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Robert Smigel's Saturday 'Funhouse'

This weekend, Saturday Night Live devote 90 minutes to a collection of Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse shorts. Those satirical cartoons featured gags such as the Ambiguously Gay Duo and X-Presidents. Smigel wrote for SNL from 1985-1993, and he was the original head writer/producer for Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

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Other segments from the episode on April 28, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 28, 2006: Interview with Robert Smigel; Interview with William Gottlieb; Review of the film "United 93."

Transcript

DATE April 28, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Profile: Robert Smigel discusses his career and creating
animated comic episodes for "Saturday Night Live"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

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

This weekend, "Saturday Night Live" will devote its entire show to the best of
Robert Smigel's funny animated features. He's been doing his "SNL" series "TV
Funhouse" since 1996. Some of Smigel's cartoons are absurdist parodies, like
"X-Presidents" in which four ex-presidents are superheroes with superpowers.
Smigel parodies Batman and Robin in his cartoon series "The Ambiguously Gay
Duo," and he uses celebrities' recorded words to hilarious effect in "Fun with
Real Audio."

Smigel also did a series called "TV Funhouse" for Comedy Central. And he
created one of the funniest characters on television for "Late Night with
Conan O'Brien," the rubber rottweiler hand puppet known as Triumph the Insult
Comic Dog.

Smigel has also been a writer for "Saturday Night Live" and was head writer
for Conan O'Brien. Today we'll hear excerpts of Smigel's three interviews on
FRESH AIR, from 1997, 2000 and 2003. One note to parents, Smigel uses puppets
and cartoons but his humor is adult. You might find parts of our interview
inappropriate for young children.

Terry asked Smigel about his old Comedy Central series "TV Funhouse," a parody
of a kid show featuring a human host and his animal pals. Some of the animals
are real, some are puppets. Most of the animals are grumpy and lecherous.
One of Terry's favorites was a puppet, a mangy dog who was always chasing his
tail.

Mr. ROBERT SMIGEL: Yeah, that's my favorite. That's my favorite character,
actually. He is based on a real dog. His name is Zabu and that was the real
dog's name. And I even made the puppet look exactly like the dog. It was my
wife's dog. He was a German Shepherd mix, and I believe part-wolf. And they
took him to obedience school, and after two sessions, the teacher said, `You
know what? He's a beautiful dog. And you should be--you just enjoy. He's
beautiful. Take him home.' He was that stupid. And one of the reasons my
wife and I get along so well is because we can both laugh for a half-hour just
watching a dog--that stupid dog chase his tail. Which is what we used to do.

The dog had this incredible rage, it seemed, towards his tail. He had this
way of chasing it and, I guess--I've seen this with other dogs but not to this
effect, where he would just--he could go 90 miles an hour in a circle and then
just stop on a dime and completely freeze. And then go 90 miles, back on a
dime, just like as if he was trying to--he didn't look like he was catching
his breath. He actually looked like he thought he could trick his tail this
way.

(As Zabu) I turn and turn and turn and then stop. The tail will have no idea
what's going on. He'll be--he'll be totally frozen. You know? And then,
boom, I'm back at the tail.

It just does. Of course, it never worked. So...

TERRY GROSS, host:

So that's your voice that the dog does? I mean...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. Basically, I have this stubborn insistence on making all
the dogs sound like Eastern European immigrants, you know. And some of
the--I've noticed that some people have criticized--you know, they've watched
the show, and they've said, `Why is he doing--why do all the dogs sound like
Triumph? You know? Why do they have the same accent? It's lame. He
doesn't--can't he come up with another voice?' And, well, yeah, I could, you
know. I realize there are more accents in the world than Eastern European,
but in my head that's how dogs talk. They just--they have for years.

Since I was 10 years old, I used to, you know, give dogs that voice when I
would look at dogs. I think it's because my grandparents, you know, are
Eastern. They're Russian immigrants. And I grew up with that voice, you
know. I grew up with that voice in my family for years, and I think I make an
unconscious connection. And this--let me finish the thought because it could
sound rude--but between dogs and immigrants just off the boat, because they
both have a certain element of wide-eyed wonder. OK? As if to say like...

(As dog) Oh, look at all of this. I cannot believe this.

And, you know, eventually European immigrants catch up and become jaded, but
dogs never do. And that's why I can laugh at dogs forever.

