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Profile : The Cab Driver Within : GEORGE CARLIN PLAYS A VERSION OF HIMSELF IN A NEW FOX SITCOM

January 16, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another popular stand-up comedian has ventured into the world of TV sitcom. But he's not just another stand-up. The venerable George Carlin bows as the star and co-executive producer of his new comedy series, simply titled "The George Carlin Show," premiering Sunday on Fox.

Ask Carlin about the genesis of the series and he gives what he calls "a many-layered answer."

Carlin, 56, has wanted to be an actor since he was a kid growing up on New York City's Upper West Side. His idols were movie clowns Danny Kaye and Bob Hope.

"I thought that was acting," explains Carlin, relaxing behind the desk of his comfortable production office in Brentwood. "I wanted to be an actor, so I (thought) I would become a deejay, a comedian and then they would let me be an actor. That was my childhood trilogy of what would happen. My life would have three stages."

Radio and stand-up came easily to Carlin. The acting didn't. "In the late '60s, I got a chance to do (the TV series) 'That Girl' and a movie with Doris Day called 'With Six You Get Eggroll.' I did auditions and screen tests."

But, Carlin admits, he was horrible--nervous and filled with anxiety. "I didn't know how to do it," he says. "I had no experience or training. I saw that dream ending."

But as his acting ambitions evaporated, Carlin's stand-up career took off. By the late '60s, he left mainstream comedy and cultivated his outsider personae--"my sort of out-of-step malcontent; my outlaw self, which I really had been most of my life. I let my hair grow. I got into what people call counterculture comedy, but actually it's just personal comedy with political overtones. That made me a big success. It was on my own terms. The acting thing was put way over on the side."

By the late '70s, Carlin was receiving "vague" offers to do TV series. But he turned them down, opting to do cutting-edge, uncensored comedy specials for HBO.

"I just didn't want to have anything to do with commercial TV," he says. "I had a career that was different. I had an attitude about commercial TV and sitcoms."

In the '80s, Carlin was becoming more comfortable with the idea of giving acting another try. "I am feeling maybe I am a little more down the road personally and internally and some of the blocks will be gone. I will be able to act. Let me try to put that acting thing to work. So eventually 'Outrageous Fortune,' 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure' and 'The Prince of Tides' came along. And I feel comfortable with this. Certainly I can hold my own."

In the fall of 1991, he even joined the cast of the popular PBS children's series "Shining Time Station" in the role of the diminutive Mr. Conductor.

"I think these parts will turn into bigger parts in the movies," Carlin recalls. "I am still thinking like a child. Now, they will give me second and third leads. I can be a funny sidekick and then I'll get my own movie."

But it didn't work out that way. "They found me to be a very acceptable marquee bit player, almost a glorified cameo. They didn't want to offer me anything."

In the interim, Carlin did two more critically acclaimed HBO specials. His last one, the in-your-face, outrageous "Jammin' in New York," garnered amazing reviews and ratings. Carlin subsequently received a CableACE award and an Emmy nomination for the 1992 show.

"That (special) kicks me up to a higher gear," Carlin says. "And for the past four or five years since Fox began, they have been coming to me to do a show, a sitcom. My reaction was similar to my old reaction."

But as the years went by, Carlin says, "the offers keep getting a little better."

Last summer, Fox threw the name of producer-writer Sam Simon into the mix. Simon was involved with the TV classics 'Taxi," "Cheers," "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "The Simpsons."

"He's very smart and funny," Carlin says. "He didn't necessarily want to do anything. He had left 'The Simpsons' and didn't have the desire to do anything immediately. So here we were, two people who don't want to anything. Fox thought, 'Let's put these two guys together.' "

Carlin knew what elements he didn't want in the series. "We knew it wasn't going to have a living room in it. No kids. No neighbor that doesn't knock. No working mom. No single dad. No widows from another continent. None of that stuff."

But what co-executive producer Simon created for Carlin is a variation of his famous malcontent character. Carlin's George O'Grady is a middle-aged, part-time New York cab driver and philosopher who lives in a working-class neighborhood on the Upper West Side. His favorite hangout is a rundown neighborhood tavern where his friends love to listen to his opinions.

The series is "very close to my own inner truth," Carlin says. "He's one of the people I might've become in my life if I'd stayed in the neighborhood. We all have alternative lives we might've led. It just fit right."

These days, Carlin doesn't feel like the outsider. "One of the interesting things about being an outsider is the longing to belong. It's a paradox. All of my life, there's been a need to belong to something and be recognized. I've joined a kind of club. I've joined the network commercial TV club and in a way, there's more respectability."

"The George Carlin Show" premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.

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