Famous for his witty and politically incorrect social criticism, comic George Carlin (1937-2008) did stand-up beginning in the 1950s. He released numerous comedy albums, later performing many popular HBO Specials.
No other comic evolved over the years quite as much or in the same way that Carlin did, writes Larry Getlen, author of a new ebook, Conversations with Carlin: An In-Depth Discussion with George Carlin about Life, Sex, Death, Drugs, Comedy, Words, and so much more.
Getlen is a veteran journalist who has written for TIME, Esquire, New York Magazine, Radar, and the New York Post, among many other outlets. He’s also been a stand-up comedian and comedy writer. He conducted a several-hours-long interview with Carlin in 2001, on a very broad selection of topics, for a one-page piece in Esquire.
Now Carlin fans can read, in a narratively cohesive ebook, the whole thing (or nearly: for the book, to keep it relatively timely, Getlen edited the 38,000 words of the transcript down to around 28,000).
George Carlin was so creative, so outspoken, so willing to break the then-current “rules” that it’s impossible to paraphrase what he said. So I’ve chosen, rather, to share a few brief excerpts from his responses here with the author's permission.
When you’re seven years old and preparing for your first communion, they tell you a lot of things about how the host is gonna be in your mouth, and it’s the body of Jesus, the body of God, and this will sanctify you, and you’ll feel different. You’ll feel the presence of God. Well, I did my first communion, and I went back to my pew, and I didn’t notice any of that. I noticed this wafer and I’m trying to be reverent, but it wasn’t transformative.
I think in retrospect, it began to make me a little less willing to just jump on everything they said and take the ride. I think I thought that there was an awful lot of exaggeration going on—an awful lot of fanciful talk and magic that they were trying to evoke. And they were always talking about pain and punishment and penance and suffering, and to me, that just didn’t fit. Somehow—and I said this on an early album—they were pushing for pain, and I was pulling for pleasure.
ON WRITING FUNNY
[Jokes and premises] come to me. Part of my leaving the media on all day is a way of...my mind has trained itself to have a very sensitive system of radar about certain words, expressions, topics, and areas of discussion that come up. There are things that interest me more than others, and then there are things that jump out.
...There are areas in your brain that communicate with one another because of a need they perceive that they have—if you have trained yourself passively or actively, which I have—to look for certain kinds of things to say, and certain kinds of things to compare. Because a lot of comedy is comparing—the things that are cultural or social or language-oriented, or just plain silly. My brain got used to the fact that that made it feel good—that I liked finding those things.
What I do is, I collect my notes. I have about 1,300 separate files in my computer—they change from week to week, because I combine or expand files—and they are 44 years worth of collecting thoughts, notions, ideas, pieces of data, and material. Anything I think might have promise for my writing sometime in the future goes on a piece of paper, and that becomes a stack of papers, and that gets a topic title. The scientist is at work with the little artist—he’s got a scientist buddy—and this guy’s indexing things and figuring out categories, and that stuff goes in the computer.
And every time you see it, touch it, look at it, or think of it, it gets deeper in the brain, the network gets deeper, and at some point, it gets to be a telling mass that says to you, “OK. Take a look at this now. This is gonna be funny. You got enough data, take a look at this.” So I’m drawn to something and start writing about it, and then you really start writing, and that’s when the real ideas pounce out, and new ideas, and new thoughts and images, and then bing, ba-bam ba-boom, that’s the creative part.
ON MORALITY AND GOD
Morality, I think, is a kind of inner knowledge of what a person—the other person—deserves to feel. It doesn’t have to do with codes and laws. It has to do with honoring and respecting the feelings and intentions of others. You can expand those feelings and intentions out into dreams and wishes and hopes, but basically, how other people feel is the most important thing to honor. I think that’s what morality is about—taking care of other people, not to injure them.
I don’t believe anything. The short way I like to say it is, “I don’t bother God, and he don’t bother me.” Just because something is a mystery doesn’t mean there’s something behind it that has power, thought, planning ability, or an agenda. Who knows?
Carlin also talks about his addictions, his heart attacks, his fascination with words (he was once arrested after a 1972 performance and charged with “public indecency” because of the content of his routine), why he shies away from the word “spirituality,” why suicide wouldn’t be a choice he’d make, why he finds smart women with a sense of humor sexy, and a lot more. Read this book if you want to know more about the man behind those very funny acts.