Skip to main content

'The Singing Detective'

TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new film The Singing Detective, starring Robert Downey Jr. Bianculli was a fan of the BBC miniseries it was based on.

06:25

Other segments from the episode on October 23, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 23, 2004: Interview with Matt Groening; Interview with Elizabeth Sifton; Commentary on the film "The singing detectives."

Transcript

DATE October 23, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," talks about
his show
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It may be the funniest show on television, it may be the best cultural satire
on television and it's changed the course of TV animation. I'm talking about
"The Simpsons." My guest is the show's creator, Matt Groening. He also
created the animated series "Futurama" and he draws the syndicated comic strip
Life in Hell. Groening is also the guest editor of the new book "Best Music
Writing of 2003." It's part of an annual series collecting the finest writing
on rock, pop, jazz, country and more published by Da Capo. We'll talk about
the book and about some of the music Matt Groening loves in a few days in part
two of our interview.

Today, the subject is "The Simpsons." Let's start with a clip. In this
episode, Krusty the Klown has been invited to the Simpson house for dinner.

(Soundbite from "The Simpsons")

Ms. JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Who wants to say grace?

Ms. YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Why don't we let our guest do it?

Ms. NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Krusty, would you do the honors?

Mr. DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Klown) Well, all right. I'm a little
rusty. But I'll try. (Hebrew spoken)

(As Homer Simpson) (Laughing) Oh, he's talking funny talk.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) No, Dad, that's Hebrew. Krusty must be Jewish.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson): A Jewish entertainer? Get out of
here.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Dad, there are many prominent Jewish
entertainers, including Lauren Bacall, Dinah Shore, William Shatner and Mel
Brooks.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Mel Brooks is Jewish?

(As Krusty the Klown): (Sobbing)

GROSS: I want to ask you about some of the characters that didn't exist in
the very beginning stages of "The Simpsons," starting with Krusty the Klown,
who's this really funny character. I mean, he's basically like an old
vaudevillian type, he's kind of really bitter and, you know, Jewish, like a
lot of comics and, you know--but this is, like, an old-style Jewish
comic-clown. What did you think of Krusty when he was first created?

Mr. MATT GROENING (Creator, "The Simpsons): Well, Krusty was based on a
TV-show clown who I grew up with in Portland, Oregon...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GROENING: ...named Rusty Nails. Rusty Nails was a Christian clown. He
had his own show and he showed old "Three Stooges" shorts. And he was great.
And he wasn't like Krusty at all. He was very nice, a very nice guy and a
very sweet clown. But he had that name, Rusty Nails, which I found incredibly
disturbing as a child because, you know, you're supposed to avoid rusty nails.
So the idea of a clown named Rusty Nails...

GROSS: You were a sensitive little kid.

Mr. GROENING: Well, you know, clowns are scary to begin with, and even though
this was a nice clown, I was slightly perturbed by him.

Anyway, so Krusty the Klown--Krusty rhymes with Rusty--and I actually created
him as a little on-screen character on "The Tracey Ullman Show" for those
little shorts there. And...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GROENING: ...the idea of the design of him is he actually is basically,
originally, Homer in clown garb. And the satirical conceit that I was going
for at the time was that "The Simpsons" was about a kid who had no respect for
his father but worshiped a clown who looked exactly like his father. But we
sort of lost that. And I didn't make Krusty Jewish. That was--Jay Kogen and
Wally Wolodarsky, I think, came up with that idea, two of the old "Simpsons"
writers. And then the rest is, you know--he's one of the richest characters
on the show. In fact, this year we have Krusty having his bar mitzvah
finally. Turns out he...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: And it's a pretty wild show.

GROSS: I love it when his father was played by Jackie Mason.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah, Jackie Mason is coming back.

GROSS: Oh, great. To reprise his role.

Mr. GROENING: Yes. Playing Rabbi Krustofski, Krusty's father.

GROSS: You know, we spoke just as "The Simpsons" was coming into existence,
starting first as a "Tracey Ullman" series. And I think we spoke just as it
was about to be broadcast on its own. And a lot has happened since then.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah.

GROSS: "The Simpsons" have taken over the world since then. I'm wondering
how your vision of the characters as they are now compare with the vision you
had when you were creating them.

Mr. GROENING: Well, here's the problem with doing a sitcom which has lasted
more than 300 episodes, is you're trying not to repeat yourself, you're trying
to surprise the audience and you're trying to keep everybody who works on the
show surprised. As a result, the show has gone off in some very peculiar
directions. Sometimes I was alarmed. I was thinking, `Oh, my God, we can't
do this. We can't do this,' and then it turned out to be OK. It's funny,
it's crazy, and the show is so fast-paced. We learned as we went along that
we can cram a lot of jokes in there. So if there's a joke you don't like,
just wait a fraction of a second and there'll be another one to come along to
replace it.

