George Carlin Sees His Act as Still ‘Showing Off’ for the Nuns

Given the child-like wonder and enthusiasm that forms much of George Carlin’s material, it’s perfectly natural that the veteran comedian would characterize his profession as akin to classroom show-and-tell--and himself as a precocious incorrigible who still has something to prove.

“What the job is all about, really, is showing off,” Carlin, 51, explained in an interview recently at his Brentwood office. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I think I’m smart and I think I figured out something real clever here--wait till you hear this.’ That’s really the job description for a comedian. . . .

“See, I didn’t finish my formal education and I think that I’m haunted somewhere back there by the nuns saying, ‘You have a good mind and you’re not using it,’ ‘cause that’s what every teacher said to any bright kid that was constantly fooling around in class. So I think I have this complex where I need to prove something to myself--and to the world.


“There’s a lot of (stand-up material) that’s just plain discovery, where you come across some juxtaposition of ideas or values that you think no one else has seen before, but you certainly haven’t seen before.

“Then, to take that discovery, put it into colorful language and to deliver that with all the style and everything-- that’s the fun; having a number of gifts or qualities that enable you to just make it a whole package because it’s like a one-man production, from the idea stage right to the finished delivery.”

As big a production as that is these days--Carlin typically works 2,000- to 5,000-seat venues, such as Anaheim’s Celebrity Theatre, where he performs Friday--no detail is too small. Especially when it comes to writing his routines.

As you might expect, a guy who has built his career, in part, around pointing out the quirks and inconsistencies of the English language--as well as some folks’ curious use and abuse of language through euphemisms, oxymorons and obfuscations--pays particular attention to word choice and clarity in his own work.

In crafting a bit, Carlin considers all manner of minutiae, right down to something such as selecting a specific numeral that’s incidental to the joke: “There was something I was doing recently and I settled on the number nine for it--not so much that nine is a funny number; it isn’t.

“But it was better than 10, because 10 is a round number and a common number. Eight has the problem of also being the word ate , which the brain can quickly confuse, and seven has two syllables, which got in the way of the joke. So nine just suited it perfectly.”

While his approach to stand-up has obviously become more and more focused over 25 years of telling jokes, Carlin’s career has broadened in some respects, transformed in others.

In recent years, he has turned out a number of hourlong specials for HBO, the most recent of which was last year’s “What Am I Doing in New Jersey?”

He has been making comedy records since the early ‘70s and still does. But now the material and title are pegged to the HBO specials and the albums are released on his own label, Eardrum Records.

He committed some cinematic missteps early in his career (see--or don’t see--1968’s “With Six You Get Egg Roll”), and bowed out of acting for many years. But after picking up some training and the attendant confidence, Carlin has returned in such projects as “Outrageous Fortune,” Blake Edwards’ recent TV movie “Justin Case” and the forthcoming feature “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

Additionally, though Carlin has joked about the kind of books he would like to see (“How to Filet a Panda,” “You Give Me Six Weeks and I’ll Give You a Disease,” etc.), he’s now become an author. He has put out one book, “Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help,” and recently signed a deal with Warner Books that calls for two Carlin tomes, including a collection of his best stand-up material.

And in what may strike some as a far more dramatic turnaround, Carlin is now making commercials (for Fuji videotapes and audio cassettes). George Carlin a professional pitchman? The counterculture comic who once mocked such celebrity-spiel shenanigans with bits that began: “Hello, I’m a famous person and I’m for sale. . . .”?

Carlin smiles. “I knew that would come back to haunt me, and it’s a fair thing to point out,” he said, leaning forward in his chair.

“My process in deciding whether or not to do a commercial was kind of threefold. First of all, I want to have an acting career. I don’t want to spend 100 to 120 nights on the road for the rest of my life.

“I have to somehow find a bridge, a way to get some income that gets me off the road. Fact two is it seemed like a product completely compatible with my life and my career--videotape and audiotape. I think I would have had a lot of trouble if it were a soft drink; I don’t think I could have done it. I think tires or gasoline or something overtly distasteful to the environment would have been trouble for me.

“I just got very lucky that something came along where I could swallow my pride or principles or whatever it is on this issue and say, ‘Well, I need to do this.’ See, there’s a third complication: I just spent 6 or 7 years getting out from under a horrendous IRS back-taxes deficit--about $2 million worth. And in order to pay them $2 million, you have to earn 4.

"(Should I) be some kind of martyr and a holy saint and (say) I’ll never do a commercial ever for some vague principle?’ I was lucky to find someone like Fuji, but it happened that way.”

If that sounds like a considerably different Carlin talking, he still experiences the same thrill at climbing on stage (“It’s a complete joy”), feelings rooted in his childhood glee at seeing--and saying--funny things.

“When I was a kid, I bought every kind of joke book there was, or any kind of cartoon book, and I was attracted to all of the radio comedians and the movie comedians,” he said.

“Kids are attracted to comedy, ‘cause it turns the world upside down. You reinvent the world when you write comedy. That’s a great feeling of power, and kids are attracted to it for that reason. With some of us, it just lasts longer.”

George Carlin performs Friday at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim. Show time: 8 p.m. Tickets: $18.50. Information: (714) 999-9536.