Comic recalls empty feeling

September 30, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

In the mind of comedian George Carlin, Baltimore will always occupy a special place. All right, so it's a mostly empty place with low lighting and many unoccupied chairs and the help standing around waiting for a live one to walk in.

"My recollection is that there were to be two shows on that night," says Carlin, remembering his appearance at the Blue Dog cafe on York Road on Friday, July 2, 1965. At the time, he was a skinny 28-year-old kid in short hair and a shirt and tie who was experiencing his first success as a solo comedy act. Well, at least in places other than the Blue Dog.

"I was standing there at 8:30 at show time," says Carlin, in a phone interview from his home near Los Angeles. "The bartender, a couple of waitresses, the owner. And no one was there. He says, `Well, show time.' And I said, `Well, uh, there's nobody here.' And he says `Yeah, but in case somebody comes in I want them to know there's a show.' So the bartender and the waitresses hadn't heard this stuff and fortunately I had three people responding. And yet I finished very quickly because, you know, laughs take up a certain amount of time."

Laughs have taken up a certain amount of life for Carlin, who will do one show at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight. No hard feelings about Baltimore, says Carlin, who has performed here a few times since the Blue Dog debacle.

"I like Baltimore," says Carlin, whose appearance at the Blue Dog was announced with an advertisement about the size of a match book: "Don't Miss Comedian George Carlin at the New Blue Dog/Now Serving Beer &Wine."

A year later, owners of the Blue Dog declared bankruptcy. Five years later Carlin exchanged the shirt and tie for a T-shirt and blue jeans, grew his hair to his shoulders and a beard to where the button-down collar used to be. At 33, he found the persona of a comedic renegade with which he would soar: four gold records, a Grammy award, television shows, small movie parts and a following of young comics who place Carlin in the comedy pantheon with the likes of Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce.

At 63, Carlin is gray, still slim and still doing more than 100 concerts a year and several weeks a year in Las Vegas. In performance he seems to be working hard to demonstrate that he has not mellowed with the years. In his latest album and Home Box Office special, "You Are All Diseased," Carlin sounds like an angry drunk on a street corner, cursing and ranting in a raspy growl about cigar smokers, religion, advertising, people who believe in angels, soccer moms, yuppies on Harleys and the idiocy of airport security.

But then, the stakes have been raised for a man who made a reputation in the early 1970s by testing comic boundaries, especially in language. As much as anything else, Carlin is known for his riff on the seven words that cannot be spoken on television or radio.

Most of those seven words still aren't heard in broadcasting, but things have loosened up a bit with the advent of cable and the appearance of such performers as Howard Stern. That S-word for excrement, for example, sometimes shows up in dramatic television shows; it's possible to broadcast you are "pissed off," but not that you went to the men's room and - never mind. Language is such a funny thing.

With so many comedians in so many venues blasting every conceivable target, it's hard to know where the boundaries are anymore.

"In terms of taboos, to me the only taboos left are religion and children, " says Carlin. "Those two still have the power to disturb people if you point out that children should not be held more sacred than adults or somehow be more privileged than adults and that there is no God, that it's a big jive story."

In "You Are All Diseased," Carlin rips the current American obsession with children:

"What I'm talking about is this constant mindless yammering in the media, this neurotic fixation that says somehow everything, EVERYTHING has to revolve around children. It's completely out of balance," says Carlin, who played Mr. Conductor on the Public Broadcasting Service children's show, "Shining Time Station."

Of course, many of the people who have turned their children into "little cult objects" are the same baby boomers who turned their own youthful sexuality, hair, language, ethics and music into cult objects. Carlin has found that maintaining renegade status now requires him to rail against the left-leaning sensibilities from which he sprang.

"The interesting irony, and in this case I enjoy using the word irony as it's intended, is that the left became as bad at censoring us in our speech as the right," he says. "Of course, we're talking about the movement of political correctness. I have plenty to say about that too."

He's not having much to say about politics. Over the years he found that the less he cared about political issues, the more free he felt in his comedy.

"It came from living and saying, `Well, this is absurd, this is futile.' And there are other people who will worry about it. Let them do it. There are people who go to court to fight big corporations, there are people who climb trees, lash themselves to a tree. That's their job. My job is being myself, saying this stuff and hoping it provides some entertainment for people."

George Carlin

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $29.50, $34.50, $39.50.

Call: 410-783-8000.

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