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Friday, August 15, 2008

Legendary producer Jerry Wexler is dead

US record producer Jerry Wexler, who influenced the careers of singers including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan, has died aged 91.

David Ritz, co-author of Mr Wexler's memoirs, said the producer passed away at his home in Sarasota, Florida.

Mr Wexler rose to fame as a partner in the influential Atlantic Records label with the late Ahmet Ertegun.

He also coined the term "rhythm and blues" while writing for Billboard magazine in the late 1940s.

Mr Wexler produced the hugely popular Aretha Franklin hit Respect, itself a re-working of an Otis Redding song.

He also produced the Percy Sledge track, When a Man Loves a Woman, as well as the Wilson Pickett song, In the Midnight Hour.

He also helped Bob Dylan win his first Grammy award by producing the 1979 album, Slow Train Coming.

Jazz passion

Atlantic Records became an outlet for groundbreaking African-American talent but later signed rock acts such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.

In the 1980s, Mr Wexler worked with acts such as Dire Straits and artists including Carlos Santana and George Michael.

The son of Polish immigrants, Mr Wexler was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1917. He developed a passion for jazz and blues in his teens, frequenting clubs in the Harlem district of the city.

He was drafted into the US Army after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Friday, August 1, 2008

All the Answers The quiz-show scandals—and the aftermath. by Charles Van Doren

Van Doren (at left) faces Herb Stempel on “Twenty-One,” in 1956, under the eye of the show’s host, Jack Barry. Some fifty million people watched the climax of their rivalry.

For fourteen weeks in the winter and spring of 1956-57, I came into millions of American homes, stood in a supposedly soundproof booth, and answered difficult questions. I was considered well spoken, well educated, handsome—the very image of a young man that parents would like their son to be. I was also thought to be the ideal teacher, which is to say patient, thoughtful, trustworthy, caring. In addition, I was making a small fortune. And then—well, this is what happened:

I don’t remember the dinner clearly, except that at some point in the early fall of 1956 I was talking with a man named Albert Freedman, who knew a friend of mine. Freedman was about my age, suave and well dressed—certainly no bohemian, like most of my friends. He asked me what I thought of “Tic Tac Dough.”

I didn’t have a television set in those days, but I knew that Al Freedman was in the TV business. And I’d certainly heard about the game shows, where people could win a lot of money. Al told me that contestants on “The $64,000 Question” could win that amount and on some shows they could win even more.

“Your father’s a professor at Columbia?” he asked, and, when I nodded, he asked if I was, too.

I told him that I was an instructor of English—a long way from being a professor. I was not comfortable talking about myself, especially when he asked me how much an instructor of English made. When I told him, he just looked at me.

Later, I asked my friend to tell me more about Freedman, and she said that he was a producer for Jack Barry and Dan Enright, who created shows like “Tic Tac Dough.” Freedman called me a few days later. When I learned what he wanted, I telephoned Gerry—Geraldine Bernstein, the young woman I had been dating and whom I married six months later.

I told her that Al had persuaded me to take a test and that, depending on how I did, they might want me for a new show called “Twenty-One,” which was structured like blackjack. “The winner gets quite a bit,” I said. “The guy who’s on the show now has already won something like twenty-five thousand dollars.”

“Promise me you won’t agree to do this without talking to me first,” I remember her saying.

“O.K., I promise. They probably won’t ask me.”

They did—at least, Al Freedman did. He called me and told me that his job was on the line. A man named Herb Stempel was winning week after week, but he wasn’t popular and the ratings were suffering.

“They want me to find a contestant who can beat Herb Stempel,” Al said. “It might be you.”

It wasn’t hard to guess why Al was interested in me. My father was Mark Van Doren, a poet and critic and, as Al Freedman knew, a legendary teacher. My uncle Carl, his oldest brother, had been a professor of American literature at Columbia. In 1912, Carl had married Irita Bradford, who not long afterward was named the book-review editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Carl resigned his Columbia professorship in order to pursue a writing career, which included winning a Pulitzer Prize for biography (of Benjamin Franklin); he helped my father to become a teacher of literature at Columbia, too. By 1956, Carl was dead and my father was close to retirement, after nearly forty years.

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The first time Al called, he asked me to come to his apartment. When I arrived, he seemed nervous. I wondered what I was getting into.

Right away, he said, “You remember I told you about this fellow Stempel? Well, the sponsors want him to be beaten. He’ll walk away with a bundle, but they want somebody more sympathetic.”

“Do they have a right to do that?”

“Hey, come off it, Charlie. Don’t be naïve.” And he launched into his argument—that, when all was said and done, these game shows were mere entertainment. “Even Shakespeare is entertainment,” he said, although he conceded that the shows, unlike the plays, were presented as the real thing.

Al played an episode of “Twenty-One” for me, in which Stempel seemed very sure of himself. His answers were obviously based on genuine knowledge. I say “obviously,” although I realized that I couldn’t be certain. How would anyone know?

Stempel’s posture and gestures were awkward, his clothes were too tight—he seemed almost to be choking in his shirt—and his speech was wooden. I remembered Al’s remark that I might have a good chance against him, and then he came right out and said it: “I’ve thought about it, Charlie, and I’ve decided you should be the person to beat Stempel. And I’ll help you do it.” He held up his hand. “I swear to you, no one will ever know. It will be just between you and me. Jack Barry”—the show’s host—“won’t know and Dan Enright won’t, either. Stempel won’t know—I’ve got a way to handle that. The sponsors won’t know—anyway, they’ll be so happy they won’t give a damn. And the audience will never know, because I won’t tell them, and you won’t, either.”

He suggested that I could make at least eight thousand dollars, maybe a good deal more. I was guaranteed a thousand dollars for the first show.
“How would you do it?”

“Jack would ask you a question you could answer and Stempel couldn’t.”

I leaned my elbows on the table, resting my head in my hands. He was telling me, in so many words, that the show was fixed. “I don’t know,” I said again. “When would this be?”

A few days later, I took Gerry to dinner at Steak au Pommes Frites, the midtown restaurant where we’d had our first date. We drank some wine and then I told her. She didn’t say much; she’s a woman of few, choice words. But she didn’t like any of it.

My first appearance on “Twenty-One” was on November 28, 1956. I must have put the whole thing out of my mind, but about a week after my conversation with Freedman I suddenly found myself in the studio, with the red light glowing above the camera, totally unaware that I was being watched by millions of people. Herb Stempel by then had been on the show for six straight weeks and had won some seventy thousand dollars. You can “quit right now,” Jack Barry was saying to Stempel, in a voice practiced in arousing suspense, “and a check will be waiting for you, or you can decide to continue playing.”

Barry then introduced me: “He teaches music at Columbia University, and was a student at Cambridge University, in England . . . and his hobby is playing the piano in chamber-music groups.”

Barry was reading from a “continuity card” written in haste. In fact, I played the piano only clumsily and I taught literature. There was no time for corrections, I knew; Al had stressed this. Anyway, Barry was racing ahead, asking me if I was “related in any way to Mark Van Doren, up at Columbia, the famous writer.” Papa, forgive me! Mama, forgive me! Uncle Carl, forgive me! I’ve remembered that moment for more than fifty years.

Al had given me my instructions. My understanding was that I was to reach seventeen points in the first round, twenty-one in the second—at which point I’d defeat Herb Stempel. To my astonishment, both Stempel and I reached twenty-one points in the second round. So bells rang, commercials were read, and both of us agreed to come back a week later.

It was then—on December 5, 1956—that I “beat” Herb Stempel and began my rise to celebrity. I learned later that the question Stempel missed was one that he could have answered easily. But they had him. If he failed to go along with his script, he could lose a lot of the money he had already “won.”

Each week, Stempel had been told what to do: how many points to choose, how to deliver his answers. He was to pat his brow (it was hot in those glass booths) but not rub it, to avoid smearing his makeup. In addition, he was instructed to get a Marines-type “whitewall” haircut, to wear an ill-fitting suit (it had belonged to his deceased father-in-law), and to describe himself as a penurious student at City College. In fact, he was a Marines veteran married to a woman of some means who once appeared on the set wearing a Persian-lamb coat and was quickly spirited away so that she wouldn’t blow his cover.

Stempel was also told to wear a six-dollar wristwatch that “ticked away like an alarm clock,” as he later testified, and was audible when he stood sweating in the booth, earphones supposedly damping all outside sound. Once, he wore a new suit and had let his hair grow out, for which he was severely chastised by Enright. As Enright apparently believed, a successful game show needed two distinct personalities, one unsympathetic and unattractive, the other the opposite.

I continued to appear on “Twenty-One” until March 11, 1957. During those four months, Freedman never stopped coaching me, and I came to see just how carefully controlled the show was. In our sessions, he would ask me questions, I would answer them—and then he would tell me how to answer them: pause here; add this or that remark or aside; always seem to be worried, anxious; never answer too quickly, let the suspense build up. One January night, I was asked to give the nicknames of several Second World War airplanes, and in February I was asked to name the seven Prime Ministers of Britain between the world wars. A critic later wrote that mine “was a remarkable and seductive performance.” Toward the end, my face appeared on the cover of Time (with earphones superimposed on my head), and I was seen in public with movie starlets (the dates were arranged by Barry and Enright); a couple of women found out where I lived and came to my door.

For several weeks, the programs had ended in ties between me and a lawyer named Vivienne Nearing. At one point, it looked as if I could have won more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—except I couldn’t, because Al had informed me that I would lose to her. On the evening of March 11th, Jack Barry asked both of us to name the kings of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Jordan, Iraq, and Belgium. According to our covert script, Nearing knew the answers and I didn’t. For years after that, people enjoyed asking me if I knew the name of the one I missed—the king of Belgium.

A photograph of me writing the figure “$128,000” on a blackboard was widely published. I deposited the net amount (a little less than that) and began to try to understand the life I’d created. Part of it was going to work for the National Broadcasting Company, which was willing to sign me to a three-year contract as a consultant on public-service and educational broadcasting, at an annual rate of fifty thousand dollars.

One day in the spring of 1957, shortly after Gerry and I were married, my father and I had a conversation. We were walking slowly down the road from his house, a road lined with stone walls on each side. At that time, our neighbor pastured heifers and dry cows—pregnant cows waiting to deliver—in the nearby fields. When we walked at night, the cows, curious about us, would breathe and snuffle, sometimes scaring our city friends.

“I’ve never asked you about this whole experience, Charlie,” Dad said. He was dressed in overalls, denim shirt, and boots, like the farmers he was descended from. In New York, he was an elegant figure, but this was the father I loved best. “But I get the impression you’re not too comfortable with your new fame—I mean, the way the quiz show may have changed your life. You have many opportunities now that you might never have had before. But I’ve wondered if they’re good—for you, being the man you are, or the man I think you are.”

