by Sam Merrill
Playboy: Back in the early Sixties, when you were still a disc jockey and just beginning to do comedy in small clubs, Lenny Bruce supposedly selected you as his heir.
Carlin: Apparently, Lenny told that to a lot of people. But he never said it to me and I didn’t hear it until years later. Which is probably fortunate. It’s difficult enough for a young person to put his soul on the line in front of a lot of drunken people without having that hanging over his head, too.
Playboy: Because of what Bruce said about you, are you now overly sensitive about being compared to him?
Carlin: Yes, and those comparisons are unfair to both of us. Look, I was a fan of Lenny’s. He made me laugh, sure, but more often he made me say, “Fuckin’ A; why didn’t I think of that?” He opened up channels in my head. His genius was the unique ability to investigate hypocrisy and expose social inequities in a street rap that was really a form of poetry. I believe myself to be a worthwhile and inventive performer in my own right. But I’m not in a league with Lenny, certainly not in terms of social commentary. So when people give me this bullshit, “Well, I guess you’re sort of…uh…imitating Lenny Bruce,” I just say, “Oh, fuck. I don’t want to hear it.” I want to be known for what I do best.
Playboy: Nevertheless, throughout the early to mid-Seventies, with a five-year run of albums and packed auditoriums for an act that viciously ridiculed every nook and cranny of “the establishment,” you really did seem to be fulfilling Lenny’s prophecy. Then it stopped abruptly about five years ago. No more albums; no more college tours. Why?
Carlin: I’ve just now completed a five-year period that can perhaps best be called a breathing spell. A time of getting my health back and gathering my strength. That time also included incredible cocaine abuse, a heart attack and my wife’s recovery from both alcoholism and cocaine abuse.
Playboy: It’s comforting to hear you talk about that breathing spell in the past tense.
Carlin: My wife, Brenda, and I are both clean and sober now. I’ve been doing a lot of writing. By the time this interview appears, my first album in seven years will be out. I’m also working on a series of Home Box Office specials, a book and a motion picture. It’s the American view that everything has to keep climbing: productivity, profits, even comedy. No time for reflection. No time to contract before another expansion. No time to grow up. No time to fuck up. No time to learn from your mistakes. But that notion goes against nature, which is cyclical. And I hope I’m now beginning a new cycle of energy and creativity. If so, it’ll really be my third career. The first was as a straight comic in the Sixties. The second was as a counterculture performer in the Seventies. The third will be…well, that’s for others to judge.
Playboy: When and how did you get into drugs?
Carlin: In my neighborhood—West 121st Street in New York, “white Harlem”—there were only two drugs: smack and marijuana. By the time I was 13, some friends and I were using marijuana fairly regularly. The Reefer Madness myth was still very strong then, but I’d been into jazz and those lyrics included so many casual references to pot that it was completely demystified for me. Heroin, forget it. In my neighborhood, I could see what heroin did firsthand and I was definitely afraid of that number.
Playboy: How do you define fairly regular marijuana use?
Carlin: Oh, I was a stonehead for 30 years. I’d wake up in the morning and if I couldn’t decide whether I wanted a joint or not, I’d smoke a joint to figure it out. And I stayed high all day long. When people asked me, “Do you get high to go onstage?” I could never understand the question. I mean, I’d been high since eight that morning. Going onstage had nothing to do with it.
Playboy: Are you still a stonehead?
Carlin: To my surprise, my marijuana use has been tapering off steadily. As we speak, I haven’t had a joint in two months.
Playboy: You imply that this has been an unplanned withdrawal.
Carlin: Completely. The enjoyment has been diminishing. Now, there’s no question that it’s sort of fun to get high. Let’s say I had a little baggie lying around the office. I’d get up, come over here, fuck around, shuffle a few papers, and all the while I’d be thinking about that pot. I’d say to myself, “Well, whatever I’m going to do today, it’s obviously going to be more fun if I have a hit or two.” But I got to the point where taking those hits made me feel dumber than I’d felt before. I’d say to myself, “Man, you’ve been high for fucking 30 years and you don’t want to be high anymore.” [laughs] I always have these little internal monologs. You’ll get used to them.… I simply decided that dope wasn’t worth the ritual.
Playboy: So you were one of those ritualistic dopers.
Carlin: The ritual was very important to me: cleaning the pot, rolling the pot—I was never a pipe or bong man. That’s California stuff. I was an Eastern roller. My daughter had to teach me to use a water pipe, and I’d still fuck it up every time. To me, smoking pot meant sitting with a newspaper on my legs, rolling the seeds down, pulling the twigs out and finally producing a perfectly cylindrical, absolutely wonderful joint that you either locked at both ends or pinched off, or pinched at one end and left open at the other.
Playboy: What was your technique?
Carlin: We always locked in the East. I got to be a pincher later on.
Playboy: Do you now find yourself lecturing others on the joys of sobriety?
Carlin: No, never. I don’t want anyone who reads this to think it’s a message to him. It’s not. This is merely an accounting of what I have done.
Playboy: Would it be fair to say that you’re not sorry about your 30 years as a pothead but you’re glad they’re over?
Carlin: Exactly. Grass probably helped me as much as it hurt me. Especially as a performer. When you’re high, it’s easy to kid yourself about how clever certain mediocre pieces of material are. But, on the other hand, pot opens windows and doors that you may not be able to get through any other way. Being a very bound-up, Irish Catholic tight-assholed person, I’ve often thought that whatever negative effects pot had on me, it probably saved me from being an alcoholic and a complete fucking brainless idiot by the time I was 25. So I’d say pot has been a break-even proposition for me.
Playboy: Did you ever get into hallucinogens?
Carlin: I did LSD and peyote in the late Sixties, before I got into cocaine. That was concurrent with my change from a straight comic to the album and counterculture period, and those drugs served their purpose. They helped open me up. You know, if a drug has anything going for it at all, it should be self-limiting. It should tell you when you’ve had enough. Acid and peyote were that way for me. Cocaine was different. It kept saying, “You haven’t had enough.” I became an abuser almost instantly.
Playboy: Specifically, what was your pattern of cocaine abuse?
Carlin: I’d go on runs, four and five days without sleep. Then I’d crash and sleep about 18 hours a day for seven to ten days. Then it would take a few more weeks to get over a vague sort of depression. Then I’d be off on another run.
Playboy: How did those runs start?
Carlin: They began the moment I scored. I’d take a few hits at the guy’s house. Then I’d take a few more hits. Then I’d put it away. But before I left his house, I’d take some more hits. And when I’d get in my car, before backing out of the driveway, I’d open it up again and take a few more hits. Then, while driving home, I’d somehow contrive to stop and go to the bathroom and take a few more hits. Later on, when it got really ridiculous, I used to snort in traffic.
Playboy: While the car was moving?
Carlin: Yeah. And the moment I copped, I immediately wrote off that night’s sleep, because it was a foregone conclusion that I was not going to put half a gram away at midnight. And I never took reds or Quaaludes to balance out the coke. So when it got to be four in the morning and the gram was three quarters gone, I’d start wishing it was nine o’clock and hoping the guy got up early. But, of course, he didn’t sleep either, so there was no sweat. During all those years, I was always looking forward to the next snort or the next guy I could score from.
Playboy: You mentioned the fact that Brenda was also a cocaine abuser. How did that mutual interest affect your relationship?
Carlin: The effect of the coke on our relationship was very sick. Now that it’s over, those were actually funny times. Looking for each other’s coke, hiding it, finding it, doing some, not telling the other. Then fighting over it.
Playboy: You actually stole coke from each other?
Carlin: It was the typical paranoid experience. As soon as I knew my hiding place, I thought the whole world knew it. I’d write clues to my hiding places in code, then forget the code and spend the rest of the day looking for my coke.
Playboy: Along with the paranoia, many cocaine users experience a heightened compulsiveness.
Carlin: Oh, yeah. Sometimes, when I was really loaded, I’d sit on the floor and sort out every nut and bolt in the house. It was just sheer insanity. And often there’d be speed in the cut, so I was a speed freak, too. There are an awful lot of things in the cut of street drugs that eventually make you sick. I reached a point where the skin around the edges of my fingernails used to hurt all the time. And it would peel away easily. Now, that must have been from some poison in the cut.
