Skip to main content

Devouring TV's Hits, Whole Seasons at a Time

With the rise of the TV-series box set, more shows are earning fans who devour episodes one after another. Fresh Air TV critic David Bianculli reviews two newly released sets: the debut seasons of Heroes and Friday Night Lights. The former is a seven-disc set packed with deleted scenes and the unaired original pilot; the Friday Night Lights set includes deleted episodes and a making-of featurette.

06:17

Contributor

Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on August 28, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 28, 2007: Interview with Bill Flanagan; Review of the television shows "Friday Night Lights" and "Heroes"; Interview with Teddy Thompson.

Transcript

DATE August 28, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bill Flanagan of MTV discusses his career and new
book "New Bedlam"

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Bill Flanagan, is an executive vice president of MTV Networks. He
also contributes pieces about music to CBS's show "Sunday Morning." His first
satirical novel, called "A&R," was about the music business. Now he's written
a new satirical novel about another world he's very familiar with, cable TV.
It's called "New Bedlam." The story starts when a very successful TV executive
ends up in a reality show scandal and is forced out of network television. To
salvage his TV career, he takes the first job he can get, running a group of
small-time New England cable channels owned by a man who made his fortune
selling cars. He's divided his three low-budget stations among his
dissatisfied children. There's the arts channel that features pretentious
documentaries and performances; the comic book channel that features shows
about superheroes and geeks talking about them; and a boomer rerun channel,
which devotes a lot of time to showing the father's favorite program,
"Bonanza."

Some of your book almost seems like an homage to "Bonanza," I mean, because
"Bonanza"'s so important in the book and in the life of the patriarch. Did
you grow up with "Bonanza"?

Mr. BILL FLANAGAN: Sure. Didn't we all? Sunday night at 9. You know, the
toughest decision you had to make as a kid in the '60s was how to fill that
hour-hour gap between the end of Ed Sullivan and the beginning of "Bonanza."
You know, and then the Smothers Brothers came along and we all started our
growing our hair and listening to The Who, and the Cartwrights kind of faded
away. But, you know, I think aside from the fact that I do have this latent
catalog of useless information that I picked up as a child watching "Bonanza"
and I wanted to put it to use, there's also the fact that it is a book about
family. And it is a book about the mythologies of families and grown children
and their parents and the grief and heartaches and laughs that they cause each
other. And I thought that in a way "Bonanza" was a pretty good metaphor.
That's the ideal family. That's the perfect impossible relationship, with the
three grown sons that are all handsome and heroic and straight shooters and
the father's a great man, and they all ride off in the sunset together at the
end of every episode. So in a way...

GROSS: And they're all unmarried and they devote all their attention to their
father.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, you know, we don't know what was going on down among the
cattle lowing in the field at the Ponderosa, and we don't want to know. But
certainly the sons on "Bonanza" had a filial devotion which, again, "The
Godfather" is kind of the same story. You know, there were some wives
off-scene in "The Godfather," but it's basically the same scenario. The
powerful father and the three sons, and the middle one is a little goofy, and
the oldest one is the toughest, and the youngest one who they don't pay that
much attention to ends up being the one to take over the father's chair. But
again, it's also the story of the Kennedys and that's not fiction.

GROSS: You actually have a long passage about "Bonanza" in your novel. Do
you want to read a couple of lines from it?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Sure. This is Dominic King, the nasty old dad who owns the
company and tortures all his children, who is insisting that they put
"Bonanza" reruns on their would-be hip channels. And the kids really don't
want to do it. "And Dom says, `That's a show about family. And it's not some
schmuck with no job riding a horse from town to town. It's not about a cop
who lives in some house no cop could afford who gets shot in the shoulder ever
week and never takes a bribe. It's not some nonsense about a talking pig or a
talking mule or a talking car, or my wife's a witch, or my wife's a genie, or
my wife's a mule or any of that foolishness. No. "Bonanza" is about a man
who's made a lot of money and he's not ashamed of it, and he's been married
many times, which is his prerogative.' And Kenny the son says, `Ben
Cartwright's wives died, Dom. He didn't cheat on them and get divorced.' `So
he says,' Dom declared ominously. `You don't know the real story.'"

GROSS: That's great. And that's Bill Flanagan reading from his new novel
"New Bedlam," which is a satire about cable television.

Now, the TV executive who is hired to take over this kind of mom and pop cable
network, he's best known for the reality shows he created.

Mr. FLANAGAN: That's right.

GROSS: One of them was called "I'll Eat Anything." What was that about?

