Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut:

“[What my uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was they never noticed it, when they were really happy.

“So, whenever he was really happy – you know, he could be sitting around in the shade, in the summertime, in the shade of an apple tree, and drinking lemonade and talking. Just sort of this back-and-forth buzzing like honey bees. And Uncle Alex would all of a sudden say, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ and then we’d realize how happy we were; and we might have missed it.”

Kurt Vonnegut on David Brancaccio

Kurt Vonnegut

Transcript of Kurt Vonnegut interviewed by David Brancaccio on the [PBS] NOW show, October 7, 2005

This transcript contains a really evocative poem by Vonnegut about the environment (I’ve highlighted it in blue font.) His reading of it had gravitas and eloquence.

This is a great interview, it will get your thoughts going!

I saw the latter half of this 30-minute show; and was able to videotape that part of it. The exchange of ideas was rapid-fire. It was hard to believe that it had not been choreographed in advance (this thought came to me as I transcribed the videotape.) And yet – it was all obviously spontaneous; there was no hesitation. The concentration and focus were remarkable – the breadth of what they talked about – the clear exchange of ideas.

I was struck by the profundity of what Vonnegut had to say – the words of an honored and savvy elder. He spoke in a wonderful conversational style, with wit and expressiveness. You got the feeling that they were trying to cram as much as they could into those 30 minutes. I was so engrossed that I felt compelled to transcribe the part that I had on video.

The portion of the show that I caught on videotape – and the transcript that I made – began slightly less than halfway through. (I’ve made a notation at the beginning of that section below, where my tape began.) Later I saw PBS’s transcript online, which I used to complete my transcript.

I’ve slightly amended the part of PBS’s transcript that I used – even though I didn’t see that part. I think I caught the nuances better; was more in synch with what was being said; and that my transcription is more animated.



His is a chaotic universe…remember SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and CAT’S CRADLE? Kurt Vonnegut is back.

He’s on the bestseller list this week with powerful words about the state of the world and the failure of politics. [non-fiction, “A Man Without A Country”]

Vonnegut: on life, democracy, and the importance of being funny.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome to a special edition of NOW.

This country has been through a lot in the last month and we’ve been out there covering it.

But I’m thinking its time to pause for the big picture. And when the brilliant and irascible Kurt Vonnegut said he was up for an interview, we jumped at the chance.

It’s rare to get to sit across the table from a giant. Do yourself a favor and read SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE again …like now, this weekend.

Before it’s too late.

Mr. Vonnegut has a new book challenging us to think about how life works or doesn’t work. He’s 82 — but I’ll tell you what, he’s still a total riot.

And this icon of American literature has got some choice words for our political parties, our president, and our planet.

BRANCACCIO: Mr. Vonnegut, thanks for coming by.

KURT VONNEGUT: My pleasure.


KURT VONNEGUT: Well, it’s practically over, thank God!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: For heaven’s sake!

KURT VONNEGUT: I’m 80– I’m practically 83. It won’t be that much more of– for me to put up with, I don’t think.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, you were writing about maybe wanting to sue your cigarette companies. You smoked all those years; and there’s a warning on the package saying that this will –

KURT VONNEGUT: Brown and Williams, on their package, promise to kill me. And they haven’t done it. I mean, here I am — 83.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: False advertisement on the cigarettes?


DAVID BRANCACCIO: You know, as I grabbed every Kurt Vonnegut book I could find, to re-read — knowing you were coming — I was looking at the beginning of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: The good uncle in that novel complains that people tend not to notice when they’re happy.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: Maybe the character’s right. You don’t notice the stuff that’s good, around us.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah. Well, this was my uncle Alex. And I had a good uncle and a bad uncle. The bad uncle was Dan. But the good uncle was Alex. And what he found objectionable about human beings was they never noticed it, when they were really happy.

So, whenever he was really happy – you know, he could be sitting around in the shade, in the summertime, in the shade of an apple tree, and drinking lemonade and talking. Just sort of this back-and-forth buzzing like honey bees. And Uncle Alex would all of a sudden say, If this isn’t nice, what is?” and then we’d realize how happy we were; and we might have missed it.

And the bad Uncle Dan was…  when I came home from the war, which was quite painful, he clapped me on the back and said; “You’re a man now.” I wanted to kill ‘im!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So you weren’t just in the war.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: You actually were a POW.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: In Dresden during the fire bombing.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: Famously. So that’s what it took to make you a man?