Playboy: Yet you continued to go on those incredible runs. Why?
Carlin: It was just a compulsion. In fact, I soon realized that the only thing I really enjoyed was the actual snorting.
Playboy: You mean the initial rush?
Carlin: No, the act of it. Putting out the line. Inhaling it. That seemed to be what I was looking for.
Playboy: That ritual again.
Carlin: Exactly. After every hit, I’d look at myself in the mirror and say, “You stupid motherfucker. You asshole.” And then I’d reach for it again, because it was more fun to snort it than to be high. It was an adventure to find a bar I could go into and use the bathroom. To take it out of my sock and chop it up without anybody’s hearing. The secretiveness. The stealth. Those were obviously the aspects of cocaine use I was addicted to.
Playboy: Were you able to function socially during those periods?
Carlin: I couldn’t even get through a conversation without saying to myself, “How can I get away from this motherfucker and go do me some coke?” I was always saying things like, “Excuse me, but I still have those loose bowels. I’ll be right back.” Fortunately, along with the speed, there’s usually a lot of laxative in the cut, so I was able to say that with some conviction.
Playboy: Did the coke affect your performances?
Carlin: Two things happened. The creative side of my career was harmed. When I’d sit down and write under the influence of coke, the ratio of pages kept to pages thrown out declined drastically. But onstage, when rapping about a feeling I already owned, I would sometimes get a burst of eloquence. For an entertainer, part of the thing you do is just style. And the coke did help me get into great runs of pure form. But when I listen to those tapes now, the real cocaine shows; there’s just nothing special about their content.
Playboy: Were any of your albums recorded during a heavy cocaine run?
Carlin: The Class Clown album was done totally sober. I’d realized what a hell I’d made for myself and I cleaned up completely for three months. You can hear the clarity of my thinking and of my speech on that album. But by the next one,Occupation: Foole, I was right back into the trip again. I’m more frantic, more breathless. You can hear how sick I am. If you want to see a cokehead, just look at the pictures on the Occupation: Foole album. The angles of my body show you an awful lot. I started doing coke to feel open, but by that time, the hole had opened so wide that I’d fallen through. The body language in those photos tells you everything.
Playboy: You’re talking about astonishing quantities of a very expensive drug. Especially with both you and Brenda abusing it so heavily. How much money did you spend on coke during those years?
Carlin: I never knew or cared. Of course, it was a lot. A fortune. But when I hear people tell me exactly how much they spend on coke, I think, Shit, man. They care more about the money than the drug. I was making a lot of money then. One hundred, maybe 110 dates a year at $10,000 a date, plus the albums. The money was sailing in and sailing out and somehow it all just about worked. But in terms of coke, the only money I ever thought about was that dollar bill I had stuck up my nose.
Playboy: How did it end?
Carlin: It ended suddenly for Brenda, more slowly for me. My runs began getting shorter and less pleasurable. I’d feel bad after only one day, or only a few hours, instead of four or five days. And I began to want to stop. One of the proudest moments of my life was at a rock-’n’-roll theater in New Jersey. A guy actually put some coke under my nose and I was able to say, “No, thanks,” and turn my head away. I still had periods after that when I slipped back a little, but when that happened, I knew something inside me had taken hold. I was going to get well.
Playboy: And for Brenda?
Carlin: Because she had a drinking problem along with the coke, she had to hit bottom first. Most alcoholics do. And for her, bottom was an automobile accident that almost landed her in jail.
Playboy: Was anyone hurt?
Carlin: No. She just drove through a hotel lobby. Now, that’s bottoming out.
Playboy: Yes, but it’s also pretty funny.
Carlin: Not to me. It was my car.
Playboy: Then what happened?
Carlin: Brenda went into therapy and I soon joined her. First we put the drugs behind us, then we began serious work on our relationship. And, in time, we got well together.
Playboy: Did you have affairs?
Carlin: Only during our worst period of drug abuse. The coke made me incredibly horny.
Playboy: During your college-concert years, did you have many groupies?
Carlin: Anyone who’s onstage is going to attract a certain number of misguided people. But I was never very interested in groupies. Instead of thinking about the sex, I’d always think about the clap and the crabs those people have.
Playboy: How are comedian groupies different from rock-star groupies? Are they smarter? Funnier?
Carlin: The women who line up at a comic’s dressing-room door are not what you’d call your class groupies. I mean, there are some decent star fuckers, but they all want to fuck musicians and movie actors. To be a comedian fucker is like being a juggler fucker. Can you imagine a girl who wants to fuck only the opening act? It’s like watching an animal trainer and then wanting to fuck the chimp.
Playboy: You had an auto accident yourself recently. A bad one, though, fortunately, no one was hurt.
Carlin: Only the car and my nose were totaled.
Playboy: This is a delicate question, but—
Carlin: No, I was clean and sober. A tire blew at the wrong time and I lost it. That’s all.
Playboy: Are you sure that’s all?
Carlin: Actually, I suspect there really was more to my accident than bad luck. I think it was God’s way of punishing my nose.
Playboy: Just when you finally got clear of coke, you had a heart attack. What sort of heart attack was it?
Carlin: My left descending septal branch artery decided to close without consultation with any of my other organs. It happened on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1978. I woke up that morning and my jaw muscles were tight and achy. I thought it was from the way I slept, so I took three Tylenols. But the pills didn’t go down right, or didn’t seem to. It felt like they’d lodged in my esophagus. I was driving my daughter Kelly to school and the jaw ache and this feeling of a lump in my chest continued. And that’s when it hit me, Jesus, I’m having a heart attack. So I got Kelly to school and went straight to my doctor. It didn’t show up on the EKG right away, but because of my symptoms, he put me in the hospital for tests. They don’t take any chances with comedians. The blood sample confirmed the heart attack and the angiogram supplied the details. I loved the angiogram. They stick a thing in your thigh and it goes all the way up to your heart. Isn’t that a thrill? Well, at least the nurse scored thigh.
Playboy: Had you suffered any previous heart problems?
Carlin: I’ve always had irregular heartbeats. They’re called P.V.C.s—premature ventricular contractions. A lot of people have them, that feeling your heart almost stops for a moment, then starts again. I had a lot of P.V.C.s in intensive care and they became life-threatening.
Playboy: Both you and Richard Pryor suffered heart attacks after years of cocaine abuse. Did any of your doctors suggest that the coke had actually brought on the attack?
Carlin: I suspect it might have. Sometimes, after I’d gone at the coke like one of those snow plows moving up First Avenue, I’d think my heart was over on the dresser, pounding, and I was watching it. I asked some of the doctors who drifted through the intensive-care unit what kind of effect total cocaine abuse has on the heart and they said things like, “Well, there’s not enough valid information.…” That kind of answer. But I consider the coke a major cause. Of course, you could also make the argument that because cocaine speeds up the heart, it’s good for you.
Playboy: A drug-induced aerobic exercise? That’s a unique theory.
Carlin: But not a very good one. I’ll tell you this: When I was really coked up, those P.V.C.s were much more dramatic and more frequent than they are now. Each episode was so apparent. It would go, “DOONG, DOONG, DOONG–DUCK-DUCK…DUCK-DUCK…DUCK-DUCK-DUCK…DUCK-DOONG, DOONG.” And I’d go, “Whoa, Jim. Let’s go lie down.”
Playboy: What were your worst episodes during those years of cocaine abuse and heart irregularities?
Carlin: It’s worst when you combine coke and fucking with an irregular heartbeat. That’s when you really feel like you’re on the edge.
Playboy: You’ve been on the edge—of a stage, anyway—since you were a child. As a fatherless Irish street kid from the Upper West Side, it’s at least a twist on the typical show-business background. Was there any particular incident or influence in your childhood that sparked your ambition to become a performer?
Carlin: By the age of six or seven, I was already doing voices and faces, making my friends and my mother laugh. Then I saw Danny Kaye in a movie, and he was doing voices and faces on that big, big screen and making whole audiences laugh. It was just an instant hookup.
Playboy: So you were always funny.
