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O.C. Comedy

Aging Bull

Carlin Credits Maturing Process for Giving Him the Ability to Take Current Material by the Horns

November 30, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When George Carlin began doing stand-up in 1960, most comics were buttoned-down, suit-and-tie types who talked about in-laws, airlines and other safe topics.

But in 1970, the previously safe and suitably suited Carlin not only let his hair and beard grow, but he also began letting it all hang out onstage in a more honest, biting act that earned him a reputation as the comedic Voice of the Counterculture.

But that was 30 years--and 11 HBO specials--ago. Whither goest the bearded one in the new millennium?

Carlin's current show, which will be taped for an HBO special in November next year, is a work in progress, which features a new, edgier level he began shaping in 1992.

There's one piece about American consumer society and what Carlin calls the Great American Cattle Drive.

"People in this country, all their decisions are being formed by focus groups and marketing analysts and people who shape public opinion beforehand and track it as it plays out . . . and I question whether people really have rights."

Another section is on "rats and squealers," said Carlin, whose show at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim on Sunday is sold out. "People cooperate with the police too much, and they don't recognize that the police essentially work for the state and the state is not always your friend."

But such "larger world" pieces make up only part of his act, which also includes his thoughts on "smaller world" stuff, such as driving or what's in the refrigerator, and, he said, "there's plenty of stuff about the English language."

Carlin, who does about 100 concerts a year along with 13 weeks in Vegas, is also working on a book, due out in May, called "Napalm and Silly Putty."

Speaking by phone from New York City, he said it's a continuation of "Brain Droppings," his first book, published in 1997, which sold about 700,000 copies and rose to No. 3 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

"I'm looking to do better this time if I can," he said.

The new book will be the same format as the previous one and will, he said, include everything "from one-liners to three-page essays, from innocent sort of reflective observations to screams and anger and recrimination."

"I love it," he said of writing prose. "I didn't know I had a hidden talent for it."

It's important to note, he said, that his books always contain a lot of things that don't make it into his act. In writing a book, he tailors things for "the eye and the page rather than the ear. That's a lot of fun, that process of reordering them."

Whether he's writing prose for a book or new material for his act, Carlin said he has never suffered writer's block.

"I have a very deep well of material hoarded away--thoughts, unfinished thoughts, things at every stage of development."

And at 63, Carlin believes his observational skills have only gotten sharper with age.

"Sure, because the background gets richer," he said, adding that everything "that's lying deep in your brain, that stuff is all thicker and richer and more textured and able therefore to provide more for a writer.

"There's no question the accumulated years just add to this reservoir."

Carlin's current spunk goes back eight years, to a live show he did at the Paramount Theatre, the 6,500-seat arena in Madison Square Garden.

"I'd say what happened is I found my voice in 1992," Carlin said.

Not that what he had been doing onstage the previous two decades wasn't "good and interesting," he said, but he now views everything that came before as a sort of prologue.

"The 1992 show was pivotal and different and a change," said Carlin, adding that he didn't anticipate the change and recognized it only after the fact when other comedians pointed out to him that the show had been a breakthrough: His comedy had moved to another level.

"It was just that the voice--the writer's voice--had matured," he said. "The accumulated points of view and attitudes toward the human experience or the Western cultural experience--the background against which everything I do is sort of generated--had matured and become richer."

The live 1992 show, which became a CableACE Award-winning HBO special and a Grammy-winning album, was called "Jammin' in New York."

"It was just after the Gulf War," recalled Carlin. "It was very anti-American, very anti-white, anti-Westerner and it pointed out the need for males to express some of their hidden sexual energy through war."

That piece, along with two others--an attack on rich, white elitist golfers, and an attack on environmentalism--"kind of gave that show a spine that had some heft, and people noticed," he said.

As a performer, Carlin felt he had advanced from offering pure entertainment to something that just might qualify as art.

"That's where I see my major moment of maturing," he said.

* George Carlin, Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. 8 p.m. Sunday. Sold out. (714) 712-2700.

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