Skip to main content

George Carlin's Iconic Look at 'Life'

The comic whose Beyond the "Seven Dirty Words" routine that sparked a famous obscenity case in the 1970s, George Carlin has been an icon of American humor for decades. Now he has a new HBO special, Life is Worth Living — a parody on life, death and suicide. The show, Carlin's 13th HBO special, will air on Nov. 5.


Other segments from the episode on October 21, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 21, 2005: Interview with George Carlin; Interview with Steve Martin.


DATE October 21, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Comic and actor George Carlin

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is comic and actor George Carlin. He has a new HBO comedy special
that debuts November 5th. Carlin's best-selling book, "When Will Jesus Bring
the Pork Chops?," has just come out in paperback. The book takes aim at two
of Carlin's favorite targets, euphemistic language and political correctness.
Carlin's most famous comedy monologue has become known as `seven words you can
never say on television.'

In 1973 the Pacifica radio station in New York, WBAI, played this monologue
without bleeping those seven words. After a complaint was filed, the FCC put
WBAI on notice, threatening possible sanctions against the station if
subsequent complaints were received. WBAI appealed the decision. The case
eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the FCC, and
enabled the FCC to regulate the broadcast of indecent content.

The decision became particularly relevant when the FCC tightened standards
following Janet Jackson's `wardrobe malfunction.' Here's a 1972 recording of
Carlin's monologue. We have, of course, bleeped the words that made this
routine famous.

(Excerpt from Carlin monologue)

Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Comic/Actor): There are 400,000 words in the English
language, and there are seven of them you can't say on television. What a
ratio that is. Three hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and
ninety-three to seven. They must really be bad. They'd have to be outrageous
to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven, bad
words. That's what they told us they were, remember? `That's a bad word.'

No bad words. Bad thoughts, bad intentions and words. You know the seven,
don't you, that you can't say on television? (Expletives deleted)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CARLIN: Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect
your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.

GROSS: George Carlin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. CARLIN: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Can you talk about what led to this routine, like what you were
thinking about, how you wrote it?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, what happened was I'd always held these attitudes, I've
always been sort of anti-authoritarian and I really don't like arbitrary rules
and regulations that are essentially designed to get people in the habit of
conforming. And I have always taken great joy in looking more closely at

On these other things, we get into the field of hypocrisy, where you really
cannot pin down what these rules they want to enforce are. It's just
impossible to say, `This is a blanket rule.' You'll see some newspapers print
F-blank-blank-K. Some print F-asterisk-asterisk-K. Some put `expletive
deleted.' So there's no real consistent standard. It's not a science. And
it's superstitious. These words have no power. We give them this power.
It's the rest of the sentence that makes them either good or bad.

GROSS: In your 1972 recording, you talk about how it's perfectly OK to say,
`Don't prick your finger,' but you can't say, `Don't finger your blank.'

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah, you can't reverse the two.

GROSS: You can't reverse the two words. So comics work with the power of
words. And, in a way, the fact that certain words are supposed to be taboo,
as you point out, that gives them power.

Mr. CARLIN: Yes. That's right.

GROSS: And that makes those words more powerful for you when you want to use
them. So do you feel like you've been able to work with the taboo nature of
certain words and, you know, make that work in your favor?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, what...

GROSS: Like in that classic routine?

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah. That is an interestingly disguised way--and I don't mean
you were trying to deceive me or anything--but it's a disguised way of saying,
`Well, don't some people just use these for shock value?' You get this phrase
all the time from interviewers, `shock value.' Well, shock is a kind of a
heightened form of surprise, and surprise is at the heart of comedy. So if
you're using the word in a way to heighten the impact of the sentence or
season the stew, they are, after all, great seasonings. There are sentences
that, without the use of `hell' or `damn' even, lose all their impact.

So they have a proper place in language. And in my case, I just like them
because they are real and they do have impact. They do make a difference in a
sentence. But if you're using them for their own sake, that's probably kind
of weak.

GROSS: Did you ever expect that that comedy routine would be actually played
on the radio, that it would be part of a case that made it all the way to the
Supreme Court and that it would become as important and famous a case as it

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I knew that it wasn't out of the question that it may be
played on the radio. FM radio stations at that time--and there were
commercial ones who qualified as what was called underground radio. And an
awful lot of liberties were taken with music, too, music that had very--I
don't--God, I hate the words `explicit' and `graphic' but those are the words
that would be used by someone to describe those kinds of songs, those lyrics.

