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Comic Roy Wood Jr. Taps Into America's Psyche On 'The Daily Show'

In 2018, Wood explained how the years he spent performing in comedy clubs in the South and Midwest — sometimes in places where he felt unsafe as a black man — prepared him for The Daily Show.

22:29

Other segments from the episode on March 21, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 25, 2019: Interview with Roy Wood Jr.; Review of Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions; Interview with Alan Alda; Review of I Am…

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest, comic Roy Wood Jr., is a correspondent for "The Daily Show." His first appearance on that show was the same day Trevor Noah took over as host. Wood also is the current host of the network's "This Is Not Happening" series and stars in his own standup comedy specials. The new one premiering tonight on Comedy Central is called "No One Loves You" and tackles such controversial subjects as standing at sporting events for the national anthem. The New York Times just said of Wood that he might be the closest thing we have now to Dick Gregory.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NO ONE LOVES YOU")

ROY WOOD JR: If you want more people to stand for the anthem, change the song.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: That's half the problem right there. It's just the lyrics to the anthem - we can stand to any song. Patriotism is a feeling. Let's not forget that. Patriotism ain't no one song. For as long as we stand and agree that people died for us to kick it, we can do that to any song. You can do that to Bruno Mars. What's more American than Bruno Mars?

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: They say America is a melting pot. Well, damn it, I want to stand to Bruno Mars. He literally looks like every race at the same time.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: What's better than that? What's more American than us standing with the Hawaiian, Mexican, white, lesbian, Jewish man...

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: ...To honor the troops?

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: You're mad about the damn anthem. Man, please, let's be real about the anthem. First and foremost, the beat is whack. It don't go hard.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: You love America, but you ain't downloaded the national anthem to your phone.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: If you was at the club and the DJ started playing the national anthem, you'd be like, what the [expletive] is wrong with this DJ?

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: You ain't at the DJ booth, hey, man, play some of that patriotism [expletive]; that's what I like; that's the jam.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Roy Wood Jr. last year and started by playing a clip from the year before, a segment from Wood's 2017 Comedy Central special "Father Figure." In that one, Wood, who is Southern and African-American, kicked things off by walking to the mic and instantly approaching yet another sensitive topic - the Confederate flag.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")

WOOD JR: But if we get rid of the Confederate flag...

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: ...How am I going to know who the dangerous white people are?

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: I'm just saying the flag had a couple of upsides. Let's just be real about it.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: I ain't saying keep it around, but I grew up in the South. I can't tell you how many times the Confederate flag came in handy.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: You're stopping for gas at a strange place at 2 in the morning. You see that flag hanging from the window. You know this is not the place to get gas.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: And you keep it moving.

(APPLAUSE)

WOOD JR: What's the rush to get rid of the flag, especially if you're white? If you're white, you should want to keep the flag for a little while longer so at least black folks will know you're cool.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: Because if you're white and you're not an [expletive], that's the one thing that helps us identify you. You get rid of that flag, we'll be (vocalizing).

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: We've got to figure out a way to know who the cool white people - cool white people, we just got to start giving y'all wristbands or handstamps.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: Just something you can show in a dark alley. Let us know you're down with the struggle. That'd be cool.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: Give me your money, white dude - like, whoa, ah-ah-ah (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: I'm so sorry. Come on through. Come on through. No, they got the wristbands. They good. Listen, put this wristband on - this one over here now. In case it go down, you're going to have that wristband on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Roy Wood Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. So that bit sounds like it has a lot of truth behind it. Did you feel, when you were growing up in Alabama, like Confederate flags warned you away from places and people that spell trouble?

WOOD JR: Yeah. I think the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism is that in the South, you know where you stand. And there's - I don't want to say a freedom in that. But when you know where the boundaries are, then you kind of know how to play the game a little bit more. So if someone's going to openly say, I don't like you people, and I'm going to hang a flag over my door to remind you I don't like you people, then I know not to eat at that business. How much cleaner is that than me sitting there and getting bad service for an hour and a half, complaining to the manager and nothing happening? Which one is more tormenting? It's more - the Confederate flag is literally more convenient. You saved me 90 minutes.

GROSS: You say you performed at strange places. Did you ever perform at a bar or a club that had a Confederate flag?

