DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, Jessi Klein, is the head writer for Comedy Central's award-winning series "Inside Amy Schumer." The show has won a number of Emmy awards and a Peabody. The sketch comedy show is written from a feminist perspective. And so is Klein's new collection of funny personal essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It," which is now out in paperback. It's about her experiences dating, getting engaged, getting married, giving birth and finding her place in the comedy world.
Before she started writing and doing standup, she worked at Comedy Central, first as a temp and later in development, finding and working with new talent in the late '90s and early 2000s. She's also written for "Saturday Night Live" and for the Amazon series "Transparent." Terry spoke with Jessi Klein last year.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Jessi Klein, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from your new book. You want to start from the very beginning?
JESSI KLEIN: Sure. This is the chapter called Tom Man. (Reading) Everyone is charmed by a little tomboy, a scrappy little girl in overalls with a ponytail and scraped knees who loves soccer and baseball and comic books and dirt. But what are we charmed by? It's not just that she's cute. It's that she so innocently thinks she's going to stay this way forever. But we all know she won't. And why is that? Because as much as we like a tomboy, nobody likes a tom man.
You might be wondering, what is a tom man? I've never heard this term before. You're correct. That is because I invented it. It is the only thing I have ever invented. A tom man is what happens when a tomboy just never grows out of it. For as far back as I can remember, the voice in my head has sounded like the voice of a man. You might think the next thing I'm going to tell you has something to do with being gay or thinking I'm a man trapped in a woman's body. But neither is the case.
What I mean is that literally walking around as a child, the little voice I'd hear narrating my own thoughts and experiences sounded like Daniel Stern in "The Wonder Years." I think this is because the very idea of possessing an inner voice felt by definition like a male characteristic. In contrast, the tent poles of femininity, as I observed them, high heels, eye makeup, Diet Coke, smiling, et cetera, all seem to be focused on the external. In any case, they felt completely foreign to me. As a result, throughout my childhood, I felt like an outsider to being a straight girl even though I was a straight girl.
GROSS: That's Jessi Klein reading from her new book, "You'll Grow Out Of It." So what were some of the things that girls of your generation were doing that you didn't relate to?
KLEIN: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I would say it started even just with Barbies. I never had any interest in Barbies at all. It just didn't - A, didn't seem like a fun doll (laughter). And then just going - on the occasions that I went to any sleepovers, which I didn't do very often 'cause I didn't have many friends. Just makeup - no interest. Skirts - no interest. Dresses - no interest. Diet Coke - no interest at the time. I would say just kind of the whole thing. I didn't relate to it and I just didn't feel organically interested in any of it.
GROSS: I love that you really wanted to have men find you very sexy, but you didn't want to wear the things that were supposed to be sexy, including sexy underwear, which you write about a lot. And you've come up, I must say, with a great phrase - the thong industrial complex. Thank you for that.
KLEIN: (Laughter) Thank you. Thank you. And you're welcome.
GROSS: So are there aspects of the whole sexy thing that struck you not only as wrong for you but as absurd?
KLEIN: Yes. Again, kind of all of it. I mean, I was born in 1975, and I don't know when thongs were invented. I suppose I could've Wikipedia'd (ph) that before I got here. But it seems, you know, it's like there are - along the way, between then and now, it seems like a whole bunch of problems got invented. I don't feel like I remember women worrying as much about a panty line as they do now, like, that that should be such an eyesore as to notice someone's underwear slightly underneath their clothes.
Gosh, yeah, thongs are really, like, a big thorn for me. But I think also - and then - like, it wasn't - it wasn't kind of a law that you had to have a perfect manicure and pedicure all the time. It feels like that's something that kind of - I mean, I think my mother to this day has had maybe one manicure. And it's one that I forced her to have because I thought, oh, maybe this is an enjoyable experience for us to share. And she was like, what is this?
KLEIN: Why are we doing this? So yeah, I think so much of it is really absurd.
GROSS: So part of the book was written when you were single. Part of the book was written when you were engaged and then married to - and by the time the book is over, you have a child. So (laughter) I want to cover...
GROSS: I want to cover some...