I knew there was a chance, but, of course, you know, no one ever sees other
things coming that are unexpected and larger, you know. I just knew that I
had done a piece that summed up my position very well and sort of had a
nice--it had a wonderfully rhythmic--the reading of those seven words, the way
they were placed together had a magnificent kind of a jazz feeling, a rhythm
that was just very natural and satisfying, the way those syllables were placed
together. And so I knew I had done something that was making an important
point about the hypocrisy of all of this.

GROSS: Were you at the Supreme Court when the case was being argued?

Mr. CARLIN: No. No, I was an interested bystander. It wasn't my case. It
generated a certain amount of attention for me which, I guess, a performer
never walks away from, but I decided very early not to try to either exploit
the incident and the episode or to walk away from it and disavow it. I just
let it be as it was happening and let the results of it land wherever they


GROSS: Does this surprise you still when you hear, say, the language that's
used on "The Sopranos" or other HBO shows? You know, that it--you know,
because it's the language that you could never say on broadcasting...

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...and that you still can't say on broadcasting, you can say on cable
and now you can say it on satellite radio, which is where...

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Howard Stern is moving, where "Opie & Anthony" have already moved.
So I mean, there are two different sets of standards, but does it surprise you
to hear language coming from your television like that?

The interesting thing about it for me is this is how people talk, not
everyone, of course, but a significant number of people use these words all
the time. And when I was a little boy, I was told to look up to--because it
was just--there was the Second World War; I was born in 1937. I was taught to
look up to soldiers and sailors--that's the only words you really used for the
armed forces--soldiers and sailors, policemen, of course, and athletes. That
was to develop a little more later. But these are the people you should model
yourself after. These are the paragons of American value and virtue.

Well, we all know how they talk. We all know how those three groups talk, the
military, the athletes and the police. And that--to hear police shows all
these years and war movies all these years without the sort of language they
were using immediately branded them as inauthentic to me. I could get past it
and suspend my disbelief from time to time with compelling writing or scenes
or something, but largely I thought, `That's not what he would say. That's
not what he would la--I think he would say it like this.' So it's just
inauthentic. It's a counterfeit representation of real life that these
commercial and religious interests impose or try to impose on people.

GROSS: Do you remember how you were first exposed to four-letter words and
what your reaction was when you first were?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I was--I grew up in part of New York City that's a very
interesting neighborhood. I lived--literally my front door was across the
street--and I mean literally in its real sense here--literally across the
street from Teachers College of Columbia University. And all around me to the
south I had Columbia University Teachers College, Barnard College; Juilliard
School of Music was around the corner, the original location. Riverside
Church, the 23-story interdenominational cathedral, the Gothic cathedral, was
at the end of my street; Union Theological Seminary, the largest seminary in
the world, and around the corner The Jewish Theological Seminary, the largest
Jewish seminary in the world. St. John the Divine was nearby, and Grant's
Tomb. So it was highly institutional neighborhood full of learning and
serious people.

Immediately to the north down the hill we had the beginnings of Harlem. We
called our section White Harlem because we thought it sounded tough. There
were cross-pollination between these two groups. I lived very close by
Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans on the one hand, and blacks on the other.
And when you're in those neighborhoods at the border, betw--my arts was a
little Irish enclave, just a little wedge-shaped Irish enclave in the middle
of all that, highly populated because we were quite fertile folks. Lot of
kids, lot of kids on the street. And when you live near the border between
all-black and all-white, you don't have the attitudes that the people who are
insulated and isolated in the center of those areas have. Those are people
who are not in contact day to day to day with the opposite. But we did have
contact all the time, and when you're on the border between two cultures, you
sort of learn to live together. You have a common code of the streets, in
this case. And so I heard my language from the realistic people in the
neighborhood, my big brother, for one. But that's where I got a realistic
feeling and look at the world.

GROSS: Did language get you into trouble as a kid?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I--because I liked language--as I was saying, my
grandfather wrote out all of the works of Shakespeare in his adult life
longhand because of the joy it gave him--those were his words. But I then
started collecting exotic combinations of curses that I heard in my
neighborhood. I was probably 13 or 14 at the time. And there were guys who
would put together a sentence in the heat of anger or in some ornate,
descriptive passage in something they were describing, and they would have an
adjective or two, self-hyphenated. They would have made up a form and tacked
it onto some noun that it didn't really go with, and the rest of the sentence
might have been some colorful verb that was, again, very inventive street
language. And some of them were very colorful and exotic and different. They
weren't just flat-out curses.

