January 14, 2015
Guest: Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer -- Robert Stone
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. The hit Comedy Central series, "Broad City," starts its second season tonight. My guests are the show's co-creators, co-writers and stars, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. They play two single 20-somethings, named Abbi and Ilana, who live in New York, have dead-end jobs and spend a lot of time hanging out together.
In The New Yorker online, Rachel Arons wrote, the show is rough enough to inhabit the bro-dominated world of Comedy Central, but it's also surreal and strange. This week, Dave Itzkoff wrote in The New York Times, quote, "in the 10 episodes shown last year, 'Broad City' offered an absurdist, slapstick look at two women scraping by in New York. They have each other's backs through apartment lockouts, minor drug deals and the occasional hurricane, and it becomes clear they care far more about getting into a Lil Wayne concert than getting anywhere in the latter of life," unquote.
Jacobson and Glazer met through the improv comedy group, the Upright Citizens Brigade, which was cofounded by Amy Poehler, who is now an executive producer of "Broad City." Let's start with a scene from season one of "Broad City." Abbi and Ilana are in Ilana's apartment, sitting together on a couch and looking at their laptops.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BROAD CITY")
ABBI JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Oh, my goodness, this dude Brian Nicholera (ph) I went to high school with just friended me. He just moved here.
ILANA GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Oh, my God, people from high school only friend you, like, after business hours if they want to hook up.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Really? I had a huge crush on him.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) You should ask him out.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) I can't just do that.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Oh, my God, he likes "Roseanne"? OK, this is your new sexual partner.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) All right, I'm asking him out. I'm just going to do it.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Do it.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) This is so great. Like, why are we waiting for guys to come to us, Ilana? Did Amelia Earhart wait to be asked to fly around the world? Definitely not. She asked, and then they said no. But she still did it.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) And she died, but she, like, died doing it.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Exactly. I'm doing it again. I'm asking someone else out.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) This is the Abbi I love and fell in love with and I'm obsessed with.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Skylar Cummings-Conkelmann (ph) - I used to babysit for him. He was adorable. He's - yeah, he's 20. That's acceptable.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Troy Megliarino (ph) - he spent a hot sec' in jail. But he lives in South Jersey, and I know he'd steal a car and come up for the night.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Chris Wazcyleski (ph) - he was a nude model in my life drawing class, and he, like, always angled himself out to me.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Chad Michael Fong (ph) - we met at a hardware store. He was disgusting. I'm going to go with this.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) OK, who else, who else? Henry Rowdenbush (ph) had a unibrow all through middle school. And then he started waxing it, and all of a sudden it was like glasses off, you're [bleep] gorgeous.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) It's like "She's All That."
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) I feel like I'm on coke right now. P. J. Mallory (ph)...
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Bobby Cornhauser (ph).
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Johnny Fissinger (ph).
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Danny McCarrow (ph).
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Ryan Long (ph).
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) Rod White (ph).
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) We are like feminist heroes right now.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) So, OK, that's 36 guys that we've been rejected by and one lady.
GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) OK, so what, dude? You know what, the Internet is so '90s. Let's go find some guys I-R-L.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) You know, you can just say in real life. It's the same number of syllables.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's from season one of "Broad City." Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to each describe your character in "Broad City."
JACOBSON: We sort of wrote these characters and write these characters sort of as us before we found "Broad City." So she's 26. She's an illustrator but hasn't yet been able to make that her career. So in the meantime, she currently works at this high-end gym as a janitor, cleaning all sorts of disgusting things up, mostly bodily fluids and remnants (laughter), but dreams of bigger things
GROSS: Ilana, describe your character.
GLAZER: A free spirit, very loyal - she's a stoner. She's a hedonist. She likes to feel good. She likes pleasure. I feel like at this point in her life, the most important thing is her friendship with Abbi. That's like a grounding through line for my character.
GROSS: Your characters are not shy about their bodies, and neither are you as actresses. And they're not shy about talking with each other about their bodily functions and their sex lives. They use the word vagina a lot.
GROSS: When I was growing up, that was such like a hard word to say. I mean, you would just, like, turn purple if you said the word, I think. And I'm just wondering what attitude you were brought up with in terms of being able to speak about your bodies and be comfortable with your bodies and now, you know, to be able to use that in your performances.
