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Catherine Russell: The Fresh Air In-Studio Concert

The standards singer's solo album, Strictly Romancin', explores the ups and downs of love. Russell sings several tracks from the records during this interview and performance.

14:45

Other segments from the episode on December 26, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 26, 2012: Interview with Joan Rivers; Interview with Aziz Ansari; Interview with Catherine Russell.

Transcript

December 26, 2012

Guests: Joan Rivers – Aziz Ansari – Catherine Russell

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're beginning a holiday series featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. We're starting with Joan Rivers. After a long period of ups and downs and comebacks, she became kind of iconic after the release of the 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which showed how obsessive she is about comedy and described the constant obstacles she's had to overcome to stay on or even close to the top.

She was one of the first really successful women comics. She played Greenwich Village cabarets and borscht-belt hotels until becoming best known for appearing on "The Tonight Show." Eventually she became Johnny Carson's guest host and then launched her own late-night talk show.

I spoke with Joan Rivers in June, after the publication of her book "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." Joan Rivers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you back.

JOAN RIVERS: And it's great to be back. I always know you're a good interviewer.

GROSS: Thank you. So why did you want to write a book about all the things that you hate, maybe not all the things, there's probably even more things that you didn't have room for.

RIVERS: No, there's a second book coming.1

GROSS: "More Things that I Hate"?

RIVERS: This is going to be the "50 Shades of Grey" of hatred.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, good for you.

RIVERS: I was going to call it, after my legs, "48 Shades of Blue," but I figured I'll stick with - I'll stick with what I have because it's so politically correct now. Everybody is so uptight to say anything. So I started making jokes about everything to my friends, and one of them said: Just jot it down. There's a book in this.

GROSS: Now, aren't you supposed to mellow with age?

RIVERS: Not in this society. Tell me that when they're stripping me down at the airport.

GROSS: So you start with some things you hate about yourself.

RIVERS: Oh, God.

GROSS: You say, like, you looked like your father when you were young. I doubt that.

RIVERS: I looked like my father, especially the moustache. No, I was not an attractive child growing up. I mean, my Girl Scout uniform, I didn't use it as a uniform. I used it as a tent. I was a fat child.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: And it was difficult. You know, I watch "Glee," the television show "Glee." That wasn't my high school. My high school, the fat girl was not popular. My high school, the homosexual was running, but not running and dancing, he was running for his life. I just find that most of us went through very rough times growing up.

GROSS: So you say your parents hated you making a scene when you were growing up. What kind of scenes did you make?

RIVERS: Well, not so much scenes. My parents just didn't like me. You know, until I was nine years old, my mother was trying to get an abortion, and that sticks with you. That hurts.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: What she'd say to the doctor: Is there any way possible to get rid of this thing?

GROSS: You write that your mother used to holler at you: Joan, the neighbors can hear. Stop it, don't make a scene. So I wondered, did you grow up in an apartment building?

RIVERS: We grew up partly in an apartment building, and then the majority of my childhood was in Larchmont, and - which is a suburb outside of New York. And that's, you know, very suburban and very WASP-y and all that. And I was - my mother looked back, she said: You were a very difficult child.

And I was very frustrated. I knew what I wanted to do. From the beginning, I wanted to be in show business as an actress. And the frustration of just waiting to grow up was extraordinary for me.

GROSS: Huh. Well, we'll get to some of that stuff again a little later. I just want to hear about a couple of other things that you hate. But I have to say: Since you didn't grow...

RIVERS: Oh, where do you want to start? I'll tell you what. I hate obituaries. They don't tell you the truth.

GROSS: So you read obituaries, like, every day. It's one of the first things you do.

RIVERS: Sure, because that's how I meet new men.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: The minute it says Sadie Schwartz, I know go to that funeral. But I hate when they don't tell you how the person died, you know? It's like cheating you. Come one, come on, come on. Why can't they just say: Murray Weintraub, 58, mumps. Then you know. It makes sense to me.

GROSS: You also don't like sex when you're old or sex with an old man.

RIVERS: Or sex - anybody that's old, just to get the guy on top of you is a week.

GROSS: And faking orgasm?

RIVERS: You can ruin your back.

GROSS: Faking orgasm with a man who's old?

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: No, I always faked anyhow, but you have to remember which is the good ear they can still hear in, otherwise he's missed the whole thing.

