Fran Lebowitz appears this Sunday, Feb 18 at Benaroya Hall.
Fran Lebowitz appears this Sunday, Feb 18 at Benaroya Hall. Brigitte Lacombe

You may have noticed that the writer and social critic Fran Lebowitz is coming to town this weekend. You may even have read my short interview with her in this week's issue. The prospect of speaking to her on the phone was daunting, for reasons that will be clear to anyone who has ever read a word she has written. The reality, however, was a thrill.

Lebowitz was exactly how you'd want her to be: voluble, caustic, insightful, and hilarious. She speaks rapidly and says a lot of things most people wouldn't have the skill or the nerve (or, in many cases, the inclination) to say.

Her voice spills over with voice—ironic, self-aware, unapologetic, irresistibly rhythmic, and drolly unimpressed. Even the inflections are ingenious and urbane. And though her literary persona is built on being irascible, there's a warmth (comma measured) in her rancor. It's evident in Public Speaking, the 2008 documentary Martin Scorsese made about Lebowitz, in which her most inspired diatribes are delivered with a not-fully-supressed grin, and a glance to make sure her audience is getting it.

Or maybe it's just that inveterate talkers can't quite begrudge the attention of an avid listener. Whatever the case, her performance, which has managed not to become a shtick even after 40 years in the public eye, is a brilliant show—even if you get the sense that your presence as reverent straight man is ever-so-slightly incidental.

If writers have ideal readers—Martin Amis once nominated himself for the title of Saul Bellow's—Fran Lebowitz is clearly her own.

Lebowitz's wit is so sharp and ready that it was tempting just to tee up a list of stupid, awful things about the world of 2018 and ask, "What do you think about _______?" and luxuriate in a cascade of mordant, eminently pull-quotable bons mots.

I resisted this urge for the most part, but we still wound up spending a lot of time on the cream of the stupid, awful crop. It was the first time I have enjoyed hearing anyone discuss D.J. Trump in a very long time.

Anyway, the preview I wrote for her appearance was 500 words long, which is generally plenty. But for anyone who might be interested, here is the (gently) edited full-length transcript of our conversation:

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Are your live appearances always the same format as they appear in Public Speaking?

I would say what I almost always do, and what I believe I'm doing in Seattle, is someone interviews me on the stage, usually a journalist. We do that for about a half hour, and I do not see the questions that the interviewer is going to ask me. I don't want to know the questions. I will not let them tell me the questions. Sometimes these people want to do that because mostly reporters are not like Fran, reporters are prepared. So they want to prepare. And so, I always say, "Well, you can prepare, but not with me."

And it is, I suppose, possible that someone might ask me a question that I don't want to answer, in which case, and this is the upside of being old, I just don't answer it. When you're young you think you have to answer everything someone asks you.

And then that person usually leaves the stage and I go to a lectern or podium, and I take questions from the audience for an hour. I also don't allow microphones in the audience, or people to send—a lot of places they're accustomed to sending questions up on cards, but I don't allow that because the questions from the audience are, to me, incredibly fun. And it's, to me, fun because I have no idea what people are going to ask. And believe me, you have no idea what people can ask.

I’m surprised you haven’t found at least one or two recurring themes.

Well, I have to say that since the campaign, the presidential campaign… I mean, before that I always got of course some political questions, but since the campaign—not just the election, but since the campaign—the questions are so significantly about politics. But I can't say I'm surprised by it because even my friends who are just, like, marginally interested, or you might say normally interested in politics, are now completely insane. So, since everyone's been driven insane, and I am also a person who is driven insane, I understand it. So, it's not even that I don't mind it. It's good because of course that's what everyone's thinking about anyway.

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Would you say those questions tend to be along the lines of, "Help! What should we think?" One of the most striking elements of your writing is your certitude, which I think people are especially drawn to, now, when they can't figure out what, and how, to think about things.

