And James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been
Drinking at Appomattox”?
Thurber’s funny. He’s definitely funny.
He’s one of the really funny guys and could
really write it. What we’re reading of his,
though, was not meant to be read aloud.
So we’re going to denude it of certain things
that were meant for the reader as opposed
to the listener.
Have you ever written fiction or poetry?
Well I wrote a lot of poetry when I was a
little boy, but I haven’t since. And fiction
[laughs]: I write fiction every day, ’cause
I’m just a natural liar, a terrible person.
Did you memorize a lot of poetry growing up?
No, I didn’t, but I know someone who did —
that fella over there [indicating comedy writer
Jim Downey]. He can read aloud to you. Jim,
will you read? Jim Downey, he can read some
poems. He’s good on a long car drive, ’cause
he’s got the Greeks, and he can really go. And
you think you’re fallin’ asleep at the wheel
now, wait’ll he gets going.
Do you feel a similarity between musical
improvisation and the improvisation you bring
Well, I’m working with these big shots now
[indicating the musicians], and it’s funny the
way they talk, because we all sort of feel the
same thing. Their term for it is not the same
as mine, but you feel it. You see it and you feel
it, and when you got it, you got it. When you
don’t, we all know. It’s some kind of math.
And improvisation is a kind of slow addition.
I give you a number and you give me one
back and we’re just keeping track of where
The ‘Yes, and. ..’
Yeah! So except for the different outfits they
wear and the cases they carry on their backs,
we’re speaking some kind of language that’s
similar. There’s some sort of unspoken language
that we understand and use to communicate.
Bill, thanks for talking to me. I appreciate it.
OK, cool. I appreciate it. I hope my answers
How would you make a distinction between
ridiculousness and absurdity?
Well, a long time ago people would say: ‘Bill,
you’re absurd.’ But now they say: ‘Bill, you’re
ridiculous.’ I guess it’s just the time we live in.
You’ve specialized, over the course of your
career, in characters who are on the mend,
characters who are fighting themselves, fighting pain of loss, depression, cynicism, trying
to become more involved in their lives, more
involved in their world. I see it in your comedy
and in your drama. How did that develop? Or
would you agree that it’s even a theme?
Well I’m not choosing a theme, I think that’s
probably just myself. [Laughs.] I think that’s
probably just the way I am, you know: trying,
really trying, and mostly failing . . . and I’ve got
myself in a situation where a certain amount
of success affords you a way of living where
you can fail to examine, fail to question. So if
you question it at all then you go ‘Oh God, I’m
full of it. I gotta get to work here.’ And that’s
kind of the way my life is.
It’s about getting past that failure and getting
It’s not getting past the failure, it’s just seeing
that most of the time, we fail. We have a false
sense of who we are and what we’re doing and
who we really are and that you have to just
keep trying and be very tough on yourself — not that I am, but I aspire to be tough
on myself and force myself to see the flaws.
And then, if you can see the flaws and see the
false sense of yourself at the same time, then
something opens up. There’s an opportunity
for seeing, for a vision of something.
Is that a truth that you look for, something
you’re pushing toward in acting?
Well, yes, I think I’m looking for it in life, you
know. If you’re doing it in acting, in a way it
can be easier because you’re trying to behave
in a certain way that is a habit of your life
and your personality and whatever being you
might have, and you’re using it to portray a
person who doesn’t really exist — but you’re
using yourself to draw that person.
Are there different challenges that you face
when you’re writing than when you’re acting?
Well, yes. When you’re writing — you mean
Well, yes: you have to use more evocative
words. When you speak, you can use your
rhythm. Your rhythm is there, your accents are
there, your pitch is there. And it’s difficult to
get that pitch in print in two dimensions. The
third dimension gives you a lot more possibility. I did write a book once and I sort of told
the stories with my voice, and then when I
saw it — the transcription of it written out — it
was very soft, it was bland. And I thought
‘Why is that so weak?’ And I realized all of
what I was just talking about is gone from it,
so then you have to find words and phrasing
that make up for the lack of your actual voice.
You have to find your voice in letters.
I wonder, too, if in writing that improvisational
element is harder to keep?
I think when you put your hands on a
real keyboard and you connect into a real
keyboard, something happens: it’s not so much
improvising as it is letting something go and
not trying to control it with your brain. I really
sort of write with my body, I guess. I mean,
if I don’t have my fingers involved with the
actual typewriter, it’s not the same. Or a pencil.
There’s gotta be something physically connecting you to this energy that’s moving around.
It’s back to getting in a rhythm, getting in a flow.
The rhythm is there. You have to catch it.
The reading selections that you’re performing
are all from titans of American letters — and
they all have very different rhythms. Do you
approach each author differently when you’re
looking to give voice to their words?
Well you have to. Obviously, if you’re reading
from Huck Finn you have to speak in some
sort of dialect. And if you’re reading James
Fenimore Cooper, you have to sort of . . .
look to the horizon [laughs] or something.
And Capote is just a guy who is a wide-eyed
observer, seeing the behavior of a faun in the
city — a child, a girl. And Hemingway, he was
on the make, on the smarts. He was trying to
figure out and observe things: make sense of
the way things went, in that Continental way.