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Gary Oldman: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sirius

The actor is so good at what he does, you might not recognize him from role to role. He's played everyone from Sid Vicious and Dracula, to Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, and now George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


Other segments from the episode on January 12, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 12, 2012: Interview with Gary Oldman; Review of Janie Fricke's album "Country Side of Bluegrass"; Interview with John Seabrook; Review of the television show …


January 12, 2012

Guest: Gary Oldman – John Seabrook

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Gary Oldman is sometimes referred to as the best actor never to have been nominated for an Oscar. That could change with Oldman's starring role in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

Raised in a working-class London neighborhood, Oldman did stage work and broke into movies in a big way by playing Sid Vicious in the 1986 film "Sid and Nancy." He's since been in dozens of films and played memorable villains in Bram Stoker's "Dracula," "JFK," "Air Force One" and "The Fifth Element." He played Sirius Black in three Harry Potter films and a courageous cop in Christopher Nolan's Batman film trilogy.

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is based on the Cold War spy novel by author John le Carre. Oldman plays George Smiley, a veteran spy who comes out of retirement to try and uncover a Soviet mole who's embedded in the highest ranks of British intelligence. The role was played by Alec Guinness in a highly regarded BBC series in 1979.

In this scene from the new film, we hear Oldman playing the normally reserved Smiley, who's a little tipsy and is recalling an encounter years before with a notorious Russian agent codenamed Karla.


GARY OLDMAN: (As George Smiley) I met him once, Karla, in '55. Moscow Center was in pieces, purge after purge. Half their agents were jumping ship and I travelled around and signed(ph) them up, hundreds of them. One of them was calling himself Gasman. He was on his way back to Russia, and we were pretty sure he was going to be executed.

(As Smiley) The plane had a 24-hour layover at Delhi, and that's how long I had to convince him to come over to us instead of going home to die.

DAVIES: Well, Gary Oldman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a long time; it's great to have you back.

OLDMAN: Thank you, it's nice to be back.

DAVIES: When you were offered this role of playing George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor," how did you react?

OLDMAN: Well, of course I knew the material. I had seen the television series when it was first shown in - I believe it was '79, and that was my - I guess my introduction to John le Carre's work, through that series. So I was familiar with the material, but I was apprehensive because Guinness had - was really the face of Smiley, Sir Alec Guinness, and had made him so iconic and a very much beloved actor, part of the sort of British establishment of acting.

And so it gave me pause for thought. I thought they're awfully big shoes to walk in.

DAVIES: Right, and the producers clearly though these were shoes that you could fill, given your accomplishments and reputation. Did you go back and watch the Alec Guinness portrayal again? I mean, was that something - was that a reference point or maybe something you wanted to avoid?

OLDMAN: No, I wanted to – I wanted to avoid the Guinness portrayal. I really thought that I would be contaminated by it. And I didn't want to do an impersonation. It was very much a sort of reinterpretation. And so I just, I just worked from the book and the script, and of course we had access to John le Carre, which is very useful because he was - not only is he the writer of the book, but he was a spy.

So it was - in terms of sort of - actors talk about research, you know, it was one-stop shopping.

DAVIES: Can you tell us what you got from talking to John le Carre about - did he have advice? Did he have ideas? Were there things you got from observing him?

OLDMAN: Yes. I was looking for really a voice for Smiley and was searching. And then I met le Carre. So I nabbed some of the cadence in his voice, some of the inflections. And I guess you do as an actor sometimes, you begin with an impersonation, and the more work you do, the further you move away from that.

But often an impersonation can often work as just sort of a springboard, and he had a lot of fascinating things to say. I mean, he was 80 last year. It is like really hanging out with a 25-year-old. He's - he has a memory, it's a mind like a steel trap. He's rather like a jukebox, really.

I mean I was a little apprehensive about meeting him because he is sort of the great author, the great master, and this is his - one of his great books. And we met, and you know, you'd ask him a question, it was like pushing the buttons on a jukebox. You put the coin in, and then away he would go. So it was an interesting meeting.

