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"The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart is the co-producer and anchorman of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” The show is an alternative take on the news. Previously Stewart had a part on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.” He also hosted Comedy Central’s “Short Attention Span Theater.”


Other segments from the episode on May 31, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 31, 2000: Interview with Jon Stewart; Interview with Jim DeRogatis; Review of a production of Shakespeare's play "Macbeth."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jon Stewart talks about "The Daily Show" and his
plans for covering the political conventions

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, comic Jon Stewart, anchors Comedy Central's nightly news satire,
"The Daily Show." Here's Stewart on last night's edition, talking about the
recent NRA convention.

(Soundbite from "The Daily Show," courtesy Comedy Central)

Mr. JON STEWART: NRA members also pulled the trigger on an unprecedented
third term for acting president, Charlton Heston.

Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (NRA President): I want to say those fighting words, for
everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for
you, Mr. Gore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HESTON: From my cold, dead hands.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. STEWART: OK, Cut--Chucky, Chucky...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: It's a convention, baby, it's not "The Omega Man." You got to
tone it down. (Mimics Heston) `From my cold, dead hands!'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: It's all wrong! You're scaring the kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Jon Stewart took over "The Daily Show" in January of 1999. Stewart
previously played himself on "The Larry Sanders Show," Garry Shandling's
spoof of late-night talk shows. Stewart also hosted his own interview show on
MTV. On June 8th, he'll make his Carnegie Hall debut at the Toyota Comedy
Festival. This summer Stewart will anchor "The Daily Show" from the
Republican and Democratic political conventions.

I asked Jon Stewart what he finds silliest or most self-important about TV
news shows.

Mr. STEWART: News shows basically function as entertainment shows, so our
show can live in that area between what news shows ostensibly are supposed to
be and what news shows are, which is just another vehicle for ratings for a
network. So we live in sort of that area of `You won't believe what's growing
in your washing machine--what you don't know about it could kill your
children,' that sort of scare tactic, when they use their tactics of scaring
and sensationalizing things just to get people to tune in. That's, I think,
the pompousness that we exploit.

GROSS: So what are some of the stories you've done using the same kind of
scare techniques as the news magazines?

Mr. STEWART: Well, we did a big story on gravity, and how it could be
affecting your children, keeping them on the ground, etc., and what a
dangerous thing it might be. It was just a huge promo with kids on a slide.
You know, we used all the--you know that empty swing on the playground...

GROSS: Oh, right.

Mr. STEWART: ...that they use every now and again to show that if you don't
watch this thing, your child could be gone from the swing--I'm not really sure
what it means. So it was about gravity. We did another one on Ritalin, and
the basic premise of the Ritalin one was--our correspondent, Steve
Carell, listed all the symptoms where you could tell if your child had
ADHD, and they were things like, `Wants his mommy, keeps outgrowing clothes,'
which was basically every child in the country. And so his premise was
everyone, all kids, should be on Ritalin, because it makes it a lot easier for
parents. And while he was discussing all the various options, he was taking
the pills himself, and he ended up tripping.

GROSS: Yeah. That's good, that's good.

Now you're going to be at the Democrat and Republican conventions, I believe.


GROSS: Have you been to a convention before?

Mr. STEWART: I have been to a convention before. It was the Shriners, and
they were wonderful. They were very open, not very much politicking. I did
go--I think when the Democratic convention was in New York, I went to it one
day, when it was up at Madison Square Garden, and, wow, is that boring. Talk
about boring. Talk about a waste of time. There used to be, you
know--remember the old days, when, like, people would riot and stuff, and
they'd throw Dan Rather off the floor, you know, that kind of thing? Yeah.

They don't do that any more. Now it's just--again, it's sort of the
entertainment value of it. It's produced like the Emmys in 1982. You know,
you almost expect, you know, the first lady to come out in a Bob Mackie, and
you know, they'll cut together some really cheesy montage about how they're
trying to help people, and then every now and again, cut away to whoever it is
has the characteristic that they're trying to help.

You know, I remember when the Republicans were in their `big tent' phase--I
don't know if you remember that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEWART: They used to talk about, `Hey, we're Republicans, we're
inclusive now.' And the nice thing about politics is you don't actually have
to be the things you say you are, because there's no truth in advertising
there, so they're just going to go, `Oh, we're inclusive. For instance, black
people--we're very fond of them.' And then they would cut away towards,
like--there'd be a black guy in the audience, you know--and they'd cut away to
him. But unfortunately, you know, they wanted to talk a lot about how they
were fond of black people, but they only had, like, one black guy in there, so
they just kept cutting away to the same guy. And after a while, you just felt
like, `Jeez, change your hat, dude,' you know. At least make an effort to
show that there's someone else there.

GROSS: So what's your plan at the conventions? Where are you going to be?
What do you hope to--who do you hope to talk to? What do you hope to do?

Mr. STEWART: Well, we're going to have--you know, we're putting together our
list of analysts right now. We've got--Senator Dole is lined up to be an
analyst. I think former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich will be there working
with us. We're hoping to get a lead on maybe Senator Bob Kerrey. You know,
we discussed--when we were in Philadelphia, we actually had Arlen Specter on
the show awhile back, so we're hoping Arlen will do some work with us again.
So those are the people that we're putting together.

The main thing is, we're going to be doing our show, with our correspondents,
out on the floor, covering this thing in the best way we know how.
We're--we're already putting together our `Man from Hope' films about the
candidates, and those kinds of things. We're probably going to be doing the
evocative cutaway of the night, which will be, you know, if they're talking
about child care and they cut away to a baby in the audience, for instance,
that will probably be our cutaway of the night.

