In tribute to comedy legend George Carlin, who died June 22 at the age of 71, we present this interview, which appeared in the Sept. 27, 2007, issue of Billboard.
The irascible George Carlin — voted, through a Comedy Central poll of network executives and industry veterans, the second-best stand-up comedian of all time behind Richard Pryor — turned 70 May 12. To mark his 50 years in entertainment, MPI Home Video is releasing a 14-DVD career retrospective boxed set, “George Carlin: All My Stuff,” Sept. 25.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Carlin does 80 shows a year and is in the process of preparing an hour’s worth of new material for his next HBO comedy special, which will air live in March 2008. Billboard caught up with him during a break from his current stint in Las Vegas.
What’s driving you to do 80 dates a year after 50 years in the business?
It’s what I do, and there’s two things going. One, I’m an entertainer and two, I’m an artist. And the artist never really finishes his job—the writer is never finished. Some of it goes to the books, some of it goes to the shows, and the shows become HBO concerts.
A review of your Billboard chart history reveals that comedians today don’t chart as consistently as you did throughout your career, especially your work in the ’70s.
People used to say albums were hot, then they were cold, then they were hot for comedians. There’s just too much going on in the popular culture for that to work—too many things competing for people’s attention.
What can fans expect from the boxed set?
It goes from 1977, the first HBO show I did, through the most recent in 2005. There are 12 pure stand-up shows in the boxed set, and they represent the evolution of a particular comedy. I go from being very tentative in 1977, to the 1992 show, which was my favorite because that’s when my comedy voice changed. Right around 1990, 1992 the writer took over and the pieces became more thoughtful and more extended and more like essays.
Is that what you mean when you say “the writer not just looking for a laugh” and delving into heavier subjects?
I discovered around that time that there was something I could do with an audience that didn’t involve getting a laugh every 20-30 seconds, and that was to engage their imaginations and hold their attention with ideas and language. There are really three things going on in my comedy now: One is the humor, the jokes; second is the ideas, and points of views and attitude; and thirdly, the way it’s couched—I hope in colorful language. And by that I don’t mean foul language necessarily—that’s included, too—but I mean language that’s interesting to listen to.
Any thoughts on what’s going on in the political world right now?
I’ve never done topical humor. I’ve never cared for it. I like writing for the long span. So I talk about things that seem timely, but are actually sort of timeless: race, religion, big business, consumerism, ignorance of the average American, false patriotism. I just watch the current political [process] like a sport. It is a blood sport to the ones involved, and it’s great, great theater. And now they’re changing all the rules in the primaries and maybe even with the distribution of electric votes in particular states—so the rules are shifting on the run.
Is there any wisdom that comes with turning 70 that you could share?
I don’t notice numbers of years as much as I notice periods of life. It’s very interesting to have lived through the golden age of radio, the golden age of television, the golden age of movies, the golden age of American popular standard music. It’s fun to live life.