GROSS: Well, you know, you said that there were things to which you said, `We
can't do this.' What's an example of that?

Mr. GROENING: Oh, we've done Simpsons Bible stories and I just thought, you
know, we're just sticking our chins out and asking for trouble. And we've
done a lot of--sort of as the culture has shifted, because when the show
started--when they first started was 1987 and here it is 2003, and the culture
has gotten courser so the jokes and the Simpsons are a little more extreme, I
think, you know, to keep up with the times. And it wasn't originally to my
taste. You know, you want to keep the same tone that we had from the very
beginning. And everybody's adding their own 2 cents. And luckily we all are
facing the same direction so there's--if something's really, really weird and
crazy, everybody fights against it. And the show takes six months to do, a
single episode, so there's lots of chances to fight for your joke or fight for
something that's off-character.

One of the great things we did last year was we parodied the Fox News Channel
and we did the crawl along the bottom of the screen. And Fox fought against
it and said that they would sue, they would sue the show. And we called their
bluff because we didn't think Rupert Murdoch would pay for Fox to sue itself,
so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: ...we got away with it. But now Fox has a new rule that we
can't do those little fake news crawls on the bottom of the screen in a
cartoon because it `might confuse the viewers into thinking it's real news.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What are some of the other things that you have been threatened
legally over or, you know, that have been really controversial, advertisers
pulling out? Because let's face it, "The Simpsons" does a lot of satire about
homosexuality, the church, you know, violence on television.

Mr. GROENING: You know, at the beginning, virtually anything we did would get
somebody upset. And now it seems like the people who are eager to be
offended--and this country's full of people who are eager to be
offended--they've given up on our show. We got into trouble a few years ago
for--Homer's watching an anti-drinking commercial and it said, `Warning: Beer
causes rectal cancer.' And Homer responds by saying, `Mmm, beer.' Fox didn't
want us to do that because beer advertisers are a big part of the Fox empire.
And it turns out that the writer was able to track down the actual facts where
some study showed that, indeed, it does or did or has a tendency to, so we
were able to keep that in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: That's the kind of thing we put up with.

GROSS: Let's talk about Itchy and Scratchy, and this is the recurring cartoon
that Bart and Lisa watch on TV. And they're kind of like a super-violent
version of all the cat-and-mouse kind of cartoons. How'd you come up with
this?

Mr. GROENING: Well, it was from watching cat-and-mouse cartoons growing up,
Pixie & Dixie, the Hanna-Barbera mice, and Tom and Jerry in particular. Very,
very violent and very, very funny cartoons, MGM cartoons. And the fantasy was
seeing--you know, wanting these cartoons to extend their violence even more.
And so with Itchy and Scratchy it's probably as extreme as it can get for a
cat-and-mouse cartoon. And it's been really fun because it turns out the way
these shows come together that whatever the theme of that particular episode
is of "The Simpsons," there's some Itchy and Scratchy cartoon that obliquely
relates to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: They're very hard to write now. We've done so many of them
that they're harder and harder to write. And originally, of the actors, Harry
Shearer, a sophisticated guy, seemed to laugh the hardest at Itchy and
Scratchy during the table reads. I think he's--I don't know if he's the voice
of Itchy or Scratchy, (speaking in a very high voice) `but he's the voice of
one of them.' He talks like that, while Dan Castellaneta is the voice of the
other one, the cat or the mouse, I don't know. I sometimes have difficulty
remembering which is the cat, then I go, `Oh, it's Scratchy because he
scratches.' That's how I figure it out.

GROSS: So were you in on the writing of the Itchy and Scratchy theme song?

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. Well, yeah, that was obvious. By the way, it's
not--everybody thinks it's `They fight and fight and fight and fight and
fight.' It's not. It's `They fight and bite and fight and fight and bite.'

GROSS: Well, I think it's time to hear the Itchy and Scratchy theme song.
Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of the Itchy and Scratchy theme song)

Unidentified Singers: They fight, they bite, they fight and bite and fight,
fight, fight, fight, bite, bite, bite. "The Itchy and Scratchy Shooooow"!

GROSS: That's the Itchy and Scratchy theme song from "The Simpsons." My
guest, Matt Groening, created "The Simpsons." He also just edited the new
book, "The Da Capo Best Music Writing Anthology of 2003: A Collection of the
Best Music Writing of the Year," as selected by Matt Groening.

Mr. GROENING: I gotta be...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROENING: The lyrics of that were written by Sam Simon, one of the
original producers who developed the show, along with Jim Brooks, and
basically set the tone for the show.

