To read the extended interview, including Carlin’s thoughts on the torture report and American mythologies, his favorite historical figure and Hollywood’s take on history, visit eugeneweekly.com.
You grew up in California and went to the University of Colorado Boulder. Why Eugene now?
I actually came up here for a job as a television reporter way back in 1992. I always tell people, if you had put a map down in front of me in Los Angeles 20 years ago and said, “Where do you want to end up?” I’m not sure I would have picked Eugene, Oregon. It’s not a bad place to land. I did television reporting here, got into podcasting really a long time ago with the classic story of the overnight success that took 20 years. The really cool thing is I remember in what I was doing before — TV or radio reporting — the only way to get promoted was to continually go to a bigger city and continue to move every couple of years and that just sounded so horrible to me. To be able to have sort of an international audience and to grow like this and not have to leave wonderful little Eugene is wild.
You record out of your home?
I do. I have a little home studio here and we’ve improved it over the years. With radio, we always had this transmitter range — any radio station I worked at you always had this little map that showed you how far the signal would reach. Adam Curry said we don’t need no stinking transmitters anymore with podcasting. It goes as far as the world. We’ll do a show and talk about Iran and I’ll hear from Iranians, which takes a little getting used to. But they could promote you to New York after doing a podcast and you would think you were almost getting demoted to only have one city to hear what you were doing.
What was your initial draw to the subject of history?
My mother — she thinks I was something in a past life — she said, “You were born obsessed with this.” I don’t understand it. It’s always been, whether it was playing with soldiers as a little kid and reading grown-up history books as a little kid. I was behind in school on a number of subjects but I was always in the advanced class when it came to history. … It’s why I became a history major. It just seemed the most natural thing in the world.
Then you went into broadcasting?
As a news reporter, what’s that old line? That journalism is the first draft of history? I always looked at that as a way to use your history love, and all those reporters that I liked when I was learning the ropes were all history majors.
Common Sense kind of grew out of radio work that I was doing here in Eugene. For years I had had listeners who said that we need to put this show on the internet, even before people were doing podcasts … so when the technology sort of caught up with that, I’ve had people whispering in my ear for years, “Let’s get you a bigger audience. Let’s get you a wider distribution.” The podcasting thing came around at just the right time.
What year was Common Sense started?
You’re going to love this — 2005.
So you were an early adopter?
Yeah and I think that’s really kind of helped us too. I told my broadcast partner here that when we started we were going to treat it a little like the Oklahoma land rush, and we were going to run and claim our little piece of territory. Then as everybody arrived after us we were going to try to defend our little piece of turf … When all of the big corporate entities started getting involved, we looked at that as a coming of age. I knew when ESPN started advertising their podcast, that what they were really doing was creating new podcast listeners. …
The other thing that helped us, and it’s connected to that same thing, was Apple and iTunes. I talk to the folks at Apple a lot about this and I’m always so thankful because a standard business model, if they weren’t who they were, would have been to separate professional content from amateur content. So you have your ESPN stuff over here and then you have all these guys doing the show out of the garage over there. But Apple early on decided that they were going to let you rise or fall based on your merits and throw you all together.
What’s the story behind Hardcore History?
I used to always sort of regale my family with these horrifying history stories and my mother-in-law, of all people, said to me one day, “Why can’t you do a podcast about this?” Because I was already doing [Common Sense] on news and currents events. And she said, “Well why don’t you do one on history?” And I said, “Oh, you can’t do that. You have to be a historian to do that. Let me tell you, I love historians and I’m not a historian and I can’t do it.” She knocked me dead when she said, “I didn’t realize you had to be a historian to tell stories.” I thought to myself, Oh yeah, if you put it that way. [Laughs.]
You recently said of Hardcore History upcoming “Blueprint for Armageddon V” episode: “Never have I challenged myself more than with this upcoming episode.” Why was it so challenging?
I was just talking to my wife about this today, about how everyone sort of thinks that I plan this all out meticulously in advance. You have this sort of snapshot on paper about what you’re going to do, but that’s not how we do it here. It’s so much more jazz-like and improvisational. You’ll say to yourself, “I think it’d be great to do a World War I series.” Then you jump into it and usually the first show is not that difficult, but then you’re in the middle of now and it’s complex and so quicksand-like that you don’t even know how you’re going to get out of this.
Was there anything specifically about World War I that made it challenging?
This is a war with a dozen or 15 countries in it. Everyone has got their own written material, their own point of view. It’s also a recent historical event so there’s tons of stuff written on it. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the event, which means everyone is cranking out even more books lately. I’ve not quite had the amount of reading material for any other show that we’ve done … It’s certainly the most enormous topic we’ve ever tried to pick so I knew I was going to drown in it at some point, but it’s one thing to know it in advance, it’s another thing to experience the actual drowning.