KLEIN: I'm a slow writer, Terry.
GROSS: ...Of all of those phases. Yes. So during the point before you were married, when you were you were dating - and you write about that period of your life - there's a guy you'd started dating who you thought was a really great guy, even though there were signs that maybe he wasn't. And at a point when you incorrectly thought that you were both getting serious about each other, he asked you if it was OK if he didn't use a condom. And you write that having...
GROSS: You write that having grown up in the height of the AIDS epidemic, you were always very, very cautious about that. You knew all about STDs, but you agreed to do it. You agreed to let him not use...
KLEIN: (Laughter) Yeah, wow. Wow.
GROSS: And is this...
KLEIN: This went to a dark place real quick.
GROSS: Well, I think...
KLEIN: But that's fine. No, I write about it, so let's get into it. Let's talk about it...
GROSS: You write about it, and I think...
GROSS: ...It's a really interesting thing that I think probably every woman has had to deal with at some point. So...
KLEIN: I do believe that's true.
GROSS: Yeah, so, like, one of the really awkward things about a question like that from a guy is it puts you in the role of being the bad guy. Like, you're the one who's saying no. You're the one who, you know, is doing something...
KLEIN: Yeah, I'm the one flicking the lights on at the end of the party.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. And then there was a herpes scare right after that.
KLEIN: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
GROSS: But it was just a scare. It turned out to not be herpes...
KLEIN: Yes, let's underline that portion.
GROSS: ...Which is very good.
KLEIN: I don't have herpes.
GROSS: Now, there was a really hilarious herpes sketch on the Amy Schumer show that I think you wrote.
KLEIN: I did.
GROSS: And I want to play that sketch and then talk about how, like, your life experience fit into this sketch, (laughter) OK?
GROSS: OK. So in the sketch, Amy Schumer's on the phone, and she finds out that the guy she just slept with has herpes. And she's in this total panic that she's going to have it, too. So she starts negotiating with God - you know, like, she can't get herpes. Like, please don't give me herpes. And then to her amazement, God appears. And God is played by Paul Giamatti, who is dressed in all white for the role (laughter). So...
KLEIN: Basically playing himself.
GROSS: So this scene starts with Amy Schumer in a state of hysteria.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE AMY SCHUMER")
AMY SCHUMER: (As character) No, no, no, no, no - my God, no, no. Please, God, let me not have herpes, please.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARP MUSIC)
PAUL GIAMATTI: (As God) Well, well, well, look who it is.
SCHUMER: (As herself) God?
GIAMATTI: (As God) Do you remember when the last time I heard from you was?
SCHUMER: (As herself) It was probably pretty recently when my friend Tig got cancer. I'm pretty sure I reached out then.
GIAMATTI: (As God) No, it was seven years ago, when you were rooting for the Green Knight at Medieval Times.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh, well, God, thank you so much for coming through for me that night.
GIAMATTI: (As God) You're welcome. This guy Bobby Skeltus (ph) that you slept with...
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh, God.
GIAMATTI: (As God) ...What are you doing?
SCHUMER: (As herself) I know. I know. I can do so much better. You're right.
GIAMATTI: (As God) I didn't say that.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh.
GIAMATTI: (As God) You know, 70 percent of people who reach out to me are having a herpes scare. Why should I help you?
SCHUMER: (As herself) OK, that's a fair question.
GIAMATTI: (As God) Yeah.
SCHUMER: (As herself) OK, so I'm kind of like a public figure now, like a role model. So if some young girl saw me buying Valtrex or something, it would be, like, a thing.
GIAMATTI: (As God) Right, a thing, like that earthquake in Peru yesterday that killed 9,000 people.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh, my God, I hope no one was hurt.
GIAMATTI: (As God) Oh, gosh, I really need to stop making so many white girls. Let me be honest with you, OK? You did get herpes. You already have it.
SCHUMER: (As herself, shouting) No.
GIAMATTI: (As God) Yes. Now, for me to undo your herpes, I have to create balance in the universe. You understand?
SCHUMER: (As herself) Totally.
