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One of Hollywood's Earliest Sex Symbols.

Emily Wortis Leider has written a new biography of Mae West, "Becoming Mae West" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux). Leider’s book examines the early, formative years of West who was famous for witty one-liners, promiscuity, and being censored. Mae West started out as a vaudeville performer before launching a successful career in film. In the 1930’s she starred in "She Done Him Wrong," based on her play "Diamond Lil" and "I'm No Angel," two of her biggest films.

22:07

Other segments from the episode on August 20, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 20, 1997: Interview with Emily Wortis Leider; Interview with Robert Smigel; Review of Ocho's album "The Best of Ocho."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 20, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082001np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Becoming Mae West
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"Why don't you come up and see me some time?" -- Mae West's most quoted catch-phrase is a good example of the sexual innuendo that helped make her a camp icon. And as her biographer Emily Leider points out, West's persona also speaks to contemporary interest in transgressiveness and gender bending. Leider's new book "Becoming Mae West" follows West's career through 1938.

The biography offers fascinating glimpses into changing ideas about female beauty, sexuality, and censorship. West's career took her from vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, where she became famous for her film "She Done Him Wrong," "I'm No Angel," and "My Little Chickadee."

Here's a scene from I'm No Angel, which she wrote and starred in opposite Cary Grant.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "I'M NO ANGEL")

MAE WEST, ACTRESS: Well, hi.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Good evening, Miss Carroll.

WEST: Oh, if anyone should call, I'm indisposed.

ACTRESS; Yes, ma'am.

WEST: You know what I mean, don't you?

ACTRESS: Yes, ma'am.

CARY GRANT, ACTOR: Come here, dear. I haven't had you alone all evening, with all those people.

WEST: Well, my public.

LAUGHTER

GRANT: Let me take a good look at you. Ah, you were wonderful tonight.

WEST: I'm always wonderful at night.

LAUGHTER

GRANT: Yes, but tonight you were especially good.

WEST: Well, when I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better.

GROSS: I asked Emily Leider to describe Mae West's stage and screen persona.

EMILY WORTIS LEIDER, AUTHOR, "BECOMING MAE WEST": Sex was number one on her agenda, although particularly on film, she liked to be suggestive, rather than out-and-out lewd. In her earlier days, however, she settled for out-and-out lewd. And to some extent, the suggestive part was a compromise with reality since censors were telling her a lot about what she couldn't say and do.

But being suggestive suited her best because her wit is verbal, and it's really funnier to hint than to swear.

GROSS: What did she do on stage that was lewd for its time?

LEIDER: Well, she danced very provocatively. She did what one historian of jazz called "vernacular hip movements." And she got into a lot of trouble for doing what was called "the cooch" (ph) in a very provocative way. She liked decolletage.

She liked to show her body. She liked to flaunt her body, which was not what most people would consider a conventionally beautiful body. But she was busty. She was hippy and she loved her body, which is a big part of Mae West. She really thought she was great, and I think that's one of her main messages.

Women, it's OK to like sex. It's OK to like your body. And it's OK to be sexually aggressive.

GROSS: Was she very sexually active and very sexually aggressive in real life -- off the stage; off the screen?

LEIDER: Yes. She was very much like the traditional male in her sexual role in that she was not interested, by and large, in emotional involvement. She was interested in one night stands. She was interested in trying as many partners as she possibly could. And she was interested in being in control.

And she did know this. She said "I'm just like a man in my sexuality."

GROSS: Mae West's story kind of interconnects with the story of several gangsters. You say that she was very fascinated with gangsters and with a certain kind of brutal man?

LEIDER: Yes. She would go to a gym and pick out the guy with the best body and the biggest muscles. She went to the fights several times a week her entire adult life. She loved the boxing ring. She loved fighters. And she had some boyfriends who were gangsters, and she always said they were perfect gentlemen.

LAUGHTER

She was attracted to power and she was attracted to illicit power, and others have called her a female gangster and likened her to Jimmy Cagney. She herself compared herself to Jimmy Cagney. She did like to play the person from the wrong side of the tracks.

GROSS: She was once called the greatest female impersonator of all time. Do you think she had anything in common with the drag queens who she once performed with in her vaudeville days?

LEIDER: Very much so. She was influenced by drag queens. She wrote two plays which incorporated drag scenes, and she definitely was on a wavelength that has to do with campy, gay male humor. So before she was imitated by female impersonators, she was taking a cue from gay male humor.

