The real George Carlin isn't like a Rick Moranis imitation of Carlin. There are no exaggerated, hippie ruminations, no "did you ever think about this, maaaaan," no long and winding diatribes on the hypocrisy of this and the social injustice of that.
Nor has Carlin, nearing 70 and with 50 years of show business under his belt, become a craggy old guy looking to shock a journalist with an incest joke (even if he has shocked some audiences with a few). No, Carlin is serious, pointed, a little meticulous with his words, as he bends the conversation to what he has learned over the years about comedy as a craft.
Carlin can't trot out his greatest hits like an aging rock star. He can't deliver such timeless routines as his Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television monologue from the early seventies, or a great bit about praying to Joe Pesci rather than God, because Pesci at least "looks like a guy who can get things done."
Even Carlin, who forever has been labelled the successor to Lenny Bruce, can't rest on his past acclaim. "I have no interest in that."
Carlin says in his instantly recognizable baritone, explaining that from his home in Venice, Calif., he continues to collect new material on what's wrong with the world, preparing for about 80 dates a year, including a stop in Toronto on March 31. "The thing that must be understood is that what I essentially do is write." (He has been stressing this point for years.) "I pick up stuff that interests me, things about the culture mostly and language, or observations that interest me. And I keep files of notes and material that's partly done and partly written. . . . I keep track of these over the years, and add to them, and become familiar with them."
Yet this stewing method is partly why Carlin hasn't used the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act as a fount of new material. Of course, he has mentioned the war a little, such as skewering the calls from leaders and businessmen, after the Sept. 11 attacks, urging us to keep buying big-ticket items, otherwise "the terrorists win."
Carlin would rather focus on larger, timeless themes, and then test the lines of decency surrounding those: "For me the lines are -- and perhaps this is true of society, not just for me -- religion of course, the flag and blind patriotism. But a nice one that I enjoy poking at all the time is children and parents and family life. And my take on children and people who have too many of them. I like to find out what makes them [audiences]squirm a little and go after that."
On the other hand, Carlin knows that his audience is a fairly predictable breed, left-leaning, "not a cross-section of Kansas or Arkansas," he says. "But I've noticed that whereas once a critical remark about Bush or war was greeted with a great deal of silence and a few brave souls applauding, that has swung drastically."
Carlin has learned how to get audiences to accept jokes deliberately aimed at undermining their beliefs. He particularly learned this lesson mid-career, and it seems to mark a departure from his earlier, faster, more frenetic style to his slower drawl today. "In 1992, I learned the value of silence in an audience. Up until that time, I'd suffered from the usual comedians' enslavement of 'We gotta have laughs, silence is deadly, and once the silence starts, they'll smell the fear.' I noticed [this]in 1992, because I did some very long set pieces that had a more serious tone to them.
"One was called The Planet Is Fine, the People Are Fucked. It was about how environmentalism is again being played [up]by selfish people who want to improve their own habitat and keep their place nice. It has nothing to do with the planet. 'The poor planet! Look at what we are doing to the planet!' And I was saying that the planet is going to be fine. It's going to shake us off like a bad case of fleas, and we'll be gone.
"And so a lot of stuff that built up within that piece were quiet moments. What I learned from that was that my job, and maybe most comedians' job, is not just to get laughs and entertain, but also to engage the imagination. Just to get them taking a trip with you, along through something you've thought out and you've managed to make fairly interesting to listen to and contemplate."
This has always been an aspect of Carlin's work at its best: Rebellion with a purpose and with Carlin outlining why. Not surprisingly, it started when he was young, growing up in the upper Manhattan neighbourhood of Morningside Heights, which Carlin and the other kids would call West Harlem to sound tough. Dominated by Columbia University, the neighbourhood actually isn't as tough as some of the surrounding blocks. Nevertheless, "I was a rebel. I was kicked out of three schools. I was kicked out of the choir, the altar boys, the Boy Scouts and summer camp. And I left the Air Force early because that, too, was not working out.
"I was the neighbourhood cutup. A lot of the kids in my neighbourhood were very quick verbally. They were mostly Irish kids, and many of them had that Irish gift, whatever that is. You had to be fast on your verbal feet in the neighbourhood.
"So whatever I got genetically from my father and mother -- which was considerable -- was reinforced around the neighbourhood, and because of my own need for what I now interpret as a need for attention and approval by being funny."
Still, Carlin's style, despite the shock value, has always had a certain decorum. Take the incest jokes. The punchlines are succinct, graphic and disturbing. (Carlin could no doubt write a whole routine around a journalist calling a trio of jokes "disturbing," but there you have it.) Yet the whole routine is based on the long set-up Carlin gives each joke, piling warning upon warning that he is about to offend and about to cross "a line." When the actual jokes come, they are sudden releases of tension.
And even if many don't laugh, Carlin knows the routine works: "I often tell young comedians that if it's not going over well, it's not you, it's the audience -- because if the material worked before, then the material works."
George Carlin performs at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on March 31 (416-872-4255).