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The Culture of Cockfighting.

Journalist Burkhand Bilger. He's currently working on a new book about clandestine Southern traditions (to be published by Scribner's). For now, his article "Enter the Chicken" appears in Harper's Magazine (March 1999). It's about cockfighting in Louisiana, where it's legal, but still secret.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on March 9, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 9, 1999: Interview with Burkhard Bilger; Interview with Jon Macks; Review of the Black Crowes' album "By Your Side."


Date: MARCH 9, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030901np.217
Head: Burkhard Bilger
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

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

Cockfighting is a blood sport in which chickens fight it out while people make bets. Because it's illegal in many places and frowned upon even in some places where it is legal, the culture around it is somewhat secretive.

My guest Burkhard Bilger has written a fascinating article about cockfighting; what the sport is like today, its history and what it says about our culture. It's published in the current edition of "Harper's."

Bilger has also written for the "Atlantic Monthly" and "The New York Times." He's a contributing editor of "Health," and deputy editor of "The Sciences." I asked him why he wanted to explore the world of cockfighting.

BURKHARD BILGER, JOURNALIST: Well, I was interested in clandestine Southern traditions because I grew up in Oklahoma -- my parents were academics. I kind of lived in a standard American suburb and didn't have much connection to local culture, really.

It was just kind of a sitcom existence in some ways. And at one point I was looking through some strange magazines one of them was called "Feathered Warrior," which ended up being a national cockfighting magazine. And kind of discovered that there wasn't just a strange little subculture that had been outlawed long ago, but was a real vibrant thing.

There were thousands of people doing it, even hundreds of thousands -- 500,000 of them some people think. And I just to explore that and kind of get a sense of the life that I had missed growing up in Oklahoma.

GROSS: Is there a lot of cockfighting in Oklahoma?

BILGER: Yeah, there is. definitely -- two of the biggest pits in America are the ones called Mid-America, it's on the Arkansas border; one's called Texhoma (ph) on the Texas border. And Texhoma is huge, it's this enormous amphitheater and they gave $150,000 to the biggest winner last year and a truck to the cock of the year. So it's a huge huge thing there.

GROSS: Now I've never seen a cock fight and I imagine a lot of our listeners haven't seen one either. So why don't we get to a description of what a typical cockfight is like if there is such a thing as a typical cockfight. Perhaps you can describe one of the cockfights you saw at the Red Rooster in Louisiana.

BILGER: Well, the Red Rooster is a rickety little building in the middle of nowhere next to Maurice, Louisiana and it doesn't look like anything from the outside. There's barely even a sign. You go inside and it's kind of all plywood and everything is not square and there's a little concession stand.

And you walk in and you see kind of this miniature thunderdome. It's an amphitheater of seats with kind of rickety benches, and the middle is this enormous two story octagonal cage which is made out of chicken wire. And it's elevated off the ground, and it's completely enclosed. And that's for a certain kind of Cuban cockfight were they just put the chickens and leave and they consider it the most natural cockfighting.

But anyway, it's enclosed mainly to protect the spectators from the birds, which are wearing these knives on their heels in most cases. So the two handlers come in, and there's a referee in the middle who is wearing black and white stripes. And they have to hold -- the handlers have to hold their chickens very tight in their arms because they're already pumped up.

A lot of them get testosterone injections or digitalis to make their hearts race, or any number of things to get them up for the game fight. And so they are really raging to go at each other. And the two handlers will stand side-by-side and kind of sway toward each other, and let their chickens peck at each other for a while and get their dander up, so to speak.

And then they'll put them behind two lines that are a few feet apart me made out of cornmeal that are laid in this sandy floor of this cage. The referee stands in the middle and he'll say, "pit." And then the handlers will let their chickens go.

Up until then it's all pretty straightforward and even paced, but as soon as they go -- I mean, the chickens move at a thousand times of pace of everybody else in the room. I mean, it's like warp speed compared to everything. And all you see is this huge flurry of feathers and slashing talons.

And for a newcomer, like I was the first time I saw one, it's almost impossible to see what's going on. But the people who really know what's going on have kind of accustomed their eyes to it; can see what's happening is that the roosters are jumping up and dipping their tails down toward the ground, and then spinning their talons with these knives that are attached to back of their heels down in a kind of windmill pattern at each other.