GROSS: If you try to, say, get an interview with one of the politicians at a


GROSS: you think a lot of them will, like, run the other way? Do you


GROSS: ...a lot of the politicians are afraid of being on a comedy show, that
they're not going to be funny enough or that they'll be mocked?

Mr. STEWART: There's a sense of that, but I think there's a more
overwhelming sense of `Is that a media outlet? Does that beam my image out to
people's homes? Let me at it.'

GROSS: I think they've all hired writers. I think they've all hired, like,
comic writers to zetz up their jokes and write them jokes.

Mr. STEWART: Right. But what--you know, that's not so annoying as the fact
that they've all hired writers to zetz up their policies. You know, that's...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. STEWART: I mean, it's--that's the whole thing that's interesting to me is
that comedy is sort of looked upon as a point of interest in political
campaigns, and people talk about, `Jeez,' you know, `when do you draw the line
at a joke, and how do you go too far, and isn't it annoying that politicians
are trying to be funny?' And I don't find any of that annoying, because it's
all under the guise of entertainment. What I find annoying is that they use
the exact same principles to do that as they do to form policy, and that's,
I think, where we're in a little bit of trouble. It's not so much that, you
know, Gore hired a guy to write him a couple of jokes, depending on what crowd
he was working to, it's that he hired somebody to make sure that his shirt
tones made him look manly and that his policies wouldn't offend a certain
demographic that he thinks is a core element of the--you know, it's all smoke
and mirrors.

GROSS: Jon Stewart, I first heard about you when you signed for the MTV show
"The Jon Stewart Show" in...

Mr. STEWART: First of all, thank you for calling me `Jon Stewart.' I think
that's very nice, to use my whole name, Terry Gross.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, yes. All right. OK. It...

Mr. STEWART: You know what's nice about this, Terry?

GROSS: What's nice about this...

Mr. STEWART: You don't find me amusing in the slightest.

GROSS: No, I do. Now what do you think--see--now wait. Now let me--wait.
I'm going to stop you right here. I'm going to stop you right here. First
of--wait. Now let me explain something to our listeners.


GROSS: We are talking long distance. I'm in a studio in Philadelphia...

Mr. STEWART: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and Jon's in a studio in New York.

Mr. STEWART: And I'm naked on an air mattress somewhere in Hoboken.

GROSS: That's right. So, now you can't see me smiling with amusement, and

Mr. STEWART: Oh, I can't?

GROSS: No, and unless I laugh out loud, you think you're really, like,
bombing in our studio, and you're not.

Mr. STEWART: I have a picture of you...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. STEWART: ...sitting here smiling and nodding. It's on a bobble-headed
doll, and...

GROSS: See, but I'm just faking it in a smile. These smiles...

Mr. STEWART: Every time I make a joke...

GROSS: I'm faking it in the photo, but these smiles are for real here.

Mr. STEWART: All right. All right. That's very nice of you, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, I think it's really hard for a comic like you to be alone in a
studio with nobody in there as an audience, not even me...

Mr. STEWART: I think it's hard for...

GROSS: ...not even your interviewee--not even your interviewer.

Mr. STEWART: I think it's hard for a comic like me...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEWART: be alone anywhere. I'm a needy son of a bitch. Oh, I'm
sorry. All right. There you go.

GROSS: Well, let...

Mr. STEWART: No fake laughter, Terry. I won't have that.

GROSS: See, now I...

Mr. STEWART: I won't be condescended to.

GROSS: Well, that's the thing. Now I have to just fake laughter to make you
feel more secure. Is that fair?

Mr. STEWART: No, you don't. Not at all. Here's the thing: I feel
tremendously secure by the fact that NPR has asked me to come on. You have no
idea of the kind of validation that means to me.

GROSS: So now we can both be very disingenuous and proceed.

Mr. STEWART: Yes! I have--my career is to be disingenuous.

GROSS: That's the way I like to keep it.

Mr. STEWART: That's my whole career. If I wasn't disingenuous, I'd actually
be helping people, charity-wise. Think of all the crazy things I think about
the government, and if I was actually a genuine person, I'd be out there doing
something about it...

GROSS: All right.

Mr. STEWART: ...instead of writing a bunch of jokes.

GROSS: Well, now let me say that I first heard about you in--I guess it
was--was it '94 that you got the MTV show, "The Jon Stewart Show?"


GROSS: And you were being pitched as, like, the next hot young guy. And then
less than a year later, you lost the show and you became the guy who got
canceled, and I was wondering what it was like for you to, in a pretty rapid
span of time, go from, like, the hot guy to the canceled guy.

Mr. STEWART: I've got to cancel that. Well, the truth is you don't
really--you're not really that much different. Like when I was the hot guy, I
wasn't any taller or better-looking, and when I was the canceled guy, I
wasn't any shorter or uglier. Do you know what I mean? You're still the
same. That was a lesson I learned early on is that as long as you have the
ability to do what you do, which is write jokes, it really doesn't matter what
they're calling you, because they don't live with you--unless people in your
apartment are actually saying that. That would be harder. Like if you woke
up and they went, `Hey, you're the canceled guy.' `Hey, come on, I'm just
trying to get some eggs.' `What's that, canceled guy?' You don't really hear
that whole lot. I mean, you read about it, but it's not like you physically
feel when you're hot and when you're not. In other words, you don't--I don't
know. It's not like I went out much more, anyway, when I was hot, or
something, when I was on MTV. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah, but it...

