I was lucky enough to know George Carlin who passed away ten years ago last week. We were phone buddies for awhile. It started when I interviewed him for a little magazine about the 25th Anniversary of his Supreme Court obscenity trial, and on the other end of the line I was surprised to find not the funniest man in the world – which he most certainly was – but a serious, thoughtful artist who looked at the world with a great deal of nuance and with no small regret. We had similar backgrounds and world views – I think, that’s true – so we kept talking after the interview was through. Some of those conversations were recorded; most, to my eternal regret, were not.
Lately, I find myself wondering what George would say about this seemingly sudden death spiral of civilized norms. He saw it coming of course, clearer than most of us. That’ s the correlation between comedy and tears. George would hate the word “prophetic” but he certainly was prescient, as serious as the heart attack that killed him and forever cool as fuck:
RC: Your work has grown darker over the years.
RC; You begin your book Braindoppings with “Fuck Hope.”
GC: Well, I think I noticed a little after the 1992 Jammin’ In New York show that I found my voice onstage, my comic voice. I noticed in retrospect that, at the time, what I probably had done was to stop pretending that I cared about some outcome for this society and this species. I mean, all that 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 was supposed to. You know, you’re supposed to care about the environment and you’re supposed to care about injustice; and in an abstract way, 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.
RC: Have you always felt this way?
GC: I’ve always had some degree of that and it just grew and grew… The whole system is rigged against people. So if the finest experiment on Earth for democracy is that way, and if everything is really about an acquisition of goods, — on an individual level or on 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, 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’s 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. I found myself withdrawing from any activity concerning this planet and 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 say the things I notice and feel and sense rather than censoring myself along the way. Now, the way I sound is the way I feel.
RC: It sounds as if the over-arching theme of your career has been to continually grow closer to who you are.
GC: Yeah. That’s right.
RC: How’s your health these days?
GC: 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. I’m in excellent health. I merely have a genetic predisposition to coronary artery disease. I have my father’s disease.
RC: So, do you think we’re capable of making a society worth living in?
RC: It’s inherent in the breed?
GC: 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 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 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 so, 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 that 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 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.
RC: What about craft? What about art? Aren’t these things of inherent value?
GC: Well, sure. But all the oils on canvas and all the cantatas don’t really raise us above the venal. 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. 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.