GROSS: One of the characters is Ned Flanders. He's the Simpsons' born-again
neighbor and, you know, so the kids in the Flanders household are being
brought up very differently then the kids in the Simpsons' household. Can you
talk about the creation of Ned Flanders?

Mr. GROENING: Originally Ned Flanders was just the wacky neighbor who was
supposed to be just a complete annoyance to Homer for no good reason. And
then we realized that he was an object of mirth with his strong religious
feelings. We thought, how do we create a religious character who is not the
usual stereotype? And we made him a truly good guy. And his beliefs are
sometimes a little annoying, but he's not a hypocrite, he's real. And we get
lots of fan mail for him and we get lots of photos of people who look exactly
like Ned Flanders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: Some people think Michael Medved is a Ned Flanders clone, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. GROENING: ...because he looks--and I love the character. Harry Shearer
does the voice and he does such a fantastic job with finding variations on
okilly-dokilly. And I think we treat the character with some dignity.

GROSS: Matt Groening is the creator of "The Simpsons." He's the guest editor
of the new book "Best Music Writing of 2003." We'll talk with Groening about
the book and music in part two of our interview sometime in the next few days.
Here's another scene from "The Simpsons." Homer is visiting the Flanders
house.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Ms. NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Todd Flanders) Hey, Dad, thanks for helping me with
my science project. (Makes the sound of throwing a kiss)

Mr. HARRY SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) Oh, my pleasure, study buddy.

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Todd Flanders) Awww, I've got the best dad in the whole
world.

Mr. SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) Oh, now you know how that embarrasses me.

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Todd Flanders) I know. Toodlie-doodlie.

Mr. SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) Kids can be a trial sometimes.

Me. CARTWRIGHT: (As Homer Simpson) All right, knock it off!

Mr. SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) Knock what off, Simpson?

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson): You've been rubbing my nose in it
since I got here. Your family is better then my family, your beer comes from
farther away then my beer, you and your son like each other, your wife's
butt...

Mr. SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) (Gasps)

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) ...is higher then my wife's butt. You
make me sick.

Mr. SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders): Simpson, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask
you to leave. I hope you understand.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) I wouldn't stay on a bet! Glug, glug,
glug. One for the road.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

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

Profile: Wisdom of making miniseries "The Singing Detective" into
feature-length film
TERRY GROSS, host:

Two years before British TV writer Dennis Potter died in 1994, he wrote his
own movie-length adaptation of his 1986 miniseries "The Singing Detective."
Now that move has finally been made and our TV critic, David Bianculli,
considers the wisdom of making it in the first place.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

Usually I let these TV-to-movie adaptations go without weighing in. You
didn't hear me complaining about how Eddie Murphy ruined the spirit of "I
Spy" or how Will Smith couldn't even get the "Wild Wild West" right or how Uma
Thurman was all wrong as Emma Peel in "The Avengers."

Usually when movie studios remake a TV title, it's because that title is just
about all it cares about. It's a presold entity and easier to produce and
promote then something generated from scratch. But "The Singing Detective"
isn't just any old TV show. Dennis Potter's multilayered miniseries was a
masterpiece. At the time, I called it the best drama I'd ever seen that was
written expressly for television. Almost two decades later I still feel the
same way.

In the original miniseries, it's the story of a pulp fiction writer named
Marlow, played by Michael Gambom, who's been hospitalized with a crippling
recurring skin condition. The key to his disease, it turns out, is in his
mind and his past. A psychologist works with Marlow, and often against him,
to unlock his memories and traumas in hopes of returning him to health.
Meanwhile, the medications Marlow is taking are making him hallucinate, often
with period music from his childhood and also making him paranoid.

To keep form going insane, Marlow tries to rewrite in his head one of his old
novels, "The Singing Detective," into a screenplay. He casts a healthy
version of himself in the lead and dictates to himself the film noire action
and Philip Chandlerish narration as he imagines it.

(Soundbite of "The Singing Detective")

Mr. MICHAEL GAMBOM (As Marlow): The doorman of a nightclub can always pretend
that it's lipstick and not blood on his hands. But how did it get there?
Let's be economical, nothing fancy. If he'd smacked some dame across her
shiny mouth, then he's got both answers in one.

BIANCULLI: But even as Marlow is rewriting his book in his mind, his mind and
his paranoia are getting the better of him. He fears his wife is conspiring
against him to find and sell his screenplay out from under him. Before long,
characters from his book and events from his past are echoing in what he
thinks is real life and all the plot threads become intertwined. I know, it
sounds almost ridiculously confusing, but that's the point. When it was shown
here on public television, it took more then two hours into "The Singing
Detective" before all those threads and mysterious flashback images revealed
themselves and made sense.

