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Carlin: 'I Enjoy People Who Are in Distress'


George Carlin emerged in the 1960s and '70s as a rebellious, counterculture comedian. His infamous "Seven Dirty Words" monologue was deemed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 too obscene to air on radio.

But when America mellowed after the Vietnam War, so did Carlin. The funny man's work in the late '70s and '80s reflected his fascination with language, including one memorable routine comparing the terminologies of football and baseball.

His acclaimed 1992 HBO special, "Jammin' in New York," reflected an edgier, angrier tone. His first book, the observational "Brain Droppings" (Hyperion, 1997), buttresses his image as a comic curmudgeon. ("I'm happy to tell you that there's little in this world that I believe in," he writes.)

Despite the recent death of his wife of 36 years, Carlin is on track to finish an autobiography and prepare for his next HBO special. Now 60, he also hopes to launch a one-man live stage show about growing up in New York. Last week, the Los Angeles-based Carlin, who appears Saturday night in Anaheim, slowed down to talk about his work and world view.


Question: I understand that you really fine-tune your act, writing and rewriting your material until it feels right. Do you feel as much a writer as a comedian?


Answer: Yeah, in fact it's the writing where I get the real joy. I love the performing. That's a special, special thing. But the writing is where I get the real satisfaction because the only person I'm trying to please is myself. When you're doing a show, sometimes the audience gets in the way of you pleasing yourself.

Q: So "Brain Droppings" gave you a chance to present some things that wouldn't necessarily work in your stand-up act.

A: The book is full of a lot of one- to five-line items that are amusing. They're things that if you said, people would smile inwardly. But they're not comedy. They're just nice or interesting thoughts. I like big, big laughs on stage. Some of the things [in the book] aren't able to do that. Other things work in both places.

Q: Your act has gotten angrier in recent years. What happened?

A: Let's call it 1989, '90, '91. At some point there I began to realize that I really didn't have an emotional stake in what goes on in this country or in the human race. That I wasn't part of that liberal comedian [mind set], moaning about conditions. I enjoy the fact that this country is declining and that this species is destroying itself. It's funny to me. It's very entertaining to watch.

The work just took off [from there]. The writing got better; everything got better. To prove the point, public attention [toward me] increased a great deal in the '90s. I think it's because of this more authentic voice emerging.

Q: Do you feel a kinship with any of your "angry" peers?

A: When I heard Sam Kinison in the '80s, I was reminded that this is a noisy, cluttered culture and if you want to be understood, or at least heard, you have to raise your voice. That led to me saying, "Wait a minute; I don't really care about [the world]."

Q: You've said that the difference between you and Howard Stern is that you pick on the big guy and he picks on the small guy.

A: I understand the appeal to some people of attacking homosexuals, women, minorities and immigrants. But they are rather easy targets. I don't think you have to have much skill to attack easy targets. The skill comes in going after things that people hold dear--sacred cows, institutions and beliefs that Americans never question. I do give Howard Stern a great deal of credit. He's very funny with what he does, and the demand on him is great. He faces four hours every morning [on the radio], five days a week, probably 50 weeks a year.

Q: Western civilization today must appear to you like Rome just before the fall.

A: I don't think of it so much in those terms. The disintegration could be slow, for all I care. I don't care if it's natural events or man-made events. I enjoy people who are in distress. I love watching disaster victims. The thing I found about compassion with me is that works better when I'm right there with the person who deserves compassion. From a distance, I don't care. I treat people individually rather well, I think, whether it's the public or people I know. When it comes to watching TV and seeing people from the flood area talking about how they're going to rebuild their house, they're fair game.

Q: Society's self-destruction is inevitable, so why not laugh about it?

A: This pursuit of goods is what will do us in.

Q: Your "Seven Dirty Words" shocked many people in the '70s. Is it possible to shock people today?

A: Shock is really just an intensified form of surprise. When you're exposing certain words or thoughts just for the sake of being outrageous, that's one form of entertainment. But I like having content attached to them. So when I use the nasty language and the risky references, I would hope they are in service of good ideas underneath.

Q: How did you get interested in the subtleties of language?

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