So I heard these and then I started writing them down. In another situation
where I could tell you what they were, you'd understand a little better even
what I mean. But I wrote them down and I had a little list of them--I had
about 10 or 12 of them. There are a few I can still remember. But I've had
that in my wallet, and my mother was a snoop and discovered things I had
stolen that way and confronted me with them. But in this case, looking in my
wallet, she found this list. And I heard her--I came in one night and I
opened the door very slightly in the apartment on the second floor, and I
heard her talking to my Uncle John(ph), and she was worried about me anyway
because I was kind of a--I was getting to be a loose cannon kind of an
adolescent, and I heard her saying, `I think he may need a psychiatrist, John.
I think we may have to get a child psychiatrist for him,' because she was
telling him these words and showing him this list. So yeah, they got me in
trouble that way, but at least it was a creative effort.

GROSS: Although your mother was appalled finding this list...

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of street words in your wallet, you earlier credited your mother
with having...

Mr. CARLIN: Oh, yes, she was...

GROSS: ...a love of language and helping to instill it in you.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: How did her love of language express itself?

Mr. CARLIN: She was wonderful, and she was my hero. She brought up two boys
in the Second World War on an advertising job she had, and had no father
present in the home, and she stimulated that thing in me about language--she
would send me to the dictionary. I mean, that was pro forma in a lot of
families--I know that's what you do. But she would say, `Get the dictionary.'
I asked her once what `peruse' meant. I said, `Ma, what's "peruse"?' She
said, `Well, get the dictionary in here. Let's get the dictionary.' So I'd
look it up and she'd have me use it in a sentence of my own, and we'd talk
about the root or the origin of it and which definition was more useful and
current and so forth. And so the next day when I gave her her newspaper in
the evening--it wasn't a nightly custom, but sometimes I went and bought her a
newspaper when she'd come home from work--I brought it in her bedroom and gave
her the newspaper and I said, `Here, Ma,' I said, `Would you like to peruse
this?' And she said, `Well, maybe I'll give a cursory glance.' And it was
right back to the dictionary.

GROSS: My guest is comic George Carlin. His best-selling, "When Will Jesus
Bring the Pork Chops" has just come out in paperback, and his 13th HBO
comedy special debuts November 5th. Our interview was recorded last November.

This is FRESH AIR.

Whew! Well, we got through that interview without saying anything that would
get us into trouble with the FCC, but it's great to talk with people like
George Carlin who provoke you and get you thinking while they get you

(Fund raiser)

GROSS: let's get back to our interview with comic George Carlin.

Now I know you made it onto radio before you became...

Mr. CARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...famous as a comic. What was your radio persona?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I was on a--the first job I had was in a
place--Shreveport, Louisiana, which sounds like kind of an easily ignored
place, but it had nine stations. It was a hot radio market, as they said, and
we were number one. I had a 52 share. So it was Top 40, but it wasn't as
rigid as Top 40 became. It wasn't as--it didn't sound, you know, like a
robot--time, temperature and the label and the name of the artist. You could
be a little bit of a personality, too. So we played Top 40, and I was, you
know, a very--I was only 18. It was great to be playing the very music that I
was dancing to at night. I mean, it was nice to go over to a girl in a
situation like at a bar or something and say, `Would you like me to play a
song on the radio for you tomorrow and dedicate it to you?'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CARLIN: It was a little underhanded, but it sure worked a lot.

GROSS: Works like a charm.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And would you talk your way through the instrumental up to the vocal
of the record?

Mr. CARLIN: Some of the time, sure. Yeah, you use--you know, the first
eight bars or 16 bars or whatever the instrumental intro was, you bring it up
first for about three or four seconds, then you bring it down. You say, `OK,
the new Connie Francis just came in.' And I'm exaggerating my disc jockey
voice. `And here at 15 minutes past 5 on "The George Carlin Show" on KJEL,
we're going to listen to this brand-new one,' and then (makes sound) up with
the vocal, you know?

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CARLIN: I loved running a tight board. We ran our own boards, and I
loved it. I was so proud of tight cues and segues that were tight, you know.
It was just a point of pride.

GROSS: Who were the first comics that you heard where you thought, `They
nailed it. This is what life is about'? Like, they just described life.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah. Of course, comedy changed in the 1950s when the
individuals emerged, and nobody was all the same anymore. It used to be very
sane, very safe and very same. And then Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Nichols & May
and a lot of other people in the improv groups and some underground press and
so forth took hold of comedy and changed it. And so it was that crop in the
'50s--I was then approaching my 20th birthday. And Lenny Bruce was, of
course, the most--the one who inspired me the most because I saw for the very
first time utter and complete honesty on a stage. And it really did help me
later to decide to be myself.

