Considering the number of brain cells George Carlin has barbecued over the years, we’re astonished at how much firepower is left inside that head of his. As the comedian approaches 70, the lounge-lizard hair is grayer and the old ticker is faulty (he’s had three heart attacks already), but his mind is eternally churning fresh ideas and raw insights, mainly about how completely fucked we humans really are.
Last December, just after losing his temper with an audience in Las Vegas, Carlin stopped sniping at the rest of us long enough to cast a cold eye on his own shortcomings–namely, prescription-drug and alcohol addictions. With his third comedy book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, ascending the New York Times best-seller list, Carlin checked himself into Promises, an A-list detox facility in Malibu, where 30 days of therapy and soulsearching (along with an antidepressant or two) gave him the reboot he needed to end more than five straight decades of substance abuse. Now he’s raging on the road again, sharpening his barbs at comedy clubs across America in preparation for his 13th HBO stand-up special, Life Is Worth Losing, to air live from New York’s Beacon Theater on November 5. Although he’s won four Grammys, has a wall of gold records and has sold more than 2 million books, Carlin has enough new material on his hard drive–some 2,800 files’ worth–for perhaps 70 more years of edgy comedy.
Still, Carlin will forever be known as the man who forced the Supreme Court to utter the words “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker” and “tits.” In the landmark 1978 case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, the Court ruled that Carlin’s best-known routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” was indecent and that the FCC could ban those choice expletives from radio and TV during hours when children might be listening.
Born in 1937, Carlin grew up on the edge of Harlem in New York City and was raised with his older brother by their single mother. He dropped out of high school at the age of 17 and joined the Air Force; he was courtmartialed three times, once for taking a nap inside a parked B-47 bomber. He started his professional career as a disc jockey near the Air Force base in Shreveport, Louisiana and, after letting his hair grow in the decade that followed, became a comic voice of the burgeoning counterculture, with characters such as Al Sleet, the “hippie-dippie weatherman.” In 1975, jacked out of his mind on cocaine, he hosted the first episode of a promising new TV program called Saturday Night Live.
Writer David Hochman (who last interviewed Donald Trump for Playboy) recently caught up with Carlin on the road in Las Vegas. Hochman’s report: “Carlin called me seven times before the interview, partly because he was nervous but also because he was excited to finally have a lengthy format in which to discuss rehab, drug use, his marriage, his new girlfriend and the many problems of our time. We met in the Presidential Suite at the Stardust, but the old-school vibe creeped him out. So we ended up talking backstage and at the pristine condo he owns nearby. Wherever we were, one or two of his TVs were tuned silently to CNN.
"George’s act was a little rusty, mainly because he was in rehab when he should have been rehearsing. But at the interview table he was electrifying, almost going into a trancelike state as he threw himself headlong into passionate rants. Not one idea escapes him. He keeps small Post-its everywhere, and as soon as something–a joke, a word, an absurdity–comes to him, he’ll jot it down and then enter it into one of his four Apple computers. He even has an iPod dedicated exclusively to his recorded thoughts. And the man has hours and hours of thoughts.”
The last time you were in Las Vegas you called your audience moronic, and someone shouted, “Stop degrading us!” What was going on?
While Vegas audiences can be wonderful when there’s a younger crowd, 80 percent of the time you get these fucking overweight schlubs from the Mississippi Valley. And they’re a fucking bother because they have no imagination and no appreciation for unusual, creative themes in comedy. They think everybody should be like what you see on television. They’re fucking horrified when they hear some of my subjects. I said something about that. I said, “I can’t wait to go back east, where the real audiences are,” or something like that. I’ve said that to audiences before. Usually I say, “There are three types of people who come to my shows, and you’re the third type, and it ain’t fucking good, folks.” The trouble is, a local gossip columnist was in the audience, and he used some sensational language to make a story out of it. Suddenly it became a fucking “meltdown.”
Is that what pushed you into rehab?
