December 23, 2013
Guests: Mark V. Olsen & Will Scheffer
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GETTING ON")
LAURIE METCALF: (as Jenna James) I'm Dr. Jenna James, how are you? You know where you are? You're in the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit. I'm just filling in until they get someone permanent. I'm actually a real doctor over at the hospital.
GROSS: The HBO comedy series "Getting On" is set in the women's geriatric extended care wing of a Southern California hospital. That was Laurie Metcalf as a doctor who considers working there a demotion. "Getting On" is told from the perspective of doctors and nurses dealing with patients near death who have dementia and often don't know where they are. The stressed-out nurses are dealing with body fluids, end-of-life issues and doctors and patients who don't appreciate what they do.
But yes, this is a comedy. New York Times TV critic Neil Genzlinger wrote: This fictional hospital unit, in all its ridiculousness, feels somehow true to life. My guests are the creators of "Getting On," Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, who also created the HBO series "Big Love." "Getting On" is adapted from the BBC series of the same name but has a lot of new material that comes out of the experiences Scheffer and Olsen had when their mothers were in care facilities at the end of their lives.
Will Scheffer, Mark Olsen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the new series. I want you to describe the premise in your words.
WILL SCHEFFER: We used to say you can't avoid death and taxes in this culture, but it's gotten to the point now where you can't avoid death, taxes and caring for the elderly. And really, you know, we are all dealing with this now, and we wanted to find a safe, funny, warm place that we could come as an audience and experience that.
MARK OLSEN: It's funny. I think both Will and I have over the course of the last five 10 years been devoted to the care of our mothers, who are aging. And I think we've both had different takeaways from it and different pieces that we've learned or become important to us or whatnot.
An additional item for me on this show is going through my mother's care and going through it with her extended team of caregivers. There's such a value to the work that those people do that we kind of wanted to take a different approach to the workplace comedy, and instead of dramatizing or highlighting the ways in which the workplace dehumanize us and make us invisible and whatnot, we wanted to actually celebrate the workplace and celebrate the fact that in many instances, particularly amongst this group of caregivers, it gives value to a life.
And that's something that was very much on at least both our minds, I think.
GROSS: Yes, but...
OLSEN: Yes, but, yes, but, yes, but...
GROSS: Yes, yes, yes but, you know, there's - one of the nurses in there, Didi, is just - she has such a gift for wiping somebody's behind in the gentlest, most respectful way, knowing how to lift somebody out of a chair and clean up puke and stuff. She's just wonderful at what she does. She's incredibly undervalued. But, you know, there's other people who work there who are really, like, going through the motions but think that they are the most wonderful caregivers, and they're, you know, in touch with death, and really, like, they're not even paying attention half the time.
And, you know, for those of us who've had loved ones in facilities, we've seen both extremes.
SCHEFFER: I think, you know, in our show, you know, we love all these characters, even the crazy ones who are sort of all wrapped in their own egos and sometimes miss the point of what they're doing. And I think you're right, Terry, that we've witnessed both extremes. You know, Mark's mom, we brought her out here to California, and out here there are these little board and care places, where you can have skilled nursing that are sort of the opposite of what our show dramatizes, which is a more institutional wing, a more, you know, nursing home-like, you know, wing of a hospital.
And we used to love going to see Mark's mom, you know, and be with the three or four women who had Alzheimer's there and the family who cared for them because we laughed a lot there, and we felt like we were in a family. My mom in New York City, on the other hand, would be shipped out of a hospital into one of these rehabs, and I've have to go get her out, which was a real process of, like, getting her out under orders that I should not do that by the doctors there.
You know, and that was the experience I think you're referring to, where it just seemed like an elder mill, where the elderly were ignored. And we're sort of trying to mix both those experiences that we had and also do something with our characters where you can fall in love with even the most careless of our caregivers.
GROSS: So Will, you had to fly from the West Coast to the East Coast when your mother was sick?
SCHEFFER: Yes, I did. I had grown up on the East Coast, and she was still there. And...
OLSEN: The story of "Big Love" was both of us being on the West Coast, taking care of our mothers; Will's in New York City, mine in mid-state Nebraska. And so we would - we sort of alternated weekends flying out from the last flight, you know, Friday night from Burbank, me landing in Omaha at midnight and getting into my mom's house at 2 in the morning to make sure the food was good, the caretakers were on schedule, her hygiene was good, the doctors' appointments were being met, everything that everyone who's tended to a, you know, a parent in their latter years deals with, to get on the plane at 5 in the morning Monday back to Los Angeles and stages for "Big Love." And Will in turn making that same schlep from Burbank to New York. And so the show kind of grew out of that process for us.