WOOD JR: Absolutely. I've been called the N-word from the stage by somebody in the crowd, and the club owner did nothing to defend me. So there's definitely been questionable situations. But at the end of the day, give me my $50 that I drove nine hours to get paid (laughter), so I can be on my way back to Birmingham. Cities like that - traditionally, my protocol was to never stay at the hotel that the venue provided. So I'd either sleep in my car, or I would stay at a - you know, I would drive three or four hours out of town. Like, I would split the drive that night and just drive halfway back to Birmingham and then sleep somewhere else because I just felt like in those towns - if I'm one of the few black people, and I'm here telling the jokes and, you know, ha-ha-ha (ph), it's all fun and games. But to some people there, it isn't a game.

You know, there's a level of respect you have to have for someone who's bold enough to say that they don't like you and that they'll call you one of the most hated words in the history of this country. Somebody like that might be motivated to come find you after the show. And I'm the only person in town with Alabama plates. So yeah, get the hell out of there. And, you know, thankfully, every gig wasn't like that. But I'm thankful for those gigs. So, you know, it's - if nothing more, my first nine, 10 years of comedy were just a very, very bitter education on the psyche of the middle of the country.

GROSS: Why were you even booked in places that had such a kind of racist audience?

WOOD JR: 'Cause they had a microphone. I didn't care. Why should I care? Nine times out of...

GROSS: Did they know that you were African-American when they booked you?

WOOD JR: Yeah, yeah, but they figured black people are funny. But you just better not date my daughter (laughter) or hang around town too late. Like, I did a show in Johnson City, Tenn., which is a eastern Tennessee mountain town. And people would come up after the show. And there's some town - there's some neighboring town over. And supposedly, there's a sign that says, don't let the sun set on your black ass here in this town, where you basically had sundown warnings where you had to leave by the time lights were out. And this is 2002, 2003. This is recent.

So when you're booked in a weird city and the booker calls you and goes, hey, man, I need you to go do blah, blah, blah, Arkansas and you look at it on a map and you can see that it's - I call it the blue line. It's the freeway. You know, the freeways on, like, the atlases are blue. They're denoted by the color blue. So I could look into about how far off the blue line a city was whether or not I was going to have problems. And it looks like a problem city. OK, I'm going to go into town late. I'm going to pull up right to the venue. I'm going to do my gig, get my money. And then I'm leaving.

GROSS: So I want to play another clip from your comedy special "Father Figure." And in this, you know, you're talking about how we live in two different Americas and that when white people don't understand what African-Americans experience, it doesn't necessarily mean that the white people are racist. Sometimes it's just that the white people are uninformed. And then as an example, you talk about going to a Best Buy where you had to educate a white salesclerk. You had just bought a cellphone case.

WOOD JR: Correct.

GROSS: And the salesclerk told you that you didn't need a bag for it, so you had to explain why you needed the bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FATHER FIGURE")

WOOD JR: Dude at Best Buy going to decide I don't need a bag with my purchase.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: You just have an iPhone case. I figured you could just pop that open. No, I ain't popping [expletive]. You put it in the bag.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: I need that in a bag. What do you need a bag for? I don't understand why you need a bag. It's wasteful. Recycle. Don't you care about the Earth? I go, sir, this has nothing to do with the Earth. I'm a black man in America. I've got to leave this store with a bag, bro.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: It's about safety. I'm black. I don't get the luxury of just walking out with [expletive] in my hand. That is a roll of the dice. That is a horrifying day if I - no, not only do I need that bag. I need that receipt.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: And staple it to the outside. I don't want a receipt in my hand. You staple my receipt to the outside like Chinese carryout. And I'll hold it up in the air. I'll "Lion King" - I'll hukana matata an iPhone case out of Best Buy. And it's not his fault. He just didn't understand. He thought he was saving the Earth, but he was saving a life. That's what was doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: That's my guest Roy Wood Jr...

WOOD JR: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...On his recent comedy special "Father Figure." So is that a true story? Did that really happen to you?