Oh, I’d made that decision long before that night. [laughs] Here’s the deal with me: I was 67, and I didn’t like having a habit anymore. I got tired of running. I began smoking pot when I was 13, so technically I had a 54-year buzz. I stopped smoking pot 20 years ago, but that’s when the Vicodin and wine took over. And the wine turned into a bottle-and-a-half-a-day deal, and I noticed the number of Vicodin creeping up to four, five a day. Mind you, that’s nothing to brag about by rehab standards. Some of the guys in there were taking 50 Vikes a day and burning down their house and backing into police vans and shit. I felt almost unworthy. But it’s your personal bottom that matters, and I definitely suffered the affliction every addict suffers. I just couldn’t stop. The addiction had more power than I did, and that’s the sign of a real problem. Plus, for me, there were just too many requirements: finding the drink, counting out the fucking pills to see how many days were left before the prescription ran out. “Okay, if I renew five days early, the insurance will cover it and the pharmacist won’t say anything. So five days early, at four a day, that’s 20 extra. Hey, I can have six today!”
Was there an intervention of some kind?
No. And I would have just translated friendly advice as nagging or interfering, or I’d have thought, Leave me alone; I know what I’m going to do about this. Besides, nobody knew the extent of my habit. I lied as you do when you’re an addict or an alcoholic, and I deceived everyone, including the doctors I was getting the prescriptions from. The thing is, if I told the truth, the secret would have been out and I would have had to deal with it. So I bullshitted everyone and played down the amounts, the need, the effects.
What were the effects?
It was a slight opiate high. When I would wake up–and I’m not one of these fucking guys who just spring out of bed at full speed–I’d say, “Oh fuck. I have all this shit to do today,” not always looking forward to it. So I would stumble around for a while, and then inevitably I would take a couple of Vicodins. About half an hour later I wouldn’t feel any of that negativity. It was an absence of a certain downness. Then eight hours later I would take two more. At night I’d usually have a little bit of wine, say, before a show. But I certainly wasn’t a wine connoisseur like that guy in Sideways or anything. I just wanted the buzz. I never drank enough to slur my speech or stagger, but the wine calmed me down; then a little more would help me fall asleep afterward.
You still play 150 club dates a year. Does a little Vicodin make a place like Akron or Scranton more tolerable?
The truth is, I feel better sober than I felt when I was using and feeling good. I never did a 12-step program before, and it was great to go someplace where for 30 days I was assured of not having anything near me, no temptations, and where I’d have a network of people who would pull me away from my addictions so I could put my wishes into play. But here’s the biggest surprise: Sobriety is not a struggle for me. I don’t have a yen and I don’t have an urge. Intellectually, if I’m in the supermarket and I pass the wine section, I say, “Oh yeah, remember when you used to do that?” and I keep moving. The last thing in the world I would do is walk into some place and get a glass of wine, because what the fuck would be the reason? As they say in AA—it’s clichéd now, but it’s true–“One drink is too many, and a thousand are not enough.” And there’s another cliché—AA’s full of them because they serve a purpose–that goes, “When the train hits you, it’s not the caboose that kills you; it’s that first car every fucking time,” which I thought was very wise. There would be no future in opening that door or those bottles again. For what reason? I feel wonderful now.
Did you ever worry that stopping drugs would screw with your creativity?
There comes a point when drugs start to hinder rather than help. A psychiatrist once very generously told me, “George, you’re brilliant despite the fact that you use drugs.” He said drugs were probably getting in my way. I believe that was true.
Cocaine was your drug of choice in the 1970s. How do you look back on those years now?
Well, if you’re already anal and left-brained and fucked up with this tendency to be obsessive-compulsive, then the cocaine feeds that. I would organize everything. I once had all my screws and bolts and nuts and washers and nails on the floor of my garage and just sat there matching them all up. Or I’d sort through my fucking record collection. [talking fast] “Shall I arrange this by genre or by band name? What about soloists? Do they go separately? Well, Roger McGuinn has a separate album, but he was in the Byrds. But then he was also in Buffalo Springfield. Oh shit! But so were the guys from Crosby, Stills & Nash. Oh fuck me! Here’s Neil Young! What the fuck do you do with fucking Neil Young?” [laughs] And next thing you know, you’re outside cleaning the front lawn with a toothbrush. It was a fucking mess.
Yet here you are at 68, still kicking, still working and clean as a whistle. No harm, no foul, right?
Well, I’ll tell you, people always say in these interviews, “Is there anything you regret or anything you would do differently?” I’ve always kind of defiantly said, “No, nothing.” But now I know a little better. I think if I could magically go back and change a portion of my life, I would erase those five or six years of cocaine abuse, for a multitude of reasons. First, the cocaine made me ignore my finances and my business interests, which put me in a giant hole with the IRS and damaged my ability to have a reasonable net worth.
You owed close to $4 million in back taxes at one point, right?
It started at about a million and went to about $3 million. But it’s the penalties and interest that kill you. Plus, there are always current taxes to pay. It never stops. I had a lien on my house for 20 years. So it was very difficult, and it was a character builder. The sad thing is, if I had had more presence of mind, I might not have let that happen.
In 1975, on a trip to Hawaii, your 11-year-old daughter, Kelly, made you and your wife, Brenda, sign a contract to stop snorting cocaine for the rest of the trip. Does it make you sad now to think of a child in that position?
It was a terrible fucking cruel, unthinking, unloving thing for any parent to have done, to put Kelly in that situation. That’s my biggest regret in all this. If it hadn’t been for the cocaine, I wouldn’t have put Kelly through the trauma of her mother and father fighting like crazy and being on drugs and being maniacs in front of her. It was pretty awful. I had Kelly working with me on these sick strategies to deal with Brenda. After all, I was the more sober drunk. [laughs] Brenda would start drinking early, so we’d hide her car keys if it was after a certain hour–say, noon. Rehab wasn’t an option back then, so you did what you could. One time I told Kelly, when she was probably too young to fully understand, “I may have to make believe to Mom that I’m going to leave her. I don’t want you to get scared. I’ll just be right down the hill at that little hotel. Don’t worry.” Again, if it hadn’t been for the cocaine, I think I would have dealt with Brenda directly, issued an ultimatum. But instead she had to hit bottom. She backed my BMW through the lobby of a hotel. That was as good a reason as any to get cleaned up, and she spent 22 years clean without a slip. But as I look back now, it put all that pressure on Kelly.
What’s your relationship with your daughter like today?
Kelly is now in her early 40s. She’s in a good marriage. She’s a psychologist with a master’s in Jungian depth psychology, and she will probably go for her Ph.D. She has worked through a lot in her own therapy, all of this scarring and damage. And she and I have put a lot of stuff on the table together to try to heal some of this, which we think we have. And we move on.
What impact did Brenda’s death from cancer, in 1997, have on you?
Well, I didn’t get terribly emotional about it. First of all, I’m very much a realist and a practical person, and Brenda had been sick for quite some time. If you have any imagination at all, you find yourself imagining outcomes. Even if a person you’re with isn’t sick, you occasionally think of what life without them would be like. But it was not pleasant by any means. She had been stabilized with chemotherapy, but then things took a rapid turn. They kept her alive an extra 12 or 18 hours, apparently just for me to get back in from the road. And by the time I got there it was gruesome. So it was no picnic, but my tears were fairly contained. I felt them–I cried and everything–but I didn’t go to pieces from the whole experience. I had kind of rehearsed it in my mind.
And then, a year later, you had a new girlfriend.
Sally and I met at a bookstore. Her dog came over and chose me.
Dogs do have a keen sense of smell.
They must, because Sally is the love of my life. I must say that as solid and as good as I thought my marriage was with Brenda–and we kind of lived in détente after a while because she had been sober about 22 years and I was still drinking and whatnot–there wasn’t a lot of emotional connection during those years. But when I met Sally lightning struck. That’s not to denigrate Brenda or my relationship with her, but with Sally it’s that teenagers-in-love thing all over again. We wear these Jupiter rings and call ourselves the king and queen of Jupiter. It’s our planet and we reign over all things Jupiterian. It’s all about Jupiter, baby! [laughs]
What do you now know about women that you wished you knew at, say, 20 or 25?
Mostly it has to do with communication. Never sit on your feelings. Those couples who never fight, they’re the ones you have to watch out for. Something’s got to give. If you’re talking about picking up chicks, I was never a cunt man or a swordsman or any of those things. I was never the guy saying, “Oh boy, I’d like to fuck her.” Certainly I would see women and think that. But I wasn’t the guy who came to the party and immediately locked eyes with someone and then had her in the fucking coatroom the next 10 minutes. I’m Irish Catholic, so there’s inhibition there. I didn’t take the Catholic part very seriously as a kid, but you can’t shake the Irish part too easily. And you know, Irish foreplay is “Brace yourself, Bridget.”