GROSS: OK, well, knowing this and knowing the trips that you had to make so frequently in the final time of your mothers' lives, there's a scene I want to play from your new series "Getting On." And this is a scene in which Molly Shannon plays the daughter of one of the women in this extended care facility.
And Molly Shannon, like, flies in. You know, it's been a seven-hour trip. And she wants to talk to the doctor, and she has her ideas of what the doctor should be doing, which of course irritates the doctor. And I think most people who have a parent in a geographically distant place has experienced something similar to this.
GROSS: To this scene. So this is Molly Shannon as the patient's daughter and Laurie Metcalf as Dr. Jenna James.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GETTING ON")
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Dr. Jenna James, how can I help?
MOLLY SHANNON: (as Phyllis Marmatan) Yeah, my mother is in a lot of pain.
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Yes, we're doing the very best we can to alleviate that.
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) Yes, it's just that I - gosh, I know nothing about this, of course, but I did read on the Internet...
METCALF: (as Jenna James) We caution relatives not to do too much Googling. A little knowledge...
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) I did drive seven hours to get here. So I feel a responsibility to be my mom's advocate, and I did read that people with my mother's level of pain should be on either Tramadol or a more, like, morphine-based drug like Oramorph.
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Well, the Internet is awash with other drugs that people could be on, but rest assured we are doing our very best.
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) I just, I printed up this, with all respect to...
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Well, it could be this, could be that, but I considered the many choices.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I think what Dr. James is saying is that we - there's always alternatives.
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Absolutely. Could be Oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, Percocet, Pethadine, morphine, Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) You know what? I really feel like nobody's listening to me. I'm trying to show you this, and I feel like nobody's letting me talk.
METCALF: (as Jenna James) You're absolutely talking, and I'm absolutely listening.
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) No, I'm trying to tell you that she is in pain. She needs more help in dealing with her chemotherapy.
METCALF: (as Jenna James) No, no, there's no chemo.
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) What do you mean there's no chemo?
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Well, the tumors were much more invasive than we thought, and we're well beyond chemo. Dr. Luccini said that this was all explained on the phone.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Phyllis) This was not explained to me. Dr. Luccini told me that he would be sending her to rehab.
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Yes, well sometimes rehab is the palliative - I'm sure there's a note in my...
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) Well, may I see the notes?
METCALF: (as Jenna James) No, you won't be able to understand the notes.
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) But they're my mom's notes. So I think I have a right to see my mom's notes. I'd like to see the notes.
METCALF: (as Jenna James) They're incomprehensible. Yes, but they are misunderstood or misinterpreted and usually in very negative ways. For example SOB, that's not going to mean what you think it's going to mean.
SHANNON: (as Phyllis) So palliative? So what are you saying? You're saying she's dying?
METCALF: (as Jenna James) Yeah.
GROSS: OK, that's a scene from "Getting On," and my guests, Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, are the creators and writers of this new HBO series. So did you have scenes in your life that were similar to that, where you kind of flew in and either found out something that you should've already known but nobody told you, or you had suggestions that the doctor didn't really want to hear?
OLSEN: We go through our scripts, and we can usually assign etiology. This is a 90 percent I experienced it, this is a 90 percent you experienced that. This is probably a two-third Will experience and a one-third Mark experience. Most of those moments Will experienced with his mom in New York, sort of, landing in the land of Stalinist-Maoist medical doublespeak and trying to penetrate it.
SCHEFFER: And my mom, you know, like just hated being in hospitals. So I'd get it from both ends because she'd inevitably, you know, say something like what took you so long, you know, when I got there and just would be like get me out of here, and, you know, and the nurses would look at me with - sheepishly, like oh boy, you've got it hard.
SCHEFFER: You know, my mom still had all her marbles, and she was a tough cookie, but yet, you know, this kind of having to advocate, you know, endlessly for your loved one, it takes all of your energy, and you have to really suck it up. And, you know, I would Google things and knowing, you know, that it was probably not a good idea.