Carlin: First I was a mimic. Practically from the moment I began talking, I did impersonations of the people in my neighborhood—the storekeepers, the policemen, my teachers. I always knew I could hold people’s attention and make them laugh every 30 or 40 seconds, and I got approval and attention for that, so the behavior was reinforced. Later, that became an important skill on the street corner.
Playboy: Did you know your father?
Carlin: My father and mother separated when I was two months old. Although he lived until I was eight, I literally didn’t know him. My mother had been a secretary, and after she and my father split, she went back to work for an advertising executive. So my older brother and I were “latch-door kids.” We went home for lunch and after school by ourselves.
Playboy: Were you a lonely child?
Carlin: My mother didn’t get home until about seven most nights and, yes, there was a sense of being very alone after school. She gave me all the proper guidance and influences, but physically, she just couldn’t be there. So I became a radio nut. I loved the afternoon serials, and I got into jazz through the radio. I had a subscription to Down Beat when I was 12. And I’d spend a lot of time in front of the minor, miming records.
In my fifth-grade yearbook—it’s right up there on the top shell—the last page says, “What about your future?” and under my name, it says, “When I grow up, I would like to be either an actor, a radio announcer, an impersonator or a comedian.” By the way, another item on that shelf up there, next to the fifth-grade yearbook, is a Dodgers program autographed by all my heroes. Being a Dodgers fan led to my first Air Force court-martial, but that’s another story.
Playboy: Which we’ll get to later.… But for now, we’re doing today’s interview session in the little office next to your house, and it’s a fascinating work space: two desks, a typewriter, a lot of recording and video equipment, books, records, tapes, files, all kinds of signs on the walls. Yet despite the clutter, there’s an almost archival feeling of order.
Carlin: My books and records are arranged according to subject, and within each subject, they’re alphabetical by author or artist. The music tapes are alphabetical and the performance tapes are in chronological order.
Playboy: Is that something you did on one of your coke runs after all the nuts and bolts were sorted?
Carlin: There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment, because I feel if I have my physical space in order, then I’m free to dream. So there is some compulsion involved. But the dividend I get is the freedom to be totally disorderly in my dreamworld.
Playboy: What about all these hundreds of signs you have on the walls? Although they’re all very interesting and funny, they’re also obviously stolen.
Carlin: I guess that makes me part vandal, part museum curator.
Playboy: Do you enjoy stealing?
Carlin: I think it keeps the child alive in me. There’s a thrill when you steal something in plain view of other people. When you drop a newspaper over a sign and walk away with it, or take something off a wall and the sound of the glue ripping makes people turn around. Your heart is racing, it’s a rush.
Playboy: The one in the bathroom is marvelous: “The Maclaine Hotel Commemorative Nixon Visit, 1968.” And Nixon signed it at the bottom.
Carlin: Yeah; as soon as I saw it in the hotel lobby, I said, “That’s going.” I guess they’ll be after me now.
Playboy: In your routines, you return constantly, almost obsessively, to your parochial education. Did you ever attend public high school in New York?
Carlin: I went to George Washington High School for six months before my 16th birthday, when I could legally quit. That was an even worse experience than the Catholic schools. I mean, they were still teaching fractions. But mostly, I played hooky. I had one 63-day streak.
Playboy: That’s quite a streak.
Carlin: Yeah, and I didn’t count weekends or holidays.
Playboy: Would you describe yourself as a problem student?
Carlin: I was a discipline problem, and I never did homework.
Playboy: What sort of trouble did you get into?
Carlin: When I was in seventh grade, I was caught stealing money from the visiting team’s locker room during a basketball game. So I was sent to The Brothers. That’s what they called this parochial school up in Goshen, New York. I was supposed to get closer supervision there and more “masculine influence,” whatever that means. But I was thrown out for telling a couple of really lame kids on the playground that I had heroin.
Playboy: Did you?
Carlin: It was just a joke, but back I went to my old school, where all the kids I’d been with for eight years were about to graduate. But the sisters wanted me to repeat the whole term; so I went to the principal and pleaded with her to allow me to graduate with my class. She finally agreed on the condition that I write the graduation play. It was called How Do You Spend Your Leisure Time?Catchy title, huh? But, once again, I was rewarded for my cleverness, my show-business skills.
Playboy: Even before adolescence, the essential themes of your adult life and work were pretty clearly laid out: humor, rebellion and drug use.
Carlin: And the patterns became even more vivid at Cardinal Hayes High School. That’s when I began failing subjects and running away from home for days at a time.
Playboy: What, exactly, were you running away from?
Carlin: My mother and her plans for my future. She had it all worked out. I would attend a nice college, then get a job in advertising. “You’ll be one of those smart-looking fellows in their Madison Avenue suits.” She was in advertising and had become friendly with all those assholes from G.M., Procter & Gamble, General Foods. She’d rattle off their names like a litany of deities. And they really were almost like gods to her, gods she tried to foist off on me, along with the gods of the Catholic Church. And I rebelled against her and her values and her plans for my future at every opportunity.
Playboy: That must have made for a tranquil home.
Carlin: The older I got, the more apparent it became that my mother was losing control over me. She fought back fiercely with black moods, silent treatments and martyrdom. “You’re letting me down.” “How can you do this to me?” “You hang out with those bums on the corner till all hours. They’ll never amount to anything. Water seeks its own level.” And, of course, all she did was run my ass out of the house even quicker. The pressure was unbearable.
Playboy: Later, during your college-concert years and on your early albums, that rebellion against your mother’s values resurfaced. You were over 30 then. Were you still feeling that anger? Or were you just drawing on the memory of it to please your audience?
Carlin: Oh, I was still feeling those angers…no, let’s call them hatreds, because that’s what they were. The rebellious mood of the country during those years allowed me to plug right back into my old hatreds. I could scream and holler, as I did on the albums, against religion, government, big business—all those assholes and their values. That hatred was very real.
Playboy: Do you still feel hatred toward the establishment?
Carlin: The visceral aspect of it is gone now. But I still hold all the values I held when I was screaming more. They just don’t take a physical and psychological toll on me anymore. I’m not possessed by an us-versus-them mentality. Well, I still have my days when I’m answering the television with a little more hatred than necessary, when the “Fuck you, Dan Rather” comes out with a harder edge than it should. But that’s much less frequent than it used to be. I think I’m getting well on that level.
Playboy: When you came to L.A. in the early Sixties, it was a justifiable career move. But was it also another way of running away from your mother?
Playboy: Is your mother still alive?
Carlin: Yeah, she’s 85 now.
Playboy: Will she read this interview?
Carlin: Probably; but it really doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve told her these things and I have what I used to call “the problem with my mother” out of: my system now. Occasionally, she’ll still push a few of the old buttons, but my anger lasts only a few seconds now, because I recognize them as old buttons. I tell her, “That doesn’t work anymore,” and we have a much better relationship. She even lives out here now. I no longer have to get away from her physically in order to escape the feelings that made me so unhappy in my teenage years.
Playboy: Of all the values you rebelled against as a child, what was the one you most despised?
Carlin: Religion. When the Catholics start laying their trip on you, you notice very early in life what a load of shit it is. The hypocrisy is just breath-takingly apparent, even to a child. But what I hated most was seeing those priests and brothers getting so much pleasure out of inflicting pain. I wondered what was wrong with them.
Playboy: Do any other religions interest you?
Carlin: None of the Christian religions do. They’re all outer-directed. “Who can I convert?” “Let’s go to this country and make them Christians.” “Wear this.” “Do that.” “No, don’t worship that way. Worship this way or I’ll kill you—for the good of your soul, of course.” Meanwhile, followers of Eastern religions are sitting in the middle of their minds, experiencing a bliss and a level of consciousness that Western man can’t begin to approach. Christianity is all external, all material. Gold. War. Murder. The big churches operate, morally and economically, just like the big corporations. Yet they don’t pay taxes. Let them pay their fair share, those fucking religions.
Playboy: Can you see any good at all in Western religion?
Carlin: The only good thing about Western religion is the music.
Playboy: Do you pray?
Carlin: I say things that can be defined as prayers. But I don’t pray to a power or ask an entity to intercede in the earthly scheme, because I don’t believe that happens. But if I see a really unfortunate person in the street, I do pray, yes, though I suppose it’s really more like a mantra to ease my own sorrow.