DAVIES: You've done so many intense and very demonstrative characters over the years in your films, and the thing that's striking about this role is how quiet it is and how bland, in a way, George Smiley looks. And I'm wondering how you approach, you know, playing a lead, taking command of a scene, exerting authority when at least superficially you're doing so little.

OLDMAN: Well, he listens, he sees everything, and he hears everything, but there's action in the listening, in a way. It's very active. It's not just with the ears, but it's a real - it's a complete physical thing with Smiley. He's very, very restrained emotionally. He is the spy master. He has been, over his career, a wonderful interrogator, and this is what makes him dangerous. He is - he's the leopard in the foliage, in the jungle. He's the one that you don't see coming.

And his motivation is, it's always from a sort of moral certainty. It makes him a very interesting and complex character to play.

DAVIES: Right, and you said he sublimates his ego, and he is so emotionally restrained that I don't think in the film he even raises his voice when he discovers his wife is having an affair with somebody he works with.

OLDMAN: No, I raise my voice once in the film, and then it isn't - I don't raise my voice that loudly. It's been described, I suppose, Smiley, or "Tinker, Tailor" has been described as the sort of anti-Bond. It is the very opposite of Bond. Here is a man who doesn't wear a tiepin. He doesn't wear cufflinks.

He wears a drab sort of gray mackintosh. He disappears into the crowd. And of course that's what makes him dangerous. And he is not the man who is wearing a white tuxedo, jumping out of an Aston Martin.

DAVIES: When you were doing the part, did you take it with you off the set? I mean, were you more subdued a person when you were playing Smiley?

OLDMAN: I think so, I think so, yes.


OLDMAN: Yes, it was very good for my blood pressure, playing Smiley. Well, my family were not with me, and I stayed in a very modest apartment, and the decor was not too dissimilar to the house of Smiley. And I would come home after work and have dinner on my own and sit there, you know, watch the television. So I guess I was somehow leading a quiet life, an anonymous life, if you like, outside of the set.

But he's one of the few characters that I missed when the movie ended. I miss George.

DAVIES: And in what ways did you miss him?

OLDMAN: I used to love playing him. I used to look so forward to getting in the car, getting into work, and - it's hard to explain. That's the only way I can describe it, really. It was rather comforting and familiar, like being in the company of a very dear friend. I liked being in his company.

DAVIES: We're speaking with actor Gary Oldman. He stars in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Gary Oldman. He stars as George Smiley in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." I wanted to talk about the 1992 film "Bram Stoker's Dracula," directed by Francis Ford Coppola. You had this amazing performance as Count Dracula. I thought we would hear just a bit of it, but could you first just give us the visual picture of the Count, what you looked like, what it took to put that getup on?


OLDMAN: Well, initially it took six hours to sort of put him together, but I am about 300 years old - this is going back, actually, to the days of scleral lenses, and they were a lens that obviously, from their name, covered the entire eye. And you could only wear them for about 15 minutes at a time, but they were glass.

They were rather uncomfortable to wear, and invariably when you're shooting, you wear them for half an hour. You never wear them for 15 minutes because people actually were shooting, and people forget you have them in. And after about half an hour, your eye, the muscles around the eye, around the socket, start to reject it, and they start to cramp.

I sound like Boris Karloff. I sound like - this is the old days, you know, when we used to wear these old lenses.


OLDMAN: And of course now it's all plastic; it's soft. But - I'm not complaining, but the robe was heavy, and then I had this sort of big, enormous sort of gray wig on the top of my head. It was quite something.

DAVIES: It was quite an effect, and I want to listen to - this is a short clip of you in the film, and you're doing a scene here with Keanu Reeves. Let's listen.


OLDMAN: (As Dracula) I do so long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and the rush of humanity, to share its life, its changes, its death.

KEANU REEVES: (As Jonathan Harker) There. You, Count, are - are the owner of Carfax Abbey, Purfleet. Congratulations.

OLDMAN: (As Dracula) Your firm writes most highly of your talents. They say you are a man of good taste.

