Inside George Carlin’s Head

“George Carlin is funny. Congenitally, genetically funny. He's got these harty-har-har chromosomes and genes. Carlin is TRANSLUCENTLY funny.”


HOLLYWOOD — Energy spills out. George dressed all in blue, his thin blue frame moving, jerking, limping, dancing, slurching — George being an ant —slurching along a sidewalk — eyes crossing, hair splayed out all into the wind, hands moving, smoothing the hair back, smoothing the hair back, always smoothing the hair back — the grossest of crossed eyes like ­some satanic yogi master, eyes all crossed looking at the third eye — up toward the secret of the golden flower — gold records — millions of them selling all across the country — five records in the last four years and every one of them gone to gold.

George Carlin at the Roxy, now slinking like a cat — cat colliding with a big glass door — cat recoiling, straightening — cat trying to ­keep its cool — look like he really MEANT to do that — proud cat — saving face — “FUCKIN’ MEOW!” —  screams George — “FUCKIN’ MEOW!” Funny as hell — the audience is roaring. Funny? Why is that so funny? Goddammit, that’s what we all want to scream out every time we’re trying to keep it together and we fuck up, blow it and can’t show it, can’t let on — have to keep on keepin’ on — George up there saying it for us: “FUCKIN’ ME — that’s ME. Me hurtin’ — ow! ow! ow!” Thank you. George — the guy in the front row laughing — just knocked over his martini glass — the girl with the blonde hair in hysterics — collapsing on the stage.

George Carlin is funny. He’s really very funny. George being a kid, George being a dog, George being the guy by the watercooler with freshly picked snot on his fingers and the boss just comes along — tryin’ to hide the snot­ — shake it off — get rid of it — whaddya do? “Can’t wipe it on the walls­ — and the furniture is full” — “I say — PUT IT BACK!” (Pause while the audience takes that in — ­howls — squeals) — ” Jacques Cous­teau tags ’em and puts ’em back!”

We’ve met before. That was George’s starting point. How are you doing? he asked the audience at the Roxy, throwing the respon­sibility for our reactions right on us. Are we going to be a good audience tonight? Will our section win? Will we be a credit to our row? — So we’re laughing al­ready — we’re on stage, too. There. Right there. We are IN this show.

Funny. I sat in a crowded room of people — mostly young — but not the campus crowd, more a Hol­lywood Scene — and they laughed their heads off. I sat through two shows. The first one I was down there in the ranks and everyone was laughing except the critic for the L. A. Times who thinks he’s supposed to be critical so he was miserable and downed four double brandies and his girlfriend was miserable too because she really wanted to be laughing and she’d start to and then she’d glance over at him and stop herself so as not to appear to be such an asshole as to laugh at something that wasn’t funny enough to suit her date.

George Carlin running down all the places we’ve met before. “Stoned in the supermarket — you smoke eight joints and bring $200 — frozen-food aisle — God it’s cold!­ — uh — honey — I’ll be over by the bar­becued chickens — get the Rocky Road ice cream — see you later­ — Dropping stuff back after you’ve got six carts linked together and you know you’ve gone too far — va­nilla extract in with the Brillo — the ham goes back with the frozen waffles — liverwurst slices — half of them are gone now — tucked in behind the please don’t squeeze the Charmin — don’t worry honey­ — they have these little men with purple fingers who come around at midnight and straighten it all out.”

“We’ve met in the cookie section —  in any head neighborhood — looks like a WAR ZONE — half the packages are open! — and all the GOOD cookies are gone! — where are the Mallomars? — the Mallo­mars never even make it to the store, man — people are lining up outside at the truck!”

We’ve met on the radio dial (“down towards the hopelessness of 540 — why do they stop there?­ — what kind of great stuff are they keepin’ from us down at 310?”), in the classroom (“Farts — farts are great — kids love ’em — look at it this way — a fart is just a shit without the mess!”), tripping on sidewalks, on the Monopoly Board, comparing dogs: “Animals: — the new people from the church have dropped by for a spot of tea and there’s the dog in the corner and he’s LICKIN’ HIS BALLS! And what’s even more amazing: NO ONE LOOKS AT HIM! There’s this perfectly spectacular thing going on in one corner of the room and no one says a word! If I could do that myself, I’d never leave the house!”

We’ve met before, he says, and he draws everybody in. He really does, me too. I’m laughing my head off. But when I go to talk to him — that’s different.

