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Comedian and Actor George Carlin

Carlin's seven dirty words routine was the center of a famous obscenity case in the 1970s. He has a new book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? His other books include Napalm & Silly Putty, and Brain Droppings.

42:55

Other segments from the episode on November 1, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 1, 2004: Interview with George Carlin; Review of the documentary film "Tom Dowd and the language of music."

Transcript

DATE November 1, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Comic and actor George Carlin
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is comic and actor George Carlin. He has a new book with the
intentionally surreal and provocative title, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork
Chops?" It's a follow-up to his best-sellers "Napalm & Silly Putty" and "Brain
Droppings." Carlin continues to target euphemistic language and political
correctness while adding many new offbeat observations. Perhaps his most
famous comedy monologue has become known as `seven dirty words you can never
say on television.'

In 1973 the Pacifica radio station in New York, WBAI, played this monologue.
After a complaint was filed, the FCC put WBAI on notice, threatening possible
sanctions against the station if subsequent complaints were received. WBAI
appealed the decision. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court which
ruled in favor of the FCC, establishing the ...(signal loss) broadcast.

The decision has become particularly relevant since the FCC's crackdown on
radio and TV following Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. Here's a 1972
recording of Carlin's now-famous monologue. We have, of course, bleeped the
words that made this routine famous.

(Excerpt from Carlin monologue)

Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Comic/Actor): There are 400,000 words in the English
language, and there are seven of them you can't say on television. What a
ratio that is. Three hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and
ninety-three to seven. They must really be bad. They'd have to be outrageous
to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven, bad
words. That's what they told us they were, remember? `That's a bad word.'

No bad words. Bad thoughts, bad intentions and words. You know the seven,
don't you, that you can't say on television? (Expletives deleted)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CARLIN: Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect
your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.

GROSS: George Carlin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. CARLIN: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Can you talk about what led to this routine, like what you were
thinking about, how you wrote it?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I don't really know that there was a eureka moment or
anything like that. What happened was I'd always held these attitudes, I've
always been sort of anti-authoritarian and I really don't like arbitrary rules
and regulation that are essentially designed to get people in the habit of
conforming and obeying authority blindly. So I've always resisted that in my
life as a child, as an adolescent and as a young adult. And so I held that
attitude. That's the fertile ground for all of this.

Secondly, I have a strong interest in language that is, in part, genetic and,
in part, been fostered by my mother. And I have always taken great joy in
looking more closely at language. So those things were in place.

On these other things, we get into the field of hypocrisy where you really
cannot pin down what these rules they want to enforce are. It's just
impossible to say, `This is a blanket rule.' You'll see some newspapers print
F-blank-blank-K. Some print F-asterisk-asterisk-K. Some put
F-blank-blank-blank. Some put the word `bleep.' Some put `expletive
deleted.' So there's no real consistent standard. It's not a science. It's
a notion that they have, and it's superstitious. These words have no power.
We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give
them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power. It's
the rest of the sentence that makes them either good or bad.

GROSS: In your 1972 recording, you talk about how it's perfectly OK to say,
`Don't prick your finger,' but you can't say, `Don't finger your blank.'

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah, you can't reverse the two.

GROSS: You can't reverse the two words. So comics work with the power of
words. And, in a way, the fact certain words are supposed to be taboo, as you
point out, that gives them power.

Mr. CARLIN: That's right.

GROSS: And that makes those words more powerful for you when you want to use
them. So do you feel like you've been able to work with the taboo nature of
certain words and, you know, make that work in your favor?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, what...

GROSS: Like in that classic routine?

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah. That is an interestingly disguised way--and I don't mean
you were trying to deceive me or anything--but it's a disguised way of saying,
`Well, don't some people just use these for shock value?' You get this phrase
all the time from interviewers, `shock value.' Well, shock is a kind of a
heightened form of surprise, and surprise is at the heart of comedy. So if
you're using the word in a way to heighten the impact of the sentence or
season the stew, they are, after all, great seasonings. There are sentences
that, without the use of `hell' or `damn' even, lose all their impact.

So they have a proper place in language. And in my case, I just like them
because they are real and they do have impact. They do make a difference in a
sentence. But if you're using them for their own sake, that's probably kind
of weak. If you're using them in some way that you feel enhances what you're
doing and delivering, that's another thing.

GROSS: Did you ever expect that that comedy routine would be actually played
on the radio, that it would be part of a case that made it all the way to the
Supreme Court and that it would become as important and famous a case as it
became?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I knew that it wasn't out of the question that it may be
played on the radio. FM radio stations at that time--and there were
commercial ones who qualified as what was called underground radio. And an
awful lot of liberties were taken with music, too, music that had very--I
don't--God, I hate the words `explicit' and `graphic' but those are the words
that would be used by someone to describe those kinds of songs, those lyrics.

