My first-ever public performance occurred in elementary school, when I was around 10 or 11 years old. For the P.S. 216 talent show, Russell Magidson and I dressed up in little kiddie suits and ties, sat at tiny desks like itty bitty mini news anchors, and “performed” George Carlin’s “The 11 O’Clock News” routine (from his “FM & AM” album) in front of several hundreds students and teachers.
And by “performed,” I mean, we read the hilarious, pre-SNL selection of one-line news headline parodies off of scripts. Also, by performed, I mean that we killed.
This first exposure to the thrill of making an audience laugh would ultimately lead to a lifelong relationship with comedy in various forms, including writing, performing, and covering it at great length (although in fairness, early SNL, Monty Python, and the National Lampoon had a hand in it as well – together with George, they were the grand Four Horsemen of my comedic development.)
So George’s death last year was a shock to me. As a fan, writer, comedian, and one who was fortunate enough to have gotten to know the man just a bit beyond simply watching him on the small screen, I found that George contained a practical wisdom almost unheard of today, especially within the media.
In our all-pundit, all-the-time society, it so often seems like we’re surrounded by people poking their smarts at us like daggers to the skin – a succession of quick jabs meant to drive back the opponent (both the viewer/reader/news consumer, and any who dare disagree) for the purpose of ideological and – more so – career and ratings advancement. We are attacked daily with opinions, theories, platitudes, reactions, and reactions to the reactions, verbal and written volleys that quickly shift from mano-a-mano combat to a free-for-all battlefield massacre, with all concerned fighting to present the opinion that comes out on top as right, just, and the smartest in the room. But in the course of endless verbal battles, it often seems we’re simply being served more for the sake of more: more because reacting to events is the niche that people have carved out for themselves, and not more because someone truly has an answer, or an opinion we haven’t heard, or a theory to resolve the situation that requires resolution.
The missing element in all of this, it often seems, is wisdom – the sort of removed and cared for intelligence that requires space and time to formulate, and consideration and caring to understand the need for.
I’ve interviewed hundreds, probably thousands of celebrities, politicians, writers, and other notable members of the citizenry over the years, but none of these interviews stands out for me as much as the five hours I spent talking to George Carlin in 2001, over three separate conversations, for Esquire Magazine. While I’ve spoken to many smart people over the years, there was a level of wisdom in George that was, and is, almost impossible to come by.
It was not my first nor my last time speaking with George, but it was by far the most in-depth. I interviewed him for the magazine’s “What I’ve Learned” column, a column that affords you the rare opportunity to broach THE BIG ISSUES with your subject – love, sex, death, freedom, religion, history, wisdom – whatever major topics you can throw at them. Talking to George about all this and more, there was such a rare sense that every answer he gave – whether about himself, the art of comedy, or the state of the world – had been heavily contemplated and evaluated over time; that every answer was the result of a life fully lived, of wisdom fully earned, and of a man taking the time to intellectually process every bit of information and both grand and horrible experience that life had hurled his way.
And within this thoughtful consideration, the greatest surprise of all was that over five hours of interviews, George Carlin cursed only once.
Here is a never-before-published excerpt from that conversation, where George and I discussed his love of language and the nature of censorship.
LG: Why are you so fascinated with words?
GC: Because it’s all we have. Nature gave us this magnificent brain, this brain that is so different from any that came before it. And the only way the wonders of this brain are shared and developed is through language – the exchange of ideas and communications and feelings. Words are the conveyers of all that. They’re magic – they’re mysterious and wonderful and magic.
LG: Then why do you think so many people are afraid of words?
GC: Because they allow words to be crystallized into meanings that are too solid. That’s one of the limits of language. As fluid as it is, as much choice and as many options as it gives you in expression, it’s very limiting, because words tend to have meaning that are hard to budge off of. That’s why I think there are so many synonyms that aren’t really synonyms; they’re just kind of close. They say almost the same thing. Because there’s a need for nuance, and words don’t give you that. Words can lose their general utilitarian value when they’re too closely associated with something. For instance, the word “gay” will never be as useful as it once was. During the fifties and sixties, the word “comrade” lost a lot of its value to general usage. “Closet” is another one. I have a lot of them listed somewhere, because they interest me. These words have to come out of general circulation, because they bring the brain somewhere you don’t want it to go.
LG: Do you think we’re a less literate society than we used to be?
GC: According to what the people who measure these things say, I guess so, sure. Certainly if you’re talking about just people who are illiterate. It’s amazing to me that literacy isn’t one of the things that’s considered a right. There are a lot of things we have that we call rights that I don’t agree with, by the way. I think they’re mostly privileges, because courts can take them away, and anything that can disappear isn’t really a right. It’s like a temporary privilege. But I think if there were to be anything that was a right, I think the right to develop your brain, to learn to read and write and think well, would be a right. I think another right would be to have something to eat, and then to have a way of continuing to have something to eat. In other words, a job. So there are certain things that oughta be rights, but the system doesn’t think of it that way. They have these other kind of abstract things.
