'American Dream' documentary examines George Carlin's triumphs and demons
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Tonight and Saturday night, HBO presents a two-night, four-hour documentary called "George Carlin's American Dream." It's perfect, thought provoking, insightful, revelatory, and at times very funny, which, for a study about a comedian's life and work, it had better be. Judd Apatow, a standup comedian turned film writer and director, already has made one stellar biography about a comic for HBO, "The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling" in 2018. Now, he and co-director Michael Bonfiglio have made another by following in minute detail a comedian's process, progress and personal triumphs and demons.
"George Carlin's American Dream" is astoundingly thorough in both the ground it covers and its approach. Archival sources, audiotapes, home movies, old TV show clips from Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore to Merv Griffin and Tony Orlando are plentiful and used well. Intimate details of George Carlin's personal life are revealed in old and new interviews with some of those who truly knew him best - his brother Patrick, his first wife Brenda, and his daughter Kelly. All of them look at George's life and their own with the objective honesty that George eventually brought to his standup act.
And while we learn of George's abusive father and oppressive mother, and of George and Brenda's descent into drugs and alcoholism, respectively, we also learn about what drove George Carlin to keep developing and altering his approach to comedy. In audiotapes recorded for his autobiography, "Last Words," Carlin explains his disdain for authority figures in almost clinically detached terms.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE CARLIN: My own experience of authority is one of opposition to - not just questioning authority, but actively opposing it and trying to undo what it had in mind. Everything that had rules and regulations, I managed to either get kicked out of or leave early on my own - the choir, the altar boys, the Boy Scouts, summer camp and schools.
BIANCULLI: The first half of this excellent HBO documentary follows George Carlin's many evolutionary stages, providing clear samples of each. Stage 1 arrives in 1957, when, at age 18, young George joins the Air Force. He lands a part-time job as a disc jockey in Louisiana, using the kind of on-air voice and persona he would later make fun of.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the "George Carlin Show."
CARLIN: Eighteen minutes before 5:00. This is music from Carlin's corner, and that ain't half of it - $30 in the lucky license jackpot, a call going out soon. Coming up, Warren Storm with "Trouble."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLES, TROUBLES (TROUBLES ON MY MIND)")
WARREN STORM: (Singing) I got troubles, troubles, troubles. trouble. I got trouble. Trouble.
BIANCULLI: He forms a two-man comedy team with Jack Burns, and they move to California. The duo breaks up after only a few months, but Carlin stays put, pursuing his interest in comedy. He's in the audience of a Lenny Bruce show on one of the nights Bruce gets arrested. And Carlin gets arrested, too, out of solidarity. His own onstage comedy then, in nightclubs and on TV, is mainstream and conventional until suddenly it isn't when he starts to introduce such counterculture concepts and characters as TV's obviously drugged-out hippy-dippy weatherman.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARLIN: OK. The radar's picking up a line of thundershowers from Utica, N.Y., to Middletown. However, the radar is also picking up a squadron of Russian ICBMs. I wouldn't sweat the thundershowers.
CARLIN: Tonight's low, 25 degrees. Tomorrow is high whenever I get up high.
BIANCULLI: As the '60s progresses, and Carlin decides to talk about issues more directly, he refocuses his energies. He starts booking appearances almost exclusively on college campuses, where the students would be more receptive to his new material. His beard and his hair get longer, and his comedy routines get more topical, as when heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali's conscientious objection to the Vietnam War has him stripped of his title for several years before finally being allowed to step back into the ring. George Carlin, talking outdoors to a small college crowd, sees more than a little irony in that whole situation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARLIN: Hey, they're letting Ali fight. He happened to lose, but at least they're letting him work again, right? For three years, that cat couldn't work, Muhammad Ali. And, of course, he had an unusual job beating people up, you know.
CARLIN: But the government wanted him to change jobs. The government wanted him to kill people.
CARLIN: No, that's where I draw the line. Beat him up, but I don't want to kill him, you know.
CARLIN: And the government got spiteful. They said, look, if you won't kill them, we won't let you beat them up.