Mr. STEWART: They weren't, like, holding parades for me in the street, and
every time I'd walk by, they'd go, `It's the hot guy! Hey, everybody, it's
the hot guy!' And then I would--when I was canceled, they, like, `We will shun
you,' like West Point, everybody just turns their back and they were silent,
you know. It's...

GROSS: But don't you get more offers and more money when you're the hot guy
than when you're the canceled guy?

Mr. STEWART: Not--I don't know. I mean, the big difference is I didn't have
an office to go to every day. But it wasn't like--I didn't stop working, and
I guess maybe the money was less. Yeah. I mean, it wasn't so dramatic, I
guess, as--it wasn't like I went from an Oscar winner to a crack addict.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. STEWART: You know what I mean? Like when I was the hot guy, I wasn't
exactly that hot. I was--you know, my cable show looked like it was doing
well, and when I was the canceled guy, it's not like, you know, it was
"Seinfeld" and I got dropped out. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah. Right.

Mr. STEWART: It was a pretty small-time deal to begin with.

GROSS: Right. Got it.

Mr. STEWART: So I guess the disparity wasn't that great.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: And also, in--my barometer is more internal than external to
begin with.

GROSS: My guest is Jon Stewart, the anchor of Comedy Central's nightly news
satire, "The Daily Show." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Jon Stewart is my guest and he's the host of "The Daily Show" with Jon
Stewart on Comedy Central. And the show will be going to the political
conventions this summer and Jon Stewart will be headlining at the Toyota
Comedy Festival in New York.

How did you decide to, like, try stand-up? What made you think that you would
feel comfortable standing in front of an audience doing your four minutes or
seven minutes or whatever, you know, when you were just getting started.

Mr. STEWART: I guess my work at Alcoholics Anonymous. But, you know, I'd
done so well in that room that--no. I--you know, it's a rhythm. It really is
a rhythm that either makes sense to you or doesn't. It's like--I think it's
similar--you know, I would watch somebody who's a musician and just go, `Wow,
that looks like magic to me.' But I'd watch a comedian and go, `Huh,
that's--yeah. All right. I could see why he thinks that.' So it's a rhythm
that makes sense to you, that is whatever your thought process is that--you
know, to get up on stage for the first time, obviously, you're doing more of
an impression of a comedian than you are of yourself. You're writing jokes
that you think are supposedly funny and that sort of thing. And then it takes
a long time to sort of discover your own rhythm. But the rhythm itself made
sense to me.

GROSS: Did you do autobiographical stuff in your early...

Mr. STEWART: Everybody does.

GROSS: ...stand-up?

Mr. STEWART: The basic sort of--here's the sort of evolution of man as

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: Sort of like that little chart. You start out talking about
your family. That'll get you about 20 minutes, 20 minutes of material. That
20 minutes of material gets you on the road. When you get on the road, you
develop your 15 to 20 minutes of, `Hey, you guys ever been to Chattanooga.
Hey, that's a crazy town. You know, they got a museum there of old cars,'
joke. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEWART: So you get your, `I'm a comedian on the road. Hey, hotels.
Come on, people. That's so--seriously, people, anyone.' And then also you're
spending a lot of time in rooms watching TV so that's when you first develop
your, `Have you seen this commercial about the guy and the Kotex?' So there's
that bit. And so you develop your thing and then at a certain point you
exhaust all of that and you turn to the events of the day. And that's, I
think, sort of the general evolution of the comedian. So you don't--you know,
and some people stay with the family thing all the time. They get--they can
mine that. But the majority of people move off of that once they've mined it.
Because the problem is once you start being a comedian, you stop living to a
certain extent.

GROSS: Oh, because you're on the road all the time?

Mr. STEWART: You stop living it. Well, you stop living sort of a normal
life. It's like with the rock bands. You know, everybody always writes the
heroine song or their, `Jeez, it's lonely on the road song.'

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEWART: You know, (singing) `On a steel horse I ride, because I'm
wanted--wanted--dead or alive.' And I think we all know Bon Jovi's not
actually wanted dead or alive. I think we understand he's not an outlaw, but
he is on a steel horse, a bus, a metaphor for the loneliness of the road.
And so that's what we all do.

GROSS: Well, now you grew up in neighborhood in New Jersey that you've said
had very few Jewish families in it. And you were one of the few. There's--I
think it's in "Annie Hall," where Woody Allen imagines what Diane Keaton is
going to think of him when she takes him to meet her very non-Jewish parents.

Mr. STEWART: Right. Right. Yeah. Very funny scene.

GROSS: And he imagines himself with--looking like an ultra-Orthodox Jew with
peyes and the beard and everything. Did you...

Mr. STEWART: Yeah.

GROSS: ...have a self-image about how you thought people in your neighborhood
saw you as the Jewish guy in the neighborhood? The Jewish kid?

Mr. STEWART: I mean, it was wrapped in not just that. It wasn't pure--you
know, we weren't Orthodox by any stretch of the imagination. But it was more
just--I didn't have a vision of what I thought they saw me as. I saw what
they saw me as. I was an ugly, ugly small boy. My head is the same size as
it was now. My body was about a quarter of the size it is now. So I
literally looked like a Jewish "Peanuts" character. I looked like
Schlomo(ph), the "Peanuts" character next to Franklin. So it was a giant
head and just as the body started to grow, my head decided to cover itself
with acne. So sort of a no win situation.

