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High Times Greats: George Carlin

The late George Carlin tinkered with our collective psyches like nobody else.

High Times Greats: George Carlin
George Carlin by Deborah Feingold

Philosopher-comedian George Carlin (1937-2008) began his career in show business in 1956, and by 1960 was headlining Las Vegas and had his first album out. But despite this early success, Carlin’s career didn’t really take off until he fell in love with the irreverence of the counterculture during the late 1960s, when he released Take-Offs and Put-Ons (in 1972) and began to develop trademark routines like “The Hippy Dippy Weatherman” and the classic “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” In all, Carlin released many albums, wrote and performed numerous HBO specials, appeared in several movies and on countless television programs, had his own sitcom, and published five books during his lifetime. Richard Cusick spoke with the dark genius for the February, 1998 issue of High Times, which we’re republishing on the occasion of Carlin’s birthday May 12.

High Times: It’s been my perception—and that of many of your fans—that your work has grown darker over the past few years.

George Carlin: Yeah.

You begin your book, Braindroppings, with the motto, “Fuck Hope.”

Well, I noticed after the 1992 “Jammin’ in New York” show that I found my voice on stage, found my comic voice. I noticed in retrospect that what I probably had done was to stop pretending that I cared about some outcome for this society or this species. I mean, all that other time I had been aware that I was somewhat left of center with my beliefs and thoughts, but that I really didn’t care about specific issues, except that I thought I was supposed to. You know, you’re supposed to care about the environment and you’re supposed to care about injustice. And in the abstract, you do; but in a practical way, fuck it. I mean, what are you going to do about it? There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s meaningless anyway. Lives are meaningless and so is existence.

Have you always felt this way?

I’ve always had some degree of that belief that I think just grew and grew. As you accumulate information and experience, you begin to see that it’s all trap doors and dead ends. I mean, the whole system is rigged against people. If the finest experiment on Earth for democracy is that way, and if everything really is about acquisition of goods—on an individual level or a corporate level—then why get all worked up about these admittedly small solutions? You know, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Well, fine if it makes you feel good. Personally, I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in political action. And when I discovered that, when I discovered that I didn’t care—didn’t care!— I mean, I have compassion on an individual basis as I encounter people, but this abstract caring about the poor people in India, this abstract caring about a planet that is going to do what it wants anyway, is to me absurd and a waste of time and dishonest.

So what I did was slowly withdraw over the years. Before the 1990s I found myself withdrawing from any activity concerning this planet or this species. Now, I find that is a great liberating factor in my work. The fact that I have no emotional stake in anything frees me to really say the things I notice and feel and sense rather than censoring myself along the way because some thoughts don’t seem like they’re in line with the liberal orthodoxy. You know, I probably censored myself for years thinking, “Well, that’s not the way I’m supposed to sound.” Now, the way I feel is the way I sound.

It sounds as if your career has been growing closer to who you are.

That’s right. What I’ve found is that I’m only an entertainer in part. This is also an artistic process. I find that an entertainer is quite content to sit still, and I think an artist always has a little motion, always going somewhere—may not know where it is, but there’s some sort of unnamed destination. There is some pulling, some movement. So I just found myself in that category according to my own analysis.

Has your worldview, which some would find bleak, always been an engine for your comedy? Do you have a dark side which fires the comedic viewpoint?

Since the late ’80s I’ve certainly experienced that to a greater extent, and it’s now something I embrace and foster in myself. Prior to that it was all sort of automatic and instinctive.

You’ve been in show business for 41 years. Is that right?

Yes. I started in radio in 1956.

Shortly after that you began a partnership with Jack Burns and did an act that was antiestablishment, satirical. When was the first time you said to yourself: “Maybe I’ve gone too far,” or “Maybe I shouldn’t say that?”

Never.

Never? It never occurred to you that you might get in trouble by going too far?

No, because getting in trouble wouldn’t have been a motive for withholding something anyway. It would have much more to do with whether or not a thing was going to work on the stage.

After you broke up with Jack Burns, you went in a more mainstream direction, doing a lot of television in the ’60s. Did the fact that you were doing a lot of TV affect your live act, the one you were doing in Vegas?

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You have to understand that during that period I was still following this childhood dream of becoming an actor like Danny Kaye, and even though I was personally and privately way out of step with most of mainstream society in terms of my beliefs, my values and even some of my practices, I had to do this to follow my dream. I hadn’t reexamined that goal in a long time. I never questioned myself until later, as the ’60s wore on and I began to hear the musical artists who were expressing their thoughts and values and ideas through their art. I was not. I was doing a superficial act that would make me safe and cute to people so that they’d put me in the movies.