GROSS: I like that.

RIVERS: If you're groaning in the wrong ear, they hear nothing.

GROSS: So you write that you hate obituaries, but you love funerals. You say to you a funeral is just a red-carpet show for dead people.

RIVERS: Yes, it's great. Funerals, there are things you can talk to the bereaved husband about immediately, like, boy, you really know how to carry a shovel. Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: I always let them know that I'm the same size as the wife because then they don't have to give away the clothes.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: How old was Myrtle? What size was your wife? My God, I'm the same size as Isabel.

GROSS: Have you spoken at a lot of funerals?

RIVERS: No, nobody asks me to do anything. I am never invited to speak at anything. I am never invited to speak at a college commencement. I spoke at one, that was my daughter's, University of Pennsylvania. And people still come up to me and say to me: God, that was a good speech.

I am so out of the loop on both sides, on - I am never honored. It's very - my career is hilarious to me because I am so either under the radar or over the radar, never asked to do anything.

GROSS: That's really odd. I'm shocked.

RIVERS: Yeah, I am shocked too. Never...

GROSS: Do you think people are afraid of - that you're going to say something that they will consider inappropriate and tasteless?

RIVERS: Probably. Meanwhile, I've been invited to the royal weddings, command performances to the Queen of England. It's just so funny where you're embraced and where you're ignored. Haven't been to the White House since the Reagans, and I've been to the royal weddings, and I go to Buckingham Palace at least twice a year. And I just say to myself: You know, somewhere they love you, somewhere they don't.

GROSS: So when you did the command performance for the queen, so what does that mean exactly? She's at Royal Albert Hall in the audience...

RIVERS: No, wherever it is, wherever it is. Sometimes it's in London, sometimes it's outside. I did one outside, in Windsor and one in England - in London. She comes, and it's always for a great charity, and it's - and I'm sorry you're an American, it doesn't matter. They play "God Save The Queen," and you just melt. You know, it's just oh my God, look where I am. I'm a Jewish girl from Brooklyn.

And then you do your - you do your act, and then afterwards they come down the receiving line, they meet and they chat with you, and they talk to you, and it's just - it's amazing. It's amazing.

GROSS: So did you choose your material knowing that the queen was in the audience?

RIVERS: Yeah, you're a little more careful. I did slip, and I said - and get ready, because you have to believe it. I said the word (bleep), and I said it, and I turned to her in the box, I said: Behead me now.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you always knew you wanted to be in comedy. What was the first comedy show...

RIVERS: I knew I wanted to be an actress. The comedy was making secretaries laugh so I could get in to see the agent. And finally one secretary said to me: You're very funny, you should do stand-up. And I at that time was working obviously as an office temporary daytime, and I thought, well - and she said you can make $8 a night in the comedy clubs. I thought that's better than being an office temporary. And that's how I started doing stand-up, to make a living to be an actress.

And then, as I said, the comedy started to take over, and then the writing started to move. And I was smart enough to go through any door that opened. I wrote Topo Gigio for Ed Sullivan.

GROSS: Are you kidding? Did you really?

RIVERS: No, a friend of mine said to me: They want me to write this stupid thing for Ed Sullivan. It's so beneath me - a friend of mine, a writer. And I said: I'll do it. And my first real writing thing was Topo Gigio, that little stupid mouse on Ed Sullivan.

GROSS: Oh, I - forgive me - I love you, but forgive me for saying this: I hated Topo Gigio.

RIVERS: Yeah, well, I got $500 a shot.

GROSS: Well, I love that. I'm glad you were rewarded. Glad it gave you a leg up in your career. But Topo Gigio was this, like, little puppet mouse, and Ed Sullivan...

RIVERS: This little stupid puppet mouse from Italy.

GROSS: Yeah, and Ed Sullivan would talk to it and go: Oh, Topo Gigio. And it was so - like bring on the Beatles, get rid of the mouse, yeah.

RIVERS: At the end you'd also say give me a kiss, Eddie. And Eddie would give you a kiss. And America loved it. Give me a kiss, Eddie.

GROSS: Were you frustrated that you had to write Topo Gigio, and that's what actually - that's where the money was for you?

