If, as George Carlin's Hippy Dippy Weatherman would say, the forecast for tonight is 100 percent darkness, there's a similar forecast for his material.
If, as George Carlin’s Hippy Dippy Weatherman would say, the forecast for tonight is 100 percent darkness, there’s a similar forecast for his material.
Following his HBO specials, “Life is Worth Losing,” “Complaints and Grievances” and “You Are All Diseased,” the stand-up comedy legend and fulminating truth-teller will hone material for his upcoming show, blithely titled “The Parade of Useless Bull(expletive),” Sept. 28 at Benaroya Hall. The same week sees the release of the mammoth 14-DVD box set, “All My Stuff” (MPI, $189.98), featuring his dozen HBO specials and illuminating interviews.
I spoke with the one-time “Class Clown” about the hopeless outlook for humanity, addiction, and of course the Seven Dirty Words.
Q: You have a seething contempt for organized religion and the government, as well as a love for natural disasters that thin the herd. I’m guessing your reception is different in Seattle than, say, Louisiana.
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A: Well, yes. But I would not be afraid to do it in Louisiana, the thing about natural disasters. But the chance hasn’t come up yet. I had a thing in the last HBO show about how much I loved the spring floods in the East and the Midwest, and at the time I was developing the stuff in that show I was playing plenty of dates in those areas. So I just like to wade in and let ’em hear my thoughts, because it’s just more exciting that way. It’s more of an artist’s endeavor than just being an entertainer.
Q: You turned 70 recently, and I like the way you’re aging. By that I don’t mean that I’m into older dudes —
Q: — but over the years, it’s clear that you got more misanthropic at the same time your material got more depth and substance. Do you think the two go hand in hand?
A: Well sure. It would seem to me that if you do something for a long period of time, like half a lifetime, you should get better at it. If it’s art, it should mature. I made this reference in the first answer: entertainers and artists — although I am a little of each — are not the same. Entertainers are fairly static. An artist is generally in motion, on some sort of a journey, if you’ll pardon the expression, some sort of a path to something that they can’t really define. So they’re never really satisfied. They’re always looking for the next thing inside themselves or the next thing outside to spark them. And I think the artist in me woke up about halfway through the game and said, Oh, this is what we’re doing. It’s not just showing up and pleasing people, it’s getting some stuff out of your head and off your chest, out of your heart, whatever you want to call it — and that’s where the finding of my new voice came in around 1990.
Q: And it ain’t just you getting crankier?
A: What is there not to be critical of in the world we’re living in — the world we’ve designed for ourselves, you know? Cranky is normally a pejorative term, but I take it gladly.
Q: What’s your theme for this show?
A: Well there’s a theme kind of trying to be born. It’s six months away before I have to do it for HBO. But the theme has a little bit to do with the bull(expletive) that we accept, that’s foisted on us, that we can’t avoid. It’s the ambient bull(expletive) of our culture and our belief systems and our society. It’s just more of the same kind of targets but with different approaches, different ways of getting into what’s essentially the biggest problem is that most everything we’re told is full of (expletive).
Q: What’s your normal walking-around level of anger?
A: None at all. The thing that (people) get wrong about me the most is this anger bull(expletive). This is a complete misnomer for what they’re seeing. First of all, they’ve named it wrong. And secondly, it happens not to be true on its face. I do not live an angry life. I don’t know that anyone who’s ever been with me for five minutes or five years has ever seen me lose my temper. I don’t have resentment. I don’t hold grudges. I forgive easily. And I am very even-handed when it comes to my treatment of the world.
What they see in the work is an exaggerated form of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, disappointment and sadness. Those things are theatricalized into something that seems like anger. There’s another element that heightens it even more: the need to be in an auditorium and to project these feelings so that they register. So it comes across as anger but I don’t experience it that way.
Q: You’ve been up front about smoking weed since you were a teenager, using coke for a long time — you’ve got a great story about walking into Johnny Carson’s office all coked up. But you only recently went to rehab, and it seems like all the celebrities filing in and out of there now could learn something from the no-nonsense way you did that.
A: Well, thank you for that. There are two separate things at work here. One of them was my old habit of cocaine, which was definitely a threat to all the things that we could imagine. I had to put that aside, and I did that without going to rehab back in the 1980s by simply cutting down the amount I used, cutting down the frequency, cutting down how often I went out on a run. And the result was I just tapered off it because it was not delivering the goods anymore. It wasn’t giving me that virgin high, that great feeling that it can give you in the blush of the beginning of the habit. It had gotten to where just one or two lines of coke would put me immediately into the depressed state that usually follows everything. So I thought, Well this is stupid. Here I am doing something illegal that costs a lot of money and it’s not working. So I just stopped. Slowly, but I stopped over a period of six or eight months.
The other thing, the later time I went into rehab was about wine and Vicodin. And the Vicodin was very minimal. The wine wasn’t even that great a trip. But I know the arithmetic of addiction and I know that it just increases. So I decided to blow the whistle on myself.
Q: Did it stick?
A: Oh yeah, sure. I’m two years, eight months now.
Q: You went to jail with Lenny Bruce. What was that like?
A: We were in different cells and it was rather forgettable.
Q: I’ve been thinking about him since the FCC crackdown and wondering why more people haven’t been sticking up for the First Amendment. What in light of all this is truly obscene to you, and what’s off-limits for you?
A: Nothing’s off-limits if it’s properly couched and properly contextualized. You have to have context. You can’t just blurt out “Baby rape is good.” You have to talk about baby rape in some way that you open the door to them understanding what you’re expecting of them. So you don’t just hit them with a hammer that’s not necessary.
And the reason people don’t stick up for the First Amendment is because Americans have been bought — cheaply, with gizmos and toys. Everybody has a cellphone that’ll … make pancakes for him. And so nobody questions things anymore. It’s a very passive society. And that’s not exactly done by accident. I’m sure that over the course of time those people who have like agendas — those people with converging interests — People always say, Ah, you’re a conspiracy theorist. And I say, Well, what’s wrong with a conspiracy? Do you honestly believe that important people with great power do not occasionally talk to each other and make mutual plans about certain outcomes, including the death of a person perhaps that’s in their way? Of course it’s true, and I think that the commoditization of this country and the toys and the gizmos and (expletive) is all — even if it’s done passively — is done knowing that it’ll keep us occupied and keep our minds off the true rape that’s taking place.
Q: The Seven Dirty Words secured your role in legal history. Do you ever get tired of people asking you to reel them off kind of like it’s a “Sunshine Boys” routine?
A: Ha. It happens occasionally, and no, I don’t really mind it, no.
Q: Then will you do it for me?
A: (He recites them off fluidly.)
Read more of Mark Rahner’s interview with George Carlin.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259