GIAMATTI: (As God) I'd have to kill off an entire village in Uzbekistan.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Yeah, whatever you think is best. Do it.
GIAMATTI: (As God) You'll also have to sacrifice something.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh, my God. Name it.
GIAMATTI: (As God) OK. You need to stop drinking.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Pass.
GIAMATTI: (As God) How about - stop using hairspray? The aerosol is very bad for the environment. How about you just call your mother a little bit more often? That's an easy one.
SCHUMER: (As Amy Schumer) Hmm. What is herpes, exactly? It's an outbreak, like, once a year?
GIAMATTI: (As God) Yeah.
SCHUMER: (As Amy Schumer) I don't know. I think I'll just take it.
GIAMATTI: (As God) OK. Fine, fine. Herpes it is.
GROSS: So that's a sketch from "Inside Amy Schumer" with Amy Schumer and Paul Giamatti. My guest, Jessi Klein, is the head writer on the show. And she wrote that sketch. I thought it was interesting that you cast Amy Schumer in the role of, like, really spoiled suburban girl who's willing to, like, sacrifice villages...
GROSS: ...In return for her not getting herpes. And God, Paul Giamatti, says he has to stop making so many white girls.
GROSS: So why did you do the sketch from the point of view of somebody who's being, like, very selfish in her willingness to sacrifice other people so that she wouldn't have herpes? 'Cause it's a very legitimate prayer...
GROSS: ...To not have any disease or any disorder.
KLEIN: Yes. Yes. I think herpes is sort of in that perfect place on the line of - yes, it is a real disease. But it is also extremely manageable and livable. And on the spectrum of maladies that one might have, it is certainly not the worst. And I think by just kind of playing up that type of very narcissistic, very self-centered person as the person who's talking to Paul Giamatti as God, it kind of heightened, I think, how everyone feels about it in that moment.
And so even if you're not a suburban girl monster (laughter), I think in the moment that you are really afraid that that's going to happen to you, you feel the intensity that way. Although, ultimately, again, it's really not such a big deal, I guess.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jessi Klein. She's a comic. She's the head writer of "Inside Amy Schumer," and now she has her first book, a collection of funny personal essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll be right back and talk more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jessi Klein. She's a comic, and she's the head writer of "Inside Amy Schumer." And now she has her first book, a collection of funny personal essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It."
So I find it really interesting to have watched "Inside Amy Schumer" and then read your book and see some of the same issues dealt with in different ways. Like, in your book, it's all, like, totally about you, totally personal. And on the show, even the things that are from your own experience are, you know, transformed into a comedy sketch.
So another example - in your book, you write about deciding to have a child after you got married and then, you know, finally getting pregnant. And you have a whole chapter that's called, in capital letters, get the epidural.
GROSS: (Laughter) You know, it's all about how you didn't want to deal with the pain of it. You also wrote a sketch for "Inside Amy Schumer" called "Better For The Baby," in which a small group of women are sitting around. They're all, like, very pregnant. They're all, you know, almost ready to go into labor.
KLEIN: Yeah, right.
GROSS: And they're comparing notes about the totally perfect, natural, lovely childbirth that they're going to have. And it almost becomes a game of, like, one-upmanship. So let's hear that sketch. And you wrote this, right?
GROSS: OK (laughter), so let's hear that sketch written by my guest Jessi Klein. And Amy Schumer speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE AMY SCHUMER")
SCHUMER: (As herself) You guys...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Yeah.
SCHUMER: (As herself) ...I am so glad that we all got pregnant at the exact same time.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Yeah.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Isn't it a treat?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Oh, have you guys figured out your birth plans?
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh, yeah, for months.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) All I know is I want a natural birth and definitely not an epidural.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh my - of course not. It's better for the baby.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) It is better for the baby.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) So much better for the baby. We're having a water birth. But instead of water, we're going to fill the tub with gender-neutral barley, which is also the name of the baby it will be better for.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Oh, little Barley.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Love that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) You see how well that goes together.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) My midwife suggested a sea turtle birth.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) What is that?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Oh, it's when you give birth on a beach, and you dig a small hole. And you kick sand on the baby. And you see if it crawls into the ocean or into your arms.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) It's better for the baby.