And if they're lucky, one of them will strike in the head or the eye or in the neck, and then they'll fall down again and the whole thing starts over again.

GROSS: Now what are the rules of cockfighting compared, say, to the rules of boxing?

BILGER: I mean, in some ways they are the same, but -- there are rounds. Every time two chickens get tangled up -- if their spurs or their gaffs (ph) get tangled with each other they separate them and the referee comes in there and puts them apart.

In some places -- like in Bali they'll drop a coconut -- a pierced coconut into a tub of water, and for the time it takes that coconut to sink to the ground the chickens get to recuperate. And just like handlers in a boxing match the cockfight handlers will take the chicken and talk to them and rub them and wash him off. And sometimes they'll stick his whole head in their mouth and suck the blood out or even spit into his beak to give him some refreshment.

So in some ways it looks like a boxing match. What's different is that a boxing match obviously has rules of sportsmanship. You know, they can't do rabbit punching and so forth. But in a cockfight there isn't any. Once they're in the pit and they're going it's no holds barred.

GROSS: Do they fight to the death?

BILGER: Yeah, they always fight -- I mean, they don't necessarily fight to the death. If a chicken dies, than the other one has won.. But essentially they fight until one of the chicken dies or one of them runs away or refuses to fight anymore.

GROSS: Now, are there ways of playing dirty within cockfighting? I mean, you've told us what the basic rules are.

BILGER: Oh, there are numerable ways to play dirty. I mean, the people in Louisiana I talked to say that that never happens, but there are a lot of ingrained rituals around cockfighting just to prevent that.

For instance, in Venezuela on the island of Margarita people there are famous for using sting ray poison and putting that on the blades of their cocks before a fight. Or they will throw poison into a chicken's food.

Or in the Philippines I've read that sometimes handlers have been known while the other handler isn't looking they'll reach over and just snap a little bone in another cocks back -- a tiny bone -- just to cripple him a little bit.

There's one famous story from the Philippines of a local mayor went to visit another district and he went to a big cockfighting ring -- and in the Philippines cockfighting is enormous. It's really the national sport and it affects local politics and all this kind of thing.

And the mayor went to visit another cockpit and had his own chicken, and he was fighting it and the chicken was losing. And the mayor just jumped into the ring pulled out his 45 and blasted the other chicken out of the ring.


And the people said, "what are you doing? This is cheating." And he goes, "well, no, my chicken didn't lose he was never killed by the other chicken." And of course he had 10 bodyguards with him heavily armed and everybody said, "well, you're right. Actually that's new that's a new wrinkle. I never noticed that before." So there's a lot of ways to cheat.

GROSS: Now what's the state of cockfighting in America? Where is it legal, where is it illegal?

BILGER: Well, that's just changed recently. In the fall -- up until the fall it was illegal in every state, usually a felony or a misdemeanor, except in five states, and those were Oklahoma, Nebraska -- Oklahoma, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana.

But last summer into this fall in Arizona and Missouri a huge referendum took place where volunteers gathered over 150,000 signatures, and this fall they were made illegal in both those states. So now the only places it's legal are Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico.

GROSS: I imagine that in some places it's very controversial. How do the sides typically break down?

BILGER: It tends to be -- I mean, it's hard to say because the natural answer to that would be animal rights activists on the one hand and cockfighters on the other. It's kind of deceptive because in some ways -- in a place like Louisiana, for instance, there are a lot of congressmen who are pro cockfighting; who think of it as a real Louisiana tradition and think if you get rid of it you're getting rid of something like the Mardi Gras.

I had a friend who I met there -- an academic -- who said they'll sooner get rid of Little League than they'll get rid of cockfighting in Louisiana. But it tends to be -- animal rights activists tend to be the goads to get the laws passed. And the fact of the matter is, for the most part, if you can get a state petition that says, "do you agree with cockfighting?" Almost anyone will say no.

And so that tends to be -- that has been the best mechanism for outlawing in this country.

GROSS: Yeah so, you know, the cockfighting is very controversial. You weren't used to going to cockfights. Give us a little bit of what the atmosphere was like in the places that you went to. I mean, is it like a real blood lust type of sport?

