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Next Avenue: George Carlin on abortion, baby boomers and the American dream, and why his comedy is still so relevant today

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This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

Growing up in the ’60s, Sunday nights on CBS was appointment viewing in our house to keep current with mainstream culture. 

“The Ed Sullivan Show” had introduced American audiences to the Beatles in 1964. Three years later and less well known, a clean-cut comedian named George Carlin made his debut on the same stage doing a bit as Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy weatherman. He pointed to the big L on the weather map, saying in a stoned-out voice, “This is a Canadian Low, not to be confused with a Mexican High…Tonight’s forecast: dark, continued dark overnight, turning to partly light in the morning.”

You can track the evolution of Carlin’s social criticism and the growing complexity of his rapid-fire performance skills, along with his professional and personal ups and downs over his 50-year career, in an engaging two-part documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” on HBO and HBO Max. 

In the documentary, Stephen Colbert, no comedic slouch himself, declares Carlin “the Beatles of comedy,” adding “at a certain point in his career, he’s doing the comedic version of ‘Love Me Do’ for the first part of his career and then suddenly he puts out the comedic ‘White Album.’” 

And Jerry Seinfeld once said, “George Carlin was ‘the total package of what a comedian’s skills could be.’”

Judd Apatow, who has been interviewing comics since his days on his high school radio station, directed and co-wrote the Carlin documentary. Apatow’s latest collection of interviews with comedians is “Sicker In the Head.”

Next Avenue interviewed Apatow via Zoom
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from Los Angeles.

Next Avenue: You caught the comedy bug early. Where did it come from?

Judd Apatow: My family loved comedy. My grandmother was very close to (comedian) Totie Fields. There was a lot of respect for comedy in the house. We had Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby and George Carlin records when I was eight, nine, 10 years old. So those are the first albums where I understood what a comedian does. And I think that Carlin was probably the most impactful because here he was breaking down what it meant to be a kid.

In his 1972 album “Class Clown,” he talked about everything I was going through — what it meant to be the class clown, which was my dream. And then he liked to call out authority and attack hypocrisies. He also had a lot of really dirty material where [he] discussed filthy things. And as a little kid, there’s nothing more fun than someone cursing and talking about curses and being amused that anyone thinks it’s bad to curse. That was a big deal to find a voice of an adult who said it’s ridiculous that you’re not allowed to curse. And I think that programed my mind for comedy.

Judd Apatow, left, and Mike Bonfiglio both directed the HBO documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream.”

Getty Images for HBO

Did you ever get to see him perform live?

I saw him a bunch of times — at LA comedy clubs, working on new sets, and saw him in concert a few times. And it was always really remarkable because he was tough. He would say to the crowd, there are certain things you’re not supposed to joke about. Well, I’m going to do that now. And then he would run all the topics that people say you’re never allowed to make jokes about and do five minutes of each. And he did his act more like a one-man show. He didn’t want to talk to the crowd. It really was about presenting his material in the best possible way. He was trying to do a great performance of something that he had written.

About two minutes into part one of your HBO Carlin documentary, a disembodied voice says ‘Carlin changed comedy three or four times in his career and he still seems to be talking to us’ [14 years after his death]. Shortly after I heard that, the news broke of the leaked draft opinion that could overturn Roe v. Wade. And it didn’t take long for cable news to turn to Carlin’s 1996 riff on abortion:

“These conservatives are really something, aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They’ll do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neonatal care, no daycare, no head start, no school lunch, no welfare, no nothing. If you’re preborn, you’re fine, if you’re preschool, you’re fu**ed. They’re not pro-life. You know what they are? They’re anti-woman.”

This abortion routine has been around for 25 years but it’s had a new life since the news broke on the Supreme Court’s draft decision. This can’t have been easy to convert to comedy?

I challenge any comedian to do the hilarious abortion in America routine. And what I found most interesting is that that piece of comedy from George went viral again in the past few weeks, but nobody else’s material went viral. George’s take on it was so much better than everyone else that he was the only comedic voice that really spread at that time.

And for someone who died in 2008, it really says a lot about his work as a deep thinker and a comedy writer that his work is standing up and not disappearing because most comedy, especially politics comedy, ages very badly. There aren’t many people listening to Lenny Bruce records anymore, or Mort Sahl or even some of the people from recent years like Bill Hicks who tend to fade away, even when they did similarly brilliant work. Carlin’s a needed voice. And even though he’s not here, we still keep going back to him for his take.

This wasn’t the only time comedy has been in the news of late. Scott Simon recently did an essay on his weekly NPR show on the aggression that’s being aimed at comedians — not just Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars or Dave Chappelle being tackled at the Hollywood Bowl. The man who runs the Chicago Laugh Factory said he’s noticed an increase in audience members charging the stage. So what’s going on — is this coincidence, copycat behavior or something else?

I think it started when Donald Trump was running for president in 2016 and he encouraged the crowd to attack people. There was a rally where he said that he would pay for someone’s lawyer bills if they beat up a protester at the event. And he said that over and over as a mantra. He would point out the press in the back to jack up the crowd to be hostile to the press. He was very comfortable with violence. And I think that just got into the psyche of the country, that violence is the answer.

Even now, as books on Trump come out, they reveal Trump wanted to shoot protesters in the legs. And that type of toxic energy gets out there and it kicks around. And so now the country is polarized. And it’s not so much that it’s happening in the world of comedy, it’s happening everywhere. A comedy club is no different than being on an airplane when someone flips out and attacks the stewardess, other than it’s a place where people are speaking openly about their opinions and feelings and that becomes a dangerous space.