I have a theory about why George Carlin is funny. It has to do with words. Kids and words. We’re sitting in Little David Records, in the back room, and George has his feet propped up on the big round table and he’s smoking and drink­ing Heinekens and club soda (se­parately — he’s alternating) and he’s not saying anything. He says there’s nothing to talk about any­way since I haven’t seen his show yet.

I say well yes but I’ve listened to his albums — I even designed one once — the “Class Clown” album. Doesn’t matter, he says — doesn’t count for anything — ya hafta see the show.

So I launch into my Pet Theory Number One on what makes things funny. I came up with this about a year ago one time when I was stoned. It was important to me at the time because I am hardly ever stoned, so it took on great significance (hold on — I’ll get to it in a minute), but later, thinking about it, it occurred to me that George is about 39 now and he’s been stoned continually from the time he was 16 (except recently — that’s the main news about George Carlin, folks — George Carlin has cut out coke and he’s HARDLY EVER STONED!) — so he must be having these great significant revelations CONTINUALLY — and in fact, lis­ten to his records, he sure is.

“Nixon is the perfect symbol for the country — looks like he hasn’t taken a shit in a month — he’s just not a regular guy — every four years he gets the runs — ‘Look! He’s running again.’ ”

“Getting high on the plane — they always tell you — ‘please get ON the plane’ — ‘Fuck you,’ I tell them — I’m getting IN the plane — ­let the DAREDEVILS get ON the plane.”

Well, my weird idea about words: When I was stoned I sud­denly saw this magic plane I used to go to all the time when I was very little, before I learned to talk. A fantasy place — a great spot — full of alleyways with pink and purple trees, high white blossoms, shapes all changing. I went there every night, walked down the street, checked out the new buds on all the branches. Great place. And I had buried it for all these years.

Then I saw picture diction­aries — first the word written out, then the picture, then, tagged to every word, a FEELING that I had about the word, and a kind of COLOR that went with it! Eerie. Every word I ever learned was there, all tagged and colored. Then I was in New Rochelle Public Library, staring up at the stacks on the mezzanine. Staring up the way I used to when I was just a little kid. And I knew that those white stacks with the dark alleyways between them looked to me like the radiators in my house — the high white pipes and the dark dark spaces, scary spaces, in between them. The spaces, and the pipes repeating and receding when I looked down them from one end.

Then I saw that every word I had ever learned repeated and receded like the radiators, like the stacks. That every word I ever learned was surrounded by auras, feelings, colors — echoes of the hundred thousand times I ever had made contact with that experience before it boiled down into one dinky, distillate, poor-excuse-for-the-re­al-experience WORD.

And then I felt, knew, experi­enced, that the worst trauma in the world for me as a kid hadn’t been being weaned from the breast, or being rejected by my father — or whatever they say on psychiatrists couches years later — the real trau­ma was having to learn WORDS, having to come up with the right WORDS for everything.

And more than that: SANITY was coming up with the right word. Anything that had no words for it was (bad, naughty, unresponsive, irresponsible, antisocial, immoral, and) INSANE. That’s why I buried my magic secret nighttime gar­den: there were no words for it. It was “crazy” and it had to go.

So here I am making an asshole of myself running on to George Carlin who God knows is a busy man — 10 shows at the Roxy this week, plus shows with Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, a Perry Como special, prison benefit at San Quentin on the weekend, one film­making session coming up on Fri­day, and four days of shooting for a Mac Davis special coming up next week — then off on tour — and here I am.

I push on — the thing is, I tell George — the reason kids like word jokes so much — the reason they think it’s so hysterically funny when you point to a cup and say “tree” or point to a car and say “potato” — is that it’s a relief from the trauma of having to get the words all right — it kind of makes a little space for kids to get back to that great live conscious BEING place where they were when they were still preverbal.

Stop. End of Theory Number One. Look up. This man must think I’m nuts. Where’s he at, I wonder. I look at him across the table.

George Carlin looks like Christ in my “Bible Stories for Children” ­book that I used to sneak peeks at when I was supposed to be going to Ethical Culture Sunday School and singing songs by Pete Seeger and being a rationalist. Carlin also reminds me of somebody in my second-grade class — a class-clown type — maybe it was Pete McSweeney — but anyway there were a lot of Irish and Italian Catholic kids on my block and I used to walk home with the girls and memorize their catechisms and wish I had a white organdy dress like they had to wear to Confirmation. Where I grew up, the Catholics weren’t simply win­ning — they had WON. In fact the only distinction of any meaning was between the Irish Catholics, who had mothers who were thin, and the Italian Catholics, who had mothers who were fat. My mother was thin, and only a little Jewish, and I did NOT FIT IN.