At two hours, the miniseries was just getting started. In the movies, by the
time you hit the two-hour mark, "The Singing Detective" is over. There are
times, and this certainly was one of them, when television can do something
better then the movies. When a miniseries is done properly, it allows for the
sort of subtext, slow character development and patient pace that film, in
most cases, refuses to take the time to provide. Think of the very best
miniseries, like the western "Lonesome Dove" or the full-length TV version of
The Royal Shakespeare Company's "Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby,"
and you have to agree that their length also is their strength.

Even with Potter cutting and rewriting his own material, no two-hour version
of "The Singing Detective" could satisfy like the full-length seven-hour
version. This movie, though, doesn't come close. Not only does it cut some
of the best characterization and texture by putting the patient, here-named
Dan Dark and played by Robert Downey Jr., in isolation, but it also shifts the
musical period to the 1950s, which takes away the psychological reason for its
importance. Singing old dance-hall songs at the local pub was the only
pleasure Marlow's dad ever knew. It also just doesn't match the film noire
atmosphere. In the original, when Marlow imagined his doctors singing about
his troubles, the song was the very appropriate "Dry Bones." In this remake,
it's a meaningless "At the Hop."

The casting I have fewer problems with. Robert Downey Jr. isn't as good in
the first hour when his character is bedridden and almost frozen solid. It's
only when Dan Dark's skin condition begins to clear up that Downey begins to
shine. But from then on, he's good and the rest of the cast is very
satisfying. Robin Wright Penn as his wife and Carla Gugino as his mother all
have multiple roles in Dark's twisted imagination and they shift and mutate
accordingly. Adrien Brody, who just won an Oscar, is in here, too, and John
Polito and Alfre Woodard. What little they're given to do they do well. Mel
Gibson as the psychologist is a good role and a good performance. But the
incredibly tense word play of the original, like everything in this movie,
isn't delivered as compellingly here.

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY Jr. (As Dan Dark): Word games?

Mr. MEL GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Yeah, sure. I throw you a word, you...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) ...come back with another word...

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) ...that you associate with the word that I've,
you know...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Yeah. OK, wait, wait, wait. Well, we got to
agree in advance that it's meaningless. Oh, please, there's no diagnostic
value. I mean...

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Fine.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Promiscuity.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Free.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Gift.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Giver.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Sucker.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Gibbon) Mouth

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Fangs.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Gibbon) Wolf.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Whistle.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Scream.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Silence.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Young.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Green.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Old.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Dan Dark) Mick Jagger.

BIANCULLI: Years ago Dennis Potter adapted another of his wonderful
miniseries, "Pennies From Heaven," into a movie starring Steve Martin. In
that one, the main mistake was glamorizing the musical fantasy sequences. In
"The Singing Detective," director Keith Gordon's chief mistake is going with
Potter's concept of Americanizing the setting and modernizing the music. "The
Singing Detective" was perfect just the way it was. And since you can see it
the way it was by buying or renting the DVD set, there's as little point in
watching this movie version as there was in making it. As Marlow and now Dan
Dark would say, `Am I right or am I right?'

GROSS: David Bianculli reviews TV for FRESH AIR and the New York Daily News.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Here's music from "The Singing Detective" TV miniseries.

(Soundbite of "The Singing Detective" TV miniseries)

Unidentified Man #1: Barbiturate.

Unidentified Man #2: Antidepressants.

Man #1: Valium and librium.

Man #1 and Man #2: (Singing) Ezekiel cried, dem dry bones, Ezekiel cried, dem
dry bones, Ezekiel cried, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel connected dem dry, Ezekiel connected
dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord. When your toe bone connected to
your foot bone, your foot bone connected to your heel bone, your heel bone
connected to your ankle bone, your ankle connected to your leg bone, your leg
bone connected to your knee bone, your knee bone connected to your thigh bone,
your thigh bone connected to your hip bone, your hip bone connected to your
backbone, your backbone connected to your shoulder bone, your shoulder bone
connected to your neck bone, your neck bone connected to your head bone, now
hear the word of the Lord. Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun'. Dem
bones, dem bones gonna (sound of an instrument). Dem bones, dem bones gonna
walk aroun'. Now hear the word of the Lord. Disconnect dem bones, dem dry
bones. Disconnect dem bones, dem dry bones. Disconnect them bones, dem dry
bones.

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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

Interview: Elisabeth Sifton talks about her book "The Serenity
Prayer"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The serenity prayer, the prayer adapted
by Alcoholics Anonymous, which we'll hear in a moment, is known around the
world but few people know its origins. It was written at the height of World
War II by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who passionately opposed Hitler.
Niebuhr is the author of the books "Moral Man and Immoral Society" and "The
Nature and Destiny of Man" which have been studied by many students of
theology. My guest is Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton. She's written a
new book called "The Serenity Prayer" that tells the story behind the prayer
and discusses her late father's view of faith and politics in times of peace
and war. Sifton is a senior vice president of the publishing company Farrar,
Straus & Giroux. She's worked in publishing for 40 years, but this is her
first time out as an author. Let's start with the serenity prayer.

Ms. ELISABETH SIFTON (Author, "The Serenity Prayer"): God, give us grace to
accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the
things that should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the
other.

GROSS: Elisabeth Sifton, I've always really liked that prayer. I had no idea
your father wrote it. I guess most people don't know your father wrote it.

Ms. SIFTON: Most people don't know. Many people think other people wrote it
or that it's so old that the origins are lost in the mists of time. He
composed it in 1943 for a little village church in northwestern Massachusetts
where he spent the summers.

GROSS: One of the things I've always liked about that prayer is that there
are things where I just can't tell if it's something that can be changed or if
it's something I must learn to accept. And that gray area between what can be
changed and what can't be changed has created considerable anguish in my life
over the years.

Ms. SIFTON: Well, exactly so. And it does for, I think, all of us or
anybody who has any care for the meaning of their lives. That's the condition
that's addressed in the third part of the prayer, a prayer for wisdom to
distinguish what can be changed from--or what should be changed from what
cannot be changed. I think my father felt--and he was a social activist and a
very deeply committed Christian believer in trying to strive for social
justice and improvement in ordinary people's lives. I think he felt that all
too often people settled for the status quo thinking it couldn't be changed
and did not give real thought to the possibility that it should be. And he
meant that as a personal thing, as you've mentioned. It's a matter of
personal striving, but it's also a matter of social engagement and community
care as well.

The prayer became famous because shortly after it was written, it
was--composed, I should say, I don't exactly know how he scribbled it down,
prayers were very often for him simply spoken in the church service. But
shortly after he had composed it, a fellow minister, a friend of his and also
a person who attended this same small church in Massachusetts in the summer,
Dean Howard Robbins of the National Cathedral in Washington who is a big shot
in the Federal Council of Churches, asked if he could use the prayer in a
small pamphlet that was being prepared for use in the Army. And so my father
said, `Sure, use it for that.' So the first published appearance of the prayer
was in a little booklet prepared for servicemen in Europe.

I met many soldiers in World War II who came to Union Theological Seminary
where my father taught in New York City who became students of his after the
war. He often said that they were some of the very best students he had ever
had because they had faced a deep crisis of both personal and huge collective
suffering and meaninglessness. War is so often grossly and catastrophically
meaningless. And they wanted to search for some kind of meaning in their
lives and also devote themselves to something comprehensively serious and
attentive to human needs.

GROSS: Now your father wrote the serenity prayer during World War II. He was
very opposed to Hitler. His father had come to the United States from Germany
in the 1800s. How did the war connect to his writing of the serenity prayer?

Ms. SIFTON: Well, that was the question I asked myself and I ended up writing
a book that's a good bit longer than I expected in order to arrive at the
answer. It seems to me that this issue, the issue of what should be--what
must be accepted has something that one cannot change and what we must strive
to improve or change or alter. And working at developing the wisdom to know
the one thing from the other, this way of looking at things had been sharply
honed and developed and shaped during the years of the 1920s and '30s.

In the 1920s, my father was a pastor in a working-class and middle-class
congregation in Detroit, a city that was facing enormous social upheavals and
difficulties with the development of the auto industries there. And in the
1930s, there was the great crash and there was the rise of fascism and
authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in Europe that threatened democracy and
freedom everywhere. So the question of whether one opposed these developments
and insisted that the drift toward accepting them be changed was a urgent,
urgent, urgent one for him. So I think the formulation brings to a head his
consideration of these anguished and difficult problems for more than 20
years.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elisabeth Sifton and she's the
vice president of the publishing company Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She's
just written her first books and it's called "The Serenity Prayer." And it's
about the prayer and the history of the prayer that was written by her father,
the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

What really popularized the serenity prayer, and I think the reason why so
many people know it today is that it was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous as a
prayer for people who were struggling to overcome their drinking. And I
think, you know, other groups have taken it on, too, and now it's just become
very widely known. How was it adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous?

Ms. SIFTON: I don't have the documentary paper trail on this. I only
know--my father told me this; my mother repeated it--that at some point, I
think in the late '40s, after the war, they simply wrote and asked them if
they could use it and he said sure. Similarly, Hallmark Cards had also
asked him if they could use it and he had said sure.

