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Al Franken Discusses His New Sitcom.

Political satirist Al Franken. He was one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live. He won four Emmys for his writing on the show. His most popular character was Stuart Smalley, the new age cable TV host. He's also the author of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations." His newest endeavor is the sitcom "Lateline" which premieres next Tuesday on NBC about the behind the scenes of a late night news show.


Other segments from the episode on March 12, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 12, 1998: Interview with Al Franken; Interview with Mary Gordon; Review of the television shows "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Crimes of Passion: One Hot Summer Night…


Date: MARCH 12, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031201np.217
Head: Al Franken
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

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

Former "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer Al Franken has a new sitcom that premiers next Tuesday after "Frasier" on NBC. It's called "Lateline" and it's set behind the scenes at a late-night network news show.

Lateline was described in People magazine as the funniest new series of the '97-'98 season. Franken not only stars in the series, he co-created the show and co-produces it with John Marcus (ph).

Franken was one of the original writers on Saturday Night Live and worked on the show for about 15 years. The character he became best-known for was Stuart Smalley, the new-age, self-help cable TV host. Franken is also the author of the bestselling book of political satire called "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot."

On Lateline, Franken plays Al Freundlich (ph), the chief correspondent for the show, who has his eye on the anchor chair. I asked Franken to describe his character.

AL FRANKEN, CO-CREATOR AND STAR, NBC SITCOM "LATELINE," POLITICAL SATIRIST: Well, I'm sort of the show putz. Freundlich is the chief correspondent and he's -- he's a good correspondent, but he is not very self-aware. And he's an intellectual or thinks he is, and he's actually pretty smart, but -- and he kind of thinks he's sort of the carrier of the -- the keeper of the Edward R. Murrow torch.

But he has no -- he doesn't have very good people skills. And he's a -- when we went down to "Nightline," what I discovered -- one of the key relationships at Nightline and in any news bureau, I discovered 'cause we went to other places, was that of the producer with the correspondent.

And we heard a lot of stories from producers about high-maintenance correspondents. So I wanted to make Freundlich the -- a very high-maintenance correspondent. But he's -- he's kind of a pure character in an odd way.

He feels very passionate about what he does, and as a result he's willing to spend 20-hour days on stories, when eight hours would be fine or 12 hours would be fine. As a result, his producer Gayle Ingersoll (ph), who's played by Megan Price (ph), is sort of saddled with this guy and is becoming what -- actually Peter Jennings gave John and I this term -- a "news nun."

GROSS: Right. Yes -- he gives her a whole lecture about how she's becoming a news nun.

FRANKEN: Yeah, Freundlich...

GROSS: Freundlich does, right.


GROSS: Right. Right. So why do you particularly -- why do you seem to particularly enjoy playing someone who thinks they're very great and attractive and smart, when really they're foolish and always missing the point?

FRANKEN: Well I -- I like playing -- somebody compared the character to Stuart in an odd way, which is...

GROSS: To Stuart Smalley.

FRANKEN: ... to Stuart Smalley. I like someone who's passionate about something, and that sometimes -- maybe his passion his blinds him, but it's at least a -- a sort of a pure impulse. So he -- he's the kind of guy, you know, he feels that the wall between news and entertainment has been eaten away like the cartilage in David Crosby's septum, which isn't fair 'cause mainly he freebased.

But the point is still the same, which is Freundlich feels that there's been -- there's just too much entertainment in the news. So he'll -- you'll see in our shows that he tends to go for the stories that he feels are important and that people should know about. And there's a tension there between that and the executive producer, played wonderfully by Miguel Ferrer (ph), who is more realistic and understands that you need ratings and you need shows -- you need kick-ass TV.

GROSS: Now over the years, you've gotten to see how politicians react to jokes about them, 'cause you've -- you've been in the position of talking about politicians for many years in sketches and on stage. And I think it was in 1996, you were -- you were performing at the White House correspondents dinner and said something that made Newt Gingrich really angry with you. What did you say?

FRANKEN: Well, I said a lot of things, probably, that made him angry with me, but -- 'cause I made fun of him. And it turns out he's thin-skinned. But there was one thing he fixed on, which kind of amazed me. And I thought -- I think it was kind of tactical on his part.

I told this joke which is -- I said that, you know, Newt is nothing if not a man of ideas, some of which get him in trouble; for example, his gender theories. He had said about a year ago -- at that time, in his course, he said that if serving in the military means being in a ditch for 30 days, women have trouble being in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections.

So I said this conjured up an image to me of Newt explaining to his daughter that she -- when she was 13 -- that she had just gotten her first infection.


So I -- and this is like -- I told like 10 jokes about Newt that night -- a lot of Air Force One stuff. You know, a lot of stuff I'm sure he didn't like. So I went down to grab my table, and my wife was at a table with some of my friends.