I didn’t know what to say, because I suddenly sensed that he knew the truth about the show. I had thought of telling him, but I hadn’t been able to.

As we walked on, he said, “You know, I’ve never been certain you wanted to live my life over again—be a professor at Columbia or anywhere.” He mentioned the contract I had with NBC. “I know it’s tempting, but it might not be the right thing for you, either.” He brought up Mortimer J. Adler, a family friend who was then on the board of editors at the Encyclopædia Britannica, and said that Adler had talked about making me editor-in-chief of the Britannica.

“You might or you might not want to take that on,” he said. “Or you might just want to be a writer. You could live for years on the money you’ve won, couldn’t you?”

I had lived in Paris for a time, and Dad recalled how happy I had seemed then. He mentioned a novel I had worked on—“You somehow lost the thread of it,” he said. “You and Gerry could go to Paris.” And he added, “You can do anything you want, Charlie. I wish you knew that.”

“I don’t?”

“No, you don’t. You’re now one of the most famous people in the country—much more famous than I ever was.” He quoted Mark Twain—“You surprised everybody, and astonished the rest”—and urged me to “wipe the slate clean, start over.”

“You think the slate is dirty?” I couldn’t look at him.

We walked along for a while. Then he said, “It’s none of my business. Dirty or not—and I don’t know what ‘dirty’ would be—the fact is you’re caught up in something you may not really want.” That was as direct as he got that day. “Sometimes I think you’re having a lot of fun, other times you seem sad. I think turning your back on all of it might make you really happy.”

Tears came. “Dad,” I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s just not possible.”

“Why not possible?”

“I’m afraid there’s no way out anymore. In a way . . . I think I’d like to have done what you describe. As far as fame is concerned, you know as well as I do that celebrity isn’t the same as fame.” Finally, I said, “Oh, shit, Dad, I wish I were . . . free to do this.” My father and I never talked about it again.

NBC News tried hard to find work for me, as a writer of radio newsbreaks, for example, but I wasn’t very good at it. In the summer of 1958, they assigned me to the White House.

This was a strange experience. NBC’s old Washington hands weren’t welcoming. After all, here was this neophyte who was probably being paid more than they were but who didn’t know how to do the simplest things. To punish me, they let me flounder unless it would make them look bad. They couldn’t always tell in advance. For example, they asked me to go to the airport and interview John Foster Dulles on his return from some international conference—not an important story, or they would have sent someone else. I managed to be on the steps when the Secretary of State emerged from his plane, but I was wearing sunglasses, because the summer sun was in my eyes. He glared at me and very brusquely answered my carefully composed questions, then pushed past. When I asked my bureau chief what I’d done wrong, he said, “You damn fool, you don’t wear sunglasses when you speak to Mr. Dulles.” What made it all worse was that I had to be away from home during the week; our daughter, Elizabeth, was born that summer, and I missed my young family.

I fared better doing segments for Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” show, a Sunday-afternoon cultural program. I soon became a semi-regular on this program, appearing once a month in place of Garroway. Some of “my” shows were pretty good, and the arrangement led to Garroway’s accepting me as a regular on “Today.” (Garroway, a television pioneer, was the first host—and star—of “Today.”) I was awkward at first, but before long Dave gave me a daily five-minute spot at the top of the hour in which to report on cultural and literary events; I read a great poem or two every Friday morning and talked about its author. Viewers liked this; so did Dave.

Being on “Today” meant getting up every weekday morning at five o’clock, appearing on the show for two hours, writing my spot for the next day, and then taking the subway to Columbia to teach, where my sudden celebrity seemed to impress no one. I was busy but also relatively content. I would have been more content if I’d been able to escape the consequences of what I’d done on “Twenty-One.”

In the summer of 1958, stories appeared in the New York Post and later in the Hearst newspapers—the Daily Mirror and the Journal-American—raising questions about the quiz shows. People who knew the entertainment business didn’t have much doubt about what was going on, although they didn’t speak out. Why would they? At the height of the boom, there were as many as twenty-four prime-time shows, each giving away significant sums, attracting large audiences, and producing large profits for the sponsors.

One day, Al Freedman called me and invited me to lunch. I hadn’t seen him since my last game-show appearance. When I asked about the rumors (particularly the ones about “Twenty-One”), he told me not to worry—even though he might have to go down to the District Attorney’s office to answer questions. “Of course I won’t tell them,” he said. “Nobody will—Jack or Dan or me. We’re the only ones who know about it.”

I was having trouble swallowing my food. “I didn’t know Jack knew about it.”

“He didn’t really know,” Al said, or something to that effect. He looked embarrassed. “It’s not anything. They’re partners, of course—close.”

Then he talked about Herb Stempel. “Enright says he’s crazy. He knows some things about him . . . psychiatric treatment, threats, all sorts of things.” He looked me in the eye. “It’ll be O.K. Whatever happens—I won’t say a word.” He waited, and, as I recall, he said, “There’s a lot at stake. Jack and Dan are selling the company to NBC. I don’t know the details, but I think there’s a couple of million dollars. . . .” He paused; he clearly wanted to be sure that I was dependable—and he surely didn’t want me to know that anyone else was talking. “They’re counting on you,” he said.

Soon enough, in October of 1958, the call came: Joseph Stone, a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, wanted to ask me a few questions. They wanted me to come downtown—I can’t remember the venue, but I remember that it made me very uneasy.

My meeting with Stone, who seemed to be in charge of a quiz-show investigation, was a disaster. I was seated in a chair with a light in my eyes; Stone and three or four other men sat or stood about ten feet away. I later tried to write down much of what Stone asked me, beginning with questions about the interview in Time from a year earlier. Was I telling the truth when I talked to the reporter?

I hesitated, trying to remember everything I’d said. “I left out some things that were none of his business.”

“I’m interested in the things you didn’t leave out, the things you said,” Stone said. “For example, how you got on that show, ‘Twenty-One.’ ”

He had read in Time about the tests I’d taken, and wanted to know who’d contacted me. I told him about Al Freedman, and how we’d met during dinner with a mutual friend.

“Did Al Freedman say you had done very well on the test, and that was why Barry and Enright wanted you to try out for the show?”


“Did Freedman say only one person had ever done better?”

I didn’t remember saying that to the reporter. I shook my head.

“I’m going to repeat my question. Did he say only one person had ever done better on that second test?”

“Maybe he did. I’m not sure.”

“He did say that, Mr. Van Doren. Thank you for trying to remember. Now, what I want to know is, did he tell you the name of the person—the only person—who had done better than you?”

The room was hot and I had kept my suit jacket on. Stone and the others were in shirtsleeves. I could feel the sweat trickling down from my armpits. I told Stone that if Freedman had said that, he probably would have named Herb Stempel.

Stone said that I must have known a lot of facts in order to win more than a hundred thousand dollars on “Twenty-One,” and I told him that I was lucky. With the bright light in my eyes, it was hard to see Stone’s face.

“I want to go back to the time when Freedman said the only person who had done better than you on the test was Herb Stempel. Did he also say that you would not be able to beat Stempel?”

“He said it would be hard.”

“Did he also say you would need a lot of luck to beat him?”

“I guess so.”

“I don’t believe he said that, Mr. Van Doren. What did he actually say? I want you to think very hard.”

“I’m trying.” My lips were dry.

“Did he say you would need help?”

I looked up, squinting in the lights, which seemed brighter than ever.

“No,” I said.

Stone’s grilling went on for an hour or so after that. I never admitted that I had received help. Finally, Stone said that I was free to go. I’ll never forget his last words: “You can lie to me, but I’m not going to let you lie to the grand jury.” The grand jury was being convened, Stone told me, and I would have to testify.

I rose unsteadily and walked out of the room. I suppose that, at the time, I hated him for making me feel like a criminal; he probably saw me as an arrogant liar. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had told the truth. When I went before the grand jury, I wasn’t sure what I would say. When I looked at the jurors’ faces, I saw that the foreman was a senior professor at Columbia, a man I knew by sight. And I panicked, thinking that if I told him the truth I would in effect be telling everyone at the university. So I lied. This was, of course, folly, since I had to tell the story anyway—to everyone, not just to him.

Many years later, Stone wrote to me asking me to help him publish a book about the quiz-show scandal. (The book was published in 1992.) He said that he’d never meant to hurt me and in fact had tried to protect me. I threw his letter away and never answered it.

One morning in August, 1959, I met Richard Goodwin, an investigator for a subcommittee of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. By then, I had been on “Today” for more than a year. I had just come off the set at the end of that morning’s show—in fact, I was still at the desk, looking at notes for a piece I wanted to do the next day. What Goodwin said scared me. He told me that his subcommittee planned to hold hearings on the matter of the television quiz shows; clearly, the grand jury’s work had made its way to Washington. Goodwin opened a folder and pointed to part of a transcript of the grand-jury proceedings. In the page or two that I read, Herb Stempel was testifying. I had thought the testimony was sealed, but evidently not.

He went on to tell me that my testimony contradicted what Stempel said and, worse, that Freedman and Enright had returned to the grand jury and confirmed what Stempel had said.

I had read something about this in the newspapers, but I hadn’t thought much about it, foolishly believing that it had nothing to do with me. Goodwin glanced around at the busy office. “Is there a place where we could talk?”

Dave Garroway was standing near the door, waiting for me to go to the daily story conference. I asked him if I could come later. “There’s this guy—I have to talk to him for a few minutes,” I said. Dave looked only mildly curious.

We found an empty office and I shut the door. There was a table and a couple of chairs. “Do you want to read any more?” Goodwin asked, pointing to the transcript.

I shook my head. I was surprised to learn that Freedman had returned to the grand jury and changed his testimony; I didn’t know you could do that. Goodwin told me that Freedman and Enright had wanted to warn me but were told that they couldn’t. Goodwin also told me that I wasn’t the only one who had lied. From all that he said, I realized that the committee wanted my story to come out at hearings in Washington. Before Goodwin left, he said, somewhat mysteriously, “I can only say it would be best for you, Professor Van Doren, if you say nothing to anybody.” To this day, I don’t understand what he meant. We shook hands and I told him the easiest way to get out of the building.

I went to the story conference but I couldn’t keep my mind on what was going on. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I have to get home.” I said that our daughter had an earache and Gerry wanted me there. Garroway told me to go ahead.

The news broke a month later—September, 1959—and the first sign of what it meant to me, as I recall, was a remark made by Dick Rubin, my new agent. I’d been waiting to see if NBC wanted to renew my contract. I asked Rubin what was going on.