When did that re-evaluation occur and where did it lead?

The end of the ’60s. There was about a two-year period when I realized I was in the wrong place and entertaining the wrong people with the wrong material, and that I was not being true to myself. I went through a metamorphosis into something more authentic for me, a more authentic stage voice and writing voice.

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That cumulated in September 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, didn’t it?

Is that the year I said, “ass” and got suspended or the year I said “shit” and got fired?

I assume the suspension came first?

Yeah.

How long were you suspended for?

Well, they suspended the engagement I was in at the moment, but the contract had at least one more appearance left, so I came back next year for that appearance and did the short little routine about shit, and they fired me.

You lost quite a bit of change, like $12,500 a week. Did you know when you said “shit” what was going to happen?

Yeah, I was ready for it. You know, what happens is you just notice the change taking a deeper and deeper hold, and eventually there comes a point when you go over the fall. It’s all internal until it becomes external. And there were a few of these incidents like the one in Las Vegas which externalized the whole thing. It made a situation I had to deal with, and the way to deal with it was to go back to the coffeehouses. I had to establish a college-circuit kind of thing, a concert circuit.

Twelve grand a week was huge money back then. Did you feel courageous or stupid?

I just felt that I was following the right path because I was doing what was correct for me. I didn’t weigh-up the money. I mean, I knew I would lose a lot of income, but my wife and I, when we talked about it, we knew that it was important to do what I do best in the way that I did it best, and that meant changing this middle-of-the-road thing I had been doing, and writing more authentically. The only way to do that was to go to the coffeehouses and take the loss. Obviously, at the bottom of all that was the faith that by following my true self I would ultimately be more successful. I knew that would happen.

And it did. You went on to greater success and became one of the best voices of the counterculture. With routines like “The Seven Dirty Words…” you defined the line by stepping over it. That dynamic has continued for the past 25 years—this process of defining the line by stepping past it. It can be argued that this process has gone on to vulgar excess and that the net effect has been to make our culture cruder. In terms of comedy, is there a bottom line which should not be crossed?

No, I don’t think so. I think you can talk about anything if the context is correctly arranged. If you set up the context and you bring the audience along carefully enough with you, you can get them to cross the line with you. What I try to do is talk about things that bother me, and I hope that in doing so I bother other people. At the same time, I have a core audience that I know enjoys hearing me express myself my way. So I get an advantage on both sides. If a certain amount of what I do is repellent to a certain number of people, that confirms for me that I’m doing the correct thing. That I’m saying the things I want to say.

I was divided because I had the real self underneath: the lawbreaker, the anarchist, the person who swims against the tide, the outsider, the loner, all of that guy. He was my private self, and I had this other side that wanted to be liked in order to do all those things I dreamed of as a little boy. I didn’t realize that those things didn’t go together until later. And I’m quite sure that my use of acid and peyote helped me accept what was really going on inside of me instead of what I had imposed on myself.

You weren’t alone in that. You had some problems with drugs as well.

Cocaine. I’ve always noted that the whole purpose of buying cocaine is to run out of it.

You don’t use cocaine any longer?

No, and my history of moving away from drugs is not the kind you hear from most people. Certainly not from celebrities, especially those professionally recovering people. What I’ve noticed in my overuse of cocaine is the period of pleasure versus the period of pain. That is to say that when you first get high on anything, the pleasure is predominant and you don’t pay much price. A little hangover or whatever it might be with another drug. But after a while the ratio begins to change, and there’s far more pain in the deal than pleasure. It just completely goes in another direction. So I think when a person notices that, they’re supposed to do something about it. It’s a matter of intellect to say, “OK, this is stupid. This is, first of all, costing a lot of money and, secondly, this is mostly not much fun anymore.” And that’s when I began to cut down.

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The ending of my experience with cocaine came in a periodic way. I would get high less frequently, I would use smaller amounts, and I would do coke for less periods of time. And that process just kept increasing and increasing until I wasn’t using it at all. I didn’t go on a program anywhere. I didn’t join an organization or detox anywhere. I just slowly tapered off until it was gone. That was also true of my heavy pot use. I just tapered off until there was almost no use at all. And the same thing was true of drinking tons of beer.

Do you still smoke pot?

Occasionally. I like to write without being stoned and then, every now and then—not every time, but not totally infrequently, I like to have a hit or two and then go punch up the writing. I just see different things and hear different things. But it’s nice to be working from the base that I wrote originally and then come to it with a little buzz. I can have a little wine from time to time, I have a hit from time to time, but those are the only things I do.

