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'Elite'... What's it to You?

Fresh Air linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the evolution of the meaning of the "e" word.

06:06

Other segments from the episode on April 25, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 25, 2008: Interview with Casey Affleck; Commentary on language; Interview with Jerry Seinfeld; Review of "Standard operating procedure."

Transcript

DATE April 25, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actor Casey Affleck on his two latest films, "Gone
Baby Gone" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward
Robert Ford"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Casey Affleck has appeared in 22 films over the last dozen years, but he's
often been referred to as "the other Affleck," a reference to his older
brother Ben Affleck. But that's changing now, thanks in part to Casey
Affleck's starring roles in two films now out on DVD: "The Assassination of
Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Gone Baby Gone." Both performances
have won critical praise. "Gone Baby Gone" is the directorial debut of Ben
Affleck. Among Casey Affleck's other films are "To Die For," "Good Will
Hunting," "Gerry" and "Oceans 11," "12" and "13."

"Gone Baby Gone" is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote "Mystic
River." Affleck plays a small time private detective who's asked to help find
an abducted child. In this scene, he's visiting a drug dealer and is willing
to help the dealer out with a problem in return for help finding the missing
child named Amanda McCready.

(Soundbite of "Gone Baby Gone")

Mr. CASEY AFFLECK: (As Patrick Kenzie) We found what you were looking for in
Chelsea.

(Soundbite of pool balls clacking)

Mr. EDI GATHEGI: (As Cheese) What do I care about Chelsea?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: (As Kenzie) Because one of the idiots that robbed you lived
there.

Mr. GATHEGI: (As Cheese) What idiot?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: (As Kenzie) The one that you and Chris beat with a pipe and
shot in the chest.

Mr. GATHEGI: (As Cheese) I don't know about nobody getting killed. But if
somebody robbed me and end up dead, well, you know, life is a...(censored by
network).

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Cheese, we got your money. It was
buried in Ray's backyard. We want to give it back to you in exchange for
Amanda McCready. The two police outside are the only other people who know.

Mr. C. AFFLECK: (As Kenzie) No one gives a...(word censored by
network)...about what you did. I mean, I didn't even like Ray that much.
You're going to get your money, m mother gets her daughter back, and we'll say
we found the kid in the bushes or whatever. It's either this, real quiet, or
it's a thousand...(word censored by network)...cops kicking your door in,
putting their fat knees in your neck.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: I spoke to Casey Affleck last fall, when "Gone Baby Gone" was
released in theaters. The film is set in Boston, where Casey and Ben Affleck
grew up.

Well, Casey Affleck, welcome to FRESH AIR. When you had to craft this
character, this private eye from this working-class neighborhood of
Dorchester, were there people that you knew that you grew up with that you
sort of drew on to craft this character?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Well, in different ways, yes. No, there is not one single
person, but I knew the accent, I knew the way that people dressed, and kind of
what music they listened to, what kind of jobs they had, what their attitudes
were towards everything from police to themselves to their children, I knew
what kind of slang that they used, you know. It's just, as an actor, it just
means that you don't have to go spend, you know, four months listening to a
dialect coach and trying to get the accent right and sort of wandering, you
know, getting to know people there just to figure out, like, when they wear
their sweats and when they put on their, like, ironed, you know, jeans.

DAVIES: Boston is a character in, you know, Dennis Lehane's novels, and it's
clearly a character in this film, and I think really evocatively drawn out by,
you know, by your brother as the director. Were there moments in the dialogue
in scenes that you kind of felt like, `This is really what I know. This is so
familiar to me'?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Well, I mean, just about all of it, except for the police
work. You know, any time we were shooting kind of down in the neighborhood
where the character lived and with people--you know, there's a scene in a bar,
and we go in there to talk to--we're looking for this missing girl, and this
is a place where the mother hung out. And so we go in there to talk to people
and find out, you know, see if we can get some information. And it's the
middle of the day, and there's about six or seven guys, you know, alcoholics,
you know, kind of sitting in there in the middle of the day, you know. And
it's the kind of place where my father worked when I was a kid, as a
bartender. It's the kind of place where, you know, I actually spent some time
as a kid.

And when Ben was scouting the location, he went there in the middle of the
day, and he said, `OK, all of you, I want you to just be here, you know, next
week on Monday and you're going to be in the movie.' They kind of all shrugged
their shoulders and, you know, we showed up next week and there they were, you
know, just still sitting there on their stools and probably hadn't left. And
so they ended up in the movie.

DAVIES: You know, you know the director of this film very well. It's your
brother Ben Affleck. And he happened to be on FRESH AIR right after you
finished shooting this, and we asked him about what it was like directing you,
his brother. And I thought we'd maybe just listen to what he told Terry Gross
about directing you in the film.

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Uh-oh.