“Of course they’re gonna renew. They’re just waitin’ till this stuff blows over.” He glanced at me. “There’s no problem, is there?”

But it was clear that NBC was growing nervous. When I met with some of the executives, they reminded me that a year earlier, on “Today,” I’d said that I didn’t know about any funny business on any quiz show. Probably they realized then that I wasn’t telling the truth, even when I declared—privately, of course—that I had been offered help by Al Freedman but had refused it.

The congressional hearings began on Tuesday, October 6, 1959, in the caucus room of the Old House Office Building. My turn came on Monday, November 2nd. I had written a statement and showed it to my father. “I’ll go with you,” he said, and he and Gerry accompanied me to Washington.

I asked permission to read my statement. In it, I told the entire story, for the first time. The committee members asked a few questions, but there was really not much else to say, and they told me that I was free to go.

When I stepped out the door of the caucus room, I saw a large crowd—members of the press, photographers, and bystanders. I realized that there was no way to avoid repeating my testimony. I was, I said, “foolish, naïve, prideful, and avaricious,” and added, “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.” After that, Gerry, my father, and I made our way to Union Station, where we caught a train to New York. We arrived home in the early evening and were met outside our house by, among many others, a reporter who informed us, first, that NBC was going to fire me, and, second, that Columbia had accepted my resignation. All I could say was that I wasn’t surprised.

The next afternoon, Dave Garroway had to tape a news report on my shame. I didn’t hear the broadcast the following morning, but I was told that he had been genuinely upset—he couldn’t finish the broadcast, and had to turn it over to his co-hosts. We wrote to each other, but I have no recollection of what our letters said, and after that we fell out of touch. That week, Gerry went alone to Columbia to pick up a few of my personal things, and I didn’t go back to the campus for twenty-three years—until the day that my son graduated.

Along with Vivienne Nearing and eight others, I later pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury, a misdemeanor, for lying to the grand jury about getting answers from producers. The six weeks between my confession and Christmas of that year, 1959, were mostly agony.

But a small gift from my father helped me through it. He had wrapped a square box in tissue paper, sealed with Scotch tape. The box contained a gyroscopic compass, the kind you can start spinning and put on the edge of a glass, where it will stay upright till the spinning stops. A card in the box read, “May this be for you the whirligig of time that brings in his revenges.” I knew the quotation. It’s from “Twelfth Night.” Feste, the mean-spirited clown, has been unmasked, but those are his last words, thrown over his shoulder. The play’s audience knows that somehow he will survive and live to taunt some other master. I didn’t ask my father what he had meant by it, because I knew he was saying that I, too, would survive and somehow find a way back. I just hugged him and said, “Thank you, Papa.”

By the end of 1959, thanks to the intercession of a former college roommate, I would set off on a new career—at the Encyclopædia Britannica, in Chicago. I would earn about twenty per cent of what I’d been getting with NBC, but that was all right with me.

In 1965, we moved to Chicago, the site of the Britannica headquarters. (By then, we’d had a second child, John, who was born in 1962.) We stayed in Chicago for seventeen years, during which I got the title “vice-president of editorial” and wrote and edited a number of books, both by myself and with Mortimer Adler; one of these was a new edition of Adler’s immensely popular “How to Read a Book.” In 1982, when I was fifty-six, I retired. I had a contract for another book, and it was followed by still another, “A History of Knowledge.”

One of the best things about writing is that it’s private. I can sit with my thoughts without having to respond to people who say, “Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?” Well, that’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am—or, at least, I don’t want to be. It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on “Twenty-One” is still part of me.

One day in the spring of 1990, a man named Julian Krainin appeared at the door of a small conch cottage we had bought and renovated in Key West. He was affable; he had come to Florida to visit his parents, he told us, and had drifted down the Keys. He said that he’d learned that I lived there and wanted to see me. After we had chatted for a few minutes, he came to the point of his visit: he told me that a production company was thinking of doing a television show about the quiz-show affair, and he guessed they’d want to talk to me.

For more than thirty years, I had refused to be interviewed, and I told him that I hadn’t changed my mind. He said that the program would be coming from WGBH, in Boston, one of the leading public-television stations, and that he was a documentary filmmaker. Also, he had some advice: “I’ve found that if an important figure in a documentary refuses to coöperate, it leaves the producers free to say . . . not just whatever they want but maybe some things he’d prefer they didn’t say.”

Krainin was certainly skilled in the art of journalistic seduction. “Have you ever thought of returning to television, Charles?” he asked. “I think you have a lot to offer.” He went on to mention two popular public-television series—James Burke’s “Connections” and Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”—with the suggestion that I might be the host of a series, too. I was being drawn in, and we chatted until Gerry arrived with a pitcher of lemonade and some cookies. “What were you two talking about?” she asked.

I made a joke of it: “My going back on TV as a kind of idiot savant.” I laughed, but she didn’t. I saw the dismay in her eyes. “There’s no chance of Charlie’s doing that,” she said.

Without looking at Gerry, I told Krainin that I knew something about the history of philosophy, and even sketched out a possible series on the subject. “Think of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Bacon, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Jefferson, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche,” I said. “That’s thirteen right there.”

Krainin brightened. Gerry was silent, her lips compressed. “That’s very interesting,” Krainin said. When he was gone, Gerry and I walked down Simonton to Catherine, across to Frances, through the cemetery to Angela, and home again. She said nothing at first.

“What do you think of that?” I asked finally.

“I think you’re being foolish.”

Krainin called two weeks later. He sounded breathless, and told me that the “people” in Boston wanted an outline from me. He said he’d pass it on to them, and after discussing the weather in New England he brought up the other program.

My program wasn’t a go; I don’t suppose it ever had a chance. Deep down I believed that the two were connected—and I still do. (I also know that Krainin has a different recollection about our first conversations.) “The Quiz Show Scandal,” written and co-produced by Julian Krainin for “American Experience,” aired on WGBH in 1992. At the end, they thanked a list of people. Although I had done nothing, I was at the top of the list.

The program was pretty good. I learned some things I hadn’t known, one of which was that about a hundred contestants had lied to the grand jury, although only seventeen of us were indicted, arrested, and arraigned. (None of us was sentenced to jail.) It brought back to me how we were marched through the streets of downtown New York (accompanied by photographers), forced to hand over our valuables, take off our belts and shoelaces, and get fingerprinted. I hadn’t remembered that this had happened to anyone but me; I suppose I’d been in shock. I do remember that it was hard to keep my trousers up, because I’d lost weight.

I also learned that when “Twenty-One” was first on it wasn’t rigged, and it was—therefore?—a failure. Herb Stempel was the first to agree to the fix; it was said that fifty million people watched us on the night when he “took a dive,” as he put it. I learned that Al Freedman eventually got an executive job at Penthouse International, and founded Penthouse’s spinoff magazine Forum; and that, after ten years or so, Barry and Enright were allowed to come back to television and resume their partnership with new programs.

I didn’t hear from Julian Krainin for a while. Then he telephoned to ask if he and his wife could drop by our house in Cornwall, Connecticut, because he had “great news.” Gerry wasn’t enthusiastic, but I said, “Why not? He won’t bite.”

The news this time was that Robert Redford was planning to make a feature film about the quiz shows and me. Krainin was a producer and Richard Goodwin was a co-producer. (In 1959, Goodwin had gone to work as a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and, later, for his brother Robert.) Gerry was upset, but the more I thought about it the more I felt that it couldn’t really hurt. What the hell? Our children were grown, and we wouldn’t have to watch it.

Krainin returned a short time later. I asked what Redford wanted from me. After all, I pointed out, my story was in the public domain, and WGBH did perfectly well without me.

He told us how much Redford admired me and hoped for my help to make the film even better. And, as I recall, he added that Redford wanted my approval—my “guarantee of its truthfulness.” He said that Herb Stempel had already agreed to be a consultant, and when I asked what there might be in it for me he replied that the filmmakers would be willing to pay a fee—fifty thousand dollars. And that was how we left it, with Krainin promising to call me in a few days for a decision.

When Krainin called, he said, “I’m sending you a contract. The fee is higher—a hundred thousand dollars. You won’t have to do much. Bob really wants you on board.”

Our family had a meeting, sitting around our kitchen table. John, our son, was for my taking the money. “They’re going to make the movie anyway, whatever you do,” he said. “Everybody else is making money out of it, why shouldn’t you?”

Gerry agreed—they would say whatever they wanted—“But taking the money gives them a kind of license.” Liz, our daughter, tended to agree with Gerry. Sally, John’s wife, said it wasn’t her place to say anything.

I argued for it on the grounds that John had stated. Gerry, though, was adamant: “I don’t want to have anything to do with the whole thing. The film, the money . . . the money’s yours if you want it. But you won’t have me!” She added, “I’m not going to leave you, but you’ll be on your own.” She waited. “Please don’t be a fool.”

We decided to ask Sally’s father, Bill Van Cleve, the managing partner of the law firm of Bryan Cave, in St. Louis. He asked me to fax him the document and let him think about it.

The morning after our family meeting, I had to go to Litchfield, and I played a K. T. Oslin tape in my truck. A song on it called “Money” had the refrain “I don’t need money. All I need is you.” I played it again, then again. “Oh, Honey,” I said to myself, “I don’t need money, all I need is you.” Honey was Gerry’s family childhood name.

When I got home, Gerry told me that Bill had called. “He thought you’d be wrong to sign it,” she said. “The contract ties you up in knots. I told the children and I think they both agree.”

“He’s right, so are you, and I was wrong,” I said.

The contract lay on the table in the kitchen. I picked it up and tore it into pieces. Just at that moment, the phone rang. Gerry answered. “It’s him,” she said, and handed me the phone. After I’d told Krainin our decision, I hugged Gerry, held on to her for a long time. Finally, she squirmed out of my grasp. “Let go!”

“Never!” I said.

The film opened in 1994, but months before that a curious thing happened. A car turned in to our road and drew up alongside the house. “I’m lost,” the driver said. “Can you tell me how to find . . . ?” I realized later that he was Ralph Fiennes, who played me in the film. He told a reporter that he had driven by my house and had seen me looking “sad.”

Of course, I eventually saw the movie. I understand that movies need to compress and conflate, but what bothered me most was the epilogue stating that I never taught again. I didn’t stop teaching, although it was a long time before I taught again in a college. I did enjoy John Turturro’s version of Stempel. And I couldn’t help but laugh when Stempel referred to me in the film as “Charles Van Fucking Moron.”