But, you know, I'd go right up to the doctor and just get into with them, and of course doctors don't like being challenged. They're the experts. And - but this was my experience largely with dealing with doctors. And, you know, but I think advocacy is the word that we learn as we have to like fight our way through the medical system.
GROSS: Yes, and the Molly Shannon scene also reminded me of trying to walk that line between advocate and pest.
GROSS: And you never know which side of the line the medical staff perceives you as being on.
SCHEFFER: I think that's spot on, you know, because I - you know, you have to learn this kind of strategy of, like, I'm going to be firm, yet I'm not going to alienate anybody. So it's this dance that you do when you get to the hospital of, like, I'm going to get that nurse to give my mother another painkiller, but I'm going to do it in a nice way so that they don't hate me.
You know, and there have been all sorts of - I have lots of stories of, like, I've fired nurses from rooms.
OLSEN: Yeah, I think actually I took a whack on the first draft of that scene, and part of it was channeling anecdotes that Will brought back, you know, over the years with his mother's care in New York. And part of it was just eavesdropping of his care of me when I was in UCLA hospital with some major surgery four or five years ago.
And just, it was sort of an armchair seat watching him as an advocate trying to fire nurses, trying to get different antibiotics, trying to get, you know, a different regimen of health care and a different treatment plan going, and pretty fierce, pretty fierce stuff.
SCHEFFER: I think I learned my lesson with Mark, actually, that I was a little too aggressive so that when I got to my mom...
OLSEN: Well, it is true. I'd lie in my - I'd be lying in my bed at 6 in the morning and hear the clip-clop of his shoes coming down the linoleum hallway, and think oh God, here comes trouble.
GROSS: Why would you think here comes trouble?
OLSEN: Because within 10 minutes he's going to be at it with the doctors when they're on their rounds, and I'm going to be sitting here on morphine kind of watching this pageant going on in front of me as my beloved is fiercely advocating on my medical benefit and perhaps not initially in his first outing in this capacity doing it in the most diplomatic of manners.
GROSS: So Will, I have to ask you how does it make you feel to hear Mark say that, that here comes trouble part?
SCHEFFER: Well, you know, it's funny. He tells two versions of the story. He tells one where the clip-clop of the shoes was the most beautiful sound he ever heard, and now I hear the...
OLSEN: That's true, too.
SCHEFFER: I hear the version about the clip-clop is more like the Wicked Witch of the West, you know, coming to create a disaster. But, you know, I think that it's a learned skill. And luckily or unluckily, I had to do it a lot. And I think I became a good advocate, you know, by making mistakes and finally learning that there was a way to sort of navigate the system and be firm and not be a pest, as you say, but really sort of get what my mom needed done.
OLSEN: And, you know, sometimes it was getting her out of a place. I have to say that was sometimes under her pressure of, you know, get me out of here, get me out of here. And that would sort of fire me up. And there was more than one time where we just wound up leaving a, quote-unquote, "rehab" with the doctors saying, well, you go without my medical advisement, but I can fill this bed in a minute, so it doesn't really matter to me.
GROSS: My guests are Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, creators of the current HBO series "Getting On." They also created HBO's "Big Love." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen. They created "Big Love," the HBO series, and did a lot of the writing for it. And now they're the creators of the new HBO series "Getting On," which is set in the extended care wing of a hospital in Southern California. And this series is based in part on their experiences with their mothers when their mothers were in care facilities.
There's a really nice scene in which the most caring nurse, Didi, played by Niecy Nash, who had been on "Reno 911," she's very gentle with this, you know, very old woman is on the commode, and Niecy wipes her behind and helps her up just in the most respectful way. And then when you're thinking wow, like the patient and the health care worker, you know, the nurse, they're just like really bonding.
And then the patient says to her can you help me find my keys, dear, I have to get to the office. And you realize that, you know, that this patient is living in the past completely. She has no idea where she is or why she's there. And it just made me think about how difficult it is when someone you love is a patient in a facility, and the people taking care of them will never really know who your loved one is because of dementia or because they're too sick to explain.
And it's just this - just a really sad reality.
SCHEFFER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we try and, like, show that reality and then bring some laughter into it so it's safe to go there. But Mark, do you want to talk about that?
OLSEN: Yeah, and boy, there's so many - you push a lot of buttons with that one, or a lot of questions come up, or a lot of feelings come up. When - my mother was diagnosed with non-stroke aphasia in 2001 or 2002, which is akin to Parkinson's. There's a slow, growing attack on the capacity to speak, understand speech, read words, that ultimately leads to dementia. And over the course of the last 10 years, that was her progression.
And as she - you know, when there was that first diagnosis of aphasia, you know, I had that poetic little moment that was quite narcissistic that, oh my God, there will come a day when she says I love you for the very last time. And that was sort of my self-involvement with it initially.
But over the course of those years, I certainly learned that - that day did come, certainly, but the relationships did not die in any way, shape or form. It continued and progressed and had great value. But a long road back to this - but when my mother finally lost the capacity to speak because she was a very articulate woman, a very verbal woman with a very storied past, when she lost that ability to speak, and she was left with caretakers, it saddened me tremendously.
And it didn't matter who the caretaker was, good caretaker, bad caretaker. It didn't matter - that they would never know who this woman was. They would never know, you know, her escapades in the U.S. Navy or her adventures in the South Seas. They'd never know her interest in linguistics. They'd never know her rich, deep sense of humor.
And it hurts. It hurts on a deep, true level that we really didn't know what to do with except put it in a show, in a way.
SCHEFFER: And be with it. I mean...
OLSEN: And be with it.
SCHEFFER: One of the things that was so - I think what caring for our mothers really taught us, all the way up through the hospice experience was, like, that this part of life, you know, that so many people are afraid of, and for good reason, it's kind of a privilege to be able to be there when you can. So we would go over and see Mark's mom.
He'd go over a lot and talk, you know, for hours, carrying on these one-sided conversations with her. And it always touched me to see how much energy it took to carry on a conversation when you're the only speaker. And I'd go and...
It's not that different from a marriage.
SCHEFFER: Well, you see, "Big Love" was about marriage, and luckily we were married at the time, and still are, that we were writing that. And this is about caring for the elderly. And we were doing that at the time we were writing it too. But, you know, I think that that act of carrying on conversations with someone who can't speak to you and being with them as they're dying, there was a kind of sense of privilege that we began to feel and sort of a sense that gosh, you know, I was so afraid of this, I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to be here.
But being here is starting to feel like a good thing, a good part of life, something that we avoid in this culture but that actually is a rich experience, albeit painful. It actually is so much a part of life. And so many people never get to be in it.
GROSS: Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen will be back in the second half of the show. They created the current HBO series "Getting On." Here's a scene we talked about, in which Nurse Didi, played by Niecy Nash, is helping one of the elderly patients on the commode. The patient, Birdy, is played by Ann Guilbert, who played Millie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GETTING ON")
NIECY NASH: (As Didi Ortley) Can you stand?
ANN MORGAN GUILBERT: (As Birdy Lamb) I can, but I get dizzy.
NASH: (As Didi) OK, put your hand on the rail. Hold on right here. Just pull yourself up. There we go. OK. Bend over, lean forward, just a little bit.
(As Didi) OK, clean as a whistle, and ready for bed.
GUILBERT: (As Birdy) Honey, can you help me find my purse? I need my keys. I need to go to the office.
NASH: (As Didi) Yes ma'am. Let's get you to the office.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the creators of the current HBO comedy series "Getting On," set in the geriatric extended care unit of a Southern California hospital. It focuses on the doctors and nurses caring for patients at the end of life and dealing with the hospital bureaucracy.
Some of the story lines are drawn from Olsen and Scheffer's own experiences when their mothers were in care facilities at the end of their lives. Olsen and Scheffer also created the HBO series "Big Love."
Although "Getting On" is based in part on your personal experiences, it's also adapting from a BBC series. Was that also called "Getting On?"
OLSEN: It was.
GROSS: So how did you...
SCHEFFER: Yes it was.
GROSS: How did you find out about that series and why did you decide to do like an American adaptation of it?
OLSEN: We decided to do the American adaptation because it was stunningly close to some ideas that we had been working up. Over the course of a couple of years, we were batting ideas back and forth on our commute to "Big Love" every morning about an adult woman and her two adult daughters, so the architecture of the three women working in the elder-care industry, with much the same feel as the show, showing, you know, the class differences and the comedic moments.
And serendipitously, we were on a trip to London three years ago, and Jo Brand's face was all over the Tube from a new book she had out. And...
GROSS: She's the star of the British series.
OLSEN: She's the star of the British series. Googling her in the hotel room one night led us to YouTube clips of the show. And I remember it was like three in the morning when I was watching them, jet-lagged and watching them and shaking Will and waking him up and saying, Oh, my God, you've got to watch this. It's exactly what we want to do. It's just spot on. And that led us down the road.
SCHEFFER: And we were lucky enough to as soon as "Big Love" was over, we, our first meeting was with our producing partners, BBC Worldwide. Jane Tranter, the head of that organization, had run the BBC and "Getting On," this little show in England, you know, also it was the last show she had green lit. And I remember her saying to us; you want to do an adaptation of "Getting On" after "Big Love?" That's crazy. It's such a small little gem of a show, you know, don't you want to do something big and grand and operatic? And we said no, we want to do this. And she got the rights for us and we were able to talk to the British women who created it, and they were lovely. And we used an awful lot of their material, of course, mixed in with our own, to make this show. And the whole documentary style of the show and the comedic treatment of these very kind of difficult medical, you know, situations is based on their treatment of the material.
GROSS: So there's some wonderful actresses playing the older patients in the extended care facility in your series. And I'm wondering what casting them is like? Are they retired actresses?
SCHEFFER: The extras are mostly just, you know, women who have gotten into extra acting work after their retirement. And so we had a wonderful casting, extra casting agent and also, you know, extras casting agent who brought us wonderful faces and we were able to see who we really, you know, could work with. And sometimes we'd give them a speaking bit. And we just, you know, here we are in Southern California, the land of face work and, you know, we knew that we wanted our show to be authentic and we had to find authentic elderly people to fill out a lot of the background.
OLSEN: Well, and that's true as to the extras. We wanted a great tableau to - or great backdrop, a great background of great faces, as it were. It's almost Norma Desmond-esque. We wanted faces in our show. But they're such an amazing pool of incredibly gifted actresses, you know, up in years. And I don't want to say that it was, you know, ripe for the picking because these women obviously still work.
June Squibb, for God's sakes is, you know, legendary in the film "Nebraska" that's just out. But, you know, and when Ann Guilbert came in, she has a nice role that runs the course of the season, and she was Millie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
OLSEN: And when Ann - yeah.
OLSEN: She was Millie Helper, you know, that's who she is.
OLSEN: And when Anne Jeffreys came in it's like, my God, she goes back...
GROSS: Anne Jeffreys from "Topper?"
GROSS: The ghostess with the mostest?
OLSEN: She was Donna in episode two, I mean, or episode three. I'm sorry.
SCHEFFER: No, episode two. You're right.
OLSEN: Episode two. Yeah. Who played the, who had the one featured moment in a film in the '40s called "Singer in a Gift Box" in our show.
GROSS: Oh, and they Google her.
GROSS: She's the one they Google and they find out she was beautiful when she was young. Wow.
OLSEN: Exactly. You know, in June Squibb, it's, writing for these women is joyous. Having them on the set is joyous. You know when we did "Big Love" and got to hang around Harry Dean Stanton, you know, we developed a keen appreciation for Hollywood legends. And, well, Harry's, you know, more than just a legend. He's an amazing human being. But these women are - they're treasures and we adore being able to write for them and give them parts.
GROSS: So I have to ask you, you are legally married now, right?
SCHEFFER: Yes we are.
GROSS: So has that affected your health care? I know you could probably afford health care. I mean you do HBO series. You're not poor.
GROSS: But, still, has it affected either like your health care or your ability to do things, like have all the perks. Like if one of you or one of your loved ones is in the hospital to have all the perks that are allowed only in the immediate family.
SCHEFFER: Yes. Absolutely. I mean when I had to take care of Mark at UCLA, we weren't legally married. And I remember having to sort of fight my way sometimes into a room and say, I am his domestic partner. And, you know, it was tough and sort of I guess demeaning would be the word that comes to mind. But we have a good health care policy through the Writers Guild of America, thank goodness. But if before we were legally married - before this year - we were to pool our health care as a married couple and take benefits as a domestic partner, let's say, before we were married, we had to pay taxes on those benefits. And now that we're married, that goes away.
OLSEN: And God knows, it's made just, you know, when DOMA fell and the federal government changed its stripes, it made just incredible differences in, you know, inheritance and the macabre, byzantine way we had to structure our estates and whatnot to protect each other.