SCHUMER: (As herself) You know what? I would be careful, though, with a midwife. Even though they're not technically doctors, they still have some medical training.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Close enough.
SCHUMER: (As herself) And I just don't trust Western medicine at this point. That's why I'm having my baby on the highest mountain top in Tibet, as far from real medical help as is humanly possible.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) So smart.
SCHUMER: (As herself) My doula's a Sherpa.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) My doula is a 3-month-old baby, so she, like, gets it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Wow, so beautiful.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Sounds authentic.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Well, I hope you all plan on eating the placenta.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Of course.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Yum.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Every drop.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Except for the part that you bury in the front yard. It's so full of nutrients.
SCHUMER: (As herself) I'm just juicing it. It's better for the mother.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Gasps).
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh, no, and the baby.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) What?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Oh, my God.
SCHUMER: (As herself) Oh, my God. You guys, I don't care about myself.
GROSS: That's an excerpt of the sketch "Better For The Baby" written by my guest Jessi Klein, who's the head writer of "Inside Amy Schumer" and now has a collection of personal essays, funny essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It." So tell us how your experience transformed into that sketch.
KLEIN: (Laughter) It felt so foreign and crazy to me to be pregnant in the first place. I hadn't really anticipated that I would have a baby, necessarily. It just always felt so surreal. But I did in my contact with other pregnant women or women who had had kids - there did feel sometimes like this game of one-upmanship that would be happening around just how holistic and perfect a birth anyone could have.
And there's this contest that - as I write in the book, a friend of mine at one point really helped me out 'cause she said, what are you trying to win? And there really is nothing to win. And I just - I hope more women who are pregnant or women who are not pregnant - because I think this also goes into other aspects of women's lives too - I think we often feel like we're in a contest of some kind. And the contest is generally kind of a bummer. And the prize is usually also an illusion and is false.
GROSS: Well, related to childbirth, you have a story in your book about - you finally get an Emmy for "Inside Amy Schumer" - very exciting. You'd only recently given birth. And as everybody's going to the after parties to celebrate, you're in a room alone, pumping (laughter)...
KLEIN: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...Because you still have breast milk.
GROSS: And describe how you...
KLEIN: Try not to be jealous.
GROSS: (Laughter) Describe how you emotionally felt in that moment. I mean, on the one hand, like, you're so lucky. Like, you have a husband you love. You'd given birth. The birth went well. You had a healthy baby. You were pumping. You just won an Emmy. Like, it doesn't get better than that.
GROSS: But how were you actually feeling?
KLEIN: I don't want to underplay how genuinely awesome and exciting it was to win an Emmy. And that was an incredible moment and was just thrilling. But, yeah, then I did have to retreat as the show was ending. The producers had very nicely arranged for me to have a little dressing room that someone else had used and was done with. And I had my pump.
And my friends and coworkers, you know, went on to the Governors Ball, which is the big after party. And I said I would catch up with them when I was done pumping. And I (laughter) - I'm sitting there with the Emmy statue at my feet. And I have to - you know, I'm wearing kind of a fancy dress. And I have to figure out how to unzip it on my own. And then I put on my nursing bra. And my boobs are out. And the pump makes this really kind of ridiculous, unpleasant, like (imitating pump) noise that's very loud. And, technically, when you have these really ugly, hands-free pumping bras on, they'll show you ads of women like, you know, practically doing aerobics while they're pumping.
But that was not my experience (laughter). I generally wanted to sit in one place. So I'm kind of just forced to sit doing nothing. And as I'm sitting there, I felt a little lonely. And I was kind of feeling like I wanted to be at the party. And I'd also felt like, oh, now that I'm not on stage, like, I'm not famous. And I - you know, I had a lot going on in my own life at that point with exhaustion. And my baby was only 3 months old. And, you know, having a baby is really hard on a marriage. So things with my husband were just - I'll just say they were very hard 'cause we were just so tired, and it's so crazy. And I just suddenly felt very much like, oh, I won this Emmy, and tomorrow I'm getting on a plane and I'm going right back into my own little struggles.