DAVIES: Ooh, that's our guest, Gary Oldman, scaring the willies out of you.


OLDMAN: That's so camp.


OLDMAN: It's funny now, odd to hear. It's the first time I think I've ever heard the voice without the picture. And I worked with an opera singer. I lowered my voice almost an octave for the role.

DAVIES: And the accent, is that Transylvanian that you're...

OLDMAN: It is - you know what? It is Transylvanian. We found a girl who ended up actually being one of the brides of - in the movie. She was from Transylvania.

DAVIES: And so you listened to her speak, and you picked up the accent and the rhythm?

OLDMAN: Yeah, yeah, I listened to various tapes and things, and I made it a little of my own. And occasionally I would put in a little homage to - to Bela...

DAVIES: To Bela Lugosi, right. But it's so breathy and creepy, gosh. I want to play one more villain that you played. This is from the film "True Romance," written by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott, where you are a pimp, and in this scene, Christian Slater, who wants to liberate one of your prostitutes, has come to confront you in your nightclub. Let's listen.


OLDMAN: (As Drexl Spivey) Grab a seat, boy. Grab yourself a eggroll. We got everything here from (unintelligible).

CHRISTIAN SLATER: (As Clarence Worley) No thanks.

OLDMAN: (As Spivey) No thanks? (Unintelligible) I think you're too scared to be eating. Let's see(ph). We're sitting down here ready to negotiate, and you've already given up your (bleep). I must be a mystery to you, but I know exactly where your white ass is coming from. See, if I ask if you want some dinner, then you've got (unintelligible), I say to myself this (bleep) he's carrying on like he ain't got a care in the world, and who knows, maybe he don't.

DAVIES: And that really is Gary Oldman, our guest. These voices are just remarkable. But, you know, it's not just the accents and the rhythm, it's the timbre of your voice. I mean your George Smiley is different from the voice that I'm hearing right now. I mean, the pimp I just heard is not recognizable. Do you develop these things yourself, or have the directors said this is what I want? Or do they just know, get Gary Oldman and he'll give you a terrific villain?

OLDMAN: "True Romance," for example, I met Tony Scott and he sat me down, and he said, look, I can't pitch the story, you know, and the plot. He said I'm no good at that. He said but here's what I want you to do. Here's a character. He's called Drexl. He's a white guy who thinks he's black, and he's a pimp. And I said I'll do it.

It's Tarantino, I hadn't read the script, but I said I'll do it, it sounds fantastic. And then I was filming a picture called "Romeo's Bleeding" in New York, and we were in The Bronx, I think, night shooting, and I heard a group of guys outside on the street, and I heard a voice, and I thought, oh, that's it, that could be the voice for Drexl.

And so I grabbed the guy, and he came into the trailer, and I showed him the script, and I said, listen, is there anything that is insincere here? You know, would you say this? Would you say that? Am I phrasing that in the right way?

And the guy, who was African-American, who's from the street, you know, looked over the script, corrected a few things, and very kindly recorded some of his voice for me. And then I kind of based it on that.

DAVIES: Wow, do you do that much, just grab somebody and say, you know what, you're what I'm looking for?

OLDMAN: Yeah, I mean - occasionally I do. I met the writer of the Hannibal Lecter books. Is it Thomas Harris? Yes. And I was looking for a voice for Mason in "Hannibal," and - or a sound. I don't know what I was looking – really, here's a guy who's carved off his own face and has no eyelids and no lips, and I was looking for something.

And I met Thomas Harris for all of 30 seconds, but that was the voice. I like - obviously I like authors.


DAVIES: I was going to say, this is like John le Carre.


OLDMAN: I just suddenly realized that I steal from – I steal the voices of writers.

DAVIES: You know, one more thing on this subject. I remember seeing you in the role of Dracula, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and that was 20 years ago. And I was so blown away by the performance. I still remember lines, and I remember thinking: Who is this guy? And I looked and found out that it was Gary Oldman.

