DATE November 18, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Augusten Burroughs discusses experiences in his life
that he's written about
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You probably wouldn't have wanted to live the early life of Augusten
Burroughs, yet he's managed to transform his dysfunctional and disturbing
upbringing and early adulthood into a series of strangely amusing best-selling
memoirs. "Running With Scissors" describes what happened when his mother, a
poet who was mentally ill, gave him to her unorthodox psychiatrist to raise.
A New York Times book review said the memoir promotes "visceral responses of
laughter, wincing, retching on nearly every page and is funny and rich with
child's-eye details of adults who have gone off the rails." Burroughs' second
memoir, "Dry," is about working in advertising and getting sober. His new
collection of essays, "Magical Thinking," gets its title from a personality
disorder whose predominant symptom is attributing to one's own actions
something that had nothing to do with oneself, thus assuming that one has a
greater influence over events than is actually the case.
A little later we're going to be discussing adult subjects that you might not
want young children to hear about. Let's start with a reading from the first
essay of "Magical Thinking." It's called "My Last First Date," and it's about
meeting the man who became and remains Burroughs' partner.
Mr. AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS (Author): `We met at the Starbucks on Astor Place and
Third Avenue. I'd answered his personal ad the week before, and we'd had a
couple of long conversations on the phone. My first novel was just a week
away from being published, and I had decided that it was time for me to date.
It had been over a year since I'd dated anybody. I'd never dated anybody as a
published author, and since being a published author is all I ever really
wanted in life, I felt that I had never actually had a date as the real me.
It was the old me that slept with one-third of the men in Manhattan. It was
also the old me that drunkenly confessed to my last boyfriend that his famous
best friend was the most sexually attractive man I'd ever seen in my life.
When Dennis showed up, he was on time and in shorts. At this point, I didn't
know that he was so mentally healthy. I only knew that he was extremely sexy
and punctual. I had already ordered a double espresso, so he introduced
himself and said, "I'm just going to run inside and grab a coffee." He threw
me this smile that told me his first impression wasn't one of repulsion. His
teeth were so white, I was certain they were all capped. But this, like
silicone calf implants, was also fine with me. I'm what's known as an early
adopter. This means I had a laptop computer in 1984 when they were rare and
the size of briefcases. I also had a cell phone that was larger than a loaf
of bread. So new technologies have never frightened me away, even if these
technologies are implanted into the body with the intention of making what's
natural look better.
When Dennis returned, he set his tall coffee on the table, then sat down,
knocking his leg against the table and causing his coffee to slosh out. "Oh,
shoot," he said, shoving his chair back. "Oh, man! Great! What a first
impression." He looked at me with a genuinely disappointed and helpless
expression on his face. I could tell he felt lousy and clumsy, and I was
GROSS: That's Augusten Burroughs reading from his new book, "Magical
So is this relationship the most normal thing that's ever happened to you?
Mr. BURROUGHS: Oh, you know, it is. And it took a while to get used to at
first, you know, in my personal life, and I've always been drawn, I think, to
very, very extreme individuals, people who maybe could be described as
erratic, people who may be borderline manic depressive. And when I met
Dennis, I was really at a different place in my life. I mean, like I said in
this excerpt, I'd just published my first book. You know, they'd paid me an
astonishing advance of, you know, $25, hand over and publish, you know, 17
copies of it. And you know what? I was never happier in my life. I mean, I
was doing what I wanted to do.
So I was in a really, really good, sort of healthy state of mind. I'd been
sober, you know, for a while. And Dennis came around, the right person at the
right time, and you know, he is pretty normal in the sense that, you know,
he's very responsible and he's, you know, very sort of, you know, `together,'
I think you would say. He's very charming. He's very interested in other
people and very good with people. He really listens, but he's eccentric, too,
you know. He's a brilliant, brilliant person, and he doesn't even know kind
of how eccentric he is around the edges.
