Keep 'Em Separated: Remembering George Carlin George Carlin once said, "I'm completely in favor of the separation of church and state. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death."
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Keep 'Em Separated: Remembering George Carlin

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Keep 'Em Separated: Remembering George Carlin

Keep 'Em Separated: Remembering George Carlin

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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George Carlin once said, I'm completely in favor of the separation of church and state. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death. By the time George Carlin died yesterday evening at the age of 71, there could be few Americans who hadn't heard his records, watched him on TV or in the movies, whose sense of the absurd he hadn't shaped even a little bit.

Comedians Lewis Black and Margaret Cho will join us shortly. We want to hear from you, too, about the way George Carlin changed the way you looked at the world. 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at But first, let's listen to the man himself.

Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Comedian): I would have been out here a little bit sooner, but they gave me the wrong dressing room, and I couldn't find any place to put my stuff. And I don't know how you are, but I need a place to put my stuff.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CARLIN: So that's what I've been doing back there, just trying to find a place for my stuff. You know how important that is. That's the whole meaning of life, isn't it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That's all your house is. Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn't have so much (bleep)-damn stuff, you wouldn't need a house!

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

You could just walk around all the time. That's all your house is, is a pile of stuff with a cover on it.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down and see everybody has got a little pile of stuff. Everybody's got their own pile of stuff. And when you leave your stuff, you got to lock it up. Wouldn't want someone to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

They don't bother with that crap you're saving.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ain't nobody interested in your fourth-grade arithmetic papers.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

They're looking for the good stuff. That's all your house is, it's a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Now sometimes you got to move, you got to get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff!

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

You got to move all your stuff, and maybe put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that, there's a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Enough about your stuff, let's talk about other people's stuff. Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else's house you never quite feel 100 percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff!

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Somebody else's stuff is all over the place! And what awful stuff it is!

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Where did they get this stuff?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

And if you have to stay overnight at someone's house, you know, unexpectedly, and they give you a little room to sleep in that they don't use that often. Someone died in it 11 years ago, and they haven't moved any of his stuff.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Or wherever they give you to sleep, usually right near the bed there's a dresser, and there's never any room on the dresser for your stuff. Somebody else's (bleep) is on the dresser. Have you noticed that their stuff is (bleep)? And your (bleep) is stuff!

(Soundbite of applause)

Now sometimes you go on vacation. You got to bring some of your stuff with you. You can't bring all your stuff. Just the stuff you really like, the stuff that fits you well that month.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Let's say you're going to go to Honolulu, you're going to go all the way to Honolulu. You got to take two big bags of stuff, plus your carry-on stuff, plus the stuff in your pockets. You get all the way to Honolulu and you get into your hotel room and you start to put away your stuff. That's the first thing you do in a hotel room is put away your stuff. Put some stuff in here, put some stuff down there. Here's another place for stuff here, I'll put some stuff over there. You put your stuff over there, I'll put my stuff over here. Here's another place for stuff. Hey, we got more places than we've got stuff! We're going to have to buy more stuff!

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

CONAN: The late George Carlin from the 1986 edition of HBO's "Comic Relief." Joining us now from a hotel room in Napa Valley, California, is comedian Lewis Black. And Lewis, good to talk to you.

Mr. LEWIS BLACK (Comedian): Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: And joining us from her hotel room in Oklahoma City is comedian Margaret Cho. Margaret, nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. MARGARET CHO (Comedian): Hi, thank you. Hi, Lewis.

Mr. BLACK: Hi, Margaret.

CONAN: You guys know each other?

Ms. CHO: We do. I'm a big fan of Lewis'.

Mr. BLACK: It's sad that this is the way we get to talk again.

Ms. CHO: I know, it is sad because I am a huge fan of Lewis' and also, of course, a huge fan of Mr. Carlin, which is very - it's very sad today.

CONAN: And what did you learn from him, do you think, Margaret Cho?

Ms. CHO: Well, I think that I felt - I had a very strong connection with him. We had actually never physically met, but we had a sort of a correspondence where he would send me his book and I would send him my book. And he was a very big fan of mine, which was really incredible because I was a huge fan of his.

And I think what I learned from him is a kind of understanding that the surreal - in the realm of surreal, there is plenty of room for compassion, as well. So I thought he was an incredible man. What an icon for comedy and what an icon for somebody like myself who watched him my entire life. So he was really a great man.