I knew there was a chance, but, of course, you know, no one ever sees the
things coming that are unexpected and larger, you know. I just knew that I
had done a piece that summed up my position very well and sort of had a
nice--it had a wonderful rhythmic--the reading of those seven words, the way
they were placed together had a magnificent kind of a jazz feeling, a rhythm
that was just very natural (technical difficulties) way those syllables were
placed together. And so I knew I had done something that was making an
important point about the hypocrisy of all of this.

GROSS: Were you at the Supreme Court when the case was being argued?

Mr. CARLIN: No. No, I was an interested bystander. It wasn't my case. It
generated a certain amount of attention for me which, I guess, a performer
never walks away from, but I decided very early not to try to either exploit
the incident and the episode or to walk away from it and disavow it. I just
let it be as it was happening and let the results of it land wherever they
would.

GROSS: Do you ever still do that routine when you're on stage?

Mr. CARLIN: No, no. There's no way to do old routines. My method is to do
a new HBO program every two years or two and a half years. So the first thing
I do when an HBO show's finished--and they're an hour long, each one--is to
begin to break that show down by dropping things one by one and inserting new
things as I write them, and finish them and learn them. So by the end of
another two-, two-and-a-half-year cycle, the show has been completely
reworked.

So there's no way to do things that you're not doing every night for me. I do
set pieces and I do them precisely the same every night, and so there's no way
to keep them in performance shape. They have to be done for you to be fluid
with them.

GROSS: If you were on the FCC, if you served on the FCC, what, if any,
restrictions would you want to see placed on obscenity or on, you know, quote,
"offensive" language?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, of course, obscenity has certain tests. And there's a
three-step test that has to be passed, those three steps, in order to qualify
as obscenity. And they used--because this case didn't--this Pacifica vs. the
FCC didn't meet those three tests, they used the word `indecent' and this word
was not invented, but it was first used in this area in this case. I'm sort
of partly responsible, indirectly there, for introducing this word into the
discussion, so they're indecent words. And then they said that a certain
period of time--they were all right after 11:00 at night, I think, and until 6
in the morning when children might not be listening. Well, they never defined
what a child is; no one can really do that. There are very precocious and
intelligent, discriminating children who are 12 and there are some people who
are 18 and 19 that are not too smart, let us say. And these hours of the
night there's no guarantee. So this is all very arbitrary. It's all very
arbitrary and it's done in the interest of pleasing the merchants, basically,
the merchants and the high priests, you know. So I don't take it very
seriously.

I wouldn't restrict anything. I would leave it up to the people--you know,
these conservatives are so interested in the marketplace. Let the market
decide. And yet, they're so eager to have government in on moral issues.
They think of them as moral issues, whether it's abortion or stem cell
research or these language issues. They're so interested--they want the
government off our backs unless it's perhaps the uterus that's involved or the
libido.

GROSS: You have always talked about language in your comedy, and one of the
things you talk about in your new book is, well, you describe political
correctness as America's newest form of intolerance.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: How do you see political correctness as actually a form of
intolerance?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, because it dictates ways of speaking and therefore
thinking that a person may not be comfortable with or agree a hundred percent
with. It's sort of a dicta. And it is intolerant of other--I'm not saying it
shouldn't be intolerant of blatant racism or something like that, but there
are gradations in these so-called offenses, and they don't all qualify for the
same, I think, kind of--you know, the problem with it is that it's censorship
from the left, which I, for one, wasn't expecting. You know, we sort of get
used to the fact that more conservative regimes in their various places around
the world try to do a lot to control the way we think and speak. But we don't
expect it from our liberal democracies so much.

GROSS: Does this surprise you still when you hear, say, the language that's
used on "The Sopranos" or other HBO shows? You know, that it--you know,
'cause it's the language that you could never say on broadcasting...

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...and that you still can't say on broadcasting. You can say it on
cable. I know you can say it on satellite radio, which is where...

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Howard Stern is moving, where "Opie & Anthony" have already moved.
So I mean, there are two different sets of standards, but does that surprise
you to hear language coming from your television like that?

Mr. CARLIN: At first it did, when it was in dramas. But I mean, it quickly,
you know, that moment was over very quickly. The interesting thing about it
for me is this is how people talk--not everyone, of course, but a significant
number of people use these words all the time. And when I was a little boy, I
was told to look up to--because it was just--there was the Second World War; I
was born in 1937. I was taught to look up to soldiers and sailors--that's the
only words you really used for the armed forces--soldiers and sailors,
policemen, of course, and athletes. That was to develop a little more later.
These are the people you should model yourself after. These are the paragons
of American value and virtue.