WOOD JR: Yeah, that happened in Seattle. And it wasn't as flagrant as I made the salesclerk out to be in the joke. But it was me very politely explaining to this guy, I don't want to walk out of here without a bag. I just don't. Like, you're cool, but the yellow shirt up there at the door - he doesn't know, or he's not going to assume. I have no bag, no receipt. I'm just walking out with something in my hand. That concept is so foreign to me as a minority and having been harassed and followed around stores before and suspected of shoplifting. Why would I give someone invitation to question whether or not I'm operating within the boundaries of the law?

GROSS: I thought it was so interesting that you chose somebody to tell a story about who perceives himself as doing the right thing, as being very environmental-minded and therefore trying to not give you a plastic bag but not getting what it would mean for you to walk out without the bag and the receipt.

WOOD JR: Yeah. And in that regard...

GROSS: I mean, you have the receipt, but it would probably be in your pocket. And then if you reach for it, who knows how that would be interpreted?

WOOD JR: Yeah, it's just - no, it's - if - I don't care if I bought a Tic Tac. I want a bag.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD JR: I want the biggest bag you have just to make sure. And you know - and that's where when it comes to educating people about issues of race and just - here's a snippet of black life you might not have considered, something as simple about a bag. Like, for me, I enjoy being able to find material that specific in that regard because it gives me an opportunity to just show a little bit more of my world and what I believe African-Americans go through. And it's not to vilify this man because I can't say that he's racist because he didn't know that a bag could get me harassed. If he doesn't have a black friend that's ever explained that to him, when was he ever going to learn it? Here's a joke for me to explain it to all of y'all.

BIANCULLI: Roy Wood Jr. speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS SONG, "TOOT, TOOT, TOOTSIE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2018 interview with comic Roy Wood Jr. "The Daily Show" correspondent's latest comedy special, "No One Loves You," premieres tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Can I ask you about the neighborhood you grew up in and if your parents worked, what they did for a living?

WOOD JR: So I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., on the west side. The neighborhood is called West End, ZIP code 35211, one of the worst ZIP codes in the city in terms of crime statistics at the time. I haven't checked the crime census data (laughter) since I left in '96 for college, but - pretty rough neighborhood on the backside of the crack era, backside of - we moved into West End on the back end of white flight. So in the '80s, we had a couple of white neighbors.

But you know, by the early '90s and, you know - crack had really taken over. It was pretty much an all-black neighborhood. The one thing that I've kind of joked about sometimes - but it's actually true - is that if you're going to live in gang territory, it behooves you to live deep in gang territory because where I lived in Birmingham, most of the shootings were happening where territories met - like on border lines, almost, if you will. So there were a lot of bad people, but a lot of the bad stuff that happened in the hood happened more so on the outskirt areas of - in relation to where I lived.

The saving grace for me and my neighborhood was that my parents bought me a really nice basketball goal. And there was a park up the street from my house called Powderly Park. And Powderly Park had all the - you know, it was a municipal city park, and they had all the hoops. And you know, it would be bangers out there. And Powderly Park sat on the edge of Gangster Disciple and Vice Lord territory, so sometimes it would go down at Powderly Park. So my mom didn't really want me around that element. So I - and I've never talked with her about this, but my guess is that her ideology was if the boy likes shooting basketball, let's put a basketball hoop in the yard, and that way, he won't be at Powderly Park if something goes down.

And we had - it's just - I don't know if it's fate or what, man. But we had a house, one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a two-car garage - a very wide two-car garage - which meant the way the goal was set up, you could play almost half court if you played off into the dirt off of the driveway. So we basically had half court, and we had the best basketball goal with a breakaway rim because the city park - the goals always break because they're rusted and crusty, and they replace them with other rusty and crusty rims. So all the gang bangers came to our house to shoot hoops, so I met everybody in the hood.

GROSS: All the gangbangers came.

WOOD JR: Yeah. Bangers would come. Regular kids would come.

GROSS: But the goal was to keep you out of trouble, and all the...

WOOD JR: Yeah, but...

GROSS: ...Troublemakers are coming to play basketball.

WOOD JR: But - so then you asked me what my father did, and here's how it ties in.

GROSS: OK.

WOOD JR: My father was a radio personality in the city.

GROSS: Oh.

