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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Irreverent, strong-willed counter-culture comedian George Carlin stood in front of millions, questioning, condemning, cutting through what he daintily called middle-class crap. Carlin had a - well, adversarial relationship with politics and religion. His performances were often rants against authority and censorship.

His 1972 album, "Class Clown," featured the now-legendary "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."

(Soundbite of "Class Clown")

Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Comedian): You know, that's the trouble, is trying to decide what to call these words. Man, I'm trying to decide what to call this whole thing. You know, what are these words that I'm talking about? They're just words that we've decided, sort of decided, not to use all the time. That's about the only thing you can really say about them for sure, that they're just some words, not many either, just a few, that we've decided, well, we won't use them all the time. Sometimes, well, hell yeah, sometimes it's okay, but not all the time. And they are the only words that seem to have that restriction.

ROBERTS: That's George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." Before his death, Carlin spent 10 years working on a memoir with longtime friend and writer Tony Hendra. Today, "Last Words," the autobiography of George Carlin. Although he apparently hated the term autobiography, as only the pinheaded criminal business jerks and politicians wrote autobiographies. He used a word other than jerk - which reminds me, Carlin used a lot of foul language, so if you call in to quote your favorite routine for us, please remember you are not actually George Carlin and so please do clean it up for our audience.

Later in the hour - is blackface more irreverent or just insensitive? We talk race with Dawn Turner Trice. But first, the life of comedian George Carlin. If you have questions about his work and life, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tony Hendra is a comedian, author and longtime friend of George Carlin. He worked with Carlin on his autobiography, "Last Words." He joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TONY HENDRA (Comedian; Author): Hi, nice to be here.

ROBERTS: So how did you end up working on this not-autobiography? What's the term you want to use - sorta-biography?

Mr. HENDRA: Sorta-biography, yes. It was actually because in the course of it, as you pointed out, George didn't want to call it an autobiography. He also didn't want to call it a memoir, which we decided was a linguistic mongrel of me and moi. So that was a bit too egotistical. And in addition to that, he had asked me to write these kind of historical interstitial pieces that would place George in historical context throughout his more than - eventually more than 50-year career.

So we decided it was part biography and part autobiography and therefore we would call it a sorta-biography.

ROBERTS: How did you meet him?

Mr. HENDRA: I actually first knew him in the �60s because we were both, I was a comedian also at that time and we were both scuffling around the Village trying to make it in television. And we, in fact, remained competitive friends -friendly competitors perhaps throughout the �60s, doing the same dreadful television shows, you know, and the same nightclubs like Mister Kelly's and the Hungry i and so on, until he basically became completely disillusioned with the repression of �60s television, as did I. And then we sort of parted company into different directions.

Then I met him met again, when I was doing a book called "Going Too Far," which was a history of modern satire. And it - this was the mid-�80s and he was now in the top rank of people I wanted to interview, and in large part because he performed 99 percent of the time live. And part of my premise in this book was that this kind of radical humor that I was examining had always had a rather adversarial relationship to television, as defined obviously by the piece you've just sampled. And you know, if anyone, if anyone got this it was George, who obviously, you know, very deftly defined that adversarial relationship in that piece.

And then we found that we were, in doing - in the course of doing my interview with him I just found a tremendous rapport with him, despite our obviously different backgrounds as you can probably tell from my accent. And that we shared a lot of tastes, a lot of, you know, sort of ideas and analyses about humor. But in general we just had a tremendously good time. We laughed a lot. And what had been a kind of casual acquaintance gradually become a close friendship. And when George got the autobiography bug, as so many people do after they turn 50, he asked me to help him write it.

ROBERTS: We are talking about George Carlin with Tony Hendra, co-author on the sorta-biography "Last Words." You can join us at 800-989-8255. Let's hear from Stephanie in Athens, Ohio. Stephanie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Thank you. I have a funny story. Years ago, I mean, before I even knew I was a linguist, I heard a piece by George Carlin where he talks about growing up in New York City and how that, you know, all the kids, you know, inevitably all of the white kids would imitate the black kids. He said, you never once would hear a black kid - a black boy say, hey, let's go down to the drugstore and get some ice cream sodas. It was always, you know, the white kids going, say, man, let's get on down to the drugstore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEPHANIE: I teach a class in American dialects. And I always tell my students about that when I teach them about black English.

ROBERTS: So George Carlin as a linguistics teacher.

STEPHANIE: Oh, yeah. He is, I mean, he talked - I heard a piece after he died, I heard a piece and he was talking about how his mother used to trick him. He would - you know, she would tell, she would - he would use - he would say something and she'd use a word and he said, what does that mean? And she would make him look it up and then and he would - she would always continually give him new words to learn. And he just - and while he wasn't - he didn't call himself a linguist but he was, like you say, he's a lover of words. And he really pinpointed the whole sociolinguistic nature of kids talking, you know, was a lot more fun to talk, you know, to talk, you know, like the black kids than the white kids.

Mr. HENDRA: Yeah. Actually, I think Stephanie has a really interesting point there, because George was very - he loved it when academics would want to use his routines in their - you know, in their papers. Or when he was, you know, when he was asked if he could - if someone could quote him, who came from a university or something. I mean, he was a ninth grade dropout, which might have had something do with that. But I think there's a deeper point here, which you also touched on, Stephanie, which is that in a way, certainly in his maturity, I think, George, although he probably, in fact, he didn't really like the word very much, but he definitely was a kind of wild teacher, and one of the reasons that he did that, or rather the sort of rationale he - not rationale, exactly, but the explanation for that, was that he said when you make people laugh, there is no moment in their lives, especially if it's live, when their minds are more open, and you can change people's minds, you can implant new information at that moment, just that second after the laughter begins.

And I think that's actually what he was - he was very bent on doing that in many ways, and so, you know, the teacher thing is really, I think, a really interesting insight.

ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting reading the book because for someone who was always wanting to push forward and try something a little edgier and have some progression of what he was talking about, he talks a whole lot about his past and particularly reminds you pretty regularly that he was an Irish street kid.

Mr. HENDRA: Right.

ROBERTS: And so there's this kind of constant reminder of where he came from, even as he's pushing on where he's going.

Mr. HENDRA: Right, exactly, and I mean, that's - at the risk of ethnic clich�s, I mean, both his mother and his father were first-generation Irish, and you know, they both were apparently - well, certainly his mother was, you know, wonderfully verbal, and herself had a great, had a great sort of command of words, was very funny.

And his father, whom he never knew, was - actually got sort of national awards for public speaking and equally, apparently, was just, you know, a riot to be around.

So he had good DNA in this area, I would say, both on the side of blarney and on the side of funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well, the book begins, oddly enough, with his conception.

Mr. HENDRA: Yes.

ROBERTS: An event at which you presumably were not present.

Mr. HENDRA: No, I had not had my own conception yet.

ROBERTS: How do you collaborate on an autobiography when so much of it - I mean, he wasn't even cognizant of that event.

Mr. HENDRA: Well, no. I mean, without - that was something that he actually wrote himself. That was the introduction or rather the first, the opening to the first chapter. He had a kind of set piece about that that he really loved, and so we incorporated that, and - but a lot of what we found ourselves doing was having conversations, really, more than doing interviews, and he actually - most of this took place in the '90s, and he actually would occasionally, regularly in fact, say: gee, it's really fascinating to know, to find out what I was doing in the '80s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENDRA: Because he hadn't actually sort of, you know, articulated this to anyone, and this was the first time he was putting many of these things together. So that was sort of the process, really, and I did notice, actually, that subsequently he would use some of these rather remarkable discoveries about what his motivation would be in a given time or how he fit in with other people or - other comedians, I mean - in his subsequent interviews. So that was kind of flattering, in a way.

ROBERTS: I thought you were going to say he thought it was interesting to hear about himself because so much of it was lost to a drug-induced memory haze.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENDRA: Well, I don't quite know where that question's heading, but certainly a considerable period of his life, you know, was, you know, was dedicated to the pursuit of high.

ROBERTS: We're talking with Tony Hendra about his collaboration with George Carlin. Their book is called "Last Words." We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. You can also send us email. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. We're talking about George Carlin this hour. His autobiography was completed with the help of Tony Hendra, who we have here as our guest this hour. In the book, George Carlin says he was born against all odds, and you can actually read that story of his conception in an excerpt at our Web site, at npr.org.

If you have questions about the comedian, about his life and work, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We have an email from David, who says: I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. I think I recall George telling a story to Johnny Carson that he was run out of Fort Worth. The basics are he read the school lunch menus as part of a morning program. He made a fairly innocent comment about lemon meringue pie, which was on the menu. Students all over city threw pies and claimed George told them to do it. Does your guest know the story and whether it's true?

Mr. HENDRA: My goodness, I've never heard that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Inciting a pie revolution?

Mr. HENDRA: No, I don't remember that part of the Fort Worth story. Certainly, he was in Fort Worth. He was a major DJ there when he was a very young man, but I don't remember the pie story. That's a great addition, and I will put it in the next, you know, the next publication.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from David in South Webster, Ohio. David, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID (Caller): Oh, well thank you. Mr. Hendra, you mentioned that you'd developed basically from kind of a friendly competitor to a real close friend over the years.

Mr. HENDRA: Right.

DAVID: What I was wondering was - the personality he displays during his performances and movie appearances is pretty consistent, kind of acerbic and high-stress.

Mr. HENDRA: Right.

DAVID: What was he like as a just day-to-day friend?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, he was actually - you know, this kind of almost rabid sometimes curmudgeon that he played on stage was rather belied by the way he was off stage, which was he was very approachable and very, very amusing. I mean, he wasn't amusing in quite the same way that he was on stage, but he did say, and says in this book several times, that he was very nice to people for, you know, quite a considerable length of time, anywhere up to a minute and a half.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENDRA: And that was something he... He was kind of a loner. He did like to be alone, and he didn't make very many close friends.

DAVID: Right. Probably the ones he had were real close, though, I imagine.

Mr. HENDRA: Yeah, I think that's true to say. He had a few very close friends, but I always found him just a delight to be around, and we had, as I said earlier, we had just a terrific time having these conversations and discovering a lot of stuff about comedy that neither of us knew.

ROBERTS: We have email from Heather in Port Clinton, Ohio: My sister and I still recite his bit about the good scissors. He quoted his mother as saying, in a whiny, irritated voice: Where are the good scissors? Why can't I keep anything in this house?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: I think he introduced it on Ed Sullivan when we were about ages seven and nine. We had heard those words from our own mother countless times and just broke up. To this day, it cracks us up. His hippy-dippy weatherman was another great Sullivan memory. He was a tremendous talent.

Mr. HENDRA: Right, and he has a piece, actually, about the things that parents say to drive kids crazy, like: Don't run with those scissors, you'll put your eye out - or you'll fall out of that - or you'll fall off that ladder and break your neck. It's either breaking your neck or putting your eyes out.

ROBERTS: Right. Well, he also has a great description of being on Sullivan and how the audience was all dolled up and nervous, and so they laughed at nothing, and Sullivan would stand just off-camera, but on stage, laughing at nothing.

Mr. HENDRA: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: You know, it was the morgue of laughter, there live on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Mr. HENDRA: Oh, it was just dreadful. I mean, we - my partner and I - I had a partner at the time - we appeared on Sullivan quite a number of times too and we just dreaded it. We used to call it "Night of the Living Ed."

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jack in Walnut Creek, California. Jack, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACK (Caller): (Unintelligible) hello?

ROBERTS: Hey, Jack, you're on the air.

JACK: Hi, how you doing?

ROBERTS: Good.

JACK: Yeah, I just - well, I met George Carlin, that was about 10 years ago, and I know he was into different types of music. He was at the Abscess(ph) show in San Francisco, and I'm just - my question was: Do you think that he actually believed in God, or I mean, what are your thoughts on that?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, my considered assessment would be no. He certainly believed in what he called the big electron, which is - by which he meant the entire universe and all the carbon atoms in it with which he identified. But as you probably know, George gave up worshipping God at a fairly early stage, and later in his life he decided that he would start worshipping Joe Pesci, because Joe Pesci looked like a guy who'd get things done.

And so, you know, Joe, in fact, he said, delivered just about as much as God did, which is about 50 percent of the time.

ROBERTS: Which is overcoming a pretty strict parochial school education.

Mr. HENDRA: Yes, indeed. He - interestingly enough, though, I always found this very fascinating. He went to this very liberal Catholic school in the '40s, at a time when the church wasn't by any means, you know, it wasn't by any means liberal, and certainly Catholic schools tended to be dens of discipline in which, you know, steel rulers were much more in evidence than brotherly love.

But this particularly one, which was run - up at Corpus Christi on 125th Street, run by a very forward-looking guy called Father Ford, he always had great, great affection for. On the one hand, he said, you know, they did - they taught me in exactly the right - they taught me exactly the right things. They taught me to be sufficiently intelligent that I could no longer believe in their faith.

But on the other hand, he really, he really respected the nuns who taught him, and for the rest of his life he actually sought them out and was very nurturing to them, very friendly and kind. He didn't at all have that sort of response to nuns that so many of us who were raised by them ended up having, the sort of, you know, Sister-Mary-Ignatius-explains-it-all-for-you kind of nun.

He - in fact, he tells this wonderful story in the book about how when he first did - first sort of made his big breakthrough and "The Seven Words You Can Say on Television" was everywhere, his mother came to see the show, and his mother was just appalled by, as you can imagine, by the seven words that you can never say on television. And a few days or weeks later, she ran into some of the nuns from Corpus Christi, because she lived on the same street, and the nuns said: Isn't it great about George? You know, he's so famous now and doing all this wonderful stuff. And his mother, Mary, said: Yes, but isn't it terrible these things he's saying? And the nuns said: But no, you don't understand. He's talking about hypocrisy, and you know, this is such a great routine because it really explores what language means to us.

And his mother was absolutely delighted to - because now she had the imprimatur of the Catholic Church on "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."

ROBERTS: Right, permission from nuns to find her own son funny.

Mr. HENDRA: Exactly, exactly. So she could actually enjoy George's stardom.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jorge in St. Louis, Missouri. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JORGE (Caller): Hi, how are you?

ROBERTS: Good, how are you?

Mr. HENDRA: Hello, Jorge.

JORGE: Hi, how are you? I've got an interesting story about George. I met George here when he was in St. Louis, appearing at a club on Gaslight Square, which is a defunct place now. But anyway, this was 1961, and in those days he was working with a partner called Burns, Burns and Carlin.

Mr. HENDRA: Right. Jack Burns.

JORGE: And I thought that Burns was going to be the big star because George wasn't really very funny at the time. He was a great guy, but he wasn't as funny as Burns, and I totally got that one wrong, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENDRA: Yes, you would have backed the wrong horse there, right.

JORGE: But yeah, George and I got to be really great friends, and I've seen him a number of times over the years.

Mr. HENDRA: Oh really?

JORGE: I just love him to death. I just - I get everything that he does and just every record and video, whatever's available, and I just love the guy so much. He was really an innovative, really great, great mind, great comic mind, and one of the best. He and Lenny Bruce made it all different for everybody, but...

Mr. HENDRA: Yes indeed.

JORGE: ...George was a great guy. Concerning his Catholic beliefs, he said something to me one time that has always stuck in my mind. He said he had heard Joe Kennedy, the father of the Kennedy boys, say something to the effect that he sent his daughters to Catholic University so that they would learn the fear of God. He sent his boys to Harvard so that they would know the difference.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENDRA: Okay. I must say one thing about that, Jorge, which is that Jack Burns was an immensely talented man. And he actually went on to do, I think, just George was too much of a solo performer to be in a comedy team. And he went on to do a wonderfully funny comedy team with a guy called Avery Schreiber in the mid-�60s, and then to an illustrious career as a television producer.

ROBERTS: How big an influence was Lenny Bruce on you and George Carlin?

Mr. HENDRA: Well, as I say in my introduction to the book, Lenny Bruce was who we all wanted to be when we grew up. And certainly, his - the risk-taking and actually this - he also had an amazing facility with and love for words. I mean, the way Lenny used words was very much like the way George used words in these kind of jazz-like riffs that he would go into. And both those things, both the element of daring and the element of this extraordinary ability to spin, weave webs of word were things that we both wanted to emulate.

I think George actually took it obviously much more seriously because he really felt he owed Lenny a debt. For one thing, Lenny actually got him started on his career. But he also was told by several people that he was the heir of Lenny Bruce. And right until the last years of his life, he was very aware of that, in fact, if anything, a little burdened by it because he was never sure that he'd really fulfilled the legacy which Lenny had kind of laid on him. But I assured him several times that he had.

And I think that's - I think the one thing you can say about the two of them is that Lenny became a legend because he had the good sense to die, whereas George went on living and actually probably achieved more, I would say, than Lenny Bruce did in his lifetime. And certainly, had a breadth and a range and an artistry that I think Lenny would have envied.

ROBERTS: My guest is Tony Hendra. He is co-author with George Carlin of Carlin's not-memoir-autobiography called "Last Words."

Mr. HENDRA: Sorta-biography, yes.

ROBERTS: Sorta-biography.

Mr. HENDRA: Sorta-biography.

ROBERTS: We have a couple emails from people with - writing in with their favorite routines. Scott(ph) says, I still cannot have someone tell me to have a nice day without thinking of his bit on that. And Beverly(ph) in South Carolina says, one of my favorite routines was about stuff, how we all collect our stuff and have a place for our stuff and how hard it is to go to someone else's house to stay because there's no room for your stuff.

Mr. HENDRA: Right. Well, "A Place For Your Stuff" is one of those classic routines which George came up with. And I think, again, when you listen to that piece, it's almost like a litany. I mean, there's - you can hear this - it's not a chant, exactly, but the constant repetition of stuff just becomes funnier and funnier. I mean, not that litanies are usually very funny.

But the other aspect to it - and George always had this kind of two-track ability - the other aspect to it is that it really is this delightfully whimsical but very essentially serious essay on consumerism and how we all have stuff, and we need more stuff and our house is just a cover for our stuff. And we need more stuff because sometimes we lose our stuff. And we don't want people stealing our stuff especially the shiny stuff, and so on. I mean, it's just a masterpiece of a very gentle satire.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We are talking about George Carlin and so we should hear a little bit of George Carlin. Here is his...

Mr. HENDRA: Indeed.

ROBERTS: ...counter to the green movement.

(Soundbite of "The Planet Is Fine")

Mr. CARLIN: The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drifts, solar flares, sunspots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages. And we think some plastic bags...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CARLIN: ...and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?

(Soundbite of applause)

ROBERTS: You know, one of the things I find funny about that is that it sort of calls into question some liberal orthodoxy. You know, it wasn't necessarily predictable who he was going to attack.

Mr. HENDRA: Well, I agree. And I think this piece, actually, "The Planet Is Fine," is one of my favorite pieces. And it was a breakthrough piece in my mind in much the same way that the "Seven Words" was because it was the first piece he really tried - or rather first piece he performed that to me convinced me that I was lucky enough to be working with a really great artist.

And its vision, I wouldn't say, is either liberal or conservative. It just goes beyond the whole environmental debate to say, the real problem here is the arrogance of humankind, that the arrogance that treated the planet in such terrible way in the first place is the same arrogance that says we can save it. When a planet, in fact, isn't in any need of saving, it will just simply get rid of us, which is an insight so profound that you can't but be challenged by it. It's also - another thing about that piece is that - this is the way he described it to me - is that he discovered at that time in his career a very -an incredible, incredibly valuable thing. He said that he realized getting laughs was not his only responsibility, that his other responsibility was to engage his audience's mind for 90 minutes. And I - again, to return to this theme, I think that's why I think he is probably the greatest comedian I've ever heard and possibly America's greatest comedian ever.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Todd(ph) who says, growing up in rural Arkansas where the thought of gun control was considered blasphemy, I loved his bit about the guy that hijacked some news station with a toy gun. He said that now, they want to ban toy guns but keep the, expletive, real ones.

Mr. HENDRA: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Did he have a great disdain for politics in general or did he have an affiliation?

Mr. HENDRA: No, he had no affiliation. And I think it's safe to say that he never did. Although he - you know, he's very open about growing up in what he called a Hearst-Westbrook Pegler-Joe McCarthyite household. And it was indeed the aforementioned Jack Burns who put him straight about that. But nonetheless, he - I don't think - although he always described himself as being on the left of the spectrum, he also was a complete non-joiner. He never joined any group at all and that would include any kind of political party.

ROBERTS: Tony Hendra is a comedian and author. He worked with George Carlin on "Last Words." He joined us from NPR's New York bureau.

Thank you so much.

Mr. HENDRA: Thank you.

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