GROSS: There are real animals mixed in with the puppets.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Like the puppets are driving a car, and there is a real dog in the
car, too.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Or the puppets are at a cockfight, and in the audience, there's a real
dog.

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right. There's a lot of real dogs. Yeah.

GROSS: Or there's a puppet cat who gives birth to real kittens.

Mr. SMIGEL: To live kittens. Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: What's the interest to you of mixing real animals with puppet animals?

Mr. SMIGEL: I love the idea that you can manipulate live animals into a
really funny bit, and they have no idea why it's funny, why they're there.
That just adds a layer of joy to the whole experience to me. And, you know,
we make it very clear and we make a real point of not making the animals
actually do anything. Like in the cockfight, for example, there's a bunch of
animals in the audience, but if you look in the background, a lot of them are
asleep. Even though we have cheering noises, a lot of them are just lying
down, have no interest in what's going on. And like on the one hand, there's
like a practical joke element to it that we're playing on the live animals
that we're making them appear to be doing things but, on the other hand, I
also enjoy the joke the animals are having on the show by expressing no
interest in what's going on, even though we're presumably trying to make them

appear to be extras. They are above it. They have better things to think
about.

GROSS: One of the things I think you're doing on "TV Funhouse" with all your
use of the animpals, the puppet animals...

Mr. SMIGEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...is having them do the kind of things that animals really do in
public but that people only do behind closed doors, such as...

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: ...having sex, defecating.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: I mean, like, as a kid there's things you learn that people don't do
in front of other people, period.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: But you see animals doing it all the time in the street, and it's very
confusing sometimes as a kid.

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right.

GROSS: Like, `How come they let animals do that in the street?'

Mr. SMIGEL: I know. We can learn a lot from animals.

GROSS: Well, that's the whole point of the books that your parents give you
so you can learn...

Mr. SMIGEL: That's what the whole point...

GROSS: ...a lot from animals.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. And now I'm--now this is an adult show that's trying to
have animals teach people how to behave properly. No, there is something--you
know, it's fun doing a show that has characters that don't have the
inhibitions that humans do. I try to explain to people that when I write
about sex or I write about defecation, you know, this is going--I'm going to
look like an idiot saying this, trying to explain why I think this stuff is
funny beyond, you know...

GROSS: Cheap, crude laughs.

Mr. SMIGEL: Going for cheap laughs.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. I mean, to me it's all about the way our dignity is
compromised, you know. Sex has always cracked me up because it makes people
do crazy things, you know, like working out. I mean, can you imagine?
Anyway--but, you know, that's the funniest thing about it.

GROSS: Did you have a lot of pets when you were a kid?

Mr. SMIGEL: I had a cat when I was four years old. My parents gave me a cat
and the cat just sat on the foot of my bed and did nothing all day long, just
grew, sort of developed that mashed potato body that cats get, just sort of
spread on the carpet as the years went by. But I just adored it. It had no
interest in anything but I just like, `Oh, pretty kitty.' I just loved it.
Loved it like nothing else.

And then later on, after the cat died, my sister--who didn't really like the
cat--suddenly--this is--I've noticed this, too, that it's like the sibling who
didn't like the animal but suddenly gets all emotional about the animal when
it dies and wants to replace it immediately. And that's what happened. And
then we got a little tiny bichon, and all I could do all day was talk to the
bichon in its own voice. And it was very similar to Triumph's voice, just a
higher pitch, you know, because it was such a froofy little thing. It was
just very spoiled.

(As dog) I want to eat now, please.

GROSS: Did you talk to it a lot?

Mr. SMIGEL: I used to drive my sister crazy just--you know, she would like
walk into the room and I would say hi, and the dog would run up to her, and I
would be like...

(As dog) Hello. Hello. I've waited all day for you. Where the hell have you
been?

GROSS: Did you have puppets as a kid?

Mr. SMIGEL: No, I didn't have puppets. I used to draw cartoons though.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SMIGEL: I was a crazed cartoon--I worshipped Charles Schulz, and, you
know, and I wanted to be a cartoonist like when I was like, you know, six
years old.

GROSS: There's some very funny cartoons on "TV Funhouse." I want you to
describe the premise of Wonderman.

