Skip to main content

Actor and Comedian Richard Pryor on Living with MS

This week, Pryor was the first recipient of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' award for humor, The Mark Twain Prize. (It will be broadcast on the Comedy Central cable channel Jan 20th). In 1995, he published his story, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences" A strong man who has overcome such ordeals as a drug addiction, self immolation, and six marriages, Pryor is now battling multiple sclerosis. (REBROADCAST from 5/22/95)


Other segments from the episode on October 23, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 23, 1998: Interview with Tracey Ullman; Interview with John Lovitz; Interview with Henny Youngman; Interview with Richard Pryor; Review of the film "Happiness."


Date: OCTOBER 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102301np.217
Head: Interview With Tracey Ullman
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:00

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today's archived edition is a comedy show. Let's start with one of the funniest and most versatile comedy actresses working today, Tracey Ullman.

Her HBO series, "Tracy Takes On," is a series of comic sketches in which she appears as a different character in each sketch. The series returns in early 1999.

Ullman also has been turning up on "Ally McBeal" as McBeal's therapist.

I spoke with Tracey Ullman last winter, and we talked about some of the characters she does in her series.

Let's start maybe with Linda Granger, a kind of washed up actress and professional victim.

ULLMAN: Well, darling, I love Linda Granger. Linda loves being on National Public Radio. Linda's the kind of person that goes on public television fund drives. And she says things like, "you know, public television is a wonderful thing for all of us."

You know, and it's the type -- I-- don't you love those pledge drives when people like Linda Granger get to go on public television? And normally, she's doing complete dross infomercials, but then she gets to go and do a pledge drive.


I see Lindas around L.A. all the time, you know...

GROSS: Just describe her for us.

ULLMAN: ... pretending to be 39 and they're 55, and she's had a little collagen in her lips and "my cosmetic surgeon is an artist." And as long as they're doing infomercials or they're appearing on "Gay Talk" on public access with her solid homosexual fan base, she's in show business, Terry. She's an inspirational speaker. She's an author. She's had cancer. She's a cancer survivor.

And she's -- she has a daughter called "Marmalade" because that's what they served on the muffins when I signed the adoption papers.

And Linda's very glamorous. Her dream is to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie, though...


... even if they just used a picture, an old VIP picture of Linda that was in the background pinned up in a booth in a coffee shop, in a Quentin Tarantino movie, she'd consider that a major comeback.

GROSS: Does she seem like a cautionary tale to you of what an actress is capable of becoming if she's not careful?

ULLMAN: She's a certain type of actress. She's -- she would do theater. "Oh, theater is my first love, Terry."

GROSS: Right.

ULLMAN: And I'm -- she's always doing love letters with Hank Brinkley from the Channel Five News. You know, it's the "Love Letters" pairings, Terry, got really terrible...

GROSS: Oh, I know.

ULLMAN: ... they had to just put a stop to them.

GROSS: For our listeners who don't know Love Letters, it's a two-person show that started off, you know, with I think Eli Wallach...

ULLMAN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ... and his wife, and then as it got kind of -- went around the country, the stars got lesser -- less and less stellar.

ULLMAN: Yeah, with Joe Namath and Phyllis Diller in Love Letters. I know, it just -- the combos got kind of -- but it was that sort of -- you didn't have to learn the lines. You could just sit and read it, you know. And I imagine Linda, you know, doing that show somewhere in the wilds with a pair of reading glasses from a pharmacy. You know, dinner theater.

GROSS: Another character you're doing now is Sidney Cross (ph), who is a lawyer. Describe what kind of lawyer she is.

ULLMAN: When I started doing this show three years ago, I wanted to play, like, an aggressive, ambitious career woman, and living in Los Angeles. And I thought, well, an agent was a little passe. And Sidney Cross -- at that time, it was the OJ Simpson trial and we had all these lawyers going on TV every night. And I thought: ah, do a lawyer. And the physicalities of Leslie Abramson (ph) were fascinating to me. So physically, it's a little like Leslie Abramson.

I did my own sharky, gappy, baby teeth, which really give me the character. And it's the voice of an agent of mine who was like crazed: "Hi Tracey, how ya doin'? You want to win an Oscar? We're gonna win an Oscar."

She used to call me up every day. I thought, oh, this woman's going to drive me crazy. And she's a relentlessly charmless litigator, relentlessly ambitious and charmless litigator -- that's how she's described. And -- but now, she's kind of become endearing to me, Terry. This is the funny things about my characters. They -- as gross as Sidney Cross is, I realize she's lonely. She can't get laid. You know, she's so ugly.

GROSS: Not even by your cabbie character.

ULLMAN: And she's so ambitious. No, exactly. Even Chick (ph) won't -- can't do it. And she's the sort of person that lives in a very sterile sort of apartment, with a -- some unassembled Nautilus equipment in the corner that never got -- you know, and pot noodles. And she's never home. And I just -- you know, now I feel sorry for her. And as soon as I feel sorry for them, I can work on them even more.

GROSS: Tracey Ullman is my guest, and her HBO series, "Tracey Takes On," is in its new season. And she also has a companion book called "Tracey Takes On" in which she -- all her characters are pictured and described, and there's little sketches with them -- graphic sketches and situation sketches.


GROSS: Another character that you do is Trevor Ayless (ph), who is a gay airline -- what? -- not "steward." What's the word now?

ULLMAN: Uh, yeah he's a steward. You don't have to say "hostess" -- you can say "hostess" for woman.

GROSS: Flight attendant. Flight...

ULLMAN: (Unintelligible)

GROSS: Flight attendant is the word.

ULLMAN: I think he's still called the stewards at British Airways -- you know, that wear those hats that say "To Fly, To Serve." They still wear those at British Airways.

This is based on a very nice, now retired, British Airways steward. And I've -- 'cause I've logged lots of transatlantic flights every year going back and forth to my home in London and in Los Angeles, I used to see this guy. And very professional, kind, smart, mid-40s man who was, you know, like:

"Very, very -- yes, can I get you a cocktail? A hot towel? Now, I'll show you what the entree will be" -- to all the passengers, you know. Then when he'd see me back in the galley, it would get like: "Ooh, God, you know, ooh, I've had such trouble with that bitch in 3B."


And he would be able to be who he is, you know, and he was gay and he was like -- you know, telling me about his fella. A lovely man. And when I'm on airplanes actually, I'm very frightened of flying -- I sort of imagine Trevor or try to be Trevor, then I don't get so scared. I remember being on the flight, actually, when he -- his last flight on the Concorde. And he asked me if I wanted -- he was told he could take the jump seat in the cockpit and land -- in the Concorde cockpit.

And he was so sweet to me. He said: "I'd like you to have that one. I'd like you to be the one." I said, "No, all these years -- you've got to do it." "No, no, it would give me great pleasure." I said, "No, no, no." So he did land, in the cockpit of the Concorde. Very nice man.

GROSS: What scares you about flying?

ULLMAN: Oh, it's lack of control. I'm a control freak. If I could fly the bloody plane. So I've always got to drive the car, you know. I just -- Meryl Streep and I were on a flight back from Tunisia years ago when we just finished the film "Plenty." I remember being in mid-air coming back from Tunisia, laughing, drinking champagne -- and bang, an engine went. And we literally started to go down. It went very quiet -- and it's a terrifying experience. And we just got very, very quiet.

And Meryl, who -- some horrible tabloidy book was out about her at the time, and she said: "oh dammit, this woman's got a wonderful ending."


But we didn't die. Me and Meryl are still here and we still talk about it. And our husbands go, "Oh, here they go again."

GROSS: Did you see your life or your character's lives flash before you?


ULLMAN: Oh, God. I just -- that's interesting. It was horrible.

GROSS: Oh, I can imagine.

ULLMAN: And I've never been the same since, Terry.

GROSS: Gosh. Did it change your life to feel like you'd nearly died?

ULLMAN: Yeah, I mean it really was awful. And they had to start the engine -- and I knew it was bad, Terry, because one of the stewardesses -- they called them stewardess -- "hostesses" in those days -- was crying. It was like, pull yourself together, would you? God, you know, you're supposed to be -- she would like sit -- you know, at the end of the aisle and sob. It's like -- oh, dear.

GROSS: My guest is Tracey Ullman. Her HBO series "Tracey Takes On" begins its new -- has begun its new season, and she has a new book called "Tracey Takes On." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Tracey Ullman.

You know, you say you like to be in control and you like to be the one who's driving the car. Another character that you do is Chick the cabbie.

ULLMAN: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering how often you actually have taken cabs in New York.

ULLMAN: Oh, well -- a lot.

GROSS: Yeah.

ULLMAN: And was always bumping into people like Chick, who seem to have just no sense of humor. And if you say, where are you from? You know, trying to -- "What are you? Secret police?" You know, one of those guys, they're immediately uptight and no humor and very aggressive -- driving aggressively and -- "hey, come on, what's the matter with you? C'mon (unintelligible)."

And it would just -- it would always go -- I remember I was in a cab one day with some guy like this, and he's going: "the man, this morning I get my cab from him, and he called me up, he start shooting -- I'm goin' to kill him. Tonight, I go -- I blow his brains out." I was like: "ohhh -- wonder if I could go to my appointment or just call the police?" You know, so aggressive and driving so aggressively.

I always say to these guys, "can you slow down?" You know, "got two children. I don't want to die." And the smell of English Leather aftershave that wafts through the vents of the cab.

GROSS: What happens when they find out you're in show business?

ULLMAN: "You know, I got the movie. You know, I had that" -- they always say this (Unintelligible). "You know Martin Scorsese? When he was using my cab, I said to him why don't you do a movie about Vegas and the gambling and he makes "Casino." What do I get from it, eh? Eh?"

It's always like it was their idea. "And I had Andrew Lloyd Webber in the cab, and I said -- Phantom of the Opera -- maybe you should do? What is it -- what does he give to Chick, eh?"

Those guys -- it was always their idea.

GROSS: He is of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin, and I'm wondering if you ever get any flak for -- you know, when you do somebody who is of a different ethnic group than you are. I have been told by several satirists that it's a very difficult time to do satire, because everybody is so kind of defensive about -- about somebody representing or stereotyping their ethnic group or...

ULLMAN: Yes, political correctness is just so -- it's just inhibiting and it's just strangling this country. You know, I mean, if you do it with the right energy and spirit, we are different. Some people do talk like this. Some people do wear clothes like this. Some people do eat foods like this.

I mean, you know, you have to be -- I know, you have to be so cautious and I don't -- I'm not a racist. I'm not doing caricatures. I'm just impersonating people I see. And I do research my characters very thoroughly. And I know that I got a bit of flak initially for the Asian character that I do -- indeterminate Asian. There you go. See, you don't see where she's from, either -- Mrs. Nonanine (ph).

GROSS: She's the owner of a doughnut shop.

ULLMAN: Yeah, she sells them -- I sell doughnut. And -- I've seen this -- I know this woman. I get doughnuts when we're doing our writers meetings. And I just -- I think it's difficult -- shocking for the Asians 'cause they don't have a lot of representation in the comedy world, on television. And -- but we -- so there was a bit of an outcry about that. And HBO defended me and said, look, she does it in the right spirit. It's with the right energy. And she has the right to do it.

And then I began to get letters from teenage Asian kids, and they'd say, "this is great," and "you're like my grandma." And you know, "we don't have anyone on TV that actually is Asian. At least we've got you."

And we just -- now she's a very -- you know, because my criteria for doing a character, Terry, is, do they exist?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ULLMAN: Do people talk like this? Do they look like this? And you know, I can impersonate them. I want to.

GROSS: Did you ever run into this kind of criticism in England?

ULLMAN: No, no. I have a new character in the show, the black lady, and that's great fun. And it was about time I did a black character. It was just difficult to do the makeup. You know, it's always -- it's time-consuming and -- but that went out in my first show, and I've got a lot of response...

GROSS: This is the character who works at the airport?

ULLMAN: ... people thinking it's great fun. Yeah, Shenisha (ph).

GROSS: Yeah, she works at the airport at the -- not the X-ray...

ULLMAN: That's right.

GROSS: ... what do you call it? With the security thing.

ULLMAN: 'Cause every time I go through those things, they -- the woman always say to me, she looks at me -- they look at me, they go, "Y'all on TV?"

There's always that moment, they look at me: "She's on TV." And I just thought -- I love those -- the airports. It's totally run by these incredible black women with fabulous hairstyles. And they have a moment of supreme power when you go through that security check.

"I've stopped that Steven Spielberg. I say, hey, you stand still. You want get on that plane? You want to get on that plane? This plane could blow up. I'm security. Everybody, they don't have time for security."

You know, and they just get mad 'cause you don't want to stop. "You want me to search your bag? Put y'all keys in a bowl and walk fru' again."


And Adele Givens (ph) came and joined me as Helura (ph). And Adele Givens is a brilliant comedienne. I'd seen a lot of her on "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO. And she was so great with me. I mean, that's what really helped me to do that character, 'cause she was totally relaxed about me, even when I began to melt under the lights. You know, and suddenly this white woman starts appearing, you know, with my makeup melted off.

And she gave me this brilliant crash course in African-American.

GROSS: What kind of tips did she give you?

ULLMAN: And corrected me -- just stuff, and was giving me line readings during the day, and -- I love stuff when she gets all excited: "it's on! It's on!" When I say I'm getting this book deal -- "It's on. It's go, girl."

And we had a wonderful time. And it was tough. You know, I go out there. I'm covered in black makeup. I've got these bull-body (ph) padding on -- all sorts of things; a wig. And there's -- I'm standing there amongst, you know, 10 black people. I'm thinking, what am I going to do here? I'm going to join in. And so, I started shaking my booty.

And I had a great time. And they -- they -- you know, they accepted me, and I just do it. And I love it. I get into this fevered sort of state where I don't know who I am anymore. And that's heaven to me.

GROSS: Well, do you ever really not know who you are anymore? I mean, I see all your characters and they're all so convincing. And I think, gee, did you go through an identity crisis? Do you look in the mirror and think, I could be anybody, depending on what accent I put on or what -- how I do my hair.

I mean, you could -- you could pass for anybody.

ULLMAN: It's weird. I -- I guess I -- if I was a Buddhist, which is the religion I'm most interested in -- is -- I suppose I'm reincarnated many, many times. And I have been all these people. That might be an explanation for it. The Buddhists seem to know exactly why I'm like this.

GROSS: Let me stop you because I don't think that's true, because Fern Rosenthal didn't live centuries ago.


ULLMAN: I know, she's such -- she is so -- "I did, Terry, but I couldn't get my hair done. There was no good dye. There was this awful inky stuff they'd put on it down by the river there. It was henna. Ugh, it was awful. Thank God for L'Oreal."

Yeah, I know. She's so -- "and acrylic -- we couldn't get the acrylic nails. We did it with porcelain, hundreds of years ago, Terry. It was awful. It would break. It would shatter."

GROSS: She's one of my favorite characters of yours. She's the housewife from Long Island.

ULLMAN: Close -- Are you a Jew? Terry, are you Jewish?

GROSS: I think I'm good for the Jews.

ULLMAN: Are you a Jew?


I'm asking you a question, darling. Are you a Jew?

GROSS: Yeah, Fern, yeah.

ULLMAN: You're a Jew. You have any family like Fern?

GROSS: Not exactly, but I've had neighbors...

ULLMAN: C'mon...

GROSS: ... no.

ULLMAN: "I've had neighbors." Jews never admit there's someone like Fern in their family. You go to Florida, Terry? You have any family in Florida?

GROSS: I have family in Florida, yes. I know many "Ferns" in Florida.

ULLMAN: Where Terry? Tell me? Talk to me. You like to go to the theater in Florida? You like to go to the big theaters?


GROSS: It's all dinner theater.


ULLMAN: I know, like, they go down there to die and they make them go to the theater. All these poor old Jews in Florida -- it's so sad. And they're dragging them around to see "Dreamgirls" and stuff, you know. "Ugh, who wants to see a show with a lot of schwartzes (ph)?"

And they try -- it's like, let him die. Don't make him go to the theater.

GROSS: Is there anyone who's the...

ULLMAN: It's terrible.

GROSS: Did you meet -- ever meet anyone who's the equivalent of Fern Rosenthal in Florida? I mean in...

ULLMAN: Phew -- what a -- just it's all right stating the obvious...

GROSS: I mean in England.

ULLMAN: Oh, no, no -- it was really hard


And I'd be talking to them and say: "oooh, oooh" Another one's died. They're going past the corner "oooh, oooh." It's all you hear down there.

GROSS: I meant to say in England.

ULLMAN: In England, there's a -- it's the Jews -- live in Gulder's Green (ph) and Dulles Hill (ph). And I'm thinking of Americanizing them, but they're very "oh, darling, listen. They're very Jewish -- that -- this Jew -- it's the same thing."

They've got -- but it's American Jews -- English Jews, they got off the boat too early. They missed out. When my friend Gail Parent (ph) meets English Jews, "oh, you got off the boat too early."


GROSS: Are there a lot of types you've been exposed to in America that you didn't have in England?

ULLMAN: New York Jews, seriously, to me are incredibly funny. I love them. And they're just -- they love the "Fern" character and they're very accepting of me and -- I mean, you know, I feel like I'm an honorary Jew.

Yeah -- no -- there's -- I always see equivalents in England. I mean, there's fabulous people to impersonate in England. You know, my class system is rich. And I -- "of course, you know that I do HRH -- the royal character that I do. One feels that one is terribly inclined to have a Web page nowadays."

I love that the Queen is actually on the Web now.

GROSS: Oh is she? I didn't know that.

ULLMAN: Oh, she -- the royal -- what did I say in my book about the Queen? I must read what I said about it. Well, no, it's not "the Queen," by the way. "HRH" is a conglomeration of: it's the Queen's voice, I suppose, and it's Princess Margaret's lifestyle and the Duchess of Kent's hats and Princess Anne's teeth. Age 57, she has two birthdays: the day she was born and her official birthday, a day that allows her subjects to rejoice.

She has been very active recently in raising funds for a new royal yacht -- something she believes is awfully important to the man in the street, even though he'll never be allowed to set foot in it.

"Please send much-needed contributions to any one of the 14 royal houses, or contact www.hrh.commoners."


So, the book is full of little bits like that, and information on the Queen, HRH.

GROSS: And my guest is Tracey Ullman. Her new book is called "Tracey Takes On" and it's a companion to her HBO series, "Tracey Takes On."

And this season she is taking on, let's see, music and politics and religion, I think?

ULLMAN: Religion...

GROSS: Smoking.

ULLMAN: Marriage -- smoking, that's a good show. That's nice.

GROSS: Do you smoke?

ULLMAN: I used to.

GROSS: Did you give it up?

ULLMAN: I used to. But that was a -- yeah, yeah, yeah. If I live 'til 80, I'll start again 'cause I still miss it.

GROSS: Do you still have dreams about smoking?

ULLMAN: Yeah. It was so much fun.


GROSS: What happens in your smoking dreams?

ULLMAN: Oh, I'm just at a party in the '70s again, and -- I just -- it's funny. I'll have a great meal. I'll have a cup of coffee. And I think, oh, I'm missing something. I'm missing -- you know, I've given up for 15 years. But what was a good show, actually -- that -- that was a really good subject. For all the characters, that was terrific -- smoking.

I've got a nice character that -- 'cause I think taking on National Public Radio or taking on public television or something might be funny: 'cause my character, Birdie Godflynn (ph) -- she's age 42, devout Christian, married to Bob, a tobacco industry executive. They live on Van Quell (ph) Drive, within a graceful, gated, guarded community, with their seven home-schooled children. And I think she just hates public radio. She says "I think it's the tool of the devil. I really do, Miss Gross."


She's a lovely -- she's a -- she's -- actually, she's my most beautiful character. She's got flipped up hair and the white teeth and the blue eyes.

GROSS: I think she's always wearing red and white.

ULLMAN: That's right -- ain't that great?


... Petites?

GROSS: Tracey Ullman -- her series, "Tracey Takes On" is on HBO Sunday nights. She also has a new companion book called "Tracey Takes On." She'll be back with us in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tracey Ullman.

She's created a gallery of characters and she puts them into action in her HBO series "Tracey Takes On," which has started a new season on HBO. In each episode, her characters appear in a series of monologues and comic sketches related to one subject, such as smoking, marriage, music, or money.

Tracey Ullman also has a new companion book called "Tracey Takes On."

You had a hit record in England, which I believe is the same record that's your theme song for the HBO series.

ULLMAN: Yes. Yes, it's nice to use that again.

GROSS: Yeah, it's a good record. It's very, very pop. It's more...

ULLMAN: It's a very pop, girlie tune, kind of...

GROSS: Yeah.

ULLMAN: ... Phil Specter, "Wall of Sound" (ph) -- but I never get sick of hearing it.

GROSS: Right. I know. It's...

ULLMAN: Maybe people -- other people do. No, it was -- it got to number eight in the Billboard charts here in '84.

GROSS: Now, did you ever want...

ULLMAN: And it's a lovely song.

GROSS: ... like a serious pop music career?

ULLMAN: No, it was just a bit of a lark, really.

GROSS: Oh, was it.

ULLMAN: That was a particularly good song, that. It was written by Kirsty McCall (ph), whose dad was Ewen (ph) McCall, who wrote "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and he's -- he passed on his wonderful songwriting gifts to his daughter.

She's married to Steve Lillywhite (ph), who produces U2. And it was just a lark, really. I mean, I was, what, 22 years old and I was doing a TV comedy show in England. And he said, "oh, you sing? Why don't you make a pop record?"

And I did, for a joke, and I went on all the TV shows like, you know, Bandstand-type shows in England. I sang into my hairbrush, 'cause it was so obvious I was miming. 'Cause you know, you sing into your hairbrush when you're a kid looking in the mirror.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

ULLMAN: And so it caught on, and I think -- I got a gold album and I -- it was an introduction to this country, actually, 'cause I came -- I was number eight in the charts and I came over and I was a MTV VJ for a couple of weeks.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.

ULLMAN: Well, it was like a guest VJ. Oh, it was -- oh, God, so long ago when they were on 10th Avenue -- MTV in their infancy. And everyone remembers the video, 'cause Paul McCartney was in it.

GROSS: Did you ever feel that you had too much of a choice? For example, what I mean is, because you can sing, you can dance -- you started off as a dancer. You can act. Did you not know what direction to go in? Where your niche would be when you were starting? Before you found, like, the Tracey Ullman niche?

ULLMAN: I only really act competently. I mean, I -- dancing...

GROSS: You were particularly good at -- in...

ULLMAN: ... was a way to get my union card, and I wasn't a great dancer. I certainly wasn't, you know -- I mean, what future is there for a dancer? You've got to be really good and join a wonderful ballet company or Merce Cunningham or, you know, be a great jazz dancer. And I wasn't at that standard. I mean, I can use it within the shows I do now -- and singing, as I've mentioned, is just -- I can sing in tune, but you know -- acting is the only thing I do really well.

And -- I always -- I always wanted to be a character actress. I've never done standup comedy. I mean, that was suggested. I don't -- most of the time, I just -- I really don't like standup comedy. I don't like the rhythms and the -- it just got so boring, especially in the early '80s.

GROSS: Well how did you end up creating so many of your own characters instead of being a character actress...

ULLMAN: 'Cause no one knows what to do with me...

GROSS: ... in other people's movies?

ULLMAN: Nobody knows what to do with me. And I -- I like doing my own thing. I like writing my own stuff. And I have wonderful writers, but I like doing my own thing. I've never been very good as part of someone else's vision, apart from Woody Allen. I'd be part of his vision any day. I just like to create my own thing.

That's what I'm -- I've realized early on that, you know, it's difficult to cast me, so I should do my own thing.

GROSS: Do you think that working as a dancer early in your career helped you get into the right posture for the different characters that you do? 'Cause you really kind of get what their body shape...


GROSS: ... what their body positions would be. And as a dancer, you probably learned how to move muscles that I wouldn't know I even had.

ULLMAN: Yes. Yes. Yes, probably. Yeah, that does help. And -- but that is really important, as you just mentioned -- the body posture of people and -- yeah -- the walk is -- the type of shoes they wear and the types of cars they drive.

I know that goes off body posture, but yeah, there's all sorts of things. And slowing yourself down if you're being old or -- I didn't really have a lot of acting lessons. And I just didn't have time for it. I didn't -- you know, it was like: "I know that bit -- I know that bit already," you know.

And I hated all that sort of alternative method type of acting. We had some crazy teacher -- used to come into this stage, go to work and go, "good morning, darlings. Let's all be dustbins." Oh, please. I'm not gonna -- you know, my arm is my lid. And I couldn't bear all that, you know, going to the zoo and studying animals stuff. I found that sort of pretentious and -- you know, I left school at 16 and got cracking.

I find -- I'm -- amazing, people don't come out of school 'til they're like 25, and they want to sort of start acting or go into any business. I think, gosh, you know, you need a -- should have been out there years ago. You're so cosseted.

GROSS: You must have just had this, like, genetic ability to mimic other people that -- you got -- kind of key into the essential traits that another person has and do them.

ULLMAN: It -- it was just something I could always do. I did it for my mother in her bedroom, standing on the window sill, doing the Tracey Ullman Show, impersonating the lady that lived next door, and the milkman and wear my mother's negligees and cheering her up. And I did it then, and I still think I'm doing an advanced form of that now.

It's -- the what -- was a way of expressing myself and communicating and I've always done it. But I'm very much aware of who I am and who I am at home and with my children and my husband. And there's no, you know, I'm not the sort of person that has to be "on" all the time.

I read John Lahr's book about his father Bert Lahr, and it was so sort of sad -- this very funny man, you know, and he was sort of at home being funny to people and having applause. You know, he was like sad at home, and "when can I get back to work"-type feeling. And I read that book -- oh, gosh, if I was like that, it would be so sad.

GROSS: Are you very extroverted when you're, you know, not -- not on stage on not on mike?

ULLMAN: Hmm -- I can be. I mean, I love to laugh. My husband makes me laugh. We have a lot of fun. My children have got great sense of humor. And that is our -- sort of our thing -- laughing. I've got, you know, energy. But I like -- I'm very quiet. I like to go to bed and read at night. I don't want -- I don't go out. I don't like watching films or TV, unless it's funny TV like infomercials and religious stuff.


I'm very -- I need to -- I need to always take time and relax and be very quiet and be on my own. I go on retreats and things. And I don't talk and stuff like that.

GROSS: Now is it harder for you to spend time just observing people now? Now that you're well-known?

ULLMAN: No, no. I mean, you don't need to literally be looking at them on the street. I -- I get -- I love documentaries, especially the ones made at HBO by a brilliant lady -- Sheila Nevin (ph) commissions these great documentaries on HBO. I watch those. And I listen to NPR a lot. You have so much -- many interviews from all 'round the country; all your stations. I listen to accents.

It's -- and it is difficult if I say to somebody: "oh, I really want to do your voice. Can you make a tape for me?" And they go: "oh, you want to sound like me?" And then they become different, and so I don't do that directly. If I want to impersonate somebody from somewhere, I just do it anonymously and call somebody that works -- a library in that town or something.

But no, no -- and people don't recognize me that much. They recognize my voice. They don't recognize me. I mean, I'm not that -- "ooh, here she comes," you know. "Let's tear her panties off" -- type of celebrity.


GROSS: When you're...

ULLMAN: People are very nice to me.

GROSS: ... when you're learning somebody's voice, do you -- do you have -- does it come to you, like, in one piece? Or do you have to break it down to its elements and learn it slowly?

ULLMAN: Depends. No, it comes -- yeah, it comes to me in one piece. I like -- as I say, I can't listen to these Julliard-trained voice coaches or something. I mean, it's not the way I can do it, because he's not the real thing or she's not the real thing talking. You know, I can't -- I've never been able to do it that way. These dialect coaches don't do it for me.

I have to listen to the person, and then I pick up more from the real person. But it's just something -- you know, it's like being able to write music. You know, somebody can sit down at piano and play it. I can just do an accent or, you know, impersonate someone and just get their mannerisms and the inside of them as well -- not just the superficial stuff.

GROSS: How often do you use prosthetics?

ULLMAN: Oh, too often, really, and that is a misery to me.


ULLMAN: That's the worst part of my job -- gluing on that rubber, and wearing beards -- Chick's beard is so unbearably itchy. I just -- every time I do that character, I think: "I will never do this again." Then it -- you know, and then I feel I let the character down, so I'm -- I do it. But it's murder. And by the end of a, you know, 10 week shoot, my skin is just -- it's just full of glue.

And I go to this French facialist, and she's like: "I don't know what is coming out of your skin! Is that -- oh, my goodness, it smell -- is it a fish -- fish glue?"

And they can't believe what I put on myself. That is the worst part of it. It's claustrophobic and it's irritating, and I try to find ways of just making a wig, teeth, glasses -- for instance with Fern, that works. And I think let that be the main part of the character and don't try and do all this aging and everything, 'cause it really doesn't count for much on the screen -- a small screen, as well, which is TV, what I'm doing.

GROSS: Now, how does it affect you when you get a prosthetic on your face and you maybe look in the mirror and you see yourself transformed? Does that help you get into the character?

ULLMAN: Oh, yes. It's great. I mean, like when I first put on the black makeup -- gave myself, you know, a different nose and different lips and a different text -- you know, a bigger neck and chin. Oh, it's fantastic. I mean, it's great fun when you first put it on. And teeth, as I said, they help enormously.

GROSS: My guest is Tracey Ullman. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Tracey Ullman. Her series "Tracey Takes On" has started a new season on HBO.

Now what's it like for you to interact with the writers on your show? Are you all in the same room at the same time writing?

ULLMAN: Yes. We meet every week, and I assign -- I'm sort of the head writer. I sit at the top of the table and -- probably because I can stop them all going to the toilet and making phone calls all the time, 'cause writers tend to do that.

We meet every Wednesday, and I assign stuff for everybody, and we come back the following Wednesday. And obviously, I sit -- I can read it all through, and I'm going to be the one performing it. And it gives us a good, you know, sense of what's going on. And we have a great love. I have a great group of writers, and I write with various combinations of them all, or on my own during the week.

GROSS: And are the characters that you write yourself?

ULLMAN: All the characters I create, and I presented them to them. And I tell them -- I give them -- I demonstrate and I go into character and say this is how they -- and while I'm in character, sometime, dressed up during the season, I can come up with plot ideas 'cause I can imagine how to further the characters' lives and -- but I have great writers. I mean, I got Jerry Belsen (ph) who was on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" back in the '60s, and you know, he's been on everything. You know, when he got nominated for the Tracey Ullman Show, he said: "it's my first nomination in color."


And he's just a brilliant person to have 'cause he's just a brilliant one-liner man. And he's got a million plots: "it didn't work in 1963. I'll use it now." And I have two English gentlemen called Ian Frenay (ph) and Dick Cleven (ph) who are superb -- superb writers, story writers. I have George McGrath who used to be on "Pee Wee Herman's Playhouse." And I have women -- I have Molly Newman (ph) and Gail Parent (ph) and Genji Cohen (ph). I mean, I'm one of the only people that has one of these shows that does -- have women writers in equal numbers.

GROSS: Who -- who were -- what were the comedies or who were the comic figures that you really liked when you were young?

ULLMAN: I loved all the old healing comedies. I loved Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers in "I'm All Right, Jack." And -- I mean, I'm very inspired by people like Vanessa Redgrave. I think she's just the most incredible actress, not necessarily in the comic sense, but you know, just great acting like that.

And I used to see Gilda Radner in the late '70s. They started showing "Saturday Night Live" in England. Oh, wow, what a great thing to do. That looks like so much fun. I'd do that. I can do that.

And I'd say Carol Burnett, when I was a kid growing up; and Lucille Ball. I mean, we were very Americanized. All the television in England when I was a kid was very American.

GROSS: I think your father was lawyer and passed away when you were six.

ULLMAN: That's right. Yeah.

GROSS: So did your mother remarry, or...

ULLMAN: Yes, yes -- disastrously.

GROSS: Oh, really?

ULLMAN: Now we come to the sad part.


"Terry" -- if this were a Barbara Walters interview, this is the point where you'd make me cry -- "and it was just all so terrible."

Nah, it wasn't -- it wasn't very -- wasn't very much fun. I didn't have much fun, really, 'til I left home.

GROSS: At 16?

ULLMAN: My mum's great, but it was kind of tough. You lose your dad and then, you know, you were always -- there was no money. And it's like "hurry up and get a job and get out of the house." And it was -- it was kind of hard work.

GROSS: So you left home when you were what, 16?

ULLMAN: Yeah, yeah. Went to Berlin.

GROSS: Oh, with a dance group.

ULLMAN: With a dance group. And you know, and then I just took various jobs -- never really came home again.

GROSS: Did anyone think that you had any chance in show business?

ULLMAN: No, 'cause they said I wasn't pretty enough. My uncles used to say, "you look like a troll. She's funny, but she looks like a troll, doesn't she?"

GROSS: That's a real confidence-booster.

ULLMAN: I know. Do you remember those trolls? You'd comb their long hair and...

GROSS: Oh, I -- yes, absolutely.