But I didn't connect you with subsequent performances because you looked so completely different in many of these roles. I mean, you were in "Air Force One." You were this crazy guy in the sci-fi film "The Fifth Element." And I wonder if it might have impeded you building more of a popular fan base that people didn't connect you from one film to the next.

Actors knew you were, but I wonder if people in the public just didn't realize this is this remarkable guy doing all these different roles.

OLDMAN: I mean possibly, possibly. I mean, I guess I've always - I've considered myself a character actor rather than - you know, I'm not the sort of square-jawed six-foot-two guy. You know, they don't - they don't really come to me for those roles, or certainly they don't knock on my door when they're looking for the lead in a romantic comedy. So...

DAVIES: I bet you can pull it off.

OLDMAN: Yeah, I'd love to have a - I'd love to have a go, yes. I mean, there are certain things that I've shied away from that have come in where I've said, you know, I'm not interested in playing that, or someone else should play this. There are things that are not in my wheelhouse. Of course you have to know your limitations.

DAVIES: Can you give us an example of something that's in that category?

OLDMAN: Well, I - let's, let's - put it this way. A film I did I guess 10 years ago was a political piece with Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges, "The Contender."

DAVIES: Right.

OLDMAN: And I play the congressman, Shelly Runyon. I'm happy in the skin of Shelly, but I don't know if I could play the president. That needs, I feel, something else. And there may be people that would disagree with that and say, well, I think you could play the president, but I wouldn't want to wear those shoes. It would be harder for me to do that, I think, maybe less convincing.

DAVIES: So you've twice played presidential assassins, right, "Air Force One" and "JFK."

OLDMAN: I shoot presidents, I don't play them.


DAVIES: Right, Lee Harvey Oswald and then the crazed terrorist on "Air Force One."

OLDMAN: Yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: One more thing. When people recognize you on the street, are there certain roles they bring up or lines they speak to you?

OLDMAN: People are extraordinary sometimes. Sometimes they can be quite heartless and not realize it. I was at a Q&A a couple of months ago, and a woman had sat through "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and then afterwards came up to me and said I love your socks. Oh, I liked the film, but I love your socks. Are they Paul Smith? Well, I'm glad you liked my socks more than you liked my George Smiley.

But people are, on the whole, they're very kind, and they have favorites. There are the "Sid and Nancy" fans, who for them, you have done nothing over the last 25 years. You know, yeah, we like you as an actor, we like this, we like that, but oh my God, we loved you in "Sid and Nancy." So that's one that sort of haunts, that keeps coming back.

They loved "The Professional." But I can move around with a degree of anonymity. That's the good thing about being - I guess about being a character actor. I live a very normal life. I go everywhere. I do everything everybody else does. You know, I'll go to the supermarket, and I don't have bodyguards and entourages and all that kind - and I understand why people do, absolutely, but I can move around with a degree of anonymity.

DAVIES: Well, Gary Oldman, it's been fun. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

OLDMAN: I'm happy to be here, thank you.

DAVIES: Gary Oldman stars in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who is off this week.

Janie Fricke was one of the most popular country music vocalists of the 1980s. Between 1982 and '84, she scored six number one hits. Since then, her career has dimmed. But now she's back with an experiment in rearranging some of her biggest hits with bluegrass instrumentation.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says the collection, "Country Side of Bluegrass," is occasionally very successful.


JANIE FRICKE: (Singing) You don't know the meaning of uncontrolled desire. You were always hanging just above the fire. Now and then you come close enough to just get warm and you think that you win 'cause you never give in and you never been burned. Oh, but you're going to learn that you don't know love till it's...

KEN TUCKER: Janie Fricke has had a long, winding career. She started out as a singer of TV commercial jingles, warbling for Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Red Lobster, among other clients. She then moved on to singing back-up vocals for stars such as Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Taking another tentative step toward the limelight, she began singing duets with established male stars, including Merle Haggard, Johnny Duncan and Charlie Rich. Finally, she recorded a solo hit, "Down to My Last Broken Heart," in 1981. It sounded like this...