And we all knew it.

And now here I am and there’s George Carlin and I feel like­ — THERE’S A PROBLEM. Not only because he looks like Christ on my secret book, but because — I feel like he is Of-the-People, By-the-People, and For-the-People — and I know that even though he may secretly find me in the dark when we play Spin-the-Bottle at my birthday party, out on the playground. when we’re choosing sides for baseball, he’s going to pick me LAST.

So I look up. “Yeah,” says George about my word theory. “Yeah” — (he’s almost smiling) — “Yeah — that’s really good. That bit about words being the real trauma — that was really fun.” He does a bit about kids, he says­ — another about words — and there’s a piece about kids’ words — I’ll see that in his show, he says — It’ll answer all my questions.

But I have one more question — I ask him whether he’s consciously worked out any theories about why all this is funny.

No, he says — it’s just INSTINCT — something he’s al­ways known — something that just occurs — “Because the creative child in me is — very active — and really rules the roost — and the three qualities that go into creativity you know — or spontaneity — are three qualities that are present in CHILDHOOD — the most creative state — they are INNOCENCE, CURIOSITY, and ENERGY.”

Most people, when they have a little faint stirring of the “creative child state” — they bury it — they’re afraid of it.

“Right,” says George. “They fear the child.”

And then I said “Okay — you’re excused from class,” and then he grinned (for the first time) and said “Oh Wow, Golly! I get to go home early!” and then he gave me a nice little kiss (like Pete Mcsweeney used to do in Spin-the-Bottle) and said “Thanks for the Good Vibrations” and I was on my way.

Funny — he wasn’t even funny. Not in person. That is — not with me. And he isn’t funny talking with me that night either, talking be­tween shows. He’s straight, serious, full of “answers-to-test-­questions type analysis.” But then in walk the executives from Little David records — Monty Kay, Jack Lewis, Burt, and Ben — and the whole scene changes. “Hey it’s da first team!” calls out George, coming on mannish-clannish macho. “The fuckin’ Regulars — da varsity squad is here!”

Right — I knew it — he’s picking them for baseball. Where’s he coming from? I go back and listen to his records:

“I grew up in a little Irish neighborhood, right next to Har­lem. On one side, Columbia and everything connected with Columbia — Juilliard, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, Riverside Church, St. Luke’s Hospital, St. John the Di­vine — all that stuff on one side — one the ether side” (long pregnant pause — mean deep voice) “HARLEM. We used to call our­selves ‘White Harlem’ — sounded BAD you know; ‘Hey man, where you live?’ — ‘White Harlem’ — oh! — sounded so FAGGY — to us anyway — Faggy had nothing to do with sex — a fag was a sissy — a fag was a guy who wouldn’t stay out late of go stealin’ or hitchin’ on trucks or something — ‘Aw go home, you fag — go home, fag — it’s 10 o’clock — the big fag’s gotta go home!”

“Queer — we knew what a queer was — a queer was the word we learned right after we learned ‘homo’ — ‘Ah — he’s a queer! — he’s a HOMO — yeah, yeah!” — A FAG was a guy who wouldn’t go downtown with you beaten’ up queehs! —part of that Irish Street Macho.”

Irish Street Macho — so that’s it — George simply doesn’t relate to women the way he relates to men — and he isn’t funny with women because he doesn’t have to be.

“Bein’ funny on the street. It was good to be funny on the street, especially if you weren’t one of those big fighter dudes and you were tired of running — it was good to be funny — would save you from an ass-kicking if some guy from another neighborhood came around — who’s gonna kick a guy who’s making cross eyes and screwin’ up his mug and going GAURRGHHH!!!? — ‘Lay off him, Charlie — don’t touch that one — it’s bad luck to hit a guy like that.’ ”

Girls — that is, women: girls and nuns and mothers — girls are not gonna kick you in the ass down on the street so GIRLS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM! You do not have to be funny when you talk to girls! (And he can’t think of any other way to be with them either, except kind of nice and POLITE, so the conversation kind of FALTERS — ­which it certainly did with us.)

Actually I did all the talking, and then I said ‘Okay — you’re excused from class — you can go home early,’ and he said ‘Oh wow golly,’ and that was right because he was being like a good little boy come to take the test (“all interviews are like tests,” says George) and I was being like a teacher/nun.