But yeah--no, it wasn't--you've got to understand, humor is about deflecting
criticism in many ways. But that's not the only--it's a rhythm that I was
comfortable with from the start. I didn't come up with jokes because I
thought, `Oh, if I make a joke, girls'll like me.' It wasn't cognitive. It
was a rhythm that I understood somehow from the start, just as a very young

GROSS: OK. Now you didn't think that, `If I come up with jokes, girls will
like me.' But nevertheless, was it easier to attract girls when they
realized that you were funny? Was that a help at all? You know, a lot of
musicians say that they started playing music...

Mr. STEWART: Right.

GROSS: ...because it was easier to meet women that way.

Mr. STEWART: Let me make something very clear here.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: The worst bass player in the world gets laid more than the best
comedian. So if this was an attempt to score women, here's what it did.
`Hey, hey, Jon, go talk to those girls and loosen them up a little bit so that
your good-looking friends can come in and get laid.' Here's the thing, the
first time I got to second base, with a girl I was in my car. I had a
Gremlin. OK? I was 17 years old, the first time I got to second base and I
wasn't me doing it. It was a friend of mine with a girl in the backseat and I
was watching through the rearview mirror, but I counted it. Do you see what
I'm saying? I counted it. I'm not proud of that.

GROSS: My guest is Jon Stewart. He hosts "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central
and the show will be going to the Democratic and Republican conventions this
summer, the presidential conventions. Is there anything you're really looking
forward to and anything you're particularly dreading about doing the show from
the conventions in the summer, from the political conventions?

Mr. STEWART: Well, from a technical aspect, anytime you move the show into a
place where you're not accustomed to doing it, there's going to be a lot of
glitches. And we're going to have to overcome those. But the beauty of it is
everybody's in it for the long haul. I mean, we're in it and the excitement
of being there and the excitement of feeling relevant--'cause we're not
actually a news show, we're a fake news show. So we're not really relevant.
We don't ever break news. We react to it. You know, if we broke news about
something, it wouldn't be funny. If we made jokes about Monica Lewinsky
before anybody knew who she was, that probably wouldn't have gone over so big.
So we're really just a reactive comedy show but we'll feel relevant 'cause
we'll be in the environment of the conventions and that will feel exciting.

GROSS: Is it at the point yet where there's, like, a lot of comics at the
convention? Like is Bill Maher bringing his show there and you guys are
bringing your show there? And do you fear at some point, it will be like
there's too many comics at the convention?

Mr. STEWART: I really don't think the public would put up with that.

GROSS: That is...

Mr. STEWART: I really don't. I think they're barely putting up with the
fact that there's too many networks at the convention.

GROSS: All right.

Mr. STEWART: They're not even watching it. I mean, most networks are
scaling back their coverage anyway. They're not going gavel to gavel.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. STEWART: You know why?


Mr. STEWART: Nothing happens.

GROSS: Well, but you have to hope that something does happen, don't you?

Mr. STEWART: No. That's the beauty of it.

GROSS: Oh, this is kind of--the more trite it is...

Mr. STEWART: All we have...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: Exactly. All we have to hope is that they make it seem like
something happens.

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

Mr. STEWART: Yeah.


Mr. STEWART: That's the area we live. That's our house.

GROSS: Well, good luck at the convention and have...

Mr. STEWART: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: ...a good time there.

Mr. STEWART: I appreciate that.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what you're doing at the Comedy Festival.
What's your stand-up act like now? I think most of us know you more
from--from television than from your show?

Mr. STEWART: I will be performing at Carnegie Hall on June 8th and I will be
talking about everything from the hoax that is the computer age to Elian
Gonzalez to my dog throwing up. It's that wide range.


Mr. STEWART: Did that make any sense? I've made no sense with you. I feel
an immense pressure to be on NPR and to make sense because I don't want to get
that--you know, I was on NPR once before and we read a story from my book and
it got--you know, you get those calls the next day. `I'm a professor of
history in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I take exception to Mr. Stewart's
qualification of artistic merit as he said, "poopie." No, I disagree with
him. No, indeed.'

GROSS: Well...

Mr. STEWART: `And I am returning my tote bag, tout suite.' There see? Terry
Gross laughs at the NPR jokes and that's it.

GROSS: Jon Stewart anchors Comedy Central's nightly news satire "The Daily
Show." On June 8th, he'll make his Carnegie Hall debut as part of the Toyota
Comedy Festival. By the way, I think that professor has called us, too. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Credits given)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio. Coming up, the bad boy of rock
criticism. We talk with Jim DeRogatis about his new biography of the late
Lester Bangs. We're listening to a record by Count Five, a group Bangs
championed in the mid-'60s. And Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new production of
"Macbeth" starring Kelsey Grammer.

(Soundbite of song)

COUNT FIVE: I feel depressed, I feel so bad. 'Cause you're the best girl
that I've ever had. I can't get your love. I can't get affection. Oh,
little girl, psychotic reaction. And it feels like this.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Rock critic and author Jim DeRogatis discusses his new
book, "Let It Blurt," which looks at the career of rock critic
Lester Bangs

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The late rock critic Lester Bangs is the subject of the new biography "Let It
Blurt" that also tells the early history of rock criticism. My guest is the
author, Jim DeRogatis, the pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. He
describes Bangs as having revelled in the excesses of rock 'n' roll, matching
its passion in prose that erupted from the pages of Rolling Stone, Cream and
The Village Voice. In the process, he became a peer of the artists he
celebrated, brash visionaries and dedicated individualists such as Iggy Pop,
Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Lou Reed.

