Try to pin down comedy legend George Carlin on his personal politics, and he offers this philosophical nugget: "Everybody's fucked."
"I don't have any personal politics; I have beliefs," Carlin said before hitting the road for a tour that stops by the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Sunday. "I don't see any sense in being an artist if you're not honest. This is a writing job I have where I get to air whatever's on my mind. Some things in my show are lighter and looser, but most of the minutes are devoted to beliefs and points of view and attitudes I have."
And while he'll build his sets around American culture, he avoids "talking about personalities and small-'p' political things. I talk about the fact that this culture, this system, is in the final stages and is sort of circling the drain."
Why is it over?
"Because of the overemphasis on commerce and religion in our lives, and the fact that our lives are dictated by corporations. You're all fucked. And I don't have anything to do with it."
Carlin views himself as an outside observer of our dire straits. "I don't really care what happens to this country," he said. "I don't consider myself as having an allegiance to this country. That's an artificial thing imposed on this place. I'm kind of free-floating. I like to point out to people how bad off they are, how big a hole they've dug for themselves. All that stuff told on the Fourth of July about freedom and opportunity and anti-discrimination is not really accurate if you tracked it all down."
He mined this territory in his last HBO special, You're All Diseased. His next special, The Great American Cattle Drive, is all about consumerism.
Since Carlin doesn't care what happens to us, it must not matter to him whether the points he makes sink in with audiences. "But I know they do because people tell me they do," he said. "I don't have to care about it. I can't begin with that premise, or it'd be certain death.
"I do this for myself. I do this to sing my song—get things off my chest, out of my head. The fact that other people like it is a bonus. The fact that this society buys you a car if people like it is a bonus. If these were nihilistic times and I had to go cave to cave to tell people this for extra meat, I'd do that."
He says he "likes attacking religion and the way this system is stacked against people. I enjoy pointing out the usual American stance, where we identify the weak guys, beat the weak guys down, flex our muscles and tell everyone we're No. 1."
This is funny?
"Look: onstage, I'm a comic first," he said. "Everything I have, all 11 HBO shows are filled with great jokes. I couch the jokes with language that is interesting and funny, and I'm not just talking about swearing here, but colorfully describing the world."
Having the HBO specials—which most members of Carlin's live audiences have seen—forces him to constantly write new material. He figures that half of his upcoming Orange County show will be based on what was in his February special on the cable channel, and the other half will be new stuff.
He began his standup career in the late '50s and was regularly featured on The Ed Sullivan Show.But he didn't view himself as an artist until "after I went through the changes in 1970." Those changes involved drugs, letting his hair grow out, drugs, chastising religious hypocrisy, drugs, and observing everyday life with a fresh and deliciously twisted perspective.
"There was one period where I was very hot in the mainstream, mid-'60s culture," he said. "Then I went through the changes at the end of the decade and came out on the other end. I was more true to myself. The material represented me in a more nonsuperficial way. That's when I realized there was more to it, that it was art."
Atlantic Records will soon release a boxed set of Carlin's '70s art, The Little David Years, which features his six red-hot comedy albums on the Little David label, the original packaging (shrunk for CD format, of course), a bonus album of material that didn't make it onto vinyl because of time constraints, and half a dozen recordings he made as a youngster in an arcade recording booth. "Everyone will get to hear my 12-year-old New York accent," he said with a laugh.
Carlin, who has made hilarious hay out of his Catholic upbringing, also plays a cardinal in Kevin Smith's movie Dogma, which church officials have condemned as sacrilegious even though it doesn't open until Nov. 11.
Does Carlin know Orange County?
"Well, street by street, no," he said. "But I do watch election results."
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What does he think of Republicans losing their 15-year grip on majority voter-registration status here?
"The whole world is doing that. The old blocks of political power are no longer sure things. People are moving around, changing jobs and locations, and bringing their beliefs with them."
Of course, it doesn't really matter because, as Carlin put it, "everybody's fucked."
George Carlin performs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 740-7878. Sat., 7 p.m. $29.50-$36.50.