BIANCULLI: From there, George Carlin's comedy routines get more dense, more bold, and more obsessed with the poetry, meanings and impact of language. All this leads to such uncensored comedy albums as "Class Clown," put out, I learned in this documentary, by a record label owned by another groundbreaking comedian, Flip Wilson. That album includes his infamous seven dirty words routine, which identifies and talks about the seven words you can't say on television. When New York radio station WBEZ played parts of that routine, it was objected to by an outrage parent tuning in, leading to a court case pitting the FCC against the corporate owners of the radio station. It was a free speech case, FCC v. the Pacifica Foundation, that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court voted in favor of the FCC in what basically was a blow against free speech.
Carlin wasn't saying those words for shock value. He was talking about their usage and symbolism and why they had been given such power. Many young George Carlin listeners recognized the subtleties in the issue and the comedy routine that the Supreme Court had not. And some of them grew up to also become comedians obsessed with words. One of those youngsters was Stephen Colbert, who later became a household name because of such self-created words as truthiness. He was a giant George Carlin fan.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM")
STEPHEN COLBERT: Is that he's the Beatles of comedy. At a certain point in his career, there's this huge shift. You know, he's doing the comedic version of "Love Me Do" for the first part of his career. And then suddenly he f****** puts out the comedic "White Album."
BIANCULLI: Another major George Carlin enthusiast was Jerry Seinfeld, who also, like Carlin, delighted in questioning the accepted norms around him and using precise language to do so.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM")
JERRY SEINFELD: He personified that thing that you see when you're young and you go, that's it. That's the thing. That's the thing to be. And I wanted to be just like him, getting every word in the right spot, because when he did it, it thrilled me, you know, and I wanted to do that. I wanted that skill. And I've spent my life pursuing it.
BIANCULLI: The first night of "George Carlin's American Dream" follows his rise to stardom, his seven dirty words controversy and his counterculture coronation as the very first guest host on the premiere episode of "Saturday Night Live." It ends, though, with Carlin seemingly on the wane, no longer in touch or in vogue. But he was determined to change and rise again by being even truer to himself and his opinions - in Part 2 of "American Dream" and for the rest of his life, George Carlin did exactly that.
"George Carlin's American Dream" premieres tonight and tomorrow night on HBO, with both parts available today on HBO Max. After a break, we're going to listen back to portions of two of Terry's interviews with George Carlin. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. George Carlin was one of the more popular and influential comics to emerge from the 1960s counterculture. He died in 2008, the week after he had been named the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Terry Gross spoke with George Carlin in 1990 and again in 2004. We'll hear excerpts from both interviews. When Terry spoke with him in 2004, they listened back to his 1972 recording of Carlin's comic monologue, "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say On Television." Of course, we bleeped the words that made this routine famous.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
CARLIN: 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 - 399,993 to 7.
CARLIN: They must really be bad.
CARLIN: They'd have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven...
CARLIN: ...Bad words.
CARLIN: That's what they told us they were, remember? That's a bad word.
CARLIN: No bad words - bad thoughts, bad intentions and words. You know the seven - don't you? - that you can't say on television? S**t, pi**, fu**, **nt, ****sucker, mother****** and t***.
CARLIN: Those are the heavy seven.
CARLIN: Those are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine...
CARLIN: ...And keep the country from winning the war.
TERRY GROSS: George Carlin, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CARLIN: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Can you talk about what led to this routine - like, what you were thinking about, how you wrote it?
CARLIN: Well, I don't really know that there was a eureka moment or anything like that. I - 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 regulations that are essentially designed to get people in the habit of conforming and obeying authority blindly. So I have always resisted that in my life as a child, as an adolescent and as a young adult. And so I held that attitude. That was the - that's the fertile ground for all of this. Secondly, I have a strong interest in language that is in part genetic and part then fostered by my mother. And I have always taken great joy in looking closer - 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 why - 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 blank-F - 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.
CARLIN: Yeah, you can't reverse the two words.
GROSS: You can't reverse the two words. So comics work with the power of word. And in a way, the fact that certain words are supposed to be taboo, as you point out...
GROSS: ...That gives them power.
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?
CARLIN: Well, what...
GROSS: Like in that classic routine?
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 or 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?
