Playboy: What did it mean to you when he died?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Did your mother ever come around to enjoying your comedy?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: You did The Tonight Show as guest and guest host more than 130 times during Johnny Carson's reign. What's your favorite memory?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Are you more of a Leno guy or a Letterman man these days?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Come on, George. Jay or Dave?
Carlin: I'd say I like Letterman a little better than Leno because he has that antishow 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.
Playboy: Which comedian makes you laugh these days?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Where's your comedy headed? What will the new cleaned-up George Carlin sound like?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: Is there anything funny about getting older?
Carlin: 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.
Playboy: In one routine you say, "God can't be perfect. Everything he makes dies." What do you want your tombstone to say?
Carlin: CARLIN: 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."
Playboy: How do you imagine heaven?
Carlin: 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.