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How’s your health these days?

Very good. I have a coronary artery disease which is a fairly stable thing. I treat that and take care of that as best I can, but it doesn’t limit me in any way. My energy is astounding, my stamina is terrific. You know, I’m on the road 150 to 200 days a year, so, generally, I’m in excellent health. I merely have a genetic predisposition to coronary artery disease.

Was that condition exacerbated by the cocaine use?

No, they don’t make connections like that. Cocaine affects the electrical. It may have some other effects too. But I have my father’s disease, and long before I got into cocaine there was a sign of it. And I lived a typical American life: smoking, eating, sedentary.

How do you think we handle drug abuse in our society?

First of all, I don’t think drugs are a problem; I think they’re a symptom. As long as Americans are empty, spiritually, emotionally, orally empty, they will need things like the drugs they choose to use. Mankind has wanted to change the way it felt from the beginning anyway. People want to feel different. In this country there are even more reasons to want to feel different, to want to feel better, because this is such a neon sewer. This is such a degrading culture. It forces you to play Beethoven to your child in the uterus so that he will get into a better school and get a better job and make more money so he can take care of you. You know, all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. And so long as Third World peasants are poor they will send us drugs, and as long as we are empty we will ask for this little plant.

The other thing that’s wrong with the way they approach drugs—they call it a “War on Drugs”—is that they’re fighting it one person at a time, eventually expecting that they will arrest all the people they have to arrest. That seems to me to be the theory: First we’ll get this guy, then we’ll get that guy, then we’ll get this other guy. Of course, that’s absurd, but that is actually the way you can define what they’re doing by arresting low-level drug users and dealers. That is obviously the plan: we’ll get them one at a time.

You said that you don’t believe in political action, but as a Californian, do you have any thoughts on Proposition 215?

The marijuana initiative? Well, my politics, even though I don’t practice them or think about them very much, are all less conservative, more involved with what’s good for people rather than what’s good for profit. I’m over there in that corner sympathetically anyway, so I would naturally hope that something like that would win. I was in favor of it, but I didn’t really care either. It was nice that it happened. That was better than losing another one, but it really doesn’t matter in the long run in this country that we do these little piecemeal things, because the system adjusts, always adjusts, to take care of itself. People who own everything know how to relax a little and bend and exhale once in a while, but they’re not going to let it get out of control.

Do you think we’re capable of making a society worth living in?

No.

It’s inherent in the breed?

Yeah. First of all, I think we overrate ourselves in terms of our abilities and capacities. I mean, just because you can build a really swell bridge doesn’t, to my way of thinking, mean that you’re an advanced civilization. I think we made two wrong turns a long time ago: One of them was this belief that there was this invisible being in the sky who watches over us all the time and keeps score and who throws you in a burning pit. I think that’s very limiting, very antihuman. It’s the way they devised for helping to control people because if they can make you believe in an invisible man who’s going to hurt you later, they can make you believe anything! That’s why the first thing they teach children is that God is up there watching you. Because they want you to get used to respecting an authority that you can’t even prove is there, and that way they can get you to do anything they want.

I think another crippling blow to our possibilities as a species, which I think had great potential, is the pursuit of private property. Someone said, and rightfully, that “property is theft.” There’s no way a man can stand and tell me that he owns an apple tree. I just don’t believe you. And so this pursuit of position and money and power, they are all wrapped up into one package I think is crippling, debilitating and limiting. And unfortunately, people get sucked into it and then they’ve got you on the treadmill. You know: “You’ve got to have a good job!” and “You’ve got to have a good education”—which is another word for indoctrination. It’s limiting. We’re never going to rise above these limitations we’ve placed on ourselves.

What about craft? What about art? Don’t these seem to be of enduring value to you?

Well, sure. But I think I said something in the book about all the oils on canvas and all the cantatas don’t really raise us above the venal level. I think there’s a very thin membrane. I think it would take less than a generation to be back to barbarism. Less than a generation.

I’d agree with that.

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And the choirs and the art? That is similar to my feeling about religion: The only good thing about religion is the music. Because nature is filled with balances and opposites, there are always exceptions to the overall rules, whether the overall rules are bleak or otherwise. If you propound a joyous theory of existence, I will find an exception to that. If I propound a bleak theory, someone will find a joyous exception. That’s just nature being nature, I think, and I don’t think it offers a lot of hope. It’s sort of a respite along the way.

Featured photo of George Carlin by Deborah Feingold.

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