FRICKE: (Singing) Well, I've been down to my last dime. Down to the last dance. Down to the last time. Down to my last chance. Well, I've been down to nothing, left at all a time or two. This time I think I'm down to something I can't afford to lose. I think I'm down to my last broken heart. I think I'm falling in love with you. I'm just afraid to start until I know for sure our love won't fall apart. 'Cause I think I'm down to my last broken heart.

TUCKER: Now, decades after her last big hits, Fricke has moved on to bluegrass territory, rearranging some of her most well-known music on the album "Country Side of Bluegrass." And so this is what "Down to My Broken Heart" sounds like when you sing it with fiddle and banjo behind it.


FRICKE: Well, I've been down to my last dime. Down to the last dance. Down to the last time. Down to my last chance. I've been down to nothing left at all a time or two. This time I think I'm down to something I can't afford to lose. I think I'm down to my last...

TUCKER: At her 1980s peak, Fricke was very much a pop-country singer. She benefited from smooth, creamy production work by Billy Sherrill, and she always wanted to reach beyond the core country audience by putting bounce in her ballads. On "Country Side of Bluegrass," however, she sounds as though she's riding a covered wagon singing one of her '80s number one hits, "Tell Me a Lie."


FRICKE: (Singing) Tell me a lie. Say I look familiar, even though I know that you don't know my name. Tell me a lie. Say you just got into town, even though I've seen you here before just hangin' around. Ooh, tell me a lie...

TUCKER: That song "Tell Me a Lie" is an interesting one when you listen past Fricke's pretty vocal to focus on the lyric. She's picking up a guy whom she knows is married, but she's lonely and she just wants him to lie, to say he's single, and take her to her place for the night. It's a rather bold variation on country music's perennial theme of cheating, with or without much guilt. The bluegrass versions of her greatest hits work best when she's developing a more prosaic theme - falling for a more available guy who she knows is going to dump her, but she still can't resist that temporary thrill, as she does on "He's a Heartache."


FRICKE: (Singing) Well, you can't deny how good he looks. Couldn't find another on the cover of a book. Believe me. Well, I've almost loved him once or twice. But don't be fooled by his innocent smile. He's clever as a devil and just as wild. He's crazy. But a little crazy's kind of nice. Well, he's a heartache, looking for a place to...

TUCKER: The weakest aspect of this album resides in some of Fricke's vocals. All those years of singing commercial jingles and accommodating duets with other stars smoothed over the edges in her voice, and she can sometimes sound merely slick. This is a move to regain some attention at a time when middle-aged women have a difficult time competing in the current Taylor Swift/Carrie Underwood universe. And Janie Fricke uses the urgency she feels to sustain her career to flood her bluegrass with compelling emotion.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed Janie Fricke's new album, called "Country Side of Bluegrass."

Coming up, YouTube's plans to give you professionally produced channels. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: Most of us think of YouTube as a place where you spend a few minutes, get a few laughs, and encounter the unexpected.

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DAVIES: Memorable. But YouTube may be changing and in a big way. These days, our Internet watching experiences are very different from our TV viewing. We'll enjoy short grainy videos on computers, but spend hours in the living room with the TV set. As technology changes in coming years, though, TV sets will offer Internet content just as easily as cable or broadcast TV. And Internet content providers like YouTube can compete for big audiences and big advertising dollars. So YouTube, which is owned by Google, is preparing to launch dozens of professionally produced channels with specialized content they hope will appeal to millions of people.

John Seabrook writes about YouTube's ambitious plans in the current issue of The New Yorker. John Seabrook is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest book is "Flash of Genius, And Other True Stories of Invention.”

DAVIES: Well, John Seabrook, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

SEABROOK: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: You know, a long time ago there were, you know, the three major networks which could produce television which got a huge national audience. And then cable came along and fragmented, you know, the TV viewing audience. And we also saw, you know, more narrowly focused channels, food channels, a history channel, shopping channels, you know, fishing channels. Does YouTube think there's a market for even narrower niches?

SEABROOK: Yes, they definitely do. I mean they see the Asian channel, for example, which there doesn't really exist on cable, or an Asian sitcom or a transgender channel or a cricket channel or a horseback riding channel. There are a lot of sports and pastimes that have a large group of people interested in them, but they're not necessarily based in one country. And one of the unique things about YouTube is that it's global. So you can put together an audience of cricket lovers from many countries around the world and achieve a pretty large audience. But if you just tried to do that in one country, you'd get a fairly small audience. So YouTube allows you to kind of aggregate these disparate audiences in various countries and put them together into one pretty good size chunk.

DAVIES: Right. And they're going to be, you know, commissioning, you know, professional performers or content developers to make stuff for them. Who are they asking to produce channels?

SEABROOK: Well, you know, over the last year they've had kind of a sweepstakes. The word went out, it was an open secret. YouTube wouldn't confirm it officially, but a lot of people got approached by YouTube in many different media - print, TV, movies, music, dance - and YouTube offered kind of book publishing style advances of several million dollars to people who were professional content creators who were willing to make content for one of these new YouTube channels. And they got something like 1,000 people who submitted proposals for channels and then they winnowed it down to about 100.

A lot of them are people you know. I mean Madonna is doing a dance-oriented channel. Shaquille O'Neal is doing a kind of Shaq kind of comedy channel. There's some writers of well-known TV shows. For example, Anthony Zucker who created "CSI" for CBS, is doing a sort of "Night Gallery”-like show. Amy Poehler is doing a channel. So there are quite a few sort of celebrities from the old world that we already know, and then there are some of these YouTube partners who have homegrown stars like Michelle Phan, who has a popular very beauty tips channel, who have gotten one of these advances in order to sort of, you know, have the money to create bigger production values and more elaborate scenarios.

DAVIES: Now, in terms of advertising, we're used to seeing TV peppered with like 30 and 60 second ads. On the comp – YouTube - we're used to pop-up ads. What kind of advertising will appear on YouTube channels, or is that clear yet?

SEABROOK: Well, it's not really clear yet. I mean YouTube would love to get, you know, 30 seconds or 60 second long ads that people would watch. I mean the big difference is, I think, that you're going to always have the option to click away from the ad on YouTube after a certain amount of time. And there the proposition to the advertisers is, well, yes, it's true that we're not forcing people to watch your ads the way we are on television, but when people don't click away, you know that those people are very motivated, you know, potential customers, also we know their information. Because this is all delivered over the Internet, you know a lot more about the people who are watching your ads than you do about the people who are watching your ads on television. You know, you tend to know their history on YouTube at least. You might know some of their social friends, particularly if they are linking their YouTube stuff to Facebook, and then you can get into their purchase histories and stuff like that.

So there's potentially a lot more information and potentially a much more sort of motivated audience, but you do have to get people to watch the ads. And that actually might not be a bad thing either because it might force the people who make ads to really make a great ad, an ad that you just really want to watch. And particularly that first 10 seconds of that ad, which is that part that you're going to watch before you have a chance to click away, if you can make something really super-compelling, you know, that's a win for everyone because, you know, you'll get an ad that you like to watch and the advertisers gets you. In fact, the most viral of all videos, the quickest video to a million views on YouTube, is the Old Spice, it's an ad. It's that guy, the Old Spice guy doing his thing. And I mean I think that is another thing where we look for - I think we, the distinction between advertising and program is probably going to get a little blurrier in the YouTube future.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, the fact that advertisers can, you know, can get all this data about the individuals that are viewing their stuff. As you said, I mean maybe even who some of their social relationships are, what their viewing habits are, it's kind of creepy to some people.

SEABROOK: It is kind of creepy. But you know, it's kind of creepy when you write an email and Google has got ads that are keying on words that you put in your email right next to, you know, your personal email. But, you know, you get used to it and you're willing to make these trade-offs. You get Gmail for free and it's supported by ads and, you know, you say to yourself, well, you know, hopefully Google is not going to misuse this information - that's the big question - and so you go with it.