BILGER: Well, for some people it is. I'm sure -- I mean, I think -- the atmosphere varies from the small pits to the big pits. I mean, when I went originally -- the first time I went to that brush bit Red Rooster at midnight, and it was a thunderstorm and I was terrified because I had heard cockfighting always comes with drug sales and gambling and all kinds of nefarious activity.

And that if you go there you're among bad apples and all this kind of thing. So I originally was fairly frightened, and I get there of course and it's completely the opposite. In the small the atmosphere is amazingly homey. I mean, you get there -- and the night I went it was -- by the time I got there it was about one in the morning and there were two mothers nursing their babies right next to that big cage.

There were toddlers running up and down the aisles. There were teenagers loitering around sipping Cokes and it was very much family night. It was like going to a PTA meeting. It was very weird.

And there, I would say, most people kind of went just for that. They went because this was what everybody did on Friday night or a Saturday night and they liked to be together. I talk to a sociologist later who said that cockfighters are a kind of frozen demographic. They're like the American from the '40s or 50s still living in these little tiny pockets.

You know, they tend to be rural and small town and church going and American as apple pie. So that's the small pits.

But the big hits, those are a completely different scene. I mean, I went to one where there were 900 chickens fought in one night and it was a $40,000 purse. And, you know, people drove from hundreds of miles around. They paid sixteen bucks to sit there. And that was really a gambling scene.

It was -- people didn't really care about the chickens they came with a lot of money. They wanted to see their chickens win. They wanted to leave with a lot of money. It was also fairly -- I mean, 900 chickens in a day you can imagine there's blood everywhere. There are chickens -- by the end of the night there are just broken chickens overflowing out of the trash cans lying in the aisles.

They tend to be very rickety structures because no one really trusts cockfighting will be legal for very long, so there are these kind of claustrophobic, poorly built fire trap buildings with hundreds of people screaming out their bets. It's not a really pleasant atmosphere.

GROSS: What happens to the dead or the injured chickens after a cockfight? Are the dead chickens given proper burials? Are they eaten? What about chickens who are just terribly wounded? Are they nursed back to health or abandoned?

BILGER: There's a whole discipline of cockfight surgery which comes into play for the wounded chickens. And if you can revive a bird you will. And if it's a bird that has shown itself to be game, it just happened to get a tendon cut or something, yeah they'll revive it.

The ones that get killed -- it used to be, and in some countries this is still true, that they'd eat them. In Louisiana they'd them with a sauce (unintelligible) which was special cock -- dead cockfight kind of sauce. It was very good. That doesn't happen anymore.

They give them all these drugs that are carcinogenic so they can't -- that's ended. Now they just throw them away.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Burkhard Bilger. His article on cockfighting is published in this month's "Harper's." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Burkhard Bilger. He's written an article on cockfighting published in the March edition of "Harper's."

I don't know a lot about the history of cockfighting or about roosters in general, but are roosters naturally as combative as this? Is there a special breed of rooster that's used for cockfighting?

BILGER: At this point there are a number of different breeds. I mean, they all descend from galus galus (ph), the jungle fowl, which comes from Southeast Asia. And those are mean birds. You know, they're the nastiest birds in the world some people think.

The males have acres of ground that they rule as their territory, and so if another male comes onto their territory they try to tear them apart. So roosters -- even roosters in a chicken factory or on a free range will kill each other sometimes. People call it coming into their pride.

And if there's a rain storm or some weird atmospheric change they'll just start hacking at each other. So chickens do have that in them. The cockfighters tend to have done a lot of genetic manipulating to increase that blood lust. They've taken bankiva chickens (ph) from Southeast Asia and Malay chickens that have all kinds of different fighting attributes and cross bred them.

They've done all kind of genetic research. I mean, your typical cockfighter is a post-doc when it comes to chicken genetics. They know everything about alleles (ph) and cross breeding. And then they give them drugs and they do all kinds of things just to emphasize that fighting spirit.

GROSS: You know, cockfighting sounds so grotesque and violent. You write that our forefathers were cockfighters. Jefferson had gamecocks. You say Andrew Jackson was fighting cocks on the White House carpet. That Lincoln was a former cockfighting referee. There is this whole American history of cockfighting.

BILGER: I mean, cockfighting -- there was a time when it was called one of the most fashionable amusements of American culture. It was the national pastime for a while in the 19th-century. It was extremely popular. I mean, not just those guys, but Grover Cleveland fought gamecocks. Woodrow Wilson gave plaques to cock fighters in the White House.

