With three heart attacks behind him, the most successful hippie stoner comic from the 1970s has cut loose in the 1990s. Carlin's HBO specials have turned into gleeful straightrazor attacks on everything our society holds sacred -- from the cult of physical fitness to the wisdom of free enterprise. Carlin is no longer subtle about his subversion.
It all started back in the 1960s. After knocking around on the periphery of fame as a stand-up comedian and occasional talk show guest, George Carlin dropped acid at the end of 1969 and found his way into the alienated hipster stoner persona that launched him into mega-stardom. The 1972 breakthrough gold record Class Clown revealed Carlin's genius for humorous observations on etymology, as well as an instinct to go for the hypocrite's jugular, whether hippie or straight. He sailed through the 70s behind mountains of cocaine, challenging FCC regulations with his famous "seven words you can't say on radio" routine, and hosting the first ever episode of Saturday Night Live. By the 1980s, he was Johnny Carson's most frequent guest host -- a mainstream celebrity performing watered-down versions of his outrage on NBC.
Now, with a small but juicy role in Kevin Smith's Dogma, a cool Web site, and the recent release of all his recorded work on CD, it seemed like a good time to talk to the man himself.
GETTINGIT: So, there's this big release of all your material onto CDs. Did you go back and listen to all of them?
GEORGE CARLIN: Well, I was not unfamiliar with the stuff. I mean, I've had reason over the years to consult it, or to be reminded of it, or to listen to it. I own the rights to them all, so it was nice when Atlantic came to me and wanted to do this. I thought it was fitting, and I'm happy with it.
GI: So you didn't have some sort of morbid moment of self-reflection, or anything like that?
GC: No, no. The only sort of wish I have about some of that material is that I had been a bit more careful, more thorough a writer at the time. Some of the ideas are underdeveloped. But I've known that for a long time, and some of them I've marked for future development for that reason. But that's the only thing, and it's just because I was still growing and learning, you know.
GI: You've been saying recently that you have pretty much decided that the human species is hopeless.
GC: Yeah, waste of time.
GI: Was there any particular point where you sort of crossed the line and said "Well, forget it?" Like, say, when Reagan got elected?
GC: Now you've done it. That kind of thing? Not really. What happened was, I noticed that I didn't really care. I just noticed that I was beginning to take on a tone, an attitude that implied I had already divorced myself. So by looking at that and thinking it over a little, I sort of declared it to myself: "Okay, well, I see, now I've crossed that road. So that'll be it. This is how I feel." Then I began to elaborate on that to myself so I had kind of a sound series of arguments.
GI: I was looking up stuff about you on the Web and came on this article by some conservative columnist named Bozell. He was complaining about left-wing celebrities, and picked on you particularly. So I was thinking, well, George isn't really left-wing or right-wing, or any particular wing. He's given up. He doesn't give a fuck.
GC: Yeah. But if I were to be thrown up in the air, I would come down on the left side of things. I mean, there's no question that I'm more in favor of individual freedoms than property rights, so that one demarcation line puts me over there somewhere on the left.
GI: In your most recent HBO special, you seemed really bitter and pissed off. I was surprised, myself, by how extreme it was. But I've heard you say you're pretty happy in your personal life.
GC: Yeah, there's not an ounce of bitterness, or anger, or anything in it. What it is is contempt, disappointment, distaste, disillusionment. That plays as anger, naturally, because we're limited to these words that kind of define things rigidly. Anger is a convenient way to describe what people see. It's very much like anger, and I guess by some definitions it is. But I don't experience it as anger. I experience it as contempt, disillusionment...
GI: So when you step on the stage, you're more or less just saying "All this stuff is horseshit."
GC: Well, I need the energy out there. You know, the energy drives the show. So the energy, the audience's sense of dissatisfaction magnifies that and then [it] comes closer to anger.
GI: You were Carson's main guest host in the 1980s. Was that a strange experience for you, being so deep into the mainstream?
