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Losing faith all around

George Carlin gave up on religion. Belief in his fellow humans might be the next thing to go.

November 19, 2004|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

The two Georges stand on different sides of Christianity, but each man still owes a measure of thanks to Jesus. George W. Bush should be grateful to evangelical voters for a return to the White House, while George Carlin should be indebted for a return to the bestseller lists with his new book, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?"

On L.A.'s Westside earlier this week to promote his third book, Carlin sold out a 500-seat-plus room at the Skirball Cultural Center, where the audience sat in rapt anticipation of their favorite George rhetorically ripping the other one to bits. In perhaps the bluest enclave in the biggest blue state, Carlin's legendary verbal savagings would go a long way in salving the liberal community's post-election wounds.

But it didn't exactly happen that way during his two-hour appearance, part of an ongoing author series sponsored by the nonprofit group Writers Bloc. There were a few fulminations directed at the younger George -- hardly any of them printable -- but by and large the evening did not achieve the kind of Bush-bashing hilarity and healing that Democrats might have expected from a pioneer of the angry comic act.

Instead, the 67-year-old comedian sounded world- and, at times, even life-weary. A single night's mood amid a tiring national book tour does not a man make, but Carlin did seem by turns depressed, defeated and resigned over ever improving the lamentable human condition.

He was, of course, very funny and insightful, exposing the falsehoods and inconsistencies in everything from language to politicians. Skillfully interviewed by satirist Harry Shearer, Carlin also displayed a humanizing vulnerability, a trait not readily visible in his four decades atop the comedy world and at sharp odds with the misanthropy that animates so much of his onstage persona.

"I try not have an emotional stake" in the world, said Carlin, dressed in all-black clothing. "I've turned off the feeling part because I refuse to be voluntarily heartbroken by what we're doing to ourselves and each other. So I'd rather divorce myself from it and wash my hands of it, which isn't very responsible, but that's the way I feel."

In his observational book, Carlin takes aim at his usual suspects -- corporations, government and the media -- but heaps special blame upon religion for promoting superstitions and fears. The book's jacket depicts Carlin seated in Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," with an empty chair where Jesus appears. The visual parody didn't go over well with Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, which has refused to stock the book in its stores but still sells it online.

During the evening, Carlin revealed that religion is something more than just a meaty topic for skewering. It also deeply disappointed him as a second-grader, and lighted a righteous indignation within him that still burns today. Carlin, a Roman Catholic, recalled his First Communion, a moment he was promised by church authorities that he would feel "wonderfully" transformed by the sacrament. He didn't, and that was the beginning of the end of religious beliefs.

"There is a sense I was betrayed by them, they let me down. They led me down a little path as a little boy, and I think there was nothing at the end of the road, or even on the side of the road or even a road."

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Kicking up his feet

Without religion as a guide, Carlin turned elsewhere. Once an admitted idealist, Carlin believed in the possibility of positive change for people and societies.

Now, he claims he does not, at least not in any meaningful way. Thus, he explained, he can't or won't let himself care anymore and that it's only the "entertainment" value of the ongoing pageant of human folly and tragedy that sustain him and his career.

"If you're born into this world, you're given a ticket to the freak show, and if you're born in this country, you're given a front-row seat," said Carlin. "I say: Sit back and enjoy the show."

Whatever still drives him, Carlin trampled over any number of popularly held, sacrosanct positions during the night. He questioned why tragedies are somehow worse when they befall children as opposed to adults. He compared people who claim to have seen UFOs with believers of organized religion. And he wondered why firefighters who died inside the World Trade Center towers were automatically labeled heroes. Some heroic deed must have actually been performed, he said. "You're not a hero because you show up to work," he added.

Carlin recently got into trouble for a 20-minute riff on the lighter side of suicide. He didn't go into his act but said the MGM Grand Hotel found it "too dark" and fired him over the controversial material. "It was very funny, and I'm proud of it," he added.

When the more mundane topic of politics came up, Carlin usually discussed it in conspiratorial overtones. While describing himself as left of center and someone who would have preferred to see Sen. John F. Kerry elected, he said it all didn't really matter anyway.

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