Today, Gerry and I live in a small, very old house on the place my father and mother bought more than eighty years ago. My father retired from his position as a professor of English at Columbia in 1959, when he was sixty-four, and moved to Cornwall, where they had always wanted to live. He told me that he regretted not having done this sooner. I wish he had lived long enough to see us come to live here, too, not just visit on weekends in good weather. He died in 1972. Gerry and the children had spent every summer and I’d spent my month’s vacation here each September. Dad and I never talked about the quiz shows, but we did discuss his ongoing work and mine, and country things, which he loved and I did, too. After his death, my mother, who had published two very good novels and had enjoyed a successful journalistic career (including writing for The New Yorker), wrote to him every day until her own death, at ninety-six.

Our children and grandchildren love the place as much as we do. They come when they can, given the demands of their separate lives. Gerry and I are writing and teaching English at the Torrington campus of the University of Connecticut; last fall I taught the Shakespeare course, and Gerry taught the modern novel.

There are two houses, several barns, fields and woods. There are tools and machines: a truck and a tractor, two riding mowers, one of which doesn’t work at the moment, and trimmers, chain saws, leaf blowers, a table saw, and plenty of gardening and other tools. I’ve mowed paths that wind through the fields and into the woods, and I hope the children will keep them up when I can’t do it anymore.

Gerry and I went to Rome in the early spring, a fiftieth-anniversary gift to one another, and one morning I took my little gyroscope out of my toilet kit, where it has travelled with me since 1959. I set it spinning on the edge of my orange-juice glass, and, as I looked at it, I said “Thank you”—to it and to my father and my mother and to all the other people who helped us to survive. ♦

Friday, July 25, 2008

Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan: 70 Years Later

By Gregory McNamee on History

Seventy years ago, at 5:15 in the morning on July 17, 1938, a 31-year-old aviator named Douglas Corrigan walked out onto the tarmac of an airfield in Brooklyn, New York, climbed into the cockpit of his plane, and made for the skies, bound for Los Angeles.

In those days, radar had yet to come into general use, although the British government would install a pioneering coastal-defense system later that year. Pilots radioed for instructions along the way, checking in from time to time but mostly relying on ground personnel only when cloud cover prevented them from seeing terra firma. Aviation was a decidedly seat-of-the-pants affair, sometimes dangerous and always unpredictable.

Even so, observers were more than a little surprised when Corrigan’s plane banked sharply to the east on takeoff and disappeared into a looming cloudbank over the Atlantic Ocean, the opposite direction of where he was supposed to be headed. They were even more surprised when reports came that, 28 hours and 13 minutes later, Corrigan had landed his little modified Curtiss-Robin monoplane at an airfield outside Dublin, Ireland, and amiably told the workers who gathered around him, “I just got in from New York. Where am I? I intended to fly to California.”

Thus, instantly, thanks to some sharp reporter, was the nickname “Wrong-Way Corrigan” born. And thus, instantly, was the wayward pilot’s flying license suspended—but only for two weeks, a slap on the wrist that had everyone involved smiling.

Corrigan claimed that his little plane—a wreck that he had bought for $310 three years earlier and rebuilt, bolt by plank by piston, in a California cow pasture—had been betrayed by a faulty compass, and that he had absentmindedly wandered to Ireland without ever bothering to check the lay of the land below him.

He had landed in Brooklyn a week earlier, having made a solo run from California that, in the bargain, netted him a world record. Understandably puffed up at the accomplishment, he determined to try to break the established records across the Atlantic, set over the past few years by the likes of Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post in the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s famed 1927 transatlantic flight. Almost as soon as he landed in Brooklyn, he applied for permission to make a trip to Ireland.

The civil aviation authorities were quick to say no. All they had to do was take a quick look at Corrigan’s nearly homemade plane, its engine cobbled together from two previous planes and souped up to nearly double the original 90-horsepower rating. It was an accident waiting to happen. Corrigan had added five fuel tanks to the rig that completely blocked his view out the front of the cockpit, so that he had to open his door—held fast by baling wire, like many other parts of the plane—to see where he was going. California aviation authorities gave the 1929 monoplane an experimental certification, and their Brooklyn counterparts had no intention of improving the grade.

Corrigan was unfazed. In a decade-long career of barnstorming, he had applied for permission to cross the Atlantic several times. He had helped build Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, which now hangs proudly from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., assembling that famed aircraft’s wings and instrument panels; he had even pulled the chocks out from under its wheels as Lindbergh soared off to New York and glory. Corrigan knew what constituted a safe plane. He was a daredevil, but he was no fool.

On Corrigan’s last application, in 1935, the federal authorities had said that his plane was not worthy of an ocean crossing, but they didn’t blink about the craft’s suitability to cross over land. Corrigan had spent the next two years making modification after modification to increase his plane’s range and dependability, but still they turned him down.

He was careful not to pack a map of the Atlantic, but instead made sure to show off charts of the Midwest and California as he clambered aboard his supposedly westward-bound aircraft. He packed only a little food: a couple of chocolate bars, cookies, a quart of water. He headed into the clouds, only to reappear in Ireland the following afternoon, innocently asking for directions.

In the bargain, he set a new record, despite a leaky fuel line that made the crossing even more perilous than it already was. The American public winked along with Corrigan. He earned a tickertape parade, public appearances, a book deal, a movie contract, and a few celebrity endorsements, including one for a pocket watch that ran backward.

By the time World War II began, the commotion surrounding him had quieted, and Corrigan worked as a test pilot and freight transporter. He later bought an orange grove outside Los Angeles. He was all but forgotten afterward, and when he was invited to display his famed plane at an aircraft show in 1988, he grumbled that he would take him a lot of work to do so—for he had taken it apart and had been storing it in his garage since 1940.

Toward the end of his life, Douglas Corrigan is said to have admitted that his trip hadn’t been a wrong-way adventure after all. The story is unsubstantiated, and even in his last months—he died on December 9, 1995, at the age of 88—Corrigan never said anything other than that fog and a bad compass had been kind enough to give him a small measure of fame in his day.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Warren Buffett’s 7 Secrets for Living a Happy and Simple Life

Secret # 1 : Happiness comes from within.

In my adult business life I have never had to make a choice of trading between professional and personal. I tap-dance to work, and when I get there it’s tremendous fun.- Warren Buffett

This is the man who truly does what he loves. The battle between Productivity and anti-productivity blogs stems from their convoluted chains of frequently twisted rational to substantiate their claim that productivity is a force of an external demand - from an employer or a competitor. In reality, productivity comes from within. It comes from doing what we love and loving what we do. When we start trading time between our professional and personal life, we wage war in our own mind to justify our passion in terms of a personal benefit. In my business I have felt more stress and angst when I haven’t given all of my talent, hard work and passion to help others on a given day. The myth of working hard to make more money to buy more things throws us in the vicious circle of hallucination. Our happiness always remains imprisoned when we do work that we abhor yet justify doing it to pay bills for those things that we don’t need. I used to work even after buying my first hotel for many years to justify the fake notion that I needed additional income to pay bills. What I needed was to change my lifestyle to free myself from this never-ending rut chase.
Secret # 2 Find happiness in simple pleasures.

I have simple pleasures. I play bridge online for 12 hours a week. Bill and I play, he’s “chalengr” and I’m “tbone”. — Warren Buffett

If the man richer than God can find happiness in the simple pleasure of playing bridge online with another billionaire, I have to learn to be happy with the simple pleasures of playing cards with friends or playing with my children or taking a walk in the wilderness. All of these simple pleasures do not need extravagant spending. I used to go play golf with other businessmen when the local chamber of commerce sponsored an event. I never found happiness in those events as they were centered on generating more business and exchanging business cards than on truly enjoying the moment. I was allowing myself to be run ragged by trading business cards after hours in a vain hope of making more money whereas that time deserved a dinner with my family.
Secret # 3 Live a simple life.

I just naturally want to do things that make sense. In my personal life too, I don’t care what other rich people are doing. I don’t want a 405 foot boat just because someone else has a 400 foot boat. — Warren Buffett

The sad truth is that our ever-sophisticated advertising industry has conditioned our mind to find happiness from consumption by spending our hard earned money on the possessions that never bring us lasting happiness. We spend our life-energy on those possessions that we seldom use. We worry about making payments for a luxury car that sits in our garage collecting dust only for the right to brag about it in an occasional social gathering. Keeping up with the Joneses is the worst epidemic among those who should never contemplate that notion in the first place. If a man who can possibly buy a nation with his cash never espouses the mantra of “more the better”, I need to learn not to spread my legs beyond the reach of the blanket. We are conditioned to spend money before we earn it. We are sold on the fake happiness of “Buy now, pay later dearly” - It’s nothing more than buying possessions that we cannot afford. I have my share of insanity when it comes to mindless spending, but lately I try to pay for most of my purchases with cash. It creates awareness towards the impulse buy when I pay by cash. I have also started red lining items on the credit card statement that I consider useless spending. All of these efforts have built my awareness towards my impulse purchases. I have been using mantra of - “less is more” to simplify every aspect of my life. It’s a work in progress but the results are astounding.
Secret # 4 Think Simply.

“I want to be able to explain my mistakes. This means I do only the things I completely understand.” - Warren Buffett

There lies one of the greatest secrets of simplicity. Warren Buffett invests only in the businesses that he understands. If you ever read research reports from an accomplished Wall Street guru, you’ll find a plethora of details that make you dizzy. The success of Warren Buffett as the greatest investor ever lies in his ability to think simply.

I used to invest in the stock market in the mid 90’s when everyone wanted to make over night millions in an exuberant market. I used to read “Investor’s Business Daily” only to look at the movers and shakers. These were the stocks that made a significant upward move a day before. A few days before Christmas, I made $52,000 in one stock in a matter of a few days. I knew nothing about the company. I created a new reality for my thoughts that I had figured out how the Wall Street works. I was on my way to the riches. I applied the same thought model on the next several stocks. Needless to say, I lost all that I made and much more. I was lacking in a basic human quality that Warren Buffett has mastered well - common sense. It says a great deal about the character of a man who invested a measly amount in Microsoft despite the fact that Bill Gates is one of his closest friends. I learned a valuable lesson of life from this experience - “Not losing hard earned money is far more important than making more money”.

If I apply this rule in my life, I can develop clarity and sanity in my thoughts. Clarity is the mother of simplicity. Life is not a roulette; life is about simple yet profound choices.
Secret # 5 Invest Simply.

The best way to own common stocks is through an index fund. - Warren Buffett

It is astounding to know that the greatest investor in the world is not bragging about intricate financial maneuvering to impress the rest of the world with his financial genius. Instead, Warren Buffett shows us the most simplistic approach to our financial freedom - “Flow with the market rather than pretending to be smarter than God.”

In this world full of so-called financial experts, Warren stands tall by showing us the simplest way to the riches. The stock market has moved upward for the last hundred years despite numerous setbacks. He is using a long historical view to back his argument rather than making a futile effort to predict how we can make a quick fortune. After losing most of my capital in the late 90’s, I have precisely followed the simple advice of investing in the no-load index funds. I’m happier than ever and while my assets have not skyrocketed, they haven’t dwindled either.
Secret # 6 Have a mentor in life.

I was lucky to have the right heroes. Tell me who your heroes are and I’ll tell you how you’ll turn out to be. The qualities of the one you admire are the traits that you, with a little practice, can make your own, and that, if practiced, will become habit-forming. - Warren Buffett

We are worshipers of celebrity demi-gods. All of us have this acute desire to look and live like these celebrities. However, are they truly the ones with character and moral compass to lead us? Having a mentor is as important as having a purpose in our life but having a wrong mentor is as devastating as having a wrong purpose in our life. The mentor has to be someone whom we can trust and have an unwavering faith in his/her guidance. The mentor has to be the one who has made outstanding strides in advancing the greater and guiding purpose of happiness in his/her own life. You’ll find that person in your inner circle if you think hard enough. Write down why you admire them. Try to emulate their traits and as Warren has shown by his exemplary life, with a little practice, you can form a habit to clone the life that you admire the most.
Secret # 7 Making money isn’t the backbone of our guiding purpose; making money is the by-product of our guiding purpose.

If you’re doing something you love, you’re more likely to put your all into it, and that generally equates to making money. - Warren Buffett

warren2.jpgHow do you rationalize the richest man on the earth still living in a small 3-bedroom house that he purchased fifty years ago? Warren Buffett never travels in a private jet despite the fact that he owns the largest private jet company. His character and way of life speak volume about his greatness. This is the man who spent his personal time investigating a $4 line item on his tax return to hunt down the specifics of it while giving away billions of dollars to Bill Gates foundation. It is rare to find the richest man on the earth living without luxuries that we want to possess even by mortgaging our future. He has demonstrated that while valuing the worth of money is vital for our ingenuity and success, money shall never become the object and end all of our motivation.

I’m an avid admirer of simplicity, but I’m an even bigger fan of the man who has mastered the greatness by living and breathing simplicity amid an ocean of wealth. Do you agree?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Casanova: philosopher, gambler, lover, priest

Frances Wilson reviews Casanova: Philosopher, Gambler, Lover, Priest by Ian Kelly

What is Casanova's biographer to do? The retired libertine did the job so well himself in his Histoire de ma vie that no one could possibly improve on his story, just as no one setting out to describe his extraordinarily restless life could have read, travelled or written more than Casanova, or thought more about the business of living than he did, or lived as bravely or as excessively.

Casanova preferred his women to smell of cheese

The Histoire, which Casanova wrote at the end of his days when he was working as a librarian at Dux Castle in Bohemia, details with such wit, candour and style his peripatetic years as a priest, con-man, cabbalist, violinist, soldier, alchemist, prisoner, fugitive, gambler, intellectual, writer and lover, while inadvertently giving such a vivid picture of mid-18th-century Europe, that not only is there little for anyone to add but due to its sheer bulk - over 3,800 pages, making up 12 volumes - the beleaguered biographer must rather choose what to take away in order to make his own version a reasonable length.

Casanova has baffled and thwarted many of those writers who, while trying to describe and evaluate his experiences, have succeeded only in repeating in edited form the events as he tells them, but in Ian Kelly he has at last found his Boswell. Himself an actor, Kelly is immediately alert to the theatricality of his subject.

Born the illegitimate son of a Venetian actress in a city where it was mandatory to be masked from October to Ash Wednesday, Casanova lived a life shaped by the slipperiness of the masquerade and the playfulness of the theatre. It is as a player of parts on the great European stage that he describes himself in his Histoire.

Accordingly, Kelly shapes his biography around not chapters but dramatic acts and scenes, with refreshing intermezzi where he pauses to discourse, in true Enlightenment fashion, not only on Casanova's involvement in the Cabbala, the 'fusion of Gnosticism, Egyptian mathematics, neo-Platonism, Judaic mysticism and personal revelation' by which he was so mysteriously intrigued; but also on his means of travel (important in terms of sex-on-the-road), his love of food (equal and analogous to his love of women), and his attitude to women (most appreciated when they smelt of cheese).

To focus on the women. Between the age of 16, when he lost his virginity, and his late forties, when he lost his potency, Casanova slept with around 130 of them, which works out at an average of four a year. This may or may not seem a great deal for a man who never married or stayed in one place for too long, but Kelly argues that Casanova deserves his place in history not because of the quantity of bodies he enjoyed but because of the guilt-free quality of the enjoyment as he describes it in his memoirs. The Histoire 'posited firmly, for the first time in the Western canon, the idea that an understanding of sex - with all its irrationality and destructive potential - is key to an understanding of the self'.

Behind the masks, Casanova's 'self' emerges as a complex affair. His first sexual encounter was with a pair of sisters whom he enjoyed simultaneously; much later he would enjoy his own daughter in the same bed as her mother. While he was uncharacteristically cagey about his genuine homosexual encounters, he was particularly drawn to women who dressed as men - at one point embarking on a dizzying affair with a girl disguised as a castrato disguised as a girl.

The manner of Casanova's affairs suggest that he was busy avoiding pain as much as pursuing pleasure; he behaved, as Wordsworth would say, 'more like a man /Flying from something that he dreads, than one Who sought the thing he loved'. He would become emotionally attached and then sharply detach himself: his need to leave was as strong as his need to love. What is striking is how repetitive his affairs were, as though he were performing the same scene again and again. At one point, years after a liaison with a nun he calls by the pseudonym MM, he meets another nun and he calls her MM too.

An unexpected pleasure is the book's focus on food. Casanova loved eating; 'sex is like eating and eating is like sex', he wrote, and Kelly speculates that he may be the originator of the reputation of oysters as an aphrodisiac. He was born into the 'last great age of Venetian cooking', he liked his macaroni sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and during his final years, while he mouldered away in Dux Castle, 'A day did not go by', a friend observed, 'that he did not have a quarrel, over his coffee, over his milk, his plate of macaroni on which he insisted…'

Kelly's narrative loses its momentum only once, in his disappointingly flat account of Casanova's spectacular escape over the leads of the Doge's palace, where he was imprisoned for 'a question of religion'. But because this particular scene was Casanova's party piece - even his enemies admitted that he told the story brilliantly - and the crowning achievement of his life, perhaps it is best that the biographer does not steal the show.

Ian Kelly has taken on a tremendous challenge and produced a great blast of a book, packed with energy and information, marinated in sympathy and understanding, and rippling with enthusiasm right down to the final footnote.

George Carlin's Last Interview

By Jay Dixit
Ten days ago, on Friday, June 13th, 2008, I had the extraordinary privilege of talking to George Carlin. As far as I know it was the last in-depth interview he gave before he passed away yesterday at age 71. Originally it was slated to run as a 350-word Q&A on the back page of Psychology Today. But I was so excited to talk to him—and he was so generous with his time—that I just kept on going. By the end I had over 14,000 words.

On stage, George Carlin came across as a grouch, often vulgar and sometimes misanthropic. But with me he was patient and warm, happy to talk through the minutiae of his creative process and eager to share stories about his childhood, his evolution as a comic, and his influence. What struck me most was the joy in his voice as he talked about the wonderful feeling he got in his gut while writing. I was also moved by the gratitude he expressed for his mother, who he said “saved” him and his brother—leaving her bullying, alcoholic husband when George was just two months old, getting a job during the worst years of the Depression, and raising two boys on her own.

He spoke about the pride he took in his work. As a ninth-grade dropout, he said, it was gratifying to see his words quoted in textbooks, classrooms, and courtrooms. And he was proud to have inspired other comedy greats, who routinely called him to say, "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be doing this." As he looked back on his astonishingly prolific 50-year career—which includes 130 Tonight Show appearances, 23 albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, and one Supreme Court case—the interview became a sort of retrospective of his life.

Finally, after two hours, he gently mentioned that his arm was getting tired from holding the phone. “I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into all these questions. Really, it’s the most complete interview I’ve ever done,” he said. “Is it tomorrow yet? I think it is.”

“It feels like it is,” I said, struggling to keep up with his wit.

“All this is for a quote unquote back page?” he said.

“This is for the back page, but, I don’t know, I just love you and your work so much!” I gushed. “I just had so much I wanted to ask.”

At the time, I was embarrassed by what I’d said. But when I heard the sad news this morning, my feelings changed instantly. I’m honored that I got to speak to him, and I’m grateful that I got to tell him how much I admired him before he died.

It would be impossible to overstate George Carlin’s contribution to standup comedy. Along with Richard Pryor and a few others, he essentially created the genre as we know it today. But he was more than just a comedy pioneer. He was a freethinker who never backed down, and he truly changed the course of American culture. He will be missed. —Jay Dixit
The Interview

What follows are edited highlights. They represent a little over half of the interview.

How do you think about comedy and self-expression? Expressing what’s within vs. looking at the outside world and making observations?

Self-expression is a hallmark of an artist, of art, to get something off one’s chest, to sing one’s song. So that element is present in all art. And comedy, although it is not one of the fine arts—it’s a vulgar art, it’s one of the people’s arts, it’s the spoken word, the writing that goes into it is an art form—it’s certainly artistry. So self-expression is the key to even standing up and saying, "Hey, listen to me." Self-expression can be based on looking at the world and making observations about it or not. Comedy can also be based on describing one’s inner self—doing anecdotes, talking about your own fears. Woody Allen taps into a lot of self-analysis in his comedy. But I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I think self-expression is present at all times, and whether or not you’re talking about the outside world or your responses to it depends on the moment and the subject.

Do you go around observing and trying to collect funny things? Or do you just live your life and then say how you feel about what you happen to have seen?

I’m 71, and I’ve been doing this for a little over 50 years, doing it at a fairly visible level for 40. By this time it’s all second nature. It’s all a machine that works a certain way: the observations, the immediate evaluation of the observation, and then the mental filing of it, or writing it down on a piece of paper. I’ve often described the way a 20-year-old versus, say, a 60- or a 70-year-old, the way it works. A 20-year-old has a limited amount of data they’ve experienced, either seeing or listening to the world. At 70 it’s a much richer storage area, the matrix inside is more textured, and has more contours to it. So, observations made by a 20-year-old are compared against a data set that is incomplete. Observations made by a 60-year-old are compared against a much richer data set. And the observations have more resonance, they’re richer.