Well, I have to say that the thing that most surprises me, now, is that people say, "What can we do?" Because everyone has suffered under Trump, everyone. Well, not everyone; there are like 15 bankers and coal mine owners who haven't. But I personally suffered in a very particular way because the year before the election, during the campaign, I went around the country telling people with absolute, profound belief, "Don't worry. There's not a chance he could win." Because of course I believed that. I believed it so deeply that it kind of amused me that people would even imagine he could win, and since I prize very much the belief, my own belief, that I am always right, it was devastating for me.

And I would say for at least a month, maybe longer—it could be a couple months—after the election, every time I left my apartment people on the street yelled at me really accusingly: "You are wrong. You were wrong." And I can think, "I know! I'm sorry!” And believe me, I'm sorry in every possible way.

And, I mean, people in really unusual circumstances—like, the Columbus Circle subway station has these very long escalators that go up and down into the station, and I was going down to the station and a woman coming up turned, saw me, and screamed at me, "You were wrong!"

I was so glad we were going in opposite directions because she seemed possibly violent. So, then I felt, well, no one's gonna ask me a question again. Why would they? Because you were wrong. But, now, apparently people have forgotten I was wrong, or they were also wrong, or it doesn't matter anymore because there are so many worse things than, "I was wrong."

People do often ask me, "What can we do?" as if there was something—If there was something that we could do that I knew, I would have done it! To me, this reminds me of like, if you've unfortunately had friends who have a horrible, fatal illness for which there's no cure, invariably there crops up some quack where they tell you he has the secret cure. And I always say, "Secret? Why would you have a secret cure for this? Why would you have a secret cure for cancer? Because billions of people get cancer, and you had a cure for cancer. You have a very public cure for cancer."

So, if I knew what to do, believe me, I would let everybody know.

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I think people are still reeling from a year ago because it still doesn't seem like it can possibly be true that he is the president at the same time that it is also obviously, empirically true that he's president. And no cries of "resistance" can change it. Are you tempted to reach for a single, damning cause to explain how things got to this point? Or do you think this is the natural progress of a society in decline?

I think Trump got elected because—not because... I mean, let's take Russia out of it because we don't know all the details, although I certainly believe a lot of it. People often accuse New Yorkers of being provincial and me particularly, and they are correct. However, being a provincial New Yorker is not like being a provincial person from some little town in the middle of nowhere, but it is true that you don't know certain kinds of people, which is a very good reason to live in New York by the way.

So, when I saw those rallies, his campaign rallies, before the election I kept saying to people who were younger than me, which is now almost everyone, "If you are my age, or older, which you're probably not, these campaign rallies are exactly George Wallace rallies." And they were instantly recognizable as such to me and to everybody else who remembers George Wallace. And George Wallace rallies were racist rallies, period. That's what they were.

So, for me, when I saw those rallies I thought, "These are Klan rallies, these are Wallace rallies." So my belief is that a very significant percentage of Trump supporters support Trump for that reason only. I really believe that. I know that's not the most acceptable thing to say, but I really think that he allows his supporters to express their bigotry, which they weren't allowed to do with this form of zeal, or openness, and now they can because their President agrees with them.

These people apparently felt very repressed. There's all kinds of ways to feel repressed. Some of these people feel repressed in a bad way because they're not allowed to express things about themselves that are not harmful to other people, that may even be of help. But if you were forced to repress your bigotry, good. I mean, you're not entitled to your ignorance. There's not some law that allows that. So, I really think that's what caused it.

I think that when he always refers to his base—I think if he knew the other definition for “base,” which he certainly does not, that it is a perfect description of his base.

I do not believe that all those people really believed that he was going to make it be 1955 again. The coal mines are reopening, you're going to make $42 an hour on the Ford line in Detroit. I don't think they all believe that. I don't.

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People like that in another world always have been called the working class, and in this country is always called the middle class. But people who work in factories, those people are a lot more savvy than someone like Donald Trump because their lives are harder. So, it's not that I think that these people are completely idiotic and they don't understand at all the passage of time or anything like that. I think these people are very angry.

Now, I bow to no one in my ability to be enraged, and there are numerous reasons for that class of people to be angry, and these reasons are economic. But this always happens, this is the history of not just this country but the world. These economic causes are not connected to race, or immigrants, but they are in people's minds because otherwise they don't know who to blame because they don't know the people who do this. They don't see them. They don't understand at all who rules the country.