WOOD JR: And he was highly respected. My dad was a civil rights journalist back in the '60s and '70s. He was embedded - any march you can find any footage of, I'm sure my dad is no more than two or three steps behind Dr. King covering the march. And so when it comes to black political talk and when it comes to black political commentary and playing the blues and - my dad did morning news on the radio. My father was the voice of the city of Birmingham for a very long time. His name rang out. And out of respect to my father, guys would leave guns around the corner. They would leave their liquor up the street. And when they came to our house, it was Switzerland. So you might see a Vice Lord and a Gangster Disciple. It's plausible right there in our driveway.

And there's no drama out of respect to my father and my mom because my mom also didn't take no smack off of anybody. And I think there's something to that, you know, it takes a village mindset of showing kids, you know? And my mom would bring ice water out. Like, she was nice. So I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but I had a lot of good - I had a lot of circumstances in my favor that kept me on the good side of the wrong people.

GROSS: What kind of show did your father do?

WOOD JR: My father did - he did a jazz show. He did a political commentary show. But he also did morning news as well. So he was - like, on your way to work - and in these days in the '80s, you have to remember that black radio was very consolidated. So a black station in the '80s and '90s, before the, you know, corporate split of the genres of music - you would get R&B and upbeat '70s black music during the day. You would get current pop hits - black pop hits in the middle of the day. And then at night was rap, so all black people listened to the same black station at a different time of day to hear their favorite genre of music. So no matter your age, you knew who my father was.

GROSS: Wow, that's (laughter) - that must've been amazing. Now, you started out as a journalism student in college. Did your father inspire you to head in a journalism...

WOOD JR: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To a journalism career? - a goal that you did not (laughter) exactly fulfill. But...

WOOD JR: No, not really.

GROSS: ...Kind of close - I mean, you're doing "The Daily Show." So there's a lot of news in that. It's just a comedy take on real news.

WOOD JR: I did everything in my power to not be like my father...

GROSS: Why?

WOOD JR: ...You know? And - because it's all journalism and radio. And it was cool. But I was an adrenaline junkie. I wanted to be a firefighter. And up until my father's death in my senior year of high school, that - when my father died, I was still hanging onto being a firefighter. And coming around into the spring of my high school senior year, I started noticing this guy Stuart Scott on ESPN. And Stuart Scott spoke like me but talked about sports. And he'd crack jokes. And I go, hell, that's the same thing we do every day at baseball practice. I talk about sports. I crack jokes. I could do that.

And it wasn't out of disrespect to Stuart Scott. It was just he does it so effortless. I thought, hell, so do I. If - and that was the first time I saw a version of myself doing something. And so I go, what does Stuart - what do I need to major in to do that? Journalism - cool, sign me up. And that's how I found the path to journalism. And then ironically, here we are 20 years later. And I'm a black man giving commentary to people about the state of the black condition, which is exactly what my father did only with no punch lines.

GROSS: So you carry his name. You're Roy Wood Jr. And in Birmingham, where you grew up, your father's name really meant something. After he died, what was the significance of the name? Did people remember him for a long time? Were you still seen as his son for a long time while you lived in Birmingham?

WOOD JR: In Birmingham, I'll always be my father's son. That's just what it is. And there's nothing I can do to change that. You know, he was first. He was first, and he was impactful. And to be fair, he said a hell of a lot more things that mattered than I did. You know, and even when I came back to Birmingham after college - I came back in '01. And I ended up hosting a morning show at the same station that my father used to work. At this point, the station was dedicated hip-hop. And there had been a split in the genres and all of that. But, you know, there were a lot of people in the building, a lot of the engineers. And, you know, some of the people in sales who worked with my father. There are people in radio in Birmingham to this day as we speak, who - the only reason they have a job is because my father gave them an internship back in the '90s.

GROSS: It's really been such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us.