SCHEFFER: As we think about getting on, you know, ourselves as a gay married couple, you know, it was always really scary to figure out what was going to happen with our, you know, with our lives. How we were going to take care of each other? How, if one of us died first, it was going to affect the other? And I have to say that it was a tenuous situation still for us, you know, as a not-recognized married couple in California, federally. And, you know, this year we filed our first, you know, joint tax form together, and that was a huge symbolic step for us. I mean this has been a huge experience being recognized, federally, as a married couple.
GROSS: Since you mentioned thinking ahead to the future about getting on yourselves, having just done this series "Getting On," do you worry about what happens, you know, years from now if, you know, if you get, you know, chronically ill or dementia or something and you end up needing full-time care?
OLSEN: Worried about it? It consumes every waking thought we have.
OLSEN: On our commutes to work, standing in line at the bank; it's all we think about. We have internal debates. We toss coins. Who's going first? I'm not sticking around if you're not here. And you're not going to leave me holding the bag. And...
SCHEFFER: Do we have enough railings in our house?
OLSEN: Yeah. We redid our house over the last couple years and trying to think perspectively, but not wanting to tip our cards too much. We insisted that we needed a few more wash rag hangers and, you know, in the bathtub...
OLSEN: ...when really, we're basically talking about grab bars and trying to be prepared for the future.
OLSEN: So, you know, is his doorway wide enough for that wheelchair in 30 years? Or, of course, you can't, having gone through it, you can't help but, you know, look ahead obsessively about what it will be like for you as well.
GROSS: So the long care facility is called the Billy Barnes Extended Care Facility. There is a Billy Barnes who wrote the song "Have I Stayed Too Long at The Fair" you didn't name it after him, did you?
OLSEN: Oh yes we did.
GROSS: Did you really?
SCHEFFER: We did.
OLSEN: Yeah. The song, you know, well, you know, you just say the title of the song.
GROSS: Oh, I get it. "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?" Oh.
SCHEFFER: Well, you know, and it's interesting because we actually got a message from - an email from someone who was friends with Billy Barnes' long-term partner. And so we didn't know that Billy Barnes was gay or that he had a long-term partner so this all comes full circle. He, through this friend, wrote a saying how much he appreciated that it was named after Billy Barnes and it moved him so much. And that was a just nice little...
SCHEFFER: ...you know, perk.
GROSS: Well, guess what?
GROSS: We have a copy of his song, "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?"
GROSS: So we can end with that.
OLSEN: Aw, that's lovely. That's lovely.
SCHEFFER: That's really nice.
GROSS: Great, Oh, wow. Oh, what a surprise. OK.
GROSS: Will Scheffer, Mark Olsen, it's great to talk with you again. Congratulations on the new series. And thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
OLSEN: Oh, thank you.
SCHEFFER: We always love being here. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE I STAYED TOO LONG AT THE FAIR")
BARBARA STREISAND: (Singing) I wanted the music to play on forever. Have I stayed long at the fair? I wanted the clown to be constantly clever. Have I stayed too long at the fair? I bought me blue ribbons to tie up my hair, but I couldn't find anybody to care. The merry-go-round is beginning to slow now. Have I stayed too long at the fair? The music has stop and the children must go now. Have I stayed too long at the fair?
GROSS: That was Barbra Streisand recorded in 2006. Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer created the HBO series "Getting On." The final episode in the six part series will be shown next Sunday. But you can see earlier episodes On Demand.
Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli recommends some recent DVD box sets. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow, our TV critic David Bianculli will be with us to talk about the year in television, and to present his best of the year list. But now he has his recommendations of recent DVD box sets, collecting TV shows new and old.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I'd like to present a short list of some of the most exciting recent TV offerings on DVD. The best and biggest, and most recent of the bunch is "Breaking Bad: The Complete Series." Vince Gilligan's AMC drama, starring Bryan Cranston as a high school teacher turned criminal mastermind, arguably is the best TV series ever made, so getting or giving it in one gulp is about as good as it gets. Especially with Sony Picture Television's mammoth set providing so many extras, including a documentary on the final season which, among other things, allows us to peek in as Cranston hosts his co-star, Aaron Paul, and the two of them read the show's final script for the first time.
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BRYAN CRANSTON: It's March 10th, 2013. We're at my house in Albuquerque. He's Aaron, I'm Bryan. We're reading the last episode of "Breaking Bad." We haven't read it yet. We don't...
CRANSTON: We don't know, and we're having beer.
AARON PAUL: I'm so unbelievably depressed that this is happening right now, so I know you all understand.
BIANCULLI: The other box sets I'm most excited about this year are all of a much older vintage. Some of them are released on home video for the first time and - to those of a certain age - will bring back lots of treasured TV memories. One of them is a series from Norman Lear, producer of "All in the Family," who wanted to satirize the TV soap opera by presenting his own nightly version. When the networks said no, Lear offered it to local stations in a new model of first-run syndication, and in 1976, the show was born, starring Louise Lasser as a fictional housewife from Fernwood, Ohio.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
BIANCULLI: "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," takes a while to get going and, like a lot of Norman Lear comedies, holds up well in some episodes and seems horribly dated in others. But the cast that came to prominence is so much fun to watch that it's a pleasure to see them again. Dabney Coleman and Mary Kay Place broke out in this show. And so did Martin Mull, playing two roles.
After one character, Garth Gimble, was impaled to death by a Christmas tree, Mull returned as twin brother Barth Gimble, who hosted the local TV show "Fernwood Tonight." With sidekick Jerry Hubbard, played by Fred Willard "Fernwood Tonight" became a spinoff series, 10 episodes of which are included in Shout Factory's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series."
Another TV treat from the '70s is Time-Life's new collection of the Dean Martin celebrity roasts which began during the final season of Martin's NBC variety series in 1973 and continued for another 11 years. Most were taped in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand where the alcohol flowed as freely as the insults. Today's TV viewers are familiar with the roast format because of Comedy Central's recent efforts.
But each one of these Dean Martin specials is an almost ridiculously deep cross section of pop culture of its era. You don't need to hear any jokes from the 1976 roast where Dean Martin himself is the guest of honor. All you need is the list of celebrity participants during the opening credits.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as narrator) And tonight, guess what? It's going to be Dean. With tonight's guests Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Muhammad Ali...
BIANCULLI: These specials are so much fun because they move so quickly and feature so many stars. And since they're from an era when NBC erased most of its Johnny Carson "Tonight" shows, they're a valuable edition to the old fashioned show biz canon. An even earlier and even more rare television treat is the new MDV entertainment box set called "Here's Edie: The Edie Adams Television Collection."
It features the widow of Ernie Kovacs in shows from her 1962 to 1964 ABC variety series which was televised just after her husband's death. It presents all 21 episodes, including all of her Muriel cigar commercials intact. And it's the first time these programs have been seen anywhere since their original broadcast. Watching them for the first time, I was astounded by how inventive and original they are. Edie really did carry on the pioneering TV spirit of Ernie Kovacs.
But where he liked his music with a touch of the bizarre, she was a trained classical and jazz singer and her TV shows reflect her tastes beautifully. There's no pandering to a network TV audience here. In one show, her guests include Count Basie and his orchestra and Jon Hendrix from the jazz vocal trio of Lambert, Hendrix, and Ross.
Hendrix sings one of his group's numbers with Edie and guess Don Chastain as Basie's orchestra provides the backing.
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EDIE ADAMS: (Singing) Ah...
DON CHASTAIN: (Singing) Ah...
EDIE ADAMS AND DON CHASTAIN: (Singing) Ah...
BIANCULLI: And finally, there's a deluxe Blu-ray reissue, by Video Services, called "The Rutles: Anthology." It's all built around the Rutles, Eric Idle's spoof of The Beatles, and has lots of new extras and bonus snippets. But for me, nothing is as good as, or could be better than, the set's centerpiece: The 1978 faux rock documentary "All You Need Is Cash," telling the story of the fabulous Rutles.
If you like "Spinal Tap," you'll love "The Rutles" - and they got there first, using lots of original "Saturday Night Live" cast members as supporting players. For the holidays, if only for yourself, I can't think of a better gift. Not when you can enjoy such almost-hits as the title song of "Ouch," The Rutles' answer to the Beatles' "Help." Who needs to sing carols, when you can sing along with this?
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THE RUTLES: (Singing) Ouch. You're breaking my heart. Ouch! I'm falling apart. Ouch! Ow, ow, ouch. When we first met I must admit I fell for you right from the start. I must admit I fell for you right from the start. Now, now when we meet all kinds of things it seems upset the apple cart. All kinds of things it seems upset the apple cart. Ouch! Don't resent me. Ouch. Please don't hurt me.
