America's Favorite Curmudgeon
Still Skewering Our Sacred Cows
by Donna J. Wade
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
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
"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.