Mr. FLANAGAN: "I'll Eat Anything." We don't really say what "I'll Eat
Anything" was about but I think it's one of those good titles like "Desperate
Housewives" that pretty much tells you the whole story. Yeah, that's where
Bobby began his ascent at the network. He found a series proposal called
"I'll Eat Anything" that was in turnaround from daytime, took it to prime time
in the summer and it became a sensation. And from there he began his rapid
ascent.

And what sinks him at the big broadcast network is that he's involved with a
series called "Lookers," which, you know, I assume is some kind of beauty
contest. I'm sure it has a perverse angle. But there's a scandal that erupts
when it turns out that the sweet girl who was the season finale contest winner
on "Lookers" had not actually gotten the most votes. It was the mean girl.
And someone cooked the books so that the audience would get the result they
wanted. And we never really say if he's guilty or not, but Bobby is the guy
who's sitting there when they need someone to throw to the posse. So he takes
the rap, he's fired and his life is over at 33. He spent his whole career
climbing up through the big broadcast network and now he's sunk.

GROSS: Well, you certainly know something about reality shows. MTV does a
lot of them. Because you make fun of shows like that in your book, of reality
shows, what do you think of them? Because you oversee some of them in some
way?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, you know--first of all, MTV created the genre with "The
Real World".

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLANAGAN: And that's still going strong, and I think that was a show
that was and is very compelling. I mean, you know, not everybody's going to
like the same thing. That's true in restaurants and that's true with baseball
teams...

GROSS: I'm just going to stop you and give a shout out to like "The Loud
Family" as preceding reality TV shows...

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, I think that's a slightly different thing because "The
Loud Family,' you know, in a way that's true. But that's also a documentary
where somebody went in with cameras...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLANAGAN: ...and followed someone for a long time and then spent a year
editing it into...

GROSS: Oh, as opposed to casting for people to be in it?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Yeah, I think it's a little different. I think that, you
know, I'm sure we could go back and, you know, probably the invention of the
movie camera and find examples of things that were kind of like reality shows
in that they were real life, you know, that they were documentaries. But I
think that "The Real World" sure began the current...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLANAGAN: ...the current crop, the current dominance of reality on MTV.
It was a while before the broadcast networks condescended to pick up the form,
you know? But it's certainly prospered on MTV and then other cable channels
and then finally made it to the networks. But then, you know, again I think a
lot of the people at the networks are people who started at MTV and VH1 and
other cable channels.

GROSS: How did MTV go from music videos, you know, being the bread and butter
and the kind of identifying factor of the network to it becoming more about
reality shows?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, it's a mix of things. You know, there's still a lot of
music on MTV, and there's a tremendous amount of music on VH1, and there's
almost nothing but music on CMT. But, of course, what really happens is that
MTV, VH1, CMT, and all our other channels are very, very driven by the
audience. We listen to the audience. I think we realized early on that you
can't--it would be disaster, especially for networks that are geared towards
teenagers and college-age people, for the people running it to say, `This is
the way we do it, this is the way we do it, this is the way we do it.' You get
locked into the way it's always been done, and the way it's always been done
is dead. So you follow what the audience is enthusiastic about. You follow
what the audience cares about, and the audience tells us very quickly and very
loudly when they don't like something.

And the fact is that the audience's enthusiasm, and what the audience is
interested in, changes every few years, just as the new class of college
students changes every few years, and we reflect that. You know, we'll try
something, maybe in some corner at 11:00 on a Sunday night, and if it
explodes, if the audience says, `More of this,' then they get more of that.
And at the same time, in my experience, when you try to force something that
you think is good for them down their throats, they'll tell you real quickly
that, `You know what? I'm in school all day. I don't need to be in school
when I come home.'

GROSS: What's an example of a show like that?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, on VH1 about 10 or 12 years ago, we were doing--and I
was involved with a lot of great shows. One's still on the air,
"Storytellers." And we had "Legends" and then "Behind the Music," which Jeff
Gaspin came up with, and a lot of great success with very music oriented
series. And someone came in with a notion for a show called "Classic Albums,"
which would be the making of and sort of dissection of and story of a great
record album. Let's do "The Band." Let's do "Songs in the Key of Life" by
Stevie Wonder. Let's do "Graceland." And as a music nut, I was wildly
enthusiastic about that. We funded the show, we were involved editorially.
And I still think it was great. It was a great series. But it was too high
and inside for the audience. It was further than they wanted to go. They
really weren't that interested in how the bass track was constructed or, you
know, sitting at the mixing board and watching the producer move the faders up
and down.