Although Bangs was known for his excesses, DeRogatis says that this is not
just the story of a guy who drank Romilar cough syrup by the gallon, insulted
rock stars, then died. Without the poetry of his writing and his singular
lust for life, the story would not have been worth telling. Bangs started
publishing in the late '60s. He died in 1982 at the age of 33 of what is
believed to have been a drug overdose. I asked DeRogatis to sum up Bangs'

Mr. JIM DeROGATIS (Author, "Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs,
America's Greatest Rock Critic"): He was sort of the Jack Kerouac and the
Charles Bukowski and the Hunter S. Thompson of rock criticism all rolled into
one, a character who, in many regards, was larger than any of the people he
wrote about, or at least as large, as much of a rock star as many of the rock
stars he wrote about.

GROSS: Can you read a paragraph from one of Lester Bangs' pieces that will
help show why you think he was so special?

Mr. DeROGATIS: Absolutely. This is from the piece "Psychotic Reactions and
Carburetor Dung," which gives his anthology its name--a 1987 anthology that
Greil Marcus edited. (Reading) `Perhaps the truest autobiography I could ever
write--and I know this holds as well for many other people--would take place
largely at record counters, jukeboxes, pushing forward in the driver's seat
while AM walloped you on, alone under headphones with vast scenic bridges and
angelic choirs in the brain through insomniac post-midnights, or just to sit
at leisure, stoned or not, in the vast benign lap of America, slapping on
sides and feeling good.'

GROSS: And what do you like about that?

Mr. DeROGATIS: That's Lester on being a fan, on loving music, on being
driven to preach about the music he loved.

GROSS: Yeah. He once described shopping for records as being a major form of
self-expression for him when he was young.

Mr. DeROGATIS: Yeah. And in another passage, he described it as therapy, as
something that saved his sanity. You know, he grew up in what he called this
ice cream and television suburban world of El Cajon, California, a suburb of
San Diego. And he grew up a Jehovah's Witness. His mom was a fanatic,
religious person. There are pictures of him marching in front of San Diego
Kingdom Hall with a sign that says, `What is your destiny?' And, you know, he
had to go door-to-door and proselytize. And music was forbidden in the home.
And it was never--it's never, still to this day, not a big part of Jehovah's
Witnesses' services.

And so when he broke out via the manic jazz of Mingus and Coltrane and Beat
poetry, he went in a big way. And then rock 'n' roll was even more of a
salvation. It was his way out of this entire upbringing.

GROSS: You met Lester Bangs when you were a senior in high school. You were
given the assignment of interviewing a hero. So you chose Bangs. You went to
his apartment in Manhattan and did an interview with him. And in fact, you
brought some excerpts of that interview with you now. What were you expecting
him to be like?

Mr. DeROGATIS: I think I had the cliched notion that a lot of his readers
had, that he was this manic guy bouncing off the walls, some unholy
combination of Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski and every rock star I'd
ever seen, you know, Johnny Rotten and Jack Kerouac at the same time. And,
you know, he wasn't like that at all. He was, like, my buddy. He was very
solicitous of my opinions. He wanted to know what I was thinking, what I was
reading, you know, what I was excited about. And I was--that kind of blew me
away. I wasn't prepared for that. I'm just--you know, I'm a 17-year-old putz
from New Jersey. Don't--what do you mean--here Lester Bangs. But he was like
that with everyone. He was very, very--he always sought to communicate and
find out what was getting people excited. And to him, I think rock 'n' roll
criticism was at its best when it was a discourse between people who were
passionate about the subject, as passionate as he was.

GROSS: You were talking to him of that in your interview, about his bad boy
image and his image of, like, insulting people all the time. And this was his

(Soundbite from 1982 audio tape recording)

Mr. LESTER BANGS: You know--I mean, there was a time in my life when you
would have come up here today and I would have got all drunk, and everything,
and really, you know, just--you might have preferred it that way, and been a
little bit exhibitionistic, you know, and all that, but if I act like that,
I'd--well, I might live a long time, but I won't live very long as a good
writer. You know, that's just the way it goes, the way it works, you know.

I mean, like, you know, like, Charles Bukowski. I mean, he's reached a point
now--he's this poet out in LA, you know. And he, like--he gets his picture
taken all--him wearing this T-shirt with his face on it that says, `Bukowski'
on it. And he writes this--you know, he's probably--he wrote a poem in his
latest book that says, `I can't write,' you know. I can't--that's why he's
useless, he's writing a poem about how he can't write, you know?

GROSS: That was Lester Bangs recorded in a 1982 interview with my guest, Jim
DeRogatis. And now DeRogatis has written a new biography of the late Lester

Jim, it's really ironic that Bangs was talking about how, you know, he thought
he'd live longer if he--by not being that combative personality in real life.
He actually died just a couple of weeks after this interview that he recorded
with you. What did he die of?

Mr. DeROGATIS: It was two weeks later when the news broke of his death. And
I think for a very long time it's lingered out there, and nobody in the rock
world was really certain. It's sort of obfuscated in the introduction to
"Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," the anthology of his work that was
edited by Greil Marcus. I did the reporting years later. And the autopsy
report reveals Darvon in his bloodstream, which was an analgesic painkiller
that was known for its propensity for overdose. It was a dangerous drug, and
it's no longer prescribed. And Valium, as well.

You know, all of his life, he'd been an addict to various pills. Romilar
cough medicine was a favorite. Dextromethorphan, the key ingredient in
Romilar--which is no longer manufactured--is still in every cough medicine on
the shelves today. It's the key ingredient that makes you stop coughing. And
kids would abuse this through the '70s and into the early '80s. If you drink
it in enough quantity, you trip like a wildebeest as much as PCP. It's got
psychedelic propensity. And now they put a chemical in cough medicine that's
designed only to make you vomit if you drink enough of it to trip.

But of all the things--at a time when cocaine and, you know, heroin and all
the drugs that rock stars typically abuse were flowing, you know, rampantly,
Lester was addicted to, you know, cough medicine and, you know, cheap pills
and alcohol.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit more about Lester Bangs as a critic. How did
his tastes in music compare to what we think of as, like, the rock 'n' roll

Mr. DeROGATIS: I think Lester was very much a proto gen Xer. He was--much
of his career was in firm opposition to the baby boom critics. He was a baby
boomer, himself, but the baby boom pantheon that was being erected. You know,
he did not hold that the Jefferson Airplane and all the San Francisco bands of
1967 were the high point of psychedelic rock or of rock 'n' roll in the '60s.
He preferred, you know, the grungy--what he called `the zit farmers from San
Jose,' the Count Five, who recorded "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung."
And he lauded The Troggs, you know, a garage band from England, in a
30,000-word epic, where he fantasized getting on a bus and driving to James
Taylor and killing James Taylor in a brutal, violent assault because he hated
that sort of singer-songwriter music and celebrated this loud and aggressive
proto punk rock. He championed heavy metal, and loved--called Black Sabbath
the John Miltons of rock 'n' roll.

I can't emphasize enough that he had these great philosophical insights and
heavy intellectual ideas even when it was this, you know, rapid spew of
colorful prose. There was real substantive ideas in there about the music he

GROSS: Now although he loved music so passionately and felt so strongly about
the musicians whose music he loved, he often got into these very combative
relationships with musicians. And I think--started to think of a lot of rock
stars as being incredibly spoiled and obnoxious. You actually asked him, I
think, about his interviewing style, about that combative style. Would you
introduce this excerpt of the interview for us?

Mr. DeROGATIS: And exactly that. I mean, he was famous for his combative
interviews with Lou Reed and for other rock stars, where he just refused to
admit that they were the geniuses they were trying to portray themselves as,
and would try to get at the real human being behind this image. And I asked
him just that, `How did you develop your interview style?'

(Soundbite from 1982 audio tape recording)

Mr. BANGS: Well, basically, I just tried to start out to lead with the most
insulting question I could possibly think of, you know. Because it seemed to
me that the whole thing of, like, interviewing as far as, you know, rock stars
and that was just such a suck-up job. You know? I mean, it was like you were
just groveling, obeisance, to people that weren't that special, really. You
know, it's just a guy. It's just another person.


Mr. BANGS: So what?

GROSS: That was Lester Bangs recorded in a 1982 interview with my guest, Jim
DeRogatis, the author of a new biography of Bangs. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is rock critic Jim DeRogatis, author of "Let It Blurt," a
biography of the late rock critic Lester Bangs.

Do you know what led Lester Bangs to want to start writing about rock?

Mr. DeROGATIS: Yeah, I asked him that. I asked him exactly that, and this is
what he said.

(Soundbite from 1982 audio tape recording)

Mr. BANGS: When I look back on it, it's just that it was obvious that I was
going to end up doing this because of, you know, my two big obsessions were
always music and writing, you know. It's like, you know, yeah, I mean, it's
an outgrowth of being a fanatical record collector or, you know, a fanatical
listener, you have fanatical opinions that you want to inflict on people.

GROSS: I think that soundbite gets to how extreme he felt about things and
how deeply things registered on Lester Bangs. How did he start to write for
Rolling Stone magazine?

Mr. DeROGATIS: In 1967, '68, Rolling Stone was desperate for anybody who
would send anything in over the transom. And I talked to almost of all the
early editors at the magazine, and Lester was sending this stuff in--these
long screeds--saying, `Look, you jerks, this is better than anything you're
publishing. And you better run this or give me a reason why.' And they were
ignoring him because he was this shoe salesman who was tripping on Romilar
living in El Cajon, and they were, of course, in San Francisco, the center of
the cultural universe in the summer of love.

Finally, they ran a cover story on the MC5, and it was this fawning, glowing
profile about how not only was the MC5 in Detroit a great rock 'n' roll band,
but they were going to be the leaders of the new revolution. And the White
Panther Party--their manager, John Sinclair, was the leader of the White
Panther Party. You know, they were going to result in rioting in the streets
and the New World Order and so on and so forth.

And Lester rushed out and bought the album and thought that it was the biggest
hype he had ever been sold. So he wrote this venomous response--record review
in response, and it was so good that Rolling Stone finally published it. And
he would--from that point on, he was sending four or five reviews a week, one
or two of which might get published. And he was a big presence in Rolling
Stone through its early golden days. When Greil Marcus became its first
record review editor, he thought Lester was extraordinary. He published him
regularly. Those golden days only lasted, mind you, about a year. And Lester
never really found his home at Rolling Stone. He was--that was not where he
did his best work. That would come later when he moved to Detroit and Cream

And when he got there, he met the members of the MC5, became best friends with
them and reversed his opinion. He came to think that the MC5 were a great
band, and it was a shame that this political agenda had been superimposed on
them. He did that a lot. A lot of times--with Patti Smith or with The
Rolling Stones' "Exile On Main Street," he would reverse his opinion, which I
actually think is a sign of intellectual security, that he was strong enough
in his own opinions that he could say, `I've changed. I've grown. My opinion
has been developed, and I've gained new insights.' I don't think enough
critics do that today.

GROSS: Lester Bangs was banned from Rolling Stone in 1973. What kind of
trouble did he run into at the magazine?

Mr. DeROGATIS: He had--he'd gotten in trouble several times. He had panned
Buddy Miles, who was, you know, this soul, schlocky drummer. And Miles
stormed into the offices of Rolling Stone at one point looking for Jann
Wenner, who was going to throw him out the window. And Wenner ran down the
fire escape while the secretaries called the police and Miles roughed up
another editor. That was one strike against Lester.

Another was that he panned Canned Heat, you know, in a very funny and
sarcastic review, saying, you know, `Why do we love this endless boogie? Let
us count the ways.' And Wenner, apparently, was close to the manager of
Canned Heat, and blew a gasket and said, you know, `This guy is just not
respectful enough to musicians.'

GROSS: Lester Bangs wrote a lot for Cream magazine. What was Cream's
importance in the development of rock criticism?

Mr. DeROGATIS: Cream was an exceedingly irreverent publication that--I
compare it to what was happening in new journalism. They were breaking the
rules of criticism in journalism, not that there were any rules. I mean, the
whole form was developing and it was this playground that just let the writers
and the artists run free. And there was some great writing, people like Nick
Tosh(ph) and Richard Meltzer and Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs. They were kind
of making up the rules as they went along, writing these long, passionate
screeds that sometimes were directly about the music and sometimes had nothing
to do with the music at all, but were trying to show that the writing itself
could be rock 'n' roll and that, you know, that they could create art that in
some cases was better art than the music they were allegedly supposed to be

Meltzer prided himself on reviewing some albums by never opening the
shrink-wrap and just writing about the cover, which on one level shows a
certain disrespect to the album, but on another there was a deeper, more
fundamental respect to the reader. They were having fun with the words. They
were trying to create something that was very exciting. And they never
underestimated the smarts of their readers, which is in stark contrast to the
sort of criticism that exists today, where everything's a 100-word record
review and two thumbs up and these smiley, happy blurbs.

GROSS: The people who worked for Cream lived together and worked together in
a small farmhouse. And from your book, that sounds like it was a pretty
claustrophobic experience without any privacy.

Mr. DeROGATIS: It really was like a commune. They made $30 a month for
spending on incidentals, and the publisher, Barry Kramer's(ph), staff--you
know, stocked the refrigerator with bratwurst and beer, and they lived and
worked in the same space. And it was even less privacy than they knew. I did
a Freedom of Information Act request, figuring that the FBI was probably aware
of these crazy, hippy publishers because they were monitoring, of course, the
White Panthers very, very closely from the '68 riots and before. And the feds
were literally camped out in the woods like they did with the Unabomber, and
occasionally spying on these people doing this magazine through binoculars and
listening to Black Sabbath blaring from the woods, which is pretty funny.
It's hard to imagine anybody, like, camping out and worrying about the
reviewers at Entertainment Weekly today.

GROSS: What would you say Lester Bangs' legacy is now in rock criticism?

Mr. DeROGATIS: That's a tough one, Terry. I think that a lot of people
imitate the first person style and the gush of prose--not even a lot of
people. Some people imitate that. I think very few people go for the real
legacy, which was that fundamental respect of the reader, that willingness to
challenge the reader and to try to share deep, philosophical insights and
serious intellectual ideas with the reader and not just this schilling of
product, you know, `Here's a hip new album. Go buy it.' And next week,
there's another one. I think that that's what's been lost in rock criticism
today, that there are very people writing with that honesty or that
commitment, and certainly not that insight.

GROSS: You're a rock critic yourself. But I'm wondering if you think that
rock critics now are faced with a lot of pressures to be positive about the
records they review, particularly when those records are on labels represented
by heavy advertisers.

Mr. DeROGATIS: Oh, absolutely. I think that--the thing to remember, that in
Bangs' day and Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosh's, when these guys were writing
in the mid-'70s, that there was no career as a rock critic. These guys were
making $15 for these incredible, poetic, 15,000-word record reviews. And it
was something you did because you believed in it passionately. And now it is
possible to have a career as a rock critic and do very well in the same way
that a lot of celebrity-oriented profilers write these obsequious, you know,
fawning profiles of Hollywood stars. That's the sort of journalism that's
infected the rock world.

And the people who are writing, you know, because they feel compelled to do so
in the same way that Bangs did are pretty much marginalized. They're on the
Web. They're doing fanzines. Or, you know, if they're lucky, they're able to
write for newspapers or editors that give them the freedom to do that. But I
think that they're the exception rather than the rule.

GROSS: You end your biography of Lester Bangs with one of his pieces, a very
funny and perceptive piece called "How to Be a Rock Critic(ph)." Let me ask
you to end our interview with a short reading from this piece.

Mr. DeROGATIS: Absolutely. I wanted people to go out on a laugh, not be
depressed, because I don't think Bangs' story is a depressing one.

(Reading) `Lately, I've noticed a new wrinkle on the American landscape. If
seems as if there's a whole generation of kids, each one younger than the
last, all of whom live, breathe and dream of but one desire: "I want to be a
rock critic when I grow up."'

`If that sounds condescending, let it be known that I was once just like them.
The only difference was that when I held such aspirations, the field was
relatively uncluttered. It was practically nothing to barge right in and
commence the slaughter, whereas now, of course, it's so glutted that the last
thing anybody should ever consider doing is entering this racket. In the
first place, it doesn't pay much and doesn't lead anywhere in particular. So
now matter how successful you are at it, you'll eventually have to decide what
you're going to do with your life, anyway. `In the second place, it's
basically just a racket in the first place, and not a particularly glorious
one at that.'

GROSS: And he goes on to say, with language I can't really use, that it
almost certainly won't get you any sex.

Mr. DeROGATIS: Yeah, absolutely. Although, I think he was the exception.
He was a rock critic who had groupies, probably the last one.

GROSS: Jim DeRogatis, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about
your biography of Lester Bangs.

Mr. DeROGATIS: It was my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Jim DeRogatis is the author of a new biography of rock critic Lester
Bangs called "Let It Blurt." DeRogatis is pop music critic at the Chicago

Coming up, critic Lloyd Schwartz on a new production of "Macbeth" starring
Kelsey Grammer.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Looking at the new Broadway production of "Macbeth"
starring Kelsey Grammer

TV star Kelsey Grammer is about to open on Broadway in the title role of a new
production of "Macbeth." Critic Lloyd Schwartz thinks that too few leading
American actors get to play classic roles. But while he admires Grammer's
daring, he questions the results.


When I was in graduate school, I had a small part in a production of
Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," in which Isabella, the young novice who
refuses to give up her virginity to save her brother's life, was played by
Stockard Channing, who was still an undergraduate. I stood backstage watching
her every night. I thought it was one of the greatest Shakespeare
performances I'd ever seen. I still think so. It was so convincing, so
painfully real, so complex and touching I can still call up details of her
performance and live through it again and again. I wish I could see her as
Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth.

Marlon Brando has that same power as Marc Antony in the MGM film of "Julius
Caesar." He's more alive than even such British stalwarts as John Gielgud and
James Mason. What I'd give to see Brando as Hamlet or King Lear.

The best American actors can bring to a classic role a fresh burst of energy.
Yet, audiences--or at least producers--don't seem very interested in having
stars do classic theater. How can they grow as performers if they can't play
the greatest roles in a variety of styles?

I've been thinking about this because Kelsey Grammer, TV's Frasier Crane, is
doing something very risky right now. He's about to open on Broadway in a
production of "Macbeth." I saw the tryout in Boston, and although I dislike
the production--I think it's very badly directed by Terry Hands, the former
artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Too loud, too rushed,
artsy, yet unpoetic--I admire Grammer's courage. I think he could make a good
Macbeth. He understudied the role 20 years ago, and got to go on a number of
times. And he's played several Shakespeare roles since then. He's
intelligent. He has a resonant voice that projects well. And he has some
real presence.

What he doesn't have yet in this production is a character with an inner life.
When he hears the three witches prophesy that he will become king, he
completely fails to convey the way Macbeth is torn between his ambition and
his sense of what's right, or between his ambition and his fear. At least
he's not playing Macbeth as Frasier Crane. Yet on TV, he has more emotional
variety. As Macbeth, he reads too many of his soliloquies as if they were
saying only one thing rather than depicting a character arguing with himself
or thinking out his problems.

Finally, though, in the later scenes of Macbeth's icy despair and moral
emptiness, Grammer is more believable. In the famous `Tomorrow and tomorrow
and tomorrow' speech, he actually seems to be thinking about what he's saying.
Unfortunately, he's mostly surrounded by boring actors or actors who are even
more poorly directed than he is.

I think he's probably been away from Shakespeare too long. There hasn't been
enough continuity or development of his talent. I can only imagine how much
better he'd have been if he'd kept playing truly rich parts over the last 20
years. If he does well in New York, it will be interesting to see how soon he
tries another classic role. And if he doesn't do well, it will be even more
interesting to see how serious he really is about acting.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches English at the University of
Massachusetts-Boston. A new Broadway production of "Macbeth" starring Kelsey
Grammer is scheduled to begin previews June 9th.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Remembering a great saxophonist and singer

We'll close today's show with a recording featuring singer and saxophone
player Tex Benneky(ph). He died yesterday at the age of 86. Benneky was
best-known for his work with the Glenn Miller Band. He sang on such
recordings as "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" and "I
Got a Gal in Kalamazoo."

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from song)

Group of Singers: Hi there, Tex. How's your new romance, the one you met at
the campus dance?

Mr. TEX BENNEKY: Wait until you'll see her, you'll agree. My hometown gal's
the only one for me. A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I got a gal...

Group of Singers: Kalamazoo.

Mr. BENNEKY: I don't want to boast, but I know she's the toast...

Group of Singers: ...of Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo.

Mr. BENNEKY: Years have gone by...

Group of Singers: Why, why would she go?

Mr. BENNEKY: I liked her looks when I carried her books...

Group of Singers: Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo.

Mr. BENNEKY: I'm going to send a wire, hopping on a flyer...

Group of Singers: ...leaving today.

Mr. BENNEKY: Am I dreaming? I can hear her screaming.

Group of Singers: Hi ya, Mr. Jackson.

Mr. BENNEKY: Everything's OK-A-L-A-M-A-Z-O-Oh, what a gal.

Group of Singers: I feel good for you.

Mr. BENNEKY: I'll make my bid for that freckled-face kid I'm hurrying to.

Group of Singers: I'm going to Michigan to see the sweetest gal...

Mr. BENNEKY: Kalamazoo.

Group of Singers: Zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo. Kalamazoo.

(Soundbite of orchestra playing)

(Saxophone playing)

Group of Singers: K...

(Saxophone playing)

Group of Singers: ...A...

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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