Just before my daughter’s birth, one of the little cultural magazines I was writing for asked me to interview the comedian George Carlin. The magazine set it up, and our initial phone conversation lasted an hour and a half. Carlin was smart, gracious, generous with his time and measured in his response; but he was not funny. The casual sarcasm that commonly peppers most modern conversations was largely absent in my interview with George, and there certainly were none of the state-of-the-art verbal pyrotechnics that Carlin was known for. It was a little off-putting at first because his voice was so easily associated with humor, but I took a tip from my subject, hunkered down and got serious. We talked about the First Amendment, Lenny Bruce, censorship, the negative impact of religion and the current dark-colored third stage of this man’s extraordinary career.
“I realized there were some things I wasn’t supposed to say,” Carlin explained, “and then I came to the decision that I didn’t owe anything to anybody.”
We liked each other immediately. I think we were similar in some basic ways: We both had been skinny, wise-ass Irish Catholic kids who learned to talk our way out of every fight in the schoolyard. We both saw ourselves as victimized by the Catholic Church at a young age. We both gravitated towards careers that would piss off the nuns, and we both liked to smoke pot. For a brief period I had a phone friend in George Carlin.
One night when I was working late in New York George called the house, and my wife said I wasn’t home.
“Well, could you tell him I called? This is George.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “I recognize the voice.”
“And you are…?”
“I’m his wife, Delaynie”
“Ah, that’s an unusual name. I used to know someone named Delaynie.”
“Yeah. My mom named me after a rock musician, Delaynie Bramlett from Delaynie & Bonnie and Friends.”
“That’s who I used to know!”
When I got home Delaynie had this smile on her face. “Guess who invited me – oh, and you too – to be his guest at his show in Atlantic City next week?!!”
But we never got a chance to go because our daughter was six weeks old. We had no babysitter and not a lot of money. It was time for me to stay home and find a real job. I had been floating along selling ads for far too long and too little money at a struggling indie music mag on the Lower East Side, and the publisher knew an editor at High Times. She suggested I call Carlin back and ask him some pot questions and maybe I could stretch another paycheck out of the interview.
George graciously obliged and that was the pivot. Had he refused, everything would have been different. He gave me another long interview, once again gracious, generous and measured; but still not funny (I was used to it by now). I typed up our drug talk and sent it to High Times. While waiting for a response the indie magazine I was working for shuttered its doors, and I was completely out of a job.
The High Times interview with George Carlin was the February 1998 cover story. It was my first national magazine cover. When her indie magazine folded, my former employer got a job as the High Times’ photo editor as I went looking for work. I saw a blind classified ad in the New York Times: “Leading counterculture magazine seeks ad rep.” So I bundled my resume’ with the current issue of High Times – the one with Carlin in the cover- and unknowingly sent it to High Times magazine. The HT publisher pulled a copy of his own magazine out of the envelope, read the resume and asked his photo editor to step into his office.
“You know this guy?”
“He got the Carlin interview?
“Is he the kind of person who can fit in around here?” That was always a crucial question at High Times…
My former employer – Bless her heart – said to her current boss, “I think if anyone was ever born to work at High Times, it’s Rick Cusick.”
* * *
A few years later an editor wanted a comment from George about something – I don’t remember what – and asked if I would put in a call. He got right back, gave me the quote and then we talked for a bit and caught up. He asked how I was doing.
“Better than the last time we spoke,” I quipped. “This time I’m gainfully employed. My daughter will not grow up in poverty because of you, George.”
There was a moment of measured silence. Someone else would have made a joke.
“Good,” said the funniest man in the world.
That’s how I got my job at High Times.