Mr. SMIGEL: Wonderman is a classic superhero who has an alter ego. His name
is Henry Moore. And basically we follow the adventures of Wonderman trying to
help his alias have sex with women who are impressed with Wonderman. Because
Wonderman, of course, has to maintain the, you know, `I'm married to
crime-fighting' attitude. But, at the same time, he needs to have sex. And I
never understood why Superman didn't use this technique for Clark Kent. It
would have been so simple for him to just explain to Lois Lane that Clark Kent
is really cool, and then he could have had it just both ways.

GROSS: Well, in Wonderman and in your animation "The Ambiguously Gay Duo,"
you seem to really know that sex is the subtext of so much pop culture, even
the stuff for kids.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Like even the superhero stuff, the way they are dressed, a lot of
their feats of strength, a lot of their kind of rescuing, which is almost like
S&M imagery. Right?

Mr. SMIGEL: Wow, I guess so.

GROSS: So much of it is about sex. Yeah.

Mr. SMIGEL: I guess so.

You know, that's another new one for me. I'm amazed how, you know, I seem to
write a lot about sex but I'm always surprised by what people read into stuff.
And then when I think about it, it's usually true. I mean, even with "The
Ambiguously Gay Duo," it's based on something that never really occurred to me
for years, which was this homoeroticism of Batman and Robin cartoon.

I remember doing a Superman special, the 50th anniversary, that Loren Michaels
had, you know, been asked to produce, and I remember Loren Michaels telling
me, `Well, of course, Batman and Robin have that underlying gay thing.' And I
just sort of played along like, `Oh, yeah. Right. Right.' But my heart was
broken. `What? What are you talking about? I don't'--I mean, I don't know.
I was 26 years old, and I just, `Why does there have to be sex in Batman and
Robin?' You know, and years later, those movies started getting gayer and
gayer, and, you know, there would be tight shots of their rear ends and their
crotchetal areas. And, you know, by now, I understood what they were going
for, but my feeling was, `Why can't we just leave Batman and Robin alone,' you
know? `They do good work. Just let them do their thing. We don't have to
speculate on. What they do is their business, whether it's with each other
or, you know, or, you know, Kim Basinger. It just doesn't matter.' And so
that's where that cartoon came from.

But then the irony was that I thought gay people would love the cartoon for
that reason. Like, `Yes! You're right. People are obsessed with sexuality.
Why can't they just let things be?' But it turns out like every gay friend I
have loved that cartoon because they watched the imagery and they're like,
`Ha, ha, yes! Of course, they're gay. That's right. They're gay. You
nailed them.' They're just as obsessed with sexuality as everyone else.

DAVIES: That's Robert Smigel talking to Terry.

Tomorrow's edition of "Saturday Night Live" will be devoted to his animated
shorts. Here's the theme song from "The Ambiguously Gay Duo."

(Soundbite of "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" theme song)

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) "The Ambiguously Gay Duo, the Ambiguously Gay
Duo, they are taking on evil, come what may, they are fighting all crime to
save the day. They are extremely close in an ambiguously way. They're
ambiguously gay. They're ambiguously gay. The Ambiguously Gay Duo."

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Robert Smigel after a
break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Tomorrow's edition of "Saturday Night Live" will be devoted to Robert
Smigel's animated shorts. Let's get back to the interview Terry recorded with
Smigel in December 2000, shortly before President Clinton left the White
House. She asked Smigel about his animated series "X-Presidents."

GROSS: The premise of this is that the four ex-presidents--Ford, Reagan,
Carter and Bush--have been struck by hurricane-powered radioactive lightning
which gave--at a celebrity golf tournament...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...which gave them extraordinary superpowers. And they use these
superpowers to save people from earthlings and from aliens. Let's hear a
short clip from "X-Presidents" in which the ex-presidents are using those
extraordinary superpowers.

(Soundbite of "X-Presidents")

Unidentified Actor #1: The X-Presidents.

Unidentified Actor #2: Read my lips, you're toast.

Unidentified Actor #3: There you go again.

Actor #1: Robots intercept quickly.

Unidentified Actor #4: I have lusted in my heart to kick your ass.

Unidentified Actor #5: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Actor #1: You stupid earthling, you shall pay for this blunder.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Have you heard from any of the ex-presidents who you've included in
this sketch?

Mr. SMIGEL: Gerald Ford wants a better catch phrase. He's like--but the
poor guy, that's all he can ever come up with. The other ones, they've got
such catchy ones, and all he can say is, `There is no Soviet domination of
Eastern Europe.'