Well, we all know how they talk. We all know how those three groups talk--the
military, the athletes and the police. And that--to hear police shows all
these years and war movies all these years without the sort of language they
were using immediately branded them as inauthentic to me. I could get past it
and suspend my disbelief from time to time with compelling writing or scenes
or something, but largely I thought, `That's not what he would say. That's
not what he would la--I think he would say it like this.' So it's just
inauthentic. It's a counterfeit representation of real life that these
commercial and religious interests impose or try to impose on people.

GROSS: My guest is comic George Carlin. He has a new book called "When Will
Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is George Carlin and he has a new book called "When Will
Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?"

Do you remember how you were first exposed to four-letter words and what your
reaction was when you first were?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I was--I grew up in part of New York City that's a very
interesting neighborhood. I lived--literally my front door was across the
street--and I mean literally in its real sense here--literally across the
street from Teachers College of Columbia University. And all around me to the
south I had Columbia University Teachers College, Barnard College; Juilliard
School of Music was around the corner, the original location. Riverside
Church, the 23-story interdenominational cathedral, the Gothic cathedral, was
at the end of my street. Union Theological Seminary, the largest seminary in
the world of, again, interdenominational clergy. And around the corner The
Jewish Theological Seminary, the largest Jewish seminary in the world. St.
John the Divine was nearby, and Grant's Tomb. So it was highly institutional
neighborhood full of learning and serious people.

Immediately to the north down the hill we had the beginnings of Harlem. We
called our section White Harlem 'cause we thought it sounded tough, there were
cross-pollination between these two groups. I lived very close by Cubans,
Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, on the one hand, and blacks on the other. And
when you're in those neighborhoods at the border, betw--my arts was a little
Irish enclave, just a little wedge-shaped Irish enclave in the middle of all
that. Highly populated 'cause we were quite fertile folks. Lot of kids, lot
of kids on the street. And when you live near the border between all black
and all white, you don't have the attitudes that the people who are insulated
and isolated in the center of those areas have. Those are people who are not
in contact day to day to day with the opposite. But we did have contact all
the time, and when you're on the border between two cultures, you sort of
learn to live together. You have a common code of the streets, in this case.
And so I heard my language from the realistic people in the neighborhood--my
big brother, for one, but his friends and then all of the tiers and strata of
the brothers and sisters under him. You know, everybody you knew had three or
four brothers and sisters and each of them were the same age as your brothers
and sisters. So it was kind of interesting, but that's where I got a
realistic feeling and look at the world.

GROSS: Did language get you into trouble as a kid?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I--because I liked language--as a saying, my grandfather
wrote out all of the works of Shakespeare in his adult life longhand because
of the joy it gave him--those were his words--`I do it for the joy it gives
me.' So that gene was active in our family, so I had that, as I described
earlier. But I then started collecting exotic combinations of curses that
I heard in my neighborhood. I was probably 13 or 14 at the time. And there
were guys who would put together a sentence in the heat of anger or in some
ornate, descriptive passage in something they were describing, and they would
have an adjective or two, self-hyphenated; they would have made up a form and
tacked it onto some noun that it didn't really go with, and the rest of the
sentence might have been some colorful verb that was, again, very inventive
street language. And some of them were very colorful and exotic and
different. They weren't just flat-out curses.

So I heard these and I started writing them down. In another situation where
I could tell you what they were, you'd understand a little better even what I
mean. But I wrote them down and I had a little list of them--I had about 10
or 12 of them. There are a few I can still remember. But I've had that in my
wallet, and my mother was a snoop and discovered things I had stolen that way
and confronted me with them. But in this case and looking in my wallet she
found this list. And I heard her--I came in one night and I opened the door
very slightly in the apartment on the second floor, and I heard her talking to
my Uncle John(ph), and she was worried about me anyway 'cause I was kind of
a--I was getting to be like a loose cannon kind of an adolescent, defying, as
you will and must--then. And I heard her saying, `I think he may need a
psychiatrist, John. I think we may have to get a child psychiatrist for him,'
'cause she was telling him these words and showing him this list. So yeah,
they got me in trouble that way, but at least it was a creative effort.

GROSS: Although your mother was appalled finding this list...

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...of street words in your wallet, you earlier credited your mother
with having...

Mr. CARLIN: Oh, yes, she was...

