Talk about straight talk — George Carlin became a comedy legend doing just that, with a stand-up act that told it like it was, usually in language that meant you had to hear it live or buy it on vinyl in a special section of the record store. Thirty-plus years, seven special words and umpteen comedy albums later, the indomitable Carlin gears up for another ear-blistering HBO special tonight at 10 p.m. in "George Carlin: It's Bad For Ya" — a live special featuring brand-new material skewering a typically broad range of topics. ETP had a preview of George Carlin live last week in a hilarious and illuminating phone interview, where we discovered an artist who is humble and sharp and uncompromising and active and thoughtful and opinionated as hell. Read the almost completely unabridged transcript of our conversation below (edited only for clarity) and find out who Carlin's favorite political comedian is (hint: it's not Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert); why he's taking a pass on the human race; what he sees in Fox News; why he loves politics and humor but hates political humor; what he thinks about Barack Obama; what life lessons he takes from a master cellist; and who he's got bookmarked in the blogosphere. (NB: It's a non-exhaustive list; chances are, if you've got a blog, he's read it).
"George Carlin: It's Bad For Ya" is on HBO tonight at 10 p.m., tomorrow night at midnight and then throughout March on HBO2. So set your DVR or better yet, stay in — catching this guy live is something else, and we can now say that from experience. Catch some of his unvarnished, uncompromising pearls of wisdom below.
Let's start with your upcoming show. What's been getting under your skin for the past - what is it, two years?
Yeah. All the shows are always new - I've done 14 over a 31 year period, so about every two-and-a-half years I have enough new material to put on an HBO show. In this case, the show is called "It's Bad For Ya" and without being too specific, the show is about American bullshit — a lot of things that we say, things we accept and believe and don't question. A lot of this show has to do with the fact that people don't question things enough, we're kind of a little bit lazy when it comes to that. There's a lot of bullshit in this country that comes at you from religion, from government, from big business and that's basically the central idea for this show, and it takes different forms and different directions.
What, it's a 14 hour show then?
Ha ha ha, that's funny. Somehow I squeezed it into an hour.
So given your topic, has the current election cycle played into it? Has the recent political coverage been fodder for you?
Well, I don't do topical material ever — I don't like topical humor, I don't think it's funny, I think it's really easy to go, the targets are rather obvious and I think it's an easy way to go. Especially as a writer, I don't like the idea of something becoming dated in a period of one day or two days or a week or a month. I like writing things and knowing that they have a lifespan - that they can exist for a while and not be dated. When I look back on a lot of my material, with some very obvious exceptions, it's very free of that and it still holds up — and a lot of it holds up still, 20 or 30 years later, because it has a quality, something like a timeless quality. I don't really like really like pining things down to the moment or the year or the month — I think it's too easy to do and second of all I'd rather write my essays to have a longer span. It's a broader look at things. It's a removed perspective, from a distance.
If you think that means he doesn't have much to say about politics, man oh man are you wrong. Find out what he thinks of Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Fox News, and the Obama phenomenon after the jump. Reader discretion advised. This guy likes to swear, and does it well.To flip that, how does it feel when you look back on some of your more iconic material over that time? Like the filthy words, the words you still can't say on television?Well, the principle of it is still always gonna be true, whether the tamper with a little word here or there, or begin to feel daring to allow a word in a different context or after a different hour at night — basically the piece holds up as being about the fact that there's a great inconsistency in the application of this standard that they have about language — you can't say this, you can't say that — it's just not consistent in any way. In terms of the general question you asked, it feels great to know that there are pieces of material I did that I wrote and performed that people have taken something from over a long period of time and have seemed memorable to them. The piece about "A Place For My Stuff" had such a universal reach to it — everyone knows the problem of 'stuff' — the closet being full, the garage being full...
You've clearly seen my apartment.
(Laughs) Yeah, the attic or wherever, just the regular room you live in! So that struck a nice universal note and I was always very happy when people would bring that up to me. "The 7 Words That You Can Never Say On Television" which is the way I said them, that's the way I described them - to me they're not dirty words—
Right. I amalgamated there, sorry.
