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DRIVIN' HIS OWN BUS : George Carlin Still Seeks Truth, but Lets the Rest Come to Him

January 17, 1991|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition.

George Carlin's latest comedy album--his 15th in 30 years--is titled "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics."

"The cover of the album is an enlarged replica of the warning stickers that (many) record companies have elected to put on their records," said Carlin, who records under his own label, Eardrum Records. "I thought as long as they wanted me to do that I would mock the people who insist on that stuff."

The album contains the material from Carlin's most recent HBO special aired last June.

"It is an awful lot of politically and socially edged material because that's a part of me I keep alive," he said. "I keep finding it and nurturing it."

It has been two decades since George Carlin underwent one of show business' most dramatic make-overs. In 1970, he shed his clean-cut suit-and-tie image, abandoned his safe, middle-class material and burst forth with a hipper, more honest, more biting comedy steeped in, as one '70s critic put it, "drugs and bawdy language."

At the time, the newly bearded Carlin, who opens a three-night stand at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight, was christened the comedic Voice of the Counterculture.

"That's the way the world describes it," Carlin said in an interview. "I'd say I just started being true to my own values instead of just pretending."

Twenty years, four gold comedy albums and "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" later, the irreverent and whimsical George Carlin is still being true to himself.

But times have changed and so has Carlin, who was arrested in 1972 for reciting the controversial "Seven Words" on stage in Milwaukee.

"Because we all live and change, the product is coming out in sort of a different person every 10 years," said Carlin, who survived cocaine dependency in the '70s and a heart attack and two open-heart surgeries in the '80s.

At 53, he says, "I've learned more, acquired more information and have just seen more things happen. I have a better backdrop against which to work. And there are skills involved in this that get better when you use them: verbal skills and work habits. You drop the inefficient stuff and you begin to learn the most economical way to get things out."

Carlin, who grew up in New York City wanting "to be like those funny men in the movies and on the radio," has been paying more attention to his acting career in recent years.

Last fall, he starred in a Fox-TV Movie of the Week, "Working Trash." He has a non-comedic role in the upcoming Barbra Steisand-Nick Nolte film, "The Prince of Tides," and he's currently reprising his role as the extraterrestrial Rufus in the sequel to "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."

The veteran comedian views acting as a way to achieve more "balance" in both his professional and personal lives. Carlin still does about 110 shows a year and, he said, making movies will allow him to spend less time on the road and more at home with Brenda, his wife of 29 years. (Their daughter, Kelly, is a communications major at UCLA.)

Carlin said he had to defer his "acting urge" for a long time "because the comedy took off so well and because I wasn't as comfortable with the acting when I was in the position to get some parts in the mid-'60s.

"Now I'm older, different, more seasoned, and life has changed me, I guess. To be terribly California about it, I think I have more access to myself--he said, with heavy tongue-in-cheek."

But don't think the personal changes are the result of some sort of midlife crisis.

"No," he scoffs, "I don't believe in that stuff. That's all magazine and television fodder. I happened to get a heart attack, but that also did not have a big effect. I just grew and changed. That's what nature does."

Despite his increased attention to his acting career, comedy is still Carlin's primary thrust. Proclaims the bearded one: "Standup is the centerpiece of my life, my business, my art, my survival and my way of being alive."

And, yes, after all these years he still gets a charge from being on stage.

"It never gets old because it's what I choose to do," he said. "I don't work for anybody--I've always driven my own bus. For that reason, it's a joy, but I'd like to have more balance."

Carlin, who develops 90 minutes worth of new material every two years, still enjoys playing with the language, finding the precise word or phrasing to convey his ideas. ("Jumbo shrimp," he once observed. "Now, is that a large shrimp or a small jumbo?") He's been interested in the nuances of language since he was a kid.

"There's genetics involved," he explained. "My grandfather, mother and father were gifted verbally." In fact, he said, his grandfather, a New York City policeman, "wrote out, in longhand, Shakespeare's works in his lifetime because it gave him a certain joy. My mother passed that along to me. She always made sure I was conscious of language and words."

Carlin, who doesn't particularly care for his old media-created "Voice of the Counterculture" label, views himself simply as an "observer, writer, performer."

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