First it’s just that put-down feeling — and then it’s the typical Jew­ish psych-the-whole-thing-out ap­proach. Well, the man’s had a tough time of it keepin’ up the Irish Macho business — doesn’t deal with women anyway — they’re not on his album either — everything else is there — cats, dogs, farts, football vs. baseball, news, weather, dirty words, masturbation — he does try on that one to take the woman’s view — but it just doesn’t have that authoritative ring — the albums have an almost VIRGINAL quali­ty even when he gets into what he calls the “more gushy areas of universality” he doesn’t tread on SEX — when I him how his sex life with his wife was, he just said “fine” — kept it private — not that he should do anything else — it’s just that there’s been very little that he HAS kept private — his stock-in-trade is to talk about all the things people never talk about — all the forbidden subjects — so why not this one? but no — I sense it — this one is off limits.

But these thoughts all come later. Right now it’s Wednesday night, and I’m out there in my row at the Roxy, laughing like crazy, and George has gotten into his kid thing just like he said he would­ and h0w he’s getting into his words thing.

“Words are great — in the beginning was the word — GOD got to choose the first one and he got the best one — they had words — ‘my word’ — word for word’ — word contradictions: ‘jumbo shrimp;­ well, which is it for God’s sake?­ — let them make up their minds!­ — smithereens — why is it always talked about in plurals? — ‘Hey Johnny — look! Just found that smithereen left over from last year’s explosion!” — dirty words — finding the middle ground — somewhere  between ‘bloomer’ and ‘cuntlapper’ — the FUCK — substituting the fuck for the word kill  —’ to fuck a mockingbird’ ” (George makes an obscene gesture — grinds his groin (“where does my groin end and my loin begin?”) and stretches out his hands — to fuck a mockingbird — hold gently by the wings.’ ”

Words. So George is running through all this and now he’s kind of wriggling and talking about this kind of shaking that happens to you when you take a piss — “what does that mean? — TAKE a piss? you don’t TAKE a piss — you leave one” and he’s saying “What is that? — that shaking? — There’s n0 WORD for it — I call it the PISS QUIVERS” and suddenly I hear him saying, “Kids really like word jokes because they’re so hassled  learning words.”

Hey! How ’bout that! So George was really listening to my Pet Theory Number One! — and I suddenly get a glimpse into where George gets all his stuff — he gets it everywhere — anywhere — all day long!

I check out Carlin in “I Ching” and it comes up with a hexagram called INFLUENCE WOOING — and I realized that the word influence (in—fluence) literally means “a flowing in” — and in Chinese the  hexagram mean “general,” “universal,” and also stimulating” — thus conjuring up a picture of an individual being open to currents from all sides, being stimulated by them, and stimulating them in his turn.

And it seemed to me that George was very much like that: he is open to every twist, weirdness, irony, surprise, delight — when I talked to him between the shows again, a bit of that exchange had been incorporated by the second show! If so, if he does that with me, he must do that with everyone, continually. Everything get worked in, a constant process, like the building of a shell.

“I noticed you worked in that thing about kids learning words.”

“Oh yeah.” George looks pleased, grinning. “Yeah, I’ve already started to work that in.”

Backstage at halftime — George sitting very quiet at an old oak desk, sitting in an old oak chair­ — like school. Heineken’s again. Club soda with a red straw. A lemon.

Interviews: George Carlin re­minds me of Joni Mitchell — who says all he has to say is in his work — there isn’t anything else to say — the rest is mainly filling up the spaces — showing up for the blue book and then saying­  — what? — well — not NOTHING — but saying all that left-brained, logi­cal, after-the-fact type stuff­ — polite analysis to satisfy the questioners — theories and reasons.

He wears blue because it’s like Mime, because he’s striving for “stark contrasts, stark emotions, classicism.” His work is new all the time (although he’s always using “old” material) because he changes the “order, the intonation, the choice of words, the look you give after you say it — you must have the feeling you’re kind of thinking of it for the first time — so you remember the JOY of thinking of that joke — that way you can say it again like it’s half — half not SPONTANEOUS or NEW — but just — half SURPRISE — you know — you have to feel the AWE!”

Does he ever worry about run­ning out of funny things to talk about?

“No — not really — I’m getting into other forms — I’m getting into creating on the typewriter, too­ — and through film — but rapping — it always will sustain me — I wouldn’t want to chase the same goal all the time for the next 20 years — but I’ll alway be able to do some rap­ping.”

Right now, what turns George on is: he’s getting into film — “Everybody has a path — I’m get­ting to another level. It’s just not out there on the table yet to show everyone, but we’re filming here Friday night, for instance, to have the basis for a lilm — It’s something — ­you don’t really want to talk about a lot, cause it’s just an embryo­ — but it’s a very healthy one.”

No doubt it is. Reports vary, but George is estimated to be raking in anywhere between $300,000 and $1 million a year these days. But he can’t stay on the college circuit forever — he’s surfacing — that’s why he’s playing at the Roxy this week, even though the money isn’t anything like what he’d be making in a bigger hall. “I want to reach these people — the Hollywood In­dustry people — I’m a kind of secret success to them. They know I’m doing well, but they don’t really know what I do.”

I point out that he seemed to do less playing with the audience than he used to do two or three years ago.

“Well there was a real need to establish that in myself then — that moment-to-moment, let’s look at the event — heehee — you and I are here — and I’ve done a lot of that­ — I’ve felt those feelings — and I’ve established that kind of feeling about myself — so those things fade — they come and go. As they’re needed — This is all such a basic — psychological trip — you know — like that word is really good in terms of the process because you’re really just telling — you’re doing analysis up there, of sorts. You can’t help that-the things that are most significant about you are bound to surface — without your  even knowing it — or WITH your knowing it — whatever …

“So you go through stages just as you do in your own thinking — in your little fears — your experiments — all the various things that make up people — you know — happen there too as you develop your career — you grow — and grow up, you know. I’m kind of reaching young manhood again now for the second time — for four or five years now I’ve been acting out my adolescence in public — in terms of almost everything that applies to that part of your life: dress, and irreverence, and language, and drug experimentation — and alienation — and now that’s kind of rounding out in me.”

I ask him — George — what is the payoff?

“The payoff,” he said — “was getting people to stop for 10 minutes on the street corner and just PAY ATTENTION. Power — power to get the fuckers to stop and HEAR ME, HEAR ME FOR CHRISSAKES HEAR ME!”

And so he did it — did it as a kid — does it — does it far longer and longer periods of time — more and more people — worked it to perfection — well, not quite perfection — ­and that explains what he was saying in the break between the shows.

“It’s really funny— wanting to do those extra 30 minutes” (he had to cut the show down at the Roxy, to fit in two performances in one night) — I feel like — gee — you ought to know about my neighborhood — I got some really nice stuff on that that’s a lot like this other thing — you’d really like it — I got this rap on death — lexicon on death and violence — ‘that kills me,’ ‘that slays me,’ ‘that wipes me out’-nice stuff-missed that­ — couldn’t fit it in.” That bothered him — can’t say it ALL.

And what if he DID?

Power — PROOF — the money’s nice, he says. The life-style’s nice — being popular is nice — that’s getting closer to it — yes, he likes that — but the best part — the ATTENTION. “They’re all listen­ing to me! Wow.”

But how does he DO that! What is he selling that we pay so much attention?

George Carlin is funny. Congenitally, genetically funny. He’s got these harty-har-har chromosomes and genes. Then there’s environment, too — lots of Irish Catholic Macho street kids learned to be FUNNY not to get their asses kicked in when some big tough fighter dude from the next block’s gang came sauntering down the avenue — but Carlin’s FUNNIER THAN THAT. Carlin is TRANSLUCENTLY funny.

Nouns and verbs and participles and arms and legs all dangling, gerundives, possessives, mostly subjunctives — what if? — and subjectives — MY story — MY street — MY class — Corpus Christi — Sister Marie Richard — my best masturbation stories that I traded with my old pal Bill — statements — periods — ­long periods of waiting, chewing, digesting, puking, processing, wasting away, the shitty parts, the pissed-off places, the stopping and the belching, farting away the time of day, the night, caffeine in his blood, caffeine, coke, grass, speed, beer, caffeine in the skin, the bones, the arteries, humor in another vein — no bones about it­ — the starting IS the stopping.

Translucent: the whole process is revealed. Translucent. That’s what it is — He’s crawled inside his own body, his brain — he’s let us see it — see the insides — see the blood swishing, turning — the snot running, the shit, the farts, the balls, the cock, the eyes, the brain — and once in a while — maybe — more and more — once in a while — the heart.

He gets high and we get high. Trippy, tripping — but mostly it’s that he sees right through himself. (“Hey! They’re all listening to me! Wow!”) and we see right through him. George Carlin seen as a pane of glass — set against the black background of general world TOTAL CHAOS. He becomes a mirror — and we see ourselves.

We look pretty funny too, God-dammit.

Cracks us up. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 28, 2020