No, none of them have ever bothered to call, and I'm very surprised and
disappointed that they have better things to do than talk to me. The only
thing I've ever heard is that Gerald Ford was asked about it, and he said he's
asleep way before that show ever comes on the air. Which I believe, you know.

GROSS: Will Bill Clinton soon be included as an X-President?

Mr. SMIGEL: He'll be trying. You know, the ones that have catch phrases are
the easiest to write for, and Bill Clinton had a number of great catch phrases
that would make good Clint Eastwood things like, you know, `You punk, you're
going to feel my pain.' And George W., if he ever becomes an X-President, he,
you know, I think his whole candidacy was built on catch phrases. So, you
know, the uniting, dividing--I mean, there's a lot you can do with him some
day.

GROSS: Now, before you started working in television, you worked briefly as
a...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...stand-up comic. Give us a taste of your early material.

Mr. SMIGEL: Oh, my God!

GROSS: Put you on the spot.

Mr. SMIGEL: Boy! Well, one thing that I used to do, I was--this was about
1981 or something. I was like in college and I was a huge Andy Kaufman fan.
Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, because they were--you know, growing up I was
really not into stand-up 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 was just
overwhelmed by it, and Andy Kaufman in particular at this time.

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's so
ridiculous. 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 finger with my tongue. You know, very slowly
and deliberately, like I'm trying to find the right page. Just like the old
man 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. 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, 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 he would slowly start eating his beard at the same time. But,
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?

Mr. SMIGEL: Well, every now and then, I would take it even further. 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-da-da, da-da-da. Just the least entertaining
thing that you could choose. I would just be like, `OK, that takes care of
that problem. Back to work.' He'd just keep turning the page.

And then, you know, eventually, I would stop doing it and 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 aren't cheering you.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. I'm not good with getting my ego demolished in general,
so I, yeah, I had trouble bombing. It would really kill me. And I didn't
have the confidence and strength to just go out there every night at 2 in the
morning and just pull myself up and, `OK, we're going to, you know, next week
1:30.' I just...

DAVIES: Robert Smigel talking with Terry.

Tomorrow's edition of "Saturday Night Live" will be devoted to his animated
shorts. We'll hear more from Smigel in the second half of the show.

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

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

Tomorrow's edition of "Saturday Night Live" will be devoted to Robert Smigel's
funny animated shorts. Smigel has created animations for the show since 1996.
He is also a former head writer for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." For that
show, he created the now-famous Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a rubber puppet
rottweiler who's is crude, nasty and lecherous. Smigel is the puppeteer and
does the voice of Triumph.

In 2003, Terry spoke with Smigel in character as Triumph. As you'll hear
later, it was clear he knew about Terry's interview with Bill O'Reilly in
which O'Reilly accused her of going easy on Al Franken while she threw every
defamation she could in O'Reilly's face. O'Reilly told her that if she
thought that was fair, she should get into another business.

One more thing before you hear our interview with Triumph. Parents, just

because Triumph is a rubber dog puppet doesn't mean he's for kids. He works
blue, and you may not find his humor appropriate for children.

GROSS: Now your signature line is `for me to poop on.'

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: How did you come up with that phrase that so identifies you now
throughout the world?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) You know, originally, I wasn't allowed to say that
because of all the high standards. You know, back then, the censors were--I
was on "The Steve Allen Show" in the '50s and they made me say, you know,
`Those are nice glasses, Steve, for me to relieve myself on,' you know? Louis
Nye was there and I bombed, you know? And then he came up with--for me to go
to the bathroom on, but I wasn't allowed to do that till the Sullivan years.

GROSS: Well, you're really a veteran of show business.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, it's all about what
I'll be allowed, you know? I mean, if NBC ever allows me to say, `For me to
take a big, fat (censored),' I'll be Jim Carrey. I'll be the biggest thing in
show business.

GROSS: Now you know we can't say that on our show--right?--that you can't...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Well, you can bleep it.

GROSS: We can bleep it, right. OK.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) You can bleep it. Everyone will know what we say.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) That's the trick, you know? See, I know every
trick in the book. Terry, I'm going to help you so much. Terry, you're going
to have the number-one rated show on NPR after this. You probably already do,
but that's like saying, you know, I'm smarter than Justin Timberlake. You
know, it's nothing to brag about.