GROSS: ...a love of language and helping to instill it in you.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: How did her love of language express itself?

Mr. CARLIN: Yes. Well, first of all, just to put it in perspective, the
portion of my life when my mother and I were at odds is when you're supposed
to differentiate yourself from the adult, the parent of the other sex, and I
had no father present in the home, so this was a battle between my mother and
me for my identity sort of, to overdramatize it. But she was wonderful, and
she was my hero. She brought up two boys in the Second World War in an
advertising job she had, and she stimulated that thing in me about
language--she would send me to the dictionary. I mean, that was pro forma in
a lot of families--I know that's what you do. But she would say, `Get the
dictionary.' I asked her once what `peruse' meant. I said, `Ma, what's
"peruse"? She said, `Well, get the dictionary in here. Let's get it.' So I'd
look it up and she'd have me use it in a sentence of my own, and we'd talk
about the root or the origin and which definition was more useful and current
and so forth. And so the next day when I gave her her newspaper--in the
evening, it wasn't a nightly custom, but sometimes I went and bought her a
newspaper when she'd come home from work. I brought it in her bedroom and
gave her the newspaper and said, `Here, Ma,' I said, `Would you like to peruse
this?' And she said, `Well, maybe I'll give a cursory glance.' And it was
right back to the dictionary.

And another thing she would do with that newspaper--she'd be reading a
columnist, someone who wrote well, and she would call me into the room and
say, `Look at this. Listen to these words. Look how that word cuts--it just
cuts through that sentence,' and she would make--she would do all these sort
of dramatic--they had an effect on her and she was able to transmit that to me
through her use--she was a person who employed a lot of melodramatic things in
her life. She said, `I should have been on the stage, George. Someday you
must tell my story.' You know, and someday I will; I'll get a chance to do
that.

GROSS: George Carlin's new book is called "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork
Chops?" He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Ray Charles was just one of the many performers engineer Tom Dowd
recorded over the decades. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews the documentary "Tom
Dowd & the Language of Music," that's just come out on DVD. Also, we continue
our conversation with George Carlin.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic George Carlin. He
has a new book called "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?' It's a
follow-up to his best-sellers: "Napalm & Silly Putty" and "Brain Droppings."

You're in your 60s now. Do you still get...

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...a thrill out of learning new words? Are you still aware of new
words? And how do you relate to those old taboo words? Do they have an equal
weight to all the other language?

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah. They are a sector of language, a part, for all the obvious
reasons. So I can't just glibly say they're just more words. But that is an
argument I would make, you know, in defending them as to the power they should
or should not have. But I don't so much pay much attention to them. I did
compile a list, through some research that I did, of 2,443 filthy words and
phrases. And since I didn't invent any of them, I called it "Compiled and
Edited by George Carlin"(ph) and made a booklet out of it. We made a T-shirt
out of it. And some of them are very inventive and colorful and interesting
and funny. To think that people sit around--and the story has always been
that a lot of these (audio loss) come from prisons. A lot of these--this kind
of language comes from guys who have time on their hands (laughs). So I don't
know about that part.

But the inventiveness of the human mind to--is the fascinating part of looking
into them more deeply. But in terms of language, my interest--and, yes, I
do--I cannot look up a word in a dictionary without being delayed along the
way with--when turning to a page that's not the one I want. I'll see
something, and I'll want to read about it. Sometimes I'll forget the one I
was looking up. I have to go back to the source of the thought and then come
back to the dictionary because they're just very, very interesting. And I
love noticing--see, I quit high school in ninth grade, but first year of high
school for me had Latin 1. And Latin 1 is when you learn all the
vocabulary and when you learn the declensions of the nouns and the
conjugations of the verbs. So it was elemental. And I learned a lot about
root formations and the language that grew out of the Latin--the romance
languages.

GROSS: Well, why did you drop out of high school in ninth grade?

Mr. CARLIN: I could see that I--they weren't offering anything I really
needed. I wasn't interested in merely having a credential. And I knew I had
the skills I needed, and all I needed to do was to work hard on the English
language and these skills I had, sharpen them. I had a very strong command of
the language as I was at that time, and I knew that would develop further.
And I knew that I didn't really need all of that stuff that they offered, that
they teach you, to do what I wanted to do. I was very inner-directed and very
self-sufficient. I had an autonomy in my heart that kept me moving in my own
path.

GROSS: Did you know in ninth grade, when you dropped out, that you wanted to
be a comic?