The fact that they simplified it, omitting the grace, for example, from the
first sentence...

GROSS: When you say they, are you talking about AA?

Ms. SIFTON: The AA, excuse me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. SIFTON: I don't whether they did that deliberately or it just happened.
Prayers, after all, get spoken even more perhaps than they get read, and as
they're passed around, they may just get a bit streamlined. But in any case,
the AA version which simply says not `give us' but `give me serenity to accept
the things that cannot be changed,' etc., etc., they may have just done that
in the course of things, not with a deliberate intention to alter it in any
way.

GROSS: I shocks to me to hear that your father was willing to allow Hallmark
to use the prayer for greeting cards. I mean, that's--in some ways, with no
offense to Hallmark, but in some ways, everybody's worst fear is that, like, a
wonderful piece of poetry or a profound literary statement will be used as
like a little bumper sticker or a greeting card or something, and even though
the words are the same, somehow it will be trivialized in that context.

Ms. SIFTON: I think he felt that, yes, it might be and probably would be,
but that it was not for him to determine that it should be controlled and kept
pure or high brow in some way. He didn't of prayers like that. Prayers were
written and composed and spoken from the heart for everyone. And one didn't
control their use. Who was he to say how people would find it meaningful for
them? So I think he just let it happen. That's very much part of his general
ecumenical view that grace and serenity and courage and wisdom come to
everyone in all walks of life, in different parts of the world at different
times, and it is not for him to say who should or should not use this prayer.
He never, ever would have thought of copyrighting it or asking for royalties
on it, which often people jokingly say to me he should have done. It's an
all-American thing, I suppose, to want to make money from anything when it's
done that's been the least bit successful, but that would have appalled him.

GROSS: So Hallmark never paid him for the use of the serenity prayer.

Ms. SIFTON: Well, not that I know of. They might have paid him a fee just
at the beginning, but I don't know. That was in the '40s when I was a baby
and I don't actually know. And I have no record of it.

GROSS: What are some of the most unusual or interesting context you've seen
the serenity prayer used in or reprinted in?

Ms. SIFTON: Well, there are many kitschy versions of--I mean, it's funny to
find it on bookplates or on coffee mugs. Well, of course, that's inevitable
for, I suppose, in this day and age. I have a T-shirt with it on. But the
most interesting, you asked, the most interesting I know about is not one that
I've actually personally seen. But my friend, Joseph Lelyveld of the New York
Times, when he was correspondent for the New York Times in South Africa, saw
the prayer quite often on a plaque hanging on a kitchen or living room wall in
many black townships in Soweto and Saun and that moved me greatly to
think--and it would have pleased my father to know that this prayer was of use
to the black communities of South Africa in the terrible years of apartheid.
But Joe also pointed out to me that the prayer was--that he saw the prayer
also on the walls of white supremacists, apartheid supporters in South Africa
which suggest that whatever side you're on, you feel that it's appropriate for
you.

GROSS: My guest is Elisabeth Sifton. Her new book is called "The Serenity
Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War." The prayer was
written by her father, the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Sifton is the
vice president of the publishing company Farrar, Straus & Giroux. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is publisher and editor Elisabeth Sifton. She's written a
new book about the serenity prayer, the prayer adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous
which was written by her father, the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Her
new book is called "The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace
and War."

You write about how one of the things that your father and many of his friends
tried to puzzle through, was where religion should fit in the public life of a
country that was founded on the principle of separation of church and state.
What were some of the ideas that your father had on that subject?

Ms. SIFTON: My father felt very strongly that the separation of church and
state was an important principle that must be attended to. More than saying
what he thought the government should do about this, he was concerned with the
health of the churches in the way the churches would approach this matter. He
felt all too often that Protestant and Catholic and other clerics were hungry
themselves for power and influence and therefore, compromised their distance
from the powers that be by sucking up to them, by enjoying access to privilege
and governmental power when they should keep their distance from it.

GROSS: And it sounds like he also thought that the church had often
challenged that power.

Ms. SIFTON: That's right. He felt that it was a part of the great Christian
tradition to derive their understanding of the church's role in modern society
the way the prophets in the Old Testament spoke of it, that there must be a
distance kept from the temptations and evils of secular--I don't mean evils of
secular society because secular isn't as evil. I mean the dangers of partisan
and selfish and overcommercialized activities, the churches say stay clear of
these and not succumb to them. He also was very skeptical of ministers who
became famous for their close association with political figures. He would
say of them that they were always trembling on the abyss of exhibitionism.
Exhibitionism is what many secular and agnostic and atheist people think that
ministers first and foremost are. And I can't blame them.

