George Carlin on How He Came Up With Material, Advice to Young Comedians, and His Influence
I just released an e-book called Conversations with Carlin: An In-Depth Discussion with George Carlin about Life, Sex, Death, Drugs, Comedy, Words, and so much more, a novella-length transcript of a five-hour interview I conducted with comedy legend George Carlin in 2001. As the title indicates, I spoke to Carlin about not just expected topics such as comedy and words – two topics covered at length in the book – but also about more personal and philosophical subjects including religion, war, morality, and the importance of romantic love. Here’s an exclusive excerpt.
Let’s talk about your material. Do jokes and premises just come to you, or do you actively sit and try to think of funny things?
It comes to me. Part of my leaving the media on all day is a way of…my mind has trained itself to have a very sensitive system of radar about certain words, expressions, topics, and areas of discussion that come up. There are things that interest me more than others, and then there are things that jump out. There’s one thing I learned about the mind as a young man, when I quit school. I read a book – half of it, anyway – called Psycho-Cybernetics. The author said that the brain is a goal-seeking and problem-solving machine, and if you put into it the parameters of what it is you need or want or expect, and you feed it, it will do a lot of work without you even noticing. Because the brain does that. It forms neural networks. There are areas in your brain that communicate with one another because of a need they perceive that they have – if you have trained yourself passively or actively, which I have – to look for certain kinds of things to say, and certain kinds of things to compare. Because a lot of comedy is comparing – the things that are cultural or social or language-oriented, or just plain silly. My brain got used to the fact that that made it feel good – that I liked finding those things. So the brain does networking on its own where those connections get made, and pretty soon there’s an automatic process going on all the time that leaves out a lot of unimportant or less interesting areas, and concentrates on areas it has trained itself to passively look for. Because it knows that when it finds one of them, you’re going to feel good! Oh, boy, I found another one! Let’s go back to work and find some more of these for him. What I do is, I collect my notes. I have about 1,300 separate files in my computer – they change from week to week, because I combine or expand files – and they are 44 years worth of collecting thoughts, notions, ideas, pieces of data, and material. Anything I think might have promise for my writing sometime in the future goes on a piece of paper, and that becomes a stack of papers, and that gets a topic title. The scientist is at work with the little artist – he’s got a scientist buddy – and this guy’s indexing things and figuring out categories, and that stuff goes in the computer. And every time you see it, touch it, look at it, or think of it, it gets deeper in the brain, the network gets deeper, and at some point, it gets to be a telling mass that says to you, “OK. Take a look at this now. This is gonna be funny. You got enough data, take a look at this.” So I’m drawn to something and start writing about it, and then you really start writing, and that’s when the real ideas pounce out, and new ideas, and new thoughts and images, and then bing, ba-bam ba-boom, that’s the creative part.
What’s the greatest mistake made by up-and-coming comics?
I don’t know, because I don’t know enough individual stories to know what that would be. I’d love to hear what [new comics] said about it. But if I had to guess, the most common mistake they make – or even experienced comics, just comics in general – is not writing your shit down. Not keeping these files. In the past year or so, I’ve met a number of what we think of as high profile comedians. I mentioned my files to them, and I got this blank look. I would ask them, “Don’t you keep your files? Don’t you at least have a record of the things you’ve already done?’ And they said no. For 44 years I’ve been categorizing and indexing these things, and I feel unarmed without it. And these are not guys who just get up on stage and do it differently every night. It’s not that way. It’s a wonderful myth that certain comedians can exist that way, and it’s just not true, because you’re alone up there for thirty minutes or an hour, and you better have some structure. So I think it’s unimaginable that people who want to be funny aren’t writing down every little aspect of it that they think of, and trying to find ways to put those thoughts together.
What do you think your influence on comedy has been?
It’s very hard from in here to know and be objective. I’m told by some people – and I have dispute with this – that I started that whole “observational comedy” thing. I guess I’m being a little modest when I say, well, all comedians basically observe, and make observational comedy. But I think they mean something narrower, which is, “did you ever notice how, when you do this, you don’t do that? And then this happens?” I did a lot of that in the mixture of things that I do. The three areas I’ve always drawn from, at least since I got flying in the 1970s and the big part of my career happened, were the English language; little things, such as what we’re talking about, observational comedy; and the huge issues that will never really be solved, (as opposed to topical political humor), things like race, genocide, war, death, commercialism, consumerism, big business, and education. I’ve always drawn from those three wells. So the observational stuff that I’ve used, which is what they’re identifying when they talk about me, in a lot of cases it wasn’t that minutia stuff, it was talking about cats and dogs as I had owned them. So I was talking from a personal platform. The same is true of the food, and the refrigerator, and the things I didn’t like to eat as a kid, and driving. It all comes out of personal experience, and not so much, “Did you ever wonder why this, or that, or so on.” So my answer is, the influence I’ve had is to be successful in the mainstream with a decidedly non-mainstream vocabulary. That’s about it, I think. The observational stuff – maybe there’s a hint of that. Maybe one or two people took that part of my thing and thought that was great for them too. I just think that me making a success out of things and still being able to say “cocksucker” somehow inspired a few people that [stand-up comedy] is an arena of expression, rather than just a performer’s job.
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