And nothing is really different. Like, this was great but now it is over. And I just have to be back in my sort of currently overweight, milk-laden body and waking up at 2 in the morning and 4 in the morning. And it's hard. And the Emmy is amazing, but all of this will continue. I think it just brought into very stark relief in the moment what would have been the truth no matter what I was doing. But it was very immediate, which is that this doesn't really mean anything for your actual happiness or your life.
BIANCULLI: Jessi Klein, head writer for "Inside Amy Schumer" and the author of a collection of essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It," speaking to Terry Gross last year. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. We'll also hear jazz critic Kevin Whitehead salute to the best jazz renditions of a 50-year-old pop song, "Ode to Billie Joe." And film critic David Edelstein reviews the new movie "Lady Macbeth." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from last year with Jessi Klein, head writer for "Inside Amy Schumer," the Comedy Central sketch comedy show Her collection of funny personal essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It" is now out in paperback. It's about her experiences dating, getting engaged, getting married, giving birth and finding her place in the comedy world. Klein also is a standup comic and has written for several other TV shows.
GROSS: One of the things you write about is age. And along those lines, you write about how you hate being called ma'am because that implies, like, you're no longer a miss. You've reached a certain age. And whereas men are just always sir, there's this, like, delineation between miss and ma'am. And you're just automatically getting judged by your age...
GROSS: ...Which leads me to another sketch I want to play and talk about how that connects to either your life or life as you see it. This is one of the most - perhaps the most famous sketch from "Inside Amy Schumer." And I can't say the title on the air because it has the F-word in it.
KLEIN: It does.
GROSS: But it's about the last day in a woman's life, particularly in an actress's life, when she's seen as sexually attractive to men. And we all know for actresses, there seems to be a very short shelf life. And you get, like, the leading lady roles. And you're sexy and everything. And you reach a certain age, maybe 40 - tops - when you're not that anymore.
KLEIN: Tops - big time tops.
GROSS: Yeah, whereas, like, men get to be leading men for, like, really long periods of time.
KLEIN: Through being dead.
GROSS: OK. So this is a sketch in which Amy is taking a walk through this beautiful pastoral area, and she stumbles upon three actresses - Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette, all seated around a picnic table having a lovely dinner. And they're celebrating that it's Julia Louis-Dreyfus's last day when Hollywood is going to see her as sexually appealing because she's just gotten old enough where she's crossed the line. And Amy Schumer doesn't quite understand, so she asks for them to explain.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE AMY SCHUMER")
SCHUMER: (As herself) Well - I mean, how do you know? Who tells you that?
TINA FEY: (As herself) Well, nobody really overtly tells you. But there are signs. You - like, you know how Sally Field was Tom Hanks's love interest in "Punchline," and then, like, 20 minutes later she was his mom in "Forrest Gump"?
PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As herself) Or you might get offered a rom-com with Jack Nicholson where you're competing with another woman. I just had an audition for Mrs. Claus.
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) You're kidding me. I read for that part.
FEY: (As herself) I read for that, too.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) You did?
ARQUETTE: (As herself) Hey, who got that?
FEY: (As herself) J-Lo.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) She'll be good.
FEY: (As herself) She's going to be going to be really good. Really good.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) Or you got to a movie set - you go to wardrobe and the only thing they have for you to wear are long sweaters, like, cover you up head to toe kind of thing.
FEY: (As herself) Right. Or, like, the poster for your movie is just, like, a picture of a kitchen.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) Yeah - with these very uplifting and yet vague titles like "Whatever It Takes" or "She Means Well." That kind of thing, right?
ARQUETTE: (As herself) Another common sign is when they start remaking your best movies with younger actresses. I guess they're remaking "Boyhood" with Selena Gomez in my part.
FEY: (As herself) That's going to make a lot of money.
GROSS: (Laughter) So that's a very famous sketch from "Inside Amy Schumer" written by my guest Jessi Klein, the head writer for the show. So how did you come up with this idea of the last day when Hollywood is going to find you sexually appealing?
KLEIN: Your last very, very special day.
KLEIN: Your most special of days having your most special quality. I - you know, that was an idea that definitely came out of conversation in the room. And we'd been looking - I guess there was an Us Weekly floating around the room. And we were looking at pictures of actresses and, you know, the "Who Wore It Best?", and everyone looks amazing.
And then, you know, we just started talking about, like, at what point people start to age out of being in those magazines and kind of start to end up on the covers of the really kind of low-brow ones with pictures of them at the beach. And oh, look who's aging terribly when that same person two years ago was, like, so hotsy-totsy in the middle of the magazine. And I guess we just kind of started talking about what would happen if you took that idea all the way to its conclusion, which was, you know - it was funny to me to think about - well, what if there's this kind of Malcolm Gladwell-y tipping point...
KLEIN: ...That's really specific? You know, we kind of age slowly. But you - how does it work in magazines? And how does it work in Hollywood? Like, at what - what little visual change is suddenly too gross to see...
KLEIN: ...On a magazine or in a movie or on TV? And so that's kind of how that idea got taken to that place.
GROSS: My guest is Jessi Klein. She's a writer. She's a comic. She's the head writer of "Inside Amy Schumer." And now she has her first book, a collection of funny personal essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It."
How did you figure out who you were going to be on stage and what your stories were going to be about? And I'll say a lot of what you talk about, in what I've seen anyways, has to do with being a woman, with being sexual, with dealing with some of the things that arise from that. So, I mean, how did you find your voice?
KLEIN: I guess I found my voice the way most people as stand-ups find their voice, which is just getting on stage and working it out over and over and over again. But for me, I started to feel like - I felt like I was hitting a note that was comfortable for me and comfortable for the audience when I sort of talked about, you know, my struggles with trying to fit into this sort of sexually acceptable girl type and just how impossible that was. That felt like what was really true and - for me. And I think when you're on stage, when you find the things you can talk about that are really honest, that's usually when the audience responds. And that was certainly the case for me.
GROSS: Did you have to overcome a certain sense of discretion that you were brought up with in order to do that kind of comedy?
KLEIN: Yeah, I did. And that's something I think I still struggle with. I have very amazing parents that I'm very close with. But it was not a repressive household in any kind of sense. It's, you know, not like a religious thing or anything like that. But it's certainly not one of those houses where I'm joking around with my parents about my sex life (laughter) or vice versa.
GROSS: So you had to take a big risk in your life to actually become a performer, to become a comic and to become a full-time comedy writer, as opposed to working on comedy development of other people - like, developing other people's talent for Comedy Central.
GROSS: You got an offer - and you write about this in your book - you got an offer from the David Letterman show to have a 13-week contract to be a writer for "Late Night."
GROSS: And the understanding was if you did good in those 13 weeks, they'd renew it for another 13 weeks and take it from there. This is a huge thing. I mean, writing for Letterman? That's huge.
GROSS: So when you got the offer, your father is very skeptical that this was a good deal since it was only, like, a 13-week contract with a possibility of another 13-week contract. And you decided to decline the offer. Did you regret that after you declined - that, like, maybe you sold out, like, your big opportunity?
KLEIN: Yeah, I definitely did. You know, it was my dad's skepticism. And I'll just also say, I mean, the 13-week offer is a standard contract in a lot of TV writing. That's kind of what the length of their terms are that get renewed. And, you know, my father came from difficult circumstances.
And I think he himself - his risk averseness was really out of love and a sense of wanting to protect me from harsh circumstances. But I think, like a lot of people, I was just really scared of betting on myself. And I think there was also that idea that I had growing up in a kind of middle-class household of letting go of a very steady paycheck.
You know, I'd had this job that was - you know, I had a salary. And I was kind of guaranteed 52 weeks of paychecks. And I had to learn to kind of really - it's like, let go of that vine. And I did regret it. I had, like, a panic attack after I turned that job down and thought, what have I done?
But in some ways, I think I needed to feel - I think I needed to have that low point to really mentally accept that I wanted to write and perform. I don't think I could've done it before that happened.
