You've said that discovering silence changed you into something more than a comedian.
Q: You’ve said that discovering silence changed you into something more than a comedian.
A: Right. That was in 1992. I developed a piece of material, actually there were a couple of things. One of them was golf courses for the homeless, which was an all-out frontal assault on golf and its players and the theory behind it and its originators and the people who support it. And the second thing was called “The planet is fine, the people are (expletive),” which was an attack on environmentalists, which I still hold to be a fair argument that I made. I noticed that in the doing of these pieces there were long stretches where there were no laughs. Now a comedian is sort of raised on the idea that getting a laugh is a lifeline every 20, 30 seconds, whatever, depending on your style. Regularly you have to get a laugh to feel like you’re succeeding, and in order for other people to view you as succeeding. What I discovered was there was more to it than that. And I discovered that as long as you are engaging their imaginations, engaging their minds, and taking them somewhere with your words, entertaining with merely your words and the way you put your ideas together. There’s a jester, there’s a philosopher and there’s a poet. Ideally — now we’re talking about ideally — in this role those three should exist side by side. Sometimes it’s the laughter that gets you through. Sometimes it’s the idea that’s strong enough to support what you’re delivering. The third thing is the marvelous language, if you can be — not quite really poetic, but that stands for marvelous language and being able to entertain with just the dazzling language. So when those three things are in sync and working well, you’re safe. And that’s what I found out, in long periods of silence I was safe.
Q: What’s your take on your “Tonight Show” appearance with Ann Coulter last year? A lot of people tuned in expecting you to eviscerate her, especially after seeing you on Bill Maher’s show in full combat mode.
A: Well the thing I pointed out to people who mentioned that to me was there is a place for everything, a time and a place. The Bill Maher show is a place where the language is completely uncensored and where you can have the floor at least for a while. The problem with getting on a “Tonight Show” panel when it’s somebody else’s spot — I mean my spot was already over — so she comes out and — First of all it’s not my place to bring that to Jay Leno’s show if he hasn’t asked me to, and he didn’t. They just expected that there’d be some comment and I think I said something about I never thought I’d be sitting next to — I forget how I said it. Anyway, the point I want to make is, those people, the AC’s of the world, the right-wing zealots, they are verbal bullies and they don’t let you up for air. You can’t respond to a person who speaks in sound bites and win a sound-bite war. And they will not allow you to examine ideas closely enough for the give and take of ideas — well maybe this, maybe that, a little of this, I’ll concede that, will you concede this? That’s not in there. Discussion is not part of it. It’s all-out fierce debate. So that’s not my place to engage her in an inappropriate setting. If I have a chance sometime otherwise, I might try, but she’s better on that than I am, because she’s used to this arsenal of one-liners and two and three and four-liners, and these vivid images she has that are exaggerated versions of reality. Where I would tend to want bring the thing back down to earth and I’d be at a distinct disadvantage.
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Q: How do you work?
A: I have files. I have about 2,300 files in my computer, and they’re all full of observations, thoughts, notions, ideas, one line, two lines, some of them partially developed, some of them several paragraphs, some of them almost fully developed. Most everything would need additional work before it can come out of the file and get onto a stage. But it’s kind of like a vault of notions — things I said before — and thoughts on various subjects that interest me, which are usually the larger subjects. I’m interested in politics as a partisan game because it’s entertainment. It’s great sport. It’s blood sport to them and it’s high theater. But I’m not interested in the day-to-day events for my commentary. My commentary’s usually from a longer perspective. This is all temporal bull(expletive) that’s going on. Nobody stops to think of that. It’s over in the blink of an eye. And someday I wish I could pull back in a long historical view and see the rise of China, the rise of the new Russia, see the Muslimization of Europe, the decline of the white race on this planet. I just wish I could see these things, because this is the reality that’s happening. I don’t get stuck in the minute day to day things. I have no emotional investment in what happens here.
Q: About your material, you’ve said, “I need to hear somebody say this and I think I’ll be the one.” Do you think comedians like you, Lewis Black and Jon Stewart are telling it more like it is than the news media?
A: Well, the path that we set for ourselves is to expose and unmask and reveal the horse(expletive), the hypocrisy. The news media’s role for the most part is to help conceal it, because they’re kind of the handmaidens of the structure itself. They’re really just tools of the system. People talk about the media being liberal. Well, perhaps the working media, historically has been more liberal — the guys who gather the facts and supposedly write them. But newspapers and magazines, television and radio, they’re all parts of huge corporate conglomerates and they all have an ax to grind for that agenda. So I would say by definition of what we do and what they do, there is a contrast and we come out, I think, in a more positive light.
Q: You’ve accomplished so much that you could probably be fed peeled grapes for the rest of your life. What drives you to keep performing?
A: Well, the reference I made to being at least part artist is important to notice. As I say, artists are never finished, they’re never satisfied. The great cellist Pablo Cassal, from the last century, he was a past master of his instrument, he was the virtuoso of the cello. In his 90s he still appeared at the occasional recital. But more to the point, he practiced every day for three hours. And someone close to him asked him one time, “Maestro, at your advanced age, you’re already a past master of this instrument, you’re 93 or 94, why do you practice three hours a day?” And he says, “Well, I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” So it’s something that once I heard that I knew that it rang true for me, because I like seeing the stuff get better, for me.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org