So, you know, the audience tells you. The audience says, `You know what?
This "Behind the Music" thing with the true tragic story of the Captain &
Tennille or how Nikki Sixx almost overdosed, that's great. We enjoy that. We
love it. We'll watch it over and over again. This bit where you're, you
know, sitting with Robbie Robertson and watching the composition of "The Night
They Drove Old Dixie Down," why don't you guys just take that home and watch
it among yourselves?'

GROSS: How frustrating do you find that?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, you know, I think it's kind of like if you were running
a restaurant and you thought that the Cajun shrimp was just the greatest thing
you'd ever came up with and people kept ordering the steak. Well, at a
certain point, you know, we're not here to be dictators, we're not here to
stand up in front of the class and tell them what their assigned reading is.
You know? We're here to serve the audience.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Flanagan. He's an executive vice president of MTV
Networks. His new satirical novel is called "New Bedlam."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest, Bill Flanagan, is the author of a new novel, a satirical
novel about cable TV, called "New Bedlam." And he's also an executive vice
president at MTV. And since we're talking about MTV, there's a paragraph
about MTV in your novel that I want you to read, from page 184.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Yeah, you know, it's funny. I really went back and forth on
whether I wanted to mention MTV in the book, but this is a bit where an old
network newsman is talking about how MTV changed the visual vocabulary of
television and there was just no way to get around it. The fact is this is an
influence MTV had, and to try and cop out of it by not mentioning the company
I work for would have been really phony. So here we go.

(Reading) "MTV had changed the vocabulary of television. Even here, in the
stuffiest old corner of the network news division, "Weekend Daylight," the
young producers were frightened to hang on a human face for more than five
seconds without jumping to a shot of something else. Dash told friends from
the old days that if he happened to say on camera that a boy at the ballgame
was eating a hot dog, they'd cut away to a one-second shot of a hot dog. To
everyone over 35, the MTV vocabulary was one of many editing styles and a
silly one at that. To directors under 35, it was simply the way TV was
supposed to look. The new assumption was that the broadcaster's job was to
click before the viewer could, to outdraw his remote control, to skip a second
ahead of his tiny attention span."

GROSS: Given that you think that there is this generational divide in terms
of shooting styles...

Mr. FLANAGAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...it's an interesting paradox for you because--you're probably in
your 50s?

Mr. FLANAGAN: I'm 52.

GROSS: OK. And so you're pre-MTV in terms of your TV genes?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Yeah, that's true. That's right.

GROSS: But your programming for the post-MTV generation who have, as you
point out, a different sense of like what the pacing and editing on television
should be. So how do you compensate for being on the other side of the
generational divide?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, I think you learn as you go, don't you? I mean, it's
not as if I hadn't been watching TV in the meantime, and it's not as if I
haven't learned a lot from working at the company. And, of course, also, if
you sit in an editing bay then you follow your instincts. You know? You say,
`I think that this is lingering too long.' Or, `I think that we can hold on
this face for a little bit longer.' You very much make it up as you go along.
You respond to your own enthusiasms first.

But like everyone, I have been changed by the way the editing of TV has
changed regardless of how old you are. You know, people who are 70 years old
have been changed. If you look now at TV shows from the mid-'60s. If you
look at "I Spy" for example, which is a great old show, it's astonishing how
slowly it moves. You just can't believe it. I saw an episode of "I Spy" not
too long ago where Kelly and Scotty were being held prisoner and they were
playing cards in the cell while they were waiting for the guards to come and
open the door, so they could punch him in the nose and escape. And they sat
there playing cards for what seemed like forever, you know, I mean, maybe it
was two minutes. But these days you would never do that.

If you look at old TV shows, if someone says, `Now we're going over to Joe's
house,' there has to be a shot of them driving in the car and getting out at
Joe's house and knocking on the door. Now we just cut from one place to the
other. Everyone has been changed by that. None of us are still looking for
that old slow-moving kind of style. We've all gotten used to--we've all made
the change together.

GROSS: One of the characters in your novel, Dash is a local newsman close to
retirement who feels like he's kind of a the end of the line, but he's asked
to come into this cable network that the TV exec has been hired to take over
and refurbish.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So you have a great description of Dash, the close-to-retirement
newsman.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Yeah, Dash is in this scene, just finished taping his Sunday
morning segment for "Weekend Daylight," which is kind of the end of the trail.
You know, there isn't really anywhere left to fall. Dash never became the
anchor and now he's close to retirement age. So:

(Reading) "Dash left the studio to the usual compliments from Rudy and the
makeup woman and the usual silence from the crew. He went into the men's room
and scrubbed away his tan. There were eight orange paper towels on the side
of the sink when he was clean. There were network stars not much older than
Dash who wore their makeup all the time, even on airplanes and on the streets.
What began in their fifties as `No time to wash it off' became in their
sixties a habit. They put on their war paint in the morning as soon as they
shaved, struggling to look as they had when they first became anchors. They
froze themselves in the face they had worn when they peaked. With each year,
their bodies shriveled, and their heads dilated. In real life they looked
like lightbulbs on sticks. But they did not spent much time in real life.
They lived on television and on television they looked ageless."

" Those old lions might be snickered at by their staffs, but they were
untouchable. They had their primetime magazines and news specials. They had
contracts worth millions of dollars. They put their names on ghost-written
best-sellers. They were in demand as commencement speakers and at journalism
schools."

"Dash had never cracked that club. He had been a local star as an anchor in
Boston and DC, and when he finally moved up to the network in the 70s, he got
plenty of air time. He did some weekend anchoring too. But he had no
illusions about his prospects now. Doing essays on the weekend edition of the
early morning show was the last stop before the train ran out of track."

GROSS: Is Dash based on someone that you knew?

Mr. FLANAGAN: A little bit. Dash is--I mean, this fellow was never quite in
that position. But my father's best friend when I was growing up was a
broadcaster named Arch McDonald from Boston, who was the anchor of the evening
news in Boston from 1948, when he and WBZ made the transition from radio to
TV, and he stayed there until the '70s. And one of the things about Arch, who
we saw every weekend and who went on vacation with us every summer, was he was
very, very courtly. He was really, you know, he could hit his thumb with a
hammer and he would not use an obscenity. He'd been trained that way from
radio and live television, you know, at a time when a slip like that could
have ended your career. And he was just genuinely a very kind, nice man.

And, you know, it was interesting to me as a kid because he knew the Kennedys
really well. He'd done the first TV interview with JFK when he was a young
congressman. He had met all of the powerful figures of the '60s and '70s, and
yet, he still had, as smart as he was, a kind of naive view of the world, a
very old-fashioned patriotic view. He was completely stunned that Nixon would
lie to the country. He couldn't get over that. You know, he was of that
greatest generation and he took things very seriously. And I thought that
someone like Arch would have had no place in the current TV world. He was a
little too much of a gentleman. And, you know, I do pieces for CBS "Sunday
Morning" up at the "60 Minutes" studios, and I have to say that there is
around that place a little bit of that old courtliness and just sense of good
manners and being a gentleman that's almost gone out of television.

So I think with Dash Ryan in this book, I just kind of wanted--first of all, I
thought it would be funny and dramatic to throw someone like that into the
kind of sleazy world of King Cable. But I also, a little bit, wanted to play
tribute to the time when network news people were really dignified and they
were almost like a little bit of a priesthood.

GROSS: One of the main characters in your novel starts off as a network
executive, and he says that, you know, the title of vice president has been so
kind of deflated in importance because like by the 1980s, the number of
network vice presidents expanded to where it seemed like there was a vice
president of paper cups and a vice president of parking spaces.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: Now, you're an executive vice president at MTV.

Mr. FLANAGAN: I know. Who's benefited more than I? You know? I mean, you
know, Hemingway drove an ambulance to find material for his book. All I had
to do was sit around and negotiate unwarranted promotions.

GROSS: So did you feel like your title is inflated?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Well, you know, so's my salary. My wife would say so's my
ego. You know, this is just the world we live in and I'm describing the world
we live in.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FLANAGAN: And I don't think it's good or bad. I mean, it's good for me
personally, I suppose. But, yeah, we all have these kind of impressive
sounding titles that I sometimes think are there so that when we get fired, we
can have better looking resumes.

GROSS: One more thing. One of the characters in your novel says that he
really needs "a low-impact Monday" and that's an expression I've never heard,
and I think it's a great expression. I could really use a few low-impact
Mondays myself.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you make that up or is that an expression that everybody except me
knows?

Mr. FLANAGAN: No, I think I made that up. I think I made that up. We can
only hope it passes into vocabulary. I think that there have been times in my
life when I have sat in my office with an ice pack on my head and just said,
`Low-impact Monday. Low-impact Monday.' It means try to schedule as few
meetings as possible for Monday. Make as few decisions as possible on Monday.
And don't commit to do anything Monday night. Just get through Monday, and by
Tuesday you'll be back in the swing of things.

GROSS: Bill Flanagan, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Terry, it's been a blast. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Bill Flanagan new satirical novel about television is called "New
Bedlam." He's an executive vice president of MTV Networks.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Review: David Bianculli on first seasons of "Heroes" and "Friday
Night Lights" released on DVD

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. (Coughs) Excuse me. I'm Terry Gross.

Two new NBC series are released on DVD today: the popular series "Heroes" and
the less-popular "Friday Night Lights." TV critic David Bianculli is
enthusiastic about both, but not for the same reasons.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: "Heroes" and "Friday Night Lights" are very, very
different series. I enjoy them both and watched every episode of each show
last season, but they don't have much in common.

"Heroes" is a fantasy drama, framed in the style of a comic book. It's visual
look is intensely graphic, and it's full of good guys and bad guys with
emerging superpowers. Its standout characters include a high school
cheerleader who's virtually indestructible. She can walk into a raging fire
or throw herself from a tall tower, and a few seconds later, all her burns or
broken bones have healed.

"Friday Night Lights" is a drama rooted in real life. If TV hadn't sullied
the term beyond belief, you could almost call it a reality show. It's set in
a small town in Texas and tells of a high school football coach and his family
and the young members of the football team and their families. It's a regular
weekly drama about people who don't solve crimes or save lives. And in stark
contrast to "Heroes," one of its standout characters is a high school
quarterback who is anything but indestructible. In the opening episode, he
makes a hard tackle after an interception and ends up paralyzed from the waist
down. What happens next, to him and to the team, becomes the central story of
season one of "Friday Night Lights."

In adapting the book and movie for television, the producers wanted to cast
unknowns and a lot of Texas locals as the high schoolers, and to give them
room to run, like free-range actors. Scenes are shot with three cameras
simultaneously, with no rehearsal or blocking. Scenes shot on the football
field during games can have as many as eight cameras running. "Friday Night
Lights" looks like a documentary and the dialogue and action seem totally
natural, more like a John Cassavetes or Robert Altman movie than a standard
drama. And as actors go, you couldn't find many better performers on TV last
season than Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, who play Eric and Tami Taylor,
the coach and his wife. Both actors were overlooked by the Emmy nominators
this year and both were robbed. And in this box set, even their deleted
scenes are impressive. Here's one where Connie Britton, as Tami, retreats
from a dinner party and hides on the hallway stairs with a woman she's just
met. Tami's upset because of the severity of the injuries to the team's
quarterback, and the woman listening to Tami has provided her with a
sympathetic ear and a few rounds of drinks.

(Soundbite of "Friday Night Lights")

Ms. CONNIE BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) You know what gets me is that here is
this 17-year-old kid, and his whole life has just been completely altered,
very possibly completely destroyed...

Unidentified Actor: Right.

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) ...lying on a hospital bed...

Actor: Right.

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) And I mean, that's his life. You know? That
is his--that is everything. That is forever. His whole life. And I'll
tell--and people are so upset about it. But you know what I think the sad
truth is? I think people are upset about it because he's a good football
player and what are the values of that?

Actor: Yeah

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) Do you know?

Actor: Yeah.

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) What does that mean? We care about him
because he's got a good throwing arm.

Actor: Well, it's Texas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) I have to do something.

Actor: What?

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) Something

Actor: What?

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) It's just opened my eyes.

Actor: OK.

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) You know what it is? It makes me realize the
value of life. It makes me realize how fragile life is.

Actor: Right. You know what?

Ms. BRITTON: (As Tami Taylor) What?

Actor: You're more screwed up than I am.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Remember, that was a scene that didn't make the final cut.
Imagine how good the show itself is.

"Heroes" is a wonderful DVD set, too, but here I suspect a lot of the people
buying the set will have seen the episodes already. "Heroes" was one of TV's
few hits last season, so for fans diving into its "Save the Cheerleader, Save
the World" storyline is more rediscovery than discovery. But it's the sort of
series and story that holds up well to repeated viewing, and this DVD set is
packed with an almost ridiculous amount of tantalizing extras.

For starters, there's the original unaired 73-minute pilot by series create
Tim Kring, Darker than the one shown on NBC and featuring an entire subplot
about terrorists that was cut. Kring provides audio commentary on his
original pilot and it's a candid and very eye-opening discussion about what
did and didn't work in creating his series. And other extras here--little
documentaries on the special effects, the stunt work and so on--add a lot.
Artist Tim Sale, who supplies those pivotal drawings of the future supposedly
painted by the character of Isaac, gets a documentary of his own. He uses it,
in part, to poke fun at the giant artist's loft that Isaac is shown inhabiting
in New York.