GROSS: Well, in this piece in your book, you say, that, you know, you and
Dennis didn't sleep together at first. You got to know each other in jazz
clubs, on the bowery, at restaurants, on park benches, in Central Park at
midnight. You say, `We were courting each other like people did in the
1940s.' And I was wondering, what was it like for you to act in this kind of,
you know, courting type of way when it was probably so foreign to everything
that you'd experienced? And, you know, you were hardly a virgin.
Mr. BURROUGHS: Yeah. Oh, my--it was the best time in my life. Dennis didn't
want to rush into sex, and to be honest with you, I didn't either. And I
GROSS: Yeah, I guess I'm wondering if you can return to that after having
rushed into sex for so many years.
Mr. BURROUGHS: You know, I didn't want to, but I didn't really think I'd ever
meet anybody. In this day and age, you know, it's not--you know, you go on a
date. Maybe the second date, you have sex, you see how you get along in bed,
you know, and you go from there. But I truly in my heart felt like I want to
really love somebody before I sleep with them, you know. And try saying that
on a first date, you know, or a second date to somebody, you know, and it's
`See ya later.'
And that's exactly what Dennis is like. And he wanted to take things very
slowly and not to leap ahead, you know, and not to force anything. And he
also didn't want to, I think, have sex, because he didn't want to get
entangled with somebody sexually right away. He wanted to maybe get entangled
sexually later, you know, after he knew that he had very strong feelings for
that person. So we did; we waited, you know, until we really, really,
really--until I knew, we both knew, you know, something--this is a different
relationship. This isn't like any other relationship I've ever had.
We really--you know, we'd have a great day. We'd go out. We'd, you know,
talk. So much talking, talking, talking, talking. And I'd go home and I'd
feel really peaceful, and that was absolutely new. I mean, I've not had a
life of peace, and I've not had a life of--I don't know how to describe it
other than just sort of saying emotionally full belly. That's not been my
experience. But when we were dating, that was exactly the experience.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, for listeners who haven't been keeping up with your
memoirs, let's do this. I'm going to ask you about one or two of the things
that you feel most set you apart from other people.
Mr. BURROUGHS: Oh, well, you know, I think probably one of the things that
sets me apart from other people is my upbringing, you know, that I talk about
in "Running With Scissors." And that's something that, when I experienced it,
you know, at the ages of 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 16 1/2, 17, I knew at the time,
this is an incredibly atypical thing I'm going through, you know. I was
having an experience that was absolutely so far out of the norm. I mean, my
mother was a very, very good poet in many ways, you know, early in her career,
and she had an incredible hunger to be famous, along the lines of Anne Sexton,
you know, back in the '70s. I mean, Anne Sexton could fill an auditorium with
2 or 3,000 people, you know, a poet. And my mother wanted to be that level of
She was also manic depressive, and she would have psychotic episodes every
fall and later twice a year, sometimes three times. She had a very difficult
marriage with my father, who was a heavy drinker, very, very heavy alcoholic
and a professor, and they sought couples counseling with a psychiatrist. And,
you know, it didn't work so they divorced, and the psychiatrist my mother
engaged, you know, he had a certain charisma. He was a very short man, very
sort of wide, white, white, white hair, thick white eyebrows, a white beard.
He really looked like the image of Santa that we think of. And in fact, you
know, there were times when he would wear a Santa hat actually while he
watched the news in his house. But he had a very big personality, you know.
He filled the room. Even though he was sort of a shorter man, he filled the
And he was kind of like a cult leader, you know. He lived in an absolutely
dilapidated Victorian in western Massachusetts in North Hampden, you know, the
home of Smith College, absolutely run down to the ground, you know. The
carpets were threadbare and covered with dog and cat hair. The furniture was
overturned and stuffing was coming out of everything, and he lived with his
biological family, which was rather large, but he also had an extended family.
You know, his son, his adopted son, Neil Bookman, was actually not his adopted
son but was a long-term patient. And Neil lived in the barn behind the house.
GROSS: I was going to say, and then you soon became one of those members of
the extended family in the house.
Mr. BURROUGHS: Right. I was introduced into this, yeah.
