a little wobbly," Mr. Carlin said by way of explanation. "It's this
low blood pressure thing."
At 67, Mr.
Carlin is a survivor, though, he might add, barely. He has suffered
three heart attacks — "events," he calls them — and a number of
angioplasties, so that these days, besides monitoring the world, he
spends no small amount of energy monitoring fractionated cholesterol
and lipids panels. Mr. Carlin has battled through cocaine addiction, a
$3 million debt to the I.R.S. that took him 15 years to pay off, and
in 1997, the death of his wife of 36 years from liver cancer.
which, it seems, has mellowed him. As much as ever, Mr. Carlin builds
his humor around the taboo — his current routine includes long riffs
on cancer, natural disasters and teenage suicide and yet somehow
manages to get laughs.
somewhere around the world, someone is about to kill himself," Mr.
Carlin declared cheerily toward the beginning of a sold-out show on
Dec. 3 at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. "Every 30 seconds —
there goes another guy." After pointing out that suicide was the
third-leading cause of death for young men in the United States, Mr.
Carlin told the crowd, "You gals, if you want to be truly equal,
you're going to have to start killing yourselves in greater numbers."
has to think about these things," Mr. Carlin said under his breath
later in the show, as he prowled the stage in his trademark black
T-shirt, bluejeans and New Balance running shoes. "Apparently I've
Mr. Carlin appointed himself. Since at least 1973, when he performed
his famous routine "Filthy Words," describing the seven words you can
never say on television, Mr. Carlin has made a point of saying things
no one else would dare and mocking the sacred — religion, patriotism
and every conceivable political group and ideology. Along the way, he
has managed to find the holy grail of show business: a constantly
renewing audience, a steady stream of moderately disaffected people
with a high threshold for being offended.
His shows —
he still performs roughly 150 times a year — regularly sell out. Since
1977 he has performed a new HBO special every two years or so; his
next is scheduled for November 2005. Mr. Carlin has published three
best-selling books; his latest, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork
Chops?" has been on the New York Times best-seller list for six weeks.
The book was taken off the shelves at Wal-Mart after complaints from
customers about the cover, which shows Mr. Carlin in the seat normally
occupied by Jesus in da Vinci's "Last Supper." (Mocking religion is a
staple of Mr. Carlin's repertory: he once proselytized for
"Frisbeetarianism," which held that when a person dies, "his soul gets
flung onto a roof and just stays there.")
a vulnerability and a likability that lets him get away clean with
saying certain things other people can't say," said Jerry Hamza, Mr.
Carlin's best friend and manager for more than 20 years, when asked
how his friend had managed to keep his career going so long. "That's
where he lives — he believes he can make anything funny."
said the trick to enjoying his later years was caring less about
have a stake in this adventure now — the cultural, historical
adventure of America and the biological adventure of this species on
the planet," he said. "I don't care what happens to this country.
There's no changing the way this planet is headed. So I kind of watch
it as entertainment."
"I say it
this way," Mr. Carlin added. "When you're born in this world, you're
given a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America you're
given a front row seat."
For all his
talk of disengagement, however, Mr. Carlin is by all accounts an
obsessive worker. He splits his time between California and Las Vegas,
and takes limousines over planes whenever possible, Mr. Hamza said,
because he finds it easier to work on his laptop in a car. Mr. Carlin
is constantly scribbling notions down in a notebook or recording them
on a small voice recorder, and he spends most of his time typing,
organizing and reorganizing his ideas in a library of 2,300 files he
keeps on his computer — raw material he may someday forge into actual
jokes, monologues or material for his books. And as soon as he has
recorded a new HBO routine, he begins cycling in fresh material, so
that over the course of two years, his entire routine is replaced, and
he's ready to record another.
"It's like a
sock," Mr. Carlin said. "I darn the sock so much that none of the
original material is left. It's the same sock — it's my show — but the
old material is gone."
"I have no
hobbies and I have no leisure activities," Mr. Carlin added. "My
greatest joy is working at the computer with my ideas."
grew up on West 121st Street in Manhattan, with his mother, who worked
in advertising and who left her hard-drinking husband when Mr. Carlin
was 2 months old. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and at
17 joined the Air Force, which stationed him in Shreveport, La., and
set him to work repairing bombing systems on B-47's. Mr. Carlin's
first job in entertainment was as a disc jockey at a station there.
still speaks adoringly of his mother and says that the stigma of
having dropped out of school has fueled his career.
quit school in ninth grade and you're smart, you spend your life in
some small or large way proving yourself," he said.
worked comedy clubs, eventually found his way onto the variety show
"Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" as a regular, and was the host of the
debut of "Saturday Night Live" in 1975. He honed his personal style,
blending quick — and usually profanity-laced — jokes with what he
called style pieces, longer, carefully crafted monologues of
high-speed word play meant to dazzle more than simply bust guts.
way, Mr. Carlin — addled during those years on cocaine — courted
controversy. He was arrested in Milwaukee on indecency charges after a
show there in 1972. In 1973, his "Filthy Words" routine was aired on
WBAI in New York City, resulting in an obscenity charge by the Federal
Communications Commission against the station, which resulted in a
long legal battle that eventually made it to the Supreme Court. (The
court upheld restrictions on broadcasting profanities at times when
children were likely to be tuned in.) The profanity in his routine
limited his opportunities on network TV, but fortunately for Mr.
Carlin, cable came along; he did his first HBO special in 1977. He had
his first heart attack a year later.
said his material typically fits into three categories — jokes about
language, and about what he calls the small world and the big world.
world is what's in your refrigerator, how you drive, your pet's
behavior, your stuff," Mr. Carlin said. "Those are things we share,
that we all agree on. The large world is the big issues that will
never be solved — race, politics, government, religion, business,
culture. That's where I've headed more."
the comedian, said he believes Mr. Carlin's longevity can be
attributed to the themes of his work. "One of the major topics he
deals with is timeless — stupidity," Mr. Black said. "It's something
everyone relates to. And he relates to his younger audience in terms
of frustration and rage — which appeals to them because young people
live through an extended period of frustration and rage."
books will not be confused with his routines for polish and
forethought. Rather they are loose compendiums of the ideas — many not
fully formed — that percolate through the more honed performances. His
first, "Braindroppings" in 1997, was a surprise best seller. Helped
perhaps by the Wal-Mart controversy, his new book made its debut at
No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list.
"I used to
always describe myself as a comedian who wrote his own material," he
added. "Now I describe myself as a writer who performs his own
material." Mr. Carlin said that when he turns 70, he wants to begin
work on a Broadway show — not a one-man performance, but what he
called a "single creature show" — about growing up in Manhattan. "It
would be a sweet reminiscence," he said.
there's little that is sweet in Mr. Carlin's comedic repertory. As
much as ever, he mocks everything he can think of, it seems, including
his audience. At his Westbury show, Mr. Carlin spewed venom at
Americans with "short pants, fat thighs, dumb kids, eating corn dogs
and triple cheeseburgers and fried butter dipped in cheese." He looked
up at the crowd and said, "That doesn't include this audience."
knows how to use an off-speed pitch. After a profanity-packed riff on
a subject too vulgar for any newspaper, Mr. Carlin, hunched and
prowling, peered up from the stage and asked, "You know what really
gets me?" The audience braced itself for something truly outrageous.
"I think there's too many songs," Mr. Carlin said, sounding for a
moment like Jerry Seinfeld.
though, Mr. Carlin had gone dark again.
are love songs," he said. "How about a song about cancer? I'd listen
to that. Everybody's got cancer in this country — nobody's singing