JACOBSON: I think I grew up in more, like, conservative way, where we were not always talking about our bodies or sex or anything. It was never discouraged, but it was not...
JACOBSON: It was not encouraged or, like, dinner talk or - I didn't really share much, but I have - I grew up with, like, an extremely supportive family. I think that's part of how Ilana and my voice developed. As - when we were writing the show, that became a much more of a thing than it was for me growing up.
GROSS: What would surprise us most about your childhood? And let me get started that, you know, Abbi, in eighth grade, you were the Student Council rep for your homeroom class. And, Ilana, you were the class president in 11th and 12th grade, and according to what I read, you were in an anti-drug group called The Positive Edge.
GLAZER: Oh, my God, that's right.
JACOBSON: I will just say, I did - I was secretary of my class in high school, too. I did continue on through student government.
GLAZER: Thank God.
GLAZER: What were you doing? Secretary, what was your like - was it like treasurer?
JACOBSON: Treasurer is, like, money. Secretary is like - I ran, like, canned food drives and AIDS walks...
GLAZER: That's so you.
JACOBSON: ...More like organizing stuff.
GLAZER: That's very, you.
JACOBSON: Go ahead, why don't you talk about that anti-drug club you were in?
GLAZER: It was vaguely Christian, or it, like, felt like it. And it was - my brother Eliot had done it years earlier. We used to, like, gather and talk about how cool it was that we didn't do drugs. And we, like - I don't know, we went to sixth- and fourth-grade classes - we could miss class. That's what it was.
JACOBSON: So one day, some bad kid from the tracks came and pulled you out of this?
GLAZER: I just got a boyfriend who, like, was a huge stoner. And I was like oh, finally. I, like, knew it was my calling.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the co-creators, co-writers, co-stars of the Comedy Central series, "Broad City." When you were starting "Broad City" as a web series and then as you transitioned into an actual program, did you ever sense of what you were as a show and what you weren't? For instance, like, you know, when "Girls" started, it was compared to "Sex And The City," and when you started, your show was compared with "Girls." Did you make comparisons like that in your own mind, or did you see yourself on, like, a different track?
GLAZER: You know, the webisodes were such slices that they were really just, I feel like, for tone. In character development - we didn't realize it was going to be character development for a TV show later - but I think we looked to Larry David more than anybody else.
JACOBSON: Yeah, we did the web series from 2009 through 2011, and I think it was, like, "Curb," "Seinfeld," and "Louie" was just starting.
GLAZER: Yeah, we talked about "Louie" a lot.
JACOBSON: Because they - yeah because they were these short slices that didn't wrap up, usually, or they were just sort of little segments of these characters lives.
GLAZER: However, the - our lives are reflecting "Sex And The City" more than ever now that we're, like, becoming the age of the characters. We talk about "Sex And The City" a lot and have seen all of those episodes. And I definitely see overlap with "Girls," with the content, with tone, with characters - like, the characters could be friends or be at the same party or something. But I think that comparison was more just a result of the reductiveness of like a headline, for example. A lot of headlines...
GROSS: What do you talk about when you talk about "Sex And The City"?
JACOBSON: Often times in the writers' room...
GLAZER: Oh, my God.
JACOBSON: ...When we are pitching ideas, you know, we have the pleasure of working with a lot of our best friends who write on the show. And we're talking about just something that's happened to us, whether it's a sexual encounter or friend thing, oftentimes, someone else will be like that was a "Sex And The City" episode, so we can't do that.
JACOBSON: They've covered a lot of ground that is still extremely relevant and relatable.
GLAZER: And their situations, too, like - they had a real world, you know?
JACOBSON: Oh, yeah.
GLAZER: So we'll find ourselves being like, oh, that's very "Curb" world or like, that's very "Sex And The City World."
GROSS: So it sounds like in order to write the show, you and your co-writers, part of what you do is sit in a room and share some of the most awful and embarrassing things that have happened to you.
JACOBSON: Exactly, and also amazing things that have happened to us.