There's even secondhand stories that Ronald Reagan -- people on Ronald Reagan's ranch used to have cockfights in his ranch houses. I mean, there's a kind of -- it's almost like a Thomas Pinchon novel. It's a secret history.

If you start looking at cockfighting it threads its way all through American history. But it was a mainstream amusement for most of the 18th and 19th-century. And in England, before that, clergymen used to stage cockfights and give prayer books as awards to the best cockfights.

Henry VIII had a huge sumptuous cockpit built with special gilded cock cages for all his lords and so forth. So it has this kind of prestigious history that got abruptly cut in this country around the beginning of the 20th-century.

GROSS: And what changed them?

BILGER: I think two things. It kind of got attacked from two angles. One is what they call the anthropocentric angle which said basically cockfighting is bad for people. That you go to a cockfight you're with a bad element and your engaging in blood lust and you're emphasizing all the worst human attributes.

And the other one of course was the rise of the Humane Society movement at the end of the 19th century, which just gradually -- that was really much weaker than the former argument but it ended up being the one that really killed cockfighting.

GROSS: Well, you were interested in the ethics of cockfighting so you spent some time at a regular chicken farm. The kind of chicken farm where chickens are born to lay eggs for our breakfast and to create chicken meat for our dinners. And compare the conditions that you found on the big chicken farm with the conditions that you found on a farm that raises chickens for cockfighting -- or roosters, I should say.

BILGER: Yeah. Well, the farms were they raise cocks tend to be -- I mean by chicken terms -- they're like luxury or resorts, which doesn't mean that there is bronze and gild everywhere. But every cock has his own cage -- his little conical cage -- with a long walking strip in front of it.

They have these tenders that come by and rub them down every morning and give them special feeds and exercise them. And if they get too antsy they'll bring in these plump little pullets and have them kind of work out their desires with another chicken.

It's just -- it really is -- if you're a chicken you want to be a cock -- a gamecock. And they'll live much longer. They'll live one to three years in most cases.

Now you compare that to a chicken factory, I mean, I went to one in Little Rock which is the Tyson chicken factory. And Tyson is no worse than of the others. They have a very very efficient chicken raising business, and we all reap the benefits of that.

I mean, chicken used to be the luxury meat in this country. It was more expensive than lobster. It was more expensive than filet mignon. When people said "a chicken every pot" it was because it was considered so outrageous that that would ever come true. And it has come true.

And it's come true because of the way people like Tyson raise chickens. It used to be it would take 16 weeks for a chicken to reach two pounds. Now it takes six weeks for a chicken to reach four pounds. I mean genetics and nutrition and just raising methods have increased incredibly.

But of course the dark side of that is the life of the chicken. I mean, you go to a Tyson factory and there are these enormous sheds, and there are just tens of thousands chickens crammed into a shed together -- shoulder to shoulder. They spend six weeks in there, and that's not so bad really because it's kind of social at least. But that's their life. That's the best part.

Then they get crammed into trucks -- 7,000 at a time -- carried to this factory and dumped on this and enormous conveyor belt which is a few feet wide, which just rolls them up into the maw of this factory.

And they get there and -- I mean, the guy who led the tour -- I'm so grateful that he even took me there because most chicken PR people don't want you to see these factories. They just want to keep you away.

But he reluctantly agreed to take me into the killing zone. And you go in there and it's almost pitch black except for some black lights. And the workers have Top 40 music screaming, and the machinery is incredibly loud. And the workers just pluck these chickens off this conveyor belt and reach them up very quickly and hang them by their feet from this running chain that whips by overhead very fast.

And so the chickens are hanging upside down. The get whipped over into the next room, and that room is a weird room. It's lit kind of like -- the one I saw was lit like a Dutch painting of just one light bulb in the corner. And the chickens come hurtling through, and they come into these mechanical bottlenecks where their heads get squeezed together and an electric shock gets jabbed into their head and they get stunned.

And then as they hang limp, a rotary saw comes and slashes their head off. And a few chickens will raise their heads and get away, but then somebody reaches over and cuts their throat with a knife.

So it's -- you know, if you had your choice between dying in a battle in a cage or dying that way I'd think it would be a fairly hard choice, but most people would probably pick the cockfight.

GROSS: Burkhard Bilger's article on cockfighting is published in the March edition of "Harper's." He's at work on a book about clandestine Southern traditions. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


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

Back with journalist Burkhard Bilger. His article about cockfighting is published in this month's edition of "Harper's."

The article that you wrote for "Harper's" on cockfighting is actually part of a larger project that you are doing. You're writing a book on clandestine Southern traditions. What do you mean by that?

BILGER: I mean I'm interested in traditions that are like cockfighting that tend to be rural and have a lot of history to them and are interesting in that sense. They're a rich subculture and they tend to be outlawed or illegal. And the reason, more often than not, tends to be they say a lot about our values and how they changed in the course of American history.

Another example is a thing called "noodling" which I wrote a piece for the "Atlantic" about. And that's where you hand-grab catfish with your hands. In the spring you walk along a river bank and you stick your hand into a whole and you wiggle your fingers. And if a catfish is in there nesting he'll bite your hand, and so you'll jam your arm down its throat and pull up this fish on your forearm.

And it's a way of catching catfish that is very old and the Indians did it and it's been around forever. But it's outlawed in almost every state. And the reason is people say it's unsporting. And again, it's the kind of an example it doesn't really make any sense to say it's unsporting.

It doesn't make any ecological sense. It's just kind of a judgment we pass as a culture because our values are urban and no longer rural. And so I'm interested in traditions like that that kind of put those things in perspective.

GROSS: Your official paragraph-long biography says that you have a coon hound named Hattie. Is the coon hound part of your interest in these clandestine Southern practices?

BILGER: Oh yeah. She's kind of -- she was the goad who got me into it. I think -- when I was living in Boston I was kind of nostalgic for my Oklahoma roots and I decided to buy a coon hound, which I'd always seen on country roads and so forth. So I started looking around for one -- I couldn't find one.

And so I made a lot of calls and finally discovered a guy who bred blue tick coon hounds in Massachusetts. And I went to visit him, and I told him that I wanted to buy a redbone coon hound. And he went out and he lifted up his and said, "just a second." And he went in his house, and he came back with "American Cooner" magazine, which is just the weirdest magazine I've ever seen in my life.

I mean, it's an inch thick. It has 100,000 subscribers. It's full of pictures of dogs jumping up trees and advertisements for chilled semen. Everybody is shipping their chilled semen all over the country.


So it's like, where did this come from? And since when is there this huge coon hunting subculture. So I started to make calls and I ended up writing a piece on coon hunting, and that's going to be one of the chapters in the book.

And it really kind of introduced me to the interest -- I mean, coon hunting is another thing. People go out in the middle of the night -- every night -- I hung out with a woman who coon hunts 350 nights a year. And every night at midnight she goes into the woods and she stays out until five in the morning.

And most of that time she's just standing in the forest listening to her dog run down raccoons. It's just the strangest sport in the world. And yet it's wonderful, and once you get into it it's kind of addictive.

GROSS: So just to clarify, me being a Northern urban person, in coon hunting the dogs track down raccoons and chase them up trees?

BILGER: Yeah. Professional coon hunting is a very different thing from what coon hunting used to be. There's a book called "Where the Red Fern Grows" all about this kid hunting down hunters of raccoons and killing them. And most people think that's what coon hunting is, but professional coon hunters don't kill raccoons anymore.

What they do is they gather in groups of four and they go out for about three hours with a judge. And they just see who can chase the most raccoons up a tree in that space of time.

GROSS: So now that you're deep into all these hidden Southern practices you're living in Brooklyn, New York.

BILGER: Oh yeah, the epicenter of clandestine Southern tradition.

GROSS: Absolutely. I imagine there's a fair amount of cockfighting there.

BILGER: There's a huge amount of cockfighting in Brooklyn. I mean, there's so many Latin and Asian immigrants. And of course there is Santaria and so forth, so there's plenty of chickens around.

GROSS: Are the cockfights in Brooklyn different from the Southern cockfights?

BILGER: I assume they are. I mean, I honestly have never been to a Brooklyn cockfight. So I don't know absolutely. From reports I've heard they're very much like the Red Rooster cockfight except they're more makeshift because it's illegal.

