Paradigm Shift Interview by Philip H. Farber
George Carlin is easily one of the best-known stand-up comedians in the country. His solo performances, TV appearances, and recordings, dating back to the early 1960s, are classics of irreverent comedy. After 38 years as a performer, he can still pack the house, knock 'em dead, burst a few stitches, and provoke mental mayhem with his brand of observational humor.
Paradigm Shift recently had the pleasure of conducting the following interview with George Carlin:
PHF:Why did your Fox sitcom get cancelled?
George Carlin: To start with, I'm happy it did, because I really don't belong in that kind of a setting. By that setting, I mean commercial television. It's not really my place to flourish and be myself. And I knew that going in. But the reason it was cancelled is 'cause it didn't have high enough ratings following 'Married With Children.' The big thing on Sunday night, at that time anyway, was to hold on to that audience as best you could, to get the highest percentage of hold- on viewers as you could. They never backed the show. They never put money into promoting it properly. It was an orphan stepchild, kind of. But I had a lot of fun with the actors. We had a lot of fun rehearsing and working on the shows, and doing the acting, doing the shows themself. It's just that it's a corporate mentality. They're selling trucks and beer. That's their mission. Like I say, I knew that going in. I knew it wasn't a place where I was going to flourish as an artist. But I was in my mid-fifties, and I was turning down sitcoms all my life, for the right reasons, and I thought, 'Here I am, coming to the end of my years, probably, maybe I've only got another 30 years to live. I ought to find out while I'm young enough to get these kind of offers whether or not I fit.' So I found out, and I was right.
PHF: A couple of the episodes were just classic. I think my favorite was the one with the wooden statue of Jesus.
Carlin: I love 'em. I've got 'em here. I'm looking at them right now on the shelf. I love 'em.
PHF: The rumor was that they censored you.
Carlin: No. Nothing like that. If anything it was very tame.
PHF: The last time I interviewed you, about 4 or 5 years ago, you were talking about how when you get people laughing, it's easier to insert a new idea.
Carlin: Well, that's not my purpose in doing my shows, to put new ideas in people's minds, but the principle I was talking about is, when a person is laughing, they are defenseless. It is a completely Zen moment. You are never more yourself than when you have been surprised into laughing. That is a moment when your defenses are down, in a manner of speaking. Most of the time, when you talk to people about, let's call them 'issues,' okay? People have their defenses up. They are going to defend their point of view, the thing they're used to, the ideas that they hold dear, and you have to take a long, logical route to get through to them, generally. This is all generalization. But when you are doing comedy or humor, people are open, and when the moment of laughter comes, their guard is down, so new data can be introduced more easily at that moment. That's really all I was talking about.
PHF: I was recently watching the "Jammin' in New York" video, and I've seen you do this live, where you go off on some segment of the population -- golfers or environmentalist or whatever -- and you've got to know that part of the audience will be golfers or environmentalists. How do you expect them to respond?
Carlin: I don't really care how they feel or how they respond. I do this for me and the fact that there's an audience is an economic necessity. And not just economic -- you can't perform humor without an audience, obviously. But what I mean is, I don't do it to please people, I do it to please myself, so I don't care how they feel. There are a lot of people who like me in spite of the fact that I attack the particular groups that they are a part of, whether it's golfers or Americans or Christians or big businessmen, or whatever they are. I just say the things that I feel about this sorry experiment of ours and I don't care about them. If they don't like it, they don't have to come back ever, and meanwhile, I'll catch two other people who do like it.
PHF: On the other hand, it does seem like they come back, regardless.
Carlin: A certain percentage. I've built a good solid following of my own.
PHF: I'm also fascinated by your "universal moments" routines. It kills me, but I have yet to figure out why it's so funny.
Carlin: There are two things going on at the same time. One is you're opening up a little are that people never bother to consider much, if they do at all, whether it's clipping your toenails, or picking off a scab or something, it's something they never read about or hear discussed. It's a private piece of information, so when you open that up, it's a sort of interesting and pleasant moment for them to see that someone else knows something they know that they never talk about. Then, if you are exaggerating -- an important element of comedy is exaggeration -- if you are exaggerating the circumstances and putting in funny voices, and speaking rapidly, and getting nice, interesting language, then you have the makings of being entertaining on stage. Entertaining is primarily what it is. The fact that laughter is involved is one aspect of it.
PHF: What are your targets these days?
Carlin: There's some new things for next year's HBO show. There are some things probably that I did [last time you saw me]... I'm always the most recent stuff and the newest stuff for the next HBO show. I never like to go into specific topics and targets. People like my stuff. They come to see the show and not a specific subject.
PHF: It seems like one element of humor relies on a shift from a focus on small, specific categories, to broader categories...
I don't think there's anything like that necessarily going on. You see, I gave up on this species and this country a long time ago. I don't care about the results now. I don't care if anything works. I don't care if anything blows up. I don't care if the economy goes into the sewer. I'm here to be entertained by it all. I like watching the spectacle. So, therefore, I talk about the whole thing... It's just a melange, it's just a combination of things... but there's no kind of formula at work.
PHF: I guess that ties in with your love of being part of entropy.
Carlin: Yes, I enjoy that. I like the destruction and disintegration of things. People take life too seriously. It's just a big biological accident, and it's interesting, and it's fun, and it can be a lot of things, but the last thing that it is is important. It's not important. It means nothing. There's nothing out there except stuff. There's matter. There's no man in the sky. That's one of the things I'm talking about in the new show, the fact that people believe there's an invisible man in the sky watching them. I talk about that and America being full of shit, and businessmen... It's just a nice little rundown on who's got the best bullshit story, religion, business, or politics.
PHF: Do we have a winner in that competition?
Carlin: No. Never. They're too overlapping.
PHF: What's coming up for you?
Carlin: The book is going to come out in softcover in May. It's done very well. Sold 350,000 hardcover so far. It was on the New York Times list for five months this summer. So it's doing very well, it's going into paperback and I'm doing HBO next fall. Meanwhile I'm just out working on the weekends, trying to get my stuff ready.