FIREZINE: HOW DID YOU FIRST COME
INTO CONTACT WITH THE FIRESIGN THEATRE?
GEORGE CARLIN: Well, I wasn't in contact with them originally during the period that all their albums were so successful. At least if I was, I don't remember, which is a common defense for that era. I certainly was well aware of the work, the albums. I might have even known some of the radio work. I'm not recalling that very well. But, you know, it was a wonderful, more than a breath of fresh air, it was just a wonderful, whole new clear channel of comic thought. And a whole new avenue of expression for these values and ideals or attitudes that were so commonly held at that time, but so uncommonly expressed by them. So that was my attraction and I'm like a lot of other people in that respect.
FZ: YOU'RE NOT PURSUING A COMEDY RECORD NOW, ARE YOU?
GC: No. No, I found out that in 1997 that I was able to write for the printed page, in a satisfactory way. My book "Brain Droppings" did very well. And not only it did very well in the market place but it satisfied me a great deal. It gave me a great deal of joy to actually do the writing and revisions and editing and all the thinking that went into it. So, I found another outlet in print that I will now follow. I have another book that I will be starting very soon, so I'm not pursuing studio albums. I did have one that I did back in 1981, half of it. You know, one half of the album was live stuff from the stage and the other half was studio produced. And I'd always thought that would be fun to do very well. But I wouldn't know… The attraction isn't there. It would be sort of a… What do they call it? When you do something mostly for your own personal enjoyment? A vanity project. It would be mostly that.
FZ: ONE THING I LIKE IN YOUR PERFORMANCES, IS THAT YOU DEVELOPE A VOICE FOR A PARTICULAR CHARACTER'S WAY OF THINKING.
GC: Well, yeah. Some part of me is a casting agent. And
kind of suggests how certain feelings come out, when I'm putting
them in the mouth of, you know, a second party. Then that mind bot, that thing that makes
those decisions just [Black voice] "Starts, just does them like that, you know,
'cause that just seems like where he ought to be."
I'm already full of ideas on this. I have a lot of things already developing. But it will kind of include a couple of threads of thought that run throughout it. It will include characters and some staging, not a great deal. Maybe not even as much as Lilly Tomlin did. But some minimal staging to set it apart from stand-up and to emphasize that it's a slightly different form for me. So those characters are going to come into play. At least on that first one that I'm thinking of doing.
FZ: I PARTICULARLY LIKE WHEN YOU GIVE THE 'VOICE OF DOOM' IT WAS LIKE LORD BUCKLEY. IT'S JUST SO WONDERFUL TO HEAR THAT 'THE LORD' LIVES ON IN YOUR MOUTH.
GC: Yeah, right, absolutely. I know it. I play his things more than 2 or 3 times a year. By that I mean everything. I have 2 110 min. tapes that has everything on it. That's 220 min. and that's a lot of time. But yeah, he lives on. One of the reasons I listen to him so frequently is that I'm always making tapes for someone who hasn't heard him. Somebody says, "I never heard of him!" Or else they'll say, "Gee, I've heard of this guy but I can't find anything. What's he like? Did you see him?" So I say, "Here. Just listen to this." Then it blows them away.
I've done that in the past with Firesign's albums too.
FZ: YOUR HUMOR SEEMS TO RUN ALONG SIMILAR PARALELLS TO THE FIRESIGN'S. YOU HAVE MORE OF A SORT OF VERBAL ATTACK UPON THE CULTURE AND THEIR'S IS SORT OF LIKE MIXING IT UP. YOU DO THAT TOO. YOU STILL HAVE SOME OF THAT RADIO BASED HUMOR IN YOUR PRESENTATIONS.
GC: Yeah. I find I think for the ear very much when I'm writing stuff for the stage and when I'm then rehearsing or learning it out loud and pencil editing, that I'm very very conscious of spoken word values and what gets into the consciousness the most easily or subconscious most easily, the thing that greases the path for the quickest entry into the mind. And that all has to do with the economy of language and proper choices that do lend themselves to the radio style.
FZ: YOU GET PRETTY VISCIOUS, SO WHY ARE YOU SO PISSED OFF?
GC: It's not that. I must arrange the language differently for you. When people call it anger, I always point out that if you were with me for 10 min. or 10 hours, you wouldn't see any evidence of an angry person. And it's true. I don't live with anger. What I have is a highly developed distaste for the direction my species has taken. And I consider it an affront. I think this species had great, great, great potential with this kind of a mind, that we were given this sort of a brain, I should say, that we were given, to be able to distinguish between us and something outside of us and theorize about it and think abstractly, these great powers that we were given. And that we are using them primarily in pursuit of goods and services, possessions, of the power that comes from them, and on the other hand we soothe ourselves with the superstitious nonsense of various forms of religion, and worship and God and so forth, this monotheistic thing.
So I just find that distasteful but it has to do with a certain kind of contempt. It's an applied anger, if you will, because I don't live it and experience it every minute. But when I get down to actually expressing the feelings I have about my fellow man or my fellow Americans, it is contemptuous usually. So the best way for that to play out on stage is for it to be heightened and intensified and played as anger. But anyone sitting closely enough can see in between, sometimes in between lines, a kind of a sparkle in my face or eyes that belies that kind of simple analysis, "What are you so angry about?"
But that's what it is. I mean, I just feel betrayed. I felt betrayed by the church, when I was a young boy and discovered they were full of shit, and I just feel betrayed on all these levels, so I don't choose to participate, so I'd stand outside and point out the holes in everything. Rather than trying to fix them, I'm one of the hole pointer-outers. "There's another hole over here! You didn't see this one. Come on, let me explain it to you. I'll describe it in full." Ha, so I enjoy doing that.
FZ: ONE THING THAT I NOTICED THAT YOU DID WITH THE SWEAR WORDS. AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SHOW, IT WAS KIND OF SHOCKING. BUT THEN AS YOUR MATERIAL GOT HEAVIER AND HEAVIER I NOTICED THAT WHEN PEOPLE STARTED TO GET UNCOMFORTABLE, YOU'D DROP A FEW SWEAR WORDS, AND THEN THEY'D LAUGH. AND THAT WOULD RELEASE THEM A LITTLE. I'M SURE THAT WAS INTENTIONAL.
GC: Well, no, it wasn't. I'll have to remember that now that it has been pointed out. I have to listen to the new show here tomorrow on the CD, so I'm going to remember that. If that is a pattern and it apparently is, it's obviously some sort of subconscious defense mechanism that protects me or something, that pushes that because I don't sit and think that way. Maybe I think in a way that's what comes out.
Everything is memorized and written before hand, so when I'm writing it, I can honestly say to you, I don't think that way but I can be pretty sure that whatever sort of matrix I work from, includes that. That's it's in there somewhere as part of my directional signal. Then I just do it and don't really call it that or notice it.
FZ: HOW DO YOU EVOLVE YOUR MATERIAL?
GC: Over the years I always kept all notes. I always have written down every thought or idea, notion, anything; a full complete one-line joke or a premise, a possibility for something, a topic I want to get onto. I've always saved these things. At least I've always written down the ones that seemed to feel the most promising and then let the others go. So anything that gets written down has already passed one test. And we're talking about eras going from small pieces of paper and notes up to all the way now to using a computer. But they still start out as notes.
My theory of it is; every time you read that note, when you think the thought, it creates a neural path in the brain and that path immediately starts looking for networks and connections. That's what's wonderful, the brain does all of the work, without too much prompting. And then when you write it down, it has to run through that neural path again. And already, from the idea to the time you write it down, it changes a little bit and you begin editing your own note. At least I do. I'll put in a carrot, and I'll go in and I'll add a phrase or I'll cross out one word and use another. But that's before the note's even finished.
Then, naturally, you've read it 3 or 4 times, while reading it, while working on it, at that moment, and it goes through the same path and the paths gets richer and more textured. And then when you file it, when you say, "Well, OK, it's now time to file this stack of papers. I've got about 200 pieces of paper here, I'd better get them back in the files, so they don't loose control. I start filing them and then more order is imposed on them. Once again, each one of them goes through that same neural path and connections are made stronger and new networks are found. Even though most of this doesn't turn into a lot of words right away, the brain is in there working and every time I refer to that file or go to those notes, I'm going to see that and it's going to work a little more. And eventually you start saying, "Wait a minute, this goes with that and those 2 things. That belongs together and this is a whole different idea. Wait, I didn't see this. Now look, here's a subsection that actually stands alone. I can take that out of this file and make a file out of that."
So it's this assiduous records keeping of my thoughts and notions that have given me the ground work. Then what happens is; periodically as I'm going through the computer files for some other reason, I'll happen on something and just begin working on it a little. Just turning notes into paragraphs or turning paragraphs into pages. Just raising it from level 3 to level 4 and realizing I've improved it and it's getting closer. Eventually over the period of years some of these just knock on my door a little harder than others. And I say, "OK, time to do this one. This is getting me a little excited in my belly now. I can feel excited about this." Then I'll take out, for instance, the file on 'kids and parents'. And that thing, for instance, when I looked at it about a year ago, I said, "This has to go in the '99 show. I can't let this reverence of children pass another 2 years. I have to talk about this one now." So I pulled it out and then really started doing the hard work of shaping it, then doing it out loud, re-shaping, doing it out loud. 'Cause doing it out loud is the key to my editing.
FZ: I IMAGINE THAT SOMETHING CURRENTLY IN THE NEWS PROBABLY PULLS SOMETHING UP OUT OF THE FILES TOO THEN.
GC: Yeah, it certainly can. It will ring a bell. But in terms of the book thing versus stand-up, when the book was finished I thought to myself, "Well in the next HBO show," meaning the one I just did, "I don't want to be doing a whole bunch of things from the book." Because I put some things in the book that I was, frankly, saving for stand-up. But I said, "The most important thing, right now, is this book. I'll always be able to do my stand-up shows. I want this book to be the best it can." So I took things that I was saving and hoarding a little bit and put them in the book and said, "You know, it's still my stuff, if I want to wait 2 HBO shows and pull this piece out and re-do it for the stage and upgrade it because I'll be a different person by then anyway, then that's fair game. That's my stuff. I can do that. And a real fan is not going to object to that."
And so I said to myself, "Instead of ever doing it in wholesale lots, to do it selectively would be good, it'll be OK. It would probably be good for the work." So that's what place I'm in now. As I start the new book, and I also start a new HBO show, right about now, I'm beginning to wonder, which ones, how I'll handle that balance in the next book. I might give myself more latitude in the next book. I might ease a little the kind of restrictions that I still feel in that area. I might let myself do a few more things and not worry about it. Once again, I want the book to be the best it can.
FZ: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE STATE OF THE ART OF AMERICAN COMEDY AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY?
CG: Well, you know, I think it is and always will be a neglected form. It's the exceptional experience when a Firesign Theatre comes along or when a career like mine takes place. And by that all I mean, in speaking of my own career, is a person who has for some reason, external reasons in his life, a chance, an opportunity to spend his whole career developing his stand-up and really trying to grow from stage to stage and let your own personal maturity, as an individual, reflect in the work. Not be just an entertainer stuck at one level but be an artist who grows in life.
I don't think those circumstances occur often enough for that to happen. There are certainly people who would have… Richard Pryor was well on his way to having that. And he has left an amazing legacy in spite of the interruption that took place, first of all by his movie career, and second by his illness and his troubles. But there aren't a lot of them that weren't interested in it to get out of it. "How can I get into comedy, so I can get out of it?" Get to the movies, out of stand-up.
But there doesn't seem to be that multitude of forms being explored now. You know? Firesign does an album like this. There is no one else to even pick that up and say, "OK that's a challenge. Here's my version." You know? I don't know it's… I don't know where to go for the comedy. I know I enjoy reading a humorist, sometimes. Occasionally I have a lot of fun making fun of that word. Humorist is kind of comedy without the laugh. It's just the warm feelings like Dilbert and Garfield. But a person like Dave Barry is a gifted comic thinker. Calvin Trillon has his moments. They're on the printed page. But in answer to general question the state of it is just it's a step child. It's a poor step child of the other performing arts.
FZ: HAVE YOU THOUGHT ALONG THE LINES OF BRINGING COMEDY ONTO THE WEB AT ALL?
GC: I have a real nice web page www.georgecarlin.com. It was given a Cool Site Award, by somebody. It's a great looking site but I don't get a chance to maintain it. I know how time consuming anything with that keyboard can be. I have to discipline myself, as it is to get my other work done. Other things come 1st. Things that give me a lot of joy and pleasure come 1st. And that's always a part of my work, so it just has to kind of sit out there. Soon as I get home from some of these wars and settle down for a few weeks or months and at least have a chance to at least learn how to get onto my own page, and how to change it…
FZ: THANKS A LOT GEORGE FOR TALKING WITH US.
GC: I enjoyed every minute of it. Thank you so much.