The Best Jokes Are Dangerous, An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut,
Part Three .
BY J. RENTILLY
[Originally published September 18, 2002.]
Q: You’re known for your irreverence as a writer. Is there anything you refuse to write about?
KURT VONNEGUT: Never try to write about your father. Have you?
KV: Well, if you tried your brain would turn to concrete.
Q: You think?
KV: Oh, yeah. Men can’t do it. You learn about life by the accidents you have, over and over again, and your father is always in your head when that stuff happens. Writing, most of the time, for most people, is an accident and your father is there for that, too. You know, I taught writing for a while and whenever somebody would tell me they were going to write about their dad, I would tell them they might as well go write about killing puppies because neither story was going to work. It just doesn’t work. Your father won’t let it happen. [Laughs]
Q: I can hardly imagine writing about my own father.
KV: Oh, please don’t. We’ll all be mad at you.
Q: In Dr. Kevorkian, one of your interview subjects — Dr. Staxx — writes a poem: “There are two types of men in this world/those who know they are weak/and those who think they are strong.”
KV: Which are you?
Q: On a good day? Vacillating between the two. How about you?
KV: Well, I came into this world with a gift. And that has made all the difference.
Q: What do you think it takes to be a good man?
KV: Oh, I imagine you’re born that way. But only some people find it in themselves. Some people — a lot of people — find it easy to be perfect. But most of us are only burdens. It’s a short walk.
Q: That’s a tough one.
KV: Well, no way to get around it.
Q: We were talking earlier about how everyday life is so fraught with close calls and narrow aversions of, to use one of your titles, “fates worse than death.” How do you avoid that kind of stuff? Do you have any kind of prescription for getting through the next twenty-four hours?
KV: Well… some people find LSD helps a lot. Have you experimented with it at all?
Q: Nope. I missed my chance in college.
KV: Neither have I. I guess we’ll never know.
Q: In 1981, you wrote that if a third world war should ever come, you’d be spry enough to dance again. You ready to dance?
KV: Sure, I’d love to dance, but not alone. And women don’t like to do it with me.
Q: And why is that?
KV: It’s the way I do it.
Q: Do I want to pursue this line of questioning any further?
KV: You’d better not. [Laughs]
Q: Do you remember the first story you wrote?
KV: No. But when I went to Cornell, and I was a big shot on the school paper, I had a column there and I’d make up stories left and right. You know, 500 words here or there. It’s easy enough to come by.
Q: Do you remember any of that stuff?
Q: There is a long string of self-deprecating humor that runs through all of your work. You’ve commented many times that you believe your books to be “merely collections of jokes.” Do you think that sells them a bit short?
KV: No, not at all. I think jokes are a perfectly viable form of literature. Some critics take issue with me because I make my points and discuss my ideas with jokes, rather than with oceanic tragedy.
Q: Plenty of writers can do that.
KV: There’s room for all of it. I just prefer the jokes. You pull them back and let them rip.
Q: But at least a couple times, I’ve been moved to tears by your books. The passage in Timequake when you discuss the last conversation you had with your first wife is devastating.
KV: Yeah. [Long pause] I got that right, didn’t I?
Q: Perhaps hiding those moments between all of the jokes gives them particular impact.
KV: Well, the telling of jokes is an art of its own, and it always rises from some emotional threat. The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful. By the way, do you know the secret of telling a joke well?
Q: [Tries to answer, but he beats me to it]
KV: TIMING! [Laughs]
Q: See, that one wouldn’t work so well on the page.
KV: Yeah, but I got control of your endocrine system. I had you there, didn’t I? See, every successful joke — the ones you’re going to get a belly laugh with — starts as a threat to someone or something. There was a salesman. His car broke down. He found a farmhouse nearby, and asked if he could spend the night there. The farmer says, “Yes, but you’ll have to sleep with my daughter.” See, that’s just the set-up. But it gets peoples’ endocrine systems. It’s just a few words, but all kinds of things are happening.
Q: In the grander scheme of things, you may have lost position as the baby in your family, but you’ve still got a world of young readers to entertain.
KV: Well, do you know the one about the man who fell of the cliff? And on the way down, he happened to grab on to a very thin branch in the mountainside. Do you know this one — about praying to God because there was nobody else around? [Laughs] See, I’ve already threatened you. [Laughs] So this guy is finally praying to God. He says, “Please, God, help me out here. Tell me what I should do.” And God says, “Hello, my son. I will help you. Just let go of the branch and I will see that you are safe.” And the man cries out, “Isn’t there anybody else up there I can talk to?” [Laughs] See how that works? Did you see that? I threatened you.
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