And the speaker was at the next table. So I was standing about five feet from him, and I thought it would be kind of like a snub if I didn't say something. So I went up to him and I said: "I hope you took everything I said in good fun." And he was really mad -- like smoke was coming out of his ears. And he said: "well, I think you went over the line."

And I said: "really? What -- what joke do you think went over the line?" He said: "the thing about my daughter." And I couldn't remember saying anything about his daughter 'cause I -- you know -- I didn't think of that joke as a joke about his daughter.

GROSS: It was a joke about him.

FRANKEN: I thought it was a joke about him and his patronizing attitude toward women and his not -- and the seeming confusion of -- well, you know what the joke is. So anyway, so he...

GROSS: Can you explain the punchline, Al?


Just kidding.

FRANKEN: Well, no -- I ended up explaining it to him about five times.

GROSS: Yeah.

FRANKEN: So he got really -- he said -- I said: "I don't remember telling a joke about your daughter." And he said: "the infection." I said: "oh, well that wasn't about your daughter. That was about your attitude toward women. That was about you confusing menstrual -- 30 days in a ditch, women can't do 'cause they get infections, and infections and 30 days -- sounds like you're confusing it with a period."

And he said: "I almost went up there and punched you." Oh, no.


And I said: "no, no, no. This wasn't about -- I don't know your daughter. I don't know anything about her. This was not about your daughter. I don't know..."

And then he kind of went away and then I -- we were going to a -- I was going to a cocktail party afterwards -- the VIP cocktail party -- and I ran into him again, and I took him by the shoulders and -- and you know, I said I'm sorry if you were offended, but let me explain it again. And I explained the joke again, and he finally kind of said "OK, I got it."


So that was -- that was it.

GROSS: Well, I guess you're lucky you don't have to explain the joke that many times to your audience.

FRANKEN: No, it's -- but it is interesting to try to dissect a joke to someone who's really angry at you.

GROSS: And who's the subject of the joke.

FRANKEN: And -- yeah -- and who's the Speaker of the House.

GROSS: So -- so...


... yeah, right, right. Did -- did this make you any more reticent about telling jokes about politicians when the politicians are in the room?

FRANKEN: No, it just -- what it -- what it did tell me was that you can't give someone an excuse to find some element of your joke to take offense at, and either misconstrue it either deliberately or unintentionally.

GROSS: Oh, and by -- to get themselves off the hook by saying "oh, that Al Franken, he -- condescending to my daughter..."

FRANKEN: Well, it was like "you can come after me, but stay away from my kids."

GROSS: Right.

FRANKEN: He actually said that to me.

GROSS: Well, would you have rewritten the joke if you knew then what you know now?

FRANKEN: Well I -- I did. I had -- this became a little bit of a controversy or something, and a reporter from the New York Post called me up and said: "why did you do that joke?" I told her -- I said -- I explained to her the joke.

And -- Deborah Orren (ph) -- and then I said well, I probably would -- you know, I would have retold it as -- if I had to do it over again, I'd say, you know: "Newt said that if being in a ditch for 30 days means that a woman can't be in the Army 'cause a woman gets an infection every 30 days" -- I would have -- the punchline would have been more -- "this was handy information because my daughter just turned 13 and I would have explained -- and I" -- or "my daughter just turned 13 and I explained to her that she had just gotten her first infection."

GROSS: Right.

FRANKEN: So I would have made my daughter -- and she -- and -- and Deborah Orren goes: "well why didn't you do that?"


And I said: "because I didn't know. The joke was not about his daughter.


So this is like -- like for months after this, I would tell this story. This is interesting. You've recalled the story 'cause I've really not told the story in a long time because I was obsessed with trying to explain what a joke is and what -- you know, what the purpose of a joke is.

GROSS: My guest is Al Franken. His new sitcom Lateline premiers Tuesday on NBC. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Al Franken is my guest, and he has a new sitcom that's called Lateline. It's a satire of late-night news shows like Nightline. And it premiers Tuesday...

FRANKEN: It's not really a satire.

GROSS: No? What would you call it?

FRANKEN: It's a sitcom.

GROSS: A sitcom.

FRANKEN: It's an ensemble sitcom. I think we're more -- the only -- the reason I stop you on that is that...

GROSS: You wanted to hurt my feelings and put me down in a public setting.

FRANKEN: Yeah, because it really is a satire, but I just wanted -- no.


I -- it's because I think if people hear that it's a satire, they're gonna think -- or a spoof or a parody or anything -- they're going to expect something different, which is maybe they're going to expect a, you know, a half-hour presentational show that's actually a parody of Nightline. This is a very -- you know, about six months ago or eight months ago, I ran into Mary Tyler Moore, and she said: "Al, what are you up to?" And I said: "yet another rip-off of your show."

GROSS: Right.

FRANKEN: And she said: "well, there can't be too many, can there?"


And so -- that's what we are. I mean, we're an ensemble comedy and the people we have writing on it, you know, Earl Pomeranz (ph) did "Mary Tyler Moore" and did "Cheers" and did "MASH" and did "Taxi." He didn't do MASH. He did Taxi. You know, John did "The Cosby Show."

So, this is a sitcom.

GROSS: I'm sure since you're doing a sitcom about the news and politics that you've been watching CNN a lot lately. And I'm wondering...


GROSS: ... if you've been watching Mike McCurry's White House briefings a lot? And how you would kind of grade him in his ability to deflect questions with humor?

FRANKEN: He's done a pretty -- he's had a tough job. I wouldn't want the job. But he -- I think he's doing pretty good because he basically -- you know, to me -- this -- the independent counsel has gotten into a whole area that you shouldn't be -- shouldn't get into. And so -- but then it has this -- but then the attorney general gave him the right to do it, basically. And so, we got a kettle of fish here that I don't know how you deal with. I don't know how you deal with it if you're McCurry.

And I -- I -- you know, since we're doing a show about the press, you know, I've noticed that you saw the feeding frenzy; you saw a kind of rush to judgment. And a lot of people are critical of the press, but there are some news organizations that didn't rush to judgment, and I'd like to give them credit now: "Sailing" magazine...


"American Grocer Monthly," "Jugs," "Big Butt," and "Hustler's Barely Legal" -- all did not get into the temptation of printing salacious material about the president.

But I saw actually a -- I saw a show -- now the press is doing their self-flagellation stage. And I saw, actually on C-span last night a -- something from the Shorenstein (ph) Center on the Press. Marvin Kalb hosted a roundtable called: "The Press: Constant Self-Reevaluation -- Useful Exercise or Giant Wank-a-thon?"


And Marvin came down on the "useful exercise" side.

GROSS: Have you been trying to keep up with the Monica Lewinsky story?

FRANKEN: Yeah, yeah, I -- you know, get my daily fix of it.

GROSS: I wonder, you know, as a political comic or a comic who often does political humor, what do you think of the idea of the public basically being asked to visualize the president having oral sex? Do you know what I mean? It's -- it's like a -- you know, there's been times when the presidents have been sick and we've seen pictures of the presidential colon on TV, as the -- like the surgeon explains the president's condition and you wonder, like, do I want to know about this?

FRANKEN: Usually, it isn't really the president's colon. It's...

GROSS: Right, right -- it's a diagram.

FRANKEN: ... a drawing of it. Yeah.

GROSS: That's right. It's a diagram of a colon.


GROSS: But -- I mean -- but the public is basically being asked, do you think in very...

FRANKEN: Graphic.

GROSS: ... graphic terms, yes, about the president. And I wonder what that makes you think about?

FRANKEN: Well, as a comedian, you just want to stay away -- I want to stay away from it. I don't want to...

GROSS: Why do you want to stay away from it?

FRANKEN: ... because it's too easy. It's basically, you know, there's a lot of basically, you know, it's too easy to do jokes about oral sex. And it's too cheap. But I do a few. Want to hear 'em?


Now -- one good thing about it is that -- is that it's forced husbands and wives to discuss frankly what does and not constitute adultery. For example, my wife has told me that she -- she believes oral sex is adultery, which I think explains why we haven't had any since we've been married.


GROSS: You know...

FRANKEN: See? That's -- that's -- isn't that too easy?

GROSS: Oh, I think it's funny.

FRANKEN: Now, it depends how you do it -- do an oral sex joke.

GROSS: Right.

FRANKEN: That I think is a legitimate oral sex joke.


GROSS: Now, I don't know where -- I don't know where you think the line should be drawn for a president between public life and private life, but say that you...

FRANKEN: I think they've gone over the line.

GROSS: Right. So -- so does that mean that as a comic you shouldn't go over that line, too? Or do you think that, like it's OK to go over that line since it's already been transgressed?

FRANKEN: Yeah, I think you can't ignore it. It's just like, you know I mean to some extent people are blaming the media -- blaming the -- for a lot of this -- the reporting of it. But it is an -- it's an important story. The independent counsel is investigating this and it -- that's an important story.

And then as a comedian, you sort of have a responsibility to address it. I try to address it by talking a little off the obvious or a little off the -- you know, it's the "Oral Office" or that kind of, you know, that kind of joke.

GROSS: Right, right. When you watch C-Span -- I wonder what you think of Brian Lamb's (ph) almost obsessively neutral interviews. I mean, he's so wonderfully fair and neutral.

FRANKEN: I love Brian Lamb. I did "Washington Journalism" as part of the publicity for the show. I did it a couple of days ago. And he's a great foil for a comedian because he has a policy, which is that he can't laugh.

GROSS: He can't laugh?


GROSS: Why? Would that be showing too much subjectivity?

FRANKEN: He believes that if he laughed at a joke, that it would -- could be misinterpreted one way or another.


... as him having some sort of bias.


FRANKEN: So he's -- so he has a rule. And I didn't know this. I actually was on a couple of years ago to -- it was my first appearance to push my book, the Rush Limbaugh book. And I was on with Susan Swing (ph) I think her name is. And I told a joke and I saw her fighting not to laugh. And I -- you know, and I'm a comedian and I'm thinking: "no, no, no, no -- you laugh; that helps." And -- kind of thing.

GROSS: Right.

FRANKEN: And she tells me, on the air, we have a rule: you can't laugh. So then I realized what -- and then after the show was over, she told me -- explained this Brian Lamb rule that you can't laugh. So I was on with Brian the other day and it's a very liberating thing, as a comedian, to know the guy can't laugh, because then you don't know -- you know, you're -- I'm seeing in his eyes -- he's kind of laughing in his eyes, but he's holding back.

So, it was really a lot of fun. And I got some great -- see C-span also, you get the best callers. I had -- they showed some clips from the show before we went -- you know, before we started the interview. And the first call was from a woman who said: "yeah, I watched those clips and if you think they're funny, not only are you ugly, but you're stupid." So, that was the question for me.

So I said: "Brian, was that your Republican line?" And he said: "yes, it was."


And then -- and then for the rest of the half-hour, every caller felt the need to say that they thought I was at least a -- somewhat attractive.


GROSS: So it must have been really tempting to try to break up Brian Lamb in spite of his policy. I mean, what would happen if he or one of the hosts of a show laughed at one of your jokes? Would they have to, like, resign in shame?

FRANKEN: He -- he would fire anyone who laughed. I don't know. He -- he kind of almost cracked a couple times, but it was -- it's -- he really, really, really cares about C-span's purity and not having any bias and not having any perceived bias. So he really cares about this, and I think that's a great thing.

GROSS: My guest is Al Franken. Well, your news sitcom Lateline premiers Tuesday fight after Frasier. That must be a very desirable spot to have 'cause Frasier does very well.

FRANKEN: Yes, and also I think we're a pretty compatible audience. It's a very funny show and a smart show, so...

GROSS: So are you going to be, you know, having to watch the ratings really carefully. I guess they'll be watched for you.

FRANKEN: Yeah, we'll be pretty -- we'll be having our eye on those. And since all our shows are in the can already, we have nothing else to do...


GROSS: Right.

FRANKEN: ... for next year. You know, it'll all be the numbers, you know. It's not all of it, but we've gotten a lot of great critical buzz, so that helps too.

GROSS: What are you going to do Tuesday night -- the night of the debut?

FRANKEN: I think I'm just going over to John's house and watching the show with some friends.

GROSS: John, your co-producer.


GROSS: All right, well good luck and thank you very much.

FRANKEN: Well thank you, Terry. And it's always -- I love coming on your show any time, and I listen all the time. And I don't even have a car.




GROSS: Wow. That's great. Thank you.

FRANKEN: Yeah, you're great.

GROSS: Thank you.

Al Franken -- his new sitcom Lateline premiers Tuesday after Frasier on NBC.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Al Franken
High: Political satirist Al Franken. He was one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live. He won four Emmys for his writing on the show. His most popular character was Stuart Smalley, the new age cable TV host. He's also the author of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations." His newest endeavor is the sitcom "Lateline" which premieres next Tuesday on NBC about the behind the scenes of a late night news show.
Spec: Media; Television; Al Franken; Lateline
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: Al Franken
Date: MARCH 12, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031202np.217
Head: Spending
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

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

What artist doesn't feel that his or her work would improve if only they had more time, more space, and more money? In Mary Gordon's new novel, a woman painter meets up with an admirer who offers himself as her patron, muse, model, and lover.

The novel explores the impact this relationship has on the painter's work and every other aspect of her life, from money to parenting to sex. In fact, one of the issues we'll talk about is the dilemmas Gordon faced in writing about sex.

Gordon is the author of the novels "Final Payments," "The Company of Women," and "Men and Angels." Her recent memoir "The Shadow Man" was about discovering that her father, who died when she was seven, had fabricated much of the story of his life.

Here's a reading from the first chapter of "Spending." The painter, Monica, is in the gallery giving a slide talk about her work. She's discussing one of her paintings called "The Artist's Muse," which shows a man in his underwear in a state of arousal.

MARY GORDON, AUTHOR, "SPENDING": "That night when I was giving the slide talk, I spoke a little bit about the composition of the painting. But I could tell no one was really interested. What they wanted to hear about was painting an erection. Did I have a model? And who was he? And what did I do to give him one? Was it just one or a lot of them? And how did they last?

"Except, of course, they were too decorous to ask those questions right out. They did ask the one about the live model, though, which implied all the rest. But I wasn't going to dwell on that. In fact, I didn't have a live model, which accounts for all the brush work. I did say that, and it got a big laugh.

"Also, I said I was painting from memory, in the great tradition of romantic landscape painting -- the remembrance of things past. Another big laugh.

"I'm sure there's an eternal punishment designed for people who are fed by the big laugh; who will say anything -- almost anything -- to get it. Or maybe not. Maybe it's not worthy of damnation at all. Maybe it's a very pure act; a very generous act. You give yourself up to your audience. You're all together, carried up on a wave -- and you really do lose yourself.

"Sometimes when I'm in the middle of going for the big laugh or the next big laugh, the wave crashes and I look around me and see only flotsam and jetsam -- old condoms, Tampax holders, empty bags saying "Cheetos" or "made in Taiwan." But that wasn't happening. The wave wasn't even beginning to crash.

"So I said, you know, folks, there's a tradition that male painters get to take advantage of -- the woman who's a combination model, housekeeper, cook, secretary, and of course she earns money and provides inspiration.

All over the world, girls are growing up dreaming of being the muse for some kind of artist, looking at their bodies in mirrors, thinking: maybe some man would like to paint that? Reading French cookbooks that tell them how to make really succulent little dishes out of horsemeat with a lot of bay leaves and wine; preparing physically and spiritually to carry his canvases to a hard-hearted gallery owner -- their muscles straining, their eyes brimming with shed or unshed tears.

"Now, I ask you, mothers and fathers of America, are your boys dreaming of these things? Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male muses?

"And he stood up, just there in front of everyone, and said: right here."

GROSS: Thanks for reading that, Mary Gordon. That's from Mary Gordon's new novel Spending.

Well, this gentleman who stands up and says "right here," he not only wants to be this painter's muse, he wants to be her lover; he wants to be her benefactor. What made you think about what it would be like for a woman to have a male muse-benefactor?

GORDON: I think the general crabbiness that my friends who are artists of one stripe or another have kvetched -- where -- it's made us crabby and we've been kvetching for years about -- you know, why do these guys get this and we don't? What -- when is the balance going to be tipped.

And I simply couldn't wait for life, and so I -- I decided to just -- just make it up in art.

GROSS: What -- what connotations does the word "muse" have for you?

GORDON: Well, it has the connotation, of course, of inspiration, but also of -- of that nest of things that is required for an artist to be helped by her or his work. That is to say, someone who provides not only inspiration, but makes a space in the world; gives you space and time and says: "you know, what's important for you is your work. I'm going to make it possible for you to do your work." That's what I think a "muse" is, or should be.

GROSS: And what does this guy do to make it possible for her to work?

GORDON: Well, he gives her money and -- so she can quit teaching and she can feel that she can paint absolutely on her own schedule. She can do whatever she wants. She can travel wherever she wants in case she needs to look at paintings in a particular place. He provides a space for her to live and work in. He provides pleasurable objects for her to be nourished by. And he also is her lover.

GROSS: When she has the -- the space and the time and the money to devote herself completely to painting, the artist in your novel ends up painting a series that she describes as the "spent male." These are also Jesus paintings. Do you want to describe the work that she does?

GORDON: Yeah, my painter, whose name is Monica, is looking at her lover one night after they've made love, and the posture in which he's sitting seems familiar to her in a puzzling way. And it occurs to her that the way that he's sitting reminds her of a painting by Carpaccio (ph) of the dead Christ.

And she has a revelation. She says: "my God, maybe these dead Christs in Renaissance paintings weren't really dead; they were just post-orgasmic." And she decides to do a series of paintings based on the Italian masters called "spent men" of her lover in a post-orgasmic condition, but using the iconography of Christ in the Renaissance paintings.

GROSS: What made you think of this?

GORDON: I was looking at a show of Puntornmo (ph) drawings in London one time, and I said: this guy's not dead. This guy's just been worn out from a hot night. And it was an absolute perception that -- that amused me. What's really interesting is the northern Christs look much more dead than the Italian Christs. And I just had fun thinking about that.

GROSS: Mary Gordon, your early novels seem to be mostly about characters who were -- were very repressed and very guilt-ridden -- about responsibilities to family; about other responsibilities. This character, just wants to be totally absorbed in her paintings, and she -- there's a lot of sexuality in the new book; many scenes where the painter and her lover are engaging in acts of passion.

And I'm wondering, it seems to me your characters are becoming less inhibited and more sexual. And I'm wondering what that says about you as a writer as you're writing more about sexuality?

GORDON: One of the things that I, again, wanted to rewrite, and I think maybe one of the things that I feel I stand for or wish to stand for more as a writer and, I don't know, a human being -- although the two are not necessarily unlinked -- is I am very tired of duality. I'm very tired of an either/or.

And it seems to me if literature gives us anything, it's the opportunity to say not either/or, but yes/and. And so this character is -- she's really committed to her work. She loves her work. She gets irritated if people get in the way of her work. But when her daughter gets mono, she puts her work down. She's a little crabby about it, but she does it.

When her lover throws his back out; when lover loses money and gets depressed, she is there for them -- not without ambivalence, but I guess I wanted to undo what I think is a particularly male fantasy about the artist, which is that there's this tremendous split between life and art, and that being a good person or a responsible person necessarily cuts into -- to your artistic life.

And I think that that's a myth.

GROSS: Let's get back to sex, though.



GROSS: Your character has a lot more sex than, I think, you know, most of the previous characters -- most of the characters in your previous books have. And she is very comfortable with that. And I'm wondering if you are more comfortable as a writer writing sexual scenes than you would have been early on as a writer.

GORDON: I think that writing about sex is a little bit hard, and you have to feel your oats a little bit as a writer to feel that you have a right to do it. One of the things that -- that I didn't realize 'til after I was finished was worrying about not being seen as a good girl writer anymore; that everybody had sort of thought of me as, you know, really serious and really taking the moral high ground. And I was really writing about pleasure -- particularly sexual pleasure.

And while I was doing it, it was an interesting formal problem for me, in a way, and something I was interested in writing about, so I wasn't worried about it. And it was only after the book was over that I realized that I was worried about not being seen as a serious good girl anymore. I think I probably couldn't have done that when I was younger. I think one of the hopeful things about getting older is you get less worried about thought of as a good girl.

GROSS: Now your character Monica says that she hates talking about sex. She says: "most words that connect up with sex have one kind of bad effect or another. Either I laugh or I want to become a Carmelite." Slang is not good. Scientific names are not good either. Then she runs down some of the names used for female genitals. She thinks one sounds like a gum disease and another sounds like it was invented in the men's room of a bus station.

How did you find the right words that you wanted to use, that you were comfortable with, that sounded sexy and not -- not condescending or insulting to you? Because -- so many words -- slang words that are used to describe women's bodies end up sounding nasty.

GORDON: They do. And it was a real problem. I had to go through a lot of revisions and finally I did do the slightly cop-out thing of saying I'm not going to use any of these words because they're tainted. But I realized that in my own -- my own conversation, I rarely would use those kinds of words. So I -- I fudged it in that way.

But I also was very interested in creating a new erotics that was really female, and it seems to me that female erotics is -- are much more contextual than male erotics. And one of the things I did was I read a lot of Collette. And Collette very rarely names anything, but she creates a situation in which the objects surrounding the events are so erotically charged that they begin to give off a kind of musk of their own.

And I realized I could be more explicit than Collette could be, but I wanted to create a sexual -- an eroticized -- a richly voluptuous context, so that the sex came from a place, not just sort of appearing from nowhere.

And yet, I didn't want to be coy. I didn't want to say: "now, we're going to draw the curtain." And so, that was kind of a challenge.

GROSS: Mary Gordon is my guest, and her new novel is called Spending. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Mary Gordon, and her new novel is called Spending.

Now you're writing about a comparatively older couple in this. The woman has already gone through menopause, so you know, birth control isn't an issue for her; pregnancy isn't an issue. She says: "I was too old now to lose anything by it" -- to lose anything by sex. "I almost certainly couldn't even get pregnant anymore. One of the things we could both count on was that we were past many things that once might have been at stake."

Talk to me a little bit about that -- that about writing a couple that's older and is engaged in first-time sexual encounters with each other.

GORDON: I -- this is something that I'm actually rather hopeful about. And you know, my nature is not to be so hopeful. But I think that -- and again I'm talking about people who are fortunate, and I understand that a lot of people have had terrible situations. But I think that there is a cohort of us who went through the sexual liberation of the '60s; went through the women's movement. We have our own identity through work, not just through -- not just through who we are in the eyes of men.

We're -- we're not young, but we're still peppy and we might even look good. Some of us, oddly enough, look better than we did at 20. And I think that because, you know, a lot of us know even if you made a sexual mistake, your life is not going to be ruined by it. I mean, unless you get killed, which is another popular motif in writing about women and sex. But supposing that you don't get killed, you have too much in your life that's in place to have it ruined by sex.

And that, in conjunction with some of the other good things that have accreted through life, gives you an odd new freedom and energy, sexually, I think.

GROSS: So you're talking about the anxiety that was involved for a lot of women in their early sexual encounters...


GROSS: ... where it was related so much to their personal identity and to fear of getting pregnant; fear of being found out; fear of being hurt by...

GORDON: The fear of being hurt; fear of marrying the wrong person or not marrying the wrong person -- or not getting married; or you know, getting, as you say, getting pregnant or not getting pregnant. And once you -- being beloved and if you're not beloved, then you were a whore.

All those things are -- if they're out of the way, there's a lot of nice open space.

GROSS: Over the past year or so, there's been a lot of controversy about the form of the memoir. Are writers being honest when they write about their lives? Are the memories that they have accurate memories? Do the writers become exhibitionist by, you know, not only revealing intimate details about their own lives, but intimate details about the lives of friends and family who are unwillingly being drawn into a public eye? Is there no longer any discretion about issues that should remain private?

You wrote a memoir before writing this new novel, and I'm wondering if you felt that there were any surprising after-effects from having revealed very personal things about yourself and your family?

GORDON: Well, I was in the odd situation with my family in which practically everybody was dead that I was writing about. And my mother is suffering from a very advanced form of dementia. And so, you know, she -- she had no memory and really no awareness that I was doing this.

The fallout from this book was surprisingly positive and wonderful -- extra-literary in that I found a new family. I hooked up with some distant cousins of my father's and -- who have really embraced me and taken me in and given me a kind of connection to that Jewish part of my life that I hadn't had.

So again, I was very lucky. I didn't -- I didn't feel that I was revealing anything that could hurt anybody. And so the -- and so the fallout from it was completely positive. And some people were shocked about things that I said about my mother, but on the other hand many people who -- who were experiencing a kind of thing that I had experienced with my mother, which is seeing somebody -- somebody falling apart through dementia or Alzheimer's, were very, very grateful to me for having named the thing.

So again, I had this odd -- you know, I'm often in very odd situations in my life which are lucky. So, is it lucky that practically everybody in your family is dead? You know, maybe that's an odd kind of good luck, but for writing a memoir, the dead are a lot less trouble than the living.

And then I got this wonderful, wonderful gift of a new family.

GROSS: You mentioned that with these new-found family members who have embraced you, you've learned more about the Jewish aspects of your family. Your father was Jewish, and although as you later found out when you were writing your memoir, he had written some very anti-Semitic things. Your mother was Catholic. Your father died when you were seven and you were raised Catholic and spent a lot of your girlhood, I think, expecting to become a nun.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, what has it been like for you to learn more about the Jewish side of your family?

GORDON: As I get older, I'm really interested in a life of amplitude. And so, as I explore the part of my history and connection that's Jewish, it's not -- it doesn't seem to be a conflict with the Catholic part. It seems to me they're in dialogue with each other and their very contradictions are for me enriching and opening up. And one of the things I was trying to write about in Spending is a world of enrichment and a world of complexity and I guess what William James called "the buzz and gloom of implication."

And it's something that I -- I feel literature can do that nothing else can do, because the opposite of literature is not life, but the soundbite. And this -- what does the soundbite do? What do religious fundamentalists do? But flatten the world and make it less complicated. And I think ideally as you grow older, you see how complicated it is and how much more rich it is than you ever would have dreamed when you were a kid and you were really, you know, on a mission.

GROSS: Is religion for you now a kind of cultural, intellectual expression? Or do you practice any aspects of Catholicism or Judaism?

GORDON: No, I -- I'm -- I do go to church. And you know, I try to go to churches that aren't going to put me into a murderous rage, which if you're Catholic is not always easy. I go to the synagogue on the high holy days as a kind of witness and touching in, but I definitely think of myself as a Catholic, having been estranged for many years and coming back, largely through meeting like-minded people who offer me, again, a more complicated and I think more mature and richer and more humane and more humorous version of the church than is coming out of the Vatican right now.

So, I have a religious life that's important to me. One of the things that I like about a religious life is, in church you see people that can all be together in one place that wouldn't be together in a building for any other reason.

And I like being in a place where you don't have to be distinguished to get in; you don't have to earn your place there. You don't have to be good looking. You don't have to be smart. You don't have to be rich. You don't have to be successful. You don't even have to be sane or clean. You just have to be there.

And I like being sort of under a roof with people who are very different, who are all aspiring to, in general, the same thing.

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

GORDON: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Mary Gordon's new novel is called Spending.

Coming up, David Bianculli previews tonight's telemovie starring OJ prosecutor Christopher Darden.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Mary Gordon
High: Mary Gordon is the author of several bestselling novels which are often about the conflicts facing contemporary women. Her novels include "Final Payments" and "The Company of Women." She's also the author of the memoir, "The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father." Gordon's newest novel is "Spending," about a woman painter who finds a patron, muse, and lover in a wealthy commodities broker.
Spec: Books; Authors; Mary Gordon
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: Spending
Date: MARCH 12, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031203np.217
Head: Last Season for Larry
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our TV critic David Bianculli is going to take a look at two TV shows -- ones that he says really do range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

DAVID BIANCULLI, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Let's start with the sublime -- Gary Shandling's HBO series "The Larry Sanders Show," which begins its latest and final season this Sunday.

I know much of the country is delirious with "Seinfeld" fever -- counting the weeks until that show is over. But to me, losing Larry Sanders is just as great a loss. This series about a fictional TV talk show host is and always has been a very mature situation comedy. There's no laugh track, so you get to decide what's funny, and a lot is funny.

The language is raw and so are the characters. Shandling's Larry is so neurotic, flawed, and rude that he's more like the villain than the hero. Rip Torn as his manager Artie (ph) and Geoffrey Tambor (ph) as his sidekick Hank have equally rough edges.

In other words, they're more like real people than cuddly TV characters.

The plots, too, are wonderfully believable, and track the real tensions and battles in the late-night talk shows with the feel of a documentary. Jay Leno's been on Larry Sanders as himself, and so has David Letterman. And real-life people and problems pop up all the time on The Larry Sanders Show.

In Sunday's season opener, for example, Larry and his manager Artie are forced to take a meeting with some very concerned network executives who are worried because Larry's ratings in some cities are dipping as low as those of a very weak rival, Keenan Ivory Wayans.


ACTOR: We've got a situation here. OK, in certain key cities you're losing to Keenan. Listen, the bottom line is we've got to do a little fine tuning to get the numbers up.

ACTOR: Our research department has come up with some really creative ideas. These are just a few suggestions.

Number one, we'd like to see a more enthusiastic Leno-type opening where you run through the audience and shake everyone's hand.

LARRY SHANDLING, ACTOR, PORTRAYING LARRY SANDERS: You know, that's how you get the flu.

ACTOR: You could wear rubber gloves.

SHANDLING: That's true. And then I could check their prostates, too.

ACTOR: Heh, heh. Then, we'd get more of "ER's" audience.

BIANCULLI: Earlier this week, but long after this Larry Sanders episode was written and taped, Wayan's series was canceled in real life. That shows just how close to the bone Shandling's sitcom is cutting.

According to Shandling, this season's shows are going to be all about Larry announcing his retirement and obsessing over his final program -- trying to make it bigger and better than Johnny Carson's. Sounds like a great concept, and I strongly urge that you make a point of tuning in for this final season.

Even more strongly, though, I urge you to do everything to avoid tonight's ABC telemovie, "Crimes of Passion: One Hot Summer Night." This is one very awful movie, and the worst thing about it is former OJ Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden who stars -- stars? -- as a homicide detective.

He is so bad in this, he makes co-star Erica Elaniac (ph) from "Bay Watch" look good by comparison. He is so bad, it sounds like he's auditioning for the role of "Hal" in a remake of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

He's so bad -- well don't take my word for it. Listen.


CHRISTOPHER DARDEN, ACTOR AND FORMER OJ PROSECUTOR: Sorry to bother you at such an hour, sir. I'm Detective Mingus, this is Sergeant Clark.

May we come in?

ACTOR: Yeah, yeah. Come on in.

ACTRESS: Richard? Who is it?

DARDEN: Are you Mrs. Arthur Brooks?


DARDEN: Your husband's maid said you might be here. I'm afraid I have some bad news, Ma'am.

ACTRESS: What's going on?

DARDEN: Your husband, Mr. Brooks, was murdered about two hours ago.


DARDEN: Happened at the mansion. Looks like an armed robbery. Whoever did it knew exactly where to go and what to do.

ACTRESS: Oh, my God.

DARDEN: Under the circumstances, Sir, would you mind telling me your relationship to Mrs. Brooks?

ACTOR: I'm her attorney.

DARDEN: That's convenient.

BIANCULLI: I hate that Darden gets to turn his courtroom celebrity into a vanity stunt like this. But I love that he's so horrendous, this is probably the last we'll see of him. Unless, that is, he wants to take over OJ Simpson's role in the next "Naked Gun" movie.

At this point, not even that would surprise me.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

Dateline: David Bianculli, New York; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: TV critic David Bianculli previews Sunday's episode of "The Larry Sanders Show" on HBO; this will be the show's final season. And he reviews the telemovie on ABC tonight, "Crimes of Passion: One Hot Summer Night," starring as a homicide detective, the prosecutor in the OJ Simpson trial, Christopher Darden!
Spec: Media; Television; Culture; Convergence; OJ; Christopher Darden
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: Last Season for Larry
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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