George Carlin feels betrayed.
Here he is, months away from turning 60, 25 years removed from the seven words you can’t say on television and the hippie-dippie weatherman, and 30 years since he started the nightclub-talkshow circuit. Those mellow, blissed-out times are as far gone as the society that initially embraced the long-haired Carlin as their comedian; the even temperament of his early work remains in his life, but the ardent observations he hurls at audiences burn straight through their lifestyle-defining shields.
“What you see onstage is not so much anger as it is my contempt for the rest of humanity and culture,” he says. “I have no faith in it. The promise of the human race has been wasted on greed and superstition. It’s wasted on acquisition. There’s a disregard for values in American society. I feel betrayed.”
Few comedians would dare tap such a deeply personal artery to ground their act. But Carlin has always been on the edge, challenging society to constantly examine itself, what it holds dear and even how it expresses itself. Some subjects have been longtime favorites and remain today — race relations, farts, religion — while the drug humor has given way to a scrutiny of language and attitudes.
“What I do,” he says, tossing in a caveat that may sound unintentionally pretentious, “besides being an entertainer is use an artistic process. For it to be art, it has to go somewhere. Over a lifetime you change and accumulate thoughts that you need to get off your chest. As what’s on your chest changes and your skill presumably gets better, you are creating art — creating something from nothing.”
Carlin’s 40-year career is being celebrated Thursday with a retrospective, performance and Q&A session at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. The tribute comes as Carlin turns the corner at 20, 40 and 60 — years with HBO, years in showbiz and years on Earth, respectively.
Born in New York to a newspaper ad exec father and secretary mother, Carlin abandoned school and Catholicism at an early age, winding up in the Air Force, where he got his first taste of performance. Working in the late ’50s as a disc jockey in Shereveport, La., and Fort Worth, Texas, he developed a routine with newsman Jack Burns. The duo became the morning drive-time team at Hollywood’s KDAY before devoting themselves to the nightclub circuit in 1960. They both went solo in 1962.
Soon Carlin found the folk and jazz clubs to be more accepting of his anti-establishment bits than the established rooms; from 1965 through 1967, Carlin landed hundreds of TV guest spots on talk and revue shows that presented him as a bit off-center. TV and club appearances kept improving until 1970 — a pivotal year in Carlin’s life — when the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas provided a three-year contract.
But 1970 also was the year he decided to chuck the conventional material he was using on “Ed Sullivan” and “The Tonight Show.” In its stead were the monologues that impressed the “counterculture” and the language that led him to being fired by the Frontier. By Christmas, he no longer played “establishment clubs.”
His move proved fruitful as he started a string of four million-selling albums in 1972 with “FM & AM,” which won the Grammy for comedy album. But those heady days dried up quickly, as did his acting career.
“Circumstances in my life dictated that I become a lifelong standup comedian,” he recalls, noting tax troubles and his acting inability as central problems. “Whether the stuff I used developed genetically or came from the street corner, it helped turn me into an artist.”
As the hippie phase of his career was waning — and the hair and the beard limited film and TV roles — HBO came knocking. In 1977, he taped “George Carlin at USC,” and in the years since his specials have received a Grammy, two CableAces and an Emmy nomination. His work as Mister Conductor on the PBS kids show “Shining Time Station” earned him two Emmy noms, too.
“HBO provided me with a wonderful opportunity,” Carlin says. “It provided a mass audience, there were no commercials and no censoring of language or content. It was an outlet to sell myself, and soon my theater gigs and HBO shows were feeding off each other.”
Chris Albrecht, president of original programming at HBO, praised Carlin for raising the conscience of America for nearly three decades. “And he is as prolific a comedian as I have witnessed,” he says. “The standup comedy concert is one of the truly original forms of pay TV — you can’t see it anyplace else. But it takes a special comedian to be able to deliver an hour of material and build it and craft it like a movie. George does great theater and the response is always great.”
His resurgence led Fox TV to put “The George Carlin Show” on the air for a season but, as he told the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., “That was an experiment on my part to see if there might be a way I could fit into the corporate entertainment structure. And I don’t. I knew that going in.”
See. Some things never change.