Mr. CARLIN: Oh, yeah, I knew that in fifth grade. I wrote a little
autobiography then. I said, `I want to be a comedian or an impersonator or an
announcer or an actor.' And I had a plan. The plan was radio first 'cause
there's no audience there present. You get away with more. Be--the nerves
are different. Second step would be stand-up comedy, and once I was good
enough at that, they'd have to let me in the movies, like Danny Kaye.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CARLIN: That was my childhood thought. I thought it was a birthright,
and I thought that I had a path figured out. And the path worked that way. I
just realized later I was a better comedian than I thought, and I could
abandon the actor part.

GROSS: Well, give me a call when you become a star of family comedies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: I surely will.

GROSS: Now I know you made it onto radio before you became...

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...famous as a comic. What was your radio persona?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I was on a--the first job I had was in a place--Shreveport,
Louisiana, which sounds like kind of an easily ignored place, but it had nine
stations. It was a hot radio market, as they said, and we were number one. I
had a 52 share. Imagine that, a 52 share in a nine-station market in my
afternoon show. So it was Top 40, but it wasn't as rigid as Top 40 became.
It wasn't as--it didn't sound, you know, like a robot: time, temperature and
the label and the name of the artist. You could be a little bit of a
personality, too. So we played Top 40, and I was a very--I was only 18. It
was great to be playing the very music that I was dancing to at night. It was
nice to go over to a girl in a situation like at a bar or something and say,
`Would you like me to play a song on the radio for you tomorrow and dedicate
it to you?'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CARLIN: It was a little underhanded, but it sure worked a lot.

GROSS: Works like a charm.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And would you talk your way through the instrumental up to the vocal
of the record?

Mr. CARLIN: Some of the time, sure. Yeah, I'd use--you know, the first
eight bars or 16 bars or whatever the instrumental intro was, you bring it up
first for about three or four seconds, then you bring it down. You say, `OK,
the new Connie Francis just came in.' And I'm exaggerating my disc jockey
voice. `And here at 15 minutes past 5 on "The George Carlin Show" on KJEL,
we're going to listen to this brand-new one,' and then (makes sound) up with
the vocal, you know?

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CARLIN: I loved running a tight board. We ran our own boards, and I
loved it. I was so proud of tight cues and segues that were tight, you know.
It was just a point of pride.

GROSS: Now you've always opposed authority. I mean, you dropped out of
school in ninth grade.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: You joined the military. You were court-martialed twice in the
military.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah, three times.

GROSS: Three times? OK.

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: Why would somebody who opposes authority so much volunteer to go into
the military, which has such a hierarchical structure?

Mr. CARLIN: Yes. Well, at that time in our history, there was a draft. And
the way you avoided the draft was to join. It's an odd thing. It sounds like
a paradox, but it's true. The way you stayed out of the military was to
choose when to go in, not to let them decide. See, I wanted the choice to be
mine. I didn't want to wait to--in New York, the draft pool was very large,
and therefore you wouldn't be drafted till your early 20s, which would have
interfered with my life plan. I had a little plan when I was 11 years old,
and I was working through it in my teen-age years. And I said, `Well, I'm not
going to get to do this if they're going to draft me.' Well, these other guys
are 20, 21. I joined at 17 to, what they called then, get the military
obligation out of the way.

GROSS: And when you got in there, how'd you do inside? You mentioned you
were court-martialed three times. How did you respond to the authority within
the military?

Mr. CARLIN: Poorly to the authority. I was very good at the thing they
trained me for, which was electronics and analog computers. There was a
system called the K-system, bomb system, on the B-47, and I was trained in a
very elite squadron, I'm proud to say. It's one of the few conceits I have
about myself, but it is a genuine one. I qualified for a highly elite school
and passed with the highest T score(ph) they'd ever had and therefore--but I
loved it because of the theory involved. It was all blackboard. It was none
of this screwdriver stuff.

So when I got to my base to practice this art, science, that they taught
me--spent a lot of money on me--right away they tell you, `Pick this up, put
it over there. Put those there. And just take the'--I didn't care for that,
and so I became a disc jockey in a downtown commercial station instead when I
was 18. And I had already begun my career while I was getting my military out
of the way. But I was a behavior problem there, just as I was in school,
because I didn't accept arbitrary orders from people who I thought possibly
were inferior.

GROSS: Now there's a lot in the universe that you find pretty absurd, and
you...

Mr. CARLIN: And wonderful.

GROSS: And wonderful. But when it comes to the absurdity or the ridiculous
aspects of life, you're not going to be looking to religion to help you
provide meaning or a sense of...

Mr. CARLIN: No.

GROSS: ...your place in the world. Is there anything that you do turn to to
help provide, you know, meaning or a sense of like, you know: Where do you
fit in, or what are you doing here?