Hardcore History was recently named Best Classic Podcast of 2014 by iTunes. And Slate put Hardcore History’s “Ghosts of the Ostfront” at number five in its list of “The 25 Best Podcasts Ever.” Why do you think your podcasts resonate with audiences so much?
I don’t know the answer to that. I would put it this way: I think I’ve always had this group of people who liked what I did, whether it was in radio or whatever. In Eugene, it was really — and it’s still may be a really tiny slice of the overall pie — let’s just say .5 percent of the audience out there really likes my stuff. In Eugene, that’s like five people. But when you look at the number of people out there listening to podcasts, that little slice of the pie can be a lot of actual human beings. So I think that’s what kind of helps, having a large pool of people out there to be exposed to it. … I tell everyone I’m like one of those people on the street who opens up the violin case and plays violin and has people throw pennies on the street corner, but I work a really busy street corner. [Laughs.] I’m a global street performer — will do history for food.
In your latest Common Sense podcast, you discuss the torture and you say Americans have this unique blend of realism and idealism. Can you break that down for me?
I think you can see it in our history. Let’s say you get a person in a room and they say, America is the greatest country in the world because of this, that and the other thing; inevitably someone will be on the other side and say yes, but slavery and what we did to the Native Americans, there’s a two-headed coin to American history.
There’s the myths that I’ve always thought sort of set the bar for who we are. Now they may be myths, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold you to some sort of standard or at least keep you tethered. If they don’t hold you, they at least tether — I mean when they’ll still lock up Japanese americans during the second World War, but we’ll feel bad about it afterwards. Right? It’s a black mark on the way we see ourselves. If you don’t have that mythology maybe it’s not even that afterwards. I always tell people if you know history, you’re not foolish enough to think those things are 100 percent true and that we live up to those things and that in the spur of the moment, that those actually apply in American history. When two towers fall down in New York City, we’re going to freak out and we’re going to do un-American things. I don’t think it matters who the president is. At the same time, those myths of this country, which is how we see ourselves when we look into the mirror in the morning, are supposed to help you right the ship afterwards. The thing that makes me so angry is not that an administration freaked out after 9/11, but that we haven’t managed to turn around and get our feet and recover. We’re acting like we are now, but right now this is a dog and pony show. This isn’t real — trust me. The government does not feel bad that we tortured people after 9/11 and they don’t feel like that if they wanted to they won’t do it again. That’s the part that’s bothersome, is that the government doesn’t feel like a lot of the outrage the public does. In fact, if you look at the polls, I’m not even sure the majority of Americans think it was a bad thing to do.
That has been really disturbing to me personally.
But that’s when the mythology starts to fall apart, that’s when it’s not doing its job. … If you go back and read the documents of the founding fathers and you forget that it doesn’t apply to women, and you throw out that it doesn’t apply to African-Americans or Native Americans, it’s still the most high-minded stuff anybody ever wrote. There’s nothing wrong with building off of that, which I think more than 200 years of American progress has kind of sought to do in a lot of respects. I don’t think we’re building off of that anymore. I think there’s no way to reconcile what we do now with that. Now, what always appeared to be a little like winking mythology —because we all knew that African-Americans were never included — you can’t even fake it anymore. That’s the danger: It was always a bit of a fake but it was fake for a good purpose. That’s the problem now.
What historical figure has left the greatest impression on you?
I think I think there are these figures that just blow your mind and they’re all through history so I could pick 20 at the top of my head but Alexander the Great is just one of the ones that’s just so fun. That’s why he has fascinated people ever since. You read the stories and you can’t even get your mind around him. It’s more than just what he accomplished, because there’s a lot of books that portray him almost as the second coming of Hitler, so it’s not like a hero-worship kind of thing, but it’s everything. Everything from the bisexuality to having a witch for a mother. It’s what makes history so good that if you had written it as a screenplay, they wouldn’t buy it because it would be too hard for people to believe. No one is going to believe that. … That’s why I get so upset when someone like Oliver Stone does a movie [Alexander] about him and makes it so crappy. You go, “Okay, now we’re not going to have another movie for 20 years and [Alexander the Great] is so great we’re just waiting for the real good, definitive portrayal.” I told my wife, the only thing that was good in that Oliver Stone Alexander movie is he cast Angelina Jolie as Alexander’s mother. I never would have done that but she was perfect! You look at her; she was a witch who slept with snakes and married the most powerful man in the world and then maybe had him assassinated, used to roast her son’s enemies over fire. If Alexander wasn’t interesting himself, all the people around him — I mean it’s a cast of characters for a great sitcom, a really bloody great sitcom.
History is so fascinating and weird and crazy, why does Hollywood feel the need to change the story?
I don’t get that. Why would you say this is such a great story, I want to tell it, but I’m going to fix it up in a couple of places. Who are you to fix up one of the great stories of all time? Just do it justice. If anything, that’s what I’m trying to do. We’re just trying to do it justice.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.