GLAZER: We try to do, like, the most New York, you know what I mean? It's more like that. Like, there's definitely universal experiences to be had, but the funniest ones - like, Abbi, in the first season with the mail, with the package, going to North Brother Island for the package. Like, that's just so New York-centric. Getting a package in New York City is different than getting a package anywhere else. Like, our show's a lot about suburban transplants still being in awe of the city, even when it's a really annoying result that you have to endure.
JACOBSON: I feel like I think about our show a lot, where it's as if you're, like, walking through just this gross block, and there's just trash and people peeing and spitting on you. And then you turn the corner and look up and it's like, oh, right, I'm in New York. This is, like, the most beautiful city in the world.
GROSS: Well, yeah, there's a scene on the subway where there literally is a pile of feces in the middle of the subway car. And people in New York have probably been exposed to worse.
GROSS: And, well, another thing you were both exposed to as, you know - your characters exposed to as young women, young, single women in Manhattan, is that, you know, men are brushing up against you and rubbing against you in awkward places.
GROSS: And I'm sure that's something, like, every young woman in New York has had to deal with, especially on, like, crowded subways, crowded stores.
GLAZER: Ew, it's true.
GROSS: So do you sit around the writers' room like talking about - and here's what happened to me?
JACOBSON: Yeah, all those little details are never lost.
GLAZER: We, like, love the mundane. It cracks us up, the minutiae, the muck that you have to wade through in the city. It cracks us up. It is like this sick, masochistic romance that New Yorkers - permanent New Yorkers have with the city, where they love how tough they are. And, like, friends who move to LA are, like, over it, later. Like, but there's some sort of pride that New Yorkers have. Somebody texted me the other day who had seen that episode at our premier party - Phoebe Robinson, stand-up comedian...
JACOBSON: Who that happened to. It happened to her.
GLAZER: Did she send - did she tell you?
JACOBSON: It happens every so often - a [bleep] car comes down through the subway.
GLAZER: She walked in, everybody's running out.
JACOBSON: I know.
GLAZER: She doesn't know why.
JACOBSON: But that was sort of just all of us brainstorming like, what crazy, almost unbelievable things have happened on the subway? And we - on the show, we tend to heighten those things a little. It gets a little bit surreal, but...
GLAZER: That is, like, the real car. Nobody invented that one.
GROSS: My guests are Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the co-creators, co-writers and stars of the Comedy Central series "Broad City," which begins its second season tonight. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. The Comedy Central series "Broad City" begins its second season tonight. Let's get back to my interview with the show's co-creators and stars, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer.
"Broad City" started as a Web series. When you were first starting with the Web series, did anyone know it existed? And how do you find an audience when you don't have, like, a larger organization or network to hook up with?
JACOBSON: Our Web shorts are still not widely viewed at this point. They were never viral. Basically we came - we had both worked these SEO jobs - search engine optimization. We had both worked these different jobs that dealt with dealing with the Internet and using social media. So we sort of made this spreadsheet of press outlets that we felt needed content. And so we thought about our Web series that we thought, well, what different types of places would be interested in this? OK, it's about two women. OK, it's about New York City. OK, it's about Jews. It's about stoners.
GLAZER: Broke people.
GLAZER: So you like, go to those subsets and look for those kinds of blogs or Twitter.
JACOBSON: And you do research. And we made a spreadsheet of all these different sites. And then you have to research and find the editors or the writers and different contacts. And you just start emailing them and you'll hope that some people will write some articles and post - when we release a video, they're going to post a video that's about - oh, they're in Washington Square Park and it's about them selling - or, buying weed.
And it's like, that's something that relates to like, our viewership. And it was just very slow and steady, but every little blog post wasn't such a big deal for us because it got the word out. And I have to say because we came out of this amazing community, like, Facebook built our show.
GLAZER: Yeah, I was just going to say that was like, the main vehicle for the show. That was where, like, we like, counted those likes more than YouTube views.
JACOBSON: Oh, yeah - people would share. That was huge. And I will never, ever, forget - we were part of this teeny little film festival called the Iron Mule and somehow like, we submitted to be on that somehow. And we were working at this company Lifebooker at the time - both of us sitting next to each other - and for whatever reason, The New York Times was advertising this little film festival and used our photo.