Mr. BURROUGHS: I was introduced into this, and I was, you know, sort of--that
became my family. My mother dropped me off when I was 12, you know, for an
hour visit here, two hours there, and before long, I was there all the time.
And eventually, you know, she signed the paperwork over, and he became my
legal guardian. So the doctor believed when you were 13, you were a free
person, you know. You didn't have to go to school, you didn't have to do
anything you didn't want to do. So we were like, you know, little crazy, you
know, unbridled adults. And I engaged--I began a sexual physical relationship
with a gentleman, you know, twice my age who was, you know, obviously a very,
very unstable guy. And that childhood--I think that experience of not having
the socialization that school provides for you, you know, junior high, high
school, being raised absolutely outside the norm--I mean, my childhood
experience, which definitely shaped me in a lot of ways, is one of the very
unusual things about me.
And I think the other unusual thing that sets me apart from some people is
that I experienced that and then I spent all of my 20s very, very, very, very
drunk and working in advertising, you know. I got a job when I was 19
because, you know, in advertising, it doesn't really matter, you know, what
kind of a family you come from or, you know, what school you went to. You
know, basically, if you can write a better Chuck Wagon commercial, you know,
you're in. So--you know.
GROSS: Do you ever--do you feel like you ever embellish to make the stories
that happened to you more readable? And I'm sure a lot of readers wonder, do
you ever just, like, make it up, 'cause it's such a good story?
Mr. BURROUGHS: No. You know what I do, though? I--like in--"Running With
Scissors" is a perfect example. I didn't embellish, but I cut a lot out,
because I could have written a very different book, and it would have been
intolerable to read, you know, a book about, you know, child molestation and
being abandoned--you know, or sexual abuse and being abandoned by your mother
and having to deal with a mother who's mentally ill. You know, I--what I did
is I focused only on what I felt were sort of the absolutely eccentric, almost
joyous aspects of such a debauched experience, because, you know, there were
quite a few things that I cherish, you know, memories I cherish. So I
didn't--I omitted the very dark, terrifying, you know...
Mr. BURROUGHS: Because I felt that if I had gone in that direction with
"Running With Scissors," it would have been too dark, and it would have made
you not want to read it. It would have made you--And you know what? I didn't
want to write it. I mean, I remember when I started writing that book. The
first thing I did, you know, I wrote a proposal for my publisher, and I said,
you know, I had a--kind of an unusual childhood, you know, and here's what it
was like. And they said, you know, `Write the book. We like the propo--write
So I had, like, a year and a half and I--or two years, I think. Anyway, I
flitted away half a year worrying. And then when I started to write, I began
writing some of the--I actually began writing one scene with me and, you know,
the doctor's adopt--patient, the pedophile, Neil. We were in a corn field
kissing. And I started writing that, and it just made me so uncomfortable,
and I thought, `Oh, I'm never going to get through this book. I'm never going
to be able to write this. It's too ugly.' Because this is a childhood that I
was very ashamed of throughout my 20s, you know. Hence, the drinking, you
know. Hence, "Dry." And I--it was ugly. So I thought, you know, `I'm going
to start with something fun.'
GROSS: My guest is Augusten Burroughs. His latest book is called "Magical
Thinking." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Augusten Burroughs, author of the best-selling memoirs
"Running With Scissors" and "Dry." His latest book is a collection of
personal essays called "Magical Thinking."
Now your mother wasn't just eccentric. She was mentally ill. Was there an
age where you were able to discern the difference between eccentricity and
Mr. BURROUGHS: When I was very, very young, I think my mother was very, very
good, when I was five, six and seven. She used to read to me a lot, you know,
and she used to pay a lot of attention. When I was 11 and 12, in that area, I
used to look at her--and this was in the fall, when, you know, when she would
be leaving, mentally. And I would notice something different in her eyes. My
mother, you know, was always very exuberant. You know, she would paint, and
if she wasn't painting, she would be writing, and if she wasn't writing, she
would spend hours and hours doing a pen-and-ink illustration or she'd be
talking on the phone. She had, you know, lots of friends. She was a very,
very exuberant, big, big person, you know. She sort of filled her life with a
lot of projects and interests.
