From our files: The nonconforming George Carlin

The irreverent comedian, who died June 22, was interviewed by the Monitor in 1973 after a transitional time for his standup routine in which, he says he had discovered his true character - himself.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Comedian George Carlin died on Sunday, June 22, 2008.
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    Comedian George Carlin performed at Kent State University in 1973.
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From the July 23, 1973 edition of The Christian Science Monitor

Television is just a place to stop off and tell the world that you're making it without television, according to George Carlin. "It only reflects that you're a success in concerts, records, movies, whatever you do well. You then come on TV to boast about it and maybe offer a little sample."

In this case, the sample is "Monsanto Night Presents the real George Carlin," a TV special which will appear in most major viewing regions sometime in mid-August. To shoot, the comedian is returning to all his old haunts in his native New York City - Columbia University, near where he was born; Grant's Tomb, where he played as a boy; the Bitter End, the kind of club in which he performs best.

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He has brought with him Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, B.B. King - and four air-conditioned trailers. He is chatting in one of the trailers, parked near the Columbia library, where 300 students, hangers-on, and passers-by are waiting for the camera to be repaired so he can perform.

"Let's face it," Mr. Carlin continues. "TV is controlled by government and paid for by private industry. Certainly with that combination the result is bound to be mostly junk. Even with the freedom I was promised on this show, I'm sure I'll only be able to get 50 percent of what I want onto the screen."

'NOTHING BEHIND HIM'

What he wants is for the world to know that there is now a new, "real" George Carlin. When he finally steps out to perform he quickly establishes that fact.

"I'm George Carlin." he said pointing to a cardboard cut-out of the George Carlin of another era. "I used to be this guy. Or maybe this guy used to be me. I liked him. I had a lot of fun. He did a lot for me. But there was nothing behind him. Just surface. I wasn't there. I found out I wasn't in my own act after a while. And I discovered a much better character for me - myself."

As a matter of fact, if you haven't seen George Carlin since the old days - that short-haired, business-suited character with the funny disc-jockey and weatherman routines - you might not even recognize the new George Carlin. He's broomstick-thin with a reddish-brown beard, long hair tied in back with a rubber band, dressed in jeans and T-shirt with a pendant around his neck and an earring in one ear. A man seemingly at ease with his youthful audiences - and with himself.

During the next few days, on the various locations, he talks freely about the changes:

"I've been into myself for two and a half years. Before that I was doing an act which consisted of a series of character sketches for which I served as master of ceremonies.

"It was a period when a lot of people were reevaluating themselves. Consciousness-raising became almost an art form. I tried acting and I found I hated that loss of control. I realized I was a monologist; 'Okay,' I said to myself. 'why not say the things and do the things that are really in your mind and your heart?' Suddenly all my personal observations about life became usable in that context.

'FREEDOM JUST SPILLED OVER'

"And this freedom to be myself on stage just naturally spilled over into my private life, my appearance, my relationships. It was good. Personally and in my career. The result has been that I am far better rewarded in terms of money, following, satisfaction. I'm writing more, a film script, a compendium of funny things...

"Sure, I know that I've been criticized for taking on the physical appearance of a subculture. Anti-hippies keep saying that I'm conforming to another kind of conforming - nonconforming. But the fallacy is that when person leaves a society that forces men to conform under duress and joins a subculture in which brothers tend to conform, it is voluntary conformity. And that's a big, big difference.

"Long hair was adapted as a rebellious act and developed into a kind of natural badge. People who share my most deeply felt philosophy, the alternate culture, also wear their hair long. And it'll be a long time before it's out of style for us. Maybe with some trendy people but not with the real brothers. When straight people talk about long hair being over, it's just wishful thinking.

'NOT A FUNNY MAN'

Despite his new-found conformity, George Carlin never really fitted into a mold. This Morningside Heights class clown finished on only a year and a half of high school before he joined the Air Force at 17. At 18, he was already a disc jockey in Shreveport, La., the town where he was stationed. That started him on an entertainment career in radio, then into coffee houses, graduating into the Las Vegas "big time" and recording, at the same time making numerous appearances on late-night talk shows where his hard-hat routines made him a national comic figure. Then George Carlin discovered George Carlin.

"More and more I began seeking out the counterculture audiences. My kind of stuff just doesn't work for conventioneers. All those characters sending back steaks and making noise. I am a monologist - not a funny man but a man of funny ideas. Nightclubs and TV are strictly commercial arenas - entertainment comes second, art comes third. Before a concert-hall audience of students and other young people, it is you alone out there. The only the audience gets to eat is popcorn, and they have to go outside for that."

Where does he find his material? "In my own experiences, my own observations, my own childhood. Like, for instance, the cliches that all parents seem to use in dealing with their children. You see, my gift is that I see the absurdities and ironies of life, and have the ability to verbalize and mimic them. I'm the class clown. I made faces at the teacher and then did my routines on the street corner. In the end, I'm just the guy who thought of the stuff and got hold of a microphone. Once I'm on stage, my wits are my only defense against ignominy. It amounts to pure self-defense."

The new George Carlin performs some rather straightforward material. "But only before audiences who will understand," he insists. "At first, when I changed back to the real George Carlin, I was persona non grata on the TV talk shows. 'He he flipped out, grew a beard.' Then, they learned I was reliable, that I knew how to control my own routines, that I don't curse on camera, don't wiggle and jiggle and yell a lot. And suddenly I was doing the talk shows again - 20 since I came into my new feelings. I've been guest host for both [Johnny] Carson and [Dick] Cavett."

'AN EXPANDED GUEST APPEARANCE'

"I've also had offers to do my own talk show and a variety show. But I turned them down. I just don't want to be something I'm not. I work best in an auditorium with 2,500 people. That's really where I belong. That's where my people are, too.

"This TV special is the first one in a possible series of specials I'm considering. Like maybe one a year. I want to see if the freedom that was offered to me will really be forthcoming. It's just an expanded guest appearance. Instead of one monologue like on the Carson show, I get to do four monologues and have a few guest stars."

There's a knock at the door of the trailer and George Carlin hops out, his pendant swinging in the breeze as he mounts the steps of Grant's Tomb to begin one of his monologues...

"Hi, I'm George Carlin. I don't really have a beginning...."

The monologue catches the fancy of the youthful audience, probably unaware of its hint of Will Rogers and others. They are only aware of its flavor of the real George Carlin.

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