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah. Well, sure. Some time ago I figured out, with the help
probably of some reading that I can't recall now, that if it's true that we're
all from the center of a star, every atom in each of us from the center of a
star, the we're all the same thing. And even a Coke machine or a cigarette
butt in the street in Buffalo is made out of atoms that came from the star.
They've all been recycled thousands of times, as have you and I. So if that
is true, then I am everywhere in the universe in an extended sense, and,
therefore, it's only me out there. So what is there to be afraid of? What is
there that needs solace-seeking? Nothing. There's nothing to be afraid of
because it's all us.

So I just have that as a backdrop, and I don't have to go to it or think of it
consciously. I've kind of accepted this idea that I'm perfectly safe and that
life and nature have waves and troughs; there are ups and downs, left and
right, black and white, night and day, fall and winter, positive and negative.
Everything has an opposite. If it's a bad time, I'll have a good time coming.
If it's a good time, I'm prepared to have a bad time to sort of pay for it.
So nothing--it doesn't really--they don't really upset me a lot, these, you
know, things that happen in our lives.

GROSS: You know, it's great the way you described it as how, like, the whole
world is really you; like, we're all of the same molecules and everything.

Mr. CARLIN: The whole universe, yeah.

GROSS: The whole universe is you. It's this great mix of, like, narcissism
and mysticism rolled into one the way you put it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: Sure. And that's kind of--yeah. And that's essentially what we
all are. The trouble is we have been separated from that universe by being
born and given a name and an identity and being individuated. We've been
separated from the oneness, and that's what religion exploits: that people
have this yearning to be part of the overall one again. So they exploit that.
They call it God. They say he has rules. And I think it's cruel. I think
you can do it absent religion.

GROSS: Now you've had your time spent with drugs and alcohol.

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: And, you know, a lot of people in entertainment burn out or end up
killing themselves intentionally or inadvertently...

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...through that burnout with the help of drugs and alcohol. You've
also had three heart attacks.

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: So I'm wondering, are you ever nervous about death or illness or the
prospect of being, you know, physically diminished at some point?

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Is this the kind of thing, like, you have anxiety about, or do you
just kind of like, `Whatever'?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I don't like the idea of not being here anymore because I
do have such joy in living my life. I love my writing. I love to sit alone
and write. I love Sally, and we have a wonderful love together. And I don't
want to leave those things, so that will be (audio loss) I have a moment or
two or a month or a year to face it. But I don't necessarily have anxiety
about those things. I would hate to lose my power of speech because it is
sort of my identity for me, forgetting the world for the moment. I feel whole
when I'm able to speak my thoughts. That would bother me.

But if I were still able to somehow type (laughs), I could find some joy, and
some--you know, it would be OK. If I couldn't, then--there's these people who
are completely paralyzed, but they can operate a keyboard by moving their
eyes. I don't know if you've ever seen that. They're probably not very
common machines. But you can do that. So I thought, `Well, even if I'm
paralyzed, I can sort of, like, write a few paragraphs each day,' you know?
So these are, you know, oh, odd, extreme thoughts, but those are the thoughts
I think of when I contemplate these fates.

GROSS: My guest is comic George Carlin. He has a new book called "When Will
Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is comic George Carlin. His new book is called "When Will
Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?"

Who were the first comics that you heard where you thought, `They nailed it.
This is what life is about'? Like, they just described life.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah. Well, you know, I don't know--I know that the gist of
your question, I can answer. Of course, comedy changed in the 1950s when the
individuals emerged, and nobody was all the same anymore. It used to be very
sane, very safe and very same. And then Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Nichols & May
and a lot of other people in the improv groups and some underground press and
so forth took hold comedy and changed it. And so it was that crop in the
'50s--I was then approaching my 20th birthday. And Lenny Bruce was, of
course, the one who inspired me the most because I saw for the very first time
utter and complete honesty on a stage. And it was a brilliant form of it. It
wasn't just honesty. It was great satire. Even in his days of--just his
parodies were great.

But then he started talking about religion, things, and I thought, `Boy,
that's wonderful to know that you can do that; that it can be done.' I didn't
say, `Well, I'm going to do that, too.' But I sort of said, `OK, now I know
that.' And it really did help me later to decide to be myself.

GROSS: How much do you think your comedy has changed from when you first
started doing stand-up?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, of course, the times helped--you know, the change is
illustrated by the times. I began in 1960. I went through about eight or
nine years of what essentially were the extended 1950s, sort of a button-down
period. But that was when the country was changing. I was 30 in 1957. The
people I was entertaining were in their 40s, and they were the parents of the
people who were 20, 18, in college, beginning to change the nature of our
society to a great extent. So I sided more with them because I was
anti-authority, and I just let myself revert to my deferred adolescence and be
one of them in terms of my work rather than these people I really disliked,
who I was entertaining, these 40-year-old plus people. So that's how my
comedy has changed. The times were safer, and I was a safer, mainstream comic
in the '60s. And then I became this other person, who was a little more
honest and open with language and his thoughts, you know.

GROSS: Were you performing to older audiences because those were the people
who could buy the tickets in the places that you were performing?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, no, not strictly speaking. What happened was this--and I
can do this briefly for you. I had always been this lawbreaker, outlaw-type
kid and adolescent and Air Force guy, as you pointed out; never stuck by the
rules, always swimming against the tide. But I had a mainstream dream, and my
dream was to be like Danny Kaye in the movies...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CARLIN: ...or to be like Bob Hope in the movies. So I never put those
two things together. I never saw that they didn't go together. And I
followed this other dream in the way that you did because the only way you
could do it was to please people with mainstream, safe comedy kits, what the
period demanded and got. So I did that until the two became--it became an
untenable situation. I could no longer be myself inside and serve these other
things. And when I saw the mix, when I saw the mistake, I went about
correcting it in a slow and orderly manner. It took about two or three years
for my changes, as it were, to take place.

GROSS: Now I understand you're not going to vote in the election.

Mr. CARLIN: I don't vote, no.

GROSS: You don't vote.

Mr. CARLIN: No.

GROSS: How come you don't vote?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, my comic...

GROSS: I mean, you have pretty strong opinions about American culture.

Mr. CARLIN: Yes. But I see there's an ownership class in this country, and
there's no real choice. The Republicans and Democrats offer--it's a changing
in the lawn furniture. You move the chairs and tables around a little bit, so
it looks and feels different. The people who own the country don't really
want a lot of change. They allow certain things. They bend a little.
Kerry--the only thing I like about the left vs. the right is that the left
seems to care more about people, and the right seems to care more about
property as a generalization. But essentially they cannot do what they want
because everything is owned by the ownership class. They do what they want.
They get what they want. And Americans deserve what they get because they're
not really engaged intellectually at all. They're easily manipulated and
swayed.

GROSS: Well, George Carlin, I'd like to ask you to end our interview by
reading the final piece in your new book.

Mr. CARLIN: Oh, sure. OK.

GROSS: And the book is called "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" And
this piece is called "The Secret News."(ph) And you're welcome to say anything
about writing it before you read it or to just read it, whatever you prefer.

Mr. CARLIN: I have a big file called News, and it has a lot of odd news
formats. And one of them was this one called "The Secret News." And this was
actually written and designed to be on an album, maybe, a studio-type album,
where you could use sound effects and you were simulating actual broadcasting.
But it works this way, too, with the sound effects indicated verbally. I'll
do that for you. It's called "The Secret News," and we hear a news ticker
sound effect.

(Soundbite of Carlin making news ticker effect)

Mr. CARLIN: And the announcer whispering, saying, `Good evening, ladies and
gentlemen. It's time for "The Secret News." And the news ticker gets louder,
and he goes, `Shhh.' And the ticker lowers. `Here's the secret news. All
people are afraid. No one knows what they're doing. Everything is getting
worse. Some people deserve to die. Your money is worthless. No one is
properly dressed. At least one of your children will disappoint you. The
system is rigged. Your house will never be completely clean. All teachers
are incompetent. There are people who really dislike you. Nothing is as good
as it seems. Things don't last. No one is paying attention. The country is
dying. God doesn't care. Shhh.'

GROSS: George Carlin, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CARLIN: Sure. Thank you. I always appreciate--I'm not flattering
here--an intelligent interview, and thank you for that.

GROSS: George Carlin's new book is called "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork
Chops?"

In a couple of minutes we're going to hear about a documentary that's just
come out on DVD profiling the engineer Tom Dowd, who recorded many now-classic
sessions by rock, soul and jazz musicians. He recorded this classic, John
Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

(Soundbite of "Giant Steps")

GROSS: Coming up, Milo Miles reviews the movie "Tom Dowd" & The Language of
Music." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Mark Moormann's documentary, "Tom Dowd & The Language of
Music"
(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Baby, baby, sweet baby, there's something
that I've just got to say.

TERRY GROSS, host:

The engineer who recorded and mixed that song was Tom Dowd, who recorded
several hits by Aretha Franklin and many other now-classic sessions for
Atlantic Records. He was considered a giant in his field. For three decades
beginning in the '50s, Dowd worked with a wide range of performers, including
John Coltrane, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and Ray Charles. The roll of
an engineer in shaping the way music sounds is explored in the documentary
"Tom Dowd & The Language of Music" directed by Mark Moormann. Critic Milo
Miles watched it on DVD and has this review.

MILO MILES reporting:

Nowadays every musician is an engineer. The rawest newcomers out there often
have a four-track console in their bedroom. But in the 1940s, when Tom Dowd
started in the music business, recording engineers as such were unknown or
least were mere technicians who tried to set musicians around a single
microphone and not come up with sonic mush. Tom Dowd died in 2002 at age 77.
His career stretched from those primitive days to the all-digital, anything
goes era. Dowd came from a musical and theatrical background in New York. He
worked on the Manhattan Project and nearly became a nuclear physics engineer.
But his career in the recording studio had already taken off by the end of
World War II, and he chose music.

Dowd is most closely associated with the peak years of Atlantic Records in the
late '50s to the mid-'70s. He was the house engineer, helped build studios
and equipment and, as master producers from Jerry Wexler to Ahmet Ertegun
admit, Dowd functioned as a kind of co-producer on every session he worked.
Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun explains the pressure of the early days
of studio engineering.

(Soundbite of "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music")

Mr. AHMET ERTEGUN (Atlantic Records Chief): You know, to be an engineer today
is nothing compared to what it used to be, to be an engineer. To be an
engineer, you had to mix as you were recording. And, you know, the saxophone
soloist's coming up. You have to know when it's coming up. Bring it up, how
far to bring it up. You have to do it on the fly, and Tommy was a master at
that. I mean, he was unbelievable.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: And studio owner Phil Ramone notes the extra skills that put Dowd
at the top of the game.

(Soundbite of "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music")

Mr. PHIL RAMONE (Studio Owner): Tom was the composite of both of a guy who
had musical genres down, and he also had the other thing, which is he's an
excellent engineer and a designer and could really take care of business. And
then he was a producer. So he was kind of a role model for me.

MILES: Director Moormann keeps a steady rolling pace as he displays the range
of Dowd's abilities. Part of it was understanding machines. Dowd pioneered
the change from cumbersome, old radio knobs to sliding switches you could
operate with one finger. He operated the second eight-track recording console
in the world. Part of his skill was knowing when any type of music sounded
good. Tom Dowd is the key reason Atlantic was able to have enduring hits or
at least make timeless records by such a wide range of performers in those
peak years.

And, finally, Moormann's interviews make it clear that part of Dowd's mastery
was understanding musicians. They're naturally suspicious of non-players who
have an effect in what their art will sound like. Dowd always appears
contagiously upbeat, without a whit of phony good cheer. His advice to
players is invariably clear, firm but not judgmental. They respond with
respect. Here, Dowd explains how he solved the problems Cream was having with
"Sunshine of Your Love."

(Soundbite of "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music")

Mr. TOM DOWD: There just wasn't this common ground like they had on so many
of the other songs. And I was listening to what they were playing, and I
said, `You know, have you ever seen any American Westerns, the Indian
beat--where the downbeat is the beat? It's...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOWD: ...(makes sound). I said, `Well, Ginger, why don't you play that
one?' So Ginger went inside, and they started to run the song again. And
when he started playing that way, all of the parts came together, and right
away they were elated.

(Soundbite of "Sunshine of Your Love")

CREAM: (Singing) I've been waiting so long to be where I'm going in the
sunshine of your love.

MILES: The DVD extras are mostly additional interview footage, of which
Dowd's own is the most informative. Simply because of the time period
involved, "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music" is a boomer document, which will
not thrill everyone. And, yes, "Layla" by Derek and the Dominos is treated
too much like a sacred object. But there's so many vivid personalities on
parade and all of them in a good mood when reflecting on Tom Dowd. For
instance, all the interview subjects were obviously asked to state their name
and place of birth. Sly fox Ray Charles responds, `My name? I'll leave that
part off.' He's know that if you don't know who he is, you have no business
watching this documentary. Brother Ray says it all when he remarks...

(Soundbite of "Tom Dowd & The Language of Music")

Mr. RAY CHARLES: You gotta always remember the name of the game is: What
does it sound like?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Mr. CHARLES: That's always the end--I don't care if you got 90 tracks. What
does it sound like, baby?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MILES: Understanding the music is really enriched when you appreciate
engineers, and no one enriched music more than Tom Dowd.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Cambridge. He reviewed the DVD "Tom Dowd & The
Language of Music."

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) It brings a tear into my eyes...

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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