(Soundbite of previous FRESH AIR)

Mr. BEN AFFLECK: It was really interesting, you know, it was kind of--it's
hard, because you have to put on a different hat, you know what I mean? You
can't have this conversation with your brother the way you'd have it with your
brother if he's an actor in your movie. You have to treat him as you would
treat an actor in the movie, which sometimes means, I mean, something as
simple as trying to swallow the urge to strangle him, you know, or to be
really curt with, like, `Just because I said to do it that way, that's why!'
You know? Instead of going like, `Well, OK, that's interesting. I hear you.
Let's process what you're talking about.' So it was an exercise in
self-discipline.

But, you know, my brother, the thing that's really rewarding is that he's a
really, really good actor, and he's typically been seen in, you know, kind of
character roles as well. So I think, you know, I have the good fortune of
being able to show an audience something kind of new and surprising that's
also really good. And that's a rarity.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Ben Affleck speaking with Terry Gross, talking about
directing our guest, his brother, Casey Affleck.

Well, Casey, now we have to turn to you. What was it like from your end?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Well, let me just say, first of all, he rarely swallowed
the urge to strangle me. If he felt that urge, he usually went for it. And
what's more is, I don't think I ever heard him say, `I hear you, and let me
process that.' So it's funny characterization of how we worked, but he was--I
sort of feel sort of the opposite. I don't feel like he ever had to put on a
different hat. I kind of felt like, you know, a great advantage that we had
was that we were kind of brothers who had this relationship for 32 years, that
we kind of had had every possible kind of conversation one could have, you
know. I mean, I've asked for him for advice, he's come to me for advice,
we've fought, we've helped each other, lied to each other, kept secrets, told
the truth, and, you know, we've kind of been through it all, so.

And what's more is that, you know, on top of it all, he had a fabulous way of
talking to actors, I think just because he's been an actor. You know, he
never got the megaphone and put on the boots and the scally cap and never did
like the old director thing. `Listen, pal, you're going to say your lines,
and you're going to'--you know, it was--he just said, you know, `I think it's
like this. I think you should try it like that.' Or he just--it seemed to me
like it was Ben that I'd set on a couch next to 100,000 times, watched a movie
with and talked to him about it.

DAVIES: Well, Casey Affleck, you have another film out that's getting a lot
of great reviews, and that's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward
Robert Ford," the assassin being yourself. And this is just a fascinating
story, where you play this man who was, you know, an obsessed fan of Jesse
James who eventually becomes close to him and then does him in. It's a
fascinating story based on a historical novel. How did you prepare for this
role?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Well, there was a book by Ron Hansen that I read that was
beautiful, a really great kind of character study, I thought, of Robert Ford,
mostly, and Jesse James. And then I read the screenplay by Andrew Dominik,
that was just stunningly beautiful and kind of ornate and strange in its
architecture and, you know, just dialogue that just kind of like leapt from
the page. So those two the things were kind of my blueprint, because there
was nothing available about Robert Ford. There's obviously a lot available
about Jesse James; but Robert Ford, there's very little online, very little
you can find about him anywhere. There wasn't too much research that I could
do, other than learn to shoot a gun, ride a horse, and to be really
knowledgeable about the period, you know, like reading newspapers every day.
You know, every morning read a newspaper from that morning in the 1880s, just
to kind of immerse myself in the period. And that did help.

DAVIES: You know, there's one review of your performance in this that said
your metamorphosis from doormat to predator is a devastating feat of
self-transformation. I mean, it is a fascinating character you play, a guy
who is a hero worshipper, wants to be close to Jesse James, gets there, and
then eventually betrays him. And it's an interesting, I think, question,
whether Ford becomes someone different or whether the assassin and the hero
worshipper are really all part of the same package. Tell us a little bit
about this character, how you saw him. What made him want to do in this guy
he admired so much?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Well, it might sound strange, but I loved Robert Ford. I
read the book and I loved him, and I read the screenplay and I loved him, and
I loved playing him. There were times when I felt I hated him, and things
that he did that were really hard to do, but that's kind of like life. I find
that's true with myself. I do and say things every day that I think, `Why did
I do that? Why did I say that? You're an idiot.' So, you know, I really felt
for him. I don't think that he was an obsessed fan. I don't think that he
was a kind of celebrity-obsessed predator. I don't think that he was any of
those things.

I think he was a 19-year-old kid, grew up on a farm reading comic books about
Jesse James, who's the youngest in a big family. And no one ever thought that
he would sort of amount to anything. And he kind of felt like he had an
enormous amount of potential, that he was capable of doing something great,
that he was--and specifically, you know, he thought that he could be just like
Jesse James. And when he read these comic books, which he thought were real
stories--obviously they weren't--he thought, `Well, if I can get close to
Jesse James, you know, he's great, and he's smarter than everyone in my family
and all these people around me who tell me I'm nothing. He will recognize in
me my potential. He will make me his partner. And then there'll be comic
books written about both of us.' He just had this immature fantasy. That's
all it was.