No no, it's okay, I didn't mean to be critical. "The 7 Words That You Can Never Say On Television" - that gave me an identity at that time. I was able to live past that identity, thank goodness, I had more to give, I guess, which I wouldn't have guessed or known, but I had more to offer than that and over time a lot of other things have spun out. Another piece, "Baseball and Football," that people mention quite a bit because it's about words - I've done a lot of stuff on language, I have a great interest in language and the way we express ourselves. My mother and father each had a gift for language and I inherited it certainly genetically and a little bit from my mother, certainly in the nurturing sense — my father wasn't present — but my mother kept me on my toes when it came to the English language. So, those things make me very proud, the language bits — because you know, I'm an imperfect student, I quit school in ninth grade, I got kicked out of three schools, I was a fuck-up, rebellious kind of an outlaw kid, didn't really want to play by the rules — and so for me to have written things over the long haul about language that have given people a lot of joy, I guess, that's very satisfying. The kid who didn't who didn't do his homework and now I wind up writing these kind of essay things — and doing my homework! It's a strange thing. But I still get to show off, like the little kid in fifth grade - I still get to take these things I write and go out on stage with them and show off.
You're seventy now, right? Are you still ever bit as rebellious, or do you ever feel like you've become the establishment?
No. The point I've made about this is, an entertainer is one thing, and for a long time I thought of myself as an entertainer and that's all I was. But at some point, an artist started living here too. Artists are different from entertainers. Entertainers are kind of static, sort of. They kind of stay in one place, they do one thing. Artists on the other hand are usually involved in a journey of some kind, they don't know where they're going they just know that they're not there yet. There's a kind of restlessness in an artist, a vague kind of dissatisfaction - and it's because you're always reaching further inside yourself and further outside — or farther, I should say, it's physical &mash; you're reaching for more, inside and in the world itself - your observations, the things you understand or don't understand — you're always kind of moving moving moving.Pablo Casals was a great cellist of the last century — he was a great virtuoso, just considered the absolute master of his instrument. And in his 90s he was still practicing 3 hours a day. And one of his friends asked him, "Senor Casals, you're a master, why do you still practice 3 hours a day?" and he said, "Well, I'm beginning to notice some improvement." And it's a wonderful thing to have inside you somewhere, that feeling - I was so pleased when I read that, that I could put that at work inside myself because it's true - you still see the joy you get from creating things, from sitting down with an empty page, so to speak, going into your files - in my case I work from files - and finding things that go together. Finding things that make sense and go somewhere, and putting them in form - finding them from ideas and little scraps of thoughts and making them into fully-formed essays. It's joy - it's unalloyed joy - and that's not something that I'd ever say, "Well, it's time to stop that." (laughs) It's a wonderful feeling to have found something you're good at, that you love to do, and that other people think you do well. Those are the three elements, I think, that go into being happy: Find something you love, be good at it, and have other people pat you on the back and say "good job."
I'm going to switch it over and get your take on some stuff, after being a keen observer of human nature and how people operate. I don't know if you're aware of the whole kerfuffle of Jane Fonda on the "Today Show," saying the word "cunt."
That was one of the first things that came to me that I wanted to get your perspective on.
That incident is the shining example of what I was talking about earlier, about the inconsistency. Here's two people talking about something called "The Vagina Monologues." So, there's an implicit agreement that it's okay to talk about, it's okay to use the word "vagina" and refer to the female organ. So that's given, and that's okay, and everybody agrees that yes, we will allow that, we can talk about the female organ - unless we use a different word for it! If we use the word "cunt" we can't do that! "But it's the same piece of the body" "Yeah, yeah I know, but we don't like the sound of that word 'cunt' - some women don't like that." So there we are down the whirlpool into the drain. It's just so much hypocrisy, and insecurity - people don't trust themselves and others to be able to handle things in a mature way and to be able to look at real life as it is. That word 'cunt' didn't come from the devil it came from people - it's part of the human language - so's 'fuck' and 'cocksucker' and 'motherfucker' and 'shit' - and the fact that they bother some people on a superstitious level is really kind of too bad. It's kind of unfortunate. You know, I understand the reason for taboos, and all that stuff. But I think, it would be really nice if this species would grow up one of these fucking days.
That may just be my headline.
(Laughs) Especially this branch of the species, the American branch.
Do you think that over the past years of the Bush Administration - the FCC stuff and Nipplegate with Janet Jackson and the focusing on 'morality' and the rise of the Evangelicals, all of that - do you see that as being a direct correlation with the American situation as you've observed it?
Well, there are a number of things you've brought up here. First of all - let me go back to an idea that I usually express in a different way, okay? And then I'll get back to your question. I don't believe anymore in my fellow human, or my fellow American. I divorced myself from these two groups a long time ago, somewhere around 30 years ago. I found myself feeling completely outside of the human race and the American experience. Abraham Maslow, the psychologist said, the fully realized man does not identify with the local group. And when I read that it really hit me. I said, "That's me." I really don't identify with these people, I don't feel a part of this - I've never, never felt a part of this. And by "this" I mean - the human race yeah I know, I'm human, by definition I'm in it, I mean feeling like I'm in it. I mean feeling like I'm American. I just don't give a shit anymore. I stopped giving a fuck. And because I did that, it gave me a great deal of artistic freedom - it gave me emotional detachment from which I could operate with a more even-handed look at everything. I didn't have a rooted interest. I didn't have an outcome I was interested in. I didn't have a rooted interest. I wasn't a cheerleader. I was really just an observer. When you're born in the world you're given a ticket to the freakshow; when you're born in America you're given a front-row seat. And some of us in the front row have notebooks and pencils. That's you, Rachel, that's me. We sit there and we say, "Look at the fucking shit that going - look at this. Do these people know what they look like? Let me write this down." And so, that kind of divorces me from any of these attachments. Yeah, underneath it all I'm a disappointed idealist. Yes, I think the Obama story is an inspirational story, it's a wonderfully unique American story and it's exciting and fun to watch but even if he's elected and makes a lot of changes I still retain the right not to belong. I just like it out here.
And I understand that the flame of the idealist flickers underneath, and that's fine - I can't deny that - but I kind of like it the other way because it kind of gives me the freedom to point at everything.
Wow. Okay, so let me ask you this: You brought up the Obama thing, and you seemed to have done so sincerely and not with irony or being jaded. How do you view that as a phenomenon, even as one you don't want to belong to?
Well, it's an exciting story to watch. What's exciting is that it doesn't happen in this country very often. There were moments in the history of the American people - and by the way, one of the reasons I got off the train of the American experience is I think - I'll get back to Obama in a minute - I think that human beings were given great gifts and had great potential and they squandered it all on goods, possession, power, territory and on a superstitious God that watches everything and controls. These things, I think, crippled the human animal to the extend that we never lived up to their potential. The same thing happened in this country. We were given great potential. We were given this great system of self-government, the best one that had been devised so far. And we've given it all up for gizmos, and goods, and toys and possessions, and - in this country - God, overlooking everything and spoiling everything.
So... there have been moments in this country when people have, leaders have emerged who were inspirational, and who could carry the people with them because — in order to effect change in their lives and experience as a group, they need to be led, and they need to believe in something and they need to believe in themselves, and they need to believe that they can change things. And they way that happens is through an inspirational leader. FDR was that, Franklin Roosevelt - he gave people something to believe in, and mainly it was themselves, that they could weather the storm, and he got them through the Depression and a fuckin' World War. So, these things happen and they're interesting to notice - I don't know how much overall meaning it has, I do respect what's going on as a true American phenomenon, this rising up of someone who - maybe, I don't know - has the quality to inspire people.
Have you been following the race? Have you been watching the debates, are you into it?
Oh yeah — I've always loved politics as a blood sport and as high drama - it's great, it's great theater and it's great sport. I love the nuts and bolts of it and the maneuvering in the background - they talk about this congressional district or that one, there's a lot of low income in this one, this part of the state is college-educated - I just like all of that kind of plotting and analysis that goes on. Really interesting stuff.
Where do you watch it? Do you have a network you watch, or shows, political shows?
Well, because I'm a lefty - if I were to fall out of the sky I would fall on the left side of the line - MSNBC. But I watch them all - I go back and forth among CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Fox has some things that are worth watching, even though you know what's coming at you - you know that it's all wrapped up in a big flag and a cross.