But for the sake of oral history, can you recount your hottest groupie experience?
I was never really that guy. During my cocaine years I was a moron with my behavior when I was out on the road, because cocaine kicks up that sexual drive, and I did what a lot of people did at that time. But honestly I don’t remember a whole lot. Even with the coke, sex had to be with someone I liked. She had to be someone I was attracted to, not just to her ass or something like that. So there was a degree of honor in it, albeit a very small degree.
How has the sexual landscape changed since then?
It’s actually a weird time for sex. Sex is all over the place in this culture. It’s wide open. Compared with the 1960s, when it was merely an aspect of youth culture–free love and all that–it’s a virtual sexual carnival out there now. You’ve got the Internet, strip clubs, porn stars on the radio. Even regular television is all cleavage and legs and asses and hot policewomen on CSI. You go into any hotel and you can buy movies in which the mailman shows up with a big hard-on and suddenly he’s fucking three women at a Tupperware party–and it all goes straight to your hotel bill.
Is that progress?
I’m not sure. It’s commercialism, sales, cash in somebody’s pocket, which is what this fucking country revolves around. But at the same time we have this supercharged religious and puritanical aspect of our culture. We are the most religious country in the world. Europe looks at us like we have dicks growing out of our foreheads. They can’t understand what the fuck is wrong with us with all this religious bullshit. Let’s leave actual spirituality over on the side; that’s a different thing. You know, you get these people now who say, “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.” Fine. But religion in this country has become a complete distortion and exploitation of the spiritual urge. It’s ruled by charlatans who tell us what God thinks about us. God doesn’t like our bodies, and we shouldn’t like them. Our bodies are sinful instruments, especially the sexual parts and the bathroom parts. Feel guilty, America. Be afraid, America. God wants you to be ashamed! And these opposing forces–the chaste and the unchaste, commerce and religion–battle it out.
And let’s not forget politics.
That’s where it gets interesting. Politics is where all this shit comes together to totally fuck over the little guy. Bear with me; this is a large point. You have the religious right steering this country now, led by its head fuck in the White House. And to keep these religious people happy, George Bush and the people he’s put in power operate through various arms, including the FCC, which controls commercial television and radio. So Howard Stern will say “pussy” or Janet Jackson will flash her tit, and the FCC sends down a shitstorm: “That’s indecent! God doesn’t want you to look at that!” Now add in the business element and things get really crazy. Advertisers want to appear righteous and moral because they don’t want to scare away customers. They certainly can’t appear to be too loose with their sexual standards. Oh no. People don’t want to think they’re buying a tit with their bar of soap, right? Yet here’s the big secret: The Republican machine–the people with the money, the people who own everything, the people who run these businesses–loves that there’s sex all over the place, because it doesn’t want people sitting around thinking about what’s being done to them. It doesn’t want people thinking about how bad they’re getting fucked by a system that abandoned them a generation ago. It wants people distracted.
So instead of giving poor people tax breaks—-
It gives them toys–three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles and snowboards and cell phones with cameras, anything to take their mind off what’s being done to them, that they’re being bent over and reamed up their asshole every day of the week. This fucking country is rigged against the little guy. It’s been rigged against the little guy for a long time. So the machine tries to distract you. All this Howard Stern shit, all this Janet Jackson’s tit shit, any shit at all that keeps people’s mind off the real shit that’s going on, has a function, serves a purpose.
So you see no worth in protecting family values?
I’m all for protecting the family—doing the right thing by people, doing good for the working poor and for children. But what these fucking religious right-wing Republican cocksucker fuckheads don’t remember is that Jesus Christ—who they look to, Jesus Christ, who they trot out all the time—actually said, “Do something for these fucking poor, sick, hungry people. If they’re sick, fix them. If they’re fucking hungry, fucking feed them.”
We take it you’re paraphrasing Jesus.
Jesus would have fucking gone straight to these religious shitheads and said, “Let’s change this shit, people.” He wouldn’t have given a fucking tax break to cocksuckers like me and people with all kinds of money. And I’m just okay. What’s happened with money in this country is sinful. Billionaire is a common word now. Not that I give a fuck if people are rich, but don’t be giving a lot of shit back to them with tax breaks. Let them fucking help somebody who needs it. Isn’t that the deal here? Isn’t the deal humanity? Come on, people!
Jim Carrey once said you were his anti-role model because he didn’t want to be so angry at your age. Aren’t you tired of being angry?
Yes, he did say that in a Playboy Interview, and I saw it, and I’d correct him in the following manner: I like Jim a lot. He’s extremely talented, and he’s a good fucking human being. But he misread the thing as anger. It’s not anger. Angry is getting into a fistfight, which I’ve never done. Angry is losing your temper and regretting it. People who have been around me for 20 minutes or 20 years will tell you they’ve never seen me angry. Now, I can get irritated like anyone else–in traffic, on a slow line in a store, at a dumb clerk. Hey, that’s natural, especially when you’re an efficient human being and you like things to go properly. But angry? Not me.
Then what is it? How do you classify your vitriol?
It’s dissatisfaction and disappointment. I’m disappointed that my culture let me down. I feel betrayed by the people in this country. They’re dumb. They’re just fucking stupid. They don’t know how to protect themselves and operate in their own interest. I’m telling you, my fucking species let me down a long time ago.
Is that why you haven’t voted since 1972?
That’s right, for George McGovern. It doesn’t matter if anybody votes. Kerry wouldn’t have been any different than Bush. One of the most interesting things in politics is that we always worry about censorship from the right because that’s the standard formula, but suddenly it’s barreling in from the left, too, from the campuses in the East and the intellectuals via political correctness. I think when you go out of your way to protect so-called minorities and disaffected people by altering the language used about them, by calling people “differently abled” or whatever shit it is, you’re saying they’re not strong enough to handle anything on their own. The left thinks it’s protecting people, but it’s actually insulting them, whether they’re handicapped people or blacks or lesbians. But the bottom-line message is still the same, whether from the left or the right: “You can’t handle life unless we, the white, paternalistic, educated, wealthy community, help you by altering the game plan.” And that’s just fucked.
Is there a politician you think could make a difference?
I’ll tell you who’s an interesting figure: Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York. He’s very articulate and bright, makes smart alliances and goes after the right targets. I’d love to see him rise nationally, but the politicians would figure out some way to destroy him. They’d say, “Well, his sister was a lesbian in Venezuela, and she contracted the syph and gave it to a nun who was in with the terrorists.” I’m telling you, politicians do what they want. The people who own this country own the land that counts and control the corporations and all the sources of news and information. Big chemicals, big oil, big insurance, big accounting, big banking, energy–the rich control everything, and they bought the Senate and the House a long time ago. They bought the statehouses. They bought the city halls. The judges are in their back pockets. These people have convergent interests: How can we make more money and get things our way? Reduce government regulation. Reduce our taxes and increase the burden on the general fucking public regardless of its health or safety or well-being. It’s property over people, and that’s why I’m not getting in my car and driving to some fucking high school gym to punch a hole in a piece of paper.
Since the news seems to be skewed depending on which channel you watch or which newspaper, magazine or blog you read, how do you figure out what the truth is?
You can’t, and that’s why people have begun looking to the distorters for the truth–to Jon Stewart, who I love and think is brilliant, and to The Onion. But all news is distorted today. What’s presented to us as news is a fabrication or at least a manipulation of reality. The problem with these fucking people–these network anchors or whatever–is that they need access. All these fucking people who cover Washington or anything a reporter covers need to know they can get interviews. You don’t fuck up your access if you’re one of these people. So you play a delicate game. You don’t embarrass your sources; therefore, you don’t reveal certain things. You don’t ask hard questions, so you’re compromised from the start.
Explain something to us, then. If this country is so averse to provocative viewpoints, why do your books consistently become best-sellers?
We’re schizophrenic. Of course the Republicans would love to make this a complete theocracy and have America be a kind of Taliban state where they have strict control over behavior and whatever titillation there is in news, advertising or entertainment. But they can do only what they can do, and that leaves room for fuckers like me. That’s why I love this place. I love this country. I love the things it has given me, and I don’t mean a nice car. I’m not really wealthy by any means because I had a long struggle with the IRS that defeated that purpose. But I do well, and I love that. But I love more than that. I love that I get to talk like this. I think this is fucking great. And there will come a day when folks won’t get to talk like this. You can see that on the horizon if certain things break certain ways.
Why not take to the airwaves with your ideas? Do you ever think about pulling a Howard Stern and doing a show on satellite radio?
Not really, because what would I say on the second day or in the second week or the third month? The celebrity platform has been badly abused, mostly by Hollywood people on the Leno show who say, “I’m really passionate about this fucking project.” Who cares? But let me say a few words about Howard: Howard’s great. Howard’s doing the right thing. And Howard’s going to make a fortune for himself–not that that’s the important thing, but Howard has pioneered again. He’s a smart and savvy guy who found a niche, a big important niche–a male following he knew how to play to. I always liked him, but I was never comfortable doing his show because I never fit there. I didn’t have lurid stories to tell about my own life. If I had, I might have been a little antsy about telling them. I could never give his audience the kind of red meat it wants. But when I listen to Don Imus I hear a slightly more thoughtful discussion going on and guests who are interesting to me, not just people showing their knobs or talking about whacking off. Back in 1992 Imus saw a show I did at Carnegie Hall on HBO, Jammin’ in New York, and he got on the air and gave it a great review. So I called to thank him, and I said, “You know, I do Howard Stern sometimes. I don’t really fit in there, Don. Can I call in to your show every now and then?” He said, “Come on in anytime,” and all that shit. So I started that relationship because I feel it’s a better fit.
You never quite fulfilled your long-standing dream to become a movie actor. Your TV shows get canceled, and you get only bit parts. How frustrating has that been over the years?
Movies have been a nice sideline, but that’s about it. I’m passionate about showing off, and I’m just fine doing that onstage and in my books. I’m a kid who quit school in ninth grade who needs to show people he’s smart. I have this need to prove my brainpower. I’m long since past the real need; now it’s just a habit. But I’m still the same little show-off who in fifth grade stood up in the class meeting and sang “Mañana,” the Peggy Lee song, a cappella at Corpus Christi grammar school in New York City.
So that was your earliest comedy gig? What did the nuns think?
I was a good learner and a good student and I could answer any of the questions they asked, so the nuns left me alone. But in my spare time I’d look around and go, “Well, what the fuck. Hey, Joey, watch this.” You become a fuckup, you know, by pushing and bending the rules all the time. You try to make the other guys laugh and you’re disruptive. So that was my big sin. The sisters kind of winked at it, and I could see it was good to be yourself and have ideas. Soon my natural need to entertain took other forms, such as imitating famous people–Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson–making up routines and imitating commercials and newscasters and stuff.
Did that make you popular?
With the kids, yeah. With my mother, absolutely not. She couldn’t stand it in the beginning. My behavior was always rewarded by two things: people’s attention and approval. As a kid who was alone in his house a lot because of family circumstances, I needed attention and approval. I needed to know the world thought I was cute and clever and a smart kid. So I got that. It was an unspoken thing. I didn’t put words like this together in my head; it just happened. Like a sunflower leaning toward the sun, I became approval-tropic. I started to bend that way.
You’ve said you don’t remember your father, who died when you were eight. Any sense of how his death contributed to the person you are today?
My mother and father were separated many times before I was conceived. Two months after I was born my mother realized my father’s drinking wasn’t going to stop no matter what he said. He was also a bully, and he beat my older brother. My mother was spared because she had four brothers and her father was a policeman. Nevertheless, I spent much of my childhood in fear of his coming to our door. The routine was that my mother, my brother and I would be sitting at the kitchen table. If there was a knock on the door, my mother would stiffen up and fear would come over her face. She would mouth the words to me, “Go look under the door.” So I would get down on my hands and knees and look under the door. If I saw a woman’s shoes, I could say, “Who is it?” and open the door and get my mother. If I saw a man’s shoes, I said nothing. I’d just walk back and whisper, “Man’s shoes.” And we’d just wait silently for the person to leave. I think that made me a realist, actually.
What did it mean to you when he died?
It didn’t mean anything to me. I was coming home up the hill singing “Jingle Bells"—it was Christmastime—and I came up to the apartment. Mom sat me down and showed me the death notice, a simple, small notice from the New York Journal American. I read it and said, "Uh, yeah?” And she said, “Do you want to go to see him or go to the funeral?” I said no. My brother said, “Definitely not,” because he hated the fuck. I didn’t have any emotion because I never had any emotion about him to begin with, so his loss was just a nothing. I did know that it made my mother feel better, and we never had to worry about the door again.
In your last Playboy Interview, almost 24 years ago, you were pretty angry with your mother. Did you make peace with her before she died?
My mother always had a great sense of entitlement toward me, and we had a difficult relationship. I had to kick her out of L.A. twice. She thought she would just come to California and move in with me and be my lifetime houseguest. And that was not going to happen, because she was a troublemaker. She would get in between people. For instance, even though she never drank in her life she started becoming my wife’s drinking buddy. She pitted one person against another, and she had some unpleasant parts to her personality, which were reflected in that 1981 interview. I didn’t make peace with her, quote-unquote. But when she finally came to California I got her an apartment near the ocean in Santa Monica. She was melodramatic, and she would call and say, “I never hear from you. I never see you. You’ve dropped me out of your life.” I had her in that place, and I was taking care of her, this and that. She had a little life and people around her there, but that wasn’t enough. She wouldn’t have been satisfied unless she was living in the room next to me. What’s happened, with the passage of time since 1989 when she died, is that I look back at the fullness of her life, not at the parts that intruded on my peace of mind. After all, she raised two boys in New York City basically by herself through the end of the Depression and World War II. She earned what amounted to a man’s salary in pretty good advertising jobs. And she was quite an individual, a very colorful woman. She was larger than life—melodramatic Mary, I call her—and the woman taught me how to command a room.
Did your mother ever come around to enjoying your comedy?
She came around in a single afternoon. Here’s what happened: We lived on the same street as the church, and one afternoon some nuns came up to her after I’d appeared on the Johnny Carson show. They didn’t hear anything dirty, but they knew the content. They said, “Oh, Mrs. Carlin, isn’t it wonderful how George is getting so popular? He’s doing so well.” My mother, affecting the embarrassed good Catholic woman, said, “Oh yes, Sister, but you know, the awful language—-” And they said to her, “No, Mrs. Carlin. You don’t understand. He’s using these words to teach something. He’s making a social comment.” And my mother said, “Then you’re not upset?” “No, no, no, no, no.” Well, let me tell you, once my mother knew the church had let her off the hook, she was the proudest fucking mother of a star you ever saw.
You did The Tonight Show as guest and guest host more than 130 times during Johnny Carson’s reign. What’s your favorite memory?
One time I hosted, and I was full of cocaine. I had David Carradine on the program, and he was wearing some sort of diaphanous, half-Buddhist spiritual garb. He sat on that panel cross-legged, and I believe he was tripping on acid. My memory of it is this: I would ask him a question and he would answer the next question. I would say, “So how are you doing these days?” And he’d say, “Uh, my two brothers.” Then I’d say, “So who was in this movie with you?” Or he’d say “a Chevrolet,” and a question about a car would come into my head. I’m sure it was the coke playing tricks on me. In fact, I ran into David once and asked him about it, and he looked at me like I had a turd hanging out of my head.
Are you more of a Leno guy or a Letterman man these days?
The trouble with comedy is there’s a lot of subjectivity. You love five people and hate five people. And you can’t understand how the other person can’t like a guy.
Come on, George. Jay or Dave?
I’d say I like Letterman a little better than Leno because he has that anti-show thing going. He’s kind of the non-TV host TV host. And he has a perversity and grouchiness I can relate to. I like Jay a lot, but it’s tough. Johnny was the ideal model. He had a wonderful way about him. He had an impish quality people loved; he could kind of wink and get the laugh and still not take part in it. He was bright and quick. The world changed around him, but he never let the world change him. His show was a town square for America in a way that today’s late-night shows can never be.
Which comedian makes you laugh these days?
Lewis Black. He has a great mind and a great way of presenting his dissatisfaction with things. Comedy is all about surprise–you get to thinking this is going to happen and instead that happens. That’s funny. You’re caught with your guard down and you laugh. I like Lewis’s relentlessness. I love his overkill. I love the fucking sledgehammer. Lewis wields a mighty sledgehammer.
But most comedy today is pretty moronic, isn’t it? Your generation had some great comedians, people who offered a view of life. Bill Cosby was cheerful and Richard Pryor was dark, but at least they gave you real views of the world. Today, people just do bits, quick reactions to things. How do you characterize the state of comedy today?
My comedy developed in the 1940s and 1950s, and the 1950s especially were a time when comedy stopped being safe and stopped focusing on “kids today” and “my wife’s shopping habits.” For the first time comedy became about saying no to authority. It was about individualism and people who had identities of their own and weren’t just telling jokes–Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Nichols and May. And there are a few more in there–Jonathan Winters and Lord Buckley, who wasn’t a big figure but was very important to comedians. That evolved into Second City and the type of comedy that led to Saturday Night Live. Then the 1980s saw the comedy-club boom. People discovered they could take a fairly inexpensive storefront, put in cheap furniture and a bad sound system, pay the comics very little if anything, and then keep the whiskey money. These clubs exploited comedians in front of a hundred simple brick-wall backdrops, and it really hurt comedy. You had a lot of clubs, so you needed people to perform in them. You’d get these guys whose friends told them, “You, Joey, you’re a fucking pisser. You ought to be a comedian.” Then in the 1990s clubs became about getting somewhere else–how can I use this to get into the movies or land a sitcom? So your friend Joey was suddenly Harry the neighbor or the delivery boy in every sixth episode of some stupid sitcom. Which isn’t to say great comedians didn’t come up through the clubs. Letterman came out of them and so did Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld. But I think too many people were plucked from there and asked to do too much. I’m resentful that Eddie Murphy doesn’t do stand-up anymore; he’s a fucking brilliant stand-up. So is Steve Martin, one of my all-time heroes. But there’s always hope for comedians. You know why? These comic fuckers live a long time. You notice how long fucking George Burns, Groucho Marx, Milton Berle and all these cocksuckers lived? I think it’s because comedy gives you a way of renewing life energy. There’s something about the release of tension that comes from being a comic, having a comic mind, that makes you live forever. Only the offbeat ones die young: John Belushi, Freddie Prinze, Andy Kaufman, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison and now Mitch Hedberg, another great one. These people all had very different universes to offer us, and they’ve all been taken away.
Where’s your comedy headed? What will the new cleaned-up George Carlin sound like?
Pretty much the same, but I’m always thinking of new shit. I have two more HBO shows I’d like to do. Then I have a Broadway idea about a stagestruck kid in Manhattan, namely me, who was on his own because his mother had to work. He had the run of the island. I’d love to do that. Then there’s a fourth book coming. That will be more specialized ranting and raving about America and its government and crazy fucking people. And then you do today’s work. Today’s work always comes first.
Is there anything funny about getting older?
The older you are, the more noises you make. Standing up, sitting down—it’s like you need a fucking lubricant. I agree with Bette Davis, who said, “Getting old is not for sissies.” But it’s just aging, so I say, “Fuck it.” There were handicaps to being 10, there were handicaps to being 40, but the richness of memory, the richness of acquired and accumulated experience and wisdom, I won’t trade that. At 68 I’m every age I ever was. I always think of that. I’m not just 68. I’m also 55 and 21 and three. Oh especially three.
In one routine you say, “God can’t be perfect. Everything he makes dies.” What do you want your tombstone to say?
I used to think it should say, “He was too hip for the room,” meaning, of course, this earth. [laughs] But now I’m thinking something along the lines of “Geez, he was just here a minute ago.”
How do you imagine heaven?
The best afterlife for me would be to be able to sit comfortably and watch the world on a kind of heavenly CNN–to be able to have my remote and say, “Okay, there’s an uprising in Spain. Let’s watch that.” Or to watch China finally take over the fucking world. Because there’s a billion of those motherfuckers, and they’re going to eat our lunch. I would love to get the thousand-year view on the decline of the European birthrate or the Muslimization of Europe that’s taking place or the explosion of Latin American culture in the western United States. Just sit back and watch. India and Pakistan each have nuclear weapons, and they fucking hate each other. I’m telling you, somebody is going to fuck somebody’s sister and an atom bomb is going to fly. And I say fine. I just like the show. This world is a big theater-in-the-round as far as I’m concerned, and I’d love to watch it spin itself into oblivion. Tune in and watch the human adventure. It’s a cursed, doomed species, but it’s interesting as hell. That’s what I want heaven to be. And if it’s not like that, then fuck it. I’ll just kill myself.