GROSS: How much do you think your comedy has changed from when you first
started doing stand-up?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I began in 1960. I went through about eight or nine years
of what essentially were the extended 1950s, sort of a button-down period.
But that was when the country was changing. I was 30 in 1957. The people I
was entertaining were in their 40s, and they were the parents of the people
who were 20, 18, in college, beginning to change the nature of our society to
a great extent. So I sided more with them because I was anti-authority, and I
just let myself revert to my deferred adolescence and be one of them in terms
of my work rather than these people I really disliked, who I was entertaining,
these 40-year-old-plus people.

GROSS: Were you performing to older audiences because those were the people
who could buy the tickets in the places that you were performing?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, no, not strictly speaking. I had always been this
lawbreaker, outlaw-type kid and adolescent and Air Force guy, as you pointed
out; never stuck by the rules, always swimming against the tide. But I had a
mainstream dream, and my dream was to be like Danny Kaye in the movies...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CARLIN: ...or to be like Bob Hope in the movies. So I never put those
two things together. I never saw that they didn't go together. And I
followed this other dream in the way that you did because the only way you
could do it was to please people with mainstream, safe comedy kits, what the
period demanded and got. So I did that until the two became--it became an
untenable situation. I could no longer be myself inside and serve these other
things. And when I saw the mix, when I saw the mistake, I went about
correcting it in a slow and orderly manner. It took about two or three years
for my changes, as it were, to take place.

GROSS: Well, George Carlin, I'd like to ask you to end our interview by
reading the final piece in your new book.

Mr. CARLIN: Oh, sure. OK.

GROSS: And the book is called "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" And
this piece is called "The Secret News."(ph)

Mr. CARLIN: I have a big file called News, and it has a lot of odd news
formats. And one of them was this one called "The Secret News." And this was
actually written and designed to be on an album, maybe, a studio-type album,
where you could use sound effects and you were simulating actual broadcasting.
But it works this way, too. It's called "The Secret News," and we hear a news
ticker sound effect.

(Soundbite of Carlin making news ticker effect)

Mr. CARLIN: And the announcer whispering, saying, `Good evening, ladies and
gentlemen. It's time for "The Secret News." And the news ticker gets louder,
and he goes, `Shhh.' And the ticker lowers. `Here's the secret news. All
people are afraid. No one knows what they're doing. Everything is getting
worse. Some people deserve to die. Your money is worthless. No one is
properly dressed. At least one of your children will disappoint you. The
system is rigged. Your house will never be completely clean. All teachers
are incompetent. There are people who really dislike you. Nothing is as good
as it seems. Things don't last. No one is paying attention. The country is
dying. God doesn't care. Shhh.'

GROSS: George Carlin, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CARLIN: Sure. Thank you. I always appreciate--I'm not flattering
here--an intelligent interview, and I thank you for that.

GROSS: George Carlin's new book, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?", has
just come out in paperback. His 13th HBO comedy special debuts November 5th.
Our interview was recorded last November.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Steve Martin on his new book "The Pleasure of My

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is the great actor and comic Steve Martin, the star of such films as
"The Jerk," "All of Me," "Roxanne," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Parenthood,"
"LA Story," "Father of the Bride," "The Spanish Prisoner," "Bowfinger" and
"Bringing Down the House." Steve Martin has also established himself as a
novelist. He's just adapted his best-selling novel, "Shopgirl," into a film.
He's one of the producers, he wrote the screenplay and stars in it. Claire
Danes plays a young woman who's recently moved to LA where she's quite lonely.
She works at Saks at a counter selling elegant gloves for eveningwear, and
that's where she meets an older, wealthy and elegant man played by Steve

(Excerpt of "Shopgirl")

Ms. CLAIRE DANES: (As Mirabelle) Who are you?

Mr. STEVE MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Good point. I'm Ray Porter. Hi. How
are you? I know you can't be seen chatting up customers, so why do you just
meet me Friday for dinner at 8:00? You don't even have to give me your phone
number. You just show up, and if you don't, I'll just eat alone.

GROSS: I spoke with Steve Martin in 2003.

As an actor, particularly early in your career, your persona was usually very
extroverted. As a writer, like, your two novels are about really introverted
characters, and I think that's an interesting contrast.

Mr. MARTIN: Right. Well, I think actually that without, you know, being too
boring, analyzing my sort of stage act, that character--he was a bit crazy. I
was, on stage, very similar to this character. Really, it's like, on stage, I
was really just expressing a perverse thought on the way the world worked.
And I remember this one bit I did was--oh, I was so mad at my mother--I used
to scream it, of course--because she wanted to borrow $10 for some food. And
you know, there's just some kind of link here between this character, who just
sees things in the odd, odd way.