Playboy: You spent your adolescence running away from home, parochial school and the future your mother had mapped out for you. But until you hit 16, you really couldn’t go anywhere. Did you take any positive action during those years to try to make your life a little freer and more satisfying?
Carlin: I decided what I really wanted to do was go to the New York High School of Performing Arts, the school that was in the movie Fame. So I went down to 46th Street and laid my rap on this lady in the admissions office. “Hi, I’m George Carlin. I’m real funny. I do impressions. I’m gonna be an actor and a comedian and I’d love to come to your school.” And she said, “Fine, but you’ll have to repeat the last year and a half.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Well, you don’t have any background in fencing and speech…” and she named about five things that I didn’t know had anything to do with becoming a show-business legend. So I said, “Hey, OK, I’m gonna have to get back to you, lady,” and I was gone.
Playboy: And that’s how you wound up at a public high school for your last six months, studying fractions and running up your streak?
Carlin: Yeah. I couldn’t go back to Cardinal Hayes. I mean, I had to get away from those priests and brothers, those maniacs.
Playboy: Then, at 16, you quit school, bounced around for a year and joined the Air Force on your 17th birthday.
Carlin: In those days, we avoided the draft by enlisting. Now, that’s an interesting concept.… But I had a plan. See, I was engaged at that time, so I figured I’d join up, marry my girl, live off base, then use my GI Bill to go to disc-jockey school.
Playboy: But you never did get married.
Carlin: You get away from home for the first time and you’re true to your girl for a while, and then you start realizing, Jeez, I’m horny. So we both started dating other people, and eventually we drifted apart.
Playboy: You mentioned having a subscription to Down Beat when you were 12, and your record collection is incredible. Yet you don’t talk about music very much in your act. Just how important is music in your life?
Carlin: It used to be more important than it is now. I overdosed on music during my period of cocaine abuse. I’d be playing rock all the time to feed my speed head, until I finally burned out on it. Also, the music took a turn for the worse. Also, I began to get well. I needed peace of mind. I didn’t need the fucking amplified levels of rock, and I’ve never needed heavy-metal music.
Playboy: When you were following rock, how did your tastes run?
Carlin: I always enjoyed people like John Prine, soloists who wrote their own songs and had a point of view. The bands I liked tended to be soft rock. I’ve always preferred the gentle approach as opposed to the strident approach.
Playboy: The Beatles as opposed to the Stones?
Carlin: There are things the Stones did that I couldn’t ignore, but I’ve always listened to the Beatles four to one over the Stones.
Playboy: What do you listen to now?
Carlin: Classical music, mostly.
Playboy: And when you were a child?
Carlin: I loved the R&B bands, Budd Johnson and Earl Bostic. The hallway groups—you know, do-wop music. I loved black music that other whites weren’t into, and I was jealous of that prerogative. One of the things that bugged me as a kid was when the white music industry moved in on that black music.
Playboy: May we assume that you weren’t a Bill Haley fan?
Carlin: To me, Bill Haley was a horrible phenomenon. When I hear all this nostalgic shit about the Fifties, the image that comes to my mind is of a bunch of really lame white kids with fucked-up clothing dancing to Bill Haley and His Comets. That might have been America’s Fifties, but it sure wasn’t mine. My Fifties were hanging around Harlem, wearing conservative clothes—a vest, a four-button suit with no peg in the pants, wing tips, eyelet shirts, thin ties—walking like a black dude and smoking grass and going to parties and dancing so slow you’d hardly notice it.
Playboy: Folk music must have gotten to you in the early Sixties.
Carlin: There was a short period when folk music was of great interest to me. It seemed authentic—just like black music was. Most rock ‘n’ roll struck me as inauthentic. It sounded like it was being created by an industry, not by a people.
Playboy: Did you ever get into country music?
Carlin: Oh, I loved real country music. Again, not the kind they manufacture in Nashville. I loved bluegrass and the real country people, you know, like Bill Monroe and Hank Williams.
Playboy: What about today’s country music?
Carlin: There’s still some with that real white man’s working-class soul in it. I love those strains of stark reality: hopelessness, sorrow, broken love, death. Like authentic R&B, authentic country music speaks for a people, and the similarities and differences between the two forms have always fascinated me.
Playboy: For example?
Carlin: The very appearance of a black man singing R&B music is full of expression, full of a physical revelation of his feelings—sexual and otherwise. The body is never held back. The freedom that a black expresses by merely walking down the street is even more evident when he sings onstage. By contrast, the white Protestant Southern country man singing onstage barely moves his body. If he’s playing the guitar, his fingers will move and his lips will move and one foot will tap—and that’s all. He is a tight asshole and that’s his hang-up. But the lyrics those two men will write are precisely the opposite. The black man sings in symbolic terms about jelly rolls and sugar pies, while the white man tells you exactly what’s on his mind. “Ohhh, a truck ran over my baaa-by in the ro-o-o-ad.” It’s a marvelous paradox that tells us so much about those two cultures.
Playboy: Getting back to your stint in the Air Force, somehow, it just doesn’t seem as though signing up for military service was the best way for you to escape the regimentation of a parochial education.
Carlin: That’s true, and by the time my second court-martial rolled around, it had become fairly obvious to both me and the Pentagon that, as they say in a marriage, it just wasn’t working out.
Playboy: Your second court-martial?
Carlin: Discipline has never been my strong suit. But, in the end, the Air Force was a great experience for me. I met a local d.j. at an off-base party, began hanging around the station and eventually, when somebody got sick, I filled in. By the time I was discharged, I had my own show on KJOE, the number-one station in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Playboy: When you weren’t getting your show-business career off the ground, what were your military duties?
Carlin: I was a radar, optics and computer mechanic on B-47s at a SAC base.
Playboy: Interesting job for a future counterculture hero.
Carlin: Yes, wasn’t it? There I was, impeding the war machine just by showing up for work.
Playboy: You said earlier that you smoked grass virtually every day of your life for 30 years. Even in the Air Force?
Carlin: Sure. A friend used to mail it to me from New York—all cleaned and everything. I smoked right on the base all the time. People weren’t familiar with the smell then. They thought it was some kind of cigar.
Playboy: Tell us about your courts-martial.
Carlin: The first one came the day after the Dodgers won the world series in 1955. Our SAC unit was in England on a TDY, a sort of mobility drill that’s supposed to be fairly serious business. But when Johnny Podres beat the Yankees in that seventh game, I went sailing into this little town off base, got drunk on cooking wine, then went back to the barracks with the intention of celebrating for the rest of the evening. When my tech sergeant expressed his displeasure at my actions—not to mention my noise level—I replied in a manner that lie didn’t consider in strict accordance with military protocol. I told him to go fuck himself. And to be honest, I don’t think my salute was entirely up to standards, either. I didn’t do any time for that one, but I did lose a stripe.
Playboy: And your second court-martial?
Carlin: That was more serious. We were having a simulated combat drill. The whole base was on alert and everybody pulled guard duty. So I was out there one night, and it was cold, you know. And I was tired. So I left my gun on the ground and went up into the crawlway of a B-47, smoked a joint and went to sleep. Fortunately, it was Christmas and I had a really benevolent judge, who said, “I should send you to jail for this, but I don’t think any 18-year-old should spend the holidays in prison.” So he let me off.
Playboy: Then what happened to you?
Carlin: Well, I had this d.j. job in town, and the commander of my squadron figured I might be more valuable as a PR tool working full time at the radio station than short-circuiting nuclear bombers and telling everybody to go fuck himself. So he gave me an off-base work permit and took me off the flight line. Eventually, they pulled the permit and another stripe and mustered me out.
Playboy: Which freed you to become a professional disc jockey.
Carlin: Yeah. I worked in Boston, Shreveport again and Fort Worth—that’s where I began to develop my voices.
Playboy: Where did you meet Jack Burns, your first comedy partner?
Carlin: In Boston. Jack was the morning d.j. and we roomed together. We ad-libbed off each other and talked vaguely about doing a comedy act. But we split when I got the job in Fort Worth. Then, one night, Jack showed up in Texas in a car with four bald tires and said, “I’m on my way to Hollywood.” This time, we did get an act together and began playing a coffeehouse in Fort Worth called The Cellar. It wasn’t a very good act, but people laughed. So we went to Hollywood.