DAVIES: I wonder if there's a risk that sort of the essence and appeal of YouTube - I mean, you know, the serendipity of finding a hilarious moment or a unique voice, you know, would be undermined by this whole new direction.

SEABROOK: It's a good question. And it's true that one of the pleasures of YouTube - two of the pleasures of YouTube have been A) the sort of anarchic nature of it, which, you know, in the early days just seemed so crazy that, you know, you could have this totally unplanned, you know, no one was in charge type feeling, so different from television. And then the other aspect of it was, as you said, the serendipity, the things that you would just stumble upon.

And I think as these new channels come in and start getting popular, it's probably going to be less likely that you're going to stumble upon things that are totally out of left field because, you know, that's just the way that the site is going to be reoriented, toward, you know, the hit makers and away from, you know, the random people. They'll still be there but it's, I think, going to be less easy to find than it has been. And that would be kind of a loss.

DAVIES: Do you have a favorite channel, a favorite performer of yours?

SEABROOK: Yeah. I love the Gregory Brothers. I think they're musically really talented. They're great musicians. It's four - three siblings and the wife of one of the siblings.

DAVIES: Just explain what it is the Gregory Brothers do.

SEABROOK: The Gregory brothers are looking around and, well, what actually happens now is a lot of people send the Gregory Brothers YouTube videos that they have found that they think might work in their format. And if the Gregory Brothers see something they think will work as a sort of a musical piece, they'll take the, you know, the speech, person's speech, and run it through this machine that auto-tunes it so, you know, it sort of sounds like it's sung and it has kind of a musical background to it.

And then they'll sort of chop it up so that certain key phrases - in the Antoine Dawson video there was one or two phrases that keep coming back and in the "I Love Cats" it's, you know, I love cats, I love every kind of cat, becomes a kind of a chorus. So, you know, in the end you've got a song and it's also a fun thing to watch. So it's a sort of a mash-up of a video. Yeah, like a music video but a music video based on something that didn’t begin as a music video. So repurposed. That’s the difference.

DAVIES: Well, John Seabrook, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

SEABROOK: Thanks, Dave. Nice to be here again.

DAVIES: Let's listen to "I Love Cats."

[soundbite of video]

DEBBIE: This is my first attempt at a eHarmony video. I'm nervous but I'm excited at the same time. So I'm going to start talking about what I like. (Singing) I love cats. I love every kind of cat. I just want to hug of all of the cats. I love every cat. I love every cat. Anyway, I am a cat lover and I love to run. I'm sorry, I'm thinking about cats. I guess I really love cats.

(Singing) I'm thinking about cats again and again and again and again and again. I think about how many don’t have a home and how I should have some. I think about how cute they are and their ears and their whiskers and the nose. I just love them. And I want them - and I want them in a basket...

[end soundbite]

DAVIES: John Seabrook's piece on YouTube is in the current edition of The New Yorker. You can find some favorite YouTube video picks of the FRESH AIR staff on our website, Coming up, David Bianculli on Bill Moyers' return to television. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: After retiring from TV in 2010, veteran broadcaster Bill Moyers returns to public television this week with a new public affairs program that our TV critic David Bianculli says is hard to find but easy and important to watch. He's here to explain why and also to point out that Bill Moyers already returned to television this week on Tuesday's edition of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

DAVID BIANCULLI: So far it's one of my favorite TV moments of the year. On Tuesday, the night of the New Hampshire primary, Stephen Colbert had Bill Moyers as his special guest on "The Colbert Report." Moyers was there to publicize his return from retirement and the launch of his new TV series, "Moyers & Company."

Colbert booked him to help him do just that - but as his on-screen persona as Stephen Colbert, the pontificating political conservative, he was there to throw good-natured verbal punches. And Moyers, just as genially, matched him blow for blow.


STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST: You keep a calm voice. You never attack the guests on your shows. And I'm here to call bull (bleep). OK?

It's all an act. You sandbag and shiv people with calmness and facts. How is that any better than what I do?

BILL MOYERS: You're from the South.