ULLMAN: ... you know, yeah. So -- no, no. They -- I'm being harsh. We weren't that -- they weren't that nasty about me. No, they always encouraged -- my mum really encouraged me and could see that I was humorous and -- but I was -- as I said, I wasn't a conventional look. I was an odd-looking little thing and they, you know, so they sort of -- they said, "oh, you're like Beatrice Lillie, maybe."

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, do you think -- think that that was an obstacle early on before you really found yourself as a performer, that you weren't, you know, beautiful in the classic Hollywood sense?

ULLMAN: Yeah. I mean, that's always a thing for an actress. I mean, because there is a great onus sometimes put on a woman's looks if you're gonna be in film and TV. And you know, I'm not a dog, but I'm not, as I say, you know. So I was kind of aware of that, but then you just play to your strengths, and you know, all the pretty girls couldn't do all these characters and weren't half the actress I was. I mean, there's always a place for a good comic actress, good character actress -- and that's me.

GROSS: Are you still doing any work in England?

ULLMAN: The shows have just started to be shown on Channel Five in England, and I'm very glad about that. And they get a sort of -- they've gotten a good response -- a kind of, "oh, you know, it's too American for us maybe" response, but I think we're likely to make some more shows in England. And I think it would be a nice idea, if I did, maybe, three or four of the takes on shows in England, you know -- takes on the society season; takes on the French; takes on the Edinburgh Festival. I mean, there's some good English subjects.

GROSS: Let me ask you -- you spoof the royal family in your performances. What impact did it have on your ability to satirize the royal family when Princess Diana was killed? Did that -- did that make you feel like you had to, like, stop for a little while or...

ULLMAN: Yeah, I mean, it was just a horrible time, that. You know, it was -- and I did have a piece on my show, in the royalty show, where Sidney Cross sends a video to Princess Diana, saying, you know, "let me represent you in your divorce. You know, this guy was no prince. I'm gonna get you half of Wales."


And it was very funny when we showed it, you know -- and became, you know, sort of not apt when the princess died. And I had sent that show to the Princess of Wales, when she was alive, obviously. And I sent it to Kensington Palace and I said -- I wrote her a letter and I said, "look, I really admire you. I think you need a few laughs. I will not use your response as any sort of publicity and best regards."

And she watched it and got her Lady in Waiting or secretary to call back and say how much she'd enjoyed it. And I -- I would never have mentioned that while she was alive, but it was -- that was -- 'cause I do admire her. I liked that she stood up and said: "look, there's something wrong here." You know, she didn't sort of sit back and accept the -- I mean, I really was a great admirer of hers. I liked her. I met her a couple of times and she was nice to my children.

GROSS: Oh, well that's great.


GROSS: Were you kind of enamored by royalty when you were young?

ULLMAN: No. Never. I didn't understand it. I didn't know what example they were setting to us. I used to go to the Royal Windsor Horse Show and everyone would crowd around and watch the Queen go 'round in a carriage, in one of those dreadful hats that looked like they'd been designed in Moscow.

And I don't know -- what is it? Why are they better than us? What have they done -- well, I just didn't get it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ULLMAN: And I still don't. I mean, it's just -- I don't know, you know. It's just a very -- they set the precedent as the pinnacle of our class system, which is, you know, at times very inhibiting and very destructive in England. And I'm not -- you know, I'm not happy with that.

And since Diana's death, it has -- these questions have been raised more and more with the British public. And things that I was talking about 10 years ago that seemed inappropriate and were, you know, condemned by the press in England, now, it's very acceptable.

And I just hope that within the next century, we can dismantle the House of Lords, this hereditary peerage thing in England. And wouldn't it be nice to have a -- you know, if not a republic, just a bicycling monarchy like they have in Holland and Scandinavia, where they aren't paid millions and millions and millions of pounds to be better than us.

And that's just how I feel, you know. I don't want to line 'em up and shoot 'em. You know, I'm not -- because I just don't -- I don't get it, you know. And what can I say?

GROSS: Tracey Ullman, it's just been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.

ULLMAN: It's lovely to talk to you. It really is.

GROSS: Tracey Ullman's HBO series, "Tracey Takes On" is shown Sunday nights. Later this month, the programs will be available on home video. Ullman also have a new book called "Tracey Takes On."

Here's her record "They Don't Know," which was a hit in England in the mid-'80s and is now the theme to her HBO series.


ULLMAN: Baby, there's no need for living in the past
Now I've found your love and gonna make it last
I tell the others don't bother me
'Cause when they look at you
They don't see what I see
No I don't
Listen to their voices
Took my eyes wide open
And see the signs
'Cause they don't know about us
They've never heard of love


ULLMAN: Go home. Go home.

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Garth Brooks' latest recording.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Tracey Ullman
High: Comedian and actress Tracey Ullman. Each week on her show "Tracy Takes On" she features a gallery of characters talking about a topic, such as families, sex, money and crime. She also has a companion book "Tracey Takes On" (Hyperion), and there's an HBO home video release of her previous shows. Ullman is a native of England. She got her start in the United States with the Tracey Ullman Show, and has since won several Emmys and Cableace awards. She's also appeared in the films "Ready to Wear," " Bullets Over Broadway" and "Plenty."
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Tracey Ullman

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Tracey Ullman

Date: OCTOBER 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102302NP.217
Head: Interview With Henny Youngman
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

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


ANNOUNCER: The king of the one-liners, Henny Youngman.


HENNY YOUNGMAN, COMEDIAN: What a crowd! If I had blood, I'd blush.


I was downtown and I said to a lady, do you know where Michigan Avenue is?

She says, yeah.

And she walked away.


A fellow says, give me $10 until payday.

I say, when is payday?

He says, you ought to know. You're the one that's working.


One fellow says, I haven't eaten in two days.

I said, you should force yourself.


One fellow says, I haven't tasted food all week.

I said, don't worry; it tastes the same.


GROSS: Today's archived edition is a comedy show which gives us to chance to replay our interview with Henny Youngman. He did it all -- vaudeville, speakeasies, the Borscht Belt, Ed Sullivan, nightclubs, casinos, and sometimes even, bar mitzvahs.

He never tried to keep up with the times, and there were plenty of periods when younger people thought him hopelessly square. But he had been Henny Youngman for so long he'd become hip. Henny Youngman was 91 when he died earlier this year.

I spoke with him when he was 85. I started with the question that you have to ask Henny Youngman. How did he come up with his most famous one liner, "Take my wife, please"?

YOUNGMAN: I was on the "Case and Ed Show (ph)" at the time, and my wife came in a half-hour before the show. "Henny, I need eight tickets for the show." Luckily, the ushers saved some tickets for me every week. I usually gave them two bucks; that's all I had left.

So I got the tickets for Sadie, and I said: "Take my wife, please. Get her out of here. I want her in the audience." And that stuck all these years.

GROSS: Do you still have jokes in your repertoire that go back to your days in vaudeville?


YOUNGMAN: Sure, I do the same jokes now. I need a new audience, that's all I need.


I'm always adding.

GROSS: What are some of the ones that go back to...

YOUNGMAN: I take my wife everywhere, but she finds her way home.


I said, where do you want to go for your anniversary? She says, I want to go somewhere I've never been before. I said, try the kitchen.

GROSS: Now, how did you start doing, you know, jokes that basically, you know, insult women?


YOUNGMAN: Well, I tell you, they're cute, not insults. They're cute, but we have to bounce off of somebody, you know. We have to make fun of my brother-in-law. Do you know how he gets rid of his garbage? He gift wraps it and leaves in the car -- they steal it.


How long are you going to wait to laugh, Terry?

GROSS: Oh, I had to think that one through first.

YOUNGMAN: Yeah, I knew it. I've got to explain the jokes to you.

GROSS: What's your most stolen joke?

YOUNGMAN: "Take my wife, please." You hear that all over the country.

GROSS: But everybody knows that's yours.


GROSS: So...

YOUNGMAN: I think I'm associated with it by now.

GROSS: What about a joke that's been stolen that people don't realize it's yours?

YOUNGMAN: Well, I do all the wife jokes and the brother-in-law jokes. They take them every day. A hooker walked up to me. She said, I'll do anything you want for $50. And I said, paint my house.


That's around the country now. I brought that around, you know.

GROSS: You write in your book about how you still work the phones all the time. It sounds like, you know, if you're at the Carnegie deli the phone rings for you. In the barber's chair (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

YOUNGMAN: Wherever it is I let people know where I'm at. In case you need me for a job, you know where to get me. My service knows where I am at.

I'm that way. When I came at the studio here down here -- said I'm here to get my phone calls.

GROSS: Have you gotten any calls yet?

YOUNGMAN: I don't know. I'm talking to you.

GROSS: Let's ask Leshek (ph) the engineer. Leshek, has he gotten any phone calls yet?


GROSS: He's got one phone call already.


GROSS: Who was it from?

LESHEK: It was a gentleman who didn't introduce himself.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Well, who knows what that's going to be, right?

YOUNGMAN: I get calls all day.

GROSS: Now, you know, I've heard that you have a listed number in the New York directories.

YOUNGMAN: Sure, I don't owe any money.

GROSS: Yeah. So just to test it out, I called New York information earlier today, and I said to the operator: Operator, I'd like the number for her Henny Youngman in Manhattan. And the operator said: "The Henny Youngman." And I said, yes. And the operator said, he would not have a listed number. I said, nope, nope, but I think he does. And sure enough...


YOUNGMAN: That's astounding, you know -- because people think you haven't got a number. That's no good. I want them to know I have a number so they can get to me.

GROSS: But don't the people who really need to get you for business reasons know how to reach you?

YOUNGMAN: Yes, sure. Now they do. You're letting them know.

GROSS: Now, if I call that pop, will I just get an answering machine? Or would you pick it up?

YOUNGMAN: No, you would get my service.

GROSS: Oh, I see. No wonder you can give it out so liberally.

YOUNGMAN: I don't care. As long as I don't owe any money.

GROSS: Are you doing any topical jokes?

YOUNGMAN: Very seldom -- no, not too many.

GROSS: You have a great Imelda Marcos one in the book.

YOUNGMAN: Yeah. Well, I did -- she's in Israel planting a shoe tree.

GROSS: Yeah, I really love that.

YOUNGMAN: Yeah. Well, that was topical. I still do it sometimes. But I try to get jokes on a topic at once. Now I'm just saying now Liz Taylor's been married eight times. She has rice marks on her face.


I did that about Zsa Zsa Gabor. But now that she's done it, I use it on her.

GROSS: Now, do you do all your own jokes now, or do you have writers who are doing it?

YOUNGMAN: No, I haven't got a steady job. I don't need writers. I've got two hours of material in my head. I go on the stage; I do 40 minutes -- 45 minutes.

GROSS: Your still telling "take my wife" jokes?

YOUNGMAN: All the time.

GROSS: How do they go over now?


GROSS: Yeah, still. In the age of the women's movement.

YOUNGMAN: Sure. My wife and I are always holding hands. If I leave, though, she shops.

GROSS: How did your wife mind when...

YOUNGMAN: My wife was a pretty woman. She didn't mind what I said about her. She ran after the garbage man. Am I too late with the garbage? He says, no, jump in. My wife didn't know I worked at these gangster places; she would have been frightened.

She didn't mind it at all. She didn't know what I was doing.

GROSS: She didn't mind those...

YOUNGMAN: I had conflicts with my wife all the time because my wife was a deep person. She wanted me to have a job 9 to 5. I got lucky and I got in another business which she knew nothing about. And my family resented it; her family resented it. They thought I was a bum because I hung out at Lindy's until 4:00 in the morning. They'd never heard of Lindy's.

So I had that to contend with all my life, until my wife finally accepted me coming home late at night.

GROSS: So the marriage withstood both your jokes and your wife's lack of understanding?

YOUNGMAN: Oh, yeah. Sure. Well, I wouldn't leave my family. I wouldn't leave them. And she wouldn't leave me -- wherever'd she go.

She had two kids, you know.

So we had a lot of fights and arguments over these things. Making people understand what you're doing is very tough -- especially in my business.

GROSS: What about your parents? Did they ever understand...

YOUNGMAN: No. What would they understand? They were plain people. If I didn't take them to New York, I don't think they would have gone. They lived in Brooklyn.

GROSS: Now, you got thrown out of high school, right?

YOUNGMAN: I was asked to leave, yeah.

GROSS: What for?

YOUNGMAN: Telling jokes or breaking up the class. The teacher thought I was a nuisance. He could have laughed, but he was an idiot, I guess.

GROSS: So when you were thrown out of high school, what did you do next?

YOUNGMAN: My father made me learn a trade -- printing. I went to Brooklyn vocational trade school.

GROSS: So how did you go from, you know, trade school and all of this to show business?

YOUNGMAN: I don't know. I had a band. My father made me study fiddle -- my mother. My aunt gave me a fiddle. Her son didn't want it.

GROSS: He wanted you to be a great classical violinist?

YOUNGMAN: Right, sure. And I studied seven years. We had a comedy band, like Spike Jones. And one night an act didn't show up, so the boss said: Henny, you know a lot of jokes; you've got to save my life. I've got a banquet out there.

So I went out and I told all my jokes. I did a half-hour. I was riot, really. I had a lot of funny stuff.

He said, let the band go, will you? I'll keep you. So I became a comedian.

GROSS: And when you were getting started and you were trying to, you know, to convince people to hire you, where would you go?

YOUNGMAN: Well, I went around all the agents in New York. They were booking agents. There were buildings that had booking agent on the door. So I'd walk in, introduce myself.

Some of them used me; found out I was funny, and that was it. I got around; I got jobs here and there. Got jobs with the fiddle. I got jobs telling jokes.

GROSS: Would you have to do shtick for the booking agents in their office?

YOUNGMAN: Well, I used to come in. I would usually come in with a joke of the day. I would usually find a joke and tell it to them. And they laughed at me, and they got to like me, you know. You've got to prove you're comedian. You can do it, but you've got to prove it.

GROSS: You know, a lot of interviewers like to ask the tombstone question. What would you like written on your tombstone? I myself never asked this question. But to you, I'm just curious if you want a one-liner on yours.

YOUNGMAN: Well, I never really figured that out, honestly. When I lost my wife, I used to say, take my wife, please. That's the one time I didn't want to say it.

GROSS: Yeah.

YOUNGMAN: I'd love to figure that out -- what to say on there. Leave them laughing. Ha-ha-ha.

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

YOUNGMAN: Well, thank you. When you come to New York, call me. Take my number.

GROSS: Please.



I'll take you to the Friar's for lunch.

GROSS: Oh, boy, I'd really love that.

YOUNGMAN: Yeah, you might enjoy it. Hey, Terry thanks for your time.

GROSS: Thank you so much. And I wish you the best.

YOUNGMAN: It was a pleasure, really.

GROSS: Henny Youngman, recorded in 1991. He died last February at the age of 91.

By the way, we never had lunch.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Henny Youngman
High: Stand-up comedian Henny Youngman. He died earlier this year at the age of 91. Terry talked with him at the time he published his memoir, "Take My Life, Please."
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Henny Youngman

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Henny Youngman

Date: OCTOBER 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102303NP.217
Head: Interview with Richard Pryor
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:46

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Richard Pryor was given the first Kennedy Center honor for humor Tuesday night. Comics and actors gathered to pay tribute to him. Pryor has advanced multiple sclerosis and was unable to rise from his wheelchair for a bow. He could barely say thank you.

He had a little more stamina in 1995 when I spoke with him. Richard Pryor started his career by imitating Bill Cosby, but he later said he knew his days of pretending to be as slick and colorless as Cosby were numbered. There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, friends and families screaming inside his head trying to be heard.

His comedy was filled with perceptions about being African-American in America, and he took his personal tragedies like his heart attack and transformed them into comedy.


PRYOR: Anybody here ever had a heart attack? No one (expletive deleted) never admit they had a heart attack, right? It'd be like -- No, sir, I never did. I had indigestion one time. I don't care what nobody tell your ass, boy.

I was walking in the yard and someone said don't breathe no more. I said huh? I said, don't breathe no (expletive) more. You heard me. Okay, I won't breathe, I won't breathe, I won't breathe. And I tried to ease a little air inside of my mouth.

The mother said, say, didn't I tell you not to breathe? You told me not to breathe, you told me not to breathe. Well, where you going? Why you walking? Stand still. Okay, I'll stand still. Get your ass down. Okay, I'm down, I'm down, I'm down. Don't hurt me, don't hurt me, don't hurt me. Shut the (expletive) up, you're thinking about dying now, ain't you? Yeah, yeah. Why didn't you think about that when you was eating that pork, (expletive)?

GROSS: Pryor's performing career was virtually ended by multiple sclerosis, which was first diagnosed in 1986. When I spoke with him in 1995, he was at the NPR bureau in Los Angeles. I asked him about his physical therapy.

PRYOR: This lady -- I think her name is Marie -- she's my therapist. She comes three times a week.

GROSS: What's the therapy like?

PRYOR: Oh, man. Some days it's like I don't feel good, you know? And so I don't want to do it. But she says, well, you have to do it. So three times a week. That's what I put up with.

GROSS: Was it like moving arms and legs and things like that?

PRYOR: Ma'am, there was a time I couldn't move any of them. I was in bed like that for a while. I couldn't move.

GROSS: What did you do to pass the time while you were in bed and couldn't move?

PRYOR: Good question. I'm trying to think what did I do. Oh. I remember. I smoked some base.


No, I did.

GROSS: Did you really, or are you (laughs)?

PRYOR: No, I'm serious. And my ex-wife Flynn (ph) came to visit me, and she walked through my stuff. And she found it. And she said, what is this? I had rock, you know. She said, what's this? And I didn't tell her cause I was scared. And she said, is this dope? And I said, nah. I said it just looks like it, but that's not really. And she threw it out.

GROSS: So, have you stopped?


GROSS: Was there a turning point that got you to stop?

PRYOR: Yes, it's called being broke.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you an odd question. I mean, about freebasing. It's bad for your health, right? But I mean, your health isn't good anyway. Would it being bad for your health not be likely to inspire you to stop? Do you know what I'm saying?

PRYOR: Yeah, you're making sense, is what you're saying. And if I was that type of person that made sense, I wouldn't be where I am. Cause I never made no sense. You know, it's like life to me was like you're not supposed to make sense, cause hey it's -- I don't care how you slice it, you ain't getting out alive. So enjoy as much as you can.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. I mean, some of the things you did were really self-destructive. The freebasing, the setting yourself on fire...

PRYOR: That was a definite...

GROSS: Definitely self-destructive, yeah.

PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: So, but, you know, and it's the kind of behavior that you're warned is going to really kill you, and you survived all of that. And now you have a disease, MS, that has absolutely nothing, as far as I know, to do with, you know, "bad behavior". Do you know what I'm saying? So it just seems like such an irony that all of the things people warned you about would really hurt you...

PRYOR: It was the MS.

GROSS: Yeah, it had nothing to do with you getting MS.

PRYOR: No, it's just like God said, oh really? Okay here, boom. Said try that on.

GROSS: Well, do you think it's God punishing you for things you've done? Is that what you're saying?

PRYOR: No. God don't work like that.

GROSS: Yeah, so, I mean, you could have lived this absolutely exemplary life and still gotten MS?

PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

PRYOR: It's a blessing though.

GROSS: Getting MS?

PRYOR: Yeah.

GROSS: How so?

PRYOR: Because it pushes me forward. I'm going through the therapy, and I'm understanding some things about life I never understood.

GROSS: Anything you'd care to talk about, or is that too personal to discuss?

PRYOR: There's nothing so personal as when you can't walk the way you want to and then you have to depend on others to help you. And I go, oh my God, and that's what it is. It's depending on people. And you have to learn to trust them. Which is very hard for me. Very hard. But here I am.

GROSS: You are so important to so many people. I mean, so many people have, like, looked up to you for so long. Do you feel that you have to try to handle your illness now as like a role model? Do you know what I mean? Like when you're a public person like yourself, and people are looking at you. Do you feel like -- yeah, that you need to do it like a role mod

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.


'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

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


Just play me something
Your Queue

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

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue