George Carlin returns to town as cantankerous as ever
Thu Nov 3 2005
DIRTY WORK Carlin diffuses the power of words and the powers that be.
George Carlin's ability to sugarcoat his critical pills with humor has made him adored by fans and detested by the FCC. Over a career of almost 50 years, he's written three books (2004's When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? just came out in paperback), performed 12 HBO specials (the 13th is Saturday 5, live from Beacon Theatre), won four Grammys, had three heart attacks and witnessed the 1978 Supreme Court battle over a broadcast of his show.
There was no funny honey sweetening his words, however, when TONY caught up with him at his home in L.A. At 68, Carlin doesn't even care enough about people to be disgusted by them. "I do this for the fun I get onstage and the money I put in my pocket," he says. "It stops there." Even if he did care, according to him, it's too late anyway; we're all swirling down the drain. Given that he's never been wrong before, we're bracing for the ride.
Time Out New York: A co-worker said that your Seven Dirty Words monologue "totally fucked up" his childhood.
George Carlin: Good!
TONY: Why do you think some parents let their kids listen to your albums?
GC: People just vary—whether they're superstitious about language or not. Some people think that words can injure the psyche or the moral fiber. And they really can't.
TONY: Then why did you change the title of your last HBO special to Complaints and Grievances after September 11?
GC: The name of my show—and the piece of material at the end of it—was "I kind of like it when a lot of people die." And I just knew the audience would be looking at me like I had a dick growing out of my head. My job is to have a dynamic going with the audience whereby they trust me and I take them over the line slowly; it didn't make sense to chance shutting them down for the final 15 minutes of the show.
TONY: What does the title Life is Worth Losing mean?
GC: The show is filled with references to suicide, there's a long piece on natural disasters, things that refer to different kinds of death. It's just a funny twist on a familiar phrase.
TONY: Are you enjoying all these natural disasters?
GC: Yeah. I'm amused by it all. If I were with a victim I'd feel compassion, of course, but from a distance it's all a big show. Humans have destroyed, degraded and interfered with nature for long enough—I don't mind nature getting even and smacking man in the face.
TONY: Do you think that we're living at the end of time?
GC: [Laughs] I have no idea about the religious part of all of that—it sounds like the product of fevered minds. The whole trip about believing there's a man in the sky who keeps track of what you do...it's so fucking childish. There's a tipping point with nature—whether we're contributing to it or not, I don't know. But I root for this species to continue its own self-destruction.
TONY: We know what bothers you and what you don't care about. What do you care about?
GC: I care about my family. I'm very driven to do my work. I like reading about archeology, history, anthropology...human behavior is very interesting. When you're born in the world you're given a ticket to the freak show; when you're born in this country you're given a front-row seat. I consider myself a spectator—bring on the show! It happens that I have a notebook in my lap and I get to comment on the show later: That's the only difference between the average guy and me.
TONY: Have you heard about kids in South Korea playing video games until they die? They become so obsessed they don't stop for food or water.
GC: I did not, but that's really nice. I like that. See? Human behavior: always the most entertaining.
TONY: Did you know you have an entry in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia?
GC: No, but I'm not surprised. Next year is my 50th anniversary in show business and, through no particular effort of my own, I've wound up as a part of this culture.
TONY: As someone from the counterculture, is it strange to become institutionalized?
GC: It's fun to consider, especially with the Supreme Court case. I'm a minor footnote; it's taught in some law classes. It makes you feel good when you drop out of school in ninth grade and do things your own way. I've never Googled my name; people tell me there are thousands of hits.
TONY: I remember reading a few years ago that you hadn't voted since 1980. Did the 2004 election prompt you to?
GC: Voting is a meaningless exercise. I'm not going to waste my time with it. These parties, these politicians are given to us as a way of making us feel we have freedom of choice. But we don't. Everything is done to you in this country.
TONY: Any opinions on the government's recent efforts to infiltrate e-mail systems in universities and libraries?
GC: It's always been a developing story; it's just more dramatic at this point. Germany lost the Second World War, but fascism won. I used to say, "When fascism comes to this country it won't be wearing jack boots and brown shirts; it will be wearing Nike sneakers, smiley-face shirts and L.L. Bean hats." That's why we're given all these consumer toys, to take our minds off what they're really doing. People say, "Oh, that's conspiracy." You think that powerful people don't sit down together from time to time and decide on courses of action to protect their interests and their power? Of course they do! You can believe that a lady had a baby and he was the son of God and she'd had no sex....
TONY: If intelligent design is taught in schools should we also teach your invented religion, Frisbeetarianism?
GC: [Laughs] That [intelligent design debate] is light, frivolous stuff. I don't even think of that.
TONY: Really?! It wouldn't bother you if schools taught it?
GC: Look, this country's over. It's filled with stupid people without minds of their own. People who believe that kind of stuff are to be pitied. Let them [teach it to their children]—they'll just create more ignorant people to entertain me.
TONY: Your third book just went to paperback, but has Jesus brought the pork chops yet?
GC: No, no. He's still in line at the meat market.
George Carlin performs Saturday 5 at the Beacon Theatre.