George Carlin: Thinking funny

Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2000

Good comedians make people laugh. Great comedians make people think.

George Carlin wants to make people think. He's not satisfied with simply getting a laugh. The award-winning show-business veteran performs to a sold-out crowd tonight at Centennial Hall.

``Some comedians are artists, interpreters of culture, and writers. I write. My main job is writing about things that strike me and interest me -- culture at large and the species in general,'' he said.

Carlin said there's a difference between artists and entertainers.

``Entertainers are just interested in pleasing people. There's nothing wrong with that. But getting a laugh and making money should not be confused with expressing thoughts,'' he said. ``It sounds pretentious for a comedian to talk this way, and it looks stupid in print for a comedian to be calling himself an artist.

``I find my joy in expressing how I feel about the world. The fact I entertain is wonderful, and makes me happy and proud, but it's a by-product of art.''

Carlin began his show business career in radio in 1956 at age 19, and by 1960 he was headlining in Las Vegas. He's made 18 albums and earned four gold records. He won his first Grammy Award in 1972 for ``FM and AM,'' and his last in 1993 for ``Jammin' in New York.'' His 1997 book ``Brain Droppings'' was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 42 weeks and sold 600,000 copies.

Carlin is currently writing a second book, ``Napalm and Silly Putty,'' that should be out next spring.

Carlin is well known for a routine he performed in the 1970s that mocked the seven ``dirty'' words that were taboo for television. Now, virtually every one of those words can be heard on television any night of the week.

Carlin said the cultural revolution of the 1960s and '70s changed the way Americans think, and that affected comedy. All the barriers and restrictions changed. Women's rights, birth control and new freedoms expanded the area of expression for artists.

``Those words don't seem to frighten as many people as they used to,'' Carlin said. ``If you look at popular music, movies, magazine writing, every form reflects these changed standards. Comedy goes along for the ride.''

Carlin said people are now focused on different taboo issues. Religion has always been a hot button, and still is. It's also one Carlin loves to push.

Carlin played a Catholic bishop in last year's comedy film, ``Dogma.'' The movie pushed buttons across the country, including in Juneau where the Knights of Columbus took out a series of newspaper ads denouncing the film as Satanic.

Carlin, who has a grown daughter, described another hot button as ``the cult of the child.'' He said the national fascination with Elian Gonzales and Jon Benet Ramsey exemplifies that obsession.

``It's child worship,'' he said. ``It shows people don't have much to think about. Politicians recognize that. Gore and Bush wedge ``For The Children'' into everything you can imagine, even when it doesn't fit.''

When ``political correctness'' came into vogue in the 1990s, some comedians found their material was offending, not amusing, their audiences. Carlin brushed off concerns about political correctness.

``The role of a comedian is to ignore that kind of stuff. The role is to challenge that. The whole idea of being a comedian is to question values,'' he said.

That wasn't always Carlin's philosophy. Much of his career in the 1960s involved television and Las Vegas stage shows, venues extremely concerned with not offending audiences. In the early 1970s he was suspended and later fired for swearing on stage at his shows at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.

``I came to a turning point. I started out following the mainstream, but then I was not comfortable. I was out of step. I didn't trust authority and regulations. I made the change and made it more personal,'' he said.

He also moved away from television, and media he disdains.

``Television is just an advertising media. It has nothing to do with art or even entertainment. It's just things between commercials to sell tires and biscuits and beer,'' he said.

Cable is different, he said. Cable, especially Home Box Office, has been very good to Carlin. When HBO first emerged in the late 1970s, Carlin's comedy specials were huge hits. He's continued to produce specials every two years for HBO.

Tickets went on sale for Carlin's Juneau show more than a month ago, and 1,200 tickets quickly sold out, despite adding seats to handle the event. The concert hall opens at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30. Comedian Dennis Blair will open.

``He's a terrific comedian,'' Carlin said. ``Besides doing his own stand-up comedy, he does musical parody, impressions of musicians and rock and pop stars.''

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