DAVID BRANCACCIO: In this uncle’s view.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. Well, he’d been made a man during the first World War in the trenches.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You didn’t actually kill him, though.

KURT VONNEGUT: No. He would have been the first German I killed.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Your experience as a soldier must give you great empathy for what our soldiers are going through, right now. Because whether or not a person agrees with the logic behind this war in Iraq, or vehemently thinks it’s a bad idea, everybody agrees that it’s hell for those guys and those women.

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, not only that, it’s — they’re being sent on fools’ errands; and there aren’t enough of them. And I’ve read that they go on patrols and they’re in awful danger. And the patrols accomplish almost nothing. And so sure, that’s a nonsensical war. That isn’t how you fight.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: It strikes me that maybe you are not the biggest fan of the president of the United States at this juncture?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well he is what it in my grade school, we would’ve called a twit. And in my high school, we would’ve called a twit. And so I’m sorry we have such a person as president.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But just short of that, there must be things that you think the current administration has done wrong; that has so upset you?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, yes, it doesn’t know anything about military science. Doesn’t know anything about science. You know, global warming, they just don’t believe it. And my lord, to send 143,000 soldiers, or whatever it is, to occupy a country — of what? Several million? Is– What, it’s seven million, you think?

It’s preposterous. I knew better than that. Although the highest rank I ever held was corporal. And so these people don’t know anything, about anything. They’re incompetent. And, so, yes; they are getting a lot of our guys killed. But, also, they’ve emptied our treasuries. You know, we can’t fix our roads. We can’t fix the schools.

It’s my dream of America, with great public schools. I thought we should be the envy of the world, with our public schools. And I went to such a public school. So I knew that such a school was possible. Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. Produced not only me, but the head writer on the I LOVE LUCY show.

And, my God, we had a daily paper. We had a debating team. Had a fencing team. We had a chorus, a jazz band, a serious orchestra. And all this with a Great Depression going on. And I wanted everybody to have such a school. And, yeah, we could afford it, if we didn’t spend all the money on weaponry.

I brought something.


KURT VONNEGUT: It’s a message for the president. Is it alright if I read it?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Yeah? For the President of the United States?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. I want to get it right.

(reading) “I am now an elder in this, the greatest democracy in the history of the world. I will be 83 in November. I am a member of what has been called ‘the Greatest Generation.’ I am a combat infantry veteran with a Purple Heart and a Battle Star. And I now want to put my president on notice. And I am talking about impeachment.

Enough is enough. If he commits oral sex in the Oval Office — and I don’t care with whom– that will be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Out he goes!”

There. I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. That be treason — make the most of it!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But impeachment, that’s strong words! What do you want to impeach him for?

KURT VONNEGUT: For oral sex in the Oval Office. I said that!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Wasn’t that the other guy?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well– I don’t know. That’s the standard now. That’s the precedent. It’s… the one unforgivable thing a president could do.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Why has the president angered you so?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, because he shouldn’t be president. It’s… we ought to have a stronger person. And he’s obviously an actor in a made for TV movie. And other people are, in fact, telling him what to say.

Of course, we have only a one party government. It’s the winners. And then everybody else is the losers. And, the winners are divided into two parties. The Republicans and the Democrats.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, you write in the book — you say that the last election, the two leading candidates were two C students from Yale, as you put it.

KURT VONNEGUT: Two members of Skull and Bones at Yale, for God’s sake. I mean, that’s what a charade the combat between the Republicans and the Democrats is. It’s rich kids. Winners on both sides. So the winners can’t lose. And, of course, the losers have no representation in Congress or whatever.

But look, yeah. We had to choose between two members of Skull and Bones? What about if we had to choose between two members of Sigma Chi at Purdue? Wouldn’t somebody have said,  “Wait a minute. What the hell happened here?”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You’re saying you don’t see senior political figures  — really, anybody — representing the interests of people who are struggling?

KURT VONNEGUT: No, not representing the American people. And, so there are people who made a hell of a lot of money, one way or another.

Making it during the war, incidentally. As you know, maybe the war is a bad idea. But some people are making a ton of money off of it. And they want to hang on to whatever they’ve got. And so they bank roll political campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats.

Look, we’re awful animals. We can start with that. You know, it’s a whole human experiment; if that’s what we are.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That  — at heart, we’re awful?