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 kind of songs, those lyrics. I knew there was a chance, but of course, you know, no one ever sees other 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 and satisfying, the 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: Before we get back to our 2004 interview with George Carlin, let's listen back to an excerpt from his 1990 FRESH AIR interview, in which we also talked about the court cases surrounding the broadcast of his seven dirty words routine.
Did the judges in the various trials get the point, do you think?
CARLIN: Absolutely not. I don't think they even listened. I'm sure they didn't listen to the record to hear it in its fullest and best context. I'm sure they read portions of the transcript. It's in the interest, I guess, of the white male, religious, corporate paramilitary state that we live in to control us. And the FCC, of course, has control only over broadcast media. And I guess they found a way to interpret that form of expression differently from the printed word and the spoken word. The argument, which I think is specious, is that because this goes out into the home that somehow, it's going to injure someone morally if it comes through the speaker. They don't take into account the fact that there is an on-off switch on every radio. And there is a station selector knob for changing the station. The man who made the complaint, one of these moral commandos, a professional moralist who wants us to live his way, sat in his car with his son and listened to the entire broadcast. And I assume they were not morally degraded in any way. I assume the child has developed in a normal way in spite of listening to that routine. So where is the argument? I don't follow the damage. I don't see where the damage occurs in this language being used.
GROSS: You know, Lenny Bruce always said that when he was up on obscenity charges...
GROSS: ...That he wished he could perform the material for the judges, you know...
GROSS: ...Because they were hearing - you know, either reading transcriptions or they were hearing people quote the material.
CARLIN: A cop was doing his act horribly.
GROSS: Oh, right. That's it.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, Bruce really felt, well, if they're going to get what it's about, they have to hear me do it.
GROSS: Did you feel that way yourself?
CARLIN: Well, I feel that the thing was rigged to start with, you know? I mean, I think the outcome was inevitable. But surely, it would have been fairer to the process to listen to the recording. And the other thing about it is, there was a warning given. There was a disclaimer given by the radio station saying that there'll be language on this next recording which you may find offensive. There was the point made that it was in the context of speaking about protected speech. And certainly, in that case, that has to be a redeeming artistic feature, which is one of the tests for obscenity. Of course, they didn't test it for obscenity. They called it indecency and got around the obscenity law in that manner.
GROSS: George Carlin recorded in 1990. Let's get back to our 2004 interview with him.
Do you remember how you were first exposed to four-letter words and what your reaction was when you first were?
CARLIN: Well, I was - I grew up in a part of New York City that's a very interesting neighborhood. I lived - literally, my front door was across the - 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 a 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 because we thought it sounded tough. But 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 - ours was a little Irish enclave, just a little wedge-shaped Irish enclave in the middle of all that, highly populated because 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 daily - 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 feel and look at the world.
BIANCULLI: George Carlin speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. After a break, we'll hear more of that conversation. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead revisits another classic from the '60s, a recently reissued 1960 album by jazz drummer Max Roach. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's 2004 interview with comic George Carlin. An excellent new two-part documentary, "George Carlin's American Dream," premieres on HBO and HBO Max this weekend. It chronicles Carlin's gradual evolution from family friendly joke teller to topical social commentator, bombarding his audience with bold observations and passionate expletives. And many of his chosen topics are as topical now as they were then.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARLIN: Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to 9 months. After that, they don't want to know about you. They don't want to hear from you. No nothing - no neonatal care, no daycare, no head start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you're preborn, you're fine. If you're preschool, you're [expletive].
CARLIN: You're [expletive].
CARLIN: Conservatives don't give a [expletive] about you until you reach military age. Then they think you are just fine, just what they've been looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers. Pro-life. They're not pro-life. You know what they are? They're anti-woman - simple as it gets - anti-woman.
CARLIN: They don't like them.
BIANCULLI: Now back to Terry's interview with George Carlin. When we left off, he was talking about how he was first exposed to four-letter words as a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Did language get you into trouble as a kid?
CARLIN: Well, I - because I liked language - as I was 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 on to 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, in looking at 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. And she was worried about me anyway 'cause I was kind of a - I was getting like a loose - to be 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.
CARLIN: I think we may have to get a child psychologist for him 'cause she was telling him these words and showing 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 of...
GROSS: ...Street words in your wallet, you earlier credited your mother with...
CARLIN: Oh, yes. She was...
GROSS: ...Having a love of language and helping...
GROSS: ...To instill it in you. How did her love of language express itself?
CARLIN: And first of all, just to put it in perspective, the portion of my life where 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 had - 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 the dictionary. 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 of it or - 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 came home from work. I brought it in her bedroom and gave her the newspaper. And I said, here, Ma. I said, would you like to peruse this? And she said, well, maybe I'll give it a cursory glance.
CARLIN: And it was right back to the dictionary.
CARLIN: 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 - or 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 - 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?
GROSS: Why did you drop out of high school in ninth grade?
CARLIN: I could see that 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 it was - 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 offer, that they teach you to do what I wanted to do. I was very self - 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?
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. 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: Now, I know you made it onto radio before you became...
GROSS: ...Famous as a comic. What was your radio persona?
CARLIN: Well, I was on - the first job I had was in a place - Shreveport, La., 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 No. 1. 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 like a, 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. I mean, 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...
CARLIN: ...And dedicate it to you? It was a little underhanded, but it sure worked a lot.
GROSS: Works like a charm. And...
GROSS: Would you talk your way through the instrumental, up to the vocal of the record?
CARLIN: Some of the time, sure. Yeah. I used, you know, the first eight bars or 16 bars or whatever the instrumental intro was. You bring it up first for about three or 4 seconds, then you bring it down and 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 KJOE, we're going to listen to this brand-new one. And then - vroom - up with the vocal, you know? 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.
BIANCULLI: George Carlin speaking to Terry Gross in 2004 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF COOLER THAN SMACK'S "DUSTED DREAMS, PT. 3")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with George Carlin. A new documentary about him, "George Carlin's American Dream," premieres tonight on HBO and HBO Max.
GROSS: Now, you've always opposed authority. I mean, you dropped out of school in ninth grade.
GROSS: You joined the military. You were court...
GROSS: ...Martialed twice in the military.
CARLIN: Yeah, three times.
GROSS: Three times. OK.
GROSS: Why would somebody who opposes authority so much volunteer to go into the military, which has such a hierarchical structure?
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, there - so I wanted the choice to be mine. I didn't want to wait - 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 teenage 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 get - 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?
CARLIN: Poorly to the authority. I was very good at the thing they trained me for, which was electronics and computer - analog computers. There was a system called a 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 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 - they - right away, they tell you, pick this up. Put it over there. Put those here. 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 were - possibly were inferior.
GROSS: Who were the first comics that you heard where you thought, they nailed it; this is what life is about? Like, they just described...
CARLIN: Well, you know, I don't know. I know - 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 same, very safe and very same. And then Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Nichols and May and a lot of other people in the improv groups and some underground press and so forth took hold of 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 most - 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 his - just his parodies were great. But then he started talking about religion and 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 when you first - from when you first started doing stand-up?
CARLIN: Well, of course, the times helped - you know, the changes 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 buttoned-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, changing - 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?
CARLIN: 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 or to be like Bob Hope in the movies.
CARLIN: So I never put those two things together. I never saw that they didn't go together.
CARLIN: 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. That's what the period demanded. And - so I did that until the two became - it became an untenable situation. I couldn't - I could no longer be myself inside and serve these other things. And when I saw the mistake, I went about correcting it in a slow and orderly manner. Took about two or three years for my change, as it were, to take place.
GROSS: Well, George Carlin, I'd like to ask you to end our interview by reading the final piece in your new book.
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." And you're welcome to say anything about writing it before you read it or to just read it, whatever you prefer.
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 - (vocalizing) - 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 is 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.
CARLIN: Sure. Thank you for - I always appreciate - I'm not flattering here - an intelligent interview. And thank you for that.
BIANCULLI: George Carlin speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. "George Carlin's American Dream," an outstanding new documentary by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, premieres tonight and tomorrow night on HBO and is available now on the streaming service HBO Max. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead revisits "We Insist!", the newly reissued 1960 album by jazz drummer Max Roach. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFFORD BROWN AND MAX ROACH'S "JOY SPRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.