WOOD JR: Oh, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Roy Wood Jr. speaking to Terry Gross last year. His latest Comedy Central special "No One Loves You" premieres tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "WHO'S MAKING LOVE")

BIANCULLI: After a break, we hear from actor Alan Alda. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of studio sessions from 1963 by Eric Dolphy. And I review the new TNT mini series "I Am The Night." I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "WHO'S MAKING LOVE")

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In July 1963, jazz saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy recorded a pair of sessions for record producer Alan Douglas, who later would produce Jimi Hendrix. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says a proper reissue of these sessions was long overdue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC DOLPHY, WOODY SHAW AND BOBBY HUTCHERSON PERFORMANCE OF FATS WALLER'S "JITTERBUG WALTZ")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Eric Dolphy on flute with 18-year-old Woody Shaw on trumpet on Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz." The leader didn't write much music for his two-day July 1963 session. But the best of it is prime Dolphy. Recorded seven months before his masterwork "Out To Lunch," the music has a similar tough but floating rhythm feel thanks to Bobby Hutcherson's percussive vibraphone. Dolphy, as always, sounds ready to go from the jump - the guy you can't hold back. He's on alto saxophone for his own tune "Iron Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC DOLPHY'S "IRON MAN")

WHITEHEAD: Eric Dolphy's July 1963 dates yielded two LPs on different labels - "Iron Man" and "Conversations." Except for one vinyl compilation in the '70s, they've always been reissued separately. Until the new three CD set "Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions." It includes the catchiest tune ever, "Music Matador," written by two players on the date, saxophonist Sonny Simmons and flutist Prince Lasha. That's Dolphy rasping on bass clarinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC DOLPHY'S "MUSIC MATADOR")

WHITEHEAD: You can hear Jack DeJohnette's later band's "Special Edition" coming in those joyful horns. Richard Davis plays bass though, as he would on "Out To Lunch." One day of recording was devoted to duets for Davis' bass and Dolphy's bass clarinet, including a reverent take on Duke Ellington's hymn "Come Sunday."

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC DOLPHY'S "COME SUNDAY")

WHITEHEAD: It sounds like Dolphy knew the words to that. Other players who come and go include bassist Eddie Khan, drummers J.S. Moses and Charles Moffett and saxophonist Clifford Jordan. The settings range from 10-tet to solo saxophone. Dolphy's angular intro and outro to the solo "Love Me" connect him to next-wave Chicagoans Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC DOLPHY'S "LOVE ME")

WHITEHEAD: The set "Musical Prophet" includes a batch of alternate takes, where the musicians hone the material - confirming all the best takes were already out. There's a fat booklet, where collaborators and admirers reflect on Dolphy's music - though there are a few misidentifications a rudimentary fact check would have weeded out, and the list of who plays on which pieces is not totally accurate. But as I say, the best of the music is choice. Adventurous playing and catchy tunes - what's not to like?

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC DOLPHY'S "BURNING SPEAR")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the reissue "Eric Dolphy - Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions." Coming up, Alan Alda - he'll receive the life achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild on Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO COULAIS' "SPINK AND FORCIBLE")

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Sunday, Alan Alda will receive the life achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. The SAG award acknowledges both Alda's humanitarian efforts and his long list of acting roles for the large and small screen. His starring film roles include "California Suite," "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "The Seduction Of Joe Tynan." But his most famous role is on TV as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce. He was drafted during the Korean War and assigned to a mobile army surgical hospital, a MASH unit. Alda won several Emmys for that series, for writing and directing as well as acting. In the very first words we heard Alan Alda speak as Hawkeye in the 1972 pilot, he was reading from a letter he was writing to his father back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

ALAN ALDA: (As Hawkeye Pierce) Dear Dad, Hawkeye here. You said I sounded a bit callous about my job in my last letter. Well, let me see if I can put it another way. This particular mobile army hospital, we're not concerned with the ultimate reconstruction of the patient. We only care about getting the kid out of here alive enough for someone else to put on the fine touches. We work fast, and we're not dainty because a lot of these kids who can stand two hours on the table just can't stand one second more. We tried to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient.

BIANCULLI: Alan Alda in the pilot episode of "M*A*S*H." When Terry Gross interviewed Alda in 1997, she asked him about that pilot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: What were your first impressions of the script?

ALDA: I thought it was an extremely good pilot when they sent me the pilot. I was in the Utah State Prison at the time...

GROSS: Filming - filming a movie.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: Yes. Well, yes. I was trying to work on the image there a little bit.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALDA: I was shooting a movie for about three weeks in the Utah State Prison, and they sent me the script of "MASH," and it was the best script I had read while I was in prison, certainly. But it was also the best script of any television show I'd ever seen, I think. Larry Gelbart had written it. And it was really sharp, you know? But I was concerned that - I was concerned about what would happen after the show went into production. I didn't know if Larry would be part of it. And I was worried that it would become a high jinks at the front and that the war would just sort of exist as a pretext for silly stories.