What would you say was worth watching?
Well, when they have on people who don't agree with them. I mean, there are guests on all these shows — all of these news networks are interesting because of the guests and analysts that they bring on. To me, it's not so much the reporting of the news that's interesting. I do love Keith, I think Keith Olbermann's a great show, love that - I think it's one of the greatest presentations of news for a news show that's ever been devised - but the main thing that these channels have going for them is their guests. And their roundtables and discussion. I just love to listen and all that stuff. I'm an old political junkie, I guess.
Well, this is the year for it! For what I do, I'm actually very interested in your perspective on this - I do the media column for the Huffington Post. Where else do you like to go for political news?
Yeah, I've seen your name on HuffPost... I go there and I go to Salon and I go to Slate and I go to Politico and Talking Points Memo and The Fix and The Caucus and The Lede, and you know - every time you read someone's blog or someone's column on the net, they've got a series of links for you of other bloggers and columnists - so I just go down the hole, you know? I just get like six seven steps removed from the one I was reading originally by following links. And then I wonder where the fuck I was, you know?
(Laughs) You've just described my average workday.
It's really amazing what's out there.
What about The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live? That seems to me to be most closely aligned with what you do...did you miss it during the writer's strike? Brian Williams from NBC calls those shows "a separate branch of government" - keeping the high and mighty in check, keeping them honest, to borrow a phrase from Anderson Cooper. So, I was wondering, did you notice that being absent from the discourse, do you make appointment television with that?
No. If you want to hear good political comedy with some knowledge base to it, Bill Maher is the person. Not Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live is a sketch show, and their consistency isn't very high...I guess Brian being on the same network, he doesn't see it too clearly from where he sits. But Bill Maher is a real satirist and comedian. He really opens it up. Lewis Black does a good job with that, too. I don't bother much with politics - I talk about stuff that's gonna be true 20 years from now, stuff that was true 10 years ago. I don't like topical stuff, it's too perishable, you have to replace it.
But at this point aren't there thing that repeat themselves over and over again? Don't you see he topical stuff evoking larger themes and patterns?
No, I don't see that. To me, it's just something that's used and discarded - I don't think there's anything to be learned or gained from it in the longer term, no.
But you enjoy keeping up with it on a daily basis.
I like politics, yeah. But I don't really follow political humor that much, I just happen to know, when I hear, what's good. I just know that Bill Maher has a good political brain, he understands that stuff, and his stuff means a lot more because of that.
So Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert don't hold your interest?
I'm don't get to see those shows very much. At all, really. It's just not something I think of.
Are you going to be going on any talk shows for this?
Nah, the HBO show is March 1st, whatever I was going to do is done. I did a little but it was for the DVD collection that I put out, about two months ago. So, no. Generally on HBO you don't see people going around and talking about their stuff. HBO's got its own built-in system of audience, and people who have HBO and are used to it are going to know what's coming. I've never done much stuff externally for HBO except for a little bit of press like this and this is good because, you know Huffington Post, Salon, Slate and stuff — you've got people that are a little more intelligent.
Well, we like to think so! So, I'm just curious, just coming from this conversation, let's say Olbermann sees this interview and is tickled and calls you up and asks you to come on the show, would you want to go on that show? Or would you be disinclined to lend your voice to that fray?
I don't like going on shows. Unless I'm there to sell something. I use television for a purpose, I go there, give them whatever marquee value I have at that time, and I gain something from them, which is a little exposure for something I've done, whether it's my DVDs or HBO or a book or whatever. But I'm not interested in just being out there for its own sake. That's what my writing is for. I don't have a lot to say...I like just being in my little 2,500 seat theaters and talking to the folks.
Well, as one of the folks hearing your perspective today I've gotta tell you, I'm sure there'd be an audience.
Well, thank you.
Thank you so much for your time, it's been great to talk to you — you've given me a lot of interesting stuff and I'm sure our readers will be thrilled.
Thank you very much, Rachel. I appreciate the interview.
[NB: Carlin did actually appear on "Countdown" this past October...around the time of the release of his DVD collection. The man is true to his word.]