GROSS: All writers talk about, you know, facing the blank page and so on, but
it really is true that the difference between being an actor and being on the
set and being--you know, working with other people is so different than
staying at home and writing.

Mr. MARTIN: Right. You bet.

GROSS: Do you like that? Do you like that more isolated process of writing?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, they complement each other so well, because,
like you say, movies are active and social, physical, and writing is solitary
and personal. And I never wanted to be an actor who sat home and waited for
scripts to come through the door. I mean, that would drive me insane, waiting
and hoping. And so I always wrote. I always did comedy, and I just like the
activity of it, you know. I just find that when I'm idle, which I always
enjoy, I always find that something comes up. Something pops up, so I'll get
out the computer and start typing.

GROSS: You know, I think it's hard when you're so accomplished at something
to try something that you're new to, as you were new to writing novels.

Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: And, you know, when you're at the top of your profession in one thing
and then you're brand-new to something else, you can fail. You can be flawed,
and you can be very insecure. You have no track record. So did starting to
write bring out insecurities that you weren't used to? Because...

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yes, absolutely. But there's a trick when you first start
writing, is that...

GROSS: Teach it to me, please.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you don't have to show it to anybody.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MARTIN: When you're sitting there alone, and you haven't, you know, made
a deal with somebody to deliver a book, you're really on your own. And it's
like putting your toe in the water. You can have written something, and you
give it to a friend, or you ask someone's opinion. So you always fool
yourself, because--you know, the reason I say you fool yourself, ultimately,
you do want it to be out there, but you fool yourself by saying, `It doesn't
matter. It can be lousy. No one will ever see it if it's lousy.' And, of
course, they do see it, and sometimes it's lousy.

GROSS: So you would agree that self-delusion is an important part of

Mr. MARTIN: Very, very important. I really do. I think it is. Like, I
remember the first night I previewed my play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," I
had never written a play. I'd written screenplays. But I was in Melbourne,
Australia, and now it's 10 minutes before curtain, and all I could think is,
`What have I done?' I didn't know if there was going to be a laugh, you know,
anything. It could have been so humiliating. But then only, you know, 40
people would have seen it, and I could have gone home with my tail between my
legs. But I just want to add that I really don't have a tail. It's just a
figure of speech.

GROSS: Do you write many drafts before publishing?

Mr. MARTIN: What I do is I write without inhibiting myself, and then I
will--draft is not quite the right word in my head. I go through, and I start
editing. I start reading it, and I start reading it over and over and over,
which can get very tiresome, so sometimes I'll put it down for three months,
come back, read it again. Then I'll read it aloud to myself. And then I'll
read it to my dog. And I find that reading it makes you catch every word.
And to me, every word is important, because I'm a reader who gets bored
quickly, so I need to have these sentences on the move and be interesting all
the time. So I try to catch everything.

GROSS: Is your dog helpful when you're reading to him?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, he's my audience. I'm not looking for his response.

GROSS: You just need somebody to read to?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you feel an obligation to be funny when you started writing,
'cause that's what people expect of you?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, no, because the first book, "Shopgirl," although it has
funny moments, I wouldn't call it a funny book.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MARTIN: But in "Pleasure of My Company," I actually wanted the book to
be funny, and I knew that I had a character who could be funny. And whenever
I start even a New Yorker essay, I have the idea, I think, `OK, what is the
potential of this?' I have no idea what the individual bits will be or
moments or anything, but does it seem rich or does it seem I'm going to run
out of steam in a couple of paragraphs? And I felt with this character, he
could really keep going. And it's a cliche to talk about the discovery of
character as you keep writing, but I found that my mind retains little details
of things I've written 40 or 50 pages ago. And so something that you wrote
that was very, very casual, a little aside, a little something he did comes
back at a certain moment, and it becomes big, because now this tiny little
thing impacts something else. And it's like weaving a web or weaving
something else, a caftan--I don't know--which I'm weaving. But that's what I
really like, is where the details start to add up.

GROSS: Well, you know, you've had your success in the book world and the film
world, and you've been on the best-seller lists, and you're probably the only
person to have hosted both the Academy Awards and the National Book Awards?

Mr. MARTIN: I guess I am.

GROSS: Yeah, I think so.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. I'll have to stop any Oscar hosts from hosting the
National Book Awards, so I can keep my uniqueness.

GROSS: So, I mean, I think that would probably give you a good seat as to
some of the differences between the two worlds, the film world and the book

Mr. MARTIN: Well, the differences--you know, the book world is much, much
slower than the film world. I mean, the film world is so oriented to
promotion and getting the word out in certain ways, getting the word out in
very vibrant ways and very specific soundbite ways. And, for example, I mean,
here I am talking to you for 40 minutes about my book. This would never
happen about a film, I mean, in terms of the way a film is generally promoted.
But it's the way books are promoted. They're talked about in depth, in much
slower, slower ways.

GROSS: Well, and the numbers are so much smaller, too, aren't they?

Mr. MARTIN: Right, right.

GROSS: Like a best-selling book probably doesn't come close to the ticket
sales of a mediocre-selling movie.

Mr. MARTIN: Probably, yeah. But you know what I found is that when I started
writing for The New Yorker, I noticed I got more reaction from one essay--and
I'm talking about actual reaction that I could feel--I mean, people saying
things--than I did for movies. Like entire movies that cost millions and
millions of dollars to come out, and I would hear, you know, very little, or
somebody would say, `Nice movie,' or something. But these essays, they
started to--I guess because they're so intimate with the reader, they're so
intimately involved, that it stays with them longer. You know, a movie,
sometimes I walk out, I've forgotten it, you know, as I'm exiting the lobby.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Martin. The new movie "Shopgirl" is based on his
best-selling novel. He wrote the screenplay and stars in it. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Steve Martin. He stars with Claire Danes in the new movie
"Shopgirl." It's based on his best-selling novel of the same name. He wrote
the screenplay.

Well, I'd like to mention an essay of yours that I particularly liked, and it
was a personal essay about your late father.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, it was about how he had wanted to act and had done some
amateur acting when he was young, and how you had, you know, kind of rocky
relationship. And one of the things you talk about is how you decided to take
your parents out to lunches every Sunday so that you could get to know them
better, and you realized that they were bickering all the time when you took
them out to lunch, so you really weren't getting anywheres.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, yeah, they were contra--right.

GROSS: And then you...

Mr. MARTIN: They were contradicting each other, so I decided with them to
take them out alone each, you know, one at a time.

GROSS: And that worked.

Mr. MARTIN: And without the other person there, I could get stories and, you
know, anecdotes and opinions and attitudes that I never would have gotten if
they'd been there together.

GROSS: I thought that was so smart to think of that. And then you also wrote
about how your father, when he was basically on his deathbed, said to you,
`You did everything I wanted to do.'

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

GROSS: I thought, wow, that's--what a zinger for...

Mr. MARTIN: Well, it's quite a moment, really.

GROSS: Yeah. Did you ask yourself whether he would think it was OK to say
that, you know, to write that? I guess one of the questions I'm asking is, do
you think the standard does or should change when someone that's no longer
with us--about what's too private to say about them? You know what I mean?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I did not feel that that was too personal. I was very
particular about what I said. In fact, I ran the essay by my sister to get
her opinions on anything that might be too personal. But I didn't feel that
it was too personal because he was really demonstrating kindness there at that

GROSS: Because he'd been so critical comparatively in the past of you.

Mr. MARTIN: Right. Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: Right. You haven't written a lot of personal stuff. Most of your
writing is fiction or humor. And there's something that you wrote in an essay
in The New York Times that really meant a lot to me. I mean, I wrote it down
and stuck it in my computer so I could refer to it. I've mentioned it in a
talk. And this was in the context of talking about why you decided to have a
show of art from your art collection, something you used to be very private
about. And you said, `Being a celebrity can cause an accidental cheapening of
the things one holds dear. A slip of the tongue in an interview and it's easy
for me to feel I've sold out some private part of my life in exchange for
publicity.' I really thought that was so well-put, and I'm in the position,
you know, of asking the questions usually. And I know that that's always a
possibility--Do you know what I mean?...

Mr. MARTIN: Well...

GROSS: ...that both the interviewer and the interviewee risk cheapening
things. At the same time, I mean, I don't want that to happen; that's, like,
the unintentional occasional result. But, you know, I think you try on both
ends to be really sensitive to that, but I thought you just put it so well.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think, you know, the problem with, you know, being
interviewed as a celebrity is that, for example, you and I are talking now,
we're talking on NPR, and it's a very special circumstance; it's much more
detailed. It can be way more personal than, say, I would be on "Entertainment
Tonight." But--and so I'm willing, much more willing to talk about private
things in this circumstance. But what happens is this I might pay for three
years from now in an interview with "Entertainment Tonight" because they will
bring up maybe something I've said that's personal. Now actually that's kind
of diminished because, you know, I'm at a nice stage in my career where, you
know, I can get around and there's no sort of, you know, crazy invasion of
privacy or--and I also learned to keep relationships to myself because I've
realized that that kind of--I mean, I realized this a long time ago--that kind
of focus on your personal life actually damages it.

GROSS: You know, at the same time, I'm sure when you're doing an interview,
even if you just see it as a promotional interview, you want to be as
interesting as possible. So then again, there's the kind of trade-off
between, well, this'll make it more interesting; on the other hand, it's
personal, I'd just as soon not talk about it. So does that equation play out
in your mind?

Mr. MARTIN: No, it doesn't. It doesn't, because there's almost no way for me
to make an interview about a movie interesting. I've realized that. You
know, I've listened to Howard Stern, and he always plays celebrities'
interviews, and we all just sound ridiculous, you know. You know, and I know
that as I'm giving these interviews, I am that person that will be mocked
because there's just--you know, it's just not ultimately that interesting, you
know. So you have to kind of make up things. And you know, it's just a funny
business. It's like the worst day of your life, you know, when you have to go
talk about the movie you've made, especially if it's a...

GROSS: You're making me feel terrible.

Mr. MARTIN: Pardon me?

GROSS: You're making me feel terrible, 'cause...

Mr. MARTIN: No, no, it's not you. I'm talking about the soundbite industry.

GROSS: Do you get obsessive about things where you really--once you get into
it, you're into it?

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. But I think that's--there's other terms for that.

GROSS: Devoted.

Mr. MARTIN: Well--yeah, well, I remember an article in The New York Times
years ago called In the Zone(ph), and it talked about, for example, when a
basketball player is hot and he's just sinking these, you know, baskets one
after another. And they talked about people who are in the zone losing
consciousness of time. And that--or if you're--I mean, we've probably all
been stuck with a computer problem, and you've looked and suddenly four hours
have gone by while you're trying to solve it. And that to me is what writing
is. It just is so absorbing that time goes by; time goes by quickly, or it

GROSS: Yeah, but the problem is with writing, if time goes by quickly and you
don't like what you've written in that time, you feel like you've lost
something. Maybe that doesn't happen to you.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, I don't write unless I'm ready. So usually I
find if you're in the zone, you usually like what you've written. And if I'm
not in the zone, I generally don't write.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MARTIN: I will edit at that point using what we call the monkey mind.

GROSS: What do you mean?

Mr. MARTIN: Somebody gave that to me years ago. It was like the monkey mind
was the--you know, there was your creative mind and then there was your monkey
mind, and your monkey mind was really consciousness. You know, and the monkey
mind should do the editing; it's the one that's not original; it's the one
that's imitative. And that's just a, you know, term for doing the slave work
of writing, when you're organizing...

GROSS: Boy, the editor community is going to be very angry at that

Mr. MARTIN: No, no. No, I rely heavily on editors. I really need response.

GROSS: Steve Martin stars in the new film "Shopgirl," which is based on his
best-selling novel of the same name. He wrote the screenplay. This is FRESH


GROSS: My guest is Steve Martin. He starred in many films, including the
1998 David Mamet movie "The Spanish Prisoner." Here's a scene from it.
Martin plays Jimmy Dell, an apparently charming and wealthy man who befriends
Joe Ross, played by Campbell Scott. Here Jimmy is giving Joe business advice.

(Soundbite of "The Spanish Prisoner")

Mr. MARTIN: (As Jimmy Dell) You know what the man said about verbal
agreements; they're not worth the paper they're printed on.

Mr. CAMPBELL SCOTT (As Joe Ross): That's what my boss just said to me.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell) In re: what? I mean, what, what is he talking about?

Mr. SCOTT: (As Ross) Well, I've got a--oh, thank you.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell) You're welcome.

Mr. SCOTT: (As Ross) I did something for the company, and they owe me
something. I think I need to get it in writing.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell) I would. What do they owe you?

Mr. SCOTT: (As Ross) I think they owe me a lot of money.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell) What do you mean, you think?

Mr. SCOTT: (As Ross) I invented something for them. It's a work for hire;
they own it. But it's...

(Soundbite of phone being dialed)

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell; on phone) Hello, is Mrs. DeSilva(ph) in? (To Ross) Who
told you it was a work for hire?

Mr. SCOTT: (As Ross) Well, they did.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell) You invented it?

Mr. SCOTT: (As Ross) Well, I...

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell) I'm not a lawyer; I'm just a guy. Tell me, you
invented it?

Mr. SCOTT: (As Ross) Yes.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Dell) Uh-huh.

GROSS: "Spanish Prisoner" was written and directed by David Mamet.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: Oh, it must have been a pleasure to read his dialogue.

Mr. MARTIN: Fabulous. I loved doing it. You know, his dialogue is a
challenge for an actor because it's incredibly precise, including the `ers'
and `uhs' and they way we speak going back, retracing our words, just like I
just did, or like I just did. And so it's really fun to do that, 'cause you
really have to--you cannot, as you're speaking the dialogue, you can't get
ahead of yourself. You have to actually forget at that moment what you're
going to say next.

GROSS: What do you mean, that you have to forget it?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, in other words, if it's written that there's a hesitation
or an `er' and an `uh,' if you come up to it and you're prepared for it, it's
going to sound like, `er, uh.' It's going to be very dead. So you have to
talk as though you know what you're going to say but you don't. You have to
forget what you're going to say at that moment.

GROSS: And then you have to remember it again.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Well, it's acting. You know what it is.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. MARTIN: You know...

GROSS: So do you feel like you learned any new things from working with

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, but it's--you know, he was a really good director for me
because he kept reminding me. You know, my character was supposed to be very
wealthy and very confident, and he kept reminding me of what that is, which is
nothing gets to you; no one can get to you. And that was a great reminder,
and it really provided me in the film with this kind of stillness and, you
know, ease with everything.

GROSS: I sometimes think about what it must have been like for you and Ricky
Jay, who was also in "The Spanish Prisoner," to work together, 'cause you
used to do magic, and Ricky Jay is, you know, one of the great living...

Mr. MARTIN: Right. Well, Ricky...

GROSS: ...prestidigitators? Is that...

Mr. MARTIN: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And, you know, master of card tricks and cons and the lore of magic
and carnivals and--so did you--yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, Ricky Jay and I go way back. We go back to the late
'60s. He...

GROSS: Did you perform on the circuit together or something?

Mr. MARTIN: A bit, yeah. We actually met in Aspen, and he was working
someplace and I was working someplace. And I remember he was a book collector
and I was a book collector. And there was this beautiful rare book called
"The Expert at the Card Table" by S.W. Erdnase. And it was written,
published, I think, in 1907, and it was one of the early books that exposed
ways to cheat at cards. And of course, the author, if he had been known,
would have been beaten up. And S.W. Erdnase is Andrews written backwards,
and that was the real author, and we both sort of fought over a copy of that
book once.

GROSS: Who won?

Mr. MARTIN: I bought it, and then I gave it to him...

GROSS: Oh, you're so generous.

Mr. MARTIN: ...years later. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you remember the point in your career when people started to
realize, `He's smart'? You know, 'cause you played kind of stupid, you know,
wacky personas, right? And then eventually people realized, `God, he's really

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, it's something you can never say about yourself
and believe it...

GROSS: Right

Mr. MARTIN: ...that you're smart. And so I don't--you know, I don't think of
myself as smart. I don't know--I mean, I almost feel like if anybody thinks
that, they're being cheated, because I also know people who actually are
really smart, and I've been around them. You know what I am if anything, I'm
diligent. But I've been around people who were smart, and I feel like my
relationship with them is my dog's relationship to me.

GROSS: (Laughs) Your dog's a good audience, let's not forget.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Well, you know, my dog, he gets--you know, if I say, `Go
get the tennis ball,' he knows to get the tennis ball. But if I say, `Go get
the tennis ball and take it upstairs and put it under the bed,' then he's at
the point of `Duh.' And that happens--I find that happening to me when I'm
around really, really smart people, that there's a ceiling I hit of

GROSS: And you're very funny on stage and on screen as you are. People
expect that you're just going to be, you know, a laugh riot when you speak in
person, too. And did you have to deal with the expectation that you're just
going to be, you know, a real cut-up in person?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, I guess a little bit, but sometimes I can be a
cut-up. You know, there's a...

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Right. No, I realize that.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, it's really people who don't know you
who expect that, and I don't really find myself in those circumstances that
much anymore, at least in private circumstances. I'm a, you know, pretty
regular sociable person or social person, so I think I'm--you know, I couldn't
do in private what I did on stage; people would not want to be around me, you
know, if I was that hyper all the time. And, you know, I've kind of worked it
out now, kind of figured out how to be.

GROSS: Listen, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Steve Martin's stars in the new movie "Shopgirl," which is adapted
from his novel of the same name. He wrote the screenplay. Our interview was
recorded in 2003.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Questlove spins the soundtrack of his life in 'Music is History'

In his new book, Roots co-founder Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson starts in 1971 and moves year-by-year through his life, writing about memories, turning points and the songs he listened to.


In 'Maid,' a single mother struggles to make it on minimum wage

While raising her young daughter, Stephanie Land cleaned houses to scrape by. It was back-aching work for low pay. Her memoir inspired the Netflix series, Maid. Originally broadcast Jan. 29, 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue