Skip to main content

'Doonesbury' Creator Has 'Great Fun' Putting Trump In A Comic Setting

"Donald and I go all the way back to when his hair was dark brown," Garry Trudeau jokes. His new book, Yuge!, is a collection of 30 years of comic strips featuring Trump as a character.


Other segments from the episode on November 7, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 7, 2016: Interview with Garry Trudeau; Interview with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Garry Trudeau, the creator of the long-running, syndicated comic strip "Doonesbury." In 1975, it became the first strip syndicated to daily newspapers to win a Pulitzer Prize. "Doonesbury" debuted in daily papers in 1970. It was the first daily strip that satirized politics and culture through the lives of young men and women who were part of the youth counterculture. One of the main characters was modeled on Rolling Stone writer Hunter Thompson.

The original characters have aged over the years and their children are among the dozens of characters Trudeau has created since the strip began. Trudeau has collected his "Doonesbury" strips in a series of books. The latest - "Yuge!" - collects his "Doonesbury" strips that feature Donald Trump as a character, dating back to 1987, when Trudeau assumed Trump was testing the feasibility of a presidential run.

Garry Trudeau, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you've been cartooning Donald Trump for a really long time, going back to when he was, you know, just this, like, real estate mogul in New York and incredibly wealthy (laughter) and when he was kind of floating trial balloons to see if he would run for president. And in 1999, you have him saying at a press conference (reading) as you know, there's been this amazing, amazing, amazing response to my candidacy. It's unbelievable how amazing it's been. Now, I know some of you guys choke on the fact that people love me - love me. Well, guess what? I could care less what you think. As long as I'm a candidate, you have to cover me, which is good for the Trump brand, which just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It's a win-win for me because no matter what I do, I get phenomenal, amazing, unbelievable publicity. You have to give it to me for free. You have no choice. You're sheep.

(Laughter) So that's from November of 1999. Is that how you always felt about his trial balloons, that it was just to kind of promote his brand?

GARRY TRUDEAU: I did initially. The first one went up in the fall of '87. And he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and Boston Globe in Washington Post, an open letter to the American people in which he informed us - not so surprisingly - that the whole world was laughing at us, notably Japan. In the '80s it was Japan. Now it's China that's laughing at us the hardest. By 1999, the strip that you just referenced, he was actually running. People have sort of forgotten that he actually did have a campaign.

In the fall of 1999, he formed an exploratory committee, which is pretty close to being in the race. And he was trying to get the nomination of the Reform Party, during which he received non-stop coverage. So it's always a win for him. And I just had fun with the idea of the press not being able to help itself, that it would show up at these events and play along simply because he was such good copy.

GROSS: You have him giving a stump speech in 2000. And the stump speech is biggest, best, me. It's unbelievable - biggest - mine - tallest - biggest - me (laughter).

TRUDEAU: Yeah. That's kind of Trump haiku. And, you know, it was never - you know, I never had to kind of exaggerate what he said. Usually a cartoonist uses hyperbole to kind of, you know, ramp up and distort for comic effect something that someone actually said. In his case, I could just use the words. I mean, yes, there is some trade craft and art to, you know, using that language. And it's uniquely simple language.

You know, he's been campaigning in language that a fourth grader would understand. And yet, he uses words in such sort of unique juxtapositions that allow him to change his position within the course of a single sentence. And it's just - it's breathtaking and great fun to deconstruct and put in a comic setting.

GROSS: One of your cartoons is about his feud with Rosie O'Donnell. And this was - this is back in - around 2007. And did you ever get into a feud with Donald Trump yourself?

TRUDEAU: Not personally, only from a distance. Back in the '80s, his communications device of choice was the tabloids. The tabloids were Twitter for him in the '80s. And so, you know, I would open the paper from time to time and see him going after me. We've listed just a small portion of the shots that he's taken at me on the back of the book. And, you know, it's the usual list of epithets, the, you know, sad, loser, moron, pathetic, that kind of stuff. And, you know, from a cartoonist, I mean, that's, you know, that's gold. You want to have that kind of reaction. And so I was sort of amazed that he would take the time to react.

GROSS: Well, your depiction of Trump has changed as he's gotten older. And how you draw his hair has changed, too. So why don't you describe how the way you draw his hair has changed and how much is that based on how his hair has actually changed?

TRUDEAU: Well, you know, Donald and I go all the way back to when his hair was dark brown. And, you know, as you age, as you know, dark brown turns into strawberry blonde. And so, you know, originally I - it was a very straightforward drawing. It wasn't even much of a caricature. It was just kind of to put him in the strip. The book is about Donald's interaction with a dozen of my characters. They regard him as kind of a colleague, as a sort of peer. And I've never done that with any other public figure. So I just lifted him from real life and put him in the strip. And by then, you know, he had had enough of a national exposure that I could do that.

GROSS: So another character in "Doonesbury" I want to ask you about is Duke, who is modeled on the journalist Hunter Thompson, who wrote a lot for Rolling Stone. He wrote "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas." He was always called the gonzo journalist. What did you think of his writing and his persona? And why did you want to create a character that was modeled in part on him?

TRUDEAU: He created a rather striking public persona simply by putting himself into his writing in such vivid, you know, arresting, unusually strange terms. And I was just absolutely taken by his writing. I - it wasn't on my radar screen until "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas," and that was - appeared originally in Rolling Stone, which is where I first encountered it. But then, the book came out and I remember being with my girlfriend and I - we devoured it. And I would tear out three pages and read them and then hand them to her and she'd read them and I would read the next three pages, and it was that kind of response to his work - a lot of people I knew. And so I used that as the starting point for Duke. In one of his books, he mentions that the chair of the Democratic National Committee had promised him a posting in American Samoa. So I sent Duke there to be the governor. And after that, the character pretty much took on a life of its own. It did not track what was actually going on in Hunter Thompson's life. I left that behind. The only problem with the character, and the character is one of the best known in the strip, but it started out as a parody. And so it never took on a kind of - the kind of dimensionality and the nuance that the other characters did. Duke is very binary in his reaction to the world. It's is this in my self-interest or is it not? And he makes all his decisions based on that. He's not plagued by ambivalence the way Mike and Mark and the others are. So he's actually a less interesting character but because he's so out there, he's so on the edge, he's always attracted a lot of attention.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Garry Trudeau, the creator of "Doonesbury," and he has been cartooning Donald Trump in "Doonesbury" as a character since the 1980s. He's collected all of those strips with Trump in them in a new collection called "Yuge!" - yuge with a Y and an exclamation point - "30 Years Of Doonesbury On Trump." So we're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back and talk about "Doonesbury." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Garry Trudeau, the creator of "Doonesbury," and he has a new collection of strips that he's done over the decades about Donald Trump within the Doonesbury strip, and that new book is called "Yuge!," and that's "Yuge!" with a Y.

You started "Doonesbury" as a college comic strip at the Yale newspaper. You went to Yale. And "Doonesbury" became the counterculture political, cultural cartoon strip in newspapers. I mean it was, like, the first of its kind to, you know, like, have a hippie in it and, you know, just talk about the issues ranging from, as time went on, ranging from, you know, like, smoking weed to abortion, a gay character and, of course, some newspapers were very uncomfortable with this and occasionally would not run a strip. But when you were in Yale, you were there from what years?

TRUDEAU: Sixty-six to '70, and then I went back for grad school to get a degree in graphic design, which is where I thought I was headed even though I was doing the strip. And I set up a design studio in New Haven and ran that for a couple years and then finally just devoted all my attention to the strip.

GROSS: Was Yale changing while you were there - changing as the counterculture kind of caught on?

TRUDEAU: Quite dramatically. There was a significant difference, for instance, between my class and the class two years ahead of me where George Bush was, and he was the head of the fraternity Deke. And our first run-in was over a scandal in the fraternity in which the initiates were being branded with red-hot coathanger irons. And Bush was the president of Deke at the time so I couldn't resist that, and I was doing cartoons about it and illustrated the original story. So we sort of crossed paths in that sort of difficult (laughter) way very early on. And he did, you know, he would say to other, you know, some of my friends who he found more acceptable - said, you can't be with that hippie, you know, you can't hang out with him because he's trouble. And he felt that way sort of generally about people that were a couple classes behind him. It was almost a generational break within a very short period of time.

GROSS: Well it's interesting that one of the first people who you angered through depicting them in a comic strip went on to be president of the United States.

TRUDEAU: Yeah. You know, I didn't set out to, you know, make the strip a political project. I still don't really view it as a political project. It's more about the characters and their life stories and their journeys. Probably only 10 or 15 percent of the strips I've done through the years are actually about politics, but just doing it a little bit counted for a lot in the early '70s. It was the first strip that had sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and politics in it, and so I got by on the sheer novelty for many years because I certainly didn't have the skill set. I was, you know, had amateur-level drawing skills. But I think the way it was positioned by my employers - the syndicate representatives - was, these are, you know, urgent scrawlings that are sent from the front lines, you know, the front trenches of the counterculture wars and this is somebody who is of that generation. I think that's probably how it was marketed. And I had - you know, I had youth going for me, which comes with cluelessness. I didn't know that - having done it in college - that this really wasn't part of the, you know, the culture of the comics page. Or if I knew, I didn't care. And so as a result the strip was, as you mentioned earlier, was banned from newspapers on a fairly regular basis.

GROSS: What's an example of one of the strips that many newspapers didn't run because of the controversial content?

TRUDEAU: Well, some of them would seem kind of gentle by today's standards. I have a character named Joanie Caucus, and she fell in love with a reporter named Rick Redfern. And both were unmarried, and during the course of a campaign in 1976, they grow closer and closer. And on one Monday in the fall of '76, we see a picture of Joanie's bedroom, and nobody's in it and the phone's ringing and then the camera goes out the window. And over the course of the week, the camera floats through town and ends up focusing on a house where Rick lives, and it goes in through his window and lo and behold, the two lovers are in bed. Now, for 1976, that was considered (laughter) pretty shocking stuff and we lost many, many papers, albeit most of them temporarily. One of the papers, the Bangor, Maine, paper, dropped out the artwork in panel form and put the day's weather.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TRUDEAU: That was their solution to, (laughter), to the objection.

GROSS: That is funnier than anything you could have done. (Laughter).

TRUDEAU: And there was no nudity. They were - and it was, you know, such a...

GROSS: That has better social commentary than anything I can think of.

TRUDEAU: Yeah. Yeah. But, you know, other things - you know, the introduction of Andy, the gay character, that was problematic for some readers. The tour of Reagan's brain, which I took readers on twice, that was problematic for some newspapers. But this went on for about 20, 25 years, and then finally I think editors said, you know, well, you know, (laughter) we trust that he's taking these subjects seriously even if we object to how he's doing it. I think that was sort of...

GROSS: Was having your strips killed a source of pride to you?

TRUDEAU: It - you know, you have to remember newspaper editors are my clients, and it's, you know, they're the customer, if you will, and it's not my job to make their job difficult. It's just that, you know, with 700 newspapers, I'm not going to always get it right in terms of meeting the community's standards of any individual newspaper. So I always supported the editors. I - you know, my defenders would get all excited and call it censorship, and I kept cautioning them. I said, no, no. Censorship's when the government gets involved. It's called editing. And that same editor has decided not to run 10 or 20 other things that day. He or she is responsible for, you know, for the content of that paper and is trying to align it with the values of the community that he's serving. And I have to respect that so I generally try to step back from the indignation and anger that surrounded some of these deletions.

GROSS: During the period of the late '60s and early '70s, there were a lot of underground comics, and the drawings try to kind of approximate how perception was changed after taking psychedelic drugs. And I'm wondering if any of the drugs that you ever took made you want to - you know, affected how you drew, affected how, like, your drawing style, how you wanted to depict people or depict the world around you?

TRUDEAU: Well, I didn't really have much of a drawing style when I began. I was a great admirer of Jules Feiffer, who had very simple drawings, and the characters would repeat without much change from panel to panel. Actually, he only had one big panel.

And I took from that, you know, if I keep things quiet, if I keep the drawing calm, that will almost require the reader to focus on the ideas, on the dialogue, on what's being said. And that was a very important lesson that I learned from him. And what the head comics, cartoonists were doing was something very different. They were - as you say, they were exploring different ways of perception and what that might look like visually.

And, you know, while that all sort of fascinated me, it was not an important part of who I became as a cartoonist. You know, the term of our - for us baby boomers with drugs was we experimented. Well, in my case, that's pretty much it. I tried it to see what it was like and then kind of got on with my life. It didn't have any sort of significant impact on the rational world that I was trying to depict.

GROSS: During the period we're talking about, a lot of young people were rebelling against their parents, against authority figures in general, against what was perceived as bourgeois values. Did you undergo a period of rebellion?

TRUDEAU: No, not really. I remained close to my parents, although I have to say almost - you're quite right. Almost everybody I knew, you know, was having some difficulty within their families. The phrase was generation gap, and it was very real. And so it was (laughter) a great delight to find that this did not repeat itself, that the baby boomers seem to have - be quite close to their children. You know, I particularly feared the teenage years, and they turned out to be a delight. You know, maybe that - obviously, we only have our own experience and our own children, but that seemed to be true with many of my friends as well.

GROSS: Were you waiting for your children to hate you (laughter)...

TRUDEAU: I was - I was bracing for it. And I was bracing...

GROSS: ...To tell you that you had all the wrong values?

TRUDEAU: Yeah, not to understand them in some way or have them not - you know, not understand me as I would want to be understood. And - but that didn't happen. And it - but it did color my expectations about what the teenage years would be like.

GROSS: Well, your father and his father and his father's father, your great-grandfather, they were all doctors. And they all ran a sanitarium in Saranac Lake. So, I mean, it must've been great to have a family that was about taking care of sick people.

TRUDEAU: Yeah. I mean, I was very, very proud of the family tradition. And I didn't know my great-grandfather, but I knew my grandfather and my father, of course. And, you know, they were - they were my heroes.

And - but my father had made, you know, his choice late in - late-ish in life. He was on track to enter the diplomatic corps, and then World War II came along. And he was wounded, and as he was sitting in a field hospital in Morocco, he looked around and said, nah, got to go in the family business. This is where I belong. I belong downstream from, you know, all the chaos that the diplomats create and went home and went to medical school.

But because he felt the big shadow of his grandfather - 'cause Edward Trudeau, who opened the fresh-air sanatorium in North America, was quite well-known in his day. And my father grew up as the grandson of the great man, and he was - he had resolved not to put me through, you know, the pressure he felt. And so he supported pretty much, you know, every - I had a variety of interests, primarily in the theater when I was young. And he was very supportive. He didn't think I could make a living at it, and he didn't think I could make a living as a cartoonist, but he mostly kept his opinions to himself.

GROSS: My guest is Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip "Doonesbury." His latest book collects the strips that feature Donald Trump as a character. It's called "Yuge!: 30 years of Doonesbury on Trump." We'll talk more after a break, and we'll hear from the co-creators and writers of the HBO series "Westworld." Here's the "Westworld" theme music. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Garry Trudeau, the creator of the syndicated strip "Doonesbury," which launched in 1970 and became the first daily newspaper strip to satirize politics and culture through characters who were part of the youth counterculture. In 1975, "Doonesbury" became the first daily strip to win a Pulitzer Prize. He has many collections of books featuring his "Doonesbury" strips. His latest "Doonesbury" collection is called "Yuge!" and collects his strips featuring Donald Trump as

GROSS: a character dating back to 1987.

Getting back to the formative years of your life, the period when you started Doonesbury, did you have a strong position on the war in Vietnam? Were you ever drafted? Did you come close to getting drafted?

TRUDEAU: I was drafted, and I was at home trying to decide what to do because I was a classified one and am supposed to go in August after I graduated. And my father who was a doctor mentioned that when I had taken off to boarding school that I had some undiagnosed problem that he thought maybe it was time to get to the bottom of, so he took me to the local hospital. And they did the serendipitously named GI series and found I had all the scar tissue from ulcers. And at that time that was a - an automatic out. They didn't want somebody with that kind of history. So I was free to then proceed with doing the strip.

I was active in the anti-war movement and continued to write about it. I wrote about it obviously not with - out of any personal experience other than what I had read. But I sent B.D. to Vietnam and...

GROSS: This is one of your characters.

TRUDEAU: Yes. He was one of my characters, and he meets another character named Phred - P-H-R-E-D, Phred - who's Vietnamese and takes him prisoner. And then the two of them get lost in the jungle, and they have to depend on one another to survive. And it was a complete hippy dippy fantasy of can't we all get along?

It was this sort of countercultural fantasia that had absolutely no relationship to the reality of Vietnam, but in subsequent years, I have met a number of Vietnam veterans who simply were grateful that I was paying attention. It didn't matter to them that what I was describing had no bearing whatsoever on their reality. The fact was it was focused on the war, and the strip was bought very early by Stars and Stripes the military newspaper, and so they were reading it in Vietnam.

GROSS: Well, more recently, B.D., your character, went to Iraq and lost a leg near Fallujah and came home and had to deal with being an amputee and with having PTSD. I know you spent time at Walter Reed talking with vets who had lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. You also went to Iraq and Afghanistan with the USO. Did managing to avoid the draft in Vietnam help you want to connect with vets who actually did serve?

TRUDEAU: I mean, that certainly didn't trigger it. More it was curiosity. In the summer of 1990 when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq - and we had this huge buildup in the desert, and half a million young Americans were out there protecting Saudi Arabia from any, you know - from an invasion from Iraq and preparing for Desert Storm. And that story just seemed huge to me, and I didn't feel I could just ignore it, so I tried to get over there.

And I ran up against - I was in bad odor at the White House, and so I had all sorts of difficulties getting over there until December of that year when there was a new chief of staff in the Army. And he wrote me and said, you know, you've been writing about this now for four months at a distance. We'd like to take these strips and get the originals and tour them in country. And I thought, OK, now I can get in because the Pentagon, you know, will help me. So, unfortunately, that was the week I chose to write about how Saudi Arabian young men were sitting out the war in their country clubs. And so when I had to - went to get a visa into Saudi Arabia which is the only way you could get to Kuwait, my visa just couldn't get approved.

And by then, 2,000 journalists had gotten in and not that I was a journalist, but there was no great difficulty in getting visas until it came to mine. And finally I heard from this colonel I just mentioned and he was sitting in a base called Camp Thunder Rock in Kuwait City. He said, you know, I'd heard you had some trouble getting over there. Why don't you just come over? And I said I can't without a visa, and he said come over anyway. So I got on a plane. I flew to Riyadh, and I was approaching customs with no visa. And I was starting to imagine how bad this could go when two G.I.s just appeared on the side door. They came and lifted me up and just took me out a side door and put me in a helicopter and off I went to Kuwait.

So I'd entered the airspace of a sovereign country without there being any trace of my having been there, no documentation. But when I got to the firebase this colonel, Bill Nash, said, OK, here's the deal. I'm going to show you what this war has been and we'll go out to the highway of death, and we'll fly over the oil fields. But you've got to come back and talk to my guys because I'm eager for you to learn what they've been through and to take measure of them and what the new volunteer Army is like.

And then I would go out and tour the battlefields during the day and then evenings I would just spend time talking to all of his guys and to him. And, you know, I think he was probably fairly conservative. I don't think he shared many of my views, but I think he thought that I would benefit and my work would benefit from a deeper understanding of what the military had become through the last generation.

GROSS: So Doonesbury was the first newspaper comic strip to win a Pulitzer. The Pulitzer for cartooning usually goes to editorial cartoonists. Did you see that as a victory for strips, for comic strips?

TRUDEAU: No. That was more of a victory in my family that my father got off my case to find something that...


TRUDEAU: ...You know, was a serious line of work. He always thought I was just kind of treading water until I found something, you know, that seemed more suitable to him as an actual profession. But he was overcome with pride. He just, I mean - he literally wept when that - I mean, that was such a validation. I always felt I was getting - in those early years, I was getting high marks for novelty. And I think the fact that I was doing something so different in my medium, I think that counted for a lot, certainly as much as how well I was doing.

GROSS: So do you think there were editorial cartoonists who were angry with you for winning?

TRUDEAU: Some of them were. The Association for Editorial Cartoons actually took a vote to, you know - whether they really approved of this decision. And I lost them, but I - since then, I made a lot of friends in that world, and I think they came around.

GROSS: Well, Garry Trudeau, thank you so much for talking with us and thanks for all the years of Doonesbury.

TRUDEAU: It's been my great pleasure.

GROSS: Garry Trudeau's latest collection of Doonesbury strips is called "YUGE!: 30 Years of Doonesbury On Trump." Coming up, we hear from the co-creators and writers of the HBO series "Westworld" which is set in a theme park where visitors enact fantasies based on the old West with the help of lifelike androids. That's after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guests are the creators of HBO's futuristic series "Westworld." It's set in a theme park inspired by movie Westerns in which wealthy tourists come to act out their Western fantasies. Those fantasies usually involve shootouts, showdowns, fistfights and sex. Since the visitors can't shoot real people, they enact their fantasies with lifelike androids. After an android is shot, it's repaired and has its memory wiped. But there seems to be a glitch in the androids' new software update and some of them are behaving strangely, perhaps even gaining consciousness.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy adapted "Westworld" from a 1973 film of the same name, which was written and directed by Michael Crichton. Nolan and Joy are married. This is their first time working together.

Jonathan Nolan, who goes by the name Jonah, has written movies with his brother Christopher Nolan, including "Interstellar," "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises." Lisa Joy has written for the TV shows "Burn Notice" and "Pushing Daisies." They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

They started with a clip from the first episode of "Westworld." An android, who's being programmed to be a rancher's daughter named Dolores, has been put into a diagnostic dream state by the park's head of programming, played by Jeffrey Wright. The android is played by Evan Rachel Wood.


JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) Bring her back online. Can you hear me?

EVAN RACHEL WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Yes. I'm sorry, I'm not feeling quite myself.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) You can lose the accent. Do you know where you are?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) I'm in a dream.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) That's right, Dolores. You are in a dream. Would you like to wake up from this dream?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Yes, I'm terrified.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) There's nothing to be afraid of, Dolores, as long as you answer my questions correctly. Understand?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Yes.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) Good. First, have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) No.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) Tell us what you think of your world.

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty.

Mornin', daddy, you sleep well?

LOUIS HERTHUM: (As Peter Abernathy) Well enough. You headed out to set down some of this natural splendor?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Thought I might.

To believe there is an order to our days, a purpose.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, welcome to FRESH AIR.


LISA JOY: Thanks, lovely to be here.

BRIGER: So had either of you seen the original movie or its sequel "Futureworld" before that?

NOLAN: Lisa hadn't. I had when I was a kid, and I still have nightly panics about Yul Brynner's character in that film.

BRIGER: The gunslinger.

NOLAN: The gunslinger, indeed. I had two older brothers, so - exposed to films that were a little too scary for my age when I was a kid growing up in England. I had been very struck by that film, by its sort of relentless world-building quality, you know? Crichton had this amazing gift to sort of peer into the future and see what our technologies would enable for us. And here with "Westworld," he was anticipating not just AI, not just robots, which is a target that's been tackled before, but robots very specifically in this position of servicing our fantasies.

He was anticipating what we now call open-world gaming or sandbox gaming, video games which barely existed when Crichton was writing the original film. We've almost fully realized the world that he imagined, if you look at "Grand Theft Auto" or many of the games that have been built with some similar characteristics.

BRIGER: A lot of the players in your show, the guests, you know, they they go to this part because they can kill androids, they can have sex with androids and basically just act as immorally as they want because they have no risks. There's no consequences to their action. They can't be killed and all the robots are programmed, as you say, to serve their needs.

And the guests, you know, they behave terribly. And, you know, these androids are meant to look as human as possible - they're bleeding, they're completely terrified - but the guests don't seem to mind because they're androids. I mean, one guest at one point - there's a scene inside a saloon, he just blows up the entire place. And he says, well, that's a bleeping vacation. I mean, it's a pretty pessimistic view of human nature.

JOY: Yeah. I mean, I certainly think in that example and in - these are people who are looking for the dark thrills of the park. And, frankly, it's - most video games when people play them, they play for similar thrills. There are very few video games where there are - like, completely pacifistic - and if there are, I tend to play them - "Dance Dance Revolution," there was a game called "Flower" that I really enjoy. But there's a lot of shoot-'em-ups and there's a lot of, you know, car races and there's a lot of war games and there's a lot of violent sports games. And there's something about that that seems to have a real appeal for certain people.

BRIGER: Yeah. It reminds me of the behavior you see people sometimes at airports or, you know, in their cars or even, like, online where there's - you know, there's a certain anonymity and the social contract kind of goes out the window. Were you thinking...

NOLAN: Oh, yeah.

BRIGER: ...About that when you were writing the show?

NOLAN: Absolutely. As our world becomes more cloistered and the experiences we choose for ourselves, especially in the West, we're able to design not just our environment but also our intellectual environment to suit our preferences and predilections. We are, you know, sort of designing this odd prophylactic universe in which we can - we can do whatever we want. You know, that implies a subclass, that implies people who service that for us.

And then within our online interactions, especially, as you said, you know, the line from the way that people - we live in LA. The way people behave in their cars and the way that they behave online is strikingly similar. Lisa, at one point, bought me an X-Box. And I remember when the X-Box Live service went on, the magic of being able to play games and then hear other players - you can hear them in your headset. And that magic lasted about 30 seconds...


NOLAN: ...Until you realize that the things that the other players had to say you were shockingly offensive.

JOY: (Laughter).

BRIGER: So you took the headphones off?

NOLAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

BRIGER: So as the show progresses, some of the androids seem to be coming more self-aware. This seems to be due to, like, a software update that allows them access to memories. Before that, their memories would get wiped out after traumatic experiences or after they'd sort of gotten to the end of their storyline. But as they access more and more memories, they seem to be gaining the beginnings of some sort of consciousness. When you were sitting down to write the show, did you have to say like, OK, what does self-aware artificial intelligence look like?

NOLAN: Absolutely. So we had to strike a balance in terms of performance because what we realized once we'd shot the pilot and we were cutting it, working with this incredible cast - Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton, James Marsden - and the other hosts articulating in their performance, we could impact it a little bit in terms of which takes we used, and then also using visual effects to manipulate the performance - to slow down the way their eyes move, to slow down some of their responses. What we found was that if we made them seem too less than conscious, if we dulled that light to a point where you started to step into that uncanny space, the audience lost sympathy for the hosts. Humans are incredible in terms of their ability to extend empathy and their ability to take it away. And so if we took Evan's performance and dialed out a little bit of the light in her eyes or a little bit of the movement in her facial muscles or her response time, you literally stop caring about the characters.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the creators and writers of the HBO series "Westworld." We'll continue the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with the co-creators and writers of the HBO series "Westworld," Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. "Westworld" is set in a theme park where visitors enact fantasies, often violent fantasies, based on the Old West with the help of lifelike androids.

BRIGER: There's a lot of violence in the show, and early in the first episode there's an implied rape that happens offscreen. Yeah, and I think that the show can kind of be seen as, like, a critique of how the entertainment industry uses violence and sex and sexual violence to entice viewership. And, you know, your show, by having people who write storylines and people who enact them and guests who enjoy them you - seems to be putting the blame on lots of sides there. Was that critique one of the reasons why you wanted to make the show?

NOLAN: Yeah. There is a lot of violence in the show, but I think it is trying to be critical on a level of why is it that we enjoy these things in our film and television, in the novels that we read universally? There are a handful of films that you can point to every year that don't feature some transgressive behavior, some crime, some violence. The question that we're asking with with the series, in part because it's the question the hosts will begin to ask as they begin to understand their situation, is what is wrong with us? (Laughter). Why do we enjoy watching these things?

BRIGER: Well, I'd like to play a clip from episode two that kind of gets to some of these issues. The main writer of the park's storylines, Lee Sizemore, who is played by Simon Quarterman, he's presenting his newest narrative for the park, and we'll also hear Anthony Hopkins, who plays Robert Ford who co-created the park and is going to weigh in on the presentation. So let's hear that.


SIMON QUARTERMAN: (As Lee Sizemore) This storyline will make Hieronymous Bosch look like he was doodling kittens. I have vivisection, self-cannibalism, a special little something I'd call the whoroboros (ph). Now, I don't want to appear immodest, but this is the apex of what the park will provide. Our most skilled guests will fight their ways to the outer limits of the park, besting fearsome braves, seducing nubile maidens, befriending tragically ill-fated sidekicks and of course, like all our best narratives over the years, our guests will have the privilege of getting to know the character they're most interested in - themselves. I present our guests' next obsession, Odyssey on Red River.


ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Robert Ford) No.

QUARTERMAN: (As Lee Sizemore) Sorry?

HOPKINS: (As Robert Ford) No. I don't think so.

QUARTERMAN: (As Lee Sizemore) You don't think...

HOPKINS: (As Robert Ford) What is the point of it? Got a couple of cheap thrills, some surprises, but it's not enough. It's not about giving the guests what you think they want. That's simple - titillation, horror, elation, the politics. The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details.

BRIGER: Well, first of all, I have to say you're not generously depicting writers in that scene.


NOLAN: Yeah, we're - hasten to point out that Simon's character, Lee, is not based on any writer that we may know or have worked with.

BRIGER: No, of course not, never. Jonah, you've also written screenplays with your brother, Christopher Nolan. You wrote the two Batman movies "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises" as well as "Interstellar." How do you compare writing with your brother to writing with your wife?

JOY: I'm sitting right across from him.


BRIGER: She won't hear.


NOLAN: A couple of key distinctions - working with Chris over the years is a fantastic experience and I'm very proud of the movies that we've worked on together. I would typically be working on the next film while Chris was shooting the last one. And I think that was one of the great benefits of that relationship for Chris was that I was able to sort of get out in front of it. In particular on on "The Dark Night," Chris was off shooting the "Prestige" and I was sort of tasked with, OK, here's an idea. You know, we'd worked together on "Batman Begins." I'd worked on that film for a few months, so I knew the characters well, but it's a solitary existence, feature writing.

When I was looking at Lisa's experience in television and realizing how collaborative it was, that great terrible thing of the writers room where, you know, you can build a kind of a collective consciousness. And on days when you're not feeling terribly inspired, the room can pick you up and carry you forward. Here, the opportunity to collaborate with Lisa was a parallel collaboration. And for me, as an opportunity to direct, which is to be able to engage with the material, not just at the script stage but then directly with the actors, with the designers and all of the amazing crew that we put together.

BRIGER: Lisa, I read that you didn't watch TV or movies until you were 23. Is that right?

JOY: (Laughter) You know, I watched some, you know, when I - if I was home sick from school or something. But I'm the child of a tiger mom. Is that the (laughter) parlance for it now? You know, both my parents aren't really from this country, and the emphasis was really on education and studying, and TV seemed like it was not the best use of my time for my parents. So ironically, of course, I rebelled completely and now it's how I make a living. And they're...

BRIGER: Yeah, what do they think about that?

JOY: Well, you know, I used to be a lawyer, and my mom - when I first got my first writing job, she said, well, can you just do it at night and keep doing law during the day? And so they were a little worried, as you would be, I think as any parent is if their child says, hey, I'm going to leave my job with health insurance and of - happy future laid out and enter this crazy world where you're making up stories. But...

NOLAN: A few months after you were at your first job, we both went on strike.

JOY: Yeah, we both went on writers' strike. So we were both doubly unemployed. That must have given them a heart attack. But, you know, they've been incredibly, incredibly supportive, and I'm so grateful too because in never assuming that I would be able to be a professional writer, you know, I had so many other experiences. And also I renew my bar membership every year, so if this all goes horribly wrong, I can still defend you in a court of law.

BRIGER: So there's a great saloon heist scene in the first episode that's using as the score for it The Rolling Stones song "Paint It Black." And the music starts out as a role for a player piano and the player piano throughout the show seems to sort of be a visual stand-in for the androids. But as the scene progresses, it evolves in this beautiful, orchestral arrangement that's, like, sounds like Western. There's some, like, Bolero. It's such a well-scored scene. Can you talk about the music there?

NOLAN: We couldn't resist the symbol of the player piano as the sort of the first robot of the West. It felt like the, you know, the best possible sort of symbol for our host, you know, things that are pre-programmed to evoke an emotional response. So we were able to play with contemporary music. All of it is then rearranged. In the case of "Paint It Black," it then evolves into an orchestral score using strings. It's a wonderful thing to be able to play with and, in this context, is the audience's emotional - preexisting emotional relationship with some of these songs. And we take full advantage of it throughout the season.

BRIGER: Well, Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, thank you so much for being on the show, and thank you for "Westworld." It's really terrific.

JOY: Thank you. It was so lovely talking to you.

NOLAN: Thanks, Sam.

GROSS: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy created and write the HBO series "Westworld." They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Issa Rae, creator and star of the HBO series "Insecure." She plays a 29-year-old who's in a relationship she fears is going nowhere and a job in which she feels like the token black.


ISSA RAE: (As Issa Dee) My boss founded a nonprofit to help kids from the hood, but she didn't hire anybody from the hood.

GROSS: Rae also created the web series "The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl." I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

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