RIVERS: Five hundred dollars? I'll write for Hitler. Five hundred dollars when you're starving and you've got a car payment due? Here we go, that's what I'm saying: You go through any door that opens, and you don't know which is going to be the one.

GROSS: So what did Topo Gigio lead to?

RIVERS: It led to my writing for Phyllis Diller and Bob Newhart. And so I was making a living writing one-liners. And then I began, as I said, to go - then I went to Second City, and then I came back to New York, and I worked in - all over the Village, where I met everybody. So one thing does lead somehow to another.

GROSS: It's great that you wrote for Phyllis Diller because one of her things was, like, her husband Fang, and she'd always tell, like, her husband jokes. And you told a lot of husband jokes. So I imagine a lot of her husband jokes were actually yours?

RIVERS: But the difference was she made fun of her husband, and if anyone ever listened closely to mine, which they did not - because they'd always say to my husband, Edgar, oh, does she make an idiot of you - I was always the idiot in the joke. You know what I'm saying? I was the one. I came out of the bath who had no breasts. I came out of the bathroom on my wedding night, and he said: Let me help you with the buttons. And I said: I'm naked. So I was the idiot.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: But poor Edgar, till he died, people would say, boy, does she give it to you. Whoa. He'd go listen, I'm not giving it to him. I'm doing it to me.

GROSS: My guest is Joan Rivers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers. She has a new book called "I Hate Everyone: Starting with Me." It's a book about all the things she hates, and there's plenty of them. Were your parents funny, and did they appreciate comedy? Could your mother or father tell a joke?

RIVERS: My dad was a doctor. I think comedy truly is in - it's go look in your DNA, and they're going to find a comedy gene. My dad was a wonderful doctor. To this day people will come up and say your father was my mother's doctor, she died laughing. My father was a funny, funny man, as well as an incredible doctor.

My sister is a lawyer and I think still the youngest woman law school graduate at Columbia University. And she, I think she wins her cases because she makes them laugh, besides being very smart. We're all funny. The family is funny.

GROSS: So if your parents were funny, did they approve of you going into show business? Did they appreciate your sense of humor?

RIVERS: No. A sense of humor, yes. No, it - and you remember, you have to look at the time it was. My sister wanted to be a lawyer, and we were smart kids, you know, we're Phi Beta Kappa, the whole stuff. If I had said I want to be a surgeon, my father would have said this is fabulous. If you want to be an engineer, this is fabulous.

When I said I want to be an actress, the family went into shock, because in my father's generation, whenever a prostitute would come into the office, they would say I'm an actress. So I was saying I wanted to be a prostitute. Of course, he should've looked at me: I couldn't have made a living.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: The fleet was out, as far as I was concerned. But no, they were very upset. I had to literally leave home. I literally ran away from home, very dramatic, ran away from Larchmont and lived for a year before I came back.

GROSS: So were you considered like a loose woman because you were living alone and trying to make it in the world of entertainment?

RIVERS: Yeah, they just didn't know what I was. I was bringing - when I got friendly with them again and went back to Larchmont a little bit - I was bringing home Woody Allen before he was Woody Allen, Richard Pryor before he was Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin before she was Lily Tomlin.

These are weird people walking up the driveway. This is not a nice boy from Yale. You ever shake Woody's hand? Put your hand in a cup of water, take it out and shake your hand.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: Woody was very weird, and brilliant, but they didn't see that far.

GROSS: Was he comfortable around your parents?

RIVERS: Nobody was comfortable around my - I was from a very upper-middle-class suburban home. And you know, I wasn't comfortable for a while. And then of course we all started doing well. And my parents, lucky for me, thank God, lived to see me successful. That's so important for a parent to know a child is going to be OK.

GROSS: Did coming from a, what did you say, an upper-middle-class suburban...

RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did coming from that background helped or hurt you in any way as a comic?

RIVERS: It doesn't matter if there was pain in the house or pain in your own mind. And as I said, going back to your first thing that we talked about, I was this lumpy fat child that wanted to be an actress. I stole my picture off the piano when I was eight years old and sent it to MGM.

GROSS: Did you really? Seriously?

RIVERS: Yes. And my mother kept saying, where is the frame with Joan's picture in it? I sent them with the frame.

GROSS: That's so funny because the picture that was framed over the piano of me and my brother when I was growing up, if I was sending a picture to MGM, I certainly wouldn't want them to see that picture, which was your...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...you know, you're kind of like photo house hack, photo, you know what I mean? It was like...

