In just over five decades in show business, George Carlin has graduated from comedy’s troublemaking Class Clown (the title of his 1972 Grammy-winning album), to one of its most respected deans, influencing scores of rising comics and quite a few established ones.
His 14th HBO special, “It’s Bad for Ya” (which can be seen in rotation on the cable channel), proves that despite having turned 70 last May, Carlin is every bit as sharp (and some might add “dangerous”) as ever. His material continues to prove cyclically relevant, whether it’s his classic “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine from the early `70s (just ask the FCC how relevant that piece remains) to his more pointed words on wars and the folks who get us into them.
You just celebrated your 50th year in the business. Do milestones mean anything to you, or is it just another year?
We kinda have a certain reverence for these round numbers in our life because they’re easy to mark, but yeah, it’s especially big because, it’s, um, I don’t know, I guess `cause it’s half a hundred. (He laughs.) That seems like a good enough reason for me.
Your humor has inspired a number of talented and successful comics, including folks like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black and Penn Jillette. Does that encourage you to keep up the good fight?
If you think about the people in particular that you just mentioned, they all had rather significant personalities already. They’re formidable people. I was inspired by people like Danny Kaye and Spike Jones when I was a kid. I thought that was a great thing to do. So when people tell you the same thing about yourself, it’s kind of nice to know that you made a little mark in someone’s life, and if they go on with it and do something more with it, that you were a part of it.
Your new show touches on some hot-button topics, from religion to patriotism to death. Do you like to keep your audience on edge?
I like figuring out - and it’s not hard to figure out - which things make people a little uneasy when you talk about them, and I like to get into those things. But I like to find the way in through the side door. I don’t like to be predictable. ... You know what’s great? This is oratory. I get to say pretty much whatever I want about things and don’t have to face the opposition because it’s rhetoric. It’s not a science course. I don’t have to account for facts. As long as I’m generally right, I’m OK. I don’t mean right as in correct, I mean as long as I’m accurate, I’m OK.
Do you enjoy panel shows like “Real Time With Bill Maher,” where you have a chance to verbally spar with folks who might have a different opinion from yours?
Usually when you’re on with a person like an Ann Coulter or someone like that - you can’t really have a reasoned exchange with a zealot because they speak in slogans and sound bites and one-liners. They cut you off and they don’t let you finish, so you never get to develop an idea. A lot of things that are open to debate require a little bit of nuance and structure, to go from A to B to C to D, and they kind of don’t play that way. They throw sand.
You tend to avoid specific references to any particular administration, leveling most of your criticism at “the government.” But have you found this administration to be ripe for comedic potential?
It would be, sure. But the problem is that those things are frozen in time and there’s a shelf life that I don’t like. They’re perishable. I like things that will hold up over a long period of time and still have a timely feel to them. There’s a lot of things you can talk about that will be the same topic 10 years from now even though the particulars have changed. When it comes to a couple of lines about Bush in particular in this show, those are lines that will also stand up because they’re not about specific things in time, they’re about him. I was really happy when I found the line “I don’t even capitalize his name when I type it anymore.” That felt so satisfying. That’s really one of those lines that you live for and when they happen, you’re just grateful.
How about the current presidential race?
I enjoy it as a blood sport. ... It’s just a lot of fun and it’s great theater, you know, because there’s just so much at stake. I would probably prefer, if I were to (be) pressed - waterboarded - that another term of more or less Bush III, that that wouldn’t happen. I’m a lefty, I’m left of center, but I don’t know that anybody’s gonna have any solutions. I have a rooting interest, but it’s mild. I just like to watch the whole thing play out, the whole end of civilization.
That’s something that plays into your show as well. You play the role of the disconnected observer and not a participant.
I’m just here for the show. They say if you scratch a cynic, you find a disappointed idealist, and I’d probably cop to that. But it’s more fun, it’s more satisfying, and - artistically, from the standpoint of writing and having a point of view when you write - it’s much easier if you’re detached emotionally from the whole drama and you really don’t have a horse in the race. `Cause if you’re rooting for a certain outcome, it kinda shows. And I just want a good show. I just want a good story that’s fun to talk about, and that’s what humans provide. They never let you down.