Next Avenue is the PBS digital publication for people 50+, which means that many of the folks reading our conversation are baby boomers, one of George Carlin’s favorite targets:

Something else I’m a little tired of hearing about — the baby boomers: whiny, narcissistic, self-indulgent people with a simple philosophy — GIVE IT TO ME, IT’S MINE. These people were given everything. Everything was handed to them and they took it all — sex, drugs and rock n’ roll and they stayed loaded for 20 years and had a free ride, but now they’re staring down the barrel of middle-aged burnout and they don’t like it. So they turned self-righteous. They want to make things hard on younger people. They tell them to abstain from sex, say no to drugs and as for the rock n’ roll they sold that to television commercials a long time ago so they can buy pasta machines and Stairmasters and soybean futures. You know something, they’re cold bloodless people. It’s in the rhetoric — no pain, no gain…just do it…life is short…play hard…shit happens…deal with it…get a life. These people went from ‘do your own thing’ to ‘just say no’ from ‘love is all you need’ to ‘whoever winds up with the most toys wins’ and they went from cocaine to Rogaine…Sometimes in comedy you have to generalize.”

Was this a bit or did he really loathe baby boomers as a group?

He probably was disappointed that the people who protested in the ’60s switched gears and decided to have some stability. And a lot of them became yuppies, enjoying the stock market. He certainly had the sadness of someone who saw the ’60s not accomplish all of the goals of the people who were protesting. And that that crowd turned into the movie “Wall Street” probably bugged him. He wanted people to keep fighting to make the world a better place. And he saw people give up the fight and instead get sneakers with the lights on them.

See: Gen X mocks viral tweet saying millennials and Gen Z will succeed boomers in running the country

I had just graduated high school 50 years ago when George Carlin was arrested in 1972 at Summerfest in Milwaukee for his infamous ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television’ routine. It would later be preserved at the Library of Congress as an artistically and culturally significant recording. How important was this routine to his identity?

It was a big routine because, on one level, it’s really funny because he’s cursing a lot and breaking down curses and how we use them. But he was also saying that it’s silly that we have these limits on our language, that we can handle it, our kids can handle it. They’re just words. They only have the meaning we give them. It’s based on the intention you have when you use words. Then he gets arrested for using these words and he gets off because they’re basically arresting him for causing a public disturbance. And there was a lawyer from the DA’s office there, and he said it wasn’t a public disturbance [and] he got a standing ovation.

But that was the way a lot of local governments fought against free thinkers back then. They would arrest them. Lenny Bruce was arrested not really for the cursing, but for a lot of his anti-religion material. And people in the church were offended at that and had a lot of power in those local governments. They didn’t like what he was saying.

He talked about it on “The Tonight Show” and then it went to the Supreme Court when somebody complained that they aired it during the day. That led to the rules that a lot of the country still has about airing edgier material late at night when kids can’t hear it. The irony is all kids have YouTube and TikTok and Twitter
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and they watch everything, whatever they watch. The problem with the kids has never been that they heard the seven dirty words. But there were these wars around this because people thought we were destroying our children, when in fact, it probably just made them smarter and better critical thinkers.

In your book, “Sicker in the Head,” you quote Carlin saying, “I root for disasters. I root for churches to burn down. I watch the Indy 500, and I want the cars in the stands.” He even titled one of his 14 HBO specials: “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.” What was that all about? It feels a bit like the anchorman in “Network” — ‘I’m mad as hell and can’t take it anymore.’ What was Carlin saying?

I think Carlin thought that people are crazy. That their priorities are off, are easily manipulated. They’re not educating themselves. They’re not taking care of each other. And then at some point as a comedic stance, he created this point of view, which was I’m just going to laugh and take the demise of the world as entertainment.

See: What’s worth streaming on HBO Max

And he said, “When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. And when you’re born in America, you get a front-row seat.” And then he turned it into I’m rooting on the bad stuff. And I think he is commenting on the people who think when I go to a hockey game, I want to see the fight, see teeth knocked out or I want to see the crash.

But I always took it that he’s commenting on our darker nature, but he’s also saying, ‘I’m going to be so dark that it’s going to make you want to go to the light. I will repel you…you’ll giggle and laugh at how dark I go. But when I’m done, you’ll want to live in the light, you won’t want to live in what I just expressed to you.’ 

He had a great joke about how we have this beautiful country and the earth is so amazing and people just want to walk around shopping malls all day.

“Americans love the mall. That’s where they get to satisfy their two most common addictions at the same time: shopping and eating. Millions of semiconscious Americans day after day shuffling through the mall shopping and eating. Americans love to eat. They are fatally attracted to the slow death of fast food. (…) Forget the bald eagle. You know what the national anthem of this country ought to be? A big bowl of macaroni and cheese. A big bowl. ‘Cause everything in this country is king size, extra large and super jumbo.”

Was there one Carlin bit that stood out above all others?

The American dream is a remarkable piece. He said it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it. And he certainly went to the heart of a lot of what he saw as lies that are told to us.

On the Mount Rushmore of comedians, does George Carlin have a place?

He’s definitely in the prime position, one of the middle spots, not on the edges.  

Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics, former producer of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and former senior producer of “ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel.” Follow him on Twitter @redsox54

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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