LG: People get so carried away with fear of things like violence on television, or people like Eminem and Marilyn Manson. Do you thing it’s possible for these things, or these people, to do any serious harm?
GC: Society ought to figure out what creates all these things that they’re trying to prevent children from hearing. Eminem, who is a brilliant poetic artist, isn’t saying those things in a vacuum. They don’t just spring out of his raw imagination. They’re part of the experience that society has laid out that he was a partaker of. His family life, his street life, was created by society. I don’t think you can come in late in the process and say, “well, now that we’ve created all the conditions that make this thing possible, we’re gonna intervene at this point and cut that off.” That’s just more of the hypocrisy, and the need to control and to keep people in line. That’s mostly what all that is about to me. The trouble with what they do with kids is that the first thing they teach them is that there’s a god. They teach them that there’s an invisible man in the sky who actually is watching what they do and is displeased with some of it. There’s no mystery why they start with that with the kids, because if you can get someone to believe that, then you can add on anything you want. And that’s what they do – they just keep adding on their own fears and superstitions, and whatever they need to keep order the way they see it to keep the big commercial machine rolling, so any dangerous ideas that kids have are only dangerous to the society as a profit-making organization. There’s no danger in these ideas. The danger is, it’s gonna make someone think for himself and figure things out. That’s why some of those drugs are illegal – they create value changes. Psilocybin, marijuana, the hallucinogens – they’re all value changers, and they’re illegal because they give people a new slant on the game that’s being played on them.
While it may seem either incongruous or lacking that in all these thoughts about, and quotes from, George, I have yet to say much about how goddamn funny he was – and he was certainly one of the funniest comics of all time – it actually is not. George would be the first to say (and the excerpts certainly bear this out) that in many ways he was a serious person – one with great capacity for seriousness – and that this serious side, including the great love of language and the years of soul-searching that resulted in the several major changes in his comedic direction, was what allowed him to create his art. As such, it’s perfectly in keeping that his new, posthumously-released memoir, “Last Words,” is a fairly serious book.
Co-authored by best-selling writer and comedy pioneer in his own right Tony Hendra, who worked on the book with Carlin throughout much of the 1990s, its completion during George’s life was perpetually postponed for reasons including mutually busy schedules, the 1997 death of George’s wife, and George’s health problems. Hendra, who compiled the book and prepared it for publication in an astounding three-and-a-half months, succeeds masterfully at allowing George’s voice to shine though simply and clearly. With great candor, “Last Words” manages to cover every aspect of George’s life, including his wondrous New York City childhood, his perpetually turbulent relationship with his mother (which played a large part in the formation of his comedic sensibility), his several career conversions, his battle (and his wife’s) with drugs and alcohol, and the immense joy he took from a life in comedy. As noted above, I got to speak to Hendra about the book and his friendship with George at some length, and also reviewed the book for the New York Post.
Now that he’s gone, it’s impossible to know exactly what George would have come up with from here on, but given the state of the world and certain ludicrous events, we can conjecture. While he wasn’t a political comic in the usual sense – he avoided tackling current events because he hated watching material grow stale, and he also thought that style of comedy was already greatly served by Jon Stewart and Lewis Black – he had a wonderful ability to process the maelstrom of absurdity, and then to condense it in ways that attacked its essence, such as in his take down of environmentalism, “The Planet is Fine, the People are Fucked,” from his landmark 1992 HBO special “Jammin’ in New York.”
It’s easy to wonder, then, what he would have made of certain current political movements. While he may have never specifically mentioned Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck in his act (although he did specifically attack George W. Bush in his last few years), he would have relished the way their current movements revolve around symbols, groupthink, and the manipulation of facts and language, from Beck’s tears to Palin’s wink, to socialism and death panels and “you betcha!” George spent virtually the entire Reagan era absorbing circumstances he would so deftly address in the 90s. Had he lived, our current political climate would surely have been fertile ground for yet another decade-long exploration of how people allow themselves to be controlled.
What made Carlin one of the all-time greats, though – THE all-time great, in my book – was that he navigated all of this terrain while never placing any of it above the primary goal, which was being hysterically funny.
At the end of my conversations with him in 2001, I took a moment to share with him the story of me and Russell Magidson at P.S. 216, reading his jokes off our scripts for the delight of the crowd. Getting a clear kick out of the tale, he asked me the only question that mattered: “Did you get the laugh?” I was proud to be able to tell him that I did. And he seemed proud to hear yet one more instance of how he had spread laughter, as he always considered his fan base a community of comedy that he had created.
One more, from 2001:
LG: What makes someone funny?
GC: I don’t know. It’s one of those dopey, very elusive things. When you hear the phrase “sense of humor,” you always hear the accent on humor, sense of humor. To me, it’s the sense of humor – there’s a sense in it, an understanding and a feeling for what doesn’t fit, the incongruous, that which is out of place or in the wrong scale. So I don’t know what makes a person funny except there’s a certain freedom and abandon in the way they think or express themselves. They just don’t honor the prescribed lines of demarcation – they step across.
Indeed they do – and none did it better than George Carlin.