But I think the defining period came when I would see her eyes, and what
was--what I saw in her eyes I didn't recognize. There was a--and it's very
difficult to describe. You know, I sort of imagine quote marks, "the look,"
but there was "the look" in her eyes that told me she was gone, you know.
That--it was almost as if she were somehow, you know, possessed, and it was
scary. It was very, very, very scary. And immediately after I saw that look,
you know, one or two days, her behavior would change, and she would get really
manic. She would stop sleeping and she would begin writing, you know, 50-,
70-, 80-, 90-page poems. She would, you know, start--you know, one year she
decoupaged the kitchen table, you know, with things from magazines and
rejection letters from poetry journals. She got, you know, just hugely,
hugely, enormously energetic. She would smoke her cigarettes down to the
filter and then beyond, you know, and leave them burning. And she emitted a
certain odor, you know.
GROSS: What was your ideal of normal? If you could have been any, quote,
"normal person" or lived in a, quote, "normal family," what would that have
Mr. BURROUGHS: Oh, you know, probably very, very cliched. You know, there
were some kids in school, you know, elementary school, that--they used to do
activities with their parents, you know, go camping or go on vacations. And
that level of sort of intimacy, I guess--you know, like, I don't know what
that is like. I mean, I have adult friends now who are very, very close to
their fathers and their mothers, and I'm just astounded sometimes. You know,
as astounded as other people tend to be about my life, I'm equally astounded
when I hear, you know, a friend of mine talk about some great conversation he
had with his father, and, you know, how they went out and worked on the car
together, you know, or whatever activity there was, because I never had that,
you know, and I can't even imagine what that would be like.
GROSS: So what was the last grade that you went to in school?
Mr. BURROUGHS: Well, the last grade I completed was the fourth, but then I
went to a little bit of the fifth, a little bit of the sixth, a little bit of
the seventh, and when I say a little bit, I mean under 28 days consecutively.
And I had--you know, there's a compulsory education law in Massachusetts, or
there was at the time. And you have to go to school till you're 16. But--so
what I would do is I would have--you know, the doctor would write excuses for
me, you know, mental health excuses, medical excuses, and that would help, you
know. That would get me a break for a while. He also, you know, gave me some
pills and some liquor and said, you know, `Drink this and we'll fake a suicide
attempt,' you know. So I ended up in a psychiatric hospital as a--for trying
to kill myself, you know, although I did not try to kill myself, and that got
me out of school for a while.
So it was very patchy. You know, it was very, very patchy. After the fourth
grade, it was very, very, very patchy. And, you know, that's one thing I
actually regret. I think--I kind of wish I had--you know, I ran away from
school. School was in the way. It was very, very hard for me to focus on
school when I had such unstable, you know, sort of home life, and I was
involved in this, you know--I hate to use the word `romantic' relationship,
'cause it was far from romantic--this physical relationship with this person.
And my life just felt so big, you know, at the age of 13 and 14 and 15, that
there was no room for me to sit in class and memorize prepositional phrases,
you know, and to go out and, you know, do little field trips or those things.
And I felt like I had nothing in common with those kids, you know. I mean, I
came into school in the morning--you know, I didn't have a little Smurf key
chain. I had, you know, razor burn on my cheek, you know, from making out.
It was ugly. So...
GROSS: Now because your memoirs are so personal and because they reveal, you
know, all this stuff about your sex life and your mother's mental illness and
all this kind of chaos in your life and your former alcohol problem, etc., you
have revealed a lot of the things that other people would keep private. Have
there been consequences for that? Are there any things that you regret are no
longer private? Are there any things that you regret that anyone who reads
your books would now know?
Mr. BURROUGHS: You know, it's ironic, 'cause I'm a very private person,
personally. Off the page, I'm very, very private. I've got, you know, a very
tight, very small circle of close friends, and I don't go, you know, too, to
parties and literary parties and events. I tend not to unless I'm dragged.
You know, I tend to, you know, be a real homebody with, you know, Dennis and
the dogs. And it's funny. Revealing, you know, so much about myself, it's--I
almost--this is going to sound like a strange answer, but I almost go into
denial and don't think about it. So I have to just sort of have a line--well,
not a line. I have to sort of have a policy, if you will, mentally, where
I'm--look, I'm going to reveal it, you know, no matter how embarrassing it is
to me, because I know now, you know, from "Running With Scissors" and from
"Dry," I know that there are other people out there who have felt or done or
said exactly the same thing, you know.
I mean, I have received letters from, you know, political officials and movie
stars and rock stars and soccer moms and, you know, dads who stay--you know,
all kinds of people, grandfathers, you know, people who were too young to read
the book in the first place but did anyway. And so many of them will say, you
know, that they can relate for whatever reason. You know, they went through
this or they thought this or, you know, they wondered about this. There's the
connection there. People kind of--I haven't had any sort of rejection. I've
not had somebody say--I mean, with--a few people get grossed out and think,
`Oh, that's improper.' You know? `That's terrible that you would write, you
know, in "Running With Scissors" about a 13-year-old boy having sex with a
30-whatever-year-old man. That's disgusting, you know. To have a sex scene
like that, I feel tricked.' You know, and my reaction to that is, you know,
it's not a sex scene, actually. It's a criminal act, you know. It's in there
because it's abuse, you know, and it's interesting and it's part of the story.
So I try not to edit myself. And maybe that's, like, the alcoholic wild card,
you know, just slip into denial. When I write, I write for myself. I don't
think about, `Ooh, are people going to like this?' you know.
GROSS: Augusten Burroughs. His new book is called "Magical Thinking." His
earlier best-selling memoirs are "Running With Scissors" and "Dry." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we showcase an excerpt of the radio series, "Leonard
Bernstein: & the American Life." TV critic David Bianculli reviews new DVD
collections of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and Shelley Duvall's "Faerie Tale
Theater." And we continue our interview with writer Augusten Burroughs and
find out how he came up with that name.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Augusten Burroughs.
He's told the story of his troubling and dysfunctional upbringing and early
adulthood in two surprisingly funny best-sellers, "Running With Scissors" and
"Dry." His new best-seller is a collection of personal essays called "Magical
Now as we've said, you know, "Dry," your middle memoir, is about your period
when you were an alcoholic. Did the 12-step program work for you? You're so
verbal. And, you know, when you're really verbal and very kind of facile with
language sometimes, any kind of talking thing could be especially effective or
especially ineffective because you can use a facility with words to do all
kinds of denial type of things and to talk around anything.
Mr. BURROUGHS: Right. Yeah. I mean, it worked. It did work. I went--when
I got out of rehab, I did something that they advocated, which was, you know,
90 in 90, 90 meetings in 90 days, which is, you know, every day you go to a
meeting for 90 days. And I did that. And when I got out of rehab, I was so
absolutely determined to never drink again. I mean, I was--and I knew I
wouldn't. I knew I would be sober for the rest of my life, and I was
terrified of relapsing. And, you know, I thought about relapsing every single
day. I wasn't tempted to drink every day, but I thought about relapse every
day, and I thought, `It's out there somewhere, and it's not going to get me,'
you know? And when my life sort of fell apart in recovery--I mean, my very
best friend, Pighead, died--I decided to drink again because I didn't care.
And so I drank. And to make a long story short, I ended up, you now, far,
far, far more severely sick from alcohol than I had ever been before. I was
in rehab. I mean, I was drinking much more than I'd ever consumed in my life.