GROSS: Did she feel any affinity with gay people?

LEIDER: It's a complex subject. She did, but she also had some negative feelings about homosexuality, particularly women who were gay. She came right out and said: "I don't like lesbians." She was completely intolerant of lesbians.

Gay men were another story. She always had a rapport with them, but in the '20s, she wrote an article in which she said that she considered homosexuality a perversion. And she also referred to it as a disease that had to be cured.

She was opposed, however, to sweeping it under the carpet and making it an unmentionable subject. And she certainly was opposed to making homosexuality a crime and involving the police and so on. She never had sympathy with that point of view.

GROSS: My guest is Emily Leider, and she's written a new biography of Mae West.

Mae West started creating her stage persona in her vaudeville days. What was her vaudeville act like?

LEIDER: Well, she was a singer and dancer before she became a comedienne. At times, she used a partner, although she found out in every instance that she preferred to be a soloist. She, at one time, did just a song and dance act. She began to write her own material and to find out that she could get laughs by not doing a hell of a lot.

There's a wonderful description of her vaudeville act by a manager in the early 1910s who says she doesn't do much. She just stalls around the stage and talks about herself, yet people laugh. She learned to pace herself languorously in vaudeville, and that became a hallmark of Mae West's art -- the kind of leisurely, sultry movement and delivery of lines which became most famous on the screen evolved in vaudeville.

GROSS: From vaudeville, she went to theater -- to Broadway. And a piece that she wrote for herself was called "Sex," and I think that was -- that became the best known and most successful of her theater pieces. Tell us something about Sex.

LEIDER: Well, Sex is a very raunchy play. It is not just suggestive. It is out-and-out dirty. She plays a prostitute in it. The play was calculated to cause a stir and if possible to get Mae West arrested, because in the 1920s, trials were theater and Mae West knew very well, and so did her manager James Timmony (ph), that if she managed to be raided on Broadway and to go to jail, that she'd be the talk of the town and she'd become notorious and then a celebrity, which is exactly what happened.

It's not a work of literature, but it's really a fascinating sociological document and it's all about a young woman's rise to the top. She starts in a brothel and she ends up in posh Westchester drawing rooms. And she ends up turning down a proposal by a socialite because she doesn't want to bring him down. But it's her decision. He want to marry her and, indeed, in a Mae West vehicle, every man wants her and will do anything that she asks.

GROSS: My guest is Emily Leider, author of a new biography of Mae West. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "ST. LOUIE WOMAN")

WEST SINGING: When a St. Louie woman
Comes down to New Orleans
When a St. Louis woman
Comes down to New Orleans
She'll be wearing more diamonds
Than Uncle Sam's got Marines

Had a good man in Memphis
But the fool he lays down and dies
Oh, I had a good man in Memphis...

GROSS: Back with Emily Leider, author of a new biography of Mae West.

Mae West also starred on Broadway in "Diamond Lil" which I think really helped to just solidify her persona.

LEIDER: Yes.

GROSS: On stage.

LEIDER: Diamond Lil was a bigger hit -- a more mainstream hit than Sex and it ran for a long time and it -- even though the Hayes office specifically had prohibited it from being made into a movie, it was made into a movie, "She Done Him Wrong," which was a sensation.

GROSS: Yeah, now the Hayes office was the office that was upholding the morality production code in Hollywood -- the code that stipulated what you could and couldn't say or do in movies at the time.

LEIDER: Right.

GROSS: And so they said to her: "you are not allowed to make this show, Diamond Lil into a movie." So how did they get around that and make the movie known as She Done Him Wrong?

LEIDER: Well, this was the Depression, and the studios were really hurting. And Paramount felt that they could make money with this movie and, really, that's why the movie was made. Nobody was really going to crack down and say "you cannot do this" at a time when the box office was really hurting and the studios were in danger of going under.

That's basically why. It had to do with making money.

GROSS: For people who haven't seen She Done Him Wrong in a long time or who have never seen it, describe her character.

LEIDER: Well, she plays a floozie who lives over an 1890s New York bar and entertains there. She is kept by the owner of the bar and he's into shady dealings. She is very much drawn to the Cary Grant character, Captain Cummings (ph). He is a Salvation Army type who does good works down on the Bowery and secretly, she buys the mission house so that it won't be taken away for lack of ability to pay the rent.

So she is a floozie, but she's good-hearted. She's fun. She's an entertainer and all men are smitten by her.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene from She Done Him Wrong.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SHE DONE HIM WRONG.")

