America's Favorite Curmudgeon
Still Skewering Our Sacred Cows

by Donna J. Wadegeorgec.jpg (13059 bytes)

George Carlin began his professional career in radio at the age of 19 while doing a stint in the US Air Force. He quit radio to perform comedy full time in 1960, and since that time, his comedy routines have delighted millions, resulting in nearly a dozen Grammy nominations for his comedy albums, the first four of which went gold. Carlin's HBO comedy specials "Doin' It Again" and "Jammin' in New York" garnered CableAce awards, the cable industry's highest honor. He has earned three Emmy nominations, two of which were for the role of Mister Conductor on the critically acclaimed PBS children's show, "Shining Time Station", and one for his HBO Special "You Are All Diseased."

Perhaps best known for his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television", Carlin's diverse 43-year career as film actor, comedian, best-selling author, and beloved American hippie-turned-curmudgeon shows no signs of slowing down. He still performs over 150 concert dates a year throughout the country, entertaining yet another generation with his thought-provoking, often outrageous observations and sardonic wit. He is the only entertainer in Las Vegas for whose appearances ticket holders must sign a disclaimer acknowledging a warning that some of Carlin's language may be offensive.
Fans old enough to remember the days when comedians appeared on television wearing suits and ties may remember Carlin's numerous appearances on Merv Griffin and the Mike Douglas shows in the 1960s, but those were the days of his "safe" material. In the 1970s, when people frequenting the 60's folk clubs and coffee houses became the "counterculture", Carlin's out-of-step attitudes and opinions found a ready-made audience. He chucked the suit, grew a beard, and started using the word "shit" in his act, which got him fired from Las Vegas' Frontier Hotel in 1970.
These days, Carlin has found a new artistic and personal freedom in his conscious, emotional detachment from what happens in the world, prefering the role of critical observer to active participant. He no longer cares about the outcome of the world's calamities and moral dilemmas, seeing each of them as further support of his contention that humankind is a foolish species that lost its opportunity and trashed its potential a long time ago.
"Every solution only serves to create more problems, which is very encouraging to a person like me," he says.
For someone who finds entertainment value in the world's crises, Carlin had a banner year in 1999 with the genocide in the Baltics, Columbine High, tornadoes in the Midwest, and a major earthquake in Turkey. Carlin anticipated Y2K with all the glee of a youngster at Christmas, only to be disappointed by the unfulfilled potential for banks failing, sewage running in the streets, and other threatened chaos.
He points to the media spectacle surrounding the death of JFK, Jr. and the subsequent public emotional outpouring as evidence that the world is continuing its trek to hell in a hand basket because people seem to care more about what happens to a stranger hundreds of miles away than they do about what happens to the guy next door.
"Well, the public outpouring (over JFK, JR.) is fairly predictable, but no less appalling. This public grieving that we do now, Diana, JFK, and Columbine or whatever it is, these teddy bears being left at fences, the notes being pinned up, the ribbons. I'm sort of against all ribbons, even ribbons that represent something I philosophically support. Of course television makes all of it much worse because everyone in a sense, even when they don't know it, is playing to the media, in trying to inform someone else of how they feel. If it didn't play into my belief that everything is headed into the eventual sewer, it would be appalling. I mean it is appalling on its face, but this communal grieving is part of my plan for everything to get worse."

Carlin's book Brain Droppings, published in 1997 by Hyperion Books on the occasion of his 60th birthday, spent 18 weeks on the NY Times Best Seller List and sold over 300,000 copies in hard cover. It's a collection of Carlin's "thoughts, musings, beliefs, curiosities, monologues, assertions, assumptions and other verbal ordeals." In it, Carlin asserts that he is more interested in the "real victims....people who have been chronically and systematically f---ed over by the system", and that "there are only four real victim groups in America, blacks, women, Indians and gays. He elaborates on how blacks, women and Indians have been screwed over by society, but is saving his thoughts on gays for his new book Napalm & Silly Putty, (scheduled for publication in April 2001) which will also include his observations on the western Christian religious attitude which contributes to gays' victimization.
But life as the crown prince of anti-establishment comedy is not without its contradictions. In 1998, to settle a debt with the IRS, Carlin began accepting work in television commercials. He explains how he resolved the apparent "sell out" in slamming advertising in his routines, then accepting money to appear in commercials hawking 10-10-220 long distance service and as the "voice" of the Dodge Neon this way:
"Yeh. That's a conflict. Just to answer the question in the larger sense, I'm going to put on my website, within a week or so, something called The Big Sellout. It's an explanation of my reasons for doing the MCI (10-10-220) commercials in 1998, and, by extension, the Dodge Neon voice. I got into big, big serious trouble with the IRS twenty years ago. It started as a million and a half dollar debt, and taxes at that time were 70% for high earners . . . a million and a half dollars facing me in 1980, and penalties and interest started immediately."
During his twenty-year struggle to pay the IRS, Carlin had two heart attacks which kept him from working for periods of time, throwing him further in arrears.
"I'll shorthand this for you, I needed money in 1998. My wife died in 1997, and I fell in love with and am in a great relationship with a terrific woman. I didn't want to enter this new marriage with anything hanging over...I had about two years left with the IRS. It looked like it was going to be done (repaid) by the end of 2000, but I wanted to end it quicker, so I looked around for some income. MCI came to me, gave me full creative control, and wanted to see me not as a pitch man, but in my own milieu, which I thought was at least slightly less jarring for me.

"So, I cop to the fact that yes, I played, but I kind of beat them at their own game because, all during the period I did their commercials, I was developing and performing publicly the material on the HBO show that attacks advertising and a lot of the values associated with it. So, I speak with a forked tongue, but I used them to help get free from them (the IRS).

"So, in this piece I call the Big Sellout, I question, is there such a thing as selling out, is it an absolute,or is it on a continuum? Is there a curve? Because anyone who has a telephone, in a way has compromised with the system. Even the Unabomber, who hated technology, used a typewriter to type his manifesto, and rode the bus system to the post office, a government agency to mail it. You have to have some interaction with the system, and it all involves accommodation or compromise of some kind. It's just a matter of the degree.

"I felt as long as I was saying the things I believe and feel, expressing my values and beliefs on stage, and wasn't compromised from doing that, that I was okay making a deal with the devil. And they never asked me to change any of my material, which I would have refused to do, and I got away with it."

Carlin's wife of thirty-six years, Brenda, died of cancer in 1997, and while the comedian doesn't believe her death has impacted his comic perceptions of the world, he acknowledges that if it has affected his personal outlook, it is in ways undetectable to him.

"I think it just solidifies the knowledge we all have, the sense that life is just a series of events, some of which we can control, some of which we can't, and that the best thing you can do for yourself is learn how to be flexible, adaptable, and resilient, to ride and roll. Affect the flow when you can and accept it when you can't. It just gives me a greater confidence in my own philosophy which has always been to go with the flow, but swim against it whenever the need arises."
Swimming against the tide is what Carlin does best, causing us all to re-evaluate our sacred cows. Let's hope he never stops.


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Donna J. Wade
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