Playboy: Just like that?
Carlin: It was crazy, but when we got to L.A., the first radio station we walked into was looking for a morning comedy team. Suddenly, there we were, in the second biggest market in the country, making $350 a week each—which at the time was a fortune—but after three months, we walked away from that to go into night clubs full time. That was the fun of it. We really felt strongly about ourselves and were willing to take outrageous risks.
Playboy: What was your first night-club job?
Carlin: A coffeehouse in Hollywood called Cosmo Alley. That’s where Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul saw us. We did skits and two-man situations about race and religion. Nothing memorable, but most comedy teams of that era did moron stuff. At least we were trying to say something.
Playboy: What, exactly, did Bruce and Sahl do for you?
Carlin: Lenny got us a contract with a major agency, which was incredible. I mean, we’d been comedians for a month and a half when we got booked into the Playboy Club circuit purely on the basis of Lenny’s going to bat for us. And Mort got us into the Hungry i in San Francisco. And because of those bookings, Burns and Carlin got work at a place called the Racquet Club in Dayton, Ohio, where the hostess was a young girl named Brenda Hosbrook. We dated every day I was there, wrote and called each other constantly afterward, and within a year, we were married.
Playboy: You’re not exactly a guy to agonize over important decisions.
Carlin: Actually, it has always been a dreadful flaw in my character to stick with relationships and career plans far too long; but in those days, I was moving very quickly. And Brenda and I clicked on all levels right away.
Playboy: What sort of love life did you have before meeting Brenda?
Carlin: I did a lot of dating.… Well, dating may not be exactly the right word for it. Trying to get laid is a little more accurate. And please notice the wordtrying. I always wanted and enjoyed sex, but I never put much importance on scoring or having an athletic sex life. I guess I define myself more by my career and my commitment to a relationship than by my ability to have a lot of chicks or achieve ten orgasms in an evening.
Playboy: Would you describe yourself as a very sexual person who doesn’t consider sex very important?
Carlin: No, sex is important to me. I just never lead with my dick.
Playboy: You and Brenda got married and lived the life of a road comic. Where was your home base?
Carlin: Nowhere. For the first year and a half, we lived in a Dodge Dart.
Playboy: Despite your success, Burns and Carlin broke up in 1962. Why?
Carlin: We didn’t work very hard and the act wasn’t growing. I think that was mostly my fault, because after we split up Jack became a tireless writer with Avery Schreiber and with Second City. I just never wanted to sit down and make up new routines, and I became a bit of a drawback to him. I guess I was subconsciously saving myself for my own act.
Playboy: You saw your future as a single.
Carlin: Definitely, and Jack always knew that.
Playboy: Did you part on good terms?
Carlin: Yes, and we’ve remained close friends for the past 20 years.
Playboy: From 1962 until about 1970, you were a straight comic with a constantly ascending career. You continued working the Playboy Clubs, became a successful opening act in Las Vegas, then broke into TV. By your early 30s, you found yourself becoming rich and famous as a mainstream performer. But, as they say, were you happy?
Carlin: I was happy about my success, but I was also frustrated, because I was sublimating the long-standing angers that I still hadn’t begun to deal with. I mean, the night clubs were full of businessmen, and I hated them madly. But I had to repress my hatred, and that took its toll. I had a number of angry confrontations, including one at a Las Vegas hotel and another at a Playboy Club, and found myself back at the coffeehouses, where I’d started. And the colleges. Before Vegas, I’d been a folk comic on Bleecker Street in New York and Wells Street in Chicago. So when I made my break in 1970, I said, “I gotta go back to those people. They’ll understand me. They’ll let me sing my song.” And those audiences did make me feel comfortable. I fed on them. I got out all the anger I’d repressed in my teens and 20s. Looking back on it, I suspect that whole period from 1970 to 1976—the albums, the college tours, the cocaine—was all just a way of completing my adolescence. When I was really an adolescent, I was engaged and in the Air Force and making adult decisions. I never really got to finish the angry, screaming, rebellious part of my youth. Then, when I was in my 30s, the country seemed to go through its ownadolescence. Anger and rebellion and drug experimentation and outrageous music and clothing—all the typical manifestations of adolescent behavior were suddenly present in American society, and I just fell right into it. The country’s mood allowed me to finish that chapter of my own life.
Playboy: Despite all the changes you’ve gone through, one aspect of your career has remained fairly constant: your Tonight Show appearances both as a guest and as a guest host.
Carlin: The Tonight Show is one of the few things I do that make me feel I’m really in show business. I used to feel that way on the old Ed Sullivan show. When the band played that theme, my stomach would drop and I’d say to myself, “Well, Ed didn’t die, so you’re definitely gonna have to go out there and do your monolog.” I still feel that way when Ed McMahon announces me as guest host. It’s exciting. Suddenly, I’m reminded that I really am part of that thing that was so glamorous when I was a kid—show business.
Playboy: Most Tonight Show guests are mainstream-entertainment types—not the sort of folks we’d expect you to choose for five minutes of casual conversation. As a host, did you ever try to get the type of guests you’d reallyenjoy talking to?
Carlin: The first time I hosted, I asked for Ralph Nader and Jane Fonda and was quickly told no. I asked why and they said, “Well, you know, we have advertisers who wouldn’t be too thrilled with them.” So I wound up with Dave Meggyesy. That was their sop to me—a radical football player.
Playboy: But do you enjoy The Tonight Show?
Carlin: Yes, and that’s something I’ve found out about myself over the past four years—my getting-well period. As harmless and uncontroversial as those conversations are, there’s a side of me that I used to deny that enjoys them. Now I let that side live, and entertain it when it needs to be nourished, and I still have my personal values.
Playboy: But don’t those personal values sometimes conflict with the overt commercialism of The Tonight Show?
Carlin: I’d never read a commercial for them. I even have trouble doing the lead-ins. When I have to say, “Hey, Hi-Ho Paste Wax,” I feel a little dopey.
Playboy: Wasn’t there a period in the early Seventies, when you were telling your club audiences to go fuck themselves, that Carson blackballed you fromThe Tonight Show?
Carlin: Well, there was a period of about a year and a half when Carson wouldn’t use me, but that was sort of my fault.
Playboy: What happened?
Carlin: The day before one of my scheduled appearances as a guest, I went in for my pre-interview with the talent coordinator. Now, this was just when I was beginning to go through my changes. My hair was long and I was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and sandals and rapping about Muhammad Ali, and at first she didn’t even recognize me. I must have looked like I’d dropped all kinds of acid and they probably felt I wouldn’t be reliable. So they bumped me off the next night’s show and just stopped calling.
Playboy: Did you try to reach Carson personally to explain the changes you were going through?
Carlin: Sure. I went over there and visited him in the dressing room, but I was loaded up on snort and after listening to about ten minutes of nonstop chatter, he very politely excused himself. He could see I was in trouble.
Playboy: What got you back in Carson’s good graces?
Carlin: As I continued doing my new material on the albums and at colleges and coffeehouses, it became apparent that I was still a reliable, professional performer. So, eventually The Tonight Show invited me back. And from then on, they paid my air fare, which they hadn’t done before. I’ve always taken that as an apology.
Playboy: Now that it’s over, have you talked with Carson about that episode?
Carlin: No, because I’ve always understood his position. See, it wasn’t my politics that bothered him. It was me. He thought I’d become a maniac.
Playboy: Do you like Carson?
Carlin: I like the person who’s interviewing me when I’m on the show, which is really the only way I know him. During the breaks, he usually leans over to share something private with me. Never anything that relates to the upcoming conversation. I love that. He seems always to be opening himself up, showing me he cares about me sitting there.
Playboy: Your most famous piece of material from those album and coffeehouse years is The Seven Words. Of course, that piece had a lot to say about censorship, but its impact came from its shock value, a comedic tool you frequently use.