WEST: You know, I -- I always did like a man in a uniform. That one fits you grand. Why don't you come up some time and see me? I'm home every evening.

GRANT: Yeah, but I'm busy every evening.

WEST: Busy? So what are you trying to do? Insult me?

GRANT: Why no, no. Not at all, I'm just busy, that's all. You see, we're holding meetings in Jacobsen's (ph) hall every evening. Any time you have a moment to spare, I'd be glad to had you drop in. You're more than welcome.

WEST: I heard you, but you ain't kidding me any. You know, I've met your kind before. Why don't you come up some time, huh?

GRANT: Well, I...

WEST: Don't be afraid. I'm won't tell.

GRANT: But a...

WEST: Come up -- I'll tell your fortune. Ah, you can be had.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Leider, the author of a new biography of Mae West.

The Hayes office got tougher on Mae West as the '30s progressed. Why?

LEIDER: The atmosphere changed. The economy was less desperate and a new man, Joseph Breen (ph), was put in control of the production code administration. So it was a combination of factors.

The mid-'30s is really a very dark time in world history. Hitler has come to power. The world is getting ready for war and repression. And the United States fell in line with that. The permissiveness of the 1920s gave way on many fronts to a repressive atmosphere.

And with Roosevelt, the idea of more controls became popular, because nobody was doing too well without controls. The Hayes office became empowered as an in-house censor that, it was argued, would be preferable to government censorship. But it was widely hinted that if Hollywood didn't clean its own house that the government was going to intervene.

GROSS: Mae West's attitude early on was, well, look, a censor can delete my words, but they can't really affect my manner, my tone, insinuation -- the whole sexual personality. Did those censors, however, manage to change that too?

LEIDER: Yes. They effectively made it impossible for her to continue to play the character that she'd traditionally played. One of the rules of the code, for example, was that you couldn't have sex. You couldn't depict sex outside of marriage.

Well, Mae West never played a wife and she couldn't see herself playing a wife. So right there, she came up against a brick wall. You were not allowed to show sex in anything but a marital relationship. So that was a -- you weren't supposed to show prostitutes. Well, Mae West always played a prostitute or a floozie or a woman of loose morals.

So she -- the givens were taken away from her, because she always played a certain kind of a woman in a certain kind of relationship to men, and the Hayes office when it cracked down after 1934 wouldn't let her be who she was.

GROSS: Mae West made her movies in the 1930s with Paramount. Paramount dropped her I think it was in 1938. Why did they drop her?

LEIDER: Well, she was becoming old news, and she was getting into too much trouble and it no longer was paying off. Everything was always about the bottom line, and if you were controversial, but were making money being controversial, then we love you. But if you're controversial and that's costing us, bye. So they just dumped her.

GROSS: You book mostly covers Mae West up until 1938. But in her later years, when she reached the age that the public usually does not see women as being particularly sexual, how did she deal with her sexual self?

LEIDER: Well, she didn't make any compromises with age. She continued to see herself as irresistible and rapacious sexually. And she refused to give that up. In some ways, I find that attractive and in other ways I find it pathetic, because she actually would say "I look exactly the same in my 70s as I did in my 20s" and it's just not so.

And I find it impoverished that she has to think of herself as a 26-year-old to give herself permission to continue to be sexual. What's wrong with being sexual when you look like a 50-year-old or a 60-year-old? Isn't that OK too? She would say no. Her dependence on makeup and glitz I find not attractive.

GROSS: What figures in pop culture today do you think owe a debt to Mae West?

LEIDER: I would say there are several. Roseanne is one because Roseanne is tough talking and working class and overweight. But Roseanne is always in a family situation which Mae West never liked to play, herself. She never liked to play a mother.

Madonna because she kids sex; because she is sexual; because she's outrageous; and because of her gay male following. But Madonna's always changing and Mae West always stuck to the same formula.

I think Bette Midler has a lot in common with Mae West as a personality. Her good humoredness; her larger-than-life quality; her campiness and the fact that she's a singer -- those all are similar to Mae West.

And I think that all of those three performers that I named would acknowledge that Mae West is as model for them and a hero person.

GROSS: Well Emily Leider, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LEIDER: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Emily Leider is the author of Becoming Mae West. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

And here's Mae West in her 1934 film "Belle of the '90s" in which she sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "BELLE OF THE '90S")

MAE WEST, ACTRESS: Oh, I'm so glad to see so many men here. The kind I like, too.

