I once did a show for no people,'' recalls George Carlin. ''The owner wanted me to get on, just in case someone came in. It was a 30-minute show, but without any laughs it took me only 20 minutes.'' That type of gig is a pothole in a stand-up comedy career. One of the peaks is getting a solo HBO special and Carlin has headlined more of them than anyone else. That's why he gets to host 20 Years of Comedy on HBO, featuring just about every major comedian you can think of from the past two decades. In honor of this auspicious occasion, we asked participants Carlin, Robert Klein (who had the first HBO special), Steven Wright, and Paula Poundstone to address a few questions that have absolutely nothing to do with anything.
What's your favorite song?
Poundstone: ''Jane'' by the Barenaked Ladies. It's also my [16-month-old] foster daughter's favorite, so we play it every day. We have a very great and fine dance.
Klein: ''Feelings.'' Its emotion is so impactful the refrain [singing] ''Woh woh woh, feee-lings!'' After they'd perform that on television, absentee rates would go up in factories and offices; people were emotionally overwrought. It's between that and ''Sometimes When We Touch.''
Carlin: ''Clean Out the Crapper, Uncle Charlie's Comin' Home.''
Wright: ''Happy Birthday.'' I'm fascinated that it's always sung with no music.
What is mankind's greatest invention?
Poundstone: The wheel is nice. But I cannot picture functioning without an answering machine. Let's face it, someone was eventually going to come up with the wheel. The answering machine took real innovation.
Klein: The flushing toilet. And air-conditioning. In fact, an air-conditioned toilet.
Carlin: The spatula. It's such a good item that they've never had to improve on it. They've never made it electric or automatic or put a computer in it.
Wright: No question: power windows. It just fascinates me to seal or unseal yourself off from the environment by a push of a finger.
What's the most useful thing you learned from your mother?
Poundstone: She packs really well. And packing's become a major part of my life.
Klein: Make sure there's enough onion in the potato pancakes.
Carlin: How to filet a panda.
Wright: To look both ways when crossing the street. It's been incredible. It worked for me. It's such a simple thing, and yet had that not been learned...
What would you have done if you'd been stranded on Apollo 13?
Poundstone: I've always thought that if my death was imminent, I would read. When I can't focus on a book, I tend to keep reading the same page. My guess is, I would've read, like, the first page of Nicholas Nickleby over and over again.
Klein: I would've called Jacoby & Meyers and filed a negligence suit against NASA.
Carlin: I would have gotten out at 59th Street and taken the D train.
Wright: I would have cried.
What is the public's biggest misconception about you?
Poundstone: People confuse me with Rosie O'Donnell. And most people remember me as being heavier than I actually am.
Klein: Most people think I'm Jewish, but I'm actually a Presbyterian minister.
Carlin: A lot of people think I wasn't very good in geometry, but I was very, very good. It's not widely known.
Wright: They think I'm a human being.
What film role were you born to play?
Poundstone: I suppose The Rosie O'Donnell Story goes without saying.
Klein: Rocky in Rocky II not I, III, or IV.
Carlin: A priest who strangles six children. I think I'd do a good job with that.
Additional reporting by Michelle Woodson