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Carlin's got his act together, on stage and off

Comedian George CarlinCompared to George Carlin, Chicken Little was an optimist. If Carlin met a man wearing rose-colored glasses, he'd rip them from the man's face, crack them in half and fling them across the room.

The point, in case you missed it, is that Carlin can be a bit of a pessimist.

According to Carlin, who by his own admission roots for society to destroy itself, our demise has not only begun, but is almost complete. By his thinking, humanity has plunged itself into the abyss of eternal damnation, destroyed its environment, allowed itself to be led astray by "the traders and high priests" (read: business and religion), mired itself in senseless belief systems and unworkable governmental and religious structures, and blinded itself with piety and greed and nonsense to the point where its eyes see all but its own enveloping free fall.

If George Carlin wasn't hysterically funny, he'd be a real bummer at parties.

It wasn't always this way. In the '60s, Carlin was a short-haired, clean-shaven, suit-and-tie-wearing crowd pleaser who appeared regularly on such conventional television programs as the Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and even the Kraft Summer Music Hall with John Davidson. Sometime between 1969 and 1971, he changed. He grew his hair and beard, ditched the suits for more-casual hippie attire, took drugs, began swearing more and slowly addressed topics of greater importance, including religion and authority. In the process, he became not only more insightful, but much funnier.

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Since then, Carlin has seen great success, damaging drug use, controversy (his "Filthy Words" routine, which contained the infamous "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," ignited a lawsuit between a radio station and the FCC that eventually went to the Supreme Court), numerous Grammy Awards, two decades of heavy debt and three heart attacks.

Now, Carlin is as sharp as ever -- part comedian, part philosopher and the spokesman for all who refuse to abandon logic in the face of insipid and uninspiring societal conventions.

Carlin spoke with Bankrate.com about some of the financial aspects of his career, including living with constricting debt, the incredible productivity of George Carlin Inc. and his controversial decision, considering his strong anti-corporate views, to serve as a spokesman for MCI.

Bankrate.com: You surprised some people when you started doing ads for long-distance service. Considering your attitude toward business, was it perceived as hypocritical?

GEORGE CARLIN: I made an album in Las Vegas in the '60s, and a hippie friend said to me, "Man, you sold out." So I said, "wait a minute, what is that over there?" And he said, "It's a phone, man." I said, "That's Ma Bell. You're cooperating with them. You have one of their implements in your home. You sold out." By that I mean that this thing is on a scale. The alternative, the real pure path, is to live in the woods, make your own clothing, and perhaps eat small game, if you can catch it. You have to choose how much you're willing to put up with for your purposes. So, I am a reluctant participant in the commercial world because that's what they have here, that's the way they keep score, and I'm not about to go live in the woods. If this were a culture where everything was free, I would do this for free. I would go from campfire to campfire, dragging my stone tablet of jokes around for people to see in exchange for pieces of meat. It would be a nicer system. But that's not the way it is.

That being said ... In the early '80s I discovered that I had made bad business decisions during the last half of the '70s and was deeply in debt to the IRS. It was still 70 percent tax time. I was behind. The penalties and interest were burying me, and I had no career to speak of. So a friend of mine, a promoter, became my manager, and we began to dig out of this, and it's taken me 20 years. When the people from 10-10-220 came to me, I said, 'Well, it's a phone service, it's not a poison gas, it's not gasoline, let me listen to these people.' They gave me full creative control over the imagery and the content, and they wanted to use me doing my stand-up. So I made what I consider a compromise, or an adjustment. That's my personal euphemism for it -- we all make adjustments to our value system according to our needs and what we can tolerate.

B: Where do you make most of your money -- recordings, concerts or ads?

GC: I do about 80 concerts a year in theaters and concert halls, 2,000- or 2,500-seaters, and we promote them ourselves, we keep the bulk of the money. I also do 13 weeks in Las Vegas completely on my own terms. We four-wall those, which means we rent the place from the hotel, we take all the risk and we keep about 95 percent of the ticket money. So Vegas and the road are my two prime sources of income.

I also have a lot of passive income -- books, HBO specials, CDs, a box set, videos. This is probably the most productive I've ever been in terms of my output, earnings and creativity. It's just an astonishing period in my life.

B: At this point, how much are you bringing in a year?

GC: About two and a half million a year.

B: Are you heavily invested in the stock market?

GC: Not heavily, no. Just around the edges. I have a little bit of real estate, and I'm beginning to accumulate some liquidity. I'm waiting for some more bottoms to show up on the indexes. I'm waiting to feel that out and see where everything goes in the next six to eight months.

B: Are there any stocks or investments that have done particularly well for you?

GC: No, because I only got out of bad debt recently.

B: Would you own a tobacco stock?

GC: No, I don't think I would do that. There's hardly any pure stock anymore given the kind of diversity these corporations have, but Philip Morris, probably not. I like the tech stuff, and they're having their problems now, that whole thing is redefining itself, I guess. I don't mind some of the others in the Dow and blue chip categories, and the old economy stocks.

B: Does your anti-corporate perspective affect what stocks you will or won't buy?

GC: Not really, no. I don't think it should, because I'm really outside of that. The amount of money that I would be putting there is minuscule within their own revenue flow. This is the system, and part of my protecting of myself. There's liquidity, there's real estate. I'm not conversant enough to reel them off, but there are all these places to put your money to protect yourself. I just look at it as one more strategy for coping with the real world.

-- Posted: March 16, 2001

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