Carlin: I don’t like the phrase shock value. Surprise is essential in comedy, and if people are shocked by what I consider merely surprising, then that’s theirshock. But there is no joke without surprise. For example, if I say, “Isn’t it amazing that most of the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck anyway?” it’s much more effective than “Isn’t it amazing that most of the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to get pregnant anyway?” Although “get pregnant” is the logical phrase in that sentence, because I’m talking about abortion, not sex, the word fuck, because it’s a surprise, gives the joke its light and power. If that word shocks you, it’s your problem.
Playboy: Was it that love of verbal surprise that caused you to write The Seven Words?
Carlin: Definitely. And my love of language. That piece began when I sat down one day and made a list of all the curses I could think of. Then I honed the list by eliminating all the compound words except cocksucker and motherfucker. Finally, I had seven. Seven words I felt absolutely certain could never be used, even in the most learned conversation, on network television: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits. And over the years, I’ve written several routines around that list.
Playboy: You became a part of American legal history when, because of an FCC action resulting from the airing of one of those routines, you were summoned for a command performance by the Supreme Court. How did that particular booking come about?
Carlin: In 1973, WBAI-FM, a Pacifica Foundation radio station in New York, played an 11-minute version of The Seven Words as part of a program on language taboos. A gentleman from a group called Morals in Media—a forerunner of the Moral Majority—was driving around Long Island that day with his 13-year-old son and they listened to the whole thing.
Playboy: Did anyone ever ask why he didn’t turn the dial if he found the program objectionable?
Carlin: Of course not. And when this guy complained to the FCC, that august body voted to censure WBAI, which is a serious mark against a station on its license-renewal application. So WBAI fought the censure and won in Federal district court. But that was the Nixon FCC, and they appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
Playboy: How did you feel about that?
Carlin: I felt like I was being called to the big principal’s office in Washington. I mean, getting kicked out of school and kicked out of the choir and having a couple of courts-martial—those transgressions suddenly seemed like small potatoes. That these nine men had summoned me into their presence to question my conduct absolutely thrilled the perverse and rebellious side of my nature. I thought, Even if I just become a little footnote in the lawbooks, I’ll be a happy footnote forever.
Playboy: How did the case turn out?
Carlin: We lost. The Supreme Court found that the FCC did have the right to restrict a radio station from playing indecent material at a time when a child might be listening. The word obscene was kept out of the case, because obscenity is defined according to community standards. The word indecent has never been defined legally. And the Court never established how old a “child” is or exactly which hours a child might reasonably be expected to be listening. So the FCC still doesn’t have the right of prior restraint.
Playboy: In other words, there’s still no official list of words you can’t say—which is what your Seven Words piece was all about.
Carlin: That was exactly my premise. All I want is a list. When I was a kid, nobody would tell me which words not to say. I had to go home and say them and get hit. As a result of the WBAI case, the Supreme Court has put the FCC in the same position as the parent. It can punish you after the fact, but it can’t tell you beforehand exactly what the restricted areas are.
Playboy: So American broadcasters continue to work in constant jeopardy—leading, of course, to self-censorship.
Carlin: That’s right. And they have to be extra careful with those two-way words. I mean, they can prick their finger, but they can’t finger their prick.
Playboy: That Seven Words case brought you together with Hollywood’s left-wing establishment—another group of folks with whom you don’t normally associate.
Carlin: Norman Lear called me up and said they wanted to make me one of the A.C.L.U.’s Persons of the Year or something, because of the Seven Words case—which I really didn’t have that much to do with. WBAI was fighting all the battles and doing all the work and nobody was throwing testimonials for it. The A.C.L.U. was also honoring Lily Tomlin and Garry Trudeau that night. I mean, what the hell have two comics and a cartoonist really contributed to the cause of freedom in America? But that’s Hollywood liberalism for you. And because my ego was obviously involved, I said, “OK, that’s cool, I’ll go.”
Playboy: Who else was there?
Carlin: The usual sad, stale Hollywood liberal crowd, these tired idealists. I don’t have to name them. They’re famous performers and you see them at every fucking rally. Only the button in their lapel changes.
Playboy: Did you wear a tuxedo?
Carlin: I wore a dark suit. That’s as far as I go, even for the First Amendment.
Playboy: In addition to being honored, did you perform at that function?
Carlin: While all the other assholes were speaking. Lily Tomlin and I had fun just doing looks at each other across the table. She’s great. But then I got up and actually performed The Seven Words. And as liberal as those people were supposed to be, and as interested as they were in the Supreme Court case, they just couldn’t handle it.
Playboy: You mean after all that, they didn’t laugh?
Carlin: Oh, they laughed, and at the end they applauded. But I’ve been a performer for a long time and I know when people are laughing from their guts, from the inside, and when their tuxedos are laughing.
Playboy: Shouldn’t a lifelong radical like you be more sympathetic toward liberal activists?
Carlin: I have no patience for anyone who sits and mouths clichés. Everybody’s got a fucking easy answer for all our problems. But there are no easy answers, because you can’t change just one thing, you have to change everything. We’ve come that far in our destruction of this poor green planet. And I just feel removed from that.
Playboy: Which leaves you open to the criticism that you’re copping out.
Carlin: I love that phrase: copping out. It actually means to admit guilt, not to get off the hook. And, yes, I do cop out. I cop out to not having glib and easy answers like all those wonderful professional crusaders.
Playboy: Would you include Ralph Nader and Barry Commoner in that sweeping condemnation of American social activism?
Carlin: I see them as giving heart to yet another generation of misguided idealists.
Playboy: And is that so bad?
Carlin: I think, strategically, it is bad. Because the function the crusaders and the investigative reporters really serve in this society is to show the true enemies of humanity—the people on top with the power—where their weak spots are. And then the establishment moves in quickly and silently with a little cement and covers up those holes. And the story goes away, and a few people are never heard from again, and the juggernaut rolls on—stronger than ever.
Playboy: What about Watergate? That’s at least one instance in which the investigative reporters broke the establishment.
Carlin: Yes, Watergate. “The system worked.” I believe that phrase now represents the official historical verdict on that glorious chapter of our history. Well, bullshit! The system worked because McCord left some tape on the lock. And what’s the logical implication of that statement? Without the tape, the system wouldn’t have worked. So fuck the system.
Playboy: Do you vote?
Carlin: No. We’re led to believe we’re free through the exercise of ineffective freedoms.
Playboy: But some activists have helped the lives of some people—even without overhauling the system.
Carlin: I know, I know. It’s not that I’m unaware of the accomplishments of, say, Ralph Nader. He has made the lives of a small number of people a little better. But personally, emotionally, I’d rather divorce myself from the world than face the heartbreak of partial success. Because partial success implies overwhelming failure.
Playboy: For a nonvoter, you hold some strong opinions about politics. Have you ever considered adding Will Rogers-style political humor to your act?
Carlin: Will Rogers said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” I say, “I never liked a man I didn’t meet.” And, although I never met him, I don’t like Will Rogers much, either. He got away with an awful lot because people were more innocent then. His whole bit was that politicians stink, which is a poor substitute for humor.
Playboy: Which comedians do you like?
Carlin: So many brilliant comics have entertained and inspired me throughout my life that no list could ever be complete. The first, of course, was Danny Kaye. Then the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Ritz Brothers. I don’t know why the Ritz Brothers weren’t more popular. It’s my belief that Milton Berle and many other successful Jewish comics got their shtick from Harry Ritz. That man invented the moves for a whole generation. As a kid. I loved the radio comedians, especially Fred Allen. And I liked Jerry Lewis’ early work. His abandon. That’s what I’ve always admired. The ability to let go.
Playboy: Were you a Steve Allen fan?
Carlin: I loved his work on The Tonight Show in the Fifties. There was a certain power and impact to the phrases Allen used—”I certainly hope so and right in your mouth”—a crashing, cascading brilliance and an instinct for the jugular.
Playboy: Who was the first comedian to influence you whose influence is still evident in your work?
Carlin: Jonathan Winters. The voices, the characters—at least I see his influence on me. But he had something I lack: a window to insanity that he could climb through and really inhabit his characters. My characters just don’t have the heights and depths that his do, but he’s paid for his genius with several vacations in the Hoo-Hoo Hotel.
Playboy: Does your love of abandon include an admiration for Don Rickles?
Carlin: The first few times I saw Rickles, he amazed me with his brashness and willingness to cross lines. But I don’t like the way he closes his act—by apologizing for what he does. It’s insincere. A performer who kisses the audience’s ass is full of shit.