KURT VONNEGUT: Look, we   — after two World Wars; and the holocaust; and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and after the Roman games; and after the Spanish Inquisition; and after burning witches – the public…  – shouldn’t we call it off? I mean, we are a disease; and should be ashamed of ourselves.

And so, yeah, I think we ought to stop reproducing. But since we’re not going to do that, I think the planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The planet is sort of trying to shed us, as if we are some sort of toxin…?

KURT VONNEGUT: Look, I’ll tell you… One thing that no cabinet has ever had, is a Secretary Of The Future. And there are no plans at all for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That’s a great idea. In other words a Cabinet post–

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, it’s too late! Look, the game is over! The game is over. We’ve killed the planet — the life support system.   …And it’s so damaged, that there’s no recovery from that. And we’re very soon going to run out of petroleum, which powered everything that’s modern, razzamatazz about America…   [the section I recorded starts here]

And it was very shallow people who imagined that we could keep this up indefinitely. But when I tell others, they say, “Well, look — there’s hydrogen fuel.”  Nobody’s working on it!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: No one is working seriously on it, is what you’re saying…

KURT VONNEGUT: That’s right! And what, our energy people — presidents of our companies, energy companies? All they wanna do is make a lot of money right now!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: If you accept your idea — that it is a horrible world out there –  and people are tribal; people are greedy; people are cruel — you can also conclude that: well, Americans didn’t invent that.

And I know someone wrote you, in the book–  someone wrote you this letter, saying, “We need to be armed against all the badness that you see. With Iraq, the threat is on a bigger scale than Al Qaeda,” the guy wrote to you. And he writes, “Should we sit back, be little children and sit in fear and just wait?” We need to take military action, is the implication.

KURT VONNEGUT: No we don’t. No we don’t. We should be… Somebody else has to declare war, first. And of course, Iraq never attacked us.

I have one more thing I wanted to read.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Something in the other pocket, too? Alright.

KURT VONNEGUT: You know, Christianity is very big now… And our president, of course, is a Christian.

These are words I never hear:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This isn’t original. (laughter)

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Not exactly a Republican platform!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: These, of course, are called the Beatitudes.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: From the Holy Bible.

It’s interesting. It tends to be the Ten Commandments, not the Beatitudes, in modern day America.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. …Well, not only that  – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” justifies a lot of violence, on the part of many different societies. But actually, that’s from the Code of Hammurabi. And what he was trying to do was cut down on violence in his society, in Babylonia.

– And saying, “Look – okay, you’re a real man. You gotta get revenge, I guess. But this much, and no more. Otherwise, Babylon is gonna– we’re just going to be people getting revenge, revenge.” (laughs) It’s going to become the chief business.

And, about Moses– I wish he had come down off the mountain with word from God that,  “Hey, we’ve got to cut down on revenge, too.”  Because revenge is bad news. It’s a very bad emotion.

And again, we have Jesus: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Imagine that on a wall in the White House! (laughs)

No, it’s, “We must get revenge!” And, of course, the armaments manufacturers — what we used to call merchants of death — are making a lot of money out of this.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: It’s interesting. You normally describe yourself as, I think, a humanist.

KURT VONNEGUT: Absolutely. It’s my ancestral religion. It’s my ancestors who came over here from the north of Germany during the Civil War. One of them lost a leg and went back to Germany.  (laughs) But anyway, they were free thinkers. They had been Catholics. But science had impressed them that the priest didn’t know what he was talking about, often. And so they were free thinkers.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: What does it mean to you to be a humanist in this day and age?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, to admire the hell out of Jesus Christ; or of anyone who speaks well. And… Well, my grandfather said, “What Jesus said was marvelous; what does it matter, whether he was God or not?” And it doesn’t matter! So this is a human being who spoke extremely well; and we humanists listen.

Not only am I, the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, preaching the sermon on the mount — I’m also announcing that the world is about to end…  The world as we know it, surely. One: we’re destroying it as a life-support system.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Destroying the environment…

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. And I wrote a poem about that. Which was published, incidentally, by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, on their cover. [ He gets the folded poem out of his pocket]

But the poem goes,

“The crucified planet earth, / should it find a voice and a sense of irony, / might now well say of our abuse of it, / “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.” / The irony would be that we know what we’re doing 

And when the last living thing has died, on account of us, / how shapely it would be, / how poetical, / if the Earth could say, in a voice floating up, / perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, / ‘It is done. / People did not like it here.’”