GC: Yeah! I have always had my dangerous flirtations with the mainstream. I've used it to serve my purposes, and it has, in a way, used me in a fair exchange. I've always kind of been of two minds when I'm doing something fairly mainstream: One is the critical observer outside, and the other is the person who wants something and is willing to make an accommodation to get it. All of living is, of course, a series of accommodations -- with conditions as they are -- so I don't look at it as anything more serious than that.
One of the things that'll be on my Web site pretty soon is called "The Big Sellout." When I did a couple commercials for 10-10-220 about two years ago, there were [some fans] who thought this was a horrible sellout. So this thing I'm putting up has a dual purpose. One is to describe my own conditions and circumstances that led to that decision -- my own personal need to make that decision -- and secondly, an examination of this whole idea of selling out, which is made to sound like a black or white situation -- you either did it or you didn't do it.
I see it on a curve of behavior that can be called a series of accommodations ... in order to pursue your own purposes in life. So I say the pure person is living in the woods, eating bark, and making his clothing out of vines. That's the purest person. And somewhere along the line, when you decided to wear clothing and use buses and use the telephone, you began a series of accommodations. So for instance, Ted Kaczynski hated, hated technology. He was willing to kill because of his hatred of technology -- and yet he used a typewriter to type his manifesto. And he rode the buses, an advanced form of technology, to get to the post office, where he used a government agency to deliver his crude technologies. So he's not a sellout, and I say, therefore, who is, and what's this all about? So it's kind of a philosophical examination of that, rather than being a defensive gesture. I thought I owed it to whatever fans were insulted by my doing a commercial, to hear from me my own delineation of that.
GI: Yeah, I'm sure there's different gradations of that.
GC: It's just a fact that all acts are not equal.
GI: It seems a lot of the irreverence from the '60s -- the styles of Abbie Hoffman and people like that -- have been picked up on by P.J. O'Rourke and even Rush Limbaugh. Does that seem odd to you?
GC: Yeah. You know, I don't read, notice, or think about those folks so much that I really have enlightened or articulate opinions to give you.
GI: So what do you follow?
GC: Deep space and the subatomic. I like the very large and distant, and I like the very small. I read about particle physics and I read about astrophysics. I like them because they're so divorced from ordinary reality as we think we know it, so those are my escapes. I'm very interested in reading parts of history I don't know about. Anthropology and archeology interest me. The great puzzles about human behavior and development. Those things are interesting to me.
GI: So you're a non-local sort of guy?
GC: That's right! That's me.
GI: That's cool. Are there any philosophers that you've admired?
GC: Well, when it comes to philosophers, I'm local. So I like people like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. And I correspond with Robert Anton Wilson.
GI: You were publicly associated with a cocaine problem. Do you have an opinion at this point about coke as compared to pot and the hallucinogens?
GC: I think it's pretty apparent that the hallucinogens are mind-expanding and value-changing, paradigm-shifting, and they sort of have a self-limiting quality, if listened to. Not everyone's life is in a place where they're open to knowing that and acting on it, but essentially I think those drugs have that quality.
Whenever it comes to refining things is when we get into trouble. Refining sugar, refining flour, refining these plants into higher forms of the drug is when things get twisted. So, cocaine... it was a lot of fun, and I wouldn't trade any of that time, except I wish I'd written more seriously during those years. It sure helps you clean off the desktop.
GI: It's a busy drug.
GC: Not just in order to make the lines, either, but because you've gotta get rid of those piles of paper, you've gotta act on things, you've gotta get things done, you gotta blap blap blap blap blap blap blap.
GI: Any final messages?
GC: The big thing I wanna mention concerning this box set is that bonus disk. That's my pride and joy. It has on it my childhood recordings from the little recording booths around Times Square. And it has an hour and 10 minutes of things that no one has heard.
R.U. Sirius desperately wants to do a 10-10-220 ad.