DAVIES: Let's listen to a cut from this. This is from "The Assassination of
Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," and our guest, Casey Affleck, you're
sitting around with Jesse James and some of the gang at dinner, and the
conversation comes up about your character, Robert Ford's, worship of Jesse
James. And you're provoked to talking about it. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")

Mr. C. AFFLECK: (As Robert Ford) Well, if you'll pardon my saying so, I
guess it is interesting the many ways you and I overlap and whatnot. I mean,
you begin with our daddies. Your daddy was a pastor of the New Hope Baptist
Church and my daddy was a pastor at the church in Excelsior Springs. You're
the youngest of three James boys, and I'm the youngest of five Ford boys.
Between Charlie and me, there's another brother, Wilbur here, with six letters
in his name. And between Frank and you, there's another brother, Robert, also
with six letters. And my Christian name is Robert, of course. You have blue
eyes, I have blue eyes. You're 5'8" tall, I'm 5'8" tall.

Mr. BRAD PITT: (As Jesse James) Ain't he something?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that was Brad Pitt laughing at the end, playing Jesse James. Our
guest, Casey Affleck, was the Bob Ford, a member of his gang at the time.

What led Robert Ford to assassinate Jesse James, I mean, if he seemed to
worship and seemed to know so much about him?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Well, that scene that you just played is a bit of a pivotal
moment in the movie. It's funny to hear it. I've seen the movie twice. I've
never just listened to it, and it seems like a different scene to me. I just
hear different things. It's such a halting delivery of that speech, and kind
of weird. I mean, I'm smiling in that scene a little bit, kind of smirking
and shy.

DAVIES: Yes.

Mr. C. AFFLECK: And seemed like a kind of a, like, I don't know, little
girl in love or something, and just listening to it just sounds bizarre. But,
you know, I think what happens, what follows that scene is they make fun of
him. He sort of confesses that he, you know, thinks that he's just like Jesse
James, and he's embarrassed. And he gets his feelings hurt. And the next
day, he goes to the police. You know, it's just a kind of young, rash,
impetuous, silly decision because he's got such hurt feelings, that he just
lashes out by getting on his horse and going to town and telling the police
that he knows where Jesse is and he could turn him in. Now, that decision is
something he just can't undo.

Now, you know, the police know who he is, and they kind of trap him. They
don't leave him alone. You know, they say, basically, `If you don't capture
or kill Jesse James, you're going to jail.' And kind of, you know, they just
keep pressuring him and pressuring him. And he has to do this thing he never
wanted to do. He didn't want to kill Jesse James. It's not Mark David
Chapman. He's not crazy. He didn't want or think he was replacing him. You
know, he just put himself in a spot he couldn't get out of. Of course what
happens is that after he does kill him, he gets sort of the thing that he
always wanted. The whole country sees him. He's more recognizable than the
president of the United States of America. It's a really, really big deal in
the country.

DAVIES: If it's not giving away too much of the story, tell what happens in
the years after he assassinates Jesse James.

Mr. C. AFFLECK: Well, he becomes very famous. Everyone knows who he is,
mostly from this one photograph that's taken of him, and he goes around the
country. He does 800 performances reenacting the killing of Jesse James, in a
kind of theater production with him and his brother, who was there at the
murder. And his brother plays Jesse James and he plays himself. They go on
Broadway, and they reenact the murder over and over. And at first the
audiences just eat it up; you know, they love it in the way like you kind of
watch it like some of these reality shows. And then they turn against him.
The mood of the country just turns kind of really quickly and people start
throwing stuff at him on stage. They hate him. They think he's a, you know,
a traitor. And it's mostly because, I think, people are still affected by the
assassination of Lincoln. And so once the idea gets out that, `Oh, Robert
Ford is an assassin,' then everything gets out of control. You know, people
just hate him and they don't really know why.

The other is that people who kind of--opinion makers, if you will, people in
the kind of Northern, Northeastern cities, those are the only people that are
writing about Jesse James. They write the comic books and they also write the
things after he's been killed. That's where Robert Ford is doing these plays,
you know, in these big cities, these big urban areas. And they don't know
anything about Jesse James. They were never affected by him. He was just
some like comic book guy. They had never been robbed by him. They didn't
have a cousin who he killed.

You know, Jesse James was terrorizing the state, Missouri. You know, it was
people weren't--they were going around it on their way out West just because
they didn't want to go near the James gang and those outlaws. So it was
ruining the economy. It was horrible. He was really kind of hated by many,
many people out West; but in the Northeast, people just thought he was fun.
You know, they just thought it was nice; it was fun to read about this guy
from a kind of already a bygone era. So when he was killed, they made Robert
Ford the kind of two-dimensional figure in the way that they had made Jesse
James, as you had mentioned, bigger. They just sort of slotted Robert Ford
into this kind of fairy tale. You know? And he, of course, had to be the
villain because he as the guy that killed the hero. And it ruined his life.

So for the next 10 years, he was plagued by, you know, that one act. And he
had to move from town to town because people would run him out of towns. And
finally he was shot.

