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George Carlin confronts reality

Comedian adds to observations in new book

By Todd Leopold

George Carlin
"I always feel good when I visit a sickroom supply store and see all the things I don't need."

"I wonder if a person who comes out of a coma feels refreshed and well rested."

"You know what kind of guy you never see anymore? A fop."

"If you have a legal problem, guess how you determine whether or not you need a lawyer. You see a lawyer. Isn't that weird?"

"Live every day as if it's your last and eventually it will be. You'll be fully prepared."

"If you're born in this world you're given a ticket to the freak show. If you're born in America you're given a front-row seat."

Sources: "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?", interview
George Carlin
George Orwell

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Professor George Carlin?

It could have happened. Anyone who's watched the comedian over the years knows his fascination with words, his study of the manipulation of language and his keen-eyed powers of observation.

"I tell ya, if I hadn't chosen the career of being a performer, I think linguistics would have been a natural area that I'd have loved -- to teach it, probably," Carlin says in an interview at CNN Center. "Language has always fascinated me. There's a genetic inheritance there ... a good language gene, which I inherited [from my mother and grandfather] and she fostered that in me as he fostered that in her."

Carlin's interest has led to a lot of his best-known comic routines, from breathtaking lists of colorful phrases to his comparisons of baseball and football and good and bad drivers, and -- of course -- the much-added-to inventory of "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television."

But underneath those laughs is a serious survey of how language can be finessed or bent to hide uncomfortable realities -- something Carlin has no trouble in pointing out, often in terms that would embarrass a longshoreman.

In his new book, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" (Hyperion), Carlin, 67, devotes a sizable portion of the book to euphemisms, plainly presenting how marketers, government and authority figures twist language to suit their own needs.

And it's not just "menu" becoming "lunch solutions" or the "Patagonian tooth fish" turning into the easier-to-swallow "Chilean sea bass." "Middle-aged" has become "pre-elderly," he writes, suggesting that perhaps "elderly" should become "pre-dead."

And the Nazis, he writes, "referred to the extermination of the Jews as 'special action.' In their version, the Jews were not killed, they were 'resettled,' 'evacuated' or 'transferred.' The dead were referred to as the 'no longer relevant.' "

George Orwell described all this decades ago, Carlin says, but too often polite society still lets it slip by.

"There's a reluctance to confront reality and a desire to soften unpleasant realities ... by giving them slightly different names," he says. "The various areas where euphemistic language -- euphemistic usages -- crop up are meant to hide the truth, soften reality, make something a little more pleasant or less unpleasant."

'An attempt to demystify'

In "Pork Chops," Carlin's attitude is that of a curmudgeonly crank -- you'd think he'd just as soon burn down the schoolhouse as teach in it -- but in person, he's thoughtful and funny, a thin, wiry man pondering life's absurdities from underneath a baseball cap.

For instance, many people's avoidance of talking about various parts, purposes and productions of the human body.

He's blunt about it in "Pork Chops," freely talking about lip crud, mucus, excrement and all the various functions involved in sex. He sees no reason why such activities and substances shouldn't be called by whatever names people want to use.

"There's a conditioning that's been done to us, largely, I think, from religion," he says. "I have always felt these are legitimate words created by humans as part of their ways of communicating with each other, and ... they shouldn't be considered wrong or apart. To call it 'f***ing' or to call it 'intercourse' is not really to make a distinction between those two acts. It's the same act."

Bill and Ted
Carlin's movies include "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," with Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves.

And it's part of being a living, breathing human being, he adds.

"Part of what my impulse is with things I've said or done, I think it is an attempt to demystify these things, to take them out of the realm of the forbidden and the disgusting and the off-base, and to at least bring them into the discussion," he says. "And then, if you choose ... to avoid that kind of expression, fine. But I don't think everybody should have to be subject to these largely superstitious practices and conventions."

'Merit badges'

Talking about all these things -- with impeccable timing -- has made Carlin one of the most influential comedians of his time. Successors, from the ranting Dennis Miller and Sam Kinison to the gentle, loopily observational Steven Wright and Ellen DeGeneres, can be traced back to Carlin.

Carlin himself credits Lenny Bruce for inspiring his comedy.

"[His career] represented a lot of such honesty on the stage, the willingness to confront a lot of sacred cows and expose them," he says. "He did it with a great deal of irreverence and with a lot of brilliance."

His routines are frequently quoted -- sometimes by fans in his presence -- which he terms "a compliment."


"These are nice additional merit badges that you earn if you've left a mark on a person or on some people, however deep the mark it doesn't matter," he says. "I'd say it's flattering, but flattery implies insincerity, so I call it a compliment."

Given the tendency of humans to cover up their foolishness, Carlin will never run out of material. He's particularly amused by many politicians' determinations -- including the Bush administration's -- to stick to its versions of events, something he talked about with Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" recently.

"I was kidding about the people who come on when [Russert] puts [a quote] on the screen and says, 'This is what you said on November 5 eight years ago, now that doesn't jibe with what you just said. And he said, 'If one of them would just say, "I was wrong then ... and things have changed and I have changed with them," [it would be OK].'

"But this hard-headed, macho, male, Republican, corporate ... [they] don't admit any weaknesses. ... That's their fear, that they'll be seen as weak."

But, he adds, he doesn't consider himself a cynic. A skeptic, yes; a realist. But he's enjoying his ride in what he calls the "big revolving theater in the round," and will continue to amusedly pay attention.

"Someone said, if you scratch a cynic, you find a disappointed idealist, and I would cop to that," he observes.

"[But] the important thing is to, first of all, question everything you read or hear or see or are told. Question it," he says. "And try to see the world for what it actually is, as opposed to what someone or some company or some organization or some government is trying to represent it as, or present it as, however they've mislabeled it or dressed it up or told you."

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