FIRST UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Mom, you flatter us. May we ask what types of men you prefer?

WEST: Just two -- domestic and foreign.

LAUGHTER

SECOND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Won't you tell us where you're stopping during your visit here?

WEST: Stopping at nothing.

THIRD UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR, SPEAKING IN FRENCH

WEST: Ooh, French toast. It's all right.

LAUGHTER

FOURTH UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Drink to her, who long has made strong men sigh, to the girl that gave to song what gold could never buy.

WEST: Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you.

Well, it's better to be looked over than overlooked.

FIFTH UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Won't you sing once more for us?

WEST: I'm sorry, gents, but I have to retire.

SIXTH UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Oh, please sing. The fun's all over if you go to bed.

WEST: Well, I'll right I'll sing. What'll it be?

SEVENTH UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Sing "St. Louis Woman" again.

EIGHTH UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: No, no. Why not sing your own favorite?

WEST: My favorite? All right. Play it boys.

My old flame
I can't even think of his name
But it's funny now and then
How my thoughts go drifting back again
To my old flame

My old flame
My new lover's arms seem so tame

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Emily Wortis Leider
High: Emily Wortis Leider has written a new biography of Mae West, "Becoming Mae West." Leider's book examines the early, formative years of West, who was famous for witty one-liners, promiscuity, and being censored. Mae West started out as a vaudeville performer before launching a successful career in film. In the 1930s, she starred in "She Done Him Wrong," based on her play "Diamond Lil" and "I'm No Angel," two of her biggest films.
Spec: History; Media; Movie Industry; Becoming Mae West
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Becoming Mae West
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 20, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082002NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Robert Smigel
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Perhaps the funniest feature on Saturday Night Live lately is the cartoon series called "TV Funhouse." My guest is the creator, writer, and producer of TV Funhouse, Robert Smigel. He used to be a sketch writer on Saturday Night Live.

He created the sketches "Da Bears," "Trekkies," and the "McLaghlan (ph) and Sinatra Group." Smigel also wrote for Dana Carvey's short-lived TV show and was the original head writer and co-producer on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Many of Smigel's Saturday Night Live cartoons are absurdist political satires, like his cartoon "Ex-Presidents" in which the four ex-presidents are superheroes with super powers. Smigel parodies Batman and Robin in his cartoon series "The Ambiguously Gay Duo." Here's the theme song, written by Smigel.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THE AMBIGUOUSLY GAY DUO")

SINGERS: The ambiguously gay duo
The ambiguously gay duo
They are takin' on evil, come what may
They are fighting all crime to save the day
They're extremely close in an ambiguous way
They're ambiguously gay
They're ambiguously gay

The ambiguously gay duo
The ambiguously gay duo...

GROSS: Robert Smigel, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ROBERT SMIGEL, CARTOONIST, AUTHOR: Thank you.

GROSS: What inspired The Ambiguously Gay Duo?

SMIGEL: I got very irritated when Batman and Robin started having nipples on their uniforms. This bothered me to a great degree -- the third Batman, I think, they started sprouting nipples.

GROSS: These are the Batman movies you're talking about?

SMIGEL: Yeah, the Batman movies. The Batman TV show is untouchable, classic. But the Batman movies, you know, in yet another attempt to separate themselves as, you know, and comment on, you know, that "this is the '90s" Batman. Batman's got nipples now. I just -- why? What's the use? What do we need this for? And it recalled -- these are superheroes. Why do we have to -- you know, why do we have to care about their sexuality?

And I got the idea for The Ambiguously Gay Duo sort of from that. It was just -- you know, to me the funniest characters in The Ambiguously Gay Duo are the bad guys because, for people who haven't seen it, the basic joke is that these guys are, you know, very masculine superheroes.

You know, they've got very impressive pectorals and, you know, the requisite sprouting nipples, and but at the same time, the bad guys, all they can ever talk about and think about is just whether or not these two guys are gay.

And any little sign, however ambiguous, produces a suspicious look from these badly animated characters. And that's basically the center of the cartoon. And I just don't understand why people, you know, have to be so obsessed with sexuality that it spreads to something as basic as crime fighting.

GROSS: One of the things I find -- one of the things I find funny about The Ambiguously Gay Duo is that everybody is always playing this guessing game, like, I don't know...

SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: ... you think he's gay? You think she's a lesbian?

LAUGHTER

SMIGEL: Exactly.

GROSS: So you've kind of like...

SMIGEL: Next year, I want to...

GROSS: ... nailed that whole game, 'cause that's ...

SMIGEL: I know.

GROSS: ... all the bad guys really care about is, "I don't know -- do you think they're really gay?"

SMIGEL: Exactly. People are obsessed with whether or not you're gay or not nowadays, and it just shows that as far as we think we've come, we haven't come far at all because if you were really -- if you really didn't care if someone was gay; if you really tolerated that person's sexual preference, it wouldn't be an issue.

So rather than -- so the cartoon is -- makes a very important social point.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: And I think the costumes on the superhero pals...

SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: ... are funny too because you've taken the basic, you know, tights and briefs costume and elaborated.

SMIGEL: That's such a good way of putting it. That's a good way of putting it. We have -- yes, we've elaborated. We've given them very bright -- bright colors; bright pastels. And we've -- where the requisite bulges exist, we've taken it a little too farther -- too far.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another cartoon you've done for Saturday Night Live.

SMIGEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is another superhero cartoon, but it's called "Ex-Presidents." Describe the premise of this?

SMIGEL: That's probably -- well, the Ex-Presidents are the four surviving ex-presidents. And basically, they've been hit by radiation and they have super powers. And it's just nonsense, but I have so much fun writing those. The -- and basically, the most fun -- the best part of it is that they all get to be, you know, kick-ass Dirty Harry kind of heroes.

So basically, it's sort of a joke on the way we sort of boil down our leaders into sound bites and, you know, just turn them into icons, and nobody really knows anything beyond, like, the few sound bites that they ultimately leave us with that are so -- so George Bush will, you know, right before he's about to beat up a villain, he'll say: "read my lips, your ass is grass." And Ronald Reagan will say, you know: "just say no to pissing me off."

LAUGHTER

Well...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

SMIGEL: No, no. It's just -- it's just pure silliness. I just love writing those.

GROSS: At the end of an Ex-Presidents episode in which they've fought off the nuclear terror...

SMIGEL: Yes.

GROSS: ... they kind of get together in this Partridge Family-type band and sing a brotherhood song.

LAUGHTER

SMIGEL: That's right.

GROSS: What inspired that?

SMIGEL: It's really just inspired by all the shows I grew up with where, you know, I guess the groundbreakers were "The Archies." Really, a lot of popular music traces back to the Archies -- music videos, they were the first to do that. I mean, with the -- all the imagery -- the flowers and the -- but, yeah.

I mean -- I just thought -- I'd been wanting to parody that for a long time. We actually did something on Conan, once where we did something called "Conan Babies" because there was a trend in Saturday morning cartoons to turn everything into the baby version. There was "Muppet Babies" and the "Young Roseanne," and -- even Roseanne did it. Like, Roseanne as a little girl, as if that's not going to scare children either.

But I guess they just -- somebody, some genius tested it and decided that kids like to see themselves, you know, like Bugs Bunny's too old. He's gotta have a little -- he's four years old. The last four generations of children are crazy to like Bugs Bunny at the age of 20.

So -- so we did something called Conan Babies and at the end, you know, I made the writer add a moment where they had a band -- you see, you know, three babies. So I just love that device from -- and, so I used it again in the Ex-Presidents. And of course, they don't sound like themselves. They sound like the Archies when they sing, which is very important.

Suddenly, the impressions go away.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the Ex-Presidents singing.

SMIGEL: Cool.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, MUSIC "THE EX-PRESIDENTS")

SINGERS: Got to learn to listen
And got to learn go give
Gotta be kind to your brothers
Gotta love the world we live in

'Cause we all are the same
No one's to blame
Black or white, or president
We're all in the game

Yes, we all are the same
No one's to blame
Man, woman, president
We're all in the game

GROSS: Robert Smigel, are you one of the voices in that song?

SMIGEL: No, we actually really did get the original Archies. They were all available.

GROSS: No, you wish.

SMIGEL: You're right. I could never get the real Archies. No, but we got people to just imitate the Archies dead on for us.

GROSS: OK. Robert Smigel is my guest, and he does those TV Funhouse short cartoons for Saturday Night Live and we expect him back for the new season.

And Robert Smigel, let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

SMIGEL: OK.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Robert Smigel who does those short cartoons for Saturday Night Live, TV Funhouse. And he's also written for the Dana Carvey Show. He wrote for the Conan O'Brien show; wrote also for Saturday Night Live, including creating the sketch "Da Bears."

You first started working for Saturday Night Live back in, I think it was in 1985 as a writer.

SMIGEL: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: And I guess your most famous sketch is Da Bears.

SMIGEL: Well, the Da Bears sketch was something that -- I lived in Chicago for three years. Before I got the Saturday Night Live job, I was in an improv group. I was taking classes. It's a great, great city, not just -- in general, it's a great city. It's a really great city to start out in comedy 'cause there's a huge community of people there.

But I'm a huge sports fan and Chicago is, I gotta say, it's the best sports town in the country. They have the most devoted fans I've ever seen and great ballparks. But with that devotion, I think, comes a certain level of insanity.

And so I took that a little bit further, and I also sort of noticed a look that I, you know, had never seen anywhere else but in Chicago, which is this kind of walrus mustache -- it's a very macho, very macho -- you know, it's the city of big shoulders. And it takes itself very seriously that way.

So a lot of these guys are really burly and, you know, they've worked out a lot. They can barely bend their arms, you know. And then there's -- there's sort of a cross between that and then the really fat guys who just pride themselves on their beer guts. And at the same time, they've all got these walrus Mike Ditka kind of mustaches.

So I just sort of picked up on all of this in a -- you know, picked up on the accent, there, which is one of my favorite accents in the country. And I, you know, just took that and Da Bears just sort of an arrogant attitude. "It's gonna happen. They're gonna win. Da Bears. No problem."

GROSS: Now before you started working on television...

SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ... you worked briefly as a standup comic. Give us a taste of your early material.

SMIGEL: Oh, my God.

GROSS: Put you on the spot.

SMIGEL: Boy. Well, one thing that I used to do, I was -- this was about 1981 or something. I was like in college. I was a huge Andy Kaufman (ph) fan -- Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, because they were -- you know, growing up, I was really not into standup comedy. I wasn't into the talking head thing. And these guys came out in the '70s and were sort of doing the modern art version of comedy. It was comedy about comedy -- commenting on itself. And I just -- was just overwhelmed by it.

And Andy Kaufman in particular, at this time. And so I would come out and I would do one of those bits that sort of, you know, you sort of dare the audience to start laughing after a while. It was -- it's so ridiculous. I was a -- I would come out in full orthodox rabbi regalia, and I would be holding a giant prayer book.

And I just started very -- you know, I wouldn't say a word; wouldn't look at the audience; just very deliberately started turning the pages by licking my tongue -- licking my finger with my tongue. You know, very slowly and deliberately, like I'm trying to find the right page. Just like the old men in synagogue, I would always see them doing when I was a kid.

And then after a while -- and then I also -- I wore a beard in this thing that was made out of cotton candy, and so after about 30 seconds of turning the pages, until the audience started laughing, then I'd wait for that to die down just a little bit, and then I would slowly start the rhythmic movement of turning the pages -- would start incorporating taking a little bit of the cotton candy and eating it.

So you would -- so he would slowly start eating his beard at the same time. And, you know, but never acknowledging the audience. And that would go for about two minutes, and it would work. When I had a good crowd, that would work.

GROSS: Where would you go, like, on a good night? When you were getting a good reaction, where would you go after that? When you were done eating the beard?

SMIGEL: Well, every now and then I would take it even further. I would -- at one point, the rabbi would notice that there really is an audience out there, so he would pull out a tape recorder and start playing music and then he'd go back to licking, you know. And the music would be something inane like incidental music from "My Three Sons" or something. It would just play over and over -- da, da, da, da, da, da, da, dun, dun, da, dun -- just the least entertaining thing that you could choose.

He would just -- he's like, OK, that takes care of that problem. Back to work. And he'd just keep turning the page. And then, you know, eventually I would stop doing it, and then I would do -- then I would go into like a more conventional act.

GROSS: It must just demolish your ego on a night when it's not going well and people are jeering you.

SMIGEL: I'm -- yeah, I'm not good with getting my ego demolished in general, so, yeah, I had trouble bombing. It would really kill me and I just -- I didn't have the confidence and strength to just go out there every night at two in the morning and just pull myself up and OK, we're gonna, you know, next week, 1:30. I just...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: OK, time for another TV Funhouse cartoon that you did. This is "Fun With Real Audio" and basically what you do for this is take actual sound from other TV shows, whether it's a presidential speech that's been broadcast or an interview on one of the news magazines. And you create cartoon versions of the real characters who are speaking. You use the real audio and then you have...

SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: ... bizarre visual shenanigans happening behind all of this. One of my favorites is Clinton giving his State of the Union Address to Congress. Why don't you describe what happens in this one.

SMIGEL: That's one of my favorites. I actually had -- it actually aired, like, three days after the real one and people asked me: how did you do that? Well, I took the State of the Union Address from the previous year and animated to that, because I knew that Clinton would say the same kind of platitudes, basically, every year, and that there'd be some things the Republicans would like and some things that the Democrats would like.

So I basically heightened the partisan reaction that you get at those things. So instead of the Democrats sort of sitting while the Republicans stand and cheer, I would have the Republicans sort of dancing on their chairs and doing the macarena. Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy is like visibly angry at the welfare cuts, and so he throws a bottle of whiskey at Clinton. And you know, it spills on -- in front of Newt Gingrich, who sort of surreptitiously starts lapping it up as Clinton continues his speech.

And then Sonny Bono throws a -- you know, Sonny Bono throws a chair at Al Gore, and it -- and Gore doesn't respond at all because he's made of stone. And then Newt Gingrich sort of curiously whacks him with the chair, as Clinton continues.

GROSS: Still getting no response.

SMIGEL: Still getting no response. And then by the end, Larry King's talking to a giant rabbit.

GROSS: Are we basically watching your thought balloons when you watch television?

SMIGEL: Every now and then, that happens. I confess. One of my most -- one of my creepiest thought balloons happened when I watched Diane Sawyer interviewing Mark Furman, and for some reason, I -- there was just a wealth of these one-on-one interviews with the OJ participants.

And there was always a knockout newscaster interviewing one of these creepy guys, and my thought balloon was: what if Mark Furman just started clumsily hitting on Diane Sawyer as he was answering these questions? So that begat an entire cartoon in which Furman hits on Diane Sawyer, then Barbara Walters is interviewing Robert Kardaschian (ph) and she starts hitting on him, which Barbara Walters didn't like at all, I have to say.

And then finally, Johnny Cochran hits on Katie Couric and succeeds.

GROSS: What...

SMIGEL: Because Johnny Cochran always wins.

LAUGHTER

That rascal.

GROSS: What other reactions have you gotten from some of the real people who you've caricatured in your cartoons?

SMIGEL: Well, the only one who didn't like what I did that I heard from was Barbara Walters, who stopped sending the show research. Sherry O'Terry (ph), an actress on the show, does a very funny Barbara Walters impression, and does it frequently on the show.

And they would always send us research from 20/20 for her to use, and they stopped after that cartoon because Barbara objected to the fact that -- you know, why am I the one not being hit on? And you know, what can I say? It's comedy.

And Tom Snyder, who you would think would like any attention, played the entire cartoon I did of him on his show. He played it in its entirety, and it was just, you know, it wasn't any personal attack on Tom Snyder.

It was totally innocuous, but it was -- in that cartoon, I basically took a Tom Snyder/Dolly Parton interview and had him, you know, every question and answer was in a different location, and the point was that Tom Snyder was stalking Dolly Parton...

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

SMIGEL: ... all over town, you know, and calling her late at night while he's pouring hot wax on his thigh. And, you know, so I'm watching this being played. Tom Snyder is setting it up, and -- "it's just me, and I'm interviewing Dolly, and, well, take a look. I think you'll like it."

And then it comes back, you know, and the last image is Tom Snyder in jail, being hit on by a 400-pound white guy, being kissed gently on the neck from his jail cell as he's wrapping up the show. And then, you know, that dissolves out and you must cut to Tom Snyder's real face. And you just hear, like, his crew laughing and he's just "ha, ha, ha, ha."

It was so bizarre.

GROSS: That's really funny.

SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Well.

SMIGEL: God bless him. He -- you know, he doesn't pretend. He announced on that show: "you know, if anybody thinks that I would be mad about these people taking our audio and without permission and -- I just want NBC to know that anytime they want to use any part of my show, feel free to rebroadcast it. Anything you want. I could use all the promotion I can get."

GROSS: Well, does anybody give you a hard time about copyright, because you're basically...

SMIGEL: No.

GROSS: ... stealing signals from TV shows.

SMIGEL: Well, God bless Larry Flynt, because Larry Flynt, you know, altered the, you know, created this precedent in the parody laws that allows us to do -- this falls under the -- this falls under "Fair Use" which means that as long as it's clearly parody, we can take anything. And you know, I had no idea.

