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'Extremely Loud' And Incredibly Manipulative

Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Critic David Edelstein says the end result doesn't fully mesh with the story it is trying to tell.

05:54

Other segments from the episode on January 6, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 6, 2012: Obituary for Barbara Lea; Review of the film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"; Interview with Tina Fey; Review of new and returning television shows…

Transcript

January 6, 2012

Guests: Barbara Lea/Tina Fey

DAVID BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Barbara Lea was a singer known for her straightforward interpretations, precise diction and respect for the intentions of each song's composer and lyricist. Her repertoire was the Great American Songbook. She died December 26th at the age of 82 of complications from Alzheimer's disease. Lea got her start singing in clubs in the 1950s. Her first album, "A Woman in Love," released in 1955, was named one of the finest recordings of that year. It included this song, "Thinking of You" by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby.

[SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINKING OF YOU"]

BARBARA LEA: (Singing) Why is it I spend the day, wake up and end the day, thinking of you? And why does it do this to me? Is it such a bliss to be thinking of you? When I go to sleep at night, it seems you just tiptoe into all my dreams. So I...

[END SOUNDBITE]

DAVID BIANCULLI: Barbara Lea recorded in 1955. When her singing career faltered, she turned to acting, went on to receive a master's degree in drama and later taught acting and speech. In 1976, her singing career was revived with a performance on songwriter Alec Wilder's NPR radio program "American Popular Song with Alec Wilder and Friends."

Barbara Lea had an encyclopedic knowledge of American music and devoted albums and nightclub performances to the works of great American songwriters. In 1991, she helped us celebrate the centenary of Cole Porter's birth by performing his songs in our studio. At the piano was Tony Tamborello. Here's Barbara Lea singing "You're a Bad