GLAZER: And we didn't know.
JACOBSON: And it was this little - it was a little photo with a teeny little blurb about the film festival. But I remember taking the subway to work that morning like, hugging the newspaper, like, everyone knew. That was just such a huge payoff from this sort of outreach that we had been doing.
GLAZER: And that was like, something - that was like, another receipt to show our parents.
JACOBSON: Oh, my gosh. That was huge.
GROSS: Was it important to have something to show your parents to kind of prove to them that what you were doing was real and not, like, a waste of time and a diversion from figuring out what your future really should be?
JACOBSON: Oh, yeah. What do you think we're doing this interview for?
GROSS: That's funny. (Laughter). I want to play a short clip from what will be episode four of the new season. And in this scene, Abbi, you are with your neighbor Jeremy, who, you know, you're attracted to. And this is the day, well, you know, Elana's grandmother has just died. And so you're saying to him that, you know, you're talking to him about how death has been on your mind. And you both have some - I don't know if it's wine or champagne, I don't know exactly what you're drinking, but you have that in your hands. And here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BROAD CITY")
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) You know, I've been surrounded by a lot of death lately, too. And sometimes death really makes me think about - life.
STEPHEN SCHNEIDER: (As Jeremy Santos) I totally agree.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) To life. And to remember, and to being and - that's it.
SCHNEIDER: (As Jeremy Santos) You're really eloquent about death.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Well, my favorite TV show's "Six Feet Under," so that's probably why.
SCHNEIDER: (As Jeremy Santos) I haven't seen it.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) You haven't seen "Six Feet Under?" Oh, God. You're so lucky. You know, I have the box set, if you want to borrow it.
SCHNEIDER: (As Jeremy Santos) Maybe we could watch it together sometime.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) Yeah. I mean yeah, if you want to.
SCHNEIDER: (As Jeremy Santos) I definitely do.
JACOBSON: (As Abbi Abrams) OK. That's going to be great.
GROSS: (Laughter). I think that's a really funny scene. Because obviously, like, your frame of reference for death is a TV series. (Laughter). And your profound thought about death is so like, not profound. So can you talk a little bit about writing that scene, Abbi?
JACOBSON: Yeah. I mean, I have had actual death in my life. But a real thing is that "Six Feet Under" is my favorite show of all time. And, as weird as it sounds, is a wonderful portrayal of life and death.
GROSS: Oh, I agree.
JACOBSON: But I think that show was a really big influence for me in writing because it is so dramatic, but it is so funny and deals with such dark things. It's such a wonderful dark comedy.
GLAZER: But I also think we were like, capturing like, how stupid dates are. And how like, you're just trying to, like - in this day and age - like, trying to seem real. And it's like, so hard. There's so much like, surreality and virtual reality and cyber - like, all of this like, weird distortion of reality. It's like, funny to quiet down and actually hear this character try to be real.
GROSS: So are you already thinking ahead to when they get older, when the characters get older, how will they change?
JACOBSON: Well, we're using special serums and creams...
GLAZER: (Laughter). Serums.
JACOBSON: ...On the daily to make sure that never happens.
GLAZER: A lot of Botox on this show. We're low-budget, but then the Botox is sort of out-of-pocket. They say start early, so that's what we're doing. But we've been talking about this, like, sort of calibrating our expectations for these characters. And so far, it doesn't feel like we've had - we've told that many stories of this baseline that we're working off of. I mean, season two I do think the characters grow in an organic way, not a necessarily pointed way. But we're still like, figuring out how far they get.
JACOBSON: Each episode is, for the most part, 24 hours - maybe a little more, maybe a little less. And so there's really only been - you've only seen 10 days of these characters' lives. There's not a ton of time that has passed. I just like, sort of love thinking about other shows and I love thinking about "Seinfeld," about how they didn't really change much.
GLAZER: They didn't have to change. I feel also like, this is only our first TV show. You know? We plan on doing writing and performing for a long time.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
GLAZER: It is an honor...
JACOBSON: Absolute honor.
GLAZER: ...And a pleasure.