GROSS: Your father was critical in his time of both the left and the right.
Can you describe what his criticisms of each were?

Ms. SIFTON: His criticism of the left where he belonged himself really
because he was a social progressive and cared tremendously for the issues of
social justice and the betterment of all lives in any community, which I
believe is a left position. His criticism of the left in the '20s and '30s
and even into the '40s and '50s and '60s was that they tended to be cheerfully
and rather stupidly optimistic about their chances for improvement and
betterment, that they adopted what he called simplistic enlightenment ideas
about progress and mankind, if only people are rational and good to each other
and so on. And he thought the record of human history shows that this is
absolutely not realistic, that there must be a deeper and better understanding
of what makes people act the way they do and why there is so much evil and
harm in the world. It must be interpreted in a more demanding and complicated
way than many liberals did who would just preach--I say preach, even if they
weren't ministers--preach self improvement and betterment. If only people
were smarter, nicer or more rational or more sensible, or if only this would
happen and that would happen. The most hubristic simplistic attitude on the
left that he deplored was, of course, the communist one. He was vehemently
anti-communist on very Christian grounds. He thought it was a godless and
hubristic idea to think that it was in the power of human beings to reorganize
their society in such a way as to make everything come out right in the end,
which the communist assured their followers their regimes could do. So that
was his criticism of the left.

GROSS: What about his criticism of the right?

Ms. SIFTON: Ah, his criticism of the right was deeper and more complete and
more constant because the right was so much in power and at the helm, even
during the new deal which challenged the right wing orthodoxies of American
economic life. He felt that wealthy and powerful people who control the
leaders of power and economic ownership of the means of production, to use the
Marxist phrases, that these people had absolutely no regard or very little
regard or insufficient regard for the welfare of everyone and particularly of
workers and of the less fortunate than they, that in a very big, dynamic,
competitive, capitalist society like America, there was not any attention
being paid on the right to the ordinary issues of social justice and economic
fairness.

He wrote somewhere that rich princes always imagine that they are wise. They
imagine that they think they're wise because they're powerful and at the top
of the heap. And it never occurs to them that they're only there because they
have all the money, not because they are wiser than anyone else. So he invade
constantly against the powers that be that he felt were unjust and indifferent
to suffering.

GROSS: My guest is Elisabeth Sifton. Her new book is called "The Serenity
Prayer." This is FRESH AIR.

We often talk about religion on FRESH AIR and we try to do it in a way that
does not preach and that will be of interest to people of all faith as well as
to people who do not practice any religion. If public radio sounds more
reflective than other radio stations, it's because we don't have to play by
the same commercial rules. We can when we choose be quiet, thoughtful and
challenging. And we can do it because you support us. I urge you tall now
with a pledge. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is publisher and editor Elisabeth Sifton. She's written a
new book about the serenity prayer, the prayer adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous
which was written by her father, Reinhold Niebuhr.

Your parents had an interfaith marriage. I mean, it wasn't totally
interfaith, but it was mild on the scale of what interfaith means.

Ms. SIFTON: Yes.

GROSS: But your mother was Episcopalian and your father's church was...

Ms. SIFTON: The Evangelical and Reform Church, which was a small
denomination founded by Germans in the 19th century and eventually merged with
the congregationalists which is--and they're now called the United Church of
Christ.

GROSS: Did your parents have disagreements about faith or about worship?

Ms. SIFTON: Not about faith, I think, but certainly about worship. They had
quite strong disagreements about worship. My mother, as an Anglican, she was
English and had been raised in the Anglican communion in England was very
liturgical. She believed in the great liturgy laid down in The Book of Common
Prayer. My father wasn't Evangelical. He believed that prayer and worship
must come as it were spontane--you must open up your heart and spirit and as
the spirit moves you, you pray. However, he greatly admired the liturgical
communions, as he called it, the liturgical churches for establishing a kind
of discipline over these prayers because he thought that it was important for
ministers and the congregation to understand that prayers and worship couldn't
be a time for personal blandishments and show-off times and that it was
important to adhere to some sort of discipline of worship that the regular
liturgies provided. However, in given instances, my father and my mother
would argue about these things.

GROSS: Did you mother find it strange that your father wrote prayers?

Ms. SIFTON: I think she thought it was dangerous.

GROSS: Dangerous?

Ms. SIFTON: Well, I mean, yeah. Dangerous because one could often just go
off into--he never did, of course. She deeply loved him and admired and loved
him for his spiritual depth and precision of expression in his prayers. But I
think she thought it was dangerous to just improvise prayers because you
could always make a fool of yourself. She was a rather stringent and clastic
person in these matters.

GROSS: Now you write in your book that there was a period in your late
adolescence when you had a crisis of faith. What was your crisis about?

Ms. SIFTON: My crisis came about in a very simple way. I was attending one
summer, I was in England, and I attended a Sung Evensong, which is a very
beautiful service, daily service sung by the choirs usually in the great
cathedrals of England. And I was attending a Sung Evensong at Winchester
Cathedral where my parents had actually been married. And the church is
sensationally beautiful and the choir's very good and the service was almost
unbearably beautiful. And then I realized I was worshipping the beauty of the
service itself. I had become, as I said to my father later, a hellish
aesthete. I was just enjoying the service for the service and I wasn't really
paying attention to the meaning of it. I have a feeling that this happens a
lot in services of any kind that the congregants will enjoy. They're just
enjoying the service more than they're thinking about what the service is for.

GROSS: So it doesn't sound like it shattered your faith or anything.

Ms. SIFTON: Well, I mean, I thought to myself, I don't know if I believe
this whole story. I don't know if I believe this itinerant rabbi and
Palestine was actually gobbling a deity. I don't know if I believe any of
this. I'm pretty sure I don't literally believe in the virgin birth. I'm not
sure I literally believe in the resurrection. I'm not sure I believe in any
of this. This is maybe--I've been sort of riding along in a tide of
acceptance of something that I've known all my life, but then maybe it's all
hooey. I was studying a lot of 18th century French enlightenment thought at
the time. And that, of course, encouraged me to be anticlerical. But I--just
suddenly struck me as a kind of implausible story from the start and I ought
to distance myself from it. So I did.

GROSS: And where are you now on that?

Ms. SIFTON: Ambivalent. That is to say, I think of myself as a Christian,
and I think of myself as a protestant. I think of myself as somebody whose
spiritual and intellectual life has been formed by an acceptance of the deep
meaning of the stories in the gospel. And I find them deeply beautiful and
meaningful, and I think I believe them. But as I tried to write about--I
was brought up to believe that accepting unbelief, accepting a difficulty in
belief was part of a true religious enterprise, that working at one's
spiritual life is difficult and there are many steps backward and it's never
easy. And so there are moments of lapses and moments of failure and then
you must try again. And so I had been taught that really good Christians
accepted these failures and forgave you for them.

GROSS: You're the vice president of Farrar, Straus, Giroux, the publishing
house, and you've been in publishing your whole adult life. This is the first
book you've written, and I guess I'm wondering why it's taken you so long to
write a book.

Ms. SIFTON: Oh, because I didn't have time to write a book. Helping others
get their books published was more than enough work for me. And I also didn't
have a subject that I wanted to write about. When I was in college, I studied
both history and literature. I never focused on one historical or political
issue or a type of work nor did I with literary work. And it's been a joy for
me as a publisher to work in both fields. And I never had--I'm a generalist.
I'd never had a particular subject I wanted to write about. But then wishing
to clarify the history of this beautiful prayer and its enormous popularity
gave me my subject. So I wrote it then. It's an amazing thing to write a
book after you've helped so many other people see a book being published.
It's very different from the other side of the desk, I'll tell you.

GROSS: What are some of the differences?

Ms. SIFTON: Well, here's a very simple one. If a writer gives me, as an
editor, a manuscript to look at and I say I'll get to it right away, I mean
that I'll get to it within the week, right? Or as soon as I can. And there
are 55 million other things I've got to do. Of course, I know that every
writer wants to be thought of as the editor's soul responsibility for the
moment. But I always try to say, `Listen, I'm not sure I can read that until
next Tuesday, you know.' And then the writer would say, `Oh, yes, I understand
that.' Well, as a writer, I cannot understand why people don't call me within
20 minutes of reading my book, 24 hours maximum. That's one example. The
writing and editing of it was not so different in a way. The late Laurie
Colwin, who's a friend and colleague of mine, said once when asked this same
question about writing and editing and, you know, the differences, she said
that she always looked at other people's pros as if it were her own and
addressed the editorial problems with care as if they were her own. But she
tried to read her own pros as if it were somebody else's ruthlessly, you know.
And I tried to do the same.

GROSS: Elisabeth Sifton, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. SIFTON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Elisabeth Sifton's new book is called " The Serenity Prayer."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Did COVID-19 Leak From A Lab? A Reporter Investigates — And Finds Roadblocks

President Biden has asked the intelligence community to investigate whether or not the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban shares her findings.

41:50

'Forget The Alamo' Author Says We Have The Texas Origin Story All Wrong

In their new book, Forget the Alamo, Bryan Burrough and co-writers Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford challenge common misconceptions surrounding the conflict — including the notion that Davy Crockett was a martyr who fought to the death rather than surrender.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue