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'60 Minutes' Creator Hewitt: A Lifetime Of News

In this 2001 archival interview, 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt discusses the highlights of his career, including his work on the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate. Hewitt died Aug. 19 at age 86.

14:59

Other segments from the episode on August 21, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 21, 2009: Commentary on Don Hewitt; Obituary for Don Hewitt; Review of the HBO film "Flight of the Conchords;" Review of the film "Inglorious basterds."

Transcript

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When News Happened, Don Hewitt Was There

DAVID DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia
Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Don Hewitt, the veteran TV
producer-director who created the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes,” died
this week at the age of 86. In a few minutes, we’ll listen to Terry’s
2001 interview with Hewitt. But first, our TV critic David Bianculli,
who considers Hewitt one of the seminal figures in the history of
television news.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Don Hewitt didn’t invent the TV news magazine, but he
sure invented the most successful and durable one. He created “60
Minutes” in 1968, 41 years ago, and like the signature stopwatch that
has opened every hour since the beginning, it's still ticking. In fact,
this Sunday's “60 Minutes” will be devoted entirely to Don Hewitt, and

the problem won't be filling the hour, but narrowing it down to one.

On camera, there are two figures in TV news who rise above all others:
Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Murrow invented and set the
standards for television news at CBS, and Cronkite exemplified them in
the 1960s and beyond. Off camera, Don Hewitt worked with them both - not
only worked with them, but predated them and outlasted them. His career,
like his impact on television news, is unparalleled.

Start with “60 Minutes,” his most enduring legacy. The show has ranked
in TV's Top 10 in several different decades and has ranked a handful of
times as television's most popular show. No other newsmagazine has
achieved a number one ranking for the season even once. And the show's
popularity, while definitely skewing older in audience appeal, isn't in
the past. Last week's installment, featuring the first post-prison TV
interview with Michael Vick, was the week’s second most popular program.

That's an amazing track record for a show that premiered in 1968, but
Don Hewitt, who created “60 Minutes,” has a track record that is even
more amazing. It took 10 years for “60 Minutes” to finish in TV's Top
10, and by the time it did, Don Hewitt already had been at CBS News for
30 years, and he'd stay there for another 25 years, until he retired
from “60 Minutes” in 2003.

Don Hewitt is like the Forrest Gump, or the Zelig, of TV news. Whenever
something important happened, no matter what year, Hewitt was likely to
be there. When CBS began presenting a nightly newscast in 1948, with
Douglas Edwards as the anchor, Don Hewitt was an associate director and
soon became the program's director. And when Edward R. Murrow made a
wary but brilliant transition from radio to television, in 1951's
landmark CBS newsmagazine “See It Now,” Don Hewitt was at his side,
literally, as Murrow explained at the start of the very first show.

(Soundbite of TV show, “See It Now”)

Mr. EDWARD R. MURROW (Journalist): This is an old team trying to learn a
new trade. When we started this series of programs, we had to decide
where to do it from. We decided to do it right here from the studio. My
purpose will be not to get in your light any more than I can, to lean
over the cameraman’s shoulder occasionally and say a word which may help
to illuminate or explain what is happening.

We have here two monitors, which will serve in effect the purpose of
loudspeakers. They are tied, so to speak, to lines that come in from
Chicago, New York, Washington and various other places. We will, from
time to time, show film on those monitors as well.

We are, as newcomers to this medium, rather impressed by the whole
thing, impressed, for example, that I can turn to Don Hewitt here and
say, Don, will you push a button and bring in the Atlantic coast?

BIANCULLI: And at that point, Don Hewitt was just getting started. In
1952, he directed TV coverage of the national political conventions. In
1956, when the luxury liner the Andrea Dorea sank at sea, and CBS
dispatched a helicopter to film the only TV footage of it sinking, Don
Hewitt was manning the camera.

In 1960, Hewitt was the director for the unprecedented and politically
crucial televised presidential campaign debates between Richard Nixon
and John F. Kennedy. In 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, Hewitt
directed the massive, nonstop days of coverage for CBS, the coverage
that made Cronkite a TV icon. And so on, up to and including Bill and
Hillary Clinton's campaign-saving 1992 appearance on “60 Minutes.”
Arguably, Don Hewitt influenced the elections of JFK in 1960 and Bill
Clinton 32 years later. And Hewitt’s career didn’t end there.

But it's not just the durability or the impact that impresses me, though
both of those do impress me. More than anything else, what's most
incredible about Don Hewitt's accomplishments is the quality. Almost
everything he directed, everything he touched, was impressive, and

presented with a clear respect for the audience. When Walter Cronkite
died earlier this summer, most analysts expressed regret that we'll
never see his kind again in TV news. Sad to say, but the same thing is
true of Don Hewitt.

DAVIES: David Bianculli writes for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches
television and film at Rowan University.
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'60 Minutes' Creator Hewitt: A Lifetime Of News

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Terry Gross spoke to Don Hewitt in 2001, when his memoir, called “Tell
Me A Story,” was published. They talked about some of his earlier days
in television, including his work producing and directing the Nixon-
Kennedy debates in 1960. The conventional wisdom is that Nixon fared
poorly not because of what he said but how he looked on television.
Terry asked Don Hewitt how Nixon ended up looking the way he did.

Mr. DON HEWITT (Creator, “60 Minutes”): Well, first of all, Kennedy took
it very seriously. Jack Kennedy and I had a meeting in a hangar in
Chicago a week before the debate. He stopped there on a campaign trip,
and I briefed him on all the things that we expected of him and what we
were going to do and what we wanted him to do.

I never saw Nixon until he walked in the studio that night, and he did
not take it as seriously as Kennedy did. He spent that afternoon
speaking to the plumbers union. Kennedy rested up for the debate. Nixon
thought it was just another campaign appearance, had no idea what a
splash it was going to make in America.

He was ill. He’d had a staphylococcus infection. He arrived at the
studio, at WBBM in Chicago, smacked his knee on the door of the car as
he was getting out, was in pain. But what I remember most about that
night was, over and above the fact – well, first of all, I brought a
make-up person from New York. He needed it. Kennedy didn’t.

I said to the both of them: Do you want to be made up? Kennedy said no.
Nixon heard him say no and figured if I get made up, everybody the next
day will say, well, Nixon was wearing make-up and Kennedy wasn’t, so he
refused it but had some of his own guys smear him with something called
shave stick, and he looked like the wrath of God. He really looked
terrible.

GROSS: What was shave stick?

Mr. HEWITT: It’s some dopey thing that guys use to cover their beard if
you’re going out for the night, in the old days before there were
electric razors. I mean, what you did is you smeared some of this stuff
on, and it covered the beard.

He looked awful. Now, the day after Kennedy was assassinated, we did a
special broadcast in New York, and Nixon was on it, and the same make-up
person whose services he had refused in Chicago was making him up, and I
said to him, you know, Mr. Nixon, if Frannie here had made you up at the
first debate, you’d have been president now.

Without a beat, I mean it happened so fast it spun me, he whirled around
and he said to me, yeah? I would have been dead now too. I mean it was
eerie. It was strange. He really believed that whoever killed Jack
Kennedy, and I’m not going to say it was Lee Harvey Oswald because I’m
not even sure it was, whoever killed Jack Kennedy, he wanted to convince
me was out to get a president, not that president. And it was a strange,
strange conversation.

GROSS: Let me get to the Kennedy assassination. In your book, you say
that after Kennedy was assassinated and you found out about the Zapruder
film, you told Dan Rather to go to Zapruder’s house, punch him in the
nose, get the film, bring it to CBS, make a copy, then return it to
Zapruder. What were you thinking?

Mr. HEWITT: I was one of these, you know, Hildy Johnson, hell-for-
leather – it was stupid. I did things in the early days that if someone
who worked for me did them today, I’d fire them. I said we’ve got to get
a hold of the Zapruder film. Maybe it’s public domain, but we’ll never
find out unless we get it. I would like to see it.

So I said, Dan, hit him, grab the film, take it to the studio, we’ll
copy it, then let the CBS lawyers decide what to do with it. Meanwhile,
return the film. All they can get you for is an assault. You’ve returned
his stolen property. And he said great, I’ll do it.

And then all of a sudden I thought to myself, are you crazy? Why did you
do that? And I thank God when I called him back, he hadn’t left yet, and
I said, Dan, don’t do that. That’s stupid. I think the whole day got to
me, and you know, we were all kind of limp at the end of that day.

GROSS: But I think this says something about you, which is that you
really have that competitive thing real strong.

Mr. HEWITT: Yeah, really. You know, I guess I am a strong competitor,
but sometimes this competitive zeal causes you to do things that, when
you look back on them, you’re kind of ashamed that you even thought of
them.

GROSS: Great, how about another example?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWITT: Oh my God. You know, once an airplane went down in the East
River off LaGuardia Airport in New York, and there was one tugboat out
on the river that you could go out on and go to the wreck because there
was a tugboat strike, but this boat had come from New Haven. And I went
down with everybody else, and all the television crews were there, and
the captain was telling this story of what it was like out on the river
and the floating wreckage and the bodies, and he was going on and on.
And I don’t know why, but I kind of said, well, who owns this boat?

And he said New Haven Tugboat Company, and all the reporters turned to
me like, what are you, crazy? Who cares who owns the boat? This guy’s
telling us a great story and you ask a stupid question. And they said,
Captain, go on. Please go on with your story, and Hewitt, will you shut
up with your dumb questions?

And as they said that, I sneaked out of the door, went down to the dock,
called the CBS newsroom and said call the New Haven Tugboat Company and
charter their boat.

So I got back, all the guys saw me come back, and they were all kind of
going, don’t ask any dumb questions. And at this point the phone rings,
the captain goes to the phone, he says yes, sir, and then he looks
around. He says who’s Hewitt? I said I am. He said, well, the boat’s now
under charter to you. What do you want to do? I said, well, the first
thing I want to do is throw all these guys off my boat.

So I was very competitive, and you know, in fact, the only way “The
Today Show” could get any pictures of the wreck was to come out in a
rowboat with an outboard motor in the morning, and by mistake we rammed
them. I mean, we really didn’t mean to hit them, but we did, and the
next thing I know, I come back and I get hell because there was a formal
complaint from NBC to CBS that I tried to sink their boat in the East
River, and all I could think to say was crybabies.

GROSS: Hmm. Now, you say when you started “60 Minutes” you also wanted
to create a more personal form of journalism. You write: The
documentaries on TV all seem to be the voice of the corporation. What do
you mean by that? And what do you mean by a more personal form?

Mr. HEWITT: Okay, editorials were the voice of the newspaper, which
nobody really cared about. They cared about columnists. And
documentaries were sort of the voice of the corporation. You know, “NBC
White Paper,” “CBS Reports,” “ABC Close-Up.” And I said, there’s nothing
personal. And I wanted personal journalism. I don’t mean advocacy
journalism. I don’t think I wanted to advocate anything.

I wanted to take people along on the story, and a lot of it came out of
a broadcast that was very popular in CBS in the early days - actually,
it wasn’t on CBS, I think it was on NBC - called “Four Star Theater,” in
which Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, Ida Lupino and David Niven had a
repertory company which each week all - they played different parts and
there was no star. There were just four great actors playing parts. And
I said, wow, I’d like to do a repertory company of reporters. I don’t
want any stars. I don’t want an Ed Sullivan out front introducing the
acts. I want them to be my version of a repertory company, only these
are reporters, not actors. And it caught on.

You know, people essentially bought that television set to be
entertained. They didn’t buy the set to be informed, and I said if you
can entertain them while you’re informing them, you’re ahead of the
game. And it was a concept that caught on.

DAVIES: CBS producer Don Hewitt, speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We’re listening to Terry’s 2001 interview with TV producer and
director Don Hewitt, who died this week at the age of 86. Hewitt created
the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.”

GROSS: You always hear rumors about shows. The rumor that I’ve heard
about “60 Minutes,” and you can tell me if this is true, is that
sometimes the producer of a segment actually does the interview, and
then the reporter comes in and is filmed asking those questions, even
though they didn’t really ask those questions to the person that’s being
interviewed.

Mr. HEWITT: Never, never, never - never ever happened.

GROSS: Have you ever heard that one?

Mr. HEWITT: Oh, we hear – listen, Hillary Clinton, for Christ’s sake,
after we did the famous Gennifer Flowers thing, she told the Associated
Press that we changed all the questions between the time they did it and
the time we put it on the air. And I called her up, and I said – you’ve
got to realize, she was just another woman, wife of a candidate – and I
said that’s libelous, that’s defamatory. And she said, well, it appeared
to me to be that way. And I figured, sure, it appeared to be that way.
She was shell-shocked. I mean, she couldn’t believe what – you know,
they had to sit there and defend that night.

So that has never ever happened. Nobody has ever changed a question or
had a producer ask a question and then later filmed a correspondent
asking it.

GROSS: Well, I’m glad you brought up that Clinton interview. What were
the - how did the Clintons end up on “60 Minutes” that night, and what
were they expecting? What did they think was in it for them?

Mr. HEWITT: What did they think? Oh my God, they got – they were in
trouble. He was about to disappear into the snow in New Hampshire, and
they called up and they said they wanted to go on the air and set the
record straight about Gennifer Flowers. And for all the time we taped,
all they did was set the record crooked.

They never set the record straight. And do you know that the right wing,
the so-called right wing, because I don’t believe in right wing, left
wing, but the so-called right wing calls me responsible for his getting
the nomination, which he did, after that show.

Do you know that I’m persona non grata in the – I was in the Clinton
White House? I’ve been invited to every White House going back to Harry
Truman. I was persona non grata with the Clintons.

What there was about that – I guess they didn’t want to think about that
night. But we didn’t do anything but give them a chance to answer the
questions, and they sat there and fudged everything.

GROSS: Well, what do you consider the lies that they told that you are
referring to?

Mr. HEWITT: The lies? I mean, that there never was a Gennifer Flowers
and it never happened. Later on he admitted it.

GROSS: So if the Clintons came on because they wanted to talk about
Gennifer Flowers and deny that there was any truth to that story, what
so upset them about the interview?

Mr. HEWITT: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s – they claim that I said we
would also give you a chance to talk about your vision of America, and I
said no, no, no, no. We thought we were going to do a long piece, and
they gave me nine minutes that night for the whole show because it was
after the Super Bowl, and I said there is no time to do anything but
this one story, and if you want to give your vision of America, I’m sure
they’ll sell you commercial time to do it. But after all, you had to
realize, at the time, Terry, he was one of five guys trying to get the
nomination. He wasn’t even the frontrunner. He was just another
candidate trying to get the Democratic nomination.

GROSS: Let me ask you about one of the many “60 Minutes” stories that
became very controversial, and this one particularly controversial
because a movie was made about it, “The Insider.” You know, this is the
case of Jeffrey Wigand, the former vice president for research and
development at Brown & Williamson tobacco, who blew the whistle on how
the company had adjusted the levels of nicotine, keeping smokers
addicted. And the story was killed at “60 Minutes” because of corporate
fear of a lawsuit. What kind of lawsuit?

Mr. HEWITT: No, it was not killed at “60 Minutes” because of corporate
fear of a lawsuit. It was killed by the corporation before we ever got a
chance to put it on the air. But we did go on the air and tell
everything we learned from Wigand without using his name. So it’s not
true that we ran away from that story.

GROSS: And the way…

Mr. HEWITT: The company didn’t want us to use his name because they
feared a lawsuit, and we actually went on the air, and Mike Wallace
actually did something that no news organization has ever done before.
He told the audience that we were prohibited from using Wigand’s name
because CBS had turned chicken and was afraid of a lawsuit, which wasn’t
even threatened. It was just the perception that it might be.

GROSS: Was this a very frustrating experience for you, watching the
movie, because it was…

Mr. HEWITT: No. Let me tell you. Let me tell you the God’s honest truth.
If they’d gotten Paul Newman or Robert Redford to play me, I’d have
forgiven them anything.

GROSS: Yeah, but who did play you?

Mr. HEWITT: Some guy named…

GROSS: Philip Baker Hall.

Mr. HEWITT: Phil Baker Hall. I said that’s not a guy. That’s a
dormitory.

GROSS: Yeah, but you ought to retract that statement. He is a great
actor. He’s fantastic. Did you ever see…

Mr. HEWITT: To you he may be.

GROSS: Yeah, no, did you ever see “Magnolia” or “Hard Eight”?

Mr. HEWITT: Yeah, but I saw “The Insider,” and I just – okay, I said if
Paul Newman or Robert Redford had played me, I’d have forgiven them
anything.

GROSS: Well, Philip Baker Hall can play me anytime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWITT: Good. Good, I hope I – I hope he does, for your sake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Don Hewitt, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2001. Hewitt
died this week. He was 86. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Musical Comedy Flies In 'Conchords'

DAVID DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, James Bobin has been nominated for an Emmy for directing the
HBO comedy series "Flight of the Conchords," about a band of the same
name. Its second season has just come out on DVD.

Bobin is also the co-creator and co-writer of the series. He helped the
Conchords, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie build a TV show around
their catchy song parodies like this one.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flight of the Conchords")

CONCHORDS (Fictitious Musical Group): (Singing) I think I’ve fallen in
love with a girl, and it’s serious. Ooh that’s great news Bret, tell me
about that girl that’s so serious. Well I don’t really know her. Ooh,
that don’t sound so serious. We’re serious, I’m delirious. Sounds
serious. Yeah.

That’s cool; I met a new girl too. Have you? Yeah. One of those girls
you met on the net? No, we really met. Well that’s great news, what‘s
she like? What does she do? All I know dog is that she’s careless with
her dog, I’m not sure what she does, except she makes me want her, she
makes me want to get on top of her.

Well that sounds great, man that sounds great, hey wait. What? Maybe I’m
crazy but when’d you meet this lady? Just then. When? Right then? Right
then. Where? There. Over there? Over there. Over there there? Over there
there there. Just now? Just now.

How’d you meet your lady?

I was going for a jog and she lost a dog. I was runnin in the area and
she lost a terrier. Was this about 40 seconds ago? No about 43 seconds
ago.

Ooh. Whoa Whoa. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no, Oh no. No no what?

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? No I’m thinking what I’m thinking.
So you’re not thinking what I’m thinking? No cuz you’re thinking I’m
thinking what you’re thinking.

Are you talking about a girl with a beautiful smile? Yeah. Like
strawberry wine. Yeah, Yeah. Ooh, wearing track suit pants. And white
chocolate skin. And socks. That sounds like her.

Hang on a minute, stop the track, Eugene stop the track.

(Soundbite of music stopping)

Do you mean the girl who came up to us while we were running in the park
just now, and she was looking for her epileptic dog? Yeah that’s the
girl.

(Soundbite of music starting)

Was her name Brahbrah? No I think it was Barbara. Her name was Brahbrah.
It was Barbara, there’s no such name as Brahbrah. It’s Brahbrah. It’s
Barbara. It was Brahbrah. Barbara. Brahbrah. Barbara. Brahbrah. Barbara.
Brahbrah Barbara.

DAVIES: The "Flight of the Conchords" centers on these two awkward
musicians who came to New York from their native New Zealand to try and
make it in the music business.

The show draws on the real experiences of Clement and McKenzie and
incorporates their songs, which parodies, soul, pop and hip hop.

Before working on "Flight of the Conchords" Bobin helped Sacha Baron
Cohen create the characters of Ali G, Borat and Bruno for "Da Ali G
Show."

Terry spoke with James Bobin earlier this year.

In this scene from the second season of the "Flight of the Conchords"
Bret and Jemaine are really down on their luck. Their manager, Murray,
has another act that's made it big called the Crazy Dogggz.

Bret and Jemaine are tired of being ignored so during a meeting with
Murray, they decide to end their relationship with him. Murray is played
by Reese Darby.

Mr. BRET MCKENZIE: (as Bret) Dear Murray, we want to fire you as our
manager.

Mr. REESE DARBY (Actor): (as Murray) What?

Mr. JEMAINE CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) What?

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) What’s your reasoning Bret?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Brett) You spend all your time on the Crazy Dogggz and
you don’t really spend any time on us.

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) Before you came to me you were poor and you had
no gigs. Now look at you.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) We're poor and we’ve got no gigs.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) We're slightly poorer.

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) Are you really?

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Yeah. Bret's only got one shoe.

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) Aw, Bret, is that what this is about? One shoe?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) Well...

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) It's not about the shoe.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) No, it's not about the shoe. I just lost my
shoe.

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) It's not a problem. What size are you? I'll get
you another shoe.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) Size nine.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) It's not about the shoe, It's about...

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) Your right foot. Yeah, hi. Murray here. I need a
right foot shoe.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Murray, we're firing you. We're going to
manage ourselves.

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) Fine. I understand it. Okay, fine. You know what?
Actually, there's another item here on the agenda I missed out. Ah yes,
here it is. Item four. Stuff you.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) You sure that's not for the Crazy Dogggz?

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) Stuff you, Jermaine. And stuff you, Bret. And
stuff you again, Jermaine.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Why did I get double-stuffed?

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) I don't need you guys. You're un-needed. Okay?
I've got the Crazy Dogggz. They're making hit after hit. "Doggy Bounce,"

number one. "Doggy Dance," number five. "In the Pound," number 37. It's
not going to stop. It's never going to stop. They're a hit-making
machine. Look at their gold records.

And just to let you know, your awards over there, they're fake. I had to
make them myself.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) What?

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) They're pencil sharpeners stuck to a couple of
bits of wood to make you feel better.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) We didn't win the Grammys?

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) No, you didn't.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) I thought we won best New Zealand artist?

Mr. DARBY: (as Murray) There's no such category, Jemaine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: James Bobin, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. JAMES BOBIN (Writer and director): Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: So that was from the first episode of this season of "Flight of
the Conchords." So, Murray's success, we should point out, is very
short-lived.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, of course, of course. Yes, the Crazy Dogggz comes to a
sticky end.

GROSS: So, I love "Flight of the Conchords." So you met Bret and Jemaine
at the Edinburgh Festival back in 2000. And I think then you were asked
eventually by HBO to start a series with them.

Mr. BOBIN: That's right.

GROSS: What were your, what was the initial process like, of working
out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...what the show would actually be?

Mr. BOBIN: Well, I actually first saw Bret and Jemaine at the Edinburgh
Festival in a small cave. Edinburgh is a city which in August every year
hosts literally thousands of comedy shows, and so every venue which
could possibly be a venue, from pub back rooms to cellars become venues.
And I heard of this band from New Zealand. I went up in week two; it's a
four-week festival. And by the time I arrived in week two, there was
quite a lot of people talking about these two guys from New Zealand who
sang comedy songs.

And when I got there, the room was absolutely jam-packed. You know, it
seats about 50 with about 100 people in there. And these two sort of
vaguely nervous, bumbling guys stumbled onto stage. And they were sort
of immediately quite charming because you felt, I don't know, sympathy,
empathy with them in their situation. They didn't seem that confident in
their performance.

But then they proceeded to do the best, one of the best comedy hours
I've ever seen whereby, they not only had sort of 10 to 12 brilliant
songs, but the banter in between the songs was fantastic. I mean, it's
hilarious. And the key for me was that I wanted to make the live show
quite an important part of the TV show. So, in a very direct
translation, you take their live songs and create music videos of those
and take the banter between Bret and Jemaine onstage and create a
narrative from that banter.

But it was very clear from a very early stage that we all shared a
similar idea of what the show could be. And we sort of all just sat
around and imaged how that might be and were all a bit nervous about the
fact that musicals, they often don't work. And I very clearly remember
going down, when we were sort of developing the idea, going to the
Museum of Television History in Beverly Hills and calling up all
existing copies of Steve Bochco's show, "Cop Rock." And the three of us
sat there, around this monitor, watching this show, which I think is
either the most ahead...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: ....ahead of its time show ever, or I just can't ever imagine
how ever it came to pass. But it was really quite an interesting watch
in terms of how we, how people approach music in TV.

GROSS: One of the great things about "Flight of the Conchords" is that
there's all these wonderful parodies of rock videos.

Mr. BOBIN: Sure.

GROSS: And in episode two of this season when the band is really
completely broke, their electricity has been turned off, Bret's had to
hock his guitar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: Yes.

GROSS: So they decide that Jemaine is going to become a prostitute and
Bret will be his pimp.

Mr. BOBIN: Naturally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: Yeah. Of course, what else are you going to do in that
situation?

GROSS: And of course, they completely misinterpret, like, how
prostitution works. And there's...

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, they have a very innocent idea of what prostitution
actually is.

GROSS: Yeah, why don't you explain?

Mr. BOBIN: Largely divined from the film, "Pretty Woman."

GROSS: Right. So here's that scene you’re talking about in which Jemaine
is trying to convince Bret that they can become prostitutes.

(Soundbite of TV show "Flight of the Conchords")

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Bret, you know how you told me you were good
at sex? Are you?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) No, that was just because you asked me in front
of Sally.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Right, yeah. Okay. Well, you were lying, then?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) No, I was exaggerating a little bit.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Lying.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) No. Exaggerating.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Well, maybe Mel's right. Maybe we could be
prostitutes. Prostitution is a quick way of making money. It is not
degrading. It is not degrading. Have you seen "Pretty Woman"?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) No.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Well, it's the story about a prostitute called
Richard Gere who gets to go out with a pretty woman, Julia Roberts, who
pays him a lot of money. You think Julia Roberts is a pretty woman?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (as Bret) Yes.

Mr. CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Well, imagine getting to have sex with women
similar to Julia Roberts and getting paid for it.

GROSS: That's a scene from episode two of this season's "Flight of the
Conchords." My guest, James Bobin, directed that episode. He's a writer
and director on the series and also co-created it.

So there's a great scene in which Bret is singing what's really a parody
of the Sting song, "Roxanne."

Mr. BOBIN: Yes.

GROSS: GROSS: And in "Roxanne," the lyric is, Roxanne, you don't have to
put on your red light. And in...

Mr. BOBIN: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...in this, it's like, Jemaine, you don't have to be a
prostitute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I thought, let's...

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, you spotted it. Well done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. So let's...

Mr. BOBIN: Well...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

Mr. BOBIN: It was an idea that Jemaine had a while ago. He liked, I
think it's one of those songs which for us, it was a funny idea in the
first place that anyone would ever sing a song about someone being a
prostitute. The idea that you could somehow stop them from being a
prostitute by singing to them was, to us, an hilarious idea. And Jemaine
had that idea a while ago.

There's actually a song called "Maxine," which is by a New Zealand
artist, which is literally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: ...was released probably two years after the Police song,
"Roxanne" and is remarkably similar in many ways. And that was also an
inspiration to us in terms of the idea that you could actually somehow
solve prostitution by singing about it.

So, from a very early point we thought it was quite a funny idea. And
then, of course, it sort of fitted into our narrative, that we liked the
idea that Bret and Jemaine are poor because that's what happens when you
first move to a foreign country. You are poor. And you don't see very
much of that on television, so it was quite important for us to sort of
let that part of the story play.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the song?

(Soundbite of song, TV show "Flight of the Conchords")

CONCORDS: (Singing) It's a cold night underneath the streetlight.
There's a man whose pants are too tight. Oh, no. His pants are too
tight. My pants are too tight. He stands there, an empty stare. Trying
to make enough money for his cab fare home. He'll have to walk home
tonight. Don't have enough for the ride.

The streets are cool, he tries to act cool. He goes to work with only

his one tool. You can put away your tool. Jemaine.

You don't have to be a prostitute. No, no, no, no, no, you can say no to
being a man whore, a male gigolo.

You don't have to be a prostitute. No, no, no, no, no. You can say no to
being a night-looker, boy hooker, red boy, go ho ho home.

He cannot see his way out...

GROSS: So that's Bret McKenzie singing to Jemaine Clement "You Don't
Have to Be a Prostitute" from episode two of this season's HBO series,
"Flight of the Conchords." My guest James Bobin is one of the writers
and directors of the series, and he directed this episode.

It must be so much fun to direct parodies of rock videos. Have you found
yourself going back to a lot of classic rock videos to get little
details that...

Mr. BOBIN: All the time.

GROSS: ...you could pay homage to?

Mr. BOBIN: All the time. We try not to directly parody them or spoof
them too much, because I think, I generally believe there is a great
grammar of music videos, music videos been around for such a long time,
ever since "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the 1970s, that I think the certain
ways videos were shot instantly mean that you recognize the various cues
the directors and DP's used at that time.

For example, if you shoot an '80s video, it's all about back light and
ground fog and, you know, it's that sort of stuff. So I think there is a
grammar to music videos that people will recognize if you shoot them
that way. They'll say, oh, that's like an '80s video, that's a '90s
video. And I use a lot of that sort of thing.

GROSS: Right. Right. So, you go back and you study these videos and get
inspiration. So you just spend a lot of time looking for videos...

Mr. BOBIN: Yeah...

GROSS: ...and just getting ideas?

Mr. BOBIN: We, when we're supposed to be writing the shows, which is for
quite a long time, we spend quite far too much of our time on YouTube
watching old videos because they are so inspirational and so fantastic,
both music and for visuals. Because of course, I think in the there was
a great heyday videos like in the '80s when the budgets were enormous,
and so they went completely over the top, and they are, as a
consequence, hilarious to watch just on their own. I mean, we just,
they're as gift to us because they're so fantastic.

And also, they're interesting. I've always loved music. My father was a
DJ at Radio Oxford in the '60s and I always remember when I was about
10, he gave me a huge box of 45s of '60s and '70s music, so I know far,
far too much about music that was made before I was born.

But from, so from an early age I always loved music, and I think music
videos became very much almost half the - you know, music videos were an
integral part of music in the '80s and '90s. And they're not so much
these days, sadly, but I think in those days it was a really important
aspect of the single release was the video. The video was a very
important selling tool.

GROSS: So what was in that box of 45s that your father gave you?

Mr. BOBIN: My goodness, just extraordinary stuff. Obviously, lots of
Beatles stuff. But even bizarre things, I mean, just weird late 60s, a
lot of early 70s stuff. A lot of T. Rex. I remember having a T. Rex
single, double. I think "Get It On" was the A side. And obscure bands
like Atomic Rooster and Canned Heat, which obviously, Heat were
fantastic. And so I think as a seven-year-old, I had a very strange
taste in music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: When my friends were listening to Adam and the Ants and Wham,
I was listening to Canned Heat and sort of straight, you know and Roxy
Music.

DAVIES: James Bobin is director and co-creator of the HBO series "Flight
of the Conchords."

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with James Bobin, director
and co-creator of the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords."

GROSS: So in "Flight of the Conchords," Rhys Darby plays the Conchords'
agent, Murray...

Mr. BOBIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...who works at the New Zealand Consulate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: He does. He's...

GROSS: But he really wants to be a, like a rock star manager although
his only...

Mr. BOBIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...clients are the Conchords. In episode one of this season,
after the Conchords fire Murray as their manager, he gets to sing a very
operatic song called "Rejected." And it seems like it’s a parody of an
Andrew Lloyd Webber song from a show that I stayed away from…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …I have no idea…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …if it’s a direct parody…

Mr. BOBIN: Yes.

GROSS: …of a particular song or not.

Mr. BOBIN: No, it’s not really a direct parody. It is certainly Andrew
Lloyd Webberesque. I just - last year we sang the song called "Leggy
Blonde," which I thought was a highlight for me of the last season. And
this year, I wanted to start the show with a surprise. And so,
"Rejected" sort of came out, that idea whereby there’d be a song
straight away and it wouldn’t be sung by Bret and Jemaine. And the style
of it was partly just because the melodrama of the situation. We loved
the idea that Rhys would take the firing of - being fired very
personally and see it as a great tragedy.

And I thought one of the great purveyors of this sort of melodrama these
days is Andrew Webber and Tim Rice. And so, that was sort of the
inspiration behind that one. And then it was just a question of finding
words which ended in e-d.

GROSS: Yeah, I don’t think…

Mr. BOBIN: And then to protect it…

GROSS: …there’s one word in the dictionary that rhymes with rejected
that you haven’t used in this song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: No, it’s pretty much the entire - yes, exactly. Yes.

GROSS: Why don’t we hear some of it? So, this is the character of
Murray, who’s played by Rhys Darby, singing "Rejected" in "Flight Of The
Conchords."

(Soundbite of TV show "Flight of the Concords," song “Rejected”)

Mr. RHYS DARBY (Actor): (as Murray) (Singing) Rejected, thrown away,
affected. I don’t know what to say rejected, cast out to the sea.
Disconnected, they didn’t want me. Rejected, like a baby in the snow,
dejected, like a cloud without a storm. I objected, pretended I was
unaffected, but still ended up rejected like a cake shop…

GROSS: That’s Rhys Darby as Murray, the manager in "Flight Of The
Conchords" singing "Rejected." My guest James Bobin is the co-creator of
the show. He wrote the episode that this is from and is also a director
on the series. Is that Rhys Darby’s real voice? Does he have that
operatic a voice?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: I can’t - I'd rather not say, to be honest. No, no, it’s not
Rhys’s voice.

GROSS: I would take that as a no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: No, it’s a no. It’s a no. Rhys does have a – Rhys has quite a
pretty good voice, but not that good. That is one of the leading tenors
in New York who supplied the voice there. But yes, it’s not his real
voice.

GROSS: In "Flight Of The Conchords," Kristen Schaal plays Mel, who’s the
fan base. She’s like the only fan of the band, and she’s kind of wacky.
She’s really fun in it. And, you know, in the series, "Mad Men," she
initially played like somebody who was one of the phone operators at the
advertising agency, and then…

Mr. BOBIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: …she just kind of disappeared from the series.

Mr. BOBIN: Right.

GROSS: And she was on "The Daily Show" for…

Mr. BOBIN: Yes.

GROSS: …at least a couple of episodes. Were you in on casting her for
the series?

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, very much. Yes. No, I chose her because we’re aware of

her work from Aspen, the comedy festival over in Aspen. We were big
fans. Actually, I - I actually cast her from a tape. I never met her. I
watched the tape of her doing the show in Aspen, and it was just a
brilliant start. She came out and said, hello, I’m a sexy librarian. And
I thought, this is exactly the sort of person I wanted Mel to be, the
sexy librarian. I just liked the idea of her being - and also the
character, I didn’t want the character to be too two-dimensional in the
sense that a lot of bands have quite odd fans who are almost obsessive
in their following.

I wanted to have a grounding, and that’s why I gave her a husband and a
job. And the husband is very indulgent in her obsession with the
Conchords. And I found that an interesting idea because in the same way
that Murray’s got a job and he’s doing something else, therefore it's
kind of a real character, Mel is helped by the fact that she has a real
life outside of the Conchords. And the Conchords are kind of like a
strange sort of part of her life which isn't really referenced to the
rest of her life. But then Kristen was a fantastic stand-up. Most of the
people on the show are stand-up comedians. And that was something I was
really keen to do because I love the idea of them being able to
improvise, that always helps to the freshness of the show.

GROSS: James Bobin, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. BOBIN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: James Bobin, director and co-creator and co-writer of the HBO
Series “Flight of the Conchords” speaking with Terry Gross in January.
Bobin has been nominated for an Emmy for best direction in a comedy
series for the show. It’s second season is now out on DVD. Coming up
David Edelstein on the new - Quentin Tarantino film “Inglourious
Basterds.” This is FRESH AIR.
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Tarantino's Rollicking, Rocky Rewrite Of WWII

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature “Inglourious Basterds,” sixth if you
count both parts of “Kill Bill” as one movie, borrows and cheekily
misspells the title of a 1978 war film. The resemblances end there. The
new film stars Brad Pitt as the leader of a vigilante squad killing
Nazis in gory fashion in occupied France. Film critic David Edelstein
has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Quentin Tarantino often caricatures himself.
Interviewed in a rollicking documentary about Australian exploitation
movies, “Not Quite Hollywood,” he describes a female revenge flick in
which a half-naked woman is tied to the front of a car. If you like
outrageous cinema, he babbles, you live and breathe for this. You're
going, who the bleep thought of that. That is, of course, the cry he
wants to elicit from us watching his films. But if such provocations
were his only motive, Tarantino wouldn't be a major director.

His World War II revenge fantasia “Inglourious Basterds,” set in German-
occupied France, is certainly a collection of who-the-bleep-thought-of-
that set pieces. But it's also a switchback journey through his twisted
inner landscape, where movies and history, misogyny and feminism, sadism
and romanticism collide and create bizarre new hybrids. The movie is an
ungainly pastiche, yet on some whacked-out level, it's organic. The
overture is stunning.

To the twang of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western music, a French
farmer watches a Jeep filled with Nazi soldiers travel the long road to
his farm. Close-ups of his anxious face alternate with long shots of the
car coming nearer in a way that compares to both Hitchcock and Sergio
Leone. What follows is an excessively, unnervingly polite interrogation
over the farmer's kitchen table by Nazi hunter Hans Landa, played by an
elegant and insinuating actor named Christophe Waltz. To watch Landa
slowly move in for the kill in a protracted shot of both men is to
understand that Tarantino, for all his infamous gore, is at his best in
drawn-out dialogues humming with subtext that precede the carnage.
“Inglourious Basterds” has two major strands and many minor ones.

The most emotional part of the film centers on Melanie Laurent’s
Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jew who escaped from that farm and forges a new
identity running a Paris cinema. The other half follows the title
brigade, the Basterds for short. American Jews led by non-Jew part-
Apache Southerner Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, puffing out his jaw
to look like Brando. The Basterds are famous for scalping or beating in
the brains of Nazis. Sure, it never happened. But watching Pitt’s Raine
taunt a prostrate commandant, you so wish it had.

(Soundbite of movie, “Inglorious Basterds”)

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (as Aldo Raine) I assume you know who we are?

Unidentified Man #1: You’re [unintelligible] Apache.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. PITT: (as Aldo Raine) The word you heard of is - you probably heard
we ain’t in the prison taking business, we in the killing Nazi business.
Cousin, businesses are booming.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

Mr. PITT: (as Aldo Raine) That leaves two ways we can play this out,
either kill you or let you go. Now, throw the piece (unintelligible),
‘sides you, we know there is another crap patrol (beep) around here
somewhere. That patrol were to have any crack shots that orchard would
be a goddamn snipers delight. You ever wanna eat a sour kraut sandwich
again, you got to show me on this here map where they are. You got to
tell me how many they are and you got to tell me what kind of artillery
they’re carrying with them.

EDELSTEIN: I won’t attempt to diagram the narrative, which is full of
digressions that are more fun than the main line. But I’ll say that
“Inglourious Basterds” builds to a chaotic climax in a cinema, in which
Shoshanna schemes to blow up top Nazi brass at the premiere of a
Goebbels-produced propaganda epic starring a real-life Nazi hero — a
blue-eyed young Aryan who happens to be wooing her, unaware she’s a
Jewess. But I’m afraid on the level of pure staging, Tarantino isn’t up
to the phantasmagorical climax. It feels choppy and labored, and both
the action and Pitt’s performance drift into camp.

One problem is “Inglourious Basterds” peaks half an hour earlier, in a
beer cellar full of Nazis, when a British agent and film scholar played
by Michael Fassbender and two of the Basterds meet with a gorgeous
German movie star played by Diane Kruger, working undercover. The scene
goes on and on and on, endlessly digressive, so that you’re both
laughing and on the brink of screaming with dread. It’s that, not the
bloody scalpings and splatter, that makes you say, who the bleep thought
of that? The answer, of course, is someone who believes that myth can
trump history, who says no Fuhrer can survive the onslaught of a world
exploitation cinema auteur.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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