GROSS: Now, Triumph, I don't need to tell you...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: ...that one of the more controversial things in the rap world is the
use of the word `bitch' all the time.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Here we go again.

GROSS: Right. Exactly. Now, it's a word you use a lot...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Yes.

GROSS: ...in the dog world.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) It's a word that has--look, it's a word that
everyone uses in the dog world. Now should a dog be offended to be called a
woman? Would that be--I don't think any dog would be offended, not even
Benji. That's right. That's right. You heard me. Benji's gay. It's time
people knew that.

GROSS: Do you feel that you have been sexist or condescending in your
treatment of female dogs...

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Holy crap. Listen to this. Let me ask you
something. I feel like I'm being bombarded here. I know what's happening
here. I know what's happening here. Did you ask the same questions to Kermit
the Frog?

GROSS: Kermit the Frog didn't do our show.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Did you do this...

GROSS: He didn't do our show.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) All right. Well, OK. How about when Beethoven did
your show? Did you challenge him the way you're challenging me? Did you
ask...

GROSS: It was a different kind of interview.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) It was a different...

GROSS: It was a different kind of interview.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) OK. Yeah, I can see what's going on here.

GROSS: Beethoven's funny. No, it's different.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, is that right? It's a satire what Beethoven
does. Yes, I'm just--you know, I can't believe the government is paying for
this interview. That's what I can't believe, you know? My money that could
be going to Pekinese hookers is instead going to this, you know, Public Radio
that's obviously more slanted than my (censored). What are we talking about?
That's right.

GROSS: Triumph, I don't think you're being fair, and I think if you gave
Public Radio a chance, you wouldn't feel that way 'cause I think Public Radio
has always been fair to the dog world.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) I'm trying to give it a chance, but you keep
bombarding me. You keep bombarding me. I'm evaluating this interview very

closely is what I'm doing. You know, this is just 10 minutes of defamation,
70 minutes in dog years. You think it's fair, Terry? You need to get into
another business. That's right. No, good. This is all going to be fodder
for Harper's magazine, for Dog Fancy magazine, which I know is
liberally--there's liberal publishers of Dog Fancy. I mean, that thing is
like gay porn anyway.

GROSS: Well, Triumph, I really don't think you're being fair and I'm going to
change the subject.

Triumph, how did you become an insult comic? I mean, why not just do, like,
nicer humor?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) No, no. It comes with the territory. You know, it
just came naturally. Even as a puppy, I used to tease my mom, you know, and
she would encourage me. You know, this album, it's very close to me because I
sing on this CD many songs, some classics and some new stuff. The "Rock It To
Me, Sock It To Me" for the kids, you know, but, both of my parents had musical
backgrounds. That's right. My dad is--he's a toy rottweiler and he sang in
Yiddish theater and my mom is an Afghan who looks exactly like Celine Dion.

GROSS: What kind of roles did your father have back when he was in Yiddish
theater?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Triumph) Oh, he was in "Mitch Tupple and the Kakum." He
played, you know, "Fiver the Frick and Frack" in that one, and he was in "Gaza
Mine Poopin." These are names your kids aren't going to remember, your
audience, even the 60-year-old hippies who listen aren't going to remember
these shows, you know? We're talking Second Avenue on 14th Street kind of
stuff.

DAVIES: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the creation of Robert Smigel.

This weekend's "Saturday Night Live" is devoting its entire episode to
Smigel's animated shorts.

Coming up, we listen back to an interview with jazz photographer William
Gottlieb, who died this week at the age of 89.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Interview: Writer and photographer William Gottlieb discusses
career and new book on jazz performers
DAVE DAVIES, host:

William Gottlieb, the celebrate photographer of jazz legends from the 1940s,
died Sunday at his home in Great Neck, New York. He was 89. Gottlieb's
picture of jazz greats from the 1940s, including Fats Waller, Pee Wee Russell,
Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday have been used again and
again on album covers and book jackets, and have been turned into posters and
postcards. His pictures are collected in the book "The Golden Age of Jazz."
His picture of Billie Holiday is among the most reproduced photographs in jazz
history.

William Gottlieb wrote a weekly jazz column for The Washington Post in the
late '30s. The Post would pay the overtime to send a union photographer to
late-night clubs, so Gottlieb started taking pictures himself. He wrote and
took pictures for jazz magazines through most of the '40s, but in 1948, he
left jazz for the more lucrative field of educational media. He had a
successful career writing children's books and filmstrips.

