George Carlin's Coming of Age

George Carlin is an American artist trying hard to keep growing. Eternity came breathing down his back six months ago
By David A. Demilo

George Carlin is an American artist trying hard to keep growing. Eternity came breathing down his back six months ago in the form of a heart attack. Now, after three nights of sold-out adulation and guffaw at Long Island's Westbury Music Fair, he leans forward from his French Colonial chair in Manhattan's chic Pierre Hotel--he is surrounded by the stuff of decadence--and talks in his familiar streetguy talk, as he must have talked to the neighborhood kids in White Harlem 25 years ago, airing not so much as a hint of malcontent or overindulgence.

With 16 years of professional stand-up comedy behind him and a movie career ahead of him, George Carlin is living testimony to his own potential in the field of "self-expression."

Just the night before the fans at Westbury covered his entrance and exit with crazy screams and beer-throated hysteria, threw him boxes of Mallomars and batches of promising hash brownies--ready approbation that makes Carlin feel that he has ripened, not aged, in the dynamic business of making people laugh.

"I turned 40 just a year ago, and numbers don't always mean things, but they're symbolic, you know? I just feel more whole now, more integrated with myself, less torn apart than I felt in the '60s. I have a lot of myself back."

He doesn't wear the waist-long hair he dragged through those Nixon war upheaval years, and his tie dye shirts are fading in the closet, but Carlin still feels a little bit of the rebel in him. Carlin swore out at the world through his albums when they first started selling (he has now cut six); but in 1978, almost everyone has heard his "Seven Words" and his more innocuous skits on the Johnny Carson show.

"Dated? For me, dated is when the stuff doesn't make people laugh anymore. If you identify the comedy with those times, then it's dated for you. But people still think 'Filthy Words' is funny.

"But frankly, I feel dated because I've continued to do that material for so long that I feel a bit of a prisoner."

At this point in his life, Carlin must face the problem of growth. For an artist to continue art, he must develop ceaselessly and elude decadence. But as he gets older and most of his self-expression becomes already expressed, Carlin's importance as a teller of irony pales. He kicks inadvertently at the posh golden carpeting under his feet at the Pierre.

"I'm still the kid who quit school, I'm still the kid who ran away from home three times, I still left the Air Force early 'cause we didn't get along, and I still had all of these problems adjusting to the way they had laid it out. So when I finally enacted these rebellious postures publicly and was applauded for it, the cycle was completed and I could turn around and shake hands with myself and proceed to my adulthood."

George Carlin's adulthood forces him to engage in some introspection--sorting out his show material (he now leaves only 12 minutes at the end of each show for old material) and some attempts at film. The road to his adulthood, often fraught with rebellion and inner turmoil, mothered the self-expression and irony audiences have come to love Carlin for. Carlin has always been able to articulate, and to parody the sort of conflicts that have become more and more central to youth of America since the '60s: conflicts about sex and decadence and love and identity.

"I had what you'd call a delayed or extended adolescence, in that I did not act out these rebellious adolescent postures I had inside of me until 1970. They were symbols to me but they were running parallel to my creative sense, I wasn't being in any way untruthful to myself so I was able to allow myself to accept the trappings of that role--things I wanted--I wanted my symbols to make me different. That's what those clothes and that hair was all about then. It was a further way of separating yourself from your parents--or your metaphorical parents--and in my case my metaphorical parent was society.

In 1962 Carlin was a suit-and-tie stand up comedian with straight punch-line jokes playing "straight middle-class saloon jobs." That was the year he split up with partner Jack Burns and became a solo act; since then his comedy has gradually changed. "By '69 I had a beard and an open collar and a vest," he says. "I had already become half of the person I was going to be."

But it wasn't until 1970 and 1971 that Carlin's art came to be known as devoutly counterculture, rebellious, and at times irreverent.

"I was only rally happy when I quit the whole fuckin' night club thing and the Vegas thing came down and I left, and I said to Brenda, I'm going to go to a couple of coffee houses and see if I'm right about where my head is really at. So I decided to check out the campuses. I had to hear myself up there, and the first night I did, I knew I was right.

"I was just comfortable with street people," he says. "Musicians, college kids, and everyone who made a point of identifying with these clothes and symbols--and I don't apologize for that."

So Carlin was never a teenager on stage until 1970, and he had lots of repressed conflicts to tell about. Carlin grew up in Morningside Heights in New York City during the repressive '50s. His was a working class Irish-Catholic neighborhood ("We were a National League neighborhood," he adds), and Carlin's archetypal second-generation Irish street-guy was roaming the trashy streets at night mad, contriving ways to defy whoever crossed his path. Unlike many of his friends, Carlin went to a "progressive Catholic school" and was spared such stimuli as corporal punishment and uniforms. He looks back on his on his "class clown" days and sees ironies that were never apparent to him at that age.

"We used to play at Columbia University (right next-door to Carlin's neighborhood). We could go anywhere in Columbia in the underground passageways from 116th St. to 121st. We had been in all the classrooms and laboratories, we had vandalized and stolen, we had also gone there with some respect sometimes, and watched classes and slide presentations."

Carlin clearly believes his contact with Columbia's students and bohemians during the smoldering '50 shaped both his humor and intellect. "There was all kinds of ruffian elements in our neighborhood, and then we had the college kids, intellectuals...'faggots'. I can't believe that whole spirit of erudition just passed through our existence. I'm sure it was a force on our lives--it can be measured some day when we have the right instrument."

His parents and grandparents were fascinated with words and poetics, and fostered that same affinity in their family. "I'm sure there's cellular truth to this, too," Carlin interjects, "but my mother's father was an original New York cop, and he had written out long-hand all of Shakespeare's written works--he quizzed my mother at the dinner table. And my mother was always careful to let us know how we could free ourselves through expression."

Carlins's mother bought him a tape recorder when he was in the eighth grade and he started recording short comical skits--"news, sports, all the stuff that established my comedy"--and visions of radio and music and discjockey slick distracted Carlin from his studies. He eventually quit school.

"Junior high was a pain in the ass. They had me doing solid geometry, or algebra, and third-year Latin was not pleasurable. See, I had no father. My father died when I was young so I had no iron discipline as a teenager, and when I became a teenager, my mother became a pushover.

"You know, I was getting taller than her, and one day I let her know, 'Hey Ma I'm quitting school,' and oh boy what trouble... I wanted to do something different than that goddam algebra."

Carlin always enjoyed breaking rules, crossing race and ethnic lines, mimicking Blacks and Italians and Jews. He's listed his "Seven Words" in auditoriums for ears all over America, and has completed a very astute study of the unspoken street culture that parents try desperately to shelter their kids from. Carlin sees his comedy and rebellion as his self-expression, his way of freeing himself from his emotions and feelings--a liberation. It started, he says, "when I was a kid and I ran away from home and told all the institutions to go and fuck themselves. I was smoking pot from the time I was 13, in 1950, when pot was considered to be a real evil, in the same class as heroin."

And for every "parental" restraint he defiled, Carlin found he was opening up his mind to the world, understanding other perspectives on life. Drugs had opened his "doors of perception," he says, and "they had an influence I wouldn't deny.

"Our little Irish group was discovering this hash, and we were into very sophisticated strings of long, comic invention because we were into this grass. And because our environment didn't sanction it, we were totally isolated with our experience and it was even more exciting creatively than it is now."

The stuff of George Carlin's comedy is words. He makes them sound important as he says them, but more importantly, his comedy reveals words for what they are--artificial symbols for items and concepts that exist in reality. Like fantasies, words are creations of the human mind; if there were no human minds, there would be no words.

With his stark, honest irony, Carlin has shown countless audiences how silly and obsolete America's taboos and social inventions really are, especially in the age of the city.. "Cultures have to have some things they consider unthinkable, and in ancient times, health or survival reasons entered this," he says. But it would be really nice to channel some of the things going on today that are really unspeakable--like severe deprivation--and make them the focus of our attention."

So much for the critics who say Carlin's comedy is kid stuff. Despite living in the luminous shadow of Lenny Bruce, pioneer of modern irony and consciousness, Carlin has steadily dug out his niche as a performing artist.

"Lenny was more of a crusader, I'm in a safer era for what I'm doing as well. Lenny was making a point for its own sake, and his humor was the vehicle for that. I am a humorist, and this exploration of words is my vehicle for arriving at my irony.

"Lenny ideally should have peaked intellectually and physically during 1967. Lenny was right for my period of growing up, and he influenced a lot of people, including myself. I loved the candor. I loved the facility for laying it out just as he saw it. I think art requires honesty and a few risks."

George Carlin has never tried to change the world; he just likes to run up on that stage and gesticulate and sweat and express, and the gales of laughter--sometimes even hysterical and mad--make him feel good. "My purpose is self-expression, and when they applaud or laugh, it's their way of saying, 'Hey man, we like your self-expression," he says.

"The rest is gravy. If someone comes up to you and says that your irony made them change their values in life--well, that's a tremendous, rare feeling."

Unwittingly summarizing his own situation, Carlin talks about his teenage drug experience: "The trouble with drugs is that they are self-limiting. They open certain doors of perception which you already have--the drug doesn't add anything which isn't already there. Even with LSD and mescaline, you reach a point where it just doesn't do as much for you anymore."

But words, as defined entities, are self-limiting; now Carlin has come to a plateau in his life where new and fresh words and ironies are getting harder to find. He is literally fighting to free himself from his own words, and he has chosen film as his surely needed exit.

Carlin harbors no intentions of decaying, of joining the Show Biz Kids in Hollywood by the swimming pool and the shapely bods. The wiry Irish class clown and streetcorner toker from White Harlem still enjoys visiting his mother in the old neighborhood, and seems to gain perspective on his life as he ages. Soon his funny beard will turn gray--and age and eternity aside, it is painful to imagine that Goerge Carlin will become a prisoner of his own words.

"Repression is always around the corner in America, it's always in the air, but I feel free..." He catches his words just as they leave his mouth and with the sense of humor and perspective that may be his saving grace, adds, "Well, you know what they say--'We are made to feel free by excercising a series of meaningless choices." He sighs. "They keep giving me these meaningless choices and I seem to be thriving.