GROSS: Well, Jessi Klein, thank you so much for talking with us. I think you're really funny. And I wish you good luck on all the things that you do.
KLEIN: Oh, thank you so much. It was so, so fun to be on. Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Jessi Klein, head writer for the Comedy Central sketch comedy series "Inside Amy Schumer," speaking to Terry Gross last year. Klein's collection of funny, personal essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It" is now out in paperback. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead marks the 50th anniversary of the Bobbie Gentry ballad "Ode To Billie Joe" with some of the jazz renditions inspired by that 1967 hit. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Fifty years ago this month, singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry released this song "Ode To Billie Joe," her enigmatic slice of life in rural Mississippi.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
BOBBIE GENTRY: (Singing) It was the 3 of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day. I was out chopping cotton, and my brother was baling hay. And at dinnertime, we stopped and walked back to the house to eat. And Mama hollered out the back door, y'all, remember to wipe your feet. And then she said, I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge. Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
BIANCULLI: Gentry's surprise hit prompted dozens of jazz versions. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, gives us a breakneck tour of a few.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
CARLA COOK: (Singing) That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today - said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way, he said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge. And she and Billie Joe was throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Carla Cook, in the year 2000, on a rare, jazz vocal version of "Ode To Billie Joe." When that song released in July 1967, became one of those monster hits no one saw coming, jazz musicians also took to it. Bobbie Gentry's cornpone saga might seem unlikely jazz material. But its spare texture and slow changes were right in step with modern trends. For instance, trumpeter Donald Byrd's "Slow Drag" was cut two months before "Billie Joe" came out, but released later.
(SOUNDBITE OF DONALD BYRD'S "SLOW DRAG")
WHITEHEAD: Oddly enough, few jazz covers of "Ode To Billie Joe" echo that "Slow Drag" feel. Bobbie Gentry's hypnotic music reinforced the dead-end insularity that her lyric describes. But jazz musicians heard the tune's repetitions as ready-made to riff and groove on. Musicians who covered it by the end of 1967 included saxophonist Willis Jackson...
(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIS JACKSON'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And guitarist Howard Roberts...
(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD ROBERTS' "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And, in 1968, vibraphonist Cal Tjader...
(SOUNDBITE OF CAL TJADER'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And guitarist Mel Brown...
(SOUNDBITE OF MEL BROWN'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And organist Jimmy Smith.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY SMITH'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: The bluesy kernel of melody at the heart of "Ode To Billie Joe" fit the song's Mississippi Delta setting. And Bobbie Gentry had cleverly matched that tune to blues chords played in mixed-up order. It was easy to find the funk in it or just to paint some on. Even pianist Oscar Peterson gave it a whirl.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: Jazz musicians took this tale of whispered local gossip and blasted it all over town. Buddy Rich played it in fast 6/8 time with a drum solo, King Curtis played it on electric sax and Jaco Pastorius on electric bass. That's what happens when country people move to the city. Some start talking faster, pick up new mannerisms and lose their downhome accent. But jazz musicians also take special delight in subversive remakes. They're a way to assert creative autonomy and the right to exploit any material, and possibly to assert macho dominance over a womanly story.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BARTHOLOMEW'S "ODE TO BILLY JOE")
WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Dave Bartholomew with his New Orleans big band. It's not like everyone took "Ode To Billie Joe" over the top. Guitarist Joe Pass turned it into a bossa nova. Jaki Byard played it stride piano style like it came from the 1920s. Byard's 1981 solo version kids the tune and pays due respect at the same time. It's that kind of delicate balancing act jazz musicians practice every day.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD'S "ODE TO BILLY JOE")
BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Special thanks to Chuck Stevens (ph) for helping Kevin track down some of these recordings. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Lady Macbeth." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new film "Lady Macbeth," set in rural England in 1865. It's inspired by a Russian novella, published that same year, about a provincial woman who becomes an adulterous and then a murderer.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The icy British psycho-drama "Lady Macbeth" unfolds in the late 19th century, when a 17-year-old named Katherine is essentially bought from her working-class parents by an elderly Northern England industrialist to marry his 40-year-old son and give his estate an heir. This proves difficult since the abrasive son prefers Katherine to face the wall naked while he gazes on her without touching.