GROSS: Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are the co-creators and stars of the Comedy Central series "Broad City," which begins its second season tonight. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember the writer Robert Stone, who died Saturday at the age of 77. He wrote eight novels as well as a memoir about his life in the 1960s, including his experiences with Ken Kesey and the group that became known as the Merry Pranksters. They were among the first people to use LSD outside of the laboratory conditions that the CIA first tested it in. Stone explored the violent, paranoid side of the counterculture in his 1974 novel, "Dog Soldiers," which followed a shipment of heroin from Vietnam to America. The novel won a National Book Award and was adapted into the 1978 film, "Who'll Stop The Rain." Stone was exposed to extremes when he was growing up. He never knew his father. His mother was schizophrenic. There were times they lived in SROs and Salvation Army shelters. During the period she was institutionalized, he was sent to a strict Catholic orphanage. We're going to hear excerpts of two interviews I recorded with him. When I spoke with him in 1986, I asked him about his mother and the orphanage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ROBERT STONE: My mother was very affectionate. She was scrambled, but she was affectionate. She really did not serve me as a - as any kind of authority. I was very fond of her, but I didn't pay much attention to what she said. So, I mean, I was an ill-disciplined small child because I really was getting, you know - I was sort of in charge of myself. The strongest, I mean, impression I got when I was 5, when I went into St. Ann's, was that of being hit. I mean, not sadistically particularly, in most cases, but they did slap you around all the time. So I brought that with me right into adult life until, well, I found myself in the Navy many years later. And it took me an awful lot of discipline and conditioning of myself not to cringe when people yelled at me. Also, I picked up, I think, a knack for getting on with a whole lot of different sorts of people.
GROSS: After that experience, when you get older you went to the Navy for a few years, came back, lived in New York and became really a part of bohemian life there. And I was thinking, well, maybe you would have had a lot of trouble fitting into the mainstream (laughter) even if you really wanted to, given the kind of experiences that you had before.
STONE: You know, this has occurred to me. I think one of the - one of the - you know, there are - a number of things moved me toward becoming a writer. And one of them certainly was my childhood experiences because, as children will, I disappeared as much as I could into my imagination. And I was always telling myself stories about what was going on and turning it into narrative. And it became my primary survival mechanism. It became my, my way of keeping on an even keel. My balancer was to turn things into stories. And there's a way in which if you can tell the tale, you're not overwhelmed - as long as there's somebody to say what's going on, like the messengers in Job. Only I am returned alive to tell the - I mean, I felt like I was still functioning. And I was still alright if I was - as long as I could make it into a story.
GROSS: So you were making things into stories in your mind. But what made you think, when you were older, that you could actually, you know, write and sell the stories and make a living at it?
STONE: I didn't really think that. I never thought it was possible. I think what you said earlier about my chance at the mainstream is probably right. I mean, I think I had probably - I was, in some ways, somewhat eccentric in terms - certainly in terms of the values of the '50s - the late '50s, in which I came of age. So I pretty much naturally gravitated to the bohemian scene in New York. I was working on - at the other end of the spectrum and at the other end of the street, being 42nd Street. I was working for the Daily News. I was a copy boy in the Daily News. And what they demanded from copy boys was principally neatness and conformity and quiet and hustle, none of these things I was particularly distinguished for. So they didn't like me much at the news. And I knew my days were numbered there. I was also trying to go to NYU during the day. And that wasn't working. And I was also trying to hang out at the Seven Arts Cafe at the - at 9th Avenue and 42nd Street, which for a while in the late '50s was really an excellent place to hear poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Ray Bremser and all the great poets of that era.
GROSS: You started in California becoming involved with Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster scene, which is the most celebrated acid-tripping group of people (laughter) from the 1960s. And I'd really like to hear your comparison of what the West Coast and the East Coast counterculture was like at the time.
STONE: Well, the way I remember it, it was like going from black and white to color. I mean, we were living in an apartment between Avenue A and 1st in New York. And we suddenly found ourselves in this - what struck us - I mean, it was like everything turning color under this beautiful blue sky, where there was just no equivalent for 4th Street between 1st and A. A place of - that seemed tremendously gentle, where people were polite and soft-spoken and where everything was just extraordinarily peaceful. I mean, I remember the California of 1962 with a great deal of affection.
GROSS: When I think of you being out there, there's something about the tone of it that doesn't seem quite right because you're from - I mean, you're from New York. And you'd had this almost bleak childhood, you know, in the orphanage and the Catholic school and your mother being institutionalized. And here you are with a group whose, you know, philosophy - at least the way Tom Wolfe tells it - is to, you know, like, get high and take things as they come and, you know, have a great time and do all these hijinks whenever possible. And I really have to kind of stretch my imagination to imagine you going from the kind of life you'd been used to to that kind of life. Did you - did you fit in?
STONE: I think I fitted in fine. I mean, why be miserable when you can be on a party? I mean, I had quite an - I didn't feel any responsibility to reflect my earlier life. And I was quite happy to party for a few years.
GROSS: So you kind of unburdened yourself of a lot of that.
STONE: Oh, yeah. I mean, it was great fun. And I wouldn't have wanted - I would not have wanted to miss it.
GROSS: You went to Vietnam in 1971 for a couple of months. You weren't there as part of the military. You were there as a journalist. Did you go there specifically hoping that you'd find material for the next book?
STONE: In a way. I went there partly because it was such a tremendous preoccupation of that - of that decade and such a tremendous preoccupation of everybody I knew. I mean, we were all very intensely involved in the Vietnam War one way or another, all of us - all my friends. And I thought, well, I'm really not getting anything done here. This is going on, and I'm full of opinions about it. I think I'll just see if I can't get somebody to send me over there.
GROSS: So you did. You got...
STONE: So I did. I got Ink, which was a London imitation of The Village Voice which didn't last very long but lasted long enough to send me over there and let me get my accreditation. But most of the time I was in Saigon because an old friend of mine, who I knew from Paris, had asked me to look up her boyfriend, who was working in Saigon as a freelance journalist. So I looked him up. And I found that he had a heroin habit and was involved fairly deeply with the dope scene in Saigon. And I thought, well, here, perhaps, is a story - the dope scene in Saigon. And before I knew it, I knew much more than I wanted to about the dope scene in Saigon. I used to drive around Saigon in a pickup, and we went to some extraordinary places that, again, seem hallucinatory. I could swear they were - they were caves in that they were down in basements. But they can't - they can't have been because there aren't any basements in Saigon. The water table's too high. Anyway, I got a good, close hard look at the - at the drug scene in Saigon, which consisted really of a lot of people smoking heroin. Nobody was shooting it. People would put it on a joint, on a joint of marijuana and smoke it is the way it was normally used.
GROSS: Your novel which comes out of that Vietnam experience, "Dog Soldier," starts with a journalist who's in Vietnam, an American, bringing back heroin that he's really just a courier of to America. And with that heroin comes a lot of the problems I think that we associate with the war, a lot of the violence. And were you trying to show there the kind of war that we created in Vietnam coming back to infect our own culture?
STONE: Oh, yes. I mean, very much that and also to underscore the irony of a juxtaposition between the affluence of America and the party that was still in progress and the fact that all this dying and death and maiming was going on on the other side of the Pacific. And, of course, by 1971, the party was really - on the American side of the Pacific was really beginning to die down quite a bit. In fact, some of it's - some of the ugly aspects of the '60s which had been suppressed began to surface.
GROSS: Robert Stone, recorded in 1986. He died Saturday. After a break, we'll listen back to an excerpt of my 2007 interview with him, when his memoir about the '60s was published. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering the writer Robert Stone, who won a National Book Award for his 1974 novel "Dog Soldiers." He died Saturday at the age of 77. The second time I spoke with him was in 2007 after the publication of his memoir about the '60s, covering the time that he lived with his schizophrenic mother and later hung out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who were famous for their adventures with LSD.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Robert Stone, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read an excerpt from your new memoir "Prime Green." But I'd like you to set it up for us.
STONE: Right, well, the scene takes place in the summer of 1964 when Kesey and the people who'd become known as the Pranksters took a International Harvester school bus across the country, the bus painted many colors and featuring runic slogans and so on. And I was, at that time, living with my wife and kids in New York. And we were expecting the bus, and sure enough the bus pulled up in front of our apartment house. My daughter still remembers being taken down the stairs by a man painted completely green. And we rode around the bus; we rode all over New York. We rode through Central Park, dodging tree trunks and being yelled at by cops and anybody who felt like yelling at us.
And we ended up, that evening, at a party on the Upper East side, which was a kind of reunion of a - or a meeting of our generation that is Kesey's California gang. And some of the old beats who were Cassady's friends. Cassady had driven the bus - I should say Neal Cassady who was the prototype for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's "On The Road." At that party, well, Kerouac was there and Ginsberg was there. It was a very difficult party because of a number of tensions. And particularly I think Kerouac's jealousy, for lack of a better word, over Neal Cassady's having been appropriated by Kesey and the bus.
GROSS: Would you read that section for us now?
(Reading) There was the after-bus party where Kerouac, out of rage and health and youth and mindlessness - but mainly out of jealousy at Kesey for hijacking his beloved sidekick Cassady - despised us and wouldn't speak to Cassady, who, with the trip behind him, looked about 70 years old. A man attended who claimed to be Terry Southern, but wasn't. I asked Kerouac for a cigarette and was refused. If I hadn't seen him around in the past, I would've thought this Kerouac was an imposter, too. I couldn't believe how miserable he was, how much he hated all the people who were in awe of him. You should buy your own smokes, said drunk, angry Kerouac. He was still dramatically handsome then. The next time I saw him, he would be a red-faced baby, sick and swollen. He was a published, admired writer, I thought. How can he be so unhappy? But we, the people he called surfers, were happy.
GROSS: That's Robert Stone reading from his new memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering The Sixties." So was it disappointing to you to meet Kerouac and find him so unhappy and bitter?
STONE: I had met him a couple of times before, but we hadn't had much to talk about. He was - you know, he was older than I was and than my friends were. So I hadn't really gotten to know him. I really expected, you know, far better from him. I expected him to somehow embody the sensibility in his novels, but he didn't. He had taken leave of all that in a way that I think a man as sentimental as he was can become embittered. And he had become embittered by the time we met - by the time we really met.
GROSS: Neal Cassady, who was a friend of Kerouac's and is the inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in "On The Road," was a part of Ken Kesey's group and usually drove the bus when people were traveling. Now, you describe Cassady as often being on amphetamines. And you say when he was on amphetamines, he never ate, he never slept and he never shut up (laughter).
STONE: Yes, that was about the situation. Moreover, he had a parrot called Rubiaco. And when you walked into a room, this rap would immediately begin. You could never be absolutely certain whether it was Cassady or the parrot. Many years later, my wife and I were up in - at Kesey's in Oregon - this was after Cassady was gone - and we woke up to see this fiendish-looking parrot walking over us. And for one brief minute, the parrot went into this rap that was something like - the last time I was in Denver, you think those cops had - and it was a little shard of Neal Cassady remaining in the world, all that was left in the universe of Neal.
But, you know, I never knew him at his most beautiful. You know, he was - he was pretty wrecked by amphetamines when I knew him. And, you know, I have to believe that, you know, the people who idealized him and saw him at his best, you know, saw someone great. But unfortunately, when I knew him, he was pretty out of it.
GROSS: When you were on Kesey's bus and Cassady was driving, did you feel safe? I mean, knowing that chances were he was probably on amphetamines or something else, and he was supposed to be, like, a really fast driver - driving fast around twisting roads and so on.
STONE: Never occurred to me, and I wonder if it occurred to any of us to ever feel unsafe with Neal driving. Neal was a driver of heroic proportions. I mean, it was a said of him that he could steal a car, roll a joint and back the car out of the smallest possible space all in seconds.
STONE: So we always thought he was heroic as a driver. I don't think we - many of us had a moment's anxiety.
GROSS: You also write, Cassady thought it a merry prank to slip several hundred micrograms of LSD into anything anyone happened to ingesting. Did you see that as being kind of funny and whimsical or as, like, dangerous and maddening?
STONE: I saw it as an act of violence. You know, that was not a prank that I had much sympathy for because you never knew what anybody's reaction might be, you know, even if you knew them pretty well. Now, that was something I didn't go along with, and I didn't think it was funny. I thought it was an act of violence, simply put.
GROSS: Did he pull that on you? And did you find yourself suddenly hallucinating without being mentally prepared for it?
STONE: It happened to me a couple of times, and I suspect that Neal was behind it. It was always a very tiresome prospect if you hadn't brought it on yourself. I mean, taking acid was a lot of work. I remember one occasion in which I had taken it myself. I was perfectly responsible for everything. I woke up in the morning after I'd finally gone to sleep. And my jaws were aching. There were just coming off, and I couldn't figure, you know, what was wrong with the lower part of my face. And then I realized, I'd been smiling for 12 hours.
STONE: It was work.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded with Robert Stone in 2007. He died Saturday at the age of 77. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We are remembering the National Book Award-winning author Robert Stone who died Saturday at the age of 77. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 2007 when his memoir about the '60s was published.
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GROSS: Now, when you were growing up, your mother raised you by herself. But she was on disability because of her schizophrenia. How old were you when you comprehended that she actually had a problem and that problem had a name and that problem was an illness?
STONE: Well, when she was losing her job as a schoolteacher, which she gradually was losing over a period of a year, she would mention some of the diagnoses that had been thrown around at her by the psychiatrists who were examining her for her disability. She would throw them around with great scorn. But I remembered them. Paranoia and what-not - I remembered these words. And I thought of them with great scorn, too, because I was really, really fond of my mother. And one of the great fears of my childhood was that I was going to be taken away from her. And in fact, we had the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on our case.
GROSS: Why? Why were they on your case?
STONE: Oh, because my mother was manifestly strange to anybody. We lived - you know, we were living in these furnished rooms. And people in the place could see that she was strange. They imagined the worst. I mean, at one point, I think, you know, I had a bloody nose from the cold or something, and so there was this bloody sheet. And somebody saw. They imagined she was beating me. I mean, she never laid a hand on me, but all kinds of fantasies developed.
So we were called upon to present ourselves to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. So we fled. We had to leave town. But I could understand her. I used to tell my friends that she was deaf if my friends met her - a situation I tried to avoid. But if they met her, there were a lot of non sequiturs. And I would explain them away by telling my friends that she was deaf, that she couldn't hear them right. But I got to understand what she was saying quite well, without even thinking about it. I mean, I got on - I just got on the wavelength. I can still hear it sometimes in people. I mean, people who are living normal lives. I get these little cues that I remember from being a kid. And I think, hum, you know, I'm hearing that. I'm hearing that frequency. When I was out of the service or when I was still in the service and seeing her, she - her condition was getting more advanced. And I couldn't keep up with her. I was losing her. And I finally - I finally did lose her. She was enclosed with delusion and couldn't get through anymore.
GROSS: So, you know, you're brought up by a mother who is sick, you know, with schizophrenia. But she's a schoolteacher, so she's - she has this interest in books probably - right?
GROSS: ...Because she taught. But at the same time, you're growing up in a world where books aren't particularly valued - you know, SROs, orphanages. You said in the Catholic school you went to, you know, a kind of questioning look at literature was not what it was about. So can you talk a little bit about how you think you - and where you think you developed a love of writing and reading?
STONE: I think largely from her. Because although she got things somewhat scrambled, I think she really did love to read. And she really did not subscribe to the general prejudices of society in general. I mean, she was much more broad-minded about a great many things than, you know, than plenty of people who were nominally sane. I remember once, a long, long time ago when I was very small, I was on a bus with my mother. A guy got on the bus and I know who that guy was. He was a guy - I came to know who he was. He was a guy who they called Maurice the Prince of Bohemia.
STONE: And he was one of the very few people you saw around in the 1940s who had a beard. He had a long beard. And I thought this was amusing. And I pointed out to my mother, look - you know, something to the effect of, you know, what a weirdo. Look at the guy with the long beard. And my mother slapped my ears back. I mean, she didn't literally hit me. She said something like, you know, don't say he's ridiculous. He wants to have a beard, so let him have a beard. And that was the way she was.
GROSS: Well, Robert Stone, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
STONE: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Robert Stone recorded in 2007. He died Saturday at the age of 77. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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