So if I write something down, some observation—I see something on television that reminds me of something I wanted to say already—the first time I write it, the first time I hear it, it makes an impression. The first time I write it down, it makes a second impression, a deeper path. Every time I look at that piece of paper, until I file it in my file, each time, the path gets a little richer and deeper so that these things are all in there.

Now at this age, I have a network of knowledge and data and observations and feelings and values and evaluations I have in me that do things automatically. And then when I sit down to consciously write, that's when I bring the craftsmanship. That's when I pull everything together and say, how I can best express that? And then as you write, you find more, 'cause the mind is looking for further connections. And these things just flow into your head and you write them. And the writing is the really wonderful part. A lot of this is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that's our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.

Do you think that the richness you described comes from just being able to access more experiences, having information on file? Or is it judgment?

Well, that's true, too. The machine that does all this learns what it is you want—it learns what it is that serves your purpose and it begins to tailor the synthesis. It synthesizes these observations and these comparisons. Comedy’s all about comparisons and contrasts and congruities and incongruities and heightenings and understatement and exaggeration. The mind has all of that stuff built in, and it learns which ones pay off the best for you. It's probably related to the pleasure center. You get so much pleasure finding good observations and finding which things are the richest things you can say, that probably the brain remembers how that happened and learns to provide the best stuff. Maybe you have a little silent editor in there.

You talked about how comedy's all about incongruities, contrasts, exaggeration. Do you think about those techniques or those principles of humor consciously?

It happens automatically. Sometimes there’s a conscious heightening, you'll recognize you've just chosen an image to make a point. Then your mind will just suddenly throw something at you that's stronger—a heightening, to raise the stakes, a stronger word, a more visceral image, something that lights up the imagination, much better than the original thought. So you’re aware that you’re heightening and exaggerating further but you don't use the word exaggeration or anything like that. All that stuff is just happening. And sometimes, afterward, I’ll look at something and say, “If I were giving a comedy lecture, that would be a good example.” I often think in those terms.

Do you think there are any downsides to having gotten to the point where you are, where all of this is happening automatically? Or are there some advantages a 20-year-old would have?

Well, I would imagine there are some that I can’t put my finger on because I don't remember what it was like. I was a different man. I don't know—the advantage that a 20 year old would have would be more longevity to look forward to.

You talked about how wonderful it is, this feeling of writing. So what is your process like?

I take a lot of single-page notes, little memo pad notes. I make a lot of notes on those things. For when I'm not near a little memo pad, I have a digital recorder. Most of the note-taking happens while I’m watching television.

Because the world is undifferentiated on the television set. You may be watching the news channel, but it’s going to cover the breadth of American life and the human experience. It's gonna go from suicide bombings to frivolous consumer goods. It's a broad window on the world, and a lot of things are already established in my mind as things I say, things that I'm interested in, things that are fodder for my machine. And when I see something that relates to one of them, I know it instantly and if it's a further exaggeration and a further addition, or an exception—if it plays into furthering my purpose, I jot it down.

When I harvest the pieces of paper and I go through them and sort them, the one lucky thing I got in my genetic package was a great methodical left brain. I have a very orderly mind that wants to classify and index things and label them and store them according to that. I had a boss in radio when I was 18 years old, and my boss told me to write down every idea I get even if I can't use it at the time, and then file it away and have a system for filing it away—because a good idea is of no use to you unless you can find it. And that stuck with me.

And what's your filing system?

There’s a large segment of it devoted to language, which is a love of mine. And a rich area for my work talking about how we talk. One of the files is called “The Way We Talk.” And it's about certain voguish words that come into style and remain there. But then there are subfiles. Everything has subfiles. There's one that says "Crime." There's "Crime" and there's "Law," there’s "Sex" and there’s "Race." And there’s "Humans"—that’s obviously a big folder with a lot of smaller folders in it, it’s about the human race and the human species and experiences and observations I have about that, or data that I've found about it. You know, 6 million people stepped on land mines this year. Those things interest me.

And there's "America," and America is a major category, of course. It breaks down into the culture, and the culture breaks down into further things. It’s like nested boxes, like the Russian dolls—it's just folders within folders within folders. But I know how to navigate it very well, and I’m a Macintosh a guy and so Spotlight helps me a lot. I just get on Spotlight and say, let's see, if I say "asshole” and “minister," I then can find what I want find.

What's the process of going from something that's true about the world—observing it—to actually making people laugh?

I begin with the knowledge that my audience knows me thoroughly. I know the things they will trust coming from me, and I know they'll allow me to do exposition that’s necessary to set the stage for the piece of material. The funny—that’s part of the genetic package. The genetic marker for language came through my family. My grandfather, whom I didn’t know, was a New York City policeman. I did not know him. During his adult life, he wrote out Shakespeare’s tragedies longhand just for the joy it gave him. And he asked questions about language at his dinner table, my mother told me. My mother had a great love of language, and a great gift for language. The Irish have a genetic tradition, it seems, an affinity for language and expression. And so I got that. The Irish say: "You don’t lick it off the rocks, kid." It comes in the blood. So, I have that and I don’t have to do anything about it.

As Noel Coward said, “All I ever had was a talent to amuse.” I have a talent to amuse and I have a way of finding the joke, a way of expressing things through exaggeration, interesting images, whatever goes in, whatever the parts are that go into making these things work.

I try to come in through the side door. One of the voguish terms, which is so repellant to me, “thinking outside the box.” To settle for that kind of language is embarrassing. But that's a very useful picture. I try to come in through the side door, the side window, to come in from a direction they’re not expecting, to see something in a different way. That's the job that I give myself. So, how can I talk about something eminently familiar to them, on my terms, in a new way, that engages their imagination?

The jokes come. You don’t look for them. It’s all automatic, and, I think, genetic. My father was an after dinner speaker, was a great raconteur. He was an ad salesman for space in newspapers during the 1930s, when that was the primary medium of advertising, and my mother was in advertising her whole life. They both were very funny, and they both were very gifted verbally. So, those things come to you automatically. It's like being a child prodigy with the violin or the piano. It's not something you try for or you have to do too much about except work at it. And that's what I try to do.

How is it that you find things that are unexpected?

I don’t know. But I want to add an element I overlooked. Psychology. We're talking about a magazine called Psychology Today.

As a child, my father was gone. I had no grandparents; they were all dead. Had no real cousins to play with, and I didn’t give a shit, frankly. I experienced my life in a very happy way, but, what I want to say to you is, I was alone as a child. My father was dead. My mother left him when I was 2 months old and he died when I was 8 years old. He drank too much and he was a bully and she had the courage to take two boys, one of them two months old and one of them 5 years old and to leave him in 1937 and get back into the business world and get a job and raise us through the end of the Depression and through the Second World War. She did a great job, but she was at work until 7 or 7:30 at night many nights.

So I spent a lot of time on my own. In the house or out around the neighborhood or sneaking in the subway, going down to 42nd street, traveling around Manhattan Island, learning it as a youngster. And I experienced that—because psychologists ask you not if something's good or bad, but how do you experience it—I experienced that as freedom, independence, autonomy. And I was brought up on that feeling. That’s what made me, I think, able to quit school, and go out and try to start my life and career early, because I had that strength.

And my mother had that strength. I witnessed it. I mean, what she did was she took us away from him and saved us. So, those qualities of being alone like that fostered in me a need for adult approval and attention. Now they say that it's kind of a common cliché that comedians just want attention. But it's an element that's very important. The job is called "look at me." That's the name of this job. “Look at me. Ain't I smart? Ain't I cute? Ain't I clever?"

I needed to be—not the center of attention—but I needed to be able to attract attention when I wanted it, through my stunts and my fooling around physically with faces or postures or voices I would do. Then it became funny the things I would say, and I became more of a wit than simply a mimic and a clown. And so, those things were all important in this. The fact that I didn’t finish school left me with a lifelong need to prove that I’m smart, prove it to myself, maybe to the world. “Ain't I smart, ain't I cute, ain't I clever.” “Listen to me, listen to what I got to say.” So, those things are important elements in the drive behind all of this.

You made an analogy to playing the violin. I wanted to ask you about mastery. You’ve been doing this for, as you said, over 50 years, and it seems like you've only gotten better with time. So I'm wondering what you think has enabled you to do that. Is it like playing the violin? Is it just practice? Is it getting good feedback? Is it—you know, what is it that allows you to hone your craft?

The feedback that I’ve gotten has been through the success of the career. That’s a reinforcing factor. I say: Oh, that works, oh that’s what I do, I see. I think with anything you do over a long period of time, you should be getting better at it. I'm talking about craft, art, or drive that comes from inside.

What is your philosophy about physical performance? You walk around a lot, you make a lot of gestures.

It’s just second nature, you don’t think about it at all. And I don’t pace as much on stage as I used to, maybe it’s my age, I don’t know. I don't feel limited physically, in that respect, but it's just something I’ve grown into.

Were you always making people laugh, sort of automatically, just because of your personality?

Yeah. As I was describing, this is a job for a showoff. In those 8 years of grammar school that I had—the 9th year was kind of a it was a Irish catholic Christian brothers, and it was a much more brutal setting than these lovely nuns we had. So I think of those 8 years as my education. I got the work very easily, I didn’t have any trouble grasping the work, and so I had time to clown, time to signal to my buddy, make a face, make a fart under the arm, I was a bit of a class clown, I was a neighborhood cut-up.

I eventually started doing routines when I was about 14, 15 16. I would do routines on the street corner for my buddies on the stoop. My mother wanted me to finish high school, go to college, be an advertising man, be a businessman like the men at her office whom she admired. But she couldn’t stop this other machine that was revving up.

I had an 8th grade graduation from the grammar school—it was the only graduation I ever had. And in 9th grade, while I was at that school, I had a Brother, one of the brothers who taught, his name was Brother Conrad. My mother had said to me, now George, I didn't get you a graduation present, and this was June 1951, this was now the fall of 1951, when I'm in first year of high school. She said, “I didn't get you a graduation present, so you be thinking about what you might want.”

Brother Conrad was telling the class one day that because he had a clergyman's discount rate, he could get cameras for people. Then he mentioned tape recorders and man, the bell went off in my head! Tape recorders at that time were virtually unknown to the average person. They may have heard about them here or there. They were not consumer items.

She bought me a tape recorder, a Webcor. And that became a tool for me to put some of these verbal impulses to work. I began to produce little radio shows on it at home by using the phonograph. Playing a record on the phonograph, like playing the Dragnet theme. Dun da dun dun. Dun da dun dun duuun.