No, it's not some guy who just moved in next door to you who is going to work for a dollar less an hour. That's not the guy. It's the guy, or the guys and they are guys, who made up this plan.

Look, I was very opposed to NAFTA. I fought with all of my friends about this, and all of my friends said, "You sound like Ross Perot." And I kept saying, "Well, Ross Perot's right about this." There's no reason you have to do this. There isn't. Because if you allow this, if you allow capital to roam free it will roam to the place where it makes the biggest profit, period. If you want to keep capital in this country you have to make rules that disallows you to take it out of the country, period.

If you're gonna be able to pay someone $5 an hour instead of $25 an hour, it'll go to $5 an hour. And then of course, what happened? It was in the $5 an hour place, and then they found a place where it could go for $3 an hour.

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And so, from a global point of view, everyone tells me I'm not an expert on global economics. Apparently in general, the world is richer because some of this money got spread around. So the world is richer because people who are making zero dollars an hour are now making 80 cents an hour, and that is good, but that is not really the job of American industry.

So, of course these people are angry, and of course this also is very much abetted by the really, really rotten condition of the American public school system because they know nothing. When I say they know nothing, I mean they don't know things that people my age every single person my age learned this in the 3rd grade. I'm not talking about these people didn't have the opportunity to go to Oxford. I'm saying these people didn't have the opportunity to go to any kind of normal, good enough school. Like, no, I mean they don't know anything. They don't know what the Constitution is, they don't know anything about anything. And of course, then they're extra ripe for every kind of crazy thing that comes along because people always search for a reason for their problems.

This is true even when you know you caused the problem yourself. I mean, in our personal lives we cause problems ourselves, and then we think, "Whose fault is this?" Even when we know, "It's my fault." Okay? So, these things of course, are not the people's fault who are victims of this, but neither are immigrants the fault of this, especially, by the way, not immigrants. Neither are black people, neither are...

So, that's what I think the reason is that maybe some people still waiting for him to reopen the coal mines in West Virginia, which they probably would do if they could get more money for the coal, which they can't because, guess what? Coal. It's horrible and it's over. Coal, if you've ever been to a place where they burn coal routinely, you can't see anything. So, good. There's some good progress in the world. Yes, coal was bad. And so, it's good that we don't have coal anymore. And all those campaign stuff he did, "I love coal." Like, I very much doubt he's ever seen a lump of coal.

I covered a couple of Trump rallies. And the most striking thing I saw wasn’t nationalism or racism or xenophobia, though those were all obviously present. It was the overwhelming magnitude of those people’s hatred for Hillary Clinton. What do you make of the persistent idea that there’s some value in trying to divine a more complex or nuanced understanding of the anger of people who support Trump? Where do you think that comes from?

That comes from some sort of belief that if you understand things you can always fix them, and also I suppose that it explains in a way the election to people. The anger against Hillary Clinton, in my opinion, was not maybe 100%, but 98% misogyny pure and simple. Okay?

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One thing that really angered after the election was men I know—men I know, you know, not angry coal miners; men I know—constantly explaining the election to me, constantly telling me what Hillary Clinton did wrong. "It's not that we are against having a woman president. If she only had done this, if she had done that, she should have done this, she should have done that, and here's the thing ..." And I was somewhat surprised by this because most of these men are around my age, or a little younger. They're not 22.

The kids I was angry at were the ones who were the Sanders supporters. I was really angry at them, but I could understand how someone who's 21 doesn't know things.

Here is what everyone has to know: In a presidential election you have two choices. You don't have 150 choices. So, there was a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Those were your choices. It doesn't matter whether she was your dream date. It makes no difference.

And people were constantly saying—in fact, I have to tell you that previous to his election, I often said, "I don't like Hillary Clinton." She was one of my Senators. I don't like Hillary Clinton. I didn't like Bill Clinton. I never liked him. He was way to the right of me. I never liked him. I argued about him with a lot of people. I didn't like Hillary Clinton, but what I kept saying to people was, "First of all, you have to stop saying you don't like presidential candidates." Especially when I would do these lecture dates and people would say, "I don't like Hillary Clinton." I would say, "It doesn't matter whether you like her or not. Don't worry, she's not calling you."

You don't like her? That's fine, it doesn't matter. And this idea that you have to like people, to me, is very childish, and it's much more prevalent in people who are young, absolutely, than it is in people who are older, who grew up in an era where no one ever asked us whether we like things, first of all.

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So, these people have been asked since birth, "Would you rather have this? Would you rather have that? Do you prefer this? Do you prefer that?" And because of the internet they even acquire material objects that are kind of customized to their liking. So, "I want this shirt, but I don't want this blue. I want it in a darker blue. Can I have it in a darker blue?" "Yes, we'll make one for you."

I mean, of course, this didn't used to be true. It used to be you went to the store and these were the shirts, and you had to pick one. So, you go to restaurants with people, it doesn't matter how old they are they could be older than me even, and they look at the menu, and then they say, "I'd like to have the veal, but can I have it without the shallots, and could you... ?" And the waiter says, "Yes." Okay? But people didn't used to give recipes in restaurants. It drives me mad, by the way, when people do this. I mean, I sit there for hours while everyone is customizing food. Pick something. See, this is dinner.

And so, the not liking Hillary Clinton is something that is going to be a problem forever until people realize it doesn't matter whether you like them or not.

People have been warning us about the perils of conflating capitalism and democracy for 100 years, but several generations of Americans have now raised to believe that what you really vote with is your consumer dollar. Is it even inconceivable that people under 30, or even 40, are going to be able to recognize the moral distinctions between voting and shopping?

You're exactly right. I mean, what you're really right about is the idea that everything is a retail experience. That is absolutely true, and that absolutely has to change, or things will get even worse. You may think they can't get worse, but I can tell you for a fact, with absolute certitude, that no matter how horrible things are they can always get worse.

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So, I've had arguments about, for instance, Elizabeth Warren. "I would have voted for Elizabeth Warren. She would have been better." Spike Lee said this to me. I mean, I'm sure he voted for Hillary Clinton. I didn't ask him. He said, "It's not that she was a woman. Elizabeth Warren, she would have been better." And I said, "You know what? She is not qualified to be the President." And he said, "What are you talking about? You don't think she's more qualified than Trump?" "Yes, she is." One of the things I'm most concerned about is that he becomes some kind of standard. Everybody in the world is more qualified than Trump, let's just agree on that. Okay?

Agreed.

I sit in the subway sometimes, and this is absolutely true, and if I'm not getting off, I sit there, the doors open, and I say to myself, "The next person who comes through this door would be a better President than Donald Trump, and that is true even if that person is in a stroller." So, there is no one who wouldn't be a better president than Donald Trump, let's agree on that.

Elizabeth Warren seems like to be a very good Senator from Massachusetts. She's not my Senator. She's fantastic on domestic economic policy. She's great on that, absolutely. I agree. I love her on that. Okay? But being president, despite the president we have, now, is an incredibly complicated, really, really, hard job if you do it. You know?

Yeah.

And truthfully, I mean, I'm not the only person to say that probably no one has ever been more qualified to be the president than Hillary Clinton.

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Right. It was clear that that people at the rallies had been conditioned to oppose her and to think she is literally a murderer with her bare hands since they were in pre-school, and in public school, and in church. In a way, it seemed that the opposition to her was based on the fact that she was so qualified. More qualified than Bill Clinton had been—

Much. And there would be fewer sex scandals. So, she's not gonna be the president, we know that. So, as far as what we can do, I mean, as far as changing this presidency… One of the worst things about the present political situation is, and not just some sort of media situation but the actual situation, is that—I said this to someone the other day. I said, "You know? I didn't used to hate Republicans. I disagreed with them." You know?

If Republicans were like Nelson Rockefeller you disagreed with them because they didn't think there should be taxes on capital, and they were opposed to unions, and these were things that I feel very strongly about. I disagreed with them, but I didn't hate them. I hate them, now. I mean, I actually hate them. I don't care what they say. I don't believe them, and I hate them.

And it's the way people are always saying like you were saying earlier, "We have to really figure out what these people want, the people who voted for Trump. So, we have to really figure out what these people want and then we'll give it to them." We have to really figure out people who in their own advertising for themselves talk non-stop about the most unfettered kind of gun ownership that it makes your hair stand on end, who are very clearly racist, misogynist? I don't care what they think. I'm not even going to pretend to care what they think.

First of all, these are not thoughts, these are feelings, these are emotions. And it would be a really good thing if the entire country took five minutes out, and really considered the difference between thinking and feeling because almost no one seems to know this.

So, you never hear any thoughts, or ideas. They have none. These are not ideas. And so, do I care what a person whose response to shootings of like, whatever it was, 20 five-year-old children in the kindergarten in Connecticut, was, "This wouldn't have happened if the teachers had guns."

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Or even the kids themselves.

Yep. And at that time I said to someone, "Yes, what do you really want in a kindergarten teacher? Someone packing a gun because that's the best person to deal with a five-year-old child."

It does seem that thinking and feeling are now interchangeable concepts. There doesn't seem to be any sort of sense that those things might be different. Do you think that’s part of the general lapse in learning you referred to earlier, or is there something about the times that has actually made the two things more similar?

It's the way people talk. People always say, "They think." When they mostly mean, "They feel." And so, you very rarely hear people say, "I feel this." Even though, mostly what they're telling you is how they feel. So, that would be like a real leap forward, and this is not confined to Republicans unfortunately.

If people would even think to themselves, "Is this a thought? Or is this an emotion?" I mean, when we're with other people we see what it is. But I think especially, now, when so many people communicate largely through the ether, however that thing [the internet] works, they don't see other people. And this seems to me, although I do not own any of these modern devices, naturally to make things cruder, more blatant.

When we're with other people, we have, even children have millions of ways of picking up on all kinds of things that alert you to truthfulness to some extent. In order to do that with writing, you have to be actually a writer, and that is actually one of the hardest jobs any writer has. So, the average person texting does not have that talent. And so, it's very, very hard for people. So, everything, I think, becomes very blunt.

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I know you don’t participate in the world of texting, but surely you must be aware that people now end their messages to each other with little graphic depictions of the tone you are supposed to interpret from their statement. So, like, they will say, "I'm fine." And then have a smiley face in case you thought they were being sarcastic, or something like that.

Yes, I'm aware of this, and I'm sure I'm not the only person to point out that this is what we had before alphabets. I mean, how this could be construed as progress I can't imagine. I mean, these are pictograms, okay? And we had these—when I say “we,” I mean the species—we had these, and then we progressed and we had alphabets. Okay?

Because all these things are so text based, text messaging, and social media in general, and really the whole internet is still largely text based, it has occurred to me that the average person probably reads more, now, than they have at any other time since television came along. But that's only if you're assessing by weight—

They certainly write more.

Yeah, but as you said, it obviously doesn't count as writing in the classic sense.

Or reading.

Or reading.

And let's say that... I mean, I have none of these things. I have a [landline] phone. I have nothing. But 30 years ago, if you had described these things to me and asked me whether people would want them, I would certainly have said people would want cell phones. But I would never have imagined that people would prefer the labor of writing to the ease of talking. And I'm stunned that people still use email even though dozens if not hundreds of people have had their lives ruined because someone turned up their emails.

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But the ironic effect of all the new reading and writing is a declining audience for real writing. I mean, obviously there's a declining audience for books. But isn’t it the case that the actual readership of serious, or even funny real books was always a pretty fringe minority in American society, and even world society?

Yes. The serious, interesting literature, yes, has always been a minority thing, but there's two things that are really different. One is that until there was television everybody read for entertainment, so there was tons, and tons of books that were not even frivolous because they were below frivolous, but that's just because that's what people did to be entertained. So there's that, which has almost largely disappeared although there's a lot of junk.

I'm surprised at how many junky books there are because there's so many other ways to access junk. But there also used to be something that has really disappeared and that is, to me, a very bad thing that is not just linked to technology, which is that even if most people were not what you would call well-read, that status used to attach to it.

So, people would pretend to have read books, or read more books than they wanted to read, or reviews of the books because it was important for their social status to appear familiar with books. So, that is gone, mostly. I mean, there's certain little groups of people where that's not true, but that is largely gone. And not just that—I mean, truthfully there were many things that carried status that don't carry status anymore because, now, there are no competing values to money, period.

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It's only money. It doesn't matter. And that is why new rich people—there are always new rich people and they try to act like the old rich people. So, the old rich people, usually being far from the original crime of what people ridiculously call “earning” this money, as if you earn this kind of money, had time to become educated, and cultivated, and value these things. And so, the next group of rich people would come along, and they would also emulate this. But this doesn't exist anymore.

I mean, the only thing that kind of looks to people somewhat like it's the same is art collecting. But the most of the present day art collectors are pretty frank about viewing this as an asset class. So, their knowledge of art history is they don't care they don't know anything. They're not embarrassed by it. They look at you like, "Who are you? Do you have $5 billion?"

"Don't tell me I'm not as smart as you. I'm richer than you."

Yeah, well, that is pretty much across the board as far as I can tell. I mean, there might be small exceptions. There might be some of these people who think, "Well, maybe I should know something, or maybe this has some kind of value." But mostly it's as blunt as everything else. We live in a really blatant era. No one would accuse this era of the slightest trace of subtlety.

I don't mean to get into the whole thing about your famous struggles with writer's block, but I am curious whether the diminishing cultural value of serious writing has caused a sense of futility to attach to writing in your mind?

No, there isn't any because I don't care about the other people. I don't care. I don't care what they think. I don't care if you don't like it. I don't care you're not interested. I don't care. I don't care. People very often say to me, "Well, if you were young would you—?" And I say, "I'm not young, and if I were young I would be a different person."

It's a crazy thing to say, "If I were young, or if I was man, or if I was tall…" You'd be a different person. So, yes, I'm certain I would be a completely different person if I was young. No question about it. And of course, all people who are not young would prefer to be young if you gave them the choice, but no one is giving us the choice. And I also would have to say that since everyone can only be young once, I'm glad I was young when I was. I mean, if you only get to be 22 once, I was 22 at a pretty fun time. Okay?

If I was 22, now, I don't know who I would be, or what I would be like, but I could tell the people who are 22, "You really better worry. You have much more to worry about than I do." Because even when you read about North Korea, and you think to yourself, "My God." I was a child in the '50s, so my childhood had as one of its features terror of nuclear war, and I was terrified by it. I was encouraged to be terrified by it. Everyone was.

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At school, they would always tell you, "Any second the Russians are going to bomb us." And I believed them. And of course, in the intervening eight million years I forgot about this. So, now, for the first time in literally ages nuclear war seems like a very real possibility partially because I read all of these nuclear war experts saying, "We've never been closer to nuclear war."

And it's not that I want there to be a nuclear war. Of course I don't. But if there is one I am not as terrorized as I would be if I was 22 because no matter what happens, I mean, no one is gonna say, "What a tragedy. Look how young she was when she died."

It does seem to me from what I read—and as I said, this an area where I know, I would say, nothing—it seems not as unlikely as it used to seem. You do feel, or at least I do, whenever Trump taunts Kim Jong Il (if that's the correct way to say it)… I remember one of his tweets was something like, "Try us." And I remember thinking, "No, don't try us."

Please don’t try us.

"Don't try us, okay?" Don't try us. And you think to yourself, "Who says this?" I mean, who says, "Try us"? I know there's some dissent about Donald Trump's mental stability, but there's none about Kim Jong Il. Okay? The guy is crazy. He's crazy, he's young, and one of the things he shares with Trump is not knowing the world. He really doesn't know it. He probably knows more than Trump because who does not.

He might be the one person who doesn't.

He might be, but, I mean, he's also capable of responding in kind. It's as if the two craziest, most dangerous nine-year-old boys in the world had nuclear weapons.

“Let's put them in charge!”

Yeah, and they're in charge. Or not. You know what I mean?

Given what you said about not caring about other people’s responses to your writing: Do you think there's something about a writer’s capacity to communicate to a slightly larger group than just you, or do you assess the worth of a book entirely on your own subjective response?

All I care about is what I think. I mean, there certainly are writers and there are whole genres that I know masses of people adore. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, I just don't care about it. Like, science fiction: I never read it in my life. I don't care about it. I don't care if other people care about it. It doesn't strike me as a danger to the republic. I don't like horror, or horror movies. I find real life quite dangerous enough. I don't need to seek out what would happen. How about just what is happening?

So, all that kind of stuff, which I truthfully think of as boy stuff—I know a lot of girls like this, now. This is the kind of equality women get. You get to like the things only boys got. But now, girls can also like the stupid stuff. So, I don't care about this stuff. I don't like it. I'm not interested in it.

I don't think it matters whether other people... All right, it only matters if that's all they know. I mean, everyone is entitled to recreation. I understand that. I don't, however, think everyone is entitled to say, "This recreational activity is actually a very serious art form." They can say that. They do say that. Lots of people believe that, but I am not to be counted among them.

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You might wind up being the actual last person who objects to it. Partly, the forms that used to be considered lower, like TV or comic books, have evolved. But It also seems to go along with the whole retail-ization phenomenon. The whole culture is increasingly driven by the sense that you can extrapolate artistic merit from commercial value.

Look, it's like when Oprah Winfrey made that speech at the Golden Globe Awards, and in two seconds everyone goes, "Oprah Winfrey should be the president!" I actually got into an argument with a friend of mine. I said, "No, of course Oprah Winfrey should not be the president. What are you talking about?" "Oh, let me assure you," this friend of mine says, "she would win." I said, "Oh, she certainly would win. She's probably the most popular person in the country. But I just want to point out that at other times Elvis Presley was the most popular person in the country. Frank Sinatra was the most popular person in the country. The most popular person in the country has almost always been an entertainer.”

And there's nothing wrong with Oprah Winfrey being the most popular person in the country. That's fine. I don't care whether it's Oprah Winfrey, or Elvis Presley, or Frank Sinatra, or whoever it is. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with that, but here is what is wrong with it, is if you imagine that that person should then be the President of the United States. And if your response to me is saying, "Don't you think she'd be better than Donald Trump?" I can't stand these questions. Yes, of course, she would be!

It does seem like that's the hand that everybody feels that they have been dealt.

Well, that could turn out to be the worst thing about the Trump presidency. I mean, we don't know what the worst thing about the Trump presidency is going to be, and we may not live long enough to find it out, but the worst thing about the Trump presidency might be that people will be able to advertise themselves or their candidates as “better than Donald Trump.”

I know that not being on the internet spares you from a lot of this, but are there any common colloquial language abuses that especially bother you, or are you sort of inured to people abusing the language at this point?

I mean there's so many, but basically I would say to you what I have said to other people, although I don't think to a reporter: No one speaks English more poorly than the native born American. No one. And I have a lot of friends who are not American and often they'll say, "Is the right way to say this? Does this mean this?" And I say, "You know what? I don't think you understand. You speak English a million times better than almost every American."

So, it would be really a wonderful thing if Americans would learn their own language. Instead of the people who speak it the worst are the people who are like, really worried about the people who are from other countries.

I assume the answer is no, but are you concerned at all with your legacy, or with the abstract notion of posterity?

No.

Excellent!

To me, it could be two possible reasons why you would worry about that. One, you have descendants. You have children. I don't. Okay? Or two, you believe in life after death. Okay? Which I do not.

The people who believe in life after death are religious people of various stripes. To me, what this really shows they don't believe in is death. I believe in death. Okay? I can't say that this would've been my preference, but no one gave me a choice. I believe in death. Not a single person I know or have loved who died ever came back. So, I believe in death. And so, after I die I don't care what happens. Now, people who have children, they do care what happens in lots of ways and they should, but I don't.

Last question, slightly related, but not really: Do you start smoking as soon as you wake up, or do you wait a certain period for your first one of the day?

I usually wait until I sit up.

That's very disciplined.

But not always.

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