Terry spoke to William Gottlieb in 1990.

Mr. WILLIAM GOTTLIEB: I kept my negatives ultimately in a shoe box. And
after letting it ferment there for some 35, 40--well, actually around 45
years, I dug them out. And lo and behold, it was the beginning of a brand-new
career so that today, although I'm 11 years retired technically, I'm putting
in a 40-, 45-hour week.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Now you said in your book of your photos that you would usually only take
about three or four shots a night.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: That's right.

GROSS: Well, that seems like very little. I know usually when someone from
the press comes and they take photographs...

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Right.

GROSS: ...they take two or three rolls, not three or four shots.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Right. Well, there's a good reason. I was paying for it.
That's one reason. And, secondly, when I went out carrying a camera,
particularly a speed graphic or even Rolleiflex, quite bulky, and they didn't
have electronic flash then, so I had to carry the old-fashioned flashbulbs.
And since I never shot with a light on my camera, which produces dull, flat
lighting, I had always extensions. And if I had four or five flashbulbs, I
wouldn't take four or five shorts. I maybe could take two or three and use
two or sometimes three bulbs on a shot to get more interesting lighting. So
taking more than two or three shots was too expensive, too bulky, too a lot of
things. And I learned to shoot very, very carefully. I knew the men or
women, and I knew the music, and I knew not to shoot until I saw the whites of
their eyes, so to speak. I'd wait. `Not now, two choruses from now, there
will be more emotion.'

GROSS: Yeah, you're saying you'd wait until there would be more emotion. I
think one of the special things about your photographs is that--most of the
ones I've seen, anyways--are of the musician, while they're playing and at a
moment when they're really wrapped up with what they're playing. And you
really get a sense of the person's character through their face.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Well, I much appreciate that because my ultimate goal--and
that makes--I'm not the only one that does that, but that makes my photographs
somewhat different from others that take jazz photographs because I wasn't out
just to get a nice picture, an interesting picture, but I took them as a
writer would. `What can I say in the picture that would augment the text?'
And it wasn't always when they were playing. Sometimes when they were just
listening to a playback or something like that. Now, the ultimate would be to
capture their personality. But that's a very elusive quality and I couldn't
do it the majority of the time, but instead I would feature some physical
characteristics perhaps, if it was a unique instrument they were playing,
something that would add to the text.

GROSS: You have photographs of Louis Armstrong from different parts of his
career.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Yeah. Well, his fat part and his thin part, for one thing.
His weight fluctuated all the time, and he was very conscious of this. The
last time I saw him was in a dentist office. We happen to have the same
dentist. And I was putting on weight, and he immediately went into his breast
pocket and pulled out a diet for me. He always had these diets to give to
friends who he thought was in need--were in need. And it was, unfortunately,
punctuated by some sort of a liquid dynamite, a laxative, that would actually
blow you apart. And that was part of the key of his diet, so I didn't really
follow it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. There are so many jazz photographs that are really smokey.
You know, most jazz photographs there's a cigarette on the piano...

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...or a cigarette held in one of the keys of the horn...

Mr. GOTTLIEB: That's right.

GROSS: ...or the musician is holding the cigarettes. And there's just so
many photos where the musician is in a cloud of smoke. And I think,
comparatively, there's very little cigarette smoke in your photographs.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: In mine?

GROSS: Yeah. I don't mean this as any kind of statement like anti-cancer
statement.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: No, no, no. Well...

GROSS: But I just always associate jazz photographs with cigarette smoke.
It's just...

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Well, a couple of photographers made a thing of that, it was
almost a trademark.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: It makes kind of an interesting photograph to backlight
cigarette smoke, and especially if you have electronic flash, it seems to make
it a little easier. But to me you end up doing an essay on smoke and not on
the person. And unless there happened to be some specific reason why I was
associating cigarettes to that person, I saw no reason to include that as an
element in the photographs. I'd rather show, in the case of Django Reinhardt,
for example, who revolutionized guitar playing despite the fact that his two
or three fingers of his fingering hand were destroyed during a fire when he
was in his caravan when he was a young man. And I made sure that that mangled
hand working on the strings was in evidence. That's what I had to say.

GROSS: One of my favorite photos of the ones I've seen of yours is of the
drummer Dave Tuff in the cellar of a club...