RIVERS: Was it colored in?

GROSS: It was colored in with that fake coloring.2

RIVERS: Yes. Of course. Yes. Yes.

GROSS: It was like bad oil colors were something.

RIVERS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Exactly. The lips are a little too pink.

GROSS: Yes. Exactly.

RIVERS: The cheeks are a little too pink.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. It was horrible. I can't believe you sent that. Did you get a response?

RIVERS: Not a word.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm not surprised.

RIVERS: They didn't even send the frame back. Come on.

GROSS: I can't believe you sent it in the frame.

RIVERS: I was so stupid.

GROSS: Did you write a letter?

RIVERS: Just yeah, like (unintelligible) as much as you could write it eight or nine: I really think I could be a good actress.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's interesting, you sent it directly to MGM and not to an agent.

RIVERS: Yeah, I didn't know - at nine, who's an agent?

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: I thought they were going to say, look at this little fat pig here. We could use her in a farm movie.

GROSS: So did you at some point say I have to lose weight?

RIVERS: No. Still haven't. Still haven't.

GROSS: Come on.

RIVERS: I try and I'd starve all day and then I'd eat Milk Duds.

GROSS: Yeah, but you are so thin. I mean...

RIVERS: No, I'm not. Truly, I'm not being cute.

GROSS: Oh, no, no. Let's not go there.

RIVERS: No, let's not go there. You know, like you sit with these thin women that say I can't, I don't eat. You want to say, you eat two meals, one going down and one coming up.

GROSS: Right. I hear what you're saying. But you had your issues with food and dieting, didn't you?

RIVERS: Always. Always. And I am a closet bulimic. Right after my husband committed suicide, all I did was throw up, and someone explained to me that was, of course, that was the only control I had over my life at the moment. Maybe. You know, I know I look good.

GROSS: Have you ever wished that you didn't care that much about how you look?

RIVERS: Wrong society.

GROSS: Wrong business too, I guess.

RIVERS: Wrong - any business.

GROSS: So when you were getting started, what was the balance between feeling a sense of camaraderie with other young performers, like Woody Allen, and who else did you mention?

RIVERS: Oh, Dick Cavett, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, we were all running around. Babsie as I call her behind her back, Babsie S., Barbra Streisand, we were all down there at the same time in the Village. Bob Dylan.

GROSS: So - OK, so you weren't directly competing with Bob Dylan because you were doing different things.

RIVERS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But what was the balance between camaraderie and competition that you felt with this circle of people?

RIVERS: Well, first of all, I was the only girl down there, so they didn't really feel they were competitive with me. But what they didn't get was I didn't think of myself as a girl. I just thought of myself as I'm funnier than you, you know, so it was very interesting. So where they perhaps were not as competitive with me, I was beyond competitive with them.

But we all were friends and we all had a great sense of not taking each others' material, and that was a wonderful moment because up to then, you know, the generation before us, they stole each other's - if somebody - and there's some people now, I'm not want to mention names, that come down and see young comics and just take their material.

GROSS: It must be hard way not to take other people's material because sometimes - I know with myself sometimes I'll think of something and I'm not really sure, did I come up with that or did I hear it somewhere?

RIVERS: Yes.

GROSS: I think I came up with it but it sounds a little familiar to me. Maybe I heard it somewhere. And sometimes you honestly don't know.

RIVERS: Oh, you don't know. I very seldom go to comedy clubs because I don't want to have to walk up to somebody after a show and say, you're not going to believe this but I'm doing good joke that is just about the same. They will never believe that. And on my reality show, "Joan and Melissa," which is renewed for our third year...

GROSS: Congratulations.

RIVERS: And - thank you. Oh, you have no idea. Thank you. Thank you. I'm so happy. I have a big fight with Lynne Koplitz, who is a friend of mine, very good standup comedian who claimed she was doing a joke, and we did it in the reality show. And I said, Lynne, I've been doing this joke for six months, and she says, well, I've been doing it for a year. Well, the point is I didn't know. So I'm very careful sometimes not to go and see young comics.

GROSS: So can I ask you another serious question?

RIVERS: Sure.

GROSS: One of the issues when you get to the age of 79 is that you've outlived a lot of friends.

RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: And relatives. So...

RIVERS: It's awful.

GROSS: Yeah.

RIVERS: And I have beyond amazing health, and I'm running around on stage. Someone said you work like a rock star, you know, just all over the stage. You - the loss is horrific, and when I go upstairs at night - this sounds so stupid - I always turn to my living room and I say, goodnight Orin. He was the man I lived with for nine years. Goodnight, Orin. Goodnight, Edgar. Goodnight, Uncle Tommy, who was my best friend.

And it's terribly sad. You cannot - that's the only sad thing about age. You can't bring back the ones you really loved, and that is why, little miss sunshine, when I have a fight with a friend, I never - two negatives. I never do not make up with them. I make up with up with them immediately if I care for them. I will not let a day go by. Life is too short these days. How about that for a nice serious stupid note?

GROSS: That's a nice note. I mean, I appreciate that sentiment. So it's been so wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

RIVERS: I love talking to you. Every time they say, you want to talk to her? I go, yes.

GROSS: Well, good. Thank you so much. I'm so glad you came back and congratulations on the book. It's really funny.

RIVERS: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

GROSS: Joan Rivers recorded in June after the publication of her book "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." You can read an excerpt of it on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we start a holiday week series featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. Comic and actor Aziz Ansari was on our show in April, after he released a new stand-up special on his website. He co-stars on the NBC series "Parks and Recreation" as Tom Haverford, who works in the parks and rec office in Pawnee, Indiana.

Here's a scene from season three with his then-boss Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMY POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Do you want to go to lunch?

AZIZ ANSARI: (as Tom Haverford) No, I don't really feel like going to J.J.'s.

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) We can go anywhere. Your choice. I'm, I'm buying.

ANSARI: (as Tom Haverford) Can I get apps and serts? Serts are what I call desserts. Trey-treys are entrees. I call sandwiches Sammies, Sandosals or Adam Sandlers. Air conditioners are Cool Blazters with a Z. I don't know where that came from. I call cakes big ol' cookies. I call noodles long-ass rice, fried chicken is Fry-fry Chickie Chick. Chicken parm is Chickie-chickie Parm-parm. Chicken cacciatore, Chickie Catch. I call eggs pre-birds or future birds. Root beer is super water. Tortillas are bean blankies. And I call forks food rakes.

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Yeah. You can get as many 'serts as you want.

ANSARI: (as Tom Haverford) Well, let's get in my Go-Go mobile - car.

GROSS: Like the character he plays in "Parks and Rec," Ansari's parents emigrated from India. He's from South Carolina. Although his character sees himself as a ladies' man and is always bragging, Ansari's standup act is more self-deprecating.

So your humor onstage is self-deprecating, and I'm thinking like you're good friends with like, you know - good friends, I don't know, but you're friends with Jay-Z. You love hip-hop. And, you know, the - hip-hop is so much about confidence and swagger and feeling like you can go up to that beautiful woman, and she's just going to just - she's going to be really happy that you went up to her because you're the best when it comes to making love or standing up to the cops or looking good or, you know, whatever needs to be done.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I'm wondering, like, how your self-deprecating humor goes over with your hip-hop friends, because the sensibility in some ways seems pretty different.

ANSARI: Well, being a rapper is, like, about being cool and things like that. And being a comedian, you're not really supposed to be the coolest guy. So I think, you know, they understand it's a different type of thing, you know?

And, you know, those guys are super-funny. They have a really great sense of humor, and when I do hang out with them, like, we will laugh hard at things we all say, and they have a great sense of humor. So they understand it's a different thing. I don't think they're, like, oh man, Aziz isn't cool. You know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

ANSARI: It's just a different thing to be a comedian. There's not a self-deprecating rapper. That wouldn't work. If you were a rapper that was like: I saw this girl, but I was too scared, like...

(LAUGHTER)

ANSARI: Like that doesn't work for a rapper. You can't be like: And then I took her back to my place, and she said she had a boyfriend. Like that doesn't - that rapper wouldn't go very far because in a rap song you want to live vicariously through them. You want to be on the jet or whatever, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

ANSARI: (Rapping) And then I drove my mom's car 'cuz I can't afford my own.

(LAUGHTER)

ANSARI: Terry, I think we've got to do a self-deprecating rapper album. Do you make beats on the side?

GROSS: Absolutely. That is what I do in the evenings.

ANSARI: Or maybe you can sing the hooks.

GROSS: I do that too. It's really funny you should bring it up, absolutely.

ANSARI: (Singing) He can't afford a car.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you're of Indian - the country of India - ancestry.

ANSARI: Yes.

GROSS: And when you were growing up, there were probably not a lot of comics of South Asian ancestry to look to as role models. Did that matter to you?

ANSARI: I never saw an Indian person on TV unless it was like Gandhi or there was like a James Bond movie where he goes to India or like there was some show where they happened to go to India, or they're showing a Quik-E-Mart guy.

There was no one Indian on TV, like no one. When I did this sketch on MTV called "Human Giant" around 2007, I joked around with the people at MTV. I was like: Wow, it's pretty cool, I think I might be the first Indian person you've ever had on MTV. And I was half-joking, but I think it may be true. Like, I can't think of ever seeing an Indian person on MTV.

And I think it's really cool now, you can't avoid Indian people on TV. There's like one Indian person minimum on every, like, sitcom or drama. There's like some Indian guy in the office. It's really funny to me that that's the case. And even when I was coming up, even seeing like Mindy Kaling on "The Office," it was great because you could point to her and be like: See, like she's a really funny character on that show, and there's no jokes about her having an Indian accent or anything.

It's just about her character and her personality. Even having that was, like, a great thing to point to, and I think now with me and Danny Pudi on "Community" and, you know, a myriad of other people, I think it must be a little different to be a kid growing up that's Indian and seeing all these Indian people in the culture.

GROSS: Somebody who knows your name now is President Obama, and he mentioned you at a fundraising event in New York in early March. He mentioned that you were there. He mentioned that you were backstage and that this was a particularly big deal because his daughter Malia is a huge fan of "Parks and Recreation."

So how did you end up being at that event with him, and how did he end up mentioning you?

ANSARI: As with a lot of things with me, it all goes back to food. I eat at that restaurant, ABC Kitchen, a lot. It's a restaurant in New York. And that's where this event was. And they came up to me, and they're like: Hey, we're doing this event with President Obama. He's going to speak here, and we were wondering if you would want to host it or something.

And I was like yeah, sure, because you guys are going to be catering and your food is delicious. And the Obama people contacted me, and they're like: Would you want to do this? We think it's a great idea. You could speak. And I did it, and it was really fun. And I wrote this little speech for the event and made the speech.

And then eventually the president spoke, and he mentioned me in the speech, and it just blew me away. Like I still haven't quite comprehended how crazy it is that the president mentioned me in a speech. I still don't believe it. It's still crazy to me. And he came backstage afterwards, and he talked to me for a while, and he mentioned that his daughter really loved "Parks and Recreation," and he was just super-nice and very cool.

GROSS: There's a good deed that you did that I think few people know about. There was an article in Rolling Stone about violence against gay teenagers, and after you read it, you got in touch with the person who wrote the article and offered to do a fundraiser to raise money for an organization that works with gay teens. And you hosted a comedy benefit in L.A. on behalf of a Minnesota LGBT group. Why did you decide to do that?

ANSARI: I heard a YouTube clip from Howard Stern, where he was talking about this article, and if you haven't read the article, you should really read it. It's about bullying and particularly about this school in Minnesota where it was just - it was just really such a sad article.

And I just read it, and I was like, man, is there - you know, it really affected me, and it really, really made me sad, like just thinking about these kids who were - these kids were just, like, getting put down by all these other kids in their school, and they seem like such brilliant kids. And it just really bummed me out that those kids, the other kids, the bully kids were winning, that they were letting them ruin what was special about them.

And it just didn't seem fair. It seemed like these kids were...

GROSS: Were you bullied as a kid?

ANSARI: I wasn't. You know, I think - you would think I would be. It seems like I would be a really easy bully target. But, you know, obviously I was made fun of here and there, but I've said this, I think I even said it to you last time I talked to you, like, you know, it was probably on par with what a fat kid dealt with. It was not, like, serious racism where like kids were throwing rocks at me and harsh stuff like that, or you know, or - you know, you see, like you read these stories and stuff, and you read about, like, real torment, you know, like real - kids getting really tormented.

