Arts & Culture

George Carlin: The Tribune’s interview with a comedy legend

Actor and comedian George Carlin poses for a photo in a New York hotel in 2004.
Actor and comedian George Carlin poses for a photo in a New York hotel in 2004. Associated Press

Kelly Carlin will speak about her memoir “A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George” on April 19 at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. About a decade ago, Tribune entertainment editor Sarah Linn interviewed her father, legendary stand-up comedian, actor and author George Carlin, in anticipation of two performances in San Luis Obispo. Here’s the article, originally published Sept. 20, 2007.

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For entertainer George Carlin, comedy is a secret weapon.

“Laughter is a completely Zen moment. When a person laughs, they’re completely defenseless,” he explains in his familiar soft, gravelly voice. “The laughter allows the idea to slip in, unrecognized, and then maybe it can have effect.”

Over five decades in show business, Carlin has devoted himself to an unflinching world view that’s as funny as it is biting.

He’s weathered heart attacks and cocaine addiction, written three best-selling books, won four Grammy Awards and starred in both “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and the children’s TV show “Shining Time Station.”

Now at age 70, Carlin sounds a little sadder and wiser, but just as fierce.

“Anyone who in seven decades isn’t growing and changing, reaching new ground, isn’t doing the job,” says Carlin, who performs two concerts Sept. 29 in San Luis Obispo.

As a fifth-grader, George Carlin listed possible careers in his yearbook: actor, impersonator, announcer, disc jockey and comedian.

“I just didn’t know which one it would be,” he explains. So far, he’s done all five.

“Comedy for me was a way of being accepted and approved as a kid,” says Carlin, who grew up Irish-Catholic in a New York neighborhood he dubbed “White Harlem.”

A lonely child with an absent father, he and his older brother cared for themselves while his mother worked.

“I noticed early that I could get an adult’s attention in my home and among my mother’s friends ... by the mimicking that I did and the little routines I did,” Carlin says.

He dropped out of school in ninth grade, spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, and tried a series of DJ jobs. Then, in 1960, Carlin headed to Hollywood with $300, a brand-new Dodge Dart Pioneer and radio friend Jack Burns to launch a long, successful comedic career.

Carlin’s career since then has too many highlights to number. In 1971, his second solo album “FM & AM” went gold and later won a Grammy. In 1975, he hosted the first episode of “Saturday Night Live.”

And his most famous routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV” inspired a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1978 allowing the FCC to limit language spoken on the airwaves.

He calls stand-up comedy a “show-off job” — just like a kid cracking his knuckles to gross out the girls. The comic still performs more than 80 times a year.

“The writer is the good student at home ... doing his homework,” Carlin explains. “The showoff is the one onstage who gets to ignore the rules and be brash and try to entertain you on his terms.”

As the title of one of his books suggests, Carlin’s comedy is a mixture of “Napalm and Silly Putty.”

It’s not because he’s an angry man, the comedian interjects.

“What they hear onstage ... is disappointment and disillusionment with my fellow humans and fellow Americans,” Carlin says.

About 25 years ago, Carlin says, he had a revelation.

“I realized that I really didn’t care about my species, and I didn’t really care about my culture or my country,” he recalls. “I’ll still live here, and I’ll still take advantage of the things that are afforded me, because anything else would be stupid.

“The whole thing now is based on irresponsible over-populating and over-inhabiting of the natural world.”

Carlin, famous for tackling taboo subjects like religion, politics and language, doesn’t stop there. His frustration stems from a rampant greed he says is deadening the human spirit.

“It also has a lot of practical and physical consequences in the real world,” he says, “just to devote ourselves to stripping the land of its resources and building cell phones that make pancakes.”

What does bring Carlin joy, he says, is his work.

He’s currently in the process of preparing for his 14th special for cable giant HBO. “All My Stuff,” a DVD set due for release Tuesday, features a dozen of the hourlong specials.

According to Carlin, the process of creating a show starts when he sits down at his computer and glances over more than 2,000 text files. Some entries are a paragraph or two, others just a couple of lines.

He refines the material at touring dates like the two upcoming shows at the Performing Arts Center. Each performance helps him master memorization and decide which bits need to be cut or rewritten.

“It just confirms what I’m thinking,” Carlin explains. “There are some times when there are no laughs, but I look at what it is they’re not laughing at...They’re listening to the ideas. They’re enjoying the language I’m employing.”

He adds, “I don’t abandon anything because of what the audience is doing.”

At this point, Carlin says, he’s found enough acceptance and success to be secure in his mission: bringing laughter and his own peculiar brand of wisdom to the masses.

“People sometimes ask me, ‘Are you trying to make your audiences think?’ Carlin says. “The answer is ‘no.’ ... That would be the kiss of death. But what I want them to know is that I’m thinking.”

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