(singing) Ouch. Ow, ow, ouch.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how SATs measure vocabulary. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. No one who took the SATs could forget those questions probing our knowledge of words like vilify and plethora. Now the College Board which runs the exams is planning to replace those so-called SAT words with more useful ones. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts about how we measure vocabulary.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: When I took the SATs a very long time ago, it didn't occur to us to cram for the vocabulary questions. Back then, the A in SAT still stood for aptitude, and most people accepted the wholesome fiction that the tests were measures of raw ability that you couldn't prepare for, like sticking a dipstick into your brain, one College Board researcher said.
It wasn't until the test-prep industry took off a few years later that people realized you could work the system, and students began boning up on the words that were likely to appear on the exam. SAT words, people called them, with the implication that they existed only to be tested. If you wanted to use a word like vociferous, you'd add the tag SAT word to signal that you weren't showing off.
Now the new College Board president, David Coleman, wants to all those writerly words like mendacious and jettison that students learn for the exam. They're to be replaced by words like hypothesis and transform - what Coleman calls the real language of power. That's a turnabout for the College Board, from insisting that the exams were uncoachable to saying, well, since students are going to prep for them anyway, we'll tell them what they really need to know.
But it also falls in a great American tradition of self-improvement through word power. As one 1942 vocabulary guide told its readers: Your boss has a bigger vocabulary than you have. That's one good reason he's your boss. That faith in vocabulary begins with the belief that every new word you learn comes tied to a new idea.
But the words you study tend to be tied to old ones. That's what flashcards are for, to pair exotic words with familiar ones: amicable means friendly, superficial means shallow. That's all you need to know to answer those SAT sentence-completion questions.
They tried to interest her in many things but they couldn't overcome her - blank. Should it be (a) apathy, (b) fervor, (c) acuity or (d) aloofness? It's apathy, of course. What they want you to do is fill in the blank with the word that makes the resulting sentence least interesting.
But if big words were just synonyms for littler ones, they'd be useful only for show. As James Murphy put it in a recent Atlantic piece, they'd be like the parrot's plumage, not its beak. True, if you stumble on esoteric somewhere, it can help to be told that it means obscure.
But the real breakthrough comes when you realize that it doesn't. Esoteric only comes into its own as a concept when it's jostling in your mind with obscure, arcane, recondite and the rest. There's really no way to test whether somebody has learned a new concept along with a new word. You couldn't ask a sentence completion question that required someone to choose from among esoteric, obscure and recondite.
There'd be no clear right answer; they're too close for the context to tease them apart. Here's a tip for high-school seniors: If the answers to a sentence completion question contain two near synonyms, you can be sure they're both wrong. How do we learn these distinctions, anyway? We can't usually get them from context alone, or the SAT could test for them.
Dictionaries are no help; they'll define esoteric and obscure in pretty much the same way, or sometimes even in terms of each other. A classical background might be useful if you're stuck on recondite, which comes from a Latin word meaning hidden. But it won't help you distinguish it from cryptic and abstruse; they come from Latin words that mean hidden, too.
You can't really learn the meaning of a word until you understand why it matters. Take Coleman's example of hypothesis. The dictionary defines it as an assumption made for the sake of argument, which is all you need to know if it comes up on an SAT question. But even if they know the word, high-school students don't say things like my hypothesis is that Elaine turned you down because she thinks you're a drip.
That's not just because the word is fancy, but because it's of no use to them. Hypothesis only matters when you find yourself in a situation where it's important to be explicit about the steps of logical deduction, as it is in science or detective work. But you can't pluck the word out of its native habitat to put on a study list and imagine that its meaning will still be clinging to its roots. Learning what hypothesis means won't help you learn science; it's the other way round.
Still, it doesn't hurt to put the words out there on the vocabulary lists, even if they're going to lie dormant until they're needed. I asked my daughter if she recalled any of the items we went over on flashcards when she was preparing for the SAT about seven years ago. The only one I remember is ephemeral, she said, and then added, I'm aware that there's a certain irony in that.
But my guess is that three-quarters of the words we looked at are lodged in her vocabulary by now, to the point where it feels as if they've always been there, like all the words I circled in the Readers' Digest feature "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power" when I was 11. I can't recall any of them now, but that's to be expected. If you can still remember where you learned a word, you probably haven't used it a lot since then.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.
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