I did not have that at all. But I guess I can relate to the idea of being different from everyone else, and I can relate to people telling you you can't do something or people making fun of you because you're different. Or I've seen other kids make fun of other kids for having different interests or whatever.

And when I read that story, it just, it really ticked me off that the school allowed that to happen. Basically the school district wasn't taking a stand. It really got bad, and several kids ended up taking their own lives. It was that bad.

And one kid's mom started an organization called Justin's Gift, and the writer of the Rolling Stone article - I just emailed her, and I was like: Hey, I read this article and it's really affected me. I just feel like I want to do something. I'll gladly do a benefit, like it's really easy for me to, like, put on a show and raise some money. Like, who could I raise money for? What would be the best organization?

And she referred me to Justin's Gift, and so I was doing a show that weekend, and it sold out, and we gave that money, and then I put together another show with some other comedians that I'm friends with, and we charged more for that, and it sold out, and we raised like $15,000 like just doing those two shows, and we gave it to them.

And, you know, I was glad we were able to do those shows and do that, and I hope it helps those kids even a little bit because, you know, it just really bummed me out hearing about what happened to those kids.

GROSS: Well, I think it's great that you did that. So you do a lot of tweeting, have a lot of followers. And after the Trayvon Martin story, when Geraldo made his comment about how, you know, he shouldn't have been wearing a hoodie...

ANSARI: Yes.

GROSS: You replied with a barbed tweet, and I'll ask you to tell us the radio-friendly version of what you said.

ANSARI: I think what I said was: It's really appropriate to say this any day, but today in particular: F-you, Geraldo. And I tweeted that, and what I failed to realize is that now whenever there's a big news story, news outlets will take things that people tweet and quote them as if that's, like, their statement on something.

Obviously if I was talking to, like, the Washington Post, that would not be my analysis of the event, no. I would have said something a little bit more nuanced. However, there was an article somewhere, I have it on my phone, I'll read to you what they wrote. They wrote - the headline said something like - sorry, give me a second, I'll put it up - it said: Geraldo Rivera says Trayvon Martin's hoodie made him a target receives major backlash.

The Fox News commentator says Martin's killer should be prosecuted, but the victim's attire put him at fault too. Aziz Ansari responds: F-you, Geraldo.

(LAUGHTER)

ANSARI: I love that that was in the sub-headline for that article. In that case, you know, I don't like people quoting me, you know, from my Twitter in like a serious news article. But in that case, it was so funny to me that I approve.

GROSS: Aziz Ansari, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

ANSARI: It's always a pleasure, thank you so much.

GROSS: Aziz Ansari, recorded last April, after he released his stand-up comedy special Dangerously Delicious" on his website. He co-stars on "Parks and Recreation."

TERRY GROSS, HOST: One of the music highpoints of the year on our show was Catherine Russell's performance. I consider her one of the best jazz and blues singers around, which isn't to say she's well-know - she's not. She worked for years as a backup singer for Paul Simon, Steely Dan, David Bowie and others.

But for the past few years, she's been performing and recording under her own name. A lot of the material she does is jazz, blues and pop dating back to the 1930s and '40s. Her father, Luis Russell, was a pianist, composer and arranger, worked as Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-1940s.

Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the all-women's band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Catherine Russell came to our studio after the release of her album "Strictly Romancin." Accompanying her was Matt Munisteri, who plays on the album and served as its music director.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S BEEN DONE BEFORE")

CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) Everything's been done before. To share a kiss, a moment's bliss, and hear you whisper you love me, sweetheart, it's thrills as old as the hills but it's new to me. Oh, everything has been done before. The birds that sing the song of spring always sing above me yet with you their singing is something that's new to me.

(Singing) Life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although I know I'm only doing what the others do, yet it all seems new. Oh, everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve but when I'm with you I just want to do what's been done before.

GROSS: That was fabulous. Thank you so much for performing that. That's Catherine Russell singing in our studio accompanied by Matt Munisteri on guitar. Thank you so much. That's so - I love your voice so much. I love a lot of early jazz and pop, and one of the things I love about your work is that you love that music, and you bring it to life in such a beautiful and committed way.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And you know the language of it. I mean, I think a lot of singers don't have the right rhythm when they sing old songs because they grew up with rock, and they just don't feel a jazz rhythm. But you grew up with jazz.