Then I would fade the phonograph down and I would come in and I would do my make-believe announcer. I did newscasts, I did sports. A lot of the things that I ventured into professionally in my first stage of comedy I was doing on that tape recorder. I recorded a whole half hour of story—it was like a vignette, like a series of vignettes, a drama, about my neighborhood. And guess what: I made fun of authority figures.

So my mother—in spite what she wanted me to do for her, to be a great reflection on her, go to college and be a businessman—she knew this was something I needed. And she got that for me, and it helped accelerate the beginnings of my putting this dream together that I had. I was 14 when I got that tape recorder. They were the size of a Buick. They were not little handy things. And she was smart enough to get me one. That's an important part of my development.

Can you remember the first joke you ever told?

No. But I do remember the first time I ever made my mother laugh. And unfortunately, it’s lost on me what it was I said. But I noticed the moment, I knew something had happened, this was when I was very young. My mother laughed fairly frequently. But I knew the difference between her social laugh and her really spontaneous laugh when she was caught off guard—which is the key to laugher, being off guard. And I said something to her, and I saw that in her and it registered with me. And it made the point. I wouldn’t have remembered it as well as I do if it hadn’t meant a lot to me. It was a kind of a little mark along the way, a little badge of honor. It meant I had said something witty. I didn’t clown, I wasn’t making a face or standing in a funny angle. I had said something witty. I had probably turned some situation around, exaggerated one element, and made a joke.

I want to talk about the transformation that you did in the 60s when you went from what you once termed the “middle-American comic” to this different persona—it was much more subversive. How did that happen and why did that happen?

I was always swimming against the tide. I was always out of step. Not only did I quit school, but I got kicked out of three schools along the way. I eventually got asked to leave the air force a year early—it wasn’t dishonorable, but it was a general discharge, which is a step down—because I did not shape up, I didn’t like authority, I had three court-martials. I was kicked off the alter boys, I was kicked off the choirboys, I was kicked out of the boy scouts, I was kicked out of summer camp. I never fit and I didn’t like conforming. And sometimes it just broke through the membrane, and I was out.

By the end of the 60s, all of my friends, the musician friends of mine, had gone through a transition in their dress, and especially in their music, and what I noticed was that all of these great artists—Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Joan Baez—all of these people were using their art to express themselves politically and socially. And I was not. I was still doing people-pleasing.

I was 30, and I resonated much more truly with the 20-year-olds. I was more in line with them than I was with these people I was entertaining in nightclubs. I began to notice that. I began to be affected by it, and along the way, the judicious use of some mescaline and some LSD managed to accelerate the process. It gave me more of an insight into how false the world was I was settling for, and to see that there was something much richer and better and more authentic. And those changes happened, they just—they happened naturally and organically. It took about 2 years for the total changeover to occur.

My beard got a little longer, the hair got a little longer, the clothing changed, and then I suddenly found myself being as—the best combination of both, this person I really was who was kind of out of step, antiauthoritarian, who also had these skills and talents that he was honing to express himself. And so I started expressing those feelings.

In what way did the mescaline and LSD give you the insight and the confidence to make this transformation? What role did the drugs play?

Well, It was just passive, I don’t know. See, I had always been a marijuana smoker, a pretty heavy user of marijuana, all these years I’m talking about when I was in this other world of mainstream television, nightclubs. So marijuana is a hallucinogen and it is also a value-changing drug, as are acid and mescaline. They are hallucinogens and they are value-changing drugs. They alter, assist in shifting one’s perspective on the world which usually is informed by your values. And so I had already, my body, my mind, and myself—I already had a kind of a thick layer of this out-of-stepness.

And so I was already across that street. And I just hadn’t, you know, bought a house on that side yet. So, the LSD was a much stronger experience, and the mescaline, and I don’t know what they did or how they did it, I just know that going through that gave me the confidence in these changes I was feeling, in this direction, this metamorphosis, I was in the middle of. I gained confidence in it and I took strength from it, feeling that I was right that I was really on the right path, that I was being true to myself. And that was what counted to me, to be true to myself—my mother had always said that. To thine—Shakespeare—“To thine own self be true.” She loved quoting the classics, and she quoted Emerson or Shakespeare or whoever it was she thought was appropriate for her lesson. And to thine own self be true. And I just—I just had to be who I felt like I was, not who I had led them to believe I was.

So after that transformation, to what extent is the persona that you have on stage—to what extent is it your real personality? I know you’re making jokes and some of that involves exaggeration, but do you feel that you’re acting angrier, more bitter, more caustic on stage? Or are you just being yourself as accurately as possible?

I’ve addressed this before when the question is asked more bluntly: Are you an angry man? What are you angry about; what are you so angry about? I don’t live an angry life, not an angry person. I rarely lose my temper, can’t remember the last time, never had a physical fight in my life, don’t carry grudges, don’t carry resentment either. Very very lucky in those respects. But I feel a very strong alienation and dissatisfaction from my groups.

Abraham Maslow said the fully realized man does not identify with the local group. When I saw that, it rang another bell. I thought: bingo! I do not identify with the local group, I do not feel a part of it. I really have never felt like a participant, I’ve always felt like an observer. Always. I only identified this in retrospect, way after the fact, that I have been on the outside, and I don’t like being on the inside. I don’t like being in their world. I’ve never felt comfortable there; I don’t belong to that. So, when he says the “local group,” I take that as meaning a lot of things: the local social clubs or fraternal orders, or lodges or associations or clubs of any kind, things where you sacrifice your individual identity for the sake of a group, for the sake of the group mind. I’ve always felt different and outside. Now, I also extended that, once again in retrospect, as I examined my feelings.

I don’t really identify with America, I don’t really feel like an American or part of the American experience, and I don’t really feel like a member of the human race, to tell you the truth. I know I am, but I really don’t. All the definitions are there, but I don’t really feel a part of it. I think I have found a detached point of view, an ideal emotional detachment from the American experience and culture and the human experience and culture and human choices.

But even if I am a cynic, they say if you scratch a cynic, you find a disappointed idealist—that’s what’s underneath. That’s the little flicker of flame, has a little life in it, the idealist: I would love to be able to entertain that side of me, but it doesn’t work like that. I don’t see what’s in it yet, I mean I just like it out here.

I’m not an angry person, just very disappointed and contemptuous of my fellow humans’ choices—and on stage those feelings sometimes are exaggerated for a theatric stage—you’re on a stage you have an audience of 2500 or 3000 people: you need to project the feelings, the emotions it’s heightened, and people mistake it for a personal anger but it’s more dissatisfaction, disappointment and contempt for these things we’ve settled for.

So it sounds like it is your true personality, but it’s heightened for the stage.

It is my true personality, but it’s not an angry personality. Anger is a handy term and boy words are tricky, as we know. What one man perceives as anger, another person—in my case the deliverer of material—is, “Don’t you see it, don’t you see how badly you’re doing?” It’s like shaking a child—which you’re not supposed to do.

So let me latch onto that feeling. You’re grabbing somebody and you’re saying, “Don’t you see it?” But if you really don’t care about America, then why are you doing it? Why are you on stage? Is it just because you want to express yourself? Do you hope you can influence people in some way?

You’ve hit on the contradiction, and it’s one I don’t understand the resolution to, if there is one. Sometimes people say, do I try to make audiences think? I say: No no no, because that really would be the kiss of death. But what I want them to know is that I’m thinking. It’s part of that showoff and dropout syndrome. I think I need to show them that I have brought myself to a cleverer, smarter spot than they have. In doing so, “Can’t you see this? can’t you see?” And a lot of them do. I get amazing things said to me. And they’re frequent enough that I know these things are multiplied by those who have never encountered you. One person who says, “You really changed my outlook on things or the way I view X Y or Z,” for everyone who says that to you, there are a thousand, ten thousand who’ll never get to tell you that. There are people who take something away form what I do, and I know that and it pleases me and I am proud of that. And it means the student is a bit of a teacher.

But yeah, of course I care. Of course I care. My daughter has pinned me on that. She says of course you care, can’t you hear it? And I say yeah yeah yeah, but they gotta prove it to me first. Show me you care people and then I’ll let some of it out; right now I just want to scold you a little bit.

So how would you say that you feel towards people? You say on the one hand you are sort of contemptuous but on the other hand you want their approval in some way? Is that not a contradiction?

Yeah, it sounds like it has the makings of a contradiction; I guess by definition it does. I am contemptuous of the mass. That’s the thing I need to explain. One on one with people, I have great capacity and great compassion. I don’t like standing around 20 minutes talking to somebody, but when I see individuals, I see their individual beauty. I’m aware of the potential—and I don’t mean this happened every time I meet someone—but when I see people, I sort of see the potential for the whole species. When you look in their eyes, you can see a hologram of the human species and you kind of know what we could have been. It’s the group behavior that I’m talking about on stage.

Let’s switch gears a little bit and let me ask you about religion. I mean you were talking about it decades ago. Now, atheism and religion bashing have gone mainstream: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. You were way ahead of the curve. What’s it like hearing them saying many of the things you said in the 1970s?

I’ve read some of the books you’ve mentioned and some of the reasons of existence and God and what a bad name religion has given God. I just kind of do this, I just keep moving along. I don’t really judge it… I reserve my evaluations and judgments for the parts that I do, the lines I add. I don’t think about myself in the larger world very much.

Richard Dawkins did use an excerpt of mine for a chapter heading. I noticed that. It’s nice. Not to overdo this thing, but when you’re a dropout and the culture accepts you and begins to quote and they teach some of your stuff in communications class and communications law and I hear this all the time and professors ask to use things in their textbooks, this is kind of my honorary baccalaureate. When these things happen I think good, well, there’s a little thumb on my chest, feather in my cap. I notice those things, and I feel good about what I’ve chosen and how I do it. As Lily Tomlin once said, and I am going to get this wrong so it’s a paraphrase, she said to be considered a success in a mediocre culture doesn’t say a lot for you.

You were central in the Supreme Court case in which justices affirmed the government's right to regulate your “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” act on the public airwaves. How do you think about the role of vulgarity in your humor?

I used to point out that when I was a little boy in the 40s, I was told to look up to and admire solders and sailors, policemen, firemen, and athletes, were objects of childhood hero worship. We all know how they talk. So apparently these words do not corrupt morally. This was the thing I couldn’t put together.

I use the words because I’m from that ethos. I’m from the street in New York, hung around in a tough neighborhood. It was common to curse, you make your point. It’s a very effective language. I try not to overdo it. It’s never to shock. I know where it fits, it’s never to shock. There’s no shock value left in words. Humor is base on surprise, and surprise is a milder way of saying shock. It’s surprise that makes the joke.

What’s the funniest bit you’ve ever heard?

Sometimes jokes have a wonderful logic to them. I’ll give you one that, even to people that don’t mind mild cursing, bothers some people—especially women. Short joke. The wonderful thing about it is the logic of the joke, the ingenuity.

Father and son, little son are out on the back porch, passing the day, father says to son, “Do you have perhaps any questions for me about sex?” And he says, “Well, yeah Dad, what is that hairy area on Mommy?” And the father says, “Well, that’s her vulva.” And the boy says, “Well then what’s a cunt?” And the father says, “That’s rest of Mommy.”

And that joke strikes a nerve, hits a chord—men who’ve been divorced more than twice really like that. It makes beautiful use of that man’s thought. To arrive at that distinction—to take it from the real to the figurative. From cunt as a sexual part to cunt as a term of derision for women, just as men are called assholes by certain women—and they deserve it. It’s funny how we use words. The fact that a mean woman is called a cunt and a mean man is called a prick. I have a long thing I’d like to write someday about language and the way we address each other.

How has your comedy changed over the years?

You know for a guy who didn’t do homework, the thing that’s happened is this: that 6th grade showoff that kid who had to sing a song at meetings, who won the medal at camp for being funniest guy at amateur night 5 years in a row. He didn’t do his homework then. I didn’t do book reports, but now what’s happened is that showoff has a partner who does his homework and the left/right brain are allied, united, now in a way they weren’t. I’m using my organizational ability, and my writing ability which is careful process, informed by art, but still a craft of putting things together, I’ve somehow become more integrated. I do my homework now but I stand up and show off. So I got both, I got the best of both sixth grade worlds.

You asked me to remind you to tell me about Arthur Koestler.

That was another impact. I was doing nightclub comedy down in the Village. I was down there in ’63, ’64, and my friend told me about Arthur Koestler’s book about the act of creation and it had a section on humor.

He was talking about the creative process. There was an illustration on the panel that showed a triptych. On the left panel, there were these names of artistic pursuits. There were poets, painter, composer. And one of them was jester. I was only interested in the jester. What he said about each of these, he said these individuals on the left hand side can transcend the panels of the triptych by creative growth.

The jester makes jokes, he’s funny, he makes fun, he ridicules. But if his ridicules are based on sound ideas and thinking, then he can proceed to the second panel, which is the thinker—he called it the philosopher. The jester becomes the philosopher, and if he does these things with dazzling language that we marvel at, then he becomes a poet too. Then the jester can be a thinking jester who thinks poetically.

I didn’t see that and say, “That’s what I am going to do,” but I guess it made an impression on me. I was never afraid to grow and change. I never was afraid of reversing my field on people, and I just think I’ve become a touch of each of those second and third descriptions and I definitely have a gift for language that is rhythmic and attractive to the ear, and I have interesting imagery which I guess is a poetic touch. And I like the fact that most of my things are based on solid ideas, things I’ve thought about in a new way for me, things for which I have said “Well, what about this? Suppose you look at it this way? How about that?” And then you heighten and exaggerate that, because comedy’s all about heightening and exaggerating. And anyways I guess I was impressed that there was another thing from my early life that probably at least influenced me to some level.

It sounds like you think of yourself much more as a writer than a performer—is that true? How do you think about performing?

It’s my primary delivery system. I used to, in my early years, when I would do an interview I was always proud to tell the writer that I wrote my own material, if they asked me or even if they didn’t. I wanted to be distinguished from the ones who didn’t do that, and I was proud of it, so I would say I am a comedian who writes his own material. And then at some point, I discovered what I really had become was a writer who performs his own material.

This was a really important distinction for me to notice—it happened way after the fact. I’m a writer. I think of myself as a writer. First of all, I’m an entertainer; I’m in the vulgar arts. I travel around talking and saying things and entertaining, but it’s in service of my art and it’s informed by that. So I get to write for two destinations. The writing is what gives me the joy, especially editing myself for the page, and getting something ready to show to the editors, and then to have a first draft and get it back and work to fix it, I love reworking, I love editing, love love love revision, revision, revision, revision.

And computers changed my life, the fact that you can move text as easily as you can move text, and say, “Wait a minute, these two things belong together, these two things go together, page 2 and page 5: similar ideas, put ’em together!” But the person who is most a part of me is the performer, is the standup, the guy who says, “Hey look at me, listen to this!” I do that because that’s what I do, I love doing it.

And I love the feeling I get in my gut when I’m watching on the computer screen that is close to being realized the way I would like it to be. the feeling I get in my gut is “Wait’ll they hear this, wait’ll I tell them this, I can’t wait to tell them!” It’s like the guy on the end of the bench: “Put me in coach, put me in!” They call to me, I can tell which ones are pregnant, which ones need to be moved up to a higher level of readiness, and it’s because I can’t wait to say them, I can’t wait to share them with people.

You know, you get 2500 people, acting as a single organism: the audience is a single organism and it’s you and it. And to have that feeling of mastery up there—it’s an assertion of power: here I am, I have the microphone, you came here for this express purpose. You’re sitting not in tables at nightclubs with waiters and glasses, you’re seated all facing forward in order to enjoy this and here I am, and wait till you hear this! There’s nothing like it in my experience that I could aspire to. It has as much a payoff as writing, which has a big payoff.

So, sitting in front of a computer, “Wait till they hear this, this is great material.” What’s the difference between that and actually standing on stage hearing the audience roaring with laughter?

The difference is, at the computer you can stop, think back, think forward, look around, turn the page as it were, you can see the whole world all at once. On stage you’re only in a single moment ever—your mind can hear what you just said. This is a funny thing that happens for me: when I’m up there doing something I’ve memorized perfectly, and it has pauses in it—and of course the laughs are all the pauses. As you’re going along, you’re thinking of what you’re saying, you want to give it the proper vocal values, so you are kind of thinking about it, not reaching for the words, but kind of thinking about them. You’re also aware of the echo of what you just said, and whether it worked or not, and what that might mean. It’s all part of the trigonometry, I guess. And then there is the faint anticipation of what comes next.

It’s like the feeling of conducting an orchestra. It’s like conducting an orchestra, this group of people who already like you, predisposed to appreciate you, at your service, at you’re command, and you’re just waving the baton and bringing them in, leading them forward and it’s just a nice kind of feeling.

Let me ask you about your influence—how do you feel that you have influenced other comedians?

I hear that from some of them, who say, “I wouldn’t be doing this were it not for you.” I talked to a very prominent name in comedy today who wanted to pay me some kind compliments about the recent HBO show, he hasn’t been able to catch up with me, I won’t mention him, but everybody would know his name. He said also in passing, “You know, I wouldn’t be doing this without you.” There have been people, who, I don’t know, because I came along at a certain time. Richard Pryor and I went through our changes at the same time, he became prominent at the same time. I had this kind of reemergence. I’m sure Richard Pryor would hear those things. I’m sure Woody Allen hears those things. I don’t take them as singular to me. But I know they’re true when I’m told, I realized I could be myself, could talk about this and that and not be afraid; I’m sure all artists hear similar things, especially ones who have lasted a while.

[Note: Jerry Seinfeld has since identified himself as the prominent comedian who spoke to George Carlin just before I did. "I called him to compliment him on his most recent special on HBO," writes Seinfeld in a New York Times op-ed. "Seventy years old and he cranks out another hour of great new stuff. He was in a hotel room in Las Vegas getting ready for his show. He was a monster." —JD]

Do you mentor other comedians?

No. I’m not collegial, I don’t hang out. I’m soloist, I like my solitude, I don’t really hang around with comedians—this person I talked to today, I now have his phone number. I have maybe five phone numbers. I’m not in show business because I don’t have to go to the meetings, I’m just not a part of it, I don’t belong to it. When you “belong” to something. You want to think about that word, “belong.” People should think about that: it means they own you. If you belong to something it owns you, and I just don’t care for that. I like spinning out here like one of those subatomic particles that they can’t quite pin down.

Has your sense of humor helped you in other areas of your life, besides your career as a professional comedian? Meeting people? Making friends? Dealing with loss?

I don’t know about any of those aspects. But I know that the art of not taking things seriously often bleeds over into the self, to not take yourself too seriously. You can tell from my answers that I take what I do very seriously, and I think about it. But I don’t really take myself that seriously.

I know that I’ve accomplished a good deal. I was just nominated for this year’s Mark Twain prize at the Kennedy Center, so these things over the years mean, "Yeah, good job, George.” I don’t take myself very seriously, though, at least I don’t think so. I try to see the reality and not get carried away with the emotion. What’s the reality? What's going on here? What’s the ground floor? What’s the reality? Let’s look at the situation: "So he’s dead, she’s hurt, and you don’t feel good." OK, so let’s figure this out.

I like to say two things in life that mean the most: genetics and luck. When you look at it realistically, genetics is luck too. Because you could have been born in some really terrible situation and never had a chance to realize yourself or see who you were. And so the luck of genetics and then after that, circumstances, those are the two guiding things. Knowing what to do about it, taking advantage of it, that’s fine, that's good, good for you. But still, those two elements mean everything.

My arm is getting tired here. The crook of my arm.

I guess I'm pretty much done. We've been talking for a long time and I really appreciate your taking all this time. Was there a good question you thought people should ask that never got asked?

No, because you covered some of the ones, as they came along. As I looked at the list yesterday, I thought the list gave me an opportunity for several places where I want, need to be heard—such as the anger thing, development, and the changes I went through in the late 60s. They were all in there so I feel good.

So the last question is: What are you working on now?

I have a piece of material that I’m doing on stage these days. I'm in Las Vegas now. I do weekends here, I do four nights on weekends as part of my year of touring. I go mostly to concert halls and theaters, around 80 or 90 of 'em a year. But I come down here around three or four. So I’m down here. This piece of material called, “There’s Too Much Fucking Music,” which is my way of looking at… how much music there is, I guess. It’s just my way of looking at the world and saying something that people don’t notice and figuring out a new way. And it’s filled with exaggeration and stuff. I'm doing that on stage a little bit. I’m not giving myself any pressure.

The lady in my life Sally Wade and I are waiting for our house to be finished remodeling. We’re in temporary quarters. It's kind of onerous. We’re lucky we found a place right down the street but the price we pay for being right down the street is that it’s not really suitable in terms of space and structure for our needs. So we’re really in combat duty. It’s been a tough time. Not so tough you can’t work it out, you know, but just enough so it’s broken some of my work habits. And I’m enjoying my break from them and I know where I have to go on the next book, I have a book that I'm going to start organizing the files, reorganizing, renaming, reclassifying, putting things together, taking things apart. And there’ll be another HBO show as these pieces on stage begin to take form.