The son also commands Katherine to stay indoors. So by day, she sits on a sofa - her waist tightly corseted, her hoop skirt spread wide - attended by a maid who doesn't bond with her mistress in their shared servitude. The movie is stark and beautiful to watch - and be appalled by.
The director, William Oldroyd, made his name in the theater. And in his debut film, he largely confines Katherine to the severely plain household. He and cinematographer Ari Wegner establish the grinding unsensuality of the place without resorting to arty, overlong shots to make us literally experience her boredom. That boredom and the rage it engenders is magnificently expressed by the actress Florence Pugh.
Pugh was only 19 when Lady Macbeth was filmed, but she has the authority of a more seasoned performer. Her eyes flash with insolence while her throaty voice drips with irony and contempt. Defying her husband, she strides through Northumberland's windswept coastal moors - shots that evoke the heroines of Bronte and Hardy. But Northumberland borders the Scottish Lowlands, and Katherine's trace of a brogue allies her not just with women but other people subjugated over the centuries by England's conquerors.
That Katherine won't bear her insults and injuries long is broadly conveyed by the title, invoking one of Shakespeare's great demons. But the name is a bit misleading. The movie is adapted, with significant changes, from the 19th-century Russian Nikolai Leskov's novella "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." And Leskov's protagonist doesn't have much in common with the Lady M who cries out to the gods to unsex her so feminine impulses won't interfere with butchering a king. Sex is what drives this Lady M. She has an affair with a ruffian servant, which emboldens her to strike back at her father-in-law, husband and anyone who threatens her. It's more like Emma Bovary meets Dracula's daughter.
In the first half of "Lady Macbeth," we are completely on Katherine's side, especially after the old master, played by Christopher Fairbank, hears of her carrying on with the servant Sebastian, whips the man to within an inch of his life and locks him in a stable. Although his son is absent, the old man is brutal enough for two.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY MACBETH")
FLORENCE PUGH: (As Katherine) Let him out.
CHRISTOPHER FAIRBANK: (As Boris) You are entirely without shame.
PUGH: (As Katherine) I have nothing to be ashamed of.
FAIRBANK: (As Boris) Nothing to be ashamed of? Do you have any idea of the damage that you are capable of bringing upon this family? You have failed miserably at every one of your marital duties - more specifically, to provide your husband with a legitimate heir.
PUGH: (As Katherine) Where is your son? Where is he? He has made that impossible. Let him out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)
EDELSTEIN: A short time later, the decrepit industrialist humiliates the servant Anna, played with harrowing fragility by Naomi Ackie. And it's tempting to see Katherine's revenge as payback, not just for her own mistreatment but also the servants' - tempting but inaccurate. She makes common cause with no one but her lover, Sebastian. And even that relationship is fraught.
A crucial aspect of "Lady Macbeth" is its racial overtones, unacknowledged in dialogue but visually momentous. Anna is black. So is a little boy who appears some months after Katherine's husband mysteriously disappears, the offspring of the husband's affair with a black woman. The boy moves into the house and becomes scarily vulnerable to the newly empowered Katherine, who's torn between maternal instincts and the desire to be alone with her lover.
Even her lover is a racial signifier. The actor Cosmo Jarvis has Greek roots, and his dark complexion instantly brands him her social inferior, someone who could, if necessary, be thrown to the wolves. The racial aspect isn't part of Leskov's novel. It's an innovation by director Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch. Their point, which I find irrefutable, is that some victims are not just inclined to speak truth to power but to abuse what power they have over people with even less of it.
"Lady Macbeth" eats into the mind, with its vision of evil as a contagion that transforms the brutalized into the brutalizing. It's steely determinism is devastating.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
On Monday's show, James Forman Jr. talks about his book "Locking Up Our Own," examining the role played by the African-American community and political leaders in creating the era of mass incarceration. We'll also talk about Foreman's life. He's the son of James Foreman, who headed the civil rights group SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. James Jr.'s grandmother was Jessica Mitford. Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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.