Editor's note: This interview with George Carlin, who passed away in June, was conducted in February 2008.
The effect that George Carlin has had on modern comedy over the past half century is almost immeasurable. After hitting the radio airwaves in the late '50s, Carlin became a suit-adorned television sensation in the '60s before shedding the spiffy duds and growing out his hair to embrace his counterculture side a decade later, all without losing any of his signature wit.
Subsequent decades have seen slight shifts in his style, as he dialed back his political bite in the '80s, only to bring it back in the '90s. But his success has never waned. While Carlin is still going strong -- his next HBO special premieres in March -- those he's influenced, including Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Lewis Black and Dennis Miller, have helped define and influence modern political comedy in their own right. Now, to celebrate his 50th anniversary in show business, Carlin has released "George Carlin: All My Stuff," a 14-DVD boxed set featuring all his HBO concerts from 1977 to 2005, as well as two in-depth interview discs with the comedian.
Bankrate spoke to Carlin about the boxed set, his comedic style and influences, and some of the highlights of his career.
Bankrate: What prompted you to do this boxed set now?
George Carlin: We wanted to observe the 50th anniversary of my career in show business. It was clear that it would be a good idea to center it around these HBO shows, which have become my central mass identity.
Bankrate: When you watch all these specials, how do you see the evolution of your comedic style?
George Carlin: I don't need to see the HBO shows to understand the slow changes over time. There are two things going on in my career. I'm an entertainer, there's no question, that's my job, but there's an artist behind it. It's art and entertainment at the same time, because a writer is essentially an artist who creates his own observations and feelings and notions, his attitudes and points of view. I used to describe myself as a comedian who wrote his own material, because I was always very proud of that. A lot of comedians don't. But somewhere along the way, in the early 1990s, I noticed that I was really a writer who performs his own material. It was a critical thing for me to understand about myself, because it gave me more power as a writer. (My work) has taken on more of an essay form.
Bankrate: You grew up in Harlem. How did this affect your comedic sensibility?
George Carlin: It affected me as a person a great deal because I grew up in a little Irish enclave, but was surrounded by, and mingled with, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and blacks. It made me more open to ideas and influences than I might have been if I was from an all-Irish neighborhood, and insulated in an all Irish-American experience.
I also went to a school that was very different. Most people talk about their Catholic grammar school experience with nuns as being very rigidly disciplined, like discipline mills. The school I went to was a revolutionary school, a progressive Catholic grammar school that was influenced by the teachings at Columbia University, right across the street from us at Teachers College. We had no corporal punishment, there was no hitting kids, no report cards, no grades, and boys and girls were together in the same classroom. It was very, very progressive for its time, and it opened me up and made me see that I could question authority.