And I actually got alcohol poisoning, which is something that I, you know,
assumed I must have had every other weekend, you know, for the past 10 years,
but, in fact, I hadn't. Alcohol poisoning is a very specific sort of
And, I mean, I was hallucinating, and I had hives that were spreading up my
arms and legs and chest, all the way to my neck. And it was getting kind of
difficult to breathe, and there was a metallic taste. And my liver--you know,
like, when I stood up and looked in the mirror, I could see the outline of my
liver, you know, through my skin. And my heart was beating so erratically
that every time I would lie down to try to go to sleep, I would be startled
awake. You know, we've all had one of those dreams where you're drifting off
to sleep, and maybe, you know, you feel yourself stepping off a curb or a set
of steps, and it startles you awake. And that's what it was like for my
trying to sleep.
So I knew I would die, you know, very, very--if I continued to drink. And
when I got sober for the last time, my whole sort of approach to it was very,
very different. You know, I was no longer, you know, confident in terms of
feeling that I conquered alcohol in any way. I had--I was terrified of
alcohol. I had an enormous amount of respect for it and fear for it. I mean,
I was drinking--drinking--since I was 13 but an alcoholic probably since I
was, like, 19. So I hadn't had a lot of experience sober, you know. And I
found I really, really liked being sober. I really like not being under the
influence of anything. I mean, my own brain chemistry is more than enough.
It's too much.
GROSS: You know, at the beginning of your new book, "Magical Thinking," you
write, `Some names have been changed.' Now you changed your own name, too,
Mr. BURROUGHS: I did, yeah. When I was 18, you know, right after my
birthday, I went to a Boston, Massachusetts, courthouse, and I changed my
first, middle and last name. And the reason is because I wanted to be a new
person. I wanted to reinvent myself. I did not want to be the person who
went through such a grim, gross childhood. I wanted a fresh start. And I
didn't want to be, you know--I didn't want my future to be dependent upon who
I was and what I had gone through. I wanted to wipe the slate clean, so I
changed my name. And I've now been, you know, Augusten Burroughs longer than
I was my previous name.
GROSS: Will you say our previous name?
Mr. BURROUGHS: Yeah, I was Chris.
GROSS: Is Burroughs an homage to William Burroughs?
Mr. BURROUGHS: No, I'd never heard of William Burroughs, you know. I
was--like I told you before, I had graduated from a really cheesy computer
programming school, and Burroughs was a computer manufacturer in the '80s.
They made, like, the Burroughs Tabulator. So I named myself after a computer.
My middle name, Xon, X-O-N, is also a computer term. And I don't know if it
still is, like, an active term, but it meant--a computer is either Xon or
Xoff. And Xon means always in a state of accepting input. And I thought,
`Now that's a pretty great middle name.' And Augusten sounded familiar but a
little bit different, you know, kind of classic and yet a little bit modern.
You know, now I'm stuck with this ridiculous name. `What's your name?'
`Augusten Burroughs,' you know. I wish it were, you know, James Smith...
GROSS: Did you...
Mr. BURROUGHS: ...a nice two-syllable name.
GROSS: Are there other Augustens in the world? I mean, I don't know any, but
I figure there must be.
Mr. BURROUGHS: No, I don't think there are, certainly not with my childhood.
GROSS: Did you make up the name, or did you get it from someplace?
Mr. BURROUGHS: No, I made it up, yeah.
GROSS: And how'd you make it up?
Mr. BURROUGHS: Well, you know, when you're a kid--there were, like, four or
five Chrises in my elementary school. But, you know, remember when you were a
kid and you were looking at all the other kids writing there names? And you
were like, `Look at Ellen,' and then you want their letters 'cause you're
tired of your letters, you know? So I kind of just, like, took all the
letters that I wanted when I was a kid and put them together, and, you know, I
got my A and my U and my G and U and S and T and E and N and we ended up with
GROSS: And for people who don't know your writing but just see your name,
what do you think they guess you are, kind of, you know, ethnically or your
religion, your class?
Mr. BURROUGHS: Oh, I never thought about that?
GROSS: What presumptions do they make based on Augusten Burroughs?
Mr. BURROUGHS: You know, I can't--I don't know. It sounds fairly Northern
European, I think, doesn't it? Burroughs. (Speaking with British dialect)
Burroughs. Yes, Burroughs.
GROSS: It sounds kind of upper-crust to me.
Mr. BURROUGHS: (Speaking with British dialect) Mr. Burroughs. It could be
Mr. BURROUGHS: It does sound kind of up--I like that about it.
GROSS: Oh, it sounds like you should be...
Mr. BURROUGHS: It elevates me.
GROSS: ...like, having a martini in an exclusive club.
Mr. BURROUGHS: It is, exactly.
GROSS: Well, Augusten Burroughs, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BURROUGHS: Well, thank you so much.
GROSS: Augusten Burroughs' new book is called "Magical Thinking."
Coming up, we showcase an excerpt of a new radio series about Leonard
Bernstein. This is FRESH AIR.
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Review: DVD releases of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and "Shelley
Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Two TV shows from the '80s aimed at kids are now available on DVD. The shows
are "Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre" and "Pee-wee's Playhouse." TV
critic David Bianculli says they still work beautifully at entertaining young
and old viewers.
(Soundbite of "Pee-wee's Playhouse"; music)
Ms. CYNDI LAUPER: (Singing as Ellen Shaw) Come on in, and pull yourself up a
Mr. PAUL REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Like Chairry!
Ms. LAUPER: (Singing as Ellen Shaw) Let the fun begin. It's time to let down
your hair. Pee-wee's so excited 'cause all his friends have been invited...
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) That's you!
Ms. LAUPER (Singing as Ellen Shaw) ...to go wacky at Pee-wee's Playhouse.
There's a crazy rhythm...
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
When "Pee-wee's Playhouse" premiered as part of the CBS Saturday morning
lineup in 1986, it was the strangest children's show to appear on broadcast
network TV since--well, since "Marshall Efron's Illustrated, Simplified and
Painless Sunday School" which, at this point, only Marshall and I may
remember. But "Pee-wee's Playhouse," in its prime, was a lot more
high-profile. It was a big hit with kids, who took the childlike character
played by Paul Reubens to heart. And it also sat well with adults, who could
sit still painlessly watching with their children, or without them.
In its five-year run, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" won 22 Emmys. Its mixture of live
action, animation, vintage cartoons, surrealistic set design, gentle lessons
and goofy anarchy added up to an infectiously fizzy concoction. In "Pee-wee's
Playhouse," there was no dead space, not on the air and not in the Playhouse.
There were clay dinosaurs in the mouse hole, singing pizzas in the
refrigerator and lots of things that talked, including the chair, some
flowers, a robot and the head of a wish-granting genie. Friends came by to
visit, to play pretend, to solve problems and to be surprised by the day's
(Soundbite of "Pee-wee's Playhouse")
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Good morning, Conky.
"CONKY": (Makes beeping noises)
Ms. ALISON MORK: (As Magic Screen) Hi, Conky. Hey, Pee-wee, what's the
secret word for today?
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Gee, I don't know yet, Magic Screen. I was
just about to ask Conky. Conky?
"CONKY": (Makes electronic sounds)
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Today's secret word is `door.' Ha-ha!
Now you all know what to do whenever we hear the secret word, right?
Mr. GREGORY HARRISON and Ms. MORK: (As Conky, the Robot and Magic Screen in
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) That's right! For the rest of the day,
whenever anybody says the secret word, scream real loud. Ha-ha! Ready?
Let's try it. Hey, Magic Screen, what's that red thing over there?
Ms. MORK: (As Magic Screen) What a silly question, Pee-wee. It's the door.
(Soundbite of screaming)
BIANCULLI: All five seasons of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" have been released by
Image Entertainment in two $50 box sets, the first two season in one volume,
the remaining three in the other. That's 45 episodes in all. And they're
packed with more entertainment and insanity per minute than any release this
side of the "Looney Tunes" collections.
You'll see a few now-familiar faces as regular Playhouse visitors. Laurence
Fishburne, famously tough as one of the stars of "The Matrix," has an early
and wildly different role here as genial Cowboy Curtis. And the late Phil
Hartman plays salty Captain Carl, a sailor who drops by sometimes and other
times calls Pee-wee from sea, using his special tin-can-and-string phone.
(Soundbite of "Pee-wee's Playhouse")
(Soundbite of telephone ringing)
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Pee-wee's Playhouse. Pee-wee speaking.
Mr. PHIL HARTMAN: (As Captain Carl) Ahoy, Pee-wee!
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Ahoy, Captain Carl!
Mr. HARTMAN: (As Captain Carl) Mayday, Pee-wee! I'm lost, lost at sea!
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Say it, don't spray it, Captain Carl!
Mr. HARTMAN: (As Captain Carl) You got to help me, Pee-wee! Save me from
this watery grave!
Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Conky...
BIANCULLI: "Pee-wee's Playhouse" ended in 1991 and was on the air in reruns
when Paul Reubens, Pee-wee's alter ego, was arrested for indecent exposure in
a Florida adult theater. That basically ended Pee-wee, though the actor now
plans to revive the character.
Meanwhile, this box set focuses entirely on the art, not the artist. It's
what you might call unadulterated Pee-wee--just the shows, man. There are no
extras whatsoever, no commentary from Reubens, no extra scenes, no
behind-the-scenes documentaries on the making of the shows' extensive and
creative special effects. Those are supposed to come next year in a special
collector's set of the entire series. Die-hard fans may want to wait for that
if they can. But to those who have missed Pee-wee and want to introduce him
to their own kids, there's no reason to wait.
Another long-missing children's series is available now on DVD as well, this
one from Starmaker II Video. It's an anthology series called "Shelley
Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre" and originally ran on the Showtime cable network
from 1982 to '87, back when Showtime, not HBO, was doing the best and most
innovative TV on cable.
Duvall's idea was to adapt each fairy tale in a playful but loyal way, basing
the set design on the work of a famous artist or illustrator and inviting her
Hollywood friends to play the starring and supporting parts. The lineup of
both titles and stars is amazing. The very first "Faerie Tale Theatre"
starred Robin Williams as the frog prince, and Duvall got to "The Little
Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," all of them, before Disney
did. Susan Sarandon starred in "Beauty and the Beast." Liza Minnelli starred
in "The Princess and the Pea." And "Rapunzel" featured not only Shelley
Duvall herself but Gena Rowlands and Jeff Bridges. "Pinocchio" featured Carl
Reiner as Geppetto, Michael Richards and Jim Belushi in supporting roles and
starred, as the wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy, none other than
The best of them all, though, was "The Three Little Pigs," which starred Billy
Crystal, Fred Willard and Steven Furst as the pigs and Jeff Goldblum as the
Big Bad Wolf. Here he is threatening the pigs, all of whom have taken shelter
in Billy Crystal's brick house.
(Soundbite of "Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre")
Mr. JEFF GOLDBLUM: (As Big Bad Wolf) OK, pig, look, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
You either open up now, and I mean now, or I'll huff and I'll puff and maybe
I'll huff again, but I'm going to blow this house in.
Mr. BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Third Little Pig) Not by the hair of my
Mr. GOLDBLUM: (As Big Bad Wolf) You keep saying that. What do you mean,
chinny-chin-chin? What does it mean?
Mr. CRYSTAL: (As Third Little Pig) It means no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GOLDBLUM: (As Big Bad Wolf) You asked for it, pal. (Huffs and puffs) OK,
ready? Here we go. I'm puffing.
Unidentified Actors: (In unison) Wee! Wee! Wee! Wee!
Mr. GOLDBLUM: (As Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing)
BIANCULLI: Like "Pee-wee's Playhouse," these "Faerie Tale Theatre" shows come
without extras. A complete box set is planned for next year. Meanwhile, the
episodes are available individually at an eye-opening low price of $6.98 each.
I'd start with "The Three Little Pigs" and load up.
These shows are some 20 years old now, but so are my kids. And when they
heard that I'd just received the complete set of "Faerie Tale Theatre" DVDs,
they called each other like they'd just won the lottery. But they haven't won
anything. I like these DVDs so much, they're staying with me.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.