DAVIES: Well, a lot of folks know that you and your brother, Ben, and Matt
Damon all grew up in the same neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What
got you interested in acting originally?

Mr. C. AFFLECK: My mother's best friend in college became a local casting
director in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our families were pretty close. She
used to bring Ben and me in with her children to be extras in movies, when we
were in school, just little kids, 10 years old. And I didn't really care much
about the movies. I just thought, like, `Well, this is a day off from school.
I can graze over, you know, the craft service table for eight hours.' There's
more candy than I'd ever gotten to eat. And, you know, you walk away with 15
bucks and which my mom let me keep. So it was a fortune, and it was a lot of
fun.

So then she would bring us in for like local, you know, commercials, like the
weather commercial at the local news station and that kind of thing, and I
kind of thought, like, `Wow, I'm incredible. I'm getting every part I
audition for.' It turns out that it was, I think she was only bringing me in.
I was the only person auditioning. I was the only kid who had a mom that
would let them like take two days off from school and go stand under a rain
machine to do an ad for the weather guy. But that gave me some confidence.

DAVIES: You were good, yeah.

Mr. C. AFFLECK: And then I--mostly, you know, the truth is, it wasn't until
high school that there was a guy named Gerry Speca, who was one of those
teachers you kind of just hope your kid gets once in his 12 years of
education. And Ben and Matt and I and a bunch of other working, professional,
talented actors--even a guy that's in "Gone Baby Gone," he plays the child
molester Corwin Earle--he had all of us as students, and he sort of inspired
us all. I was playing baseball and, you know, throwing rocks around in the
street. I didn't have any--I didn't want to be an actor. And it wasn't
until, you know, one summer I went and did the summer musical, mostly because
it was like 19 girls and it was me and that's it, and you kind of got to spend
the summer that way, and that seemed a lot better than like sitting on the
bench in the, you know, baseball summer league--because I was smaller than
everyone by that time. So I said, `Well, I'm going to go do this.' Turns out
I was tone deaf, they cut all my solos, but it was a lot of fun.

And then the next year, I signed up for the drama class, and I found that guy
Gerry Speca, and I've never really wanted to do anything else since then. And
I think that Matt and Ben kind of both feel the same way, had the same
experience with Gerry.

DAVIES: Thanks so much for spending some time with us, Casey Affleck.

Mr. C. AFFLECK. My pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: Actor Casey Affleck recorded last fall. His films "The Assassination
of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Gone Baby Gone" are now out on
DVD.

Here's some music from the soundtrack of "The Assassination of Jesse James,"
written by Nick Cave. He'll be Terry's guest on Monday.

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the word "elite"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Barack Obama's bowling misadventures and remarks about bitter voters, Hillary
Clinton's whiskey shots and gun stories, John McCain's family money--once
again a presidential campaign has come to who's elite and who isn't. Our
linguist Geoff Nunberg explains the history of the E word and its cultural
evolution.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: People are always splitting off new meanings for words,
but every once in awhile they'll smoosh together two old ones. As with other
kinds of inbreeding, the process can produce monsters. Take the curious,
recent development of the noun elite. Until not long ago, it was a barely
nativized French word that still wore a jaunty acute accent on its E. Now
it's a word that can drive items like Iraq and immigration to the bottom of
the network's debate agenda.

Elite use to have two distinct meanings. It could be a lah-dee-dah word for
the upper crust, what people use to call the bon ton. Or, more
consequentially, it could denote the interlocking command structure of
society, that the sociologist C. Wright Mills referred to in the title of his
classic 1956 book "The Power Elite." As Mills described them, those were the
people who rule the big corporations, run the machinery of the state and
direct the military establishment.

Until a few decades ago, the two senses of elite rarely even nodded to each
other. The first appeared only in society pages and the names of pastry
shops. The second showed up only in political dispatches and sociology
journals. The blurring of those two senses was first audible in the 1960s,
when Spiro Agnew first put the phrase "media elite" into wide circulation and
joined it with descriptions like "effete snobs," which suggested the social
meaning of the word.

But the new meaning of elite didn't really start to emerge until the summer of
1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle sparked a national controversy by
denouncing Candice Bergen's TV character Murphy Brown for having a child out
of wedlock. Quayle put the blame on a cultural elite who were mocking
ordinary Americans in newsrooms, sitcom studios and faculty lounges all over
America. `We have two cultures,' he said, `the cultural elite and the rest of
us.'

Those attacks weren't sufficient to save the Bush-Quayle ticket in the fall
elections, but they did put the E word at the center of national attention.
When he was asked who exactly made up the cultural elite, Quayle answered
coyly, `They know who they are.' But Newsweek obligingly provided a list of
its 100 most prominent members, which evenhandedly included both poster child
liberals like Bill Moyers, Frank Rich and Oprah, and conservatives like
William Bennett, George Will and Lynne Cheney.

By any reasonable measure of cultural influence, those were all
uncontroversial calls; but by then the noun elite had been sent spinning
inexorably leftward. It wasn't just that it was now exclusively prefixed by
"liberal" and that it suggested a seditious taste in cheese and beverages;
even the job descriptions of the elite had changed so that the qualifier
"cultural" had come to seem redundant.

In the British media, you still see elite used predominantly to refer to
economic and business leaders, whether you look at the left-wing Guardian or
Rupert Murdoch's Times of London. But on Murdoch's Fox News, references to
the media elite outnumber references to the business and corporate elite by
40-to-1. And the disproportion's only slightly less dramatic on CNN.

When Americans hear elite these days, they are less likely to think of the
managers and politicians who inhabit the corridors of power than of the
celebrities, academics and journalists who lodge in its outer burroughs. It
remained only for the noun elite to undergo its final democratization, where
it was emptied of its last connections to social position or to actual wealth
or power. All that was left of its original meanings was the implication of
insufferable pretension and an unwarranted sense of entitlement.

As the conservative radio host Laura Ingraham explains it in her book "Shut Up
and Sing," elite Americans are defined not so much by class or wealth or
position as they are by a general outlook. Their core belief is that they're
superior to we, the people. They think we're stupid. They think where we
live is stupid. They think our SUVs are stupid. They think our guns are
stupid.

That broadened meaning of elite can create some confusion for liberals who
haven't quite cottoned to it. They're apt to get indignant when they hear
elite pronounced with a sneer by people who would have unquestionably
qualified for the label under its traditional definition. And they may be
puzzled by the expansive use of "we," that modern critics of elites tend to
fall into when they're talking about nonelite Americans.

How does a Connecticut-raised, Ivy-educated lawyer like Ingraham get to share
a first person plural pronoun with a working-class deer hunter from western
Pennsylvania? For that matter, what are we suppose to make of that pronoun we
when we hear the quintessential blue state conservative David Brooks asking,
`Is Barack Obama somebody who doesn't know anything about the way the American
people actually live, or does he actually get the way we live?' I mean, if you
give Brooks that we, who's the "they" suppose to be? But then if you don't
have to have money, power or influence to qualify as elite, it follows that
having those things doesn't necessarily disqualify you from being one of the
rest of us, so long as you can knock back a shot occasionally and don't stop
channelling your inner...(unintelligible).

The crucial thing, as Barack Obama learned, is not to be caught seeming to be
out of touch, a phrase that Google News paired with his name in more than 3500
stories after the "Bittergate" episode. Summer wherever you like; but if you
don't want to be described as elite, you'd better know who Dale Earnhardt Jr.
is.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jerry Seinfeld discusses career and new movie "Bee
Movie"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

It's been nine years since Jerry Seinfeld made the last episode of his hit TV
series. At 53, he's now married and has three children, and last fall he
unveiled the project he had spent much of the previous four years developing:
the animated film "Bee Movie." "Bee Movie," which Seinfeld co-wrote and stars
in, along with Renee Zellweger and Matthew Broderick, is now out on DVD. But
even before "Bee Movie" was released, Seinfeld had returned to his original
love, stand-up comedy. He has upcoming dates in nine cities. I spoke to
Jerry Seinfeld last fall, when "Bee Movie" was released in theaters.

When you do stand-up, I mean, nothing is more autonomous than the stand-up
comedian. It's his act and the feedback is immediately.

Mr. JERRY SEINFELD: Mm-hmm. Right.

DAVIES: I mean, you go in, you bomb, whatever. You kill.

Mr. SEINFELD: Maybe doing stand-up alone, by yourself, could be more
autonomous.

DAVIES: Possibly. And the feedback would be even more immediate. Right?

Mr. SEINFELD: Right. That's right.

DAVIES: But, you know, a movie takes years. It begins with endless meetings.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: There's endless editing.

Mr. SEINFELD: Yeah. Endless.

DAVIES: How did you adjust to the pace of it?

Mr. SEINFELD: I didn't adjust very well, to be honest with you. It kind of
goes against my natural instinct, which is, `I want to hear tonight if this is
any funny or not.' You have test screenings, and it was just like being
strapped down for four years. You know, I know a lot of other comedy writers
and comedians that would look at me and they would say, `You're still working
on that movie?'

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: And I go, `Yeah, we're still going.' I mean, four years, it's
like I know people that wrote movies, got them produced, edited, released,
went on to other movies.

DAVIES: I want to talk a little bit about your stand-up, which has, you know,
been your core for years. And I thought--and I wanted to play a clip.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And this is not you at a club. It's actually a clip from an
appearance on "Letterman," and I got it from the documentary that you did,
"Comedian."

Mr. SEINFELD: Uh-huh.

DAVIES: And the context here is you've--this is after the show has been off
the air for awhile and you're coming back, and it's a TV appearance. I don't
know if you remember this. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "Comedian")

(Soundbite of audience clapping)

Mr. SEINFELD: Thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. I totally
appreciate what you're saying. I do. But the question is this: What have I
been doing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEINFELD: Everybody says to me, `Hey, you don't do the show anymore.
What do you do?' I'll tell you what do I do: nothing.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SEINFELD: Yeah, I know what you're thinking. `That sounds pretty good.'
You're thinking, `I might like to do nothing myself.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEINFELD: Well, let me tell you, doing nothing is not as easy as it
looks. You have to be careful. Because the idea of doing anything, which
could easily lead to doing something, that would cut into your nothing, and
that would force me to have to drop everything.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Jerry Seinfeld, our guest, from the appearance on the
David Letterman show many years ago.

You know, you know what I love about that clip is that you got four or five
really good laughs out of--what?--one joke.

Mr. SEINFELD: It was nothing.

DAVIES: Hardly a joke.

Mr. SEINFELD: Yeah.

DAVIES: I mean, and it's all--it just--it shows all those years in clubs,
you've just got the pacing and the punch exactly where you want it.

Mr. SEINFELD: Thank you.

DAVIES: And I mean, I know you spent all those years--you made your first
appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1981.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And throughout the '80s you were building a reputation as a stand-up
at a time when a lot of--there are a lot of other comedians that are out there
that are maybe getting more attention by being outrageous or profane or kind
of using props or crazy characters. And I wonder, you know, kind of gave them
an identity and a hook.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Did you ever try that stuff or were you ever tempted to try it?

Mr. SEINFELD: No, I never was. And I always felt like I was very much a
hookless comedian and I would always be hookless. And that, I thought, maybe
that's my hook, you know, that I just don't have anything that you latch onto
as, `He's the guy who does this or looks like this.' But it wouldn't have felt
right anyway. I mean, that was kind of the joke about the show, was that it
was about nothing.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: But what it really was about was the way we executed it. And
it's the same thing as what my stand-up is about. It's the same thing as what
that joke was about. What is that joke? It's taking the word "nothing,"
"something," "everything" and "anything" and assembling it into a thought that
makes sense. And so that's really what I like to do, is I'm more into the
execution than I am anything--other aspects of it. I mean, I don't even care
about being famous or being, you know--I just enjoy the doing of the thing.

DAVIES: Well, you know, in the documentary "Comedian," which is, you know,
for those of you haven't seen it, it's you going back to stand-up after having
done the show.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Kind of getting back into it. And there's this moment in it that I
really love where you've sort of built the act up toward you've not got a good
50 minutes.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And you do an appearance, I think, at a club in Washington, DC. And
it seems to have gone pretty well, but after it you're not satisfied.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And you're saying, `God, it's just so hard to really feel
comfortable.' And you're kind of bemoaning whether you really hit it...

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...as you're packing your stuff and getting into your private jet--or
what looks like you private jet.

Mr. SEINFELD: Yeah.

DAVIES: And so what's fascinating is we have you, who have all that money and
success, that insist on subjecting yourself to this ego-battering process of
getting back in live clubs.

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: You always want to do that. Why?

Mr. SEINFELD: You know, it's just that feeling of not cheating that is the,
I think, the best feeling in life. I didn't cheat at that. And stand-up is
the only thing that I knew that I could be sure that I--if I was doing it and
audiences were responding well, that I wasn't cheating. Because there is no
way to cheating in stand-up. It's the nakedest, purest thing in the world.
But, you, you know, I could have gone into a movie. Someone would have said,
`We have a great idea for a movie for you.' And they could have put me in a
movie and promoted the movie, and the movie did this, and I would never know,
`Was that any good or not?'

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: You know, `Well, the director didn't handle you right.' Or,
`It wasn't promoted the way it should have been.' There's always a million
excuses. There's no excuses in stand-up. So after all of that experience of
Hollywood and television and everything that the show did, I just wanted to
get back to something that I knew what was right and wrong, and what was black
and white. And it's a very black and white world, and that was calming to me,
and that would make me feel--I just never wanted to feel like I was skating on
a reputation or, you know.

DAVIES: And you can't skate on a reputation at a live club?

Mr. SEINFELD: No, absolutely not.

DAVIES: Even if you're Jerry Seinfeld?

Mr. SEINFELD: Even if you're Jerry Seinfeld. Maybe a couple of minutes.
The may give you three or four free minutes at the top, but after a while no
one laughs at a reputation. It's not funny.

DAVIES: And did you get where you wanted to be? Did you get comfortable?

Mr. SEINFELD: I did finally. It took about four or five years of working.
And I've lost it a little bit now doing the movie, and then I'm going to go
back. But it's kind of a tennis game. A stand-up act is like a tennis game.
I mean, even if you're good, you've got to keep playing if you want to keep
that game at a certain point.

DAVIES: And you're sure you want to keep playing?

Mr. SEINFELD: Yeah. I love the simplicity of it. I love the purity of it.
It's just--this is what, I mean, all this work that we went in the movie, I
mean--to make an animated movie, the infrastructure of DreamWorks is a billion
dollars. That's what it costs just to have the machines to make one of these
things. And then the years of work. And what is it all for? Its so that
when we put it in front of the audience, you hear a laugh.

DAVIES: Same thing as standing up and telling a joke, right?

Mr. SEINFELD: Same thing. Same thing. So, you know, I like--it's the
difference between, you know, you say you like the water, well, you can be the
captain of a ship or you can surf.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: And stand-up is like surfing, you're just right there. Right
there with it.

DAVIES: Well, since you were last on FRESH AIR, you did this TV series, which
kind of took off.

Mr. SEINFELD: Right. Right.

DAVIES: And as sort of a measure of its cultural reach, my wife had a career
change this year and she had about six weeks between her old job and when she
began her new life as a resident in psychiatry, which was in June and July.
And I began referring to this time, which she had looked forward to so much,
as her "Summer of George." Which, for folks who may not recall, was the
"Seinfeld" episode where George Costanza has a summer off and he buys an easy
chair with a built in refrigerator.

Mr. SEINFELD: Right.

DAVIES: And what's funny about it is that, you know, when I kind of came up
with that phrase, everybody in my family laughed and talked about it. She
would talk about it to her friends. They all knew exactly what we were
talking about.

Mr. SEINFELD: Right.

DAVIES: And in a way, that series, which you haven't made a new episode in
nine years now, but it's all over television...

Mr. SEINFELD: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...is sort of this book of life. I mean, people use moments and
lines from that series to describe what's going on in their lives. You're
aware of this phenomenon.

Mr. SEINFELD: I am, but I don't get it. I mean, it mystifies me as much as
you. And I'm only happy that it's doing something for somebody.

DAVIES: It doesn't mystify me because you're capturing stuff that we all kind
of recognize.

Mr. SEINFELD: Right. But doesn't--isn't every--why is it different in other
comedy shows? Why can't you name other comedy shows? You know, Larry David
said to me the other day that this was the first show where people would say,
`Well, that's a "Seinfeld" episode,' about something that, `I had a day today
that sounds like a "Seinfeld" episode.' That our show was, for some reason,
lent people to think like that about their own lives. Because I guess maybe
one of the reasons is we stayed so close to people's real lives. We tried to,
anyway, as much as we could, aside from, you know, hitting golf balls into the
blowhole of a whale.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: And maybe that's why people can analogize to it or from it.

DAVIES: How did you know when it was time for the show to end?

Mr. SEINFELD: From my stage act. The stage act, you know, I had been doing
comedy, let's see, about 23 years at that time. And you start to know on
stage when to get off. There's just this feeling that you develop from years
and years of doing it. You just feel that we're getting--everyone's really
having a good time and I think in another few minutes this is going to start
to get old. `Good night, everybody.'

DAVIES: Hm.

Mr. SEINFELD: And everyone's happy. And I'm sure you've had the experience.
Everyone has had the experience of going to a movie that you love but for some
reason they just make it 15 minutes longer than it really needed to be. And
the change in your feeling about the movie because of that little 15
minutes--and it may not even be a bad 15 minutes. It's just proportions, you
know. I guess it's a function of art and economy that economy is essential to
all good art. And I thought, `Let's'--even thought we had done a lot, nine
years, 180 episodes, I thought, `We can't do one too many or it's going to
taint the whole thing.' So it was more the energy I felt around the show
itself.

DAVIES: That's what's interesting, because on stage you've got that--you said
you have that sense from the audience...

Mr. SEINFELD: Right.

DAVIES: ...that you've honed over the years.

Mr. SEINFELD: Right. It was in the office. It was in the office of the
show. The writers would come in, and the way they would look at me and when
they would say, `So I had a thought that maybe Kramer would, you know, become
friends with a penguin or something.' You know? And I just, I would hear it
in their voice, `They're not as excited. This is getting old.' And I thought,
`Well, if it's happening here, the audience is next.'

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: And, you know, I had a meeting with Jack Welch and he showed
me--it was a hilarious meeting where he...

DAVIES: It was with the chairman of...

Mr. SEINFELD: The chairman of GE at the time.

DAVIES: Right. Which owned NBC.

Mr. SEINFELD: And they owned NBC. And he had these charts of the ratings
and the demographics of the show. And every chart showed the numbers going
up. He said, `You have improved your audience from the eighth season to the
ninth. The ninth is stronger than the eighth.' So it was all backwards. You
know, usually you go in there, you try and tell them why you deserve more
money and why the show should be kept on.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: And it was the--everything was backwards. I'm telling him,
`No, no, no. We shouldn't go anymore.' He says, `No, no, no. You should.
I'll give you a raise. I'll give you more money.' You know, I said, `I don't
want money. I want the audience to have this thing.' It was kind of like--and
I don't mean to compare myself in any way, shape or form to The Beatles--but
when The Beatles ended, it was so sudden and it made what they did somehow
more valuable.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. SEINFELD: Because it just suddenly was over, and that's it. That's the
complete set. You know, nine years, 12 albums, whatever it is, that's it. So
I kind of took from that, `I want to try and do that.'

DAVIES: You know, it's funny. I can't help but think of the episode in the
series when George Costanza adopts this posture and in a meeting gets the one
funny line--cracks off a line that breaks the room up.

Mr. SEINFELD: Right.

DAVIES: And he said, `That's it. I'm done. I'm out of here.'

Mr. SEINFELD: That's where the idea came from.

DAVIES: Jerry Seinfeld, recorded in October. His animated film "Bee Movie"
is out on DVD.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film critic David Edelstein on "Standard Operating
Procedure"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Errol Morris, the director of "A Thin Blue Line," "Dr. Death" and "Fog of
War," has a new documentary called "Standard Operating Procedure." Morris uses
on-screen interviews, stylized reenactments and special effects to present his
perspective on the scandal over the Abu Ghraib prison photos. Film critic
David Edelstein has this review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Pictures don't lie. That's what Special Agent Brent
Pack tells Errol Morris' camera in "Standard Operating Procedure." And the
film suggests that he's right--and wrong.

Pack help convict several Abu Ghraib guards on the evidence of widely
circulated photos, the ones from that infamous night in 2003 in the prison
basement, when naked Iraqis were forced to touch themselves and straddle one
another in a human pyramid. And when when a close-cropped, diminutive
gargoyle named Lynndie England led a naked Iraqi on a leash--nightmare stuff
seared into the public's imagination. But the question Morris poses is just
as haunting. If those pictures exposed some truths about Abu Ghraib, did they
conceal other, even larger ones?

Morris has hold of a huge subject, one in which politics and art bleed
together. Using his own standard operating procedure--fixed camera
interviews, slow motion reenactments, a busy and hypnotic score by Danny
Elfman--the director keeps looping back to what happened outside the frame,
before and after the photos and a video were shot. Over and over he shows us
the infamous images, then effectively subverts them by giving us the context.

Lynndie England speaks, filmed like her fellow ex-soldiers, in the standard
Errol Morris style: close-up against a neutral background. You wouldn't
recognize her. Her face has filled out, and her hair is dark and abundant.
She was demonized in the media, dishonorably discharged and imprisoned, one of
a group that Donald Rumsfeld dismissed as a few bad apples. But this bad
apple is disconcertingly human. England was prodded into taking that leash by
a man she loved and whose baby she'd have, Charles Graner, the Busby Berkeley
of the Abu Ghraib dance macabre. She wasn't yanking that Iraqi, she says, the
leash is slack. And what happened that night was typical, not extraordinary.

(Soundbite of "Standard Operating Procedure")

Ms. LYNNDIE ENGLAND: We didn't kill them. We didn't cut their heads off.
We didn't shoot them. We didn't cut them and let them bleed to death. We
just did what we were told to soften them up for interrogation, and we were
told to do anything short of killing them. We'd make them stand in awkward
positions for hours at a time to stress them out and to strain them. And we
would have them crawl up and down the tier. We'd pour cold water on them.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: In films like "Dr. Death" and "A Thin Blue Line," Morris
makes his subjects look like specimens in a jar. He lets them go on and on
until they hang themselves. "Standard Operating Procedure" has a less
detached, less ironic, more sympathetic vantage. As Morris weaves together
the accounts of the Abu Ghraib participants, it's as if he's using his own
camera to liberate them from someone else's. You can believe Lynndie England
or not, but there was more in those photos than met the lens.

Even with his disturbing reenactments, it's possible that Morris errs on the
side of sympathy. What are we to make of the guard Sabrina Harman's broad
smile astride a human pyramid? She tells Morris that when you pose for a
photo, you want to smile. Well, yes--and no. But she reads from a letter to
her partner, Kelly, in which her shame is right there on the surface.

The world of Abu Ghraib these ex-soldiers depict is morally upending. We see
photos and hear accounts of an Iraqi found dead after a brutal interrogation.
He's zipped into a body bag, iced down, then dragged to the showers so he'd
look, despite his horrific bruises, as if he'd keeled over from a heart
attack. It's the stuff of grisly farce.

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who had responsibility for the prison,
supplies a wider context. She recalls Rumsfeld underlings directing guards
to, quote, "treat the prisoners like dogs," and was relieved of command when
the world saw them doing just that.

But for a more overarching view of the administration's strategy, I recommend
Alex Gibney's Oscar winning "Taxi to the Dark Side." Gibney depicts the
directives as purposefully vague, relentless pressure for results, plus what
one official calls a fog of ambiguity regarding what is and is not permitted.

See "Standard Operating Procedure" for its faces, its riveting narrative and
for the monkey wrench Morris throws into the cogs of our perceptions. The
special agent who testified against the guards, Brent Pack, says, `A picture
is worth a thousand words.' Maybe so, but the movie asks, `Which words? Whose
words?'

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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.

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