MOYERS: You must know the difference between a hoot owl and a screech owl.


MOYERS: The hoot owl crashes into the hen house, knocks the hen off the perch, catches it. The screech owl comes in quietly, gently, snuggles up next to the hen, starts talking gently to the hen.


MOYERS: And the next thing you know, there ain't no hen.


BIANCULLI: Later in the same interview, Colbert countered with a piece of breaking news and took his shot, but Moyers stole the ball, slam-dunked it, and got a well-earned ovation from the studio audience. And this, it has to be stressed, was while making a point about politics, economics and big business.


COLBERT: We just got this in. Mitt Romney has won the New Hampshire primary with 35.6 percent. Mitt Romney so famously said this summer, corporations are people, my friend.

MOYERS: And as a friend of mine in Texas said, he will believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.


BIANCULLI: Clearly, Bill Moyers, during his brief retirement, didn't lose any of his edge, his feistiness, or his sense of humor. But in his new series, "Moyers & Company," he prefers the role of straight man. He's starting off by attacking the exact same subject - the growing economic inequality in our country, and why it's grown, but by listening to, and gathering, the voices and viewpoints of people who are difficult to find on most TV talk shows.

"Moyers & Company," in its way, is difficult to find as well. It's not televised in a nationally standardized PBS time slot - in fact, it's not even televised by PBS. Instead, it's distributed by American Public Television and offered to local PBS member stations on an individual basis. And even though PBS doesn't seem to put a high value on the return of Bill Moyers, local stations do.

"Moyers & Company" is being shown in 93 percent of all TV markets, including 27 out of the Top 30 - a very impressive number. Some stations will air it in prime time on Fridays, others on Saturdays or in the afternoons on Sundays. The easiest way to find where and when it plays in your area is to go to the just-created website,, click on schedule, and enter your zip code.

I've seen a rough cut of the premiere telecast, and it's worth the effort to find it. Written by Moyers and Michael Winship, it starts by sampling some dialogue from Oliver Stone's 1987 movie "Wall Street," where Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, boasts...


MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Gordon Gekko) The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth - $5 trillion. One-third of that comes from hard work, two-thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons; and what I do - stock and real estate speculation. You got 90 percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.

BIANCULLI: The program ends down near the real Wall Street, where it interviews people participating in, and reacting to, the Occupy Wall Street movement in its earliest days. And in between you hear other voices. Like those of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, authors and professors whom Moyers calls the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science.

And Amanda Gruebel, a married educator in Iowa who testified before a Senate committee, explaining that while she and her husband both have jobs and Master's degrees, they find it tough to get by. Moyers plays a sample from her Senate testimony, which prompts an illuminating response from Jacob Hacker.


AMANDA GRUEBEL: When we turn on our TVs, our radios, or pick up our newspapers, we read about what's going on in our federal and state governments and we start to believe that you don't care about us. We hear that corporate welfare continues and that CEOs get six-figure bonuses at taxpayer expense and we wonder who you're working for. And we look across the kitchen table at our families eating Ramen noodles for the third time this week and wonder how that's fair.

We read that the wealthy get bigger tax breaks and hopes that their money will trickle down to us and then we turn the page and read about how our school districts are forced to cut staff, again. We know that money talks around here, and that means you don't hear us.

JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It's really the development of lobbying over this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics.

BIANCULLI: And the discussion by no means stops there. Hacker and Pierson, the authors of "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class," are given time to make, and explain, point after point. And they're discussing a topic which Moyers has pledged to explore with other guests in the next few shows, setting the stage for the election year of 2012.

The first edition of "Moyers & Company," though, is enough to answer several questions, such as: Why did Bill Moyers feel the need to come back? And: Why should viewers make a special effort to seek out his new show? What he's doing is valuable. In fact, even at this early point in the latest, very welcome comeback by Bill Moyers, only one nagging question remains: How long will it be before he books Stephen Colbert?

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can learn more about Moyers' program and watch his appearance on "The Colbert Report" at our website,

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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