George Carlin on...

Comedy Features George Carlin
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In 1992, the show I did in New York at Madison Square Garden Theater, which holds about 6500—it was an HBO broadcast called Jammin’ in New York, and it was the first I’d ever done live. There were a couple of lengthy pieces that were rather intense social commentaries. One of them was called “Golf Courses for the Homeless,” and the other “The Planet is Fine, the People are Fucked.” And that piece, the golfing, had plenty of laughs but it also bothered a lot of people—which, of course, I revel in. I look for that. And I liked rubbing that into their faces because there were some very strong remarks.

But “The Planet is Fine, the People are Fucked” was about the fact that these environmentalists are running around telling us we have to save the planet, and I think they’re largely full of shit. I think what they’re interested in is their own habitat. They don’t give a fuck about the planet in the abstract, they’re interested in their bike paths and a clean place to live, and they’re selfish people. The planet doesn’t need us, it’ll shake us off after our time has run its course. The planet will recover from us—that’s the point I was making. We can’t damage this planet, it is what it is, and it’s a self-healing organism. It’s a huge organism that will heal itself in time and change and evolve on its own, with or without us. So the arrogance of these environmentalists is what got this started. It was a piece I was very proud of. It was the first real essay piece I ever did, and it was probably around that time that I started thinking of myself as someone who could write much better than he’d expected he could. So that was the most important time in my career, for me to recognize that I was, in some ways, a more legitimate person. (laughs)


The circumstances of my life kept me on the road. I fell into a hole with the IRS back in the late ’70s and 1980s. From prior bad business advice and my own cocaine habit, I ignored my business affairs and fell in arrears to the government. By the time 1980 arrived, I believe I was about two million dollars upside down with the IRS, and it got to be another million before the saga was finished.

And the thing to remember is that, at that time, these were dollars that were being taxed first at 70 cents on the dollar—the highest tax on high earners, 70 percent. And then it dropped to 50 percent, it’s now somewhere around 37-and-a-half. But that meant, with 70 cents on the dollar, anything I earned—let’s say I was trying to pay off my previous tax debt, which was two million dollars. First of all, there are penalties and interest accruing all the time on the balance. There are new taxes taking your earnings when you earn more money. If you try to take a year’s pay to pay off some of your tax debt, you only have 30 cents on the dollar to start with, because you’re paying at this high rate now, and out of that 30 percent you have to get your expenses for creating the living that you do—flights and hotels and all the things that go into running yourself as a small business, and you’re paying penalties and interest on top. So it was almost impossible to catch up.

I caught up because a new person came into my life who’d been promoting some of my shows in the ’70s, my manager Jerry Hamza, and Jerry piloted the ship through these waters and, in some cases, helped me himself financially, and helped get me through this IRS thing.

Then I started coming up with heart attacks, which took me off the road three and four months at a time. But that was what made me have to stay on the road earning. I couldn’t afford to try to have a movie career, or try to have a TV career, because that’s a crapshoot and there’s no earning at the beginning, and, secondly, I was kind of disenchanted about my ability to act anyway. So I stayed out there doing shows and HBO came along into my life in ’77, so I wanted to feed that beast, and I called them myself and I dug down and kept coming up with this material, and the people liked it ’cause it was fresh every time I went around to their city, and the HBO shows came about every two, two-and-a-half years. So that’s what forced me to become something that I might not have otherwise.

I think others, most others, they aim for that sitcom or movie career or whatever, they don’t want to go to those clubs forever—I never worked in clubs, so I never had that to worry about—so they opt out. And some of them aren’t that gifted, either: There are certain people; let’s say 25 percent of the people who do this have a real gift for it.


When Kevin mentioned what he had in mind, I knew right away that I was interested. And I thought, “what a nice, ironic choice for his eminence.” It’s also interesting that [the character] had a Jewish name; his name was Cardinal Glick. I don’t know what Kevin had in mind there, I never asked him that.


There were three things that were probably the best things I did. One was Jersey Girl, which was kind of easy and natural for me, ’cause that was my nature, what that guy was. I’m not quite as irascible as he, but I have a sweet side and I think that showed. Secondly, the Hallmark Hall of Fame mini series I did called Streets of Laredo [based on the Larry McMurtry book]. I was very happy with the work I did in that. And then Prince of Tides was a very small role—the gay neighbor, Eddie. I thought I was good at that; I thought I nailed that character.


[I didn’t have a handle], I was just George Carlin. I started in Shreveport, La., and in Texas did the nighttime show, 7 to midnight. We just played formula—the Top 40 list. This was all in the era when Top 40 radio was in its ascendancy, and stations were switching formats all across the country because the fast-moving, highly paced, top 40—you play the playlist, and you play some new things that have been decided upon, and you play some things from the past, and you have a little leeway. There was still some personality in radio then. It’s all quite automated now, and even when there are disc jockeys they’re kind of discouraged from becoming personalities anymore.


I don’t listen much to music now because I really don’t want other people choosing my music, so what I do is I listen to a lot of talk radio. I just want to hear the human voice, I want to hear words. But I have my iPod. I have 25,000 songs in my iTunes library from my CD collection and I have a lot of good stuff. I like Jazz, I like Latin, I like African music. When people recommend certain things to me from today’s music I usually like them, but I don’t want to get knee-deep in that because there are so many things now, it would take forever just to be current.

Among my [all-time] favorites are John Prine and Tom Waits. John Prine should’ve been Bob Dylan, in a sense. … I have a lot of Leonard Cohen—I dunno if I’d put him in [my list of favorites]; you have to be just coming home from a funeral, really, to listen to some of that. But I like the singer/songwriters. I usually like males. I don’t know why—I think because I have a male voice myself.


What I am now is a fallen atheist, a lapsed atheist, because I realized at some point that atheism was a belief, too, so I had to address myself. I’ve fallen to this thing where people call themselves agnostics—I don’t know, I literally do not know. But the more I read about string theory and the Big Bang and cosmology, the more intriguing the beginning of things seems. I read a lot about particle physics and astrophysics—the huge scales and the incredibly small scales are really interesting to me because they take me out of this place. I don’t know, I have often thought that maybe, somehow, there’s an organizing—consciousness. But what came before God? They say he never started. Well that’s impossible—fuck you! It’s just a wonderful thing [to think about], that’s why those people in college drink all night.

But I’ve always said that the two most important things in a life being well-lived or successful are luck and genetics, and that genetics is also luck, so the whole thing is luck, the whole thing is chance and probabilities.