(Soundbite of documentary)

Mr. TIM SALE: Other than, what, Claire and HRG's house, it's the one set
we've been in more, right, than any other, and I'm always amused by it. When
I first saw it, you know, it's that kind of--how does the "Friends" cast get
to live in these, you know, million-dollar lofts in New York? And that's sort
of Isaac. I mean, where does he get his money to have a place like that? I
want that studio. Now I'm talking to you from my garage, right? Which I
love. But yeah, no, it's a really cool set.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: These DVD collections of "Heroes" and "Friday Nights Lights" are
really cool sets too. And the best news is that they come from Universal,
which finally has changed its policy about how to package TV shows on DVD. It
used to offer no extras at all, even on classic titles like "Columbo,"
figuring that fans would buy the sets anyway. I don't know what changed their
corporate minds, but I'm glad it happened in time for these two sets to be
treated properly.

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

Coming up, Teddy Thompson talks about his new album of country songs and plays
a song for us.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Interview: Teddy Thompson discusses his career and new album
"Upfront & Down Low"

TERRY GROSS, host:

Teddy Thompson is a British singer/songwriter but his new album doesn't
feature his own songs. It features country songs, some classics, some lesser
known songs, and one original. The album is called "Upfront & Down Low."
Thompson is the son of singer/songwriter parents, Richard and Linda Thompson,
who performed as a duo before separating when Teddy was young. Teddy has
played and recorded with each of his parents, and he's performed with his good
friend Rufus Wainwright. A little later, Thompson will perform a song for us
from his new CD. Let's start with the opening track of the CD "Change of
Heart," written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.

(Soundbite of "Change of Heart")

Mr. TEDDY THOMPSON: (Singing)
Well, I guess I must have had a change of heart
You don't treat me like you did at the start
Your campaign of love was quite a work of art
Now, I guess you must have had a change of heart
Yes, I guess you must have had...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Teddy Thompson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I really like your new
album a lot. Why did you want to do an album of country songs?

Mr. THOMPSON: Career suicide, it's been described to me. Well, there are a
couple of answers, but the short answer is that I love country music and
that's what I grew up listening to, strange as it may seem. I grew up in
England but was obsessed with country music, so it's nearest and dearest to
me.

GROSS: How did you get obsessed with country music growing up in England? I
know rockabilly was really big in England, but I'm not sure that country
music, per se, was.

Mr. THOMPSON: No, not when I was a kid. Not in the '80s. Neither of them
were big so, but, you know, it was my parents. They listened to a lot of
country music, specifically the Everly Brothers. We had a tape in the car
that we wore out because we made my dad play it so many times, and I just
loved it. It was the first music I heard that I remember just loving.

GROSS: And what was it about the music? The melodies and also the harmonies?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I think that had a lot to do with it. It was the sweet
sound of it and the harmonies, and the instrumentation in that kind of country
music is very sweet too. I mean it's like saccharin sweet, the sound of the
pedal steel and harmonies and everything just sounds luscious.

GROSS: Now, did you grow up listening to your parents' records at all?

Mr. THOMPSON: Not really, I mean, I certainly heard them in the background
here and there, but no, I didn't like it when I was a kid? Very...

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. THOMPSON: ...uncool. Well, I say, very uncool, but there was me
listening to country music, but I didn't tell anybody that either. But my
parents' music was so English and so stern and so straight ahead and so uncool
is the word that keeps coming back to me. I don't feel that way now, I hasten
to add. But, you know, when I was 10, I just thought that was totally dorky.

GROSS: Now did everyone sing around the house and did that help you feel
unself-conscious about singing? Did singing seem natural? Because for some
of us singing is such a self-conscious and potentially embarrassing act if
anybody's listening.

Mr. THOMPSON: No. I mean, actually there wasn't any--a lot of singing
around my house. It wasn't that--I didn't have that Bohemian musical
upbringing at all. My parents divorced when I was very young as well, so
there was not--there were only a few years, really, where there was any music
in the house. But there was a lot of great music being played and listened
to, you know, which had a big effect on me. It was more like just having
parents--well, mostly my mother, because that's who I was living with, having
a mother with just great taste in music. And she wasn't really making records
when I was growing up, so it was more like just having a great record
collection and being exposed to great things rather than all singing around
the piano or something.

GROSS: And would she give you any feedback when you started to sing and play
guitar?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, but, you know, she's a mum, you know, and so most of her
feedback was everything was great. `I think, God, you're so great.' And she's
still that way, which is the absolute best thing in the world, you know.
That's a great thing to have, you know, to have a mother that's just
encouraging and loving. So my dad was more practical with his advice. My
mother was more unconditional love, you know.

GROSS: And what was the practical advice he'd give you?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, he'd say things like, you know, `You should write
some songs where you fingerpick and stop thrashing at the guitar,' and that
sort of thing, you know. Which, you know, he was right. Yeah, I mean, very,
you know, very pragmatic, practical things, like you know, technical things
like that. He'd like, `Why don't you try writing a slow song where you
fingerpick it and see what happens?' And it was good advice.

GROSS: Did you learn to play guitar on your own? Were you taught by your
father or by any of his friends when you were performing with him?

Mr. THOMPSON: Hm. No. I took guitar lessons like everybody else. Because
I was at the age when I wanted to start playing the guitar, I was living at my
mum's and, you know, and my dad was, you know, mostly on tour for most of my
childhood. Which, you know, is the way it goes in musical families, so he
wasn't really around to teach me guitar. I'm not sure whether I would have
asked him to anyway. I think I thought it would, you know, I wanted to do it
myself.

GROSS: And what about the level of fame that you wanted for yourself? You
know, like, in your father' band, I mean he has like this extraordinary and
devoted following but he's not like a huge star commercially.

Mr. THOMPSON: Hm.

GROSS: So what did you decide you wanted for yourself, if you could choose,
you know, when you were getting started? And how do you feel now about that?

Mr. THOMPSON: I think when I was getting started I probably wanted a little
bit more. I craved a bit more success than I do now, but a big part of that
was just the way that the record industry is laid out, or was then. I made my
first record about six years ago, and at that time, you know, I signed to a
record label, a major record label. And they give you quite a lot of money,
you know, and they expect a lot in return, you know. The acceptable level of
success is high, you know, I mean, what they expect you to sell in order to
give that back to them is a bit daunting, and it's a terrible business model
for developing artists, you know. You really have to sell a huge amount of
records in order to succeed. And most people don't. And then you're, you
know, dropped like a cold potato. Hot potato? Something cold. Something
cold and undesirable. So, you know, that made me want success because I felt
like I had to achieve success in order to be viable, but now I realize that
that's not really the way it should be and that's more a problem with the
record industry. So I'm certainly aware of the example of my dad who's been a
really good one, you know, having longevity and getting to make your own
choices.

GROSS: A song that you wrote that was on your previous album "Separate Ways"
is written from the point of view of somebody who wants to be a big star and
to shine so bright "it hurts."

Mr. THOMPSON: Hm.

GROSS: Would you sing just like the first few lines of that and tell us where
the lyric for this came from?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I can't do the synthesizer part but I'll mock it up on
the guitar.

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing)
I want to be a huge star
that hangs out in hotel bars
I want to wake up at noon
in somebody else's room
I want to shine so bright
it hurts

GROSS: So where did the inspiration for that lyric come from? Were you
describing yourself or somebody else?

Mr. THOMPSON: No, I was describing myself. I mean, you know, having said
all that about fame and fortune, there's a huge part of me that--and I think
most people that would love to be rich and famous. Or maybe it's a small part
of me. And a small part of everyone. You know, people are desperate for
fame, or they think they are, and I don't think musicians are any different
than people that, you know, go on TV just to be there for five minutes. You
know, all of us crave it a little bit and think, `Oh, wouldn't that be great,
you know, to have the money and the freedom and all that stuff?' But, of
course, in reality, it almost certainly wouldn't be that way. I sure most of
us--and I certainly wouldn't really like the reality of not being able to go
out and do what you want and have people follow you and stuff. It must be
awful. So it's just that piece of me that wants it and yet doesn't want it
all.

GROSS: My guest is Teddy Thompson. His new CD is called "Upfront & Down
Low."

He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Teddy Thompson. His new CD,
"Upfront & Down Low," features covers of country songs and one original.

Well, I'm going to ask you to do another song from your new CD of country
music songs. The CD is called "Upfront & Down Low." Would you perform the
song "Strangers" and tell us about the song and why you chose it?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, this is a Merle Haggard song. It's called "Strangers."
I think the full title is "Strangers"--well, "From Now On All My Friends Are
Going to Be Strangers." And this is one of those country songs--there's
another thing I was fascinated about by country music when I was a kid was the
clever turn of phrase and the almost, you know, funny but funny-sad turn of
phrase. And this song has one of the best I've every heard, which goes "From
now on, all of my friends are going to be strangers, the only thing I can
count on now is my fingers," which sort of comic-tragedy but it's
heartbreaking at the same time. And I love it. So, yeah, this song is called
"Strangers."

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing)
A love you promised would be mine forever
I would have bet my bottom dollar on
But sure turned out to be a short forever
Just once I turned my back and you were gone
From now on all my friends are going to be strangers
I'm all through ever trusting anyone
The only thing I can count on now is my fingers
I was a fool believing you and now you are gone

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

It amazes me not knowing any better
Than to think I had a love that would be true
Well, I should be taken out, tarred and feathered
To have let myself be taken in by you
From now on all my friends are going to be strangers
I'm all through ever trusting anyone
The only thing I can count on now is my fingers
I was a fool believing you and now you are gone

GROSS: That's Teddy Thompson performing a song that's also on his new CD.
The new CD is an album of country songs. It's called "Upfront & Down Low."

Now I know you went to boarding school. You know, I've seen in movies and
read in novels like this image of, you know, British boarding schools where
there's nothing but hazings and the boys are really cruel to each other. Was
your boarding school anything like that?

Mr. THOMPSON: No, I was lucky. A lot of--especially Americans tend to--they
sort of gasp, Americans with kids, you know. They go, `Oh! I would never
send my child away to one of those places.' Imagining just what you said, you
know, the English the austere gray buildings and the, you know, the six form
boy whipping you. But no, I went to a famously liberal boarding school, which
is actually the first coed boarding school in England. They were the first
one to have boys and girls together, whenever that was, in the '20s or
something. It's called Bedales, and it's a lot of very arty people send their
kids there. So it was actually--it was a great place to go. It was like
camp, really.

GROSS: Did it help you artistically to be at a school where a lot of children
of artists were sent?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it certainly did. I mean, there were no uniforms. We
all just, you know, we all walked around trying to look cool and also faux
hippy duds. Everybody's trying to look poor basically, which was--it seemed
to be that was the thing--try to look like you'd just woken up and, you know,
you had no money and like, `God, I don't even know how I'm at this posh
school.' Yeah, but everybody, you know, there was a big emphasis on music, and
everybody was in a band. And I was in a band pretty quick when I got there
and there was a big art block. And you know, to be honest, not much emphasis
on math and all that stuff. So it probably wasn't the place to go if you
wanted to get into Oxford or Cambridge, but it was great for someone like me.

GROSS: And what did you play in your band?

Mr. THOMPSON: I played the guitar. I was the singer. I was, you know...

GROSS: No, I mean, what kind of music? Was it covers?

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, yeah, really bad covers. We did one--because there were
sort of school dances. JFP, they were called, which was an antiquated term
for "jazz, folk, and poetry," which was when I suppose it started a long time
ago at the school but they didn't change the moniker. But, you know, by the
time I got there, it was just everybody's rock band, getting up for like a
school dance. And we did covers of whatever was in the charts, so, to try
and, you know, curry favor, try and get popular. So we did like a Gun N'
Roses song. And I remember doing the "Joker," a Steve Miller song, because it
was in a jeans advert that was very popular at the time.

GROSS: Well, your new CD has a hidden track...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: And so it's a track that doesn't show up on the liner notes and it
doesn't, you know, it doesn't really register. It shows up on my iPod as
"untitled."

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.

GROSS: But it's really an Everly Brothers song. Tell us about the song and
why you recorded it as a hidden track. Like why not just do it upfront and
officially include it? And I should mention that your previous album
"Separate Ways," which mostly featured originals, also ended with a hidden
Everly Brothers track.

Mr. THOMPSON: As did my first record.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Definitely a pattern.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I don't know. Maybe it's silly now but it was sort
of--I did it on my first record, my self-titled album. I did an Everly
Brothers song, a duet with Emmylou Harris. And then, as you said, on my last
record, on "Separate Ways" I did a duet with my mother of an Everly Brothers
song. And, yeah, it was just a sort of recognition or a nod to my sort of
musical first love. It was just something that I wanted to do. And then it
became--and then I decided that I'd do it every time, that it would be a fun
thing to do a duet with somebody of his songs that I love, you know, on every
record and just shove it in the back. So yeah, I did this Everly Brothers
song with Jenni Muldaur, who's yet another kid of musicians. She's Maria
Mudlaur and Geoff Muldaur's daughter and she's a good friend of mine and a
great singer, so we did this song. And it's a little known Everly Brothers
song but it's a lovely, it's a beautiful song I think.

GROSS: Well, why don't we close with it. And I want to thank you so much,
Teddy Thompson, for talking with us.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMPSON and Ms. JENNI MULDAUR: (Singing)
After all we've been
to one another
How can we become
like sister and brother
Darling, I beg of you
if our love must end
Ask me to forget you
but don't ask me to be friends

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Teddy Thompson's new CD is called "Upfront & Down Low."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMPSON and Ms. MULDAUR: (Singing)
I just couldn't leave
the friend you confide in...

(End of soundbite)
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:07

Has Tucker Carlson created the most racist show in the history of cable news?

The NY Times did an exhaustive survey of the Fox News hosts' broadcasts. Reporter Nicholas Confessore says Carlson's show is based on ideas that were once "caged in a dark corner of American life."

42:05

British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue