Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin's Last Interview

Monday was a sad day, thankfully, some of the man has been preserved in what he, himself, called 'the most complete interview I’ve ever done." Congratulations to Jay Dixit! I just read that HBO/Showtime will be airing a retrospective of his live performances. Time to get out the Tivo/VCR whatever. Below are the great Questions Jay asked. For more go to the original Blog.

George Carlin

Jay Dixit

Jay Dixit is a Senior Editor at Psychology Today.

Ten days ago, on Friday, June 13th, 2008, I had the extraordinary privilege of talking to George Carlin. As far as I know it was the last in-depth interview he gave before he passed away yesterday at age 71. Originally it was slated to run as a 350-word Q&A on the back page of Psychology Today. But I was so excited to talk to him—and he was so generous with his time—that I just kept on going. By the end I had over 14,000 words.

On stage, George Carlin came across as a grouch, often vulgar and sometimes misanthropic. But with me he was patient and warm, happy to talk through the minutiae of his creative process and eager to share stories about his childhood, his evolution as a comic, and his influence. What struck me most was the joy in his voice as he talked about the wonderful feeling he got in his gut while writing. I was also moved by the gratitude he expressed for his mother, who he said “saved” him and his brother—leaving her bullying, alcoholic husband when George was just two months old, getting a job during the worst years of the Depression, and raising two boys on her own.

He spoke about the pride he took in his work. As a ninth-grade dropout, he said, it was gratifying to see his words quoted in textbooks, classrooms, and courtrooms. And he was proud to have inspired other comedy greats, who routinely called him to say, "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be doing this." As he looked back on his astonishingly prolific 50-year career—which includes 130 Tonight Show appearances, 23 albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, and one Supreme Court case—the interview became a sort of retrospective of his life.

Finally, after two hours, he gently mentioned that his arm was getting tired from holding the phone. “I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into all these questions. Really, it’s the most complete interview I’ve ever done,” he said. “Is it tomorrow yet? I think it is.”

“It feels like it is,” I said, struggling to keep up with his wit.

“All this is for a quote unquote back page?” he said.

“This is for the back page, but, I don’t know, I just love you and your work so much!” I gushed. “I just had so much I wanted to ask.”

At the time, I was embarrassed by what I’d said. But when I heard the sad news this morning, my feelings changed instantly. I’m honored that I got to speak to him, and I’m grateful that I got to tell him how much I admired him before he died.

It would be impossible to overstate George Carlin’s contribution to standup comedy. Along with Richard Pryor and a few others, he essentially created the genre as we know it today. But he was more than just a comedy pioneer. He was a freethinker who never backed down, and he truly changed the course of American culture. He will be missed. —Jay Dixit

Selected Questions from the interview:

How do you think about comedy and self-expression? Expressing what’s within vs. looking at the outside world and making observations?

Do you go around observing and trying to collect funny things? Or do you just live your life and then say how you feel about what you happen to have seen?

Do you think that the richness you described comes from just being able to access more experiences, having information on file? Or is it judgment?

You talked about how comedy's all about incongruities, contrasts, exaggeration. Do you think about those techniques or those principles of humor consciously?

Do you think there are any downsides to having gotten to the point where you are, where all of this is happening automatically? Or are there some advantages a 20-year-old would have?

You talked about how wonderful it is, this feeling of writing. So what is your process like?

And what's your filing system?
What's the process of going from something that's true about the world—observing it—to actually making people laugh?

How is it that you find things that are unexpected?
You made an analogy to playing the violin. I wanted to ask you about mastery. You’ve been doing this for, as you said, over 50 years, and it seems like you've only gotten better with time. So I'm wondering what you think has enabled you to do that. Is it like playing the violin? Is it just practice? Is it getting good feedback? Is it—you know, what is it that allows you to hone your craft?

What is your philosophy about physical performance? You walk around a lot, you make a lot of gestures.

Were you always making people laugh, sort of automatically, just because of your personality?

Can you remember the first joke you ever told?

I want to talk about the transformation that you did in the 60s when you went from what you once termed the “middle-American comic” to this different persona—it was much more subversive. How did that happen and why did that happen?

In what way did the mescaline and LSD give you the insight and the confidence to make this transformation? What role did the drugs play?

So after that transformation, to what extent is the persona that you have on stage—to what extent is it your real personality? I know you’re making jokes and some of that involves exaggeration, but do you feel that you’re acting angrier, more bitter, more caustic on stage? Or are you just being yourself as accurately as possible?

So it sounds like it is your true personality, but it’s heightened for the stage.

So let me latch onto that metaphor: you’re grabbing somebody and you’re saying, “Don’t you see it? Don’t you see it?” But if you really don’t care about America, then why are you doing it? Why are you on stage? Is it just because you want to express yourself? Do you want to help people?

So how would you say that you feel towards people? You say on the one hand you are sort of contemptuous but on the other hand you want their approval in some way? Is that not a contradiction?

Let’s switch gears a little bit and let me ask you about religion. I mean you were talking about it decades ago. Now, atheism and religion bashing have gone mainstream: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. You were way ahead of the curve. What’s it like hearing them saying many of the things you said in the 1970s?

You were central in the Supreme Court case in which justices affirmed the government's right to regulate your “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” act on the public airwaves. How do you think about the role of vulgarity in your humor?

What’s the funniest bit you’ve ever heard?

How has your comedy changed over the years?

You asked me to remind you to tell me about Arthur Koestler.

So, sitting in front of a computer, “Wait till they hear this, this is great material.” What’s the difference between that and actually standing on stage hearing the audience roaring with laughter?

Let me ask you about your influence—how do you feel that you have influenced other comedians?

Do you mentor other comedians?

Has your sense of humor helped you in other areas of your life, besides your career as a professional comedian? Meeting people? Making friends? Dealing with loss?

I guess I'm pretty much done. We've been talking for a long time and I really appreciate your taking all this time. Was there a good question you thought people should ask that never got asked?

So the last question is: What are you working on now?
Is there anything else you want to add?

No! And I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into all these questions. Really, it’s the most complete interview I’ve ever done. Is it tomorrow yet? I think it is.

Read the Full Interview

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