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Yes.

GROSS: ...during a break, practicing on his drum pads.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Well, Dave was an ascetic person, an intellectual and a
perfectionist. Often when he took a break, you know, in-between sets of a
number, instead of going out and relaxing, he would go down in the basement
and practice on a practice pad, even though he was recognized by the inner
circle as the best drummer of the day. So I caught him there with the
practice pad drumming in the basement with his gaunt face giving him that
ascetic look. And it wasn't prescient in my part, it was happenstance, but
next to his practice pad is a glass of wine, which is what ultimately did him
in. He died rather young. But that was just a coincidence.

GROSS: You have a photograph of Billie Holiday in which her head is thrown
back, her eyes are closed.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Yeah.

GROSS: She looks really lost in the song that she's singing.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Right.

GROSS: It's a photo I think I've seen, too, on an album jacket or some place.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Three albums.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Three covers of books. I've been told by people who have
just--this isn't a scientific analysis--but that this is the most widely
reproduced photograph of any jazz person. I wanted to convey the anguish in
her vocals, in her vocalizing. Her music and her life is an anguished one,
and I think I caught it.

GROSS: What was the story behind the photograph?

Mr. GOTTLIEB: She had just come out of a year's detention on some drug wrap,
and it may have been an unfair term that she was serving, but she came out
looking physically beautiful. Often she was pudgy, but not at that time. And
musically she was at her peak. But the last time I saw her, she had gone
down, degressed a great deal. And the word was that she wasn't even showing
up at her engagements. But I went to cover it anyhow, and sure enough the
starting time came and went and no Billie. And I waited a little longer and
still no Billie. So on a hunch, I went backstage to the dressing rooms and
sure enough there she was sitting there on a cot, pretty much without any
clothes on, you know, trying to get ready for the date. And I helped put her
together and brought her out to the microphone. And then, you know, I lost my
stomach for the chore at hand. I didn't--neither wrote a review of it because
she sounded awful nor did I photograph her because she looked awful. And I
didn't think was fair and even--I don't know if I even consciously put it on
that basis. I just felt very down about the whole thing and didn't photograph
her. But thank goodness, I did catch her several times at her peak.

GROSS: So one last thing, you started off writing about jazz but ended up
becoming much better known for the photographs you took.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: Yeah, I can't explain it. It's just one of those things.
Possibly one of the reasons I've often thought about is that people associated
me, the musicians especially, with my camera. They'd see me with a camera.
They wouldn't see me with a typewriter. And maybe I'm a better photographer
than I am a writer. Whitney Balliett says that though I stopped taking
pictures in 1948, no one has surpassed me yet. But when I've spoken to him,
he let me know and in a review that I'm a lousy writer. So maybe that's part
of it. I don't really know.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GOTTLIEB: OK. Thank you for having me. It's been very much a pleasure.

DAVIES: Jazz photographer William Gottlieb speaking with Terry in 1990. He
died Sunday at the age of 89.

(Sounbite of song)

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) "The sky was blue and high above. The moon
was new and so was love. This aching heart of mine was singing `Lover, where
can you be?' You came at last, love had its day. That day is past. You've
gone away. This aching heart of mine is singing `Lover, come back to me.'

When I remember every little thing you used to do, I'm so lonely. Every road
I walk along I walk along with you. No wonder I'm lonely. The sky is blue.
The night is cold. The moon is new. Love is old. While I'm waiting here
this heart of mine is singing `Lover, come back to me.'"

(End of sounbite)

DAVIES: That's Billie Holiday with Oscar Peterson on piano, recorded in 1952.

Coming up, a review of the new film "United 93."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews "United 93"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

United Flight 93 out of Newark, New Jersey, was the only hijacked plane on
September 11th that did not reach its target. When passengers attempted to
take control of the cockpit, it went down in a field in Pennsylvania, killing
all aboard. For the new film "United 93," director Paul Greengrass uses
largely unknown actors and some real pilots, flight attendants and air traffic
controllers to tell the story of the people on that plane and the people on
the ground who couldn't help them. David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: When the trailer of "United 93" was yanked from a
couple of New York theaters early this month, there was a lot of talk of
Hollywood exploiting the tragedy for profit, about it being too soon to
dramatize the events of 9/11, about the pain of being taken back to that
horrible place after nearly five years.

Last Tuesday I went to "United 93"'s premiere, which was also the opening of
New York's Tribeca Film Festival, launched in the wake of 9/11 as a way to
bring lower Manhattan back to life. The families of the people on-board
Flight 93 were in attendance. They were consultants on the film. They met,
in some cases, with the actors who would play their loved ones. And at the
end, in the silence that followed the final shot, there was a sound from their
section I'd never heard in a theater. The sobbing was heart rending, and yet
there seemed an element of relief. "United 93" was a worthy monument to the
people they'd lost.

The director, Paul Greengrass, began his career making documentaries and now
makes documentary-like dramas. His 2002 film "Bloody Sunday" traces the
course of the Northern Irish civil rights march of 1972 that ended in a
massacre. And it's shot with handheld cameras like a piece of combat
photography. The camera work in "United 93" is also handheld, and the movie
unfolds in something close to real time.

The film is as much journalism as art. It's about how things work, and on
this day how things don't. After a prologue in which four Muslim men pray as
the sky lightens outside their cheap motel, Greengrass launches into a

torturously mundane because you know what's coming, section in which crew
members and passengers arrive at Newark, where United Airlines Flight 93 would
originate. And the day shift begins at the control centers in Boston, New
York and Virginia, the operations base of the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the control center sequences after the apparent hijackings, there's a
constant hubbub, the racket, the busyness, the swerving camera. Everything is
moving very fast, but in another sense, in slow motion because no one knows
anything, and there are no clear lines of communication.

As Greengrass cuts back and forth between the FAA and the headquarters of the
Northeast Air Defense Sector, it's clear the men in charge are helpless. Ben
Sliney, the FAA's operations manager, and military commander James Fox play
themselves.

(Soundbite of "United 93")

Unidentified Man #1: Cleveland just called. There's a United 93. The
controller heard screams coming from the cockpit.

Unidentified Man #2: This is almost like a pattern. Where's
the...(unintelligible). Do you know which way he's heading? We've got to get
track information.

Man #1: He was a Newark-to-San Francisco flight.

Man #2: All right.

Man #1: He's still on course.

Man #2: Here's what. Get all the adjacent centers. Notify them in every
direction. And keep me--keep me advised on Flight 93.

Unidentified Woman #1: OK, Ben. Ben. Delta is fine. He's not a hijack
victim.

Man #2: Delta is not. Good. Good.

Woman #1: Take him off the board, Delta 1989.

Unidentified Man #3: Sir, four planes. That's all I've got. I can't defend
the whole eastern seaboard with four planes.

Unidentified Man #4: What do you got?

Unidentified Woman #2: Washington's on the phone. They say they've got
American 77 lost. They just went missing out of Dulles. He's supposed to go
to LAX.

Man #4: This is another one? What did she say?

Unidentified Man #5: 77 coming out of Dulles heading West, going to LAX.

Man #2: Light me up every track, guys. What do you got?

Unidentified Man #6: I don't know how many more there could be in the air,
sir, but the point is this, we've got to get them before they are within range
of Washington. We got to get them before they're 60 miles, 50 miles minimum
or we're not going to have a play. We're not going to be able to protect the
Capitol.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: It's in the context of this chaos that the heroism of United
93's passengers emerges. It was about half an hour between the time the
hijackers took the plane and it crashed. In that time and in the film's real
time, the passengers realized from cell phone calls that tell them of attacks
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that rushing the cockpit is their
only shot at saving their lives. The movie shows how grueling, how terrified,
how extraordinary that act was in the absence of direction and with the odds
overwhelmingly against them. These people, strangers to each other, turned
out to be Washington, DC's first and last line of defense.

I don't have time to name or praise adequately the actors who play the
passengers and flight attendants and who improvise most of their lines. In
this film, every actor represents someone real and every close-up has weight.

Mercifully, the murders of the pilots, a passenger and a flight attendant
happen in the margins of the screen. And maybe because we're prepared, that
violence is almost easier to bear than the passengers' final cell phone calls
home, in many cases to the people sitting behind me on Tuesday night.

With more fictionalized 9/11 movies to come, including one by Oliver Stone, is
it too soon? If, like the astounding "United 93," these films help us to fill
in the gaps in our knowledge, to show us things we could never imagine on our
own, then it's not soon enough.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critical for New York magazine.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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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