CONAN: Lewis Black, did you think you learned anything from George Carlin?

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, I learned where I wanted - what I wanted to aspire to. There's really, when you look at the history of comedy, there's Lenny Bruce, who kind of cuts a swatch through the - you know, he kind of creates a road, and then you had George and Richard Pryor, who I think created kind of a highway and took us from where Bruce was. They're the ones who really said, OK, this is - we've come this far where we can continue to move down that road. And I learned that talking about things that are dark is legitimate in humor.

CONAN: One of things that Carlin always talked about, at least in interviews, not necessarily from the stage, but he always talked about his - he felt an obligation to find lines and then cross them. And Margaret Cho, I know that that's something you do, too.

Ms. CHO: Yes, I would like to be able to do that, to be able to push boundaries and to challenge the audience as much as you can. And to never underestimate that, which is, I think, something that was really important, that's something that George Carlin was really amazing at, is he really brought the audience up a level. You know, brought everybody up a notch. You know, he did not speak down to people. He was very - I don't know, he was so smart and he just assumed everybody else was, and so you actually all were considered smart, you know, in his world, which is great.

CONAN: You said you've seen him your whole life. Do you remember a first time?

Ms. CHO: I remember being very young and seeing him on television, not like really understanding what it was all about, you know, or being very young and seeing him on, like, "Tonight Show" and places like that. And really laughing but not sure if I was going to get in trouble for laughing.

CONAN: Lewis Black, you may be one or two years older.

Mr. BLACK: Maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I'm much older than Margaret.

CONAN: And so did you see George Carlin first as sort of, oh, my gosh, look at this guy?

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. Well, I remember the kind of - there was the straight George Carlin, and I remember that vaguely, but the hippy-dippy weatherman was really kind of - it was really kind of stunning because it was one of those, oh, wow, he's doing - these are pot jokes. He's talking about grass! It was like unbelievable that you could, you know, because there was so little in terms of, you know, on television, the kind of, where comedy could really breathe. It was really extraordinary to watch this kind of humor.

CONAN: You mentioned Lenny Bruce, and I think Carlin often said that he was sort of a tie and a suit comedian doing a double act until he saw Lenny Bruce, and he said, now I know what I want to do.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, I'm sure that's the case. I mean, because it really was - I mean, Lenny kind of broke that ground and George really, I think, George went further with it. And in a lot of ways - the stunning thing about George, I think, and Margaret would agree with this, is the precision of his language. I mean, that "Stuff" thing you played. It's unbelievable. It's like music.

Ms. CHO: That's exactly right. The way that he speaks and uses language, every word is just - the brevity of it, it's so magical. That brevity is the soul of wit. It's so true. He's so brief. He only uses the necessary words and that's something that people don't always really understand about comedy, is the rhythm of it and how perfect it has to be to really work.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line, and if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Our guests are Margaret Cho and Lewis Black. Of course, we're talking about George Carlin. John is with us, John is calling from Kalamazoo in Michigan.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I'm first amazed at your guests. Good picks. Secondly, I just wanted to make a little confession here, seeing as Carlin was on "Dogma." I have been a street performer for 18 years, and I'd just like to publicly credit him for giving me the inspiration a lot of times.

CONAN: Did you ever borrow any of his material?

JOHN: Not on my show.

CONAN: Not on your show?

JOHN: Just among friends to make them laugh. But I'm shaking right now because I have basically memorized his - I think it was his first album, possibly, the "Occupation: Foole." And have that memorized pretty much.

CONAN: I wonder, Lewis Black, did you ever sit and listen to those records? Did you ever commit any of that to memory?

Mr. BLACK: Just the seven words you can't do on television.

CONAN: And thanks, we'll leave your memory right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John.

JOHN: Yes.

Mr. BLACK: My problem was, you know, the thing I always had difficulty with was I had such a lousy memory. It's what makes comics great to me is I could watch Margaret and then watch it two weeks later and I'd laugh again because I wouldn't remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHO: I'm the same.

CONAN: If Carlin had done all the drugs he said he did, how could he remember all that material?

Ms. CHO: I know, pretty amazing.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get...

Mr. BLACK: I told him once that's why he changed his material every eight months. I said, you're impressing people the amount of material; it's because you can't keep the other stuff, you can't remember it long enough.

CONAN: Margaret Cho and Lewis Black with us remembering George Carlin. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And James is on the line, James calling us from Kansas.

JAMES (Caller): Hello.


JAMES: George was a wonderful person. He influenced me very early. I came from a very, very small town of 100 people. I went to stay the summer with my cousins in Kansas City. And my older cousin, who I idolized, had just left to college and his record collection was in the basement. And so at 10, I'd sneak down there and I would listen and giggle with my hands over my mouth at these incredible things that George was saying. It was - basically, he destroyed the idea of dirty words for me.

CONAN: He was subversive. He was outright subversive, wasn't he?

JAMES: Absolutely, and it made me realize that - OK, if someone drops the F-bomb, so to speak, out of context, it's ignorance. But if you're exploring why it's dirty and how do people react to it and what's funny about it, it's art, and he was an artist. He was a wordsmith. He forged ideas around words that stick with me to this day, and I mourn his passing.

CONAN: James, thanks for that.

JAMES: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Appreciate it. James, not the only person upset. But I wanted to get back to the point Lewis Black and Margaret Cho made earlier about George Carlin's intelligence. He never played down to his audience.

Mr. BLACK: Not in the least. It's one of those things - I believe it's why he stayed on HBO, in part because HBO was smart enough to recognize that, but also, HBO's a place you can go ahead, that's one of the few channels you have as a comedian to actually say what it is you want to say directly to your audience without anybody looking over your shoulder. And he really took advantage of that to the max. There's at no time with anything that he does a moment of pandering. None!

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Gerald(ph) on the line. Gerald is calling us from Los Angeles.

GERALD (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hey, Gerald.

GERALD: I'm a retired deputy sheriff from Los Angels County, and several years ago, almost 30 now, I stopped a Volkswagen van that was speeding down Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. And when I pulled the vehicle over, I walked up and the driver rolled down the window and it was like a scene out of a Cheech and Chong movie. The smoke just billowed out of the car and I recognized Mr. Carlin right away.

And at first I was a little stunned. So we talked for a minute, and when I realized that he wasn't incapacitated or anything, I told him that if he'd roll down the windows and air out the van and not do over the speed limit, he could go on his way.

And he just stared at - he looked at me up and down and he looked in his mirror at the police car and he said, are you a real policeman? And I assured him that I was and told him that it was a pleasure meeting him. And I was going to ask him for an autograph on a blank ticket but he had a stack of pictures, eight...

CONAN: I think he was going to say eight by 10 pictures before his cell phone battery ran out. A remarkable story.

Ms. CHO: Yeah, that's a great story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Gerald, and go charge your cell phone again.

Ms. CHO: That would happen a lot, and every time we got pulled over, he could give them hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: He probably did. Nevertheless, it's interesting. We had George Carlin booked on this show, I think it was a year and a half, two years ago, and he had to call and cancel because he was going back into rehab. Marijuana was not the only drug he used, and he said much later in life that he regretted a lot of that, and particularly the effect that it had on his daughter, yet it was a big part of his act.

And Margaret Cho, he was very honest about his own mistakes in life and about the effects that they had on his life, and he was never shy about holding himself up to the same standards he held everybody else up to.

Ms. CHO: Which I think is really marvelous, and one of the things that made him have such a huge, huge, like, fan base. People really responded to that honesty and that just - that purity of just - the purity of heart that he had in talking about it. And his humaneness and his fallibility was a very, very important part of his work and his struggle with addictions and everything. It was really a wonder - his candor was so wonderful, which is one of the things that I really got from him and it influenced me a lot.

CONAN: And Lewis Black, it could also be emphasized that he found a way, his path was just not in his comedy, but he made it possible for other comedians to go out and make a living doing what they did.

Mr. BLACK: He certainly made it possible for me to make a living. I don't think Margaret or I would have had the opportunities we have as comedians without him. Because there are not a lot of us who kind of go in that kind of a path, that followed his kind of path. And it's, you know, he's the one who really, you know, made it easier by talking about both Margaret and I in a variety of places, I think, opened up the opportunities we had.

CONAN: Lewis Black and Margaret Cho, thank you both very much for your time today, and I regret the occasion, but glad to have you on the program.

Ms. CHO: Thank you.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you. Thanks for doing the program.

Ms. CHO: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: Margaret Cho and Lewis Black joined us from hotels in, I think, one in Reno - Napa Valley, California, and in Oklahoma City, respectively. More on George Carlin later today on All Things Considered. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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