There was a famous bust about three years ago in Harlem of a kind of state cockfighting championship. And it was an amazing thing. They took an old theater in Harlem and they -- it was dilapidated, and they built all these false walls. And behind them they had surgery rooms and drag pits and they built a whole pit system.

And the pit -- and the police confiscated hundreds of birds and arrested hundreds of cockfighters. So it's very active in New York.

GROSS: Now you said that you think the reason why some of these Southern traditions are disappearing -- like cockfighting or noodling -- is that urban values are replacing rural values. And I'd like you to explain what you mean.

BILGER: I guess cockfighting -- if you look at the evolution of cockfighting is the easiest way to see it. I mean, essentially the states that are rural still -- the most rural states -- are the ones that held on the longest to cockfighting. And the ones that are the most urban most quickly saw it as just kind of an abhorrent activity.

I mean, to us nowadays the idea of a cockfight a city -- it makes no sense to us because we don't even see chickens. We have no -- the notion of animals being killed is just so distant from our thinking that it doesn't really fit in with our value system.

Whereas people in the countryside my -- my sister -- my wife, her parents grew up on a farm in Nebraska and they had to kill chickens themselves. It's not a big deal to them. It makes sense to them that this would be part of it. So that change, more than anything, has spelled doom for some of these traditions.

When I was living in California when I was a kid -- when I was about nine years old -- I -- we used to have chickens in our backyard in this little suburban house we had. And we had some young roosters -- some stags who were just born when we moved in -- and they used to make the most incredible racket at night. It was amazing, just screaming at night.

And a policeman came eventually and arrested them.


For disturbing the peace. And took them away, and to me they always remind me a little bit of Wyatt Earp, he retired eventually in L.A. in the city. And kind of was there as a gunfighter hanging out in the big city watching his culture disappear. I think the chickens kind of reminded me a little bit of that. They were these last gunslingers in the suburban neighborhood.

GROSS: Well Burkhard, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BILGER: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Burkhard Bilger's article on cockfighting is published in the March edition of "Harper's." He's at work on a book about clandestine Southern traditions.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Burkhard Bilger
High: Journalist Burkhard Bilger. He's currently working on a new book about clandestine Southern traditions. For now, his article "Enter the Chicken" appears in "Harper's." It's about cockfighting in Louisiana where it's legal but still secret.
Spec: Animals; Lifestyle; Culture; Gambling; Burkhard Bilger

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 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: Burkhard Bilger

Date: MARCH 9, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030902NP.217
Head: Jon Macks
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Academy Award ceremony is later this month. John Macks is one of the comedy writers coming up with material for this year's host, Whoopi Goldberg. He also wrote for Billy Crystal on the last two Academy Award shows.

Macks writes for "The Tonight Show" and is the author of a new book called "Heaven Talks Back," which spoofs pop inspirational books about religion. I asked him how the writing process works for the Academy Awards.

JON MACKS, WRITER, "THE TONIGHT SHOW;" AUTHOR, "HEAVEN TALKS BACK": What we do is there is five or six of us and meet everyday. We come in with, what Billy would call, homework. So we'd come in with 20 or 30 jokes and Billy would sit down and read them out loud and -- writing for Jay obviously is one thing; when you're writing for Billy it's a different voice.

So it was great because when your main, you know, job is writing for Jay Leno you've got that voice and that comic style in your head. So when Billy would come in and read our material and put it in his voice and put his spin on it you start to speak Billy.

GROSS: Do you try to position all your best jokes toward the beginning of the broadcast, because I imagine toward the end jokes are getting thrown out the window because they're short on time?

MACKS: He's got, besides the opening monologue and the film clip and the songs, he introduces different presenters, he's introducing different aspects of the show, does a few things. But as you move along people just want to get to the awards.

So at hour two and a half you're really going to find him just coming out and doing a straight introduction. But the one thing you have is what we call the playbook. It's something that Billy had us put together and has us put together. So the fact that the show is running long is funny in and of itself.

Bart the Bear, last year -- I don't know if you remember -- but they had a great thing where they had Bart the Bear who was, I believe, in the movie "The Edge." And Bart came out and introduced an award. Well, the idea of having this giant 11 foot, four ton bear in the middle of the stage at the Academy Awards, besides being kind of really neat theater, is also funny.

So as a comedy writer you're always looking for anarchy. What would have been the best thing for us? We were hoping of course that bear would go nuts and not kill anyone. That would've been the funny story.

So we had all these jokes written and Billy had all these jokes where if the bear had gone a bit wild he was ready to deliver those jokes. Fortunately for the show, unfortunately for what we had prepared, the bear was perfect.

But Billy had planned to come out just say -- if the Bear had gone nuts -- just come out and say, "I have some very sad news it's now `and Waterhouse.'"


GROSS: Oh so, too bad things went so smoothly.

MACKS: Exactly. You know, he was going to come out at one point and just say, "yes it's true. They do do that in the woods." And it's just we had dozens and dozens of bear jokes. "Ladies and gentlemen, Ernest Borgnine."

You had just all these great jokes that were there. And the bear was calm and did his job professionally, so we just moved on.

GROSS: Before you became a comic writer you were a political consultant. What kind of consulting did you do?

MACKS: I started out -- I had always been interested in politics and I started out in the 19 -- late 1970s running campaigns, working my way up. And then in 1987 moved to Washington and started doing TV ads for people running for Senate and governor. Did some work on the 1988 presidential race.

And I worked for candidates -- Governor Zell Miller of Georgia; Governor Ray Mabis (ph) of Mississippi; Senator Howard Metzanbaum (ph); Senator Paul Simon. And ended up -- actually my closest friend is James Carville and we worked a lot on campaigns together where he would run them and I would end up doing the TV ads and the strategy for those campaigns.

GROSS: Did you use any "Tonight" style jokes in the TV ads?

MACKS: People always complain about political ads and how they are all the same. And since you're shooting on a low budget you really need to come up with something that sets it across. For example in 1989, I was involved in a small way in David Dinkens race for mayor of New York. And we came up in the primary with an ad against Ed Koch.

And the ad essentially started out by just having that old saw "You Talk Too Much." And as the song played in the background and the words were in the background we flashed up different statistics about New York City which showed that perhaps it was time that Ed Koch moved on to a different job.

And using that kind of humor gets people's attention. They want to listen. They're not saying, "oh, this is just a political ad." And to me that was, I think, the first genesis.

The second was in 1990 Paul Simon, who was a client of mine and good friend, was doing a Gridiron speech and he said, "can you write jokes for me." I said, "OK, I'll give it a try."

I wrote some material and the next day I got a call from Frank Mankowicz (ph), who was a good friend of Paul's, and he said, "yeah, you're funny at this maybe you ought to try this for a living."

Which I wasn't sure whether it was the way he was saying I was funny or they wanted me out of politics.

GROSS: Do the political people who you write jokes for want to make it seem as if they just spontaneously have this great sense of humor and they haven't hired joke writers? Would they prefer that you not take credit for these jokes?

MACKS: No one's ever said -- and that's why as a general rule I don't go out there and say, "oh, I just wrote for Bill Clinton's Gridiron speech," or whatever. If someone calls -- if the president's office calls or speechwriters call or the vice president and they say, can you help out? Can you contribute some jokes?

I'll send them in. There's actually, I'm sure, a team of people also doing that. And I never will go out the next day and say, "hey, hear the president's joke? That was mine. That was mine." I just kind of leave it like that because in terms of the boss, as far as I'm concerned, the boss has written all the jokes himself.

GROSS: Now how is the delivery of the political people you've written for like Clinton, Dole, Gore?

MACKS: Well, to me I think of the non-professional comics that are out there -- to me, I love Dole's delivery. I think he's -- because he's very dry. He's very deadpan. He takes the right pauses. I think he really can hit a joke really well. And I've always liked seeing him when he delivers something.

I wrote a few things for John F. Kennedy Jr. for a speech he gave once, and I thought he did a great job on that too.

GROSS: Now there's something about your move that seems a little bit backwards. You went from being, I would imagine, a pretty well compensated political consultant -- moving up in the field, I would guess, maybe I'm wrong. To start at the very bottom of -- well, I mean you're writing for the top show, but still you're a joke writer. So did it seem like you weren't sure if you were moving up or down or what?

MACKS: Well, it was a gamble in a sense. I mean, in one sense they're saying when you come to the "Tonight" show you're starting off by saying, OK, you've never played baseball before, you're going to pitch in the World Series. So I was lucky enough to start out on the best show with Jay.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

MACKS: On the other hand, I was leaving a career where I was pretty well compensated and where I was established. I had clients and I had good political connections as they say. And -- but to me it really was a no-brainer coming out here. I mean I always wanted to write comedy, even when I was in law school I would do a little stand up. I was never very good. But I enjoyed doing it.

I always was a fan of comedy. And when someone comes out to you and says, here you've got a shot; right from the start on the top show on TV. You can do this. It was worth a gamble.

GROSS: Give us a sense of how the monologue is written. How the writers submit their work. How it's actually put together in a monologue.

MACKS: You know, from my perspective people always get the image of comedy writers -- I think all of us have the image from the "Dick Van Dyke Show." You know, when you see Sally and Buddy and Dick Van Dyke sitting in the backroom, and Mel Cooley comes in and then Carl -- Alan Brady is coming in and they're talking about and the they're fighting.

That's really writing if you're looking -- that was writing for a variety show. From the monologue perspective, it's really pretty much the writers in our rooms. I sit down with my "USA Today." I've got the TV on. And writing down my topics and writing jokes.

And then turning them into Jay. And Jay's taking the jokes from everyone. He's writing his own. And then he's putting it together. He and Jimmy Brogan (ph), who's I guess the vice president of the monologue in the sense of Jay's friend and obviously his top person in terms of putting together.

They really put it together in a room by themselves. So I don't ever know what I've written whether it's going to get in. A lot of times I'll hear a premise that I've submitted. It's worded exactly as I've written it, but it's a totally different punchline. Meaning Jay saw it, liked the idea, thought of something funnier, put it in.

GROSS: What happens if a joke of yours bombs? What are some of the things that Jay Leno has said as they bomb? You know, little asides that he's made, and what would he say to you after?

MACKS: He's never said anything to anyone after. Ever. The great thing about "The Tonight Show" and the monologue is I think we've done something like 1550 shows -- Jay's done like 1550 shows. And it's in the can. You tape for the hour. It's done. It's on the air that night. You move on to the next one.

And I don't think there's ever been any looking back. There's never been a "hey John, that really didn't work." Or anything like that. I think he just moves on -- you know, just because it's a topical monologue you're always looking ahead.

And I like that. The joke's done. That's why a lot of people say "well, what's your favorite joke?" To be honest, Terry, a lot of times -- once they're written I just kind of put them out of my mind because you're always working on what's new for the next day.

GROSS: Does he gave you any instructions at the beginning of the day of the kind of material he'd like or the kind of subjects he'd like used.

MACKS: No. It's a great creative atmosphere, because you just sit there and write the things that strike you as funny. And we don't write, at least from my perspective -- I mean, I don't write saying, "gee, I think that people will think this is funny."

To me, if it makes me laugh as I'm typing it I enjoy it. A lot of those never make the air. I write, I guess, personally about 100 jokes today. So figure in a good day if Jay uses one or two of mine I'm thrilled.

GROSS: That's a lot of jokes.

MACKS: It's a lot of rejection.


Rejected 98 -- on a good day I'm rejected 98 percent of the time.

GROSS: So where do all the dead jokes go?

MACKS: Recycling.

GROSS: Do you remember any of them? Do you go home at night and say, "hey this is the one Jay didn't like. But it's funny. Isn't it? Laugh. Come on, laugh. It's funny."

MACKS: No, again, I really tend to look forward. When I say it goes into recycling -- once it's done it's not used. It's in the trash can. I mean, the concept may stay with me a little bit. I might try a slightly different spin next time.

But it's like today, or this week right now, I'm reading that the movies out today -- like Monday everyday you come out with what movies there are. So what are the top movies of the week? Well, it's "Payback" and it's "8MM," and it's "Message in a Bottle."

So it's, 'gee, can I come up with something funny with any of those movies?" And if it doesn't work well, there's going to be a new number one movie next week.

GROSS: Well Jon Macks, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

MACKS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jon Macks writes for "The Tonight Show," and is the author of the new book "Heaven Talks Back;" a spoof of pop books about religion.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: Jon Macks
High: Writer for the "Tonight Show with Jay leno," Jon Macks. He has anew book that spoofs books about spiritualism. It's called "Heaven Talks Back."
Spec: Entertainment; Religion; Media; Television and Radio; Lifestyle; Culture; Jon Macks

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 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: Jon Macks
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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