Playboy: One of your current projects is a motion picture you’re writing. The two modern comics who’ve gone that route with the most success are Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. What do you think of their work?
Carlin: In both Brooks and Allen, there’s such an overriding theme of their own personal Jewishness that it’s not always easy for a non-Jew to appreciate it all. But Brooks makes me laugh a lot—especially when he’s being interviewed and giving instant answers to things. The 2,000-Year-Old Man killed me, just put me away. There are elements of overindulgence in his films that don’t quite get to me, but the man himself has a brilliant comic mind. Woody Allen is irresistible: his beautiful observations and the wonderful way he toys with our psychological processes. And to have written so many fine scripts in such a brief period is really, to me, his most magnificent accomplishment. Twenty years ago, as a stand-up comic, Woody Allen wrote the following joke: “I was thrown out of NYU for cheating on a metaphysics exam. I looked into the soul of the boy next to me.” If he’d done nothing else for the rest of his life, I’d still love Woody Allen for that one joke. He doesn’t always make me roll down the aisle, but he always makes my mind laugh its ass off.
Playboy: You and Richard Pryor started out together in the folk rooms of Greenwich Village, and except for his work as a movie actor, your careers have taken remarkably similar courses—right down to the cocaine and the heart attack. Do you see yourself as the white Richard Pryor? Or him as the black George Carlin?
Carlin: In the early Sixties, Richie and I would frequently be on the same bill at the Café Au Go Go, and sometimes, while introducing each other, we’d do a few improvs between sets. There was always a rapport, and perhaps we share certain comic viewpoints, but I think Pryor is without peer. The thing he does better than anyone else is represent who he is, where he’s been and who has been around him. He doesn’t do whole characters in the sense that Lily and Jonathan do, but Richard does fantastic characterizations—an entire personality implied by just a line here, a gesture there. And his white guysreally kill me. Richard is just a genius. He makes me laugh from the soles of my feet—that’s S-O-L-E-S.
Playboy: Does Steve Martin make you laugh?
Carlin: I don’t laugh as much as I do at some of the other people, but I like Steve Martin’s mind. I like the attitude he brings to that arrow through his head. And I love the way he mocks the performer’s situation and self-image—the way he does that phony asshole onstage.
Playboy: Who else do you like?
Carlin: Martin Mull. I can’t even put my finger on exactly what about Martin I like, I just know that his jokes make me laugh very hard. They’re unusual. The twist of his mind is refreshing. And his songs are great.
Playboy: Have you noticed how many comedians keep going into their 70s and 80s? Do you think there’s something about comedy that’s good for the health?
Carlin: I seriously have thought that there must be a therapeutic value to humor, a life force that’s enhanced by laughter. Because it certainly is an observable phenomenon that comics just go on forever, though Freddie Prinze did fuck up the curve a little.
Playboy: Do you consider it a professional obligation to rush out and see every hot new comic and every film comedy that’s released?
Carlin: On the contrary; I try not to see new comics—their acts or their films. Part of that is professional. I don’t want to be influenced. But another part is fear and jealousy. I’m afraid to see how good they might be. I don’t like that emotion, but it’s part of me.
Playboy: You never buy material, do you?
Carlin: No, and again, this isn’t a very flattering thing to say about myself, but I don’t want anyone to think I need help. Now that I’m going to try to make movies, I have to open myself up to collaboration, because film is a collaborative art. And that’s difficult for me. I have an extreme jealousy of authorship;… Folks, we’ve got a really twisted guy here.
Playboy: You’re said to be one of the most stolen-from comics in the business. What was the most blatant theft you can recall?
Carlin: A comic I admire very much. Joan Rivers, did one of my pieces on TheTonight Show just recently. I couldn’t believe it, because it was a bit I’d used regularly for years. I said, “When my mother was pregnant with me, she carried me very low. In fact, for the last few weeks, my feet were sticking out.” And my follow-up, which Joan also used, was, “However, she did tell me it came in handy on stairs.” Theft is one of the risks you run when you buy material, and I’ll bet Joan bought that joke.… Now that I’ve said this in public, I guess I’ll find out.
Playboy: Any other examples?
Carlin: Remember I said that Garry Trudeau was also honored at that A.C.L.U. dinner—along with Lily and me? One of the things I said that night was, “I’m into a new lifestyle that doesn’t require my presence.” Garry later used that line in an interview. Maybe he thought he heard himself say it.
Playboy: In October 1975, you were the guest host on the first Saturday Night Live show. What sort of experience was that?
Carlin: I was totally coked out that week, so my memories are imperfect. And there was so much tension around that nobody was giving off real-life signals. But I do remember being made to feel extremely welcome.
Playboy: Was that tension more than the normal case of opening-night jitters?
Carlin: There was the pressure of a live performance and the pressure of a new show—both of which are normal. But there was also a certain amount of tension between the technicians and these young, privileged, snotty, satirical kids who were getting this big break.
Playboy: What was your first impression of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players?
Carlin: I could see immediately that they were good comic performers and great sketch players. I had trouble personally on that show, because I don’t consider myself an actor, and that includes sketch playing. I was so self-conscious and unsure that I eventually made them cancel a whole piece. I was supposed to play Alexander the Great at his high school reunion. I just felt so silly in that outfit and nothing in me could make me believe I was him. I guess I let a lot of people down, but acting has always been a problem for me.
Playboy: Even without you in the sketches, that opening Saturday Night Liveshow had an incredible impact. Were you aware at the time of how strongly people would respond, both pro and con?
Carlin: Oh, yeah. We even got Cardinal Cooke to call in before the show was over. I was particularly proud of that.
Playboy: As we recall, you did a monolog about God that night.
Carlin: Yes, and Cooke was so incensed he got right on the phone. All I said was that I’d been taught that I was made in God’s image, but it looked more like we had made Him in our image. And if He was anything like me, He was far from perfect. Then I said I thought the whole idea of God’s being perfect was out of the question. I mean, just look at His work. He can’t make two leaves alike. Every mountain range is crooked. He can’t even get two fingerprints the same.… And about that time, the phones lit up.
Playboy: What did you think, overall, of Saturday Night Live?
Carlin: The show made me laugh, but it didn’t really take on a lot of issues. Itseemed daring, and there were things that were sort of irreverent, but mostly they didn’t present any alternate ideas, they just tore down. Which is a form of comedy I can live with but I don’t love.
Playboy: You mentioned your own inability to act. Are you now admiring an ability simply because it eludes you?
Carlin: Maybe, but so far, I haven’t even been able to try to act. You see, I believe that ultimately, actors are escaping from themselves. I’ve spent the first 45 years of my life trying to figure out who I am and how best to expose myself to the world.
Playboy: Is acting something you might like to get into someday?
Carlin: If I can do what I’d like to do in comedy over the next ten years—a couple of books, a couple of screenplays, some fun on cable, a few more albums—then I think it would be really magnificent, about the age of 55, to begin serious training as an actor. Between 55 and 70, I’d like to play small roles in out-of-the-way theaters, then get into films as an older character actor; show up for eight minutes in the bar scene, do my little shtick and disappear. Oh, I would revel in that kind of life, and I’m going to try for it.
Playboy: Have you ever fantasized about living in another age?
Carlin: If I had lived in Babylonian times, I probably would have chiseled my jokes in stone tablets and dragged them from house to house. In the Middle Ages, I’d have been that odd fellow standing in the middle of the square, telling stories. The townspeople would pass and say, “Every Friday he comes in and talks for an hour. We don’t know why.” I would have loved that.
Playboy: In your performance fantasies, it almost doesn’t matter whether or not people are listening to you, as long as you get to do your rap.
Carlin: People become performers for many reasons. Some do it to get a lot of pussy—and that’s a good reason. Some want a bigger car. Other guys want to travel. My reason has always been that I was screaming to let all this shit out of me.
Playboy: Late at night, when the lights are out and the TV is off and Brenda is sleeping but you’re not quite asleep yet—what do you think about? What goes through your mind?
Carlin: I fly. I close my eyes and picture myself making the motions of treading water, and then I start floating over trees and houses and farms and fields that are crosshatched. It all rolls by just like in the penny arcade when you drive the car for a quarter. Occasionally, I’ll throw in a lake or a river. Sometimes I let an animal run by. Maybe a dragon. One dragon, that’s all. You don’t want too many dragons in your fantasy.
Playboy: Do you have any hobbies?
Carlin: I have interests and I read a lot, mostly nonfiction, because I’m probably still trying to finish my education. But my primary avocations are to make my family and my household happy, to live inside my brain, to have funny thoughts and to write them down—for myself, mostly.
Playboy: Do you think that desire to live within your own head derives from your lonely childhood?
Carlin: Probably. My mother would always say of me, “He certainly knows how to entertain himself.” So I don’t seek a release or an escape in activities.
Playboy: Do you deliberately avoid new activities because they might interfere with the life of your mind?
Carlin: Yeah; I’ve never permitted myself to experience the joys of racquetball and I don’t feel the loss.
Playboy: But do you feel lonely?
Carlin: I feel an aloneness, and I relish that. As much as I love my family, I enjoy it when the house is empty, because then I know I’m truly alone, as we all are on the planet, after all. You know, every atom in us is originally from a star. And during my moments of aloneness, I’m most mindful of that; that I’m just another group of matter randomly but wonderfully arranged. That’s when I feel my immortality.
Playboy: Your immortality, as in afterlife?
Carlin: Not in the Christian sense, but I do believe in the survivability of the human spirit. We were all part of a giant explosion once, and we’ve come a long way. The incredible distances of past and future time, the history of this whole fucking, vibrating, resonating mother mass—that’s what I read and think about more than anything else.
Playboy: Do you see much of a future for us?
Carlin: I don’t see much of a future for this planet. I think it’s a cursed planet. The boundaries we’ve drawn between nations and the profit motive—those two factors—have, in my opinion, brought us to the point where almost nothing can stop the utter destruction of the environment and all our earthly life-support systems. Perhaps after a holocaust, the survivors can rebuild on a more spiritual level. Perhaps civilizations rose and failed many times on this planet before man arrived.
Playboy: Your opinion of mankind is not exactly reverential.
Carlin: Man in his finest state is a curious and investigative creature capable of the magic of creativity. In a book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes argues that man didn’t even reach what we call consciousness—that is, the ability to self-inspect—until about 1000 years before Christ; that The Iliad and The Odyssey were written by unconscious humans who had auditory hallucinations from the right side of their brains. Now, if we can come from a state of unconsciousness to consciousness in only 3000 years, imagine what other states we might reach given the time and the freedom to evolve.
Playboy: Maybe we will get that freedom. American cultural influence pervades half the globe, and this is the home of the free.
Carlin: The folks who settled the United States and migrated to it afterward have mostly been narrow-minded religious people, exploiters and frontier-justice types who shot first and asked questions later. We’re not a freedom-loving people in the beautiful, spiritual sense. We have an inspiring Constitution, but we’re a hardhearted people.
Playboy: We’ve had a checkered past, at best, including slavery and the exploitation of immigrants and women. But we’ve made improvements on those fronts. Doesn’t that give you hope?
Carlin: No. When I see blacks and women wanting to gain their freedom so they can become corporation executives, I realize that the situation is hopeless. What’s the good of having freedom if you then willingly go off and become a slave to an amoral institution? It’s especially depressing to see blacks wanting to dive into the mainstream of American commercial life. They come from a magnificent African culture based on aesthetics, and now they all want to become fort builders like the vicious people who originally enslaved them.
Playboy: You may despise the American corporate structure, which is unabashedly based on greed, but you’re now despising it from a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood. Earlier today, you were despising it from inside a $35,000 BMW.
Carlin: My money buys me the freedom not to be a member of the corporate structure. And I certainly don’t feel guilty or hypocritical about that. The way our economy is set up, if you don’t want to be a corporate moron and you don’t want to be enfeebled in the streets, you must earn enough to know that you’ll never have to go to them for money. And I’ve been able to do that without selling anything that injures the earth. I sell thoughts, laughs and ideas.
Playboy: You never do commercials. Are you willing to condemn other performers who do?
Carlin: It seems to me like a perversion of talent for an artist of any kind to further the corporate structure of America or the personal interests of the morons and thieves who run it.
Playboy: Given your tough views about America, how do you feel about Soviet society?
Carlin: I despise bullies in any guise. Russia offers very little freedom. Its economy is unsuccessful. It can’t even get a harvest together. It appears to do its war machine well enough to get its geopolitical ends met, but I don’t know how it’d fare if it actually had to fight a war. It would probably fuck that up, too. Russia just looks like a total failure to me.
Playboy: Earlier, you referred to the U. S. Constitution as “inspiring.” Do you endorse all of it—even the right to bear arms?
Carlin: I have mixed feelings about that. I plan to get a gun if crime gets any worse. I believe my first duty is to survive. And I’m not just talking about criminals coming into my home. I once seriously considered getting a gun to protect myself from the police. If I need a weapon to continue living, I’ll get one. And I’ll use it.
Playboy: But if violence in our society—
Carlin: Look, I’m going to interrupt you: There are two ways to think about this existence we have. One of them is that it’s Wednesday and it’s three fifteen and we’re talking here in my home, and at four o’clock I have to leave for another meeting. Now, that’s a reality. But there’s another reality. We’re in the solar system of a second-rate star, three quarters of the way out on a spiral arm of an average galaxy in a thing called the Local Group. And ours is only one of billions of galaxies, each of which has billions of stars. Some star systems are binary, and there could be a planet that revolves around a center of gravity between two binary stars. So you’d have two sunrises and two sunsets every day. One could be a red giant, the other a white dwarf; two different-sized, -shaped and -colored suns in the sky. And there might be other planets and comets. In other words, fuck Wednesday, fuck three fifteen, fuck four o’clock, fuck the United States, fuck the earth. It’s all temporal bullshit. I like thinking about being out there and not thinking about the corporate structure, not worrying about freedom and not worrying about guns. I chose a life of ideas. That entertains me. That nourishes me. And that’s why I run from this conversation.
Playboy: Returning for a moment to the planet Earth, what have you done with all the money you’ve earned in your career?
Carlin: A lot of it went up my nose. As for the rest, well, I won’t invest in the stock market, so I’ve had various business managers—all of them now fired—who’ve gotten me into limited partnerships in real estate. I don’t know how fair or unfair our rent policies are, because, again, I’m a limited partner. Really limited; limited not only by the definition of the agreement but also in terms of my own appreciation of business. I’m a limited partner. That’s why they wanted me. They said, “This guy’s limited. Let’s get him into our fucking partnership.”
Playboy: Because those business managers are gone, may we presume that in the future you’ll be doing other things with your money?
Carlin: Land still seems relatively harmless, though it would be really nice if there were no ownership. One philosopher has rightly said that property is theft. But I’d like to use my future ownership of property to give something back. You’ve got to give back some of what you take out—especially when you take wealth out at an unnatural level, as entertainers do. So I think it would be fair and right to use some of my land and wealth for a drug-rehab center or an Indian school.
Playboy: Is there anything you’ve said anywhere in this interview that you wish you could change?
Carlin: No, but something I said will, I think, change me.
Playboy: What’s that?
Carlin: I was thinking of that conversation we had about my outside interests and it occurred to me that I don’t define myself by much more than my career. When I’m not actually doing my work, I’m planning it or thinking about it or reading things that on some level are transformed into performance fantasies. I have no active interests. I never go anywhere or do anything that transports me outside the boundaries of my mind. But because of this interview and the questions this interview has spawned among myselves—now, there’s a frightening slip, “among myselves”—well, now I’ve begun thinking about getting into some extracareer activities.
Playboy: Do you know what they’ll be?
Carlin: I think I’ll join a softball team. Drinking beer on the bench with the guys. Shagging flies. Sliding headfirst into third base.… Wow, man, sounds great. I can’t wait to sign up!
Playboy: When will you do it?
Carlin: In a year or two. I need to develop my reality picture first. Psycho-cybernetics. Dream something strong enough and it’ll happen.… Ahhh, softball. I can taste the dust from the base line already…someday.…
Playboy, January 1982