Fame & Fortune: George Carlin

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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.

Bankrate: Where did you start doing stand-up comedy?

George Carlin: I started with my partner Jack Burns in 1960 out in Hollywood, at a coffee house. We had a good two-year run, including doing “The Tonight Show with Jack Paar.” But as a soloist (later on), I couldn’t afford to be traveling to Indianapolis to do a nightclub there for a week, with all the money I earned spent on living and travel expenses and agent and manager’s fees. I ended up breaking even. So I said, if I’m just gonna break even, I might as well stay in New York and go to these hootenannies.

Comedy clubs now have open mic nights, but it was hootenannies then because it was the folk and post-folk era, the hippie movement. Rock ‘n’ roll was just starting to go electric, and things were changing. So I decided to go to the hootenannies and try to be discovered by the talk shows, and that’s what happened.

Bankrate: Who else performed with you there?

George Carlin: I didn’t hang out much. I was married and had a little baby uptown, so I hurried back uptown (after gigs,) but I remember Cass Elliott being over in that bar we hung out in, and Richard Pryor. Down at the Cafe Au Go Go, Richard and I would go down and work there alternate nights or weeks. Richard got his Merv Griffin interview one week, and about two weeks later they gave him a show date, and before he did his show date, I had my interview. I was always one step behind Richard, but we emerged at the same time out of the same club in the Village, and then on to The Merv Griffin Show.

Bankrate: Did you and Richard ever work in the club at the same time?

George Carlin: I think we went up on stage a couple of times together to kind of goof off, but frankly, I don’t remember much of it. We probably did some ad-libbing.

Bankrate: When you made the transition from clean comic to hippie comic, where did you first get up as the “new” George Carlin?

George Carlin: This thing was not overnight. I didn’t go away to the mountain and come back and say I’m different, like Bobby Darin did. I went through a two-year change in front of everybody, doing TV all the time, growing my hair longer and longer and growing my beard, and letting my code of dress become more casual.

The material also began to change a little bit, as much as it could on TV, which was very little. During this period, which was ’70 and ’71, I did the Steve Allen show; Della Reece had a five-day-a-week show; and Virginia Graham had the same thing. I did those three shows very frequently, and talked about these changes I was going through and how I didn’t belong in nightclubs with mainstream audiences. I belonged where people wanted to hear different points of view, and wanted to hear stuff that had political or social overtones.

The first time I ever had a job like that was at Santa Monica City College. Mort Sahl was supposed to be on the bill with Spirit, the rock band, and Mort had to cancel. So I took his place, and I got a standing ovation from the college students. There was no looking back from that day on.

(In some quarters) there was this feeling that, well, he’s just grown his hair and he’s trying to cash in on the hippie thing. I had to prove that wasn’t the case, so I went out for free for a while in coffeehouses, and they could see it was genuine, and things began to change. It was a wonderful example of what happens in this country, that people can reinvent themselves and discover new parts of themselves, and make those things a part of their lives.

Bankrate: Knowing what your material was like in the early days, it’s amazing that you played Carnegie Hall in 1972. Were people shocked by that at all?

George Carlin: I don’t think so. Once I established what I was doing and stayed in venues where they knew what to expect, such as colleges and coffeehouses, then I was fine. I started to build my own audience. The Carnegie Hall show was a result of my having started my recording career, so people knew who I was, and knew what they were getting.

Bankrate: Your 1992 HBO special, “Jammin’ in New York,” reinvigorated your career. How exactly did that special affect you at the time?

George Carlin: I think it was largely internal for me. I had been rolling right along doing an HBO show every two years, I was in gear and everything was fine, but what this did for me internally was this thing I referred to before. These were essays, these weren’t comedy routines. So the show’s popularity, especially with other well-known comedians, was a big booster to my confidence and sense of myself, my sense of the art growing in me.

Stand-up comedy is art, especially when you create it yourself and put it out there on your own terms. So that moment in my life really lifted me and pushed me to dare to do some better things in my career.

Bankrate: You’ve talked about your father being a great ad salesman. How great was he?

George Carlin: My father, Patrick Carlin, was the national advertising manager of The New York Sun, and he also sold space for The New York Post back when it was a broadsheet. In the 1930s, for three years, he was the leading ad salesman in the United States by actual lineage count. Ben Duffy, who was the head of BBDO (advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn) at the time, was the best man for my mother and father when they got married, and he used to say that no matter how carefully he had planned his media buys for the entire year, he knew they would change when Pat Carlin walked in the room. My father was just highly respected, but unfortunately he couldn’t handle his drinking, and that unwound him.

Bankrate: After the boxed set, what’s the next big project for you?

George Carlin: HBO is my next thing. I’m doing another HBO show on March 1 in Santa Rosa, Calif. called, “It’s Bad for Ya.” So I have to pay all my attention to working on this material. I work about 80 or 90 shows a year, and every two or three years I do an HBO show.

Larry Getlen is a freelance writer in New York.