t been able to catch up with me, I won’t mention him, but everybody would know his name. He said also in passing, “You know, I wouldn’t be doing this without you.” There have been people, who, I don’t know, because I came along at a certain time. Richard Pryor and I went through our changes at the same time, he became prominent at the same time. I had this kind of reemergence. I’m sure Richard Pryor would hear those things. I’m sure Woody Allen hears those things. I don’t take them as singular to me. But I know they’re true when I’m told, I realized I could be myself, could talk about this and that and not be afraid; I’m sure all artists hear similar things, especially ones who have lasted a while.
[Note: Jerry Seinfeld has since identified himself as the prominent comedian who spoke to George Carlin just before I did. “I called him to compliment him on his most recent special on HBO,” writes Seinfeld in a New York Times op-ed. “Seventy years old and he cranks out another hour of great new stuff. He was in a hotel room in Las Vegas getting ready for his show. He was a monster.” —JD]
Do you mentor other comedians?
No. I’m not collegial, I don’t hang out. I’m soloist, I like my solitude, I don’t really hang around with comedians—this person I talked to today, I now have his phone number. I have maybe five phone numbers. I’m not in show business because I don’t have to go to the meetings, I’m just not a part of it, I don’t belong to it. When you “belong” to something. You want to think about that word, “belong.” People should think about that: it means they own you. If you belong to something it owns you, and I just don’t care for that. I like spinning out here like one of those subatomic particles that they can’t quite pin down.
Has your sense of humor helped you in other areas of your life, besides your career as a professional comedian? Meeting people? Making friends? Dealing with loss?
I don’t know about any of those aspects. But I know that the art of not taking things seriously often bleeds over into the self, to not take yourself too seriously. You can tell from my answers that I take what I do very seriously, and I think about it. But I don’t really take myself that seriously.
I know that I’ve accomplished a good deal. I was just nominated for this year’s Mark Twain prize at the Kennedy Center, so these things over the years mean, “Yeah, good job, George.” I don’t take myself very seriously, though, at least I don’t think so. I try to see the reality and not get carried away with the emotion. What’s the reality? What’s going on here? What’s the ground floor? What’s the reality? Let’s look at the situation: “So he’s dead, she’s hurt, and you don’t feel good.” OK, so let’s figure this out.
I like to say two things in life that mean the most: genetics and luck. When you look at it realistically, genetics is luck too. Because you could have been born in some really terrible situation and never had a chance to realize yourself or see who you were. And so the luck of genetics and then after that, circumstances, those are the two guiding things. Knowing what to do about it, taking advantage of it, that’s fine, that’s good, good for you. But still, those two elements mean everything.
My arm is getting tired here. The crook of my arm.
I guess I’m pretty much done. We’ve been talking for a long time and I really appreciate your taking all this time. Was there a good question you thought people should ask that never got asked?
No, because you covered some of the ones, as they came along. As I looked at the list yesterday, I thought the list gave me an opportunity for several places where I want, need to be heard—such as the anger thing, development, and the changes I went through in the late 60s. They were all in there so I feel good.
So the last question is: What are you working on now?
I have a piece of material that I’m doing on stage these days. I’m in Las Vegas now. I do weekends here, I do four nights on weekends as part of my year of touring. I go mostly to concert halls and theaters, around 80 or 90 of ’em a year. But I come down here around three or four. So I’m down here. This piece of material called, “There’s Too Much Fucking Music,” which is my way of looking at… how much music there is, I guess. It’s just my way of looking at the world and saying something that people don’t notice and figuring out a new way. And it’s filled with exaggeration and stuff. I’m doing that on stage a little bit. I’m not giving myself any pressure.
The lady in my life Sally Wade and I are waiting for our house to be finished remodeling. We’re in temporary quarters. It’s kind of onerous. We’re lucky we found a place right down the street but the price we pay for being right down the street is that it’s not really suitable in terms of space and structure for our needs. So we’re really in combat duty. It’s been a tough time. Not so tough you can’t work it out, you know, but just enough so it’s broken some of my work habits. And I’m enjoying my break from them and I know where I have to go on the next book, I have a book that I’m going to start organizing the files, reorganizing, renaming, reclassifying, putting things together, taking things apart. And there’ll be another HBO show as these pieces on stage begin to take form.
Is there anything else you want to add?
No! And I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into all these questions. Really, it’s the most complete interview I’ve ever done. Is it tomorrow yet? I think it is.