The Boston Phoenix
May 20 - 27, 1999


A germ of truth?

George Carlin keeps chipping away

by Nick A. Zaino III

George Carlin By the time George Carlin gets to the microphone at New York's Beacon Theatre for his 11th HBO special, You Are All Diseased, the crowd is already cheering wildly. Dressed in a black T-shirt and black slacks, his steel-gray hair pulled back into a pony tail, he stokes the crowd a little more. "How's everybody doing tonight?" Even louder applause. "Good, well, fuck you!" It's the first laugh, the one that breaks the ice. "Just trying to make you feel at home." And with that Carlin fires into what he calls "a series of things that are pissing me off."

George Carlin has spent more than 40 years writing and performing comedy. Most comics his age have faded into obscurity or settled comfortably into network TV, but Carlin will not go quietly. This past Tuesday, just a week after his 62nd birthday, he released the CD companion to You Are All Diseased. Later this month, Kevin Smith's Dogma, in which Carlin plays shifty Cardinal Glick, will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Carlin is in the middle of his second book, the follow-up to his bestselling Brain Droppings, and is overseeing the creation of a boxed set scheduled to be released this fall. And all that on top of a tour schedule of about 150 dates per year.

The live audience is at the core of Carlin's work. Over the phone, he describes the relationship as "a circular exercise. You know, you put things out and they reward you at different levels of laughter or applause, and the contract is complete." That doesn't mean that he's out for a crowd-pleasing good time. He cherishes uncomfortable moments, and there are plenty of them in his latest routines. He admonishes those who believe in angels ("What are you, fucking stupid?"), ascribes a whole new meaning to businessmen's "servicing an account," affirms that there is no God.

He even goes after kid-on-kid violence, and he's not worried about the timing of his material in the wake of the recent Colorado tragedy. "I couldn't wait to get on stage that night with the stuff I'm doing about kids killing each other. I had a thing that was already in place in my show. And I knew it would make them tighten up in their seats, and I just couldn't wait to get to that. I love doing that." As he puts it in his routine, "Nature should be allowed to its job of killing off the weak and sickly and ignorant people without interference from air bags and batting helmets. Just think of it as passive eugenics."

In other words, it's everything Carlin loves to point out about society. "Most everything we hear is bullshit, with a germ of truth in it. That's what makes it attractive -- the germ of truth. And it's just kind of fun trying to chip away the bullshit."

Some fans have questioned his ability to do so after doing commercials (for an automobile and a long-distance-telephone company). He explains that he needed the money to pay off a debt to the IRS, that he has been in a 20-year struggle to get clear of unpaid taxes. Now that he's planning a future with the new love of his life, he wants to start fresh, so he found a windfall income. The saving grace of the commercials, Carlin claims, is that he insisted on a stripped-down look featuring material he wrote himself. "I'm not real happy that I had to do that, but that's what happened, and I feel okay about it."

The web gets further tangled when the audience tries to weave the personal and the public Carlin together. Although the core beliefs are the same, Carlin says his approach to life and to performance are different. "I think comedy has always represented a kind of discontent and a subversive disbelief and an attempt to overturn and overthrow -- at least for the evening, for a few moments -- to overturn and overthrow the received wisdom and received cultural messages."

Yet he resists words like "angry" and "cynical." "I don't experience anger in my daily life. I'm like anyone else -- I can get impatient in traffic, and I have some nice things to say. But anger doesn't run my life to any extent that I can see."

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