The very first one I did was Larry King and Ross Perot, and I had them call Larry King for permission because I just -- I never assumed I could just steal stuff. And Larry King said "no." And I thought that was the end of the whole bit. I thought we'd never get to do it, but the NBC lawyers came in and saved the day. And you know, told me all about Larry Flynt.

GROSS: Well, Robert Smigel, I look forward to a new season of your cartoons, and I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

SMIGEL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Robert Smigel is the creator of the TV Funhouse cartoons on Saturday Night Live.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Robert Smigel
High: Saturday Night Live cartoonist Robert Smigel. He's created such popular segments as The Ambiguously Gay Duo, and Fun with Real Audio. Smigel is no stranger to SNL or comedy TV. He was a writer for Saturday Night Live from 1985-93. Among his sketches are one in which guest star William Shatner tells Trekkies at a convention to "get a life." He has also worked as an executive producer for "The Dana Carvey Show." And he was the head writer for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and still frequently performs on that show as characters like, "insult dog."
Spec: Media; Television; Saturday Night Live
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Robert Smigel
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 20, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082003NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Latin Jazz Music
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The late '60s and early '70s were famously a time of coming together, not least for different styles of popular music. Many eager and adventurous experiments from that era, particularly between jazz and rock, now sound like pandering embarrassments.

Music critic Milo Miles has turned up a surprising exception in a "best of" collection from the overlooked Latin group "Ocho" (ph).

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, MUSIC OF LATIN JAZZ/ROCK BAND "OCHO")

MILO MILES, MUSIC CRITIC: Afro-Cuban dance music was on the brink of hard times in the period after rock and funk, but before disco. Oddly enough, the music felt very excited and optimistic. Fusions of Latin, jazz, and soul were routinely pronounced the next big thing.

Innovators like Willy Colon (ph) and Eddie and Charles Palmieri (ph) turned out marvelous albums in those years. But they may have been simply too rich, too hard for neophyte fans to assimilate all at once. And these were LPs by acknowledged stars.

There were also Latin contenders like "Ocho" (ph), unknown aces who flourished from 1972 to 1976, with lots of chops, lots of ideas, lots of fun -- but no luck.

MUSIC RISES

MILES: By the late 1960s, Latin music had been flirting with jazz for decades. Rock and soul had recently entered the mix. With the success of "Santana" and the Los Angeles group "War," a large number of Latin outfits went fusion. Few of them reached much beyond local audiences.

The typical explanation was that the bands were used to descarga (ph), jam sessions, rather than songs. Finding singers to cross over onto the pop charts was difficult.

It's worth pointing out, though, that Santana never found a first-rate singer. At any rate, Ocho's added-on vocals are the weakest part of their music. Consider the intended hit single "Undress My Mind."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "UNDRESS MY MIND")

SINGER: Undress my mind, (Unintelligible)
Help me unwind, (unintelligible)
Trying to find
Ways to get her out of my head
Out of my head
Out of my head

Beat on my face...

MILES: One does not go to Ocho for killer songwriting, however. These days, there are a lot of loose praise for self-important acid-jazz bands who couldn't dig a groove with a backhoe. And all sorts of soul/jazz sessions from the '60s are now reissued, including the fizzles in which performers solo for minute after minute without stumbling on a fresh idea.

Ocho's workouts are constantly in motion, driven by the hardened beats of percussionists Charlie Jones (ph), Butch Johnson (ph), and Donald Howard (ph). You know "garage rock"? This is "garage Latin" of the highest order.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THE BEST OF OCHO")

MILES: Latin, funk, soul, jazz, fusion never really happened like tastemakers thought it might. Yeah, this is another bunch still bitter about the rise of disco.

Fans of old Latin fusion have to work for their kicks. "The Best of Ocho" remains a British import, but seek it out before the rush because Cuban bands will soon be back touring the United States, and down-home Latin fusions are sure to rise again.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dateline: Milo Miles, Cambridge; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: The late '60s and early '70s were famously a time of coming together, not least for different styles of popular music. Many eager and adventurous experiments from that era, particularly between jazz and rock, now sound like pandering embarrassments. Music critic Milo Miles has turned up a surprising exception in a "best of" collection from the overlooked Latin group "Ocho."
Spec: Music Industry; Latin America; Jazz
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Latin Jazz Music
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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