And they don’t. And they shouldn’t.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: If we’re despoiling our surroundings, it must mean that we don’t respect it.

KURT VONNEGUT: No. We don’t. And I think most people have an awful time here. And I have said on behalf of all animals, “Life is no way to treat an animal. It hurts too much.”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Mr. Vonnegut, how does a man stay funny, when he thinks the world stinks, like this?

KURT VONNEGUT: He smokes. (laughter)

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Is that the secret to humor?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah, it helps a lot.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, I want to ask you about this — You ask, in the book, a question that, actually, you don’t answer. So I want to –

KURT VONNEGUT: I’m old, I’m old!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Think about answering this one. You write, “What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities — which is to say, persons without consciences; without senses of pity or shame — have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it their own?” What can we say to younger people who have their whole lives ahead of them?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well…  You’re human beings, resourceful… Ah… Form a little society of your own. And, ah… hang out with them. Get a gang.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You’re preaching getting into gangs?…

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes, well look it’s–

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But good gangs.

KURT VONNEGUT: Look, I don’t mean to intimidate you, but I have a master’s degree in anthropology!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: I’m intimidated. (laughter)

KURT VONNEGUT: …from the University of Chicago– as did Saul Bellow, incidentally.

But anyway, one thing I found out was that we need extended families. We need gangs. And, of course, they’ve — tribes and clans and so forth — have been dispersed by the industrial revolution; by people looking for work wherever they can find it. A nuclear family – a man, a woman, kids and dog and cat – is no survival scheme at all. Horribly vulnerable.

So yes… I tell people to form a little gang. And, you know; it… you love each other.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You know, I think I’ve found at least some evidence, that – at heart – you’re a bit of an optimist. And here’s my proof. In the new book, there is a picture of yourself that you drew, some of your artwork. And that is definitely you, iconic image of Kurt Vonnegut.

But I looked…  You drew it on some old stationary, it looks like. It says, “Saab / Cape Cod / Kurt Vonnegut, manager”?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes, I was in the Saab business. I think I was one… among the very first Saab dealers in the United States.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That’s an act of optimism– selling one of those things, back then. Those are weird cars. (laughter)

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes, they certainly were…  And they’re Swedish cars. That’s why I never got a Nobel Prize. Of course, a lot of people ask me,  “How come you never got a Nobel Prize?”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, why not?

KURT VONNEGUT: Because I spoke so ill of the Swedish car, Saab, which was a stinker, back then! Now, of course… the convertible, I guess, is the ultimate yuppie canoe. (laughter)

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You know, here we are talking about technology – cars. You’re a bit of a Luddite?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. Absolutely. I… All the new technology seems redundant, to me. I was quite happy with the United States mail service. And uh… I don’t even have an answering machine, for God’s sake!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Sounds un-American to me.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah, well, certainly, for a science fiction writer… But Ray Bradbury can’t even drive! (laughter)

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So you have one up on him; if you were selling Saabs…

There’s a little sweet moment, I’ve got to say, in a very intense book– your latest [A Man Without A Country]– in which you’re heading out the door and your wife says, “What are you doing?” I think you say, “I’m getting– I’m going to buy an envelope.”

What happens next?

KURT VONNEGUT: She says, “Well, you’re not a poor man. Why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet?” And so I pretend not to hear her and go out to get an envelope; because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.

Well, I meet a lot of people; and uh… see some great looking babes; and a fire engine goes by and I give them the “thumbs up”. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is… And, I don’t know… The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around.

And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize – or they don’t care – is we’re dancing animals. You know; we love to move around. And we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well you wrote in the book about this. You write, “What makes being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music… was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By ‘saints’, I meant people who behaved decently, in a strikingly indecent society.”

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. Those are acts of kindness and reason, on a very… on a face-to-face.. on a very local…

DAVID BRANCACCIO: On a human level.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah. On a human level.  And… Well, I’ve also spoken about – you know, you’ve heard of ‘original sin.’ Well, I’ve called attention to original virtue. Some people are born… (laughs) just so nice… And they’re going to be nice all their lives, no matter what.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, I think it’s easy to notice that some moments with you, Mr. Vonnegut, add up to, I think, a magic moment. Thank you very much.

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, I had a hell of a good time, I must say. If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The legendary man of American letters, Kurt Vonnegut. His latest book is called: A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY