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."
Playboy: The last time you were in Las Vegas you called your audience moronic, and someone shouted, "Stop degrading us!" What was going on?
Carlin: 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."
Playboy: Is that what pushed you into rehab?
Carlin: 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!"
Playboy: Was there an intervention of some kind?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: What were the effects?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: You still play 150 club dates a year. Does a little Vicodin make a place like Akron or Scranton more tolerable?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Did you ever worry that stopping drugs would screw with your creativity?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Cocaine was your drug of choice in the 1970s. How do you look back on those years now?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Yet here you are at 68, still kicking, still working and clean as a whistle. No harm, no foul, right?
Carlin: 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.