And in fact, some of the early scripts done by freelance writers, who didn't know what the possibilities were and were sure that on television you don't go for anything substantive, wrote, in essence, "McHale's Navy" in Korea. You know? And "McHale's Navy" on the ground. And it really scared me at that point. But by then we had already had an agreement because before I agreed to do the show, I had a midnight meeting with Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, who were producing the show. And we all agreed that we wanted to do a show in which the war was seen for what it is, as a, you know, a place where people are badly hurt. And the humor came out of the reaction to that. The humor came out of the crazy pressure everybody was put under.

GROSS: I guess the thought of things turning out badly, of it not being the script that you wanted, during the Vietnam era was pretty scary. I mean, you know, a war TV series during the Vietnam era that gave a kind of high jinks on the front message probably would have made you particularly uncomfortable.

ALDA: I think it would. Yeah. It probably would have been even more so then than it would be at any other time. But I always felt strongly about wars. And I...

GROSS: You were in the military, weren't you?

ALDA: Yeah. I was in - well, I was in the Reserves. I don't know if you call that being in the military. They put me in charge of a mess hall at one point, and we had to feed 200 people three meals a day. And I had six guys who sort of stared blankly at the wall and played with the liver. They were - I don't know how we fed those people. But I wouldn't call that being in the military. But, you know, I had to face the idea of it, which was interesting. I mean, when I was - I saw myself, I watched myself as I was teaching people. That was one of my jobs, to teach people how to kill the greatest number of people with a mortar shell. And I would keep them interested and, you know, I wanted to be a good teacher. As long as they gave me a job, I did the best I could.

And I was, like, getting good at making them learn how to do this. And I, (laughter) - you could have long discussions into the night, especially if you're a sophomore in college, about whether that's a moral thing to do. But the interesting thing about it is, I understood just from doing that that when you're in a war, it's real. It's the real thing. People are going to get killed or lose their arms and legs. And when we did "MASH," I wanted to make sure that at least that understanding that I had came out - that that's what we dealt with, and that we didn't gloss over that and make the show about how funny things were in the mess tent.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your formative years. You grew up in show business. Your father was Robert Alda, who, among other things, originated the role of Sky Masterson in the Broadway production of "Guys And Dolls," played George Gershwin in the 1945 film "Rhapsody In Blue." What was he doing before the movies, when you were a young boy?

ALDA: Well, when I was born, he was in burlesque. And I spent the first three years of my life standing in the wings watching strippers and comics and chorus girls. And it was a bizarre beginning to a life. Probably a lot of - most of the questions you ask me today can be answered by that, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What did you make of it, as a very young boy, watching strippers? Did you have any idea what that was about?

ALDA: I didn't. I didn't. But I do remember - you know, children are so much more aware than everybody gives them credit for. I remember thinking - 'cause when the chorus girls would take me up to their dressing room, you know, they would take me up, and they would comb my hair and talk to me. And I was like a mascot, like a little pet. And then they'd say, OK, Ally (ph), we're going to change our clothes now. Turn your back. And I'd stand with my face pressed against their costumes hanging on the wall, and I'd smell the perfume and I'd hear them behind me.

And I remember thinking, they don't think this means anything to me. (Laughter) You know? But this is really interesting. And it had to make, had to have a tremendous impact on me. It was a very unusual beginning to a life.

GROSS: Growing up on the burlesque circuit, you must have grown up thinking that one of the most important things you could do is have a good gag, good jokes.

ALDA: I really had a tremendous education watching the greatest comics that we had at the time - Rags Ragland, Phil Silvers, Red Buttons. All these people were - Hank Henry. He was another great burlesque comic. He was my father's partner, and my father and Hank would write their own sketches. Watching them from the wings, and then later watching Sam Levene when he acted with my father in "Guys And Dolls," I would stand in the wings twice a day for two years watching them. And I'd especially watch Sam.

All of these people were a tremendous education for me. I stood on the side. And watching from the side, you see not only what their performance is, you see where it comes from. 'Cause you're only a few feet from them. And you hear the audience reaction, and you see the way they play the audience. They have the same material every day, but they play the audience in a different way, depending on what the audience gives them back. And that interaction gives you a clue into the way their brains work.

It was a tremendous education for me, and I think I grew up with that interaction with the audience in my head. So when I would write for "MASH," for instance - which we didn't do in front of a live audience - I would know when I wrote the comedic moment. I would know what the audience reaction was. I could hear the reaction. In most cases, that would be true. I mean, I would - then if I'd see it played in front of a live audience, I'd be happily surprised to see that I had guessed right.

GROSS: Just about everyone I've ever met who grew up in the '50s or '60s was in some production or another - high school, junior high school, summer camp - of "Guys And Dolls." Were you ever in a production of it?

ALDA: Yeah. I was in a - not in school. I mean, it was after I was out of school that they were doing productions of it. But I got a - when I was a young, out-of-work actor, only about six or seven years after I stood in the wings watching them do it every day, every week, I got a call. A little theater in Illinois was doing it and, would I come out there and do it? Did I know the show and did I know the part? And I said, of course, I do. You know, when you're out-of-work actor, you say yes to everything.

Well, I'd only seen it. I hadn't learned it. I didn't know the songs really well, you know. And I didn't know the words. And they had lost their leading man and had to do it in two days. I had two days to get out there. And my hands were shaking when I got on the plane. And I didn't stop shaking until the plane - I never stopped shaking. I mean, I went on opening night with two days rehearsal. I didn't know what I was doing. And I was...

GROSS: Which part was it?

ALDA: Pardon me?

GROSS: Which part?

ALDA: I was playing my father's part.

GROSS: Sky Masterson.

ALDA: Yeah, Sky Masterson. And I was out in the opening scene. And I didn't - I couldn't even afford my own suit. So they loaned me a suit that had been hanging on a rack for six months someplace. And I kept my hands in my pockets because they were shaking so hard. And I started - I was so nervous I was playing with a piece of lint in my pocket. And, you know, I'm out there on stage playing the scene with the mission doll. So I - halfway through the scene, I take my hand out of my pocket with the lint in it. And I - you know, I casually look down at the lint, and it's not lint. It's a cockroach.

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).

ALDA: Yeah. And it was very - the sight of that cockroach brought me back to reality with such a jolt that I lost all my nervousness. And I really looked at the woman I was talking to and really talked to her. And I opened my mouth, and a song came out. Everything was great. I mean, I'm surprised they don't bring a cockroach on with me, you know, every time I go onstage as a result of that.

GROSS: Now, you were going to go to med school, then became, I think, an English major. What was the turning point where you said, well, forget that; it's show business?

ALDA: I never really wanted to go to medical school. My father wanted me to go. He always wanted me to be a doctor.

GROSS: And you were but just on television.

ALDA: Yeah, he was finally satisfied with that. But here's the thing. Doctors were civilians. I was in the arts. I was in show business. That was my life. That was my identity. I didn't want to do anything else. And when people ask me for advice - young people who want to be actors or writers - especially if they want to be actors, I say to them, if there's anything else you can do, you should do it. If there's any hint that you can do something else, don't waste your life trying to be in show business because you have to have an all-consuming need to do it - an all-consuming passion. And I did have that. There was nothing else that I would consider being.

GROSS: What kind of career did you see for yourself when you started in show business?

ALDA: I wanted to be able to work in material that I cared about. I wanted to work with actors that I respected. And I wanted to do that in front of an audience that would get it - you know, that would appreciate the, you know, rich material, something that wasn't just a lot of foolishness.

GROSS: And do you feel like you got it?

ALDA: Yeah, I got - I was very lucky. I got it. I would have been happy if I could do that even in a small theater in - you know, out in the boondocks. It didn't matter to me as long as I had those three things - and as long as I could, you know, support a family. But I got it. I got this one-in-a-million opportunity to to do those three things in the big leagues. I mean, that usually doesn't happen.

BIANCULLI: Alan Alda speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. This weekend, he receives the life achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. Coming up, I review the upcoming TNT mystery miniseries "I Am The Night," starring Chris Pine. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ADAM PRICE GROUP'S "STORYVILLE")

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday, the cable network TNT presents a six-part period mystery series called "I Am The Night." It reunites Patty Jenkins, who directed the hugely successful "Wonder Woman" movie, with Chris Pine, who portrays Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman's love interest, in that film and its forthcoming sequel. In "I Am The Night," Pine plays a washed-up newspaper reporter in 1965 Los Angeles. His latest assignment leads him eventually to a case involving dark family secrets, police corruption, high-society sexual scandals and several killings, including the still-unsolved case of the Black Dahlia Murder.

There actually are two stories told here, and they take quite a while to intersect. But both of them are intriguing. One is the more standard narrative of a reporter sniffing out a big story while finding more resistance and more questions at every turn. The other is about a teenage girl stumbling on a mystery of her own - one about her own identity and lineage. This is the part of "I Am The Night" that's the most compelling because it involves racial tensions and prejudices and a truly upsetting series of events and revelations and because, in its basic facts at least, her story is true.

As the miniseries begins, we meet a 16-year-old girl named Pat played by India Eisley. Pat lives in Nevada. And what she's about to discover is that almost everything she knows about her own life is a lie. Pat, who has light skin and blue eyes, identifies as biracial. She was raised in Nevada by her black mother and abandoned since birth by her white father, or at least that's what she's always been told. But one day, she finds a birth certificate in her mother's things which states that Pat's real name is Fauna, her unnamed father is black and her real mother is someone else - a white woman from Los Angeles with the last name of Hodel. The girl confronts her mother who admits to the deception. She's played by Golden Brooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I AM THE NIGHT")

GOLDEN BROOKS: (As Jimmy Lee) But you know this - this is the important thing, OK? You look at me. Your white family - they're rich. Yeah, your grandfather is a famous doctor in Los Angeles. You're going to be rich one day, OK? So you keep that name. You keep that name legal - Fauna Hodel.

BIANCULLI: But if Pat is Fauna, then who is her real birth mother, and who was her father? Those questions and that quest take her to Los Angeles and her grandfather George Hodel. This is where things get really interesting and complicated and strange. Fauna Hodel actually existed. She wrote an autobiography about uncovering her family secrets. And her grandfather George, a prominent Los Angeles gynecologist, existed, too. In real life, he eventually became a prime suspect in the 1947 Black Dahlia case. And parts of this TV series are filmed in his actual former family home designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. Family connections in this story are everywhere. Much of "I Am The Night," though, is imaginatively fictionalized. The showrunner and principal writer is mystery author Sam Sheridan, who also happens to be the husband of Patty Jenkins.

Their approach to this material is a sort of Kodachrome film noir. It has the color-saturated look of the '60s but has the narrative feel of an earlier era. It's Chinatown, Jake. And It's easy to imagine Chris Pyne getting inspiration from Jack Nicholson as he endures beating after beating and tries to separate fact from fiction in every conversation with a mysterious woman. In "I Am The Night," that role falls to Connie Nielsen who plays Fauna's grandmother. Director Jenkins has a shared past with her, too. Nielsen played the Amazon queen in "Wonder Woman." During a brief window between projects, Jenkins gathered her husband and two of her movie stars and made this mystery series for TNT, directing the first few episodes herself.

The parts of the TV drama that stick closest to the facts are the most satisfying. And the two lead performances are equally strong. Pyne gets to display signs of his talent he hasn't shown before. His reporter character may be noble at his core, but most of him is a mess. And India Eisley as Fauna changes in front of our eyes just like her character. By the end, she sees herself very differently, and so do we. These short-form miniseries are fast-establishing themselves as one of TV's best genres - HBO's "Sharp Objects," Showtime's "Patrick Melrose," FX's "Fargo." The TNT cable network might not be expected to be a player in those same major leagues. But now, thanks to "I Am The Night," it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, exploring the world beneath our feet. Dave Davies talks with journalist Will Hunt about his fascination with things below the surface of the earth. It's taken him into sewers and subway tunnels in New York, the catacombs of Paris, underground cities in Turkey, nuclear bunkers and abandoned mines and caves where ancient societies practiced religious rights. His new book is called "Underground." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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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