Looking Ahead

Something didn’t quite fit at The Comedy Festival two years ago, when George Carlin shared a "Legends" panel with Jerry Lewis, Shelley Berman and Phyllis Diller.

No one’s arguing the legend part, but Carlin — whether he’s the firebrand social commentator or congenial hep cat in a "Bill & Ted" movie — seems a generation removed from them.

"I was always an in-betweener," he says. "I used to say sometimes that I was the new wave of the old school."

Fact is, Carlin turned 70 in May. And near the end of 2005, he spent eight days in the hospital for heart failure. He picked himself up and hit the road again, and now says a pacemaker has him "equipped against all outcomes except the large sword."

Still, it’s realistic for a comedian who likes to stay organized to consider a retirement plan.

In lieu of a "sudden catastrophic illness," he says, "the other way to do it would be maybe to try for 15 HBO (stand-up specials). I’d be around 75 then, and that’s a couple of nice round numbers. And then I could go ahead and write the memoir. That’s a thought, anyway."

But for now, he still is working on No. 14, the next HBO special tentatively scheduled for March. Other comedians now copy Carlin’s long-term scheduling, which revolves around creating a fresh cable special every two years or so and then retiring that material. Road dates test new routines gradually honed for what Carlin calls "the goal line." Then, as soon as the HBO special airs, "start the whole kickoff all over again."

The comedian is in the middle of a three-weekend stint at The Orleans. He hasn’t played Las Vegas in a year and a half, a longer-than-usual absence from the city he used to visit 10 weeks per year.

Carlin always has had a love-hate relationship with Las Vegas. He’s not much fond of it, but keeps a condo here. Audiences don’t plan to see him weeks ahead as they do in other cities, but working here slows down the travel schedule.

At the end of 2004, Carlin and the MGM Grand severed a longtime relationship because some ticket-buyers found no humor in a suicide theme. The comedian went to the Stardust and didn’t really like it there either.

But his first show at The Orleans went well. Carlin praised the theater layout. "There’s no tables and booths, none of that annoying kind of social arrangement that a table confers on people," he says.

And those who fear Carlin has turned into a latter-day Lenny Bruce — railing against society to the point of forgetting the punch line — might find his new material still challenging, but not as dark.

"If there’s any theme, it’s that we don’t question things in this country very much," he says.

The previous HBO show, "Life Is Worth Losing," "just began to take charge of itself," he says. "It became so interconnected and so laced together that there was no way to cut much out of it without losing important parts."

But at his age and stature, most audiences don’t count the number of laugh beats. He learned years ago "that you can go long stretches without laughs or jokes as long as the stretch you’re talking about engages their attention and imagination."

The comedian is "first of all the jester," Carlin says. "But if he says something that has some meaning, he becomes also the philosopher. And if he says it in marvelous language, he becomes a bit of a poet. So three things count. The depth of the ideas and thoughts behind it, the jokes you use to carry them and then the language that lifts it all up."

Long ago, Carlin realized he is "really at heart a writer," and "the fact that I perform and entertain also is an add-on. It’s another delivery system for the writer."

And as a 70-year-old man with a heart condition, Carlin has decided he has no more time for "Bill & Ted" kind of stuff. "I find myself very uninterested now in doing any kind of movie acting," he says. "At one point, I thought (acting) was my main next step and another point thought it was a nice sideline. Now I see it as an intrusion into the time I would normally spend in my creative life."

But you never say never. "Now if Sean Penn and Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson called me up and said, ‘We want you to play the bartender who strangles six children,’ I’d say, ‘Well sure. Just put me down for that.’ "

There he goes, dark again.

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