RUSSELL: I grew up with jazz, but I grew up with rock, too. I grew up with blues. I grew up with classical. My mother had an old radio in the kitchen when I was growing up and we used to listen to William B. Williams Make Believe Ballroom.

GROSS: On WNEW in New York. Yes.

RUSSELL: On WNEW, yeah, AM. Every morning, I was listening to Ella, the Mills Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, whatever. Peggy Lee, everything that was popular of the day, which - and before that. So that was late '50s, early '60s now.

So that really kind of formed my appreciation of phrasing, of how the people sang these tunes in those days. So I always, you know, was in the mirror with a toothbrush when I was a little girl, trying to sing these songs and everything.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, I grew up with that radio station, too, because my parents listened to it. And I hated it then. I really hated it because I wanted to hear rock 'n' roll.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: But you grew up with parents who were jazz performers.

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: You know, your father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's music director for a while. Your mother sang with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm during World War II.

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: Which is an all-women jazz band. And so did the fact that they loved the music bring the music alive for you?

RUSSELL: Yes. My dad's music was some of the first music I ever heard in the house growing up, and my mother was so happy that I kind of took to it, you know, when I was very little because I liked to dance and I loved swing. And so, yes, I would say that their appreciation of traditional and different types of jazz kind of formed my young ears with that.

GROSS: Were they determined to get you to love the music? Did they play you things and hope that you would love it?

RUSSELL: No. You know, mom played a lot of different things. So she's happy that I did, but she also let me listen to a lot of things that she didn't particularly like. I grew up on "American Bandstand," so if there were groups on there - she never told me, oh, turn that stuff off, I hate it. Never. She always let me listen to my Led Zeppelin records loud.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: You know. So she, you know, got me a little stereo, and I had it, you know, the kind that you pick up, and I had that in my room when I was growing up. And she never said turn that down, I hate it, this is terrible. She always let me listen to everything I wanted to listen to.

GROSS: We're listening back to an excerpt of Catherine Russell's interview and performance. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to an excerpt of the Catherine Russell concert and interview recorded last February in our studio after the release of her album "Strictly Romancin'." Matt Munisteri was with her to accompany her on guitar. So I'd like you to do another song that's featured on the new album. And this one is called "Romance in the Dark." And I have to say it's a very sexy song, especially the way you sing it.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

GROSS: So tell us why you chose the song.

RUSSELL: It's just such a - I love the blues. And I just love the pictures that the song creates with the lyric.

(Singing) In the dark, it's just you and I. Not a sound, baby, not one sigh. Just the beat of my poor heart in the dark. In the dark, I get such a thrill when he places his fingertips upon my lips, and he begs me please be still, in the dark.

(Singing) Oh, soon this dance will be ending, and I know, baby, you are gonna be missed. Gee, you know I'm not pretending 'cause you know it's fun, fun to be kissed in the dark. I know we will find what the rest, what the rest, what the rest have left behind. So just let them dance while we find romance in the dark. Yeah.

(Singing) Oh, soon this dance will be ending, and I know, pretty baby, you are gonna be missed. Ah, honey, but gee, I'm not pretending when I tell you it's fun, fun to be kissed in the dark. I know that we will find what the rest, what the rest, what the rest have left behind. So let them dance while we find romance, oh baby, in the dark.

GROSS: Whoa. Catherine Russell, it has been really very special to have you here performing today. Thank you so very much.

RUSSELL: Well, thank you. You have no idea. It's been so special for me and I just want to say dreams can come true.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And Matt Munisteri, thank you so much for being here today. Catherine Russell with Matt Munisteri on guitar recorded in our studio last February after the release of Russell's album "Strictly Romancin'." We'll close with a track from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M CHECKING OUT")

RUSSELL: Hello? Hello? Is this Harlem 7-7-7-11? Hello, John? Is this you? (singing) I tried to phone you. I hope you ain't sick but I'm checking out, goom'bye. Nice to have known you. You were my big kick. But I'm checking out, goom'bye. You tried no trick. You found a new chick. But I was too slick. I'm in the no, you've got to go, the gig is all done.

(singing) It's too bad our bliss had to miss out like this. I'm checking out, goom'bye. (speaking) And John? Huh? Oh, no, no, no. You breaking up, baby.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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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