George Carlin: A man of many well-chosen words
G eorge Carlin was fascinated with words. He was most famous, of course, for his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine...
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George Carlin was fascinated with words. He was most famous, of course, for his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine, as has been pointed out in every obit written since the great comedian died last Sunday. That was a landmark routine that pushed the limits of what you could say on TV.
As someone who has made a living writing for more than 45 years, that was what I loved most about Carlin. He never lost his fascination with words. And he never dropped the "Seven Words" bit — he just expanded it, until it became hundreds of words.
Every time I interviewed Carlin, we always ended up talking about words.
"Jargon and trendy patois and what have you," he said in 1989 interview, "the fun is in how we use them."
"A word I dislike is 'lifestyle,' " he said in the same interview. "If you want to know what a moronic word 'lifestyle' is, all you have to do is realize that, in a technical sense, Attila the Hun had an outdoor lifestyle. Or that for the last two weeks of his life, Hitler enjoyed an underground lifestyle."
At his shows here, he riffed brilliantly on many subjects, from TV to pets to politics. But he always got around to words.
"I've never deboated, never debused, never derickshawed, but I've deplaned," he quipped in a 1977 Paramount show.
Playing with brand names, he noted, "You wouldn't eat a Goodyear pancake. Or drive on Aunt Jemima tires. Whammo is a toy company. What if it was an airline?"
He talked about "smithereens" and "shenanigans": "Why are they always plural? Couldn't a young guy, just starting out, have only one shenanigan?"
"They build 'houses,' " he explained in a 1981 show at the Opera House, "but they sell 'homes.' When do they change them? People don't mind if you put 'em in a house. But don't put 'em in a home!"
"A 'burp' is what a 4-year-old girl does," he remarked at the same show, "a 'belch' is what a 45-year-old man does."
The most fascinating interview I did with Carlin was in 1983, when he confessed he was a "new man" after beating a 10-year addiction to cocaine.
He said he had suffered two heart attacks caused by cocaine, although he added that his doctors weren't so sure that was the cause.
"I'm very loose now," he said. "I have a lot of things going my way, and a lot of burdens out of my way."
Carlin was not the funnyman in interviews. He was thoughtful, serious. The first few times I talked to him, I begged for something funny for my stories, and he fed me some lines.
Eventually I learned to appreciate how he could talk about himself and his work objectively. And I never again asked for any shtick. I realized that he saved that for the stage. I liked hearing him talk seriously about comedy and his place in it.
In a 1985 conversation, he was reflective, after some 20 years in the spotlight.
"I've grown up," he told me. "I'm not the young rebel anymore. There are a lot of new comedians filling that role."
"I'm acknowledging feelings now and expressing emotions," he said two years later. "Seeing people like Sam Kinison and some of the more hostile comedians has encouraged me to go ahead and do that. I just enjoy the attack."
Although he had success in movies, TV and publishing, stand-up comedy was always his first love, because, he told me, of the sound of laughter.
"It is the core of even attempting a career like this," he explained in a 1989 interview. "To have that consistent reward coming back to you, that affirmation, that approval, that affection — a lot of words beginning with 'A,' oddly enough.
"That's the second reason to do it," he corrected himself, warming to the subject. "The first reason to perform any art or entertainment is to get it out of your system. The second is to be approved for it and told you're pretty good. And thirdly is that they put you up in a good hotel room."
Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or email@example.com
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