IN THE '70S, HE WAS AT THE CENTER OF A FAMOUS OBSCENITY CASE OVER HIS comedy routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." At age 66, George Carlin is still provoking audiences with his stand-up material, watching a new battle over broadcast indecency unfold and co-starring in a movie, Jersey Girl. He talked, seriously, with TIME's Richard Zoglin.
YOU ARE FAMOUS FOR THE SEVEN-DIRTY-WORDS BROUHAHA. IT'S BEEN 30 YEARS. DOES IT SURPRISE YOU THAT THOSE WORDS ARE STILL FORBIDDEN? No. What has happened over the centuries is that a natural modesty that people have has been exploited by religion to be a kind of fear and shame and guilt about our bodies and the functions they have. Now it is probably a permanent feature of the psyche of people.
WITH THE NEW FCC CRACKDOWN ON INDECENCY, DO YOU THINK WE ARE ENTERING A MORE REPRESSIVE AGE? There is no question that the repressive, Christian, right-wing, business, criminal, Republican section of our country has gained the upper hand. I think the Patriot Act has been exploited to put more severe controls on our behavior into place than they ever dreamed they would have a chance to implement.
DO YOU THINK IT IS HARDER OR EASIER TO SHOCK AN AUDIENCE TODAY? I like to push people's buttons. I like to bother people's sacred values. It is not hard to do that with certain topics. I find the taboos of today are religion, the flag and children--the parent-child phenomenon. This cult of the child has developed, and the cult of the parent--which are to me appalling and overdone and probably dangerous for children.
EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE VERY POLITICALLY AWARE, YOUR MATERIAL IS NOT OVERTLY POLITICAL. YOU DON'T DO JOKES ABOUT THE PRESIDENT. IS THAT GOING TO CHANGE? No. I don't like topical humor. It bothers me. I don't enjoy it. I find it thin and superficial and rather easy to do. I don't like easy targets, and I don't like sounding like everyone else.
IS BUSH TOO EASY A TARGET? Yeah, and Gingrich was, and Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson--all these figures. They've already been made into cartoons, and some of them, in fact, live cartoon lives.
YOU'RE STILL TOURING A LOT AT 66. MOST COMICS LOSE THEIR EDGE LONG BEFORE THAT. ISN'T STAND-UP COMEDY A YOUNG PERSON'S GAME? I think it has to do with one's interest in the world. I sort of gave up on this whole human adventure a long time ago, divorced myself from it emotionally. It gives me an artistic detachment that I find valuable. I think the human race has squandered its gift, and I think this country has squandered its promise, for the sake of cell phones and Jet Skis.
YOU WERE THE GUEST HOST OF THE VERY FIRST SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I ONCE HEARD YOU SAY THAT WAS ONE PERFORMANCE YOU HAVE DIFFICULTY WATCHING TODAY. WHY? I'm grinding my jaw and clenching my teeth, and I remember the amount of cocaine I did that week, and it just sort of fills me with the feeling of a lost opportunity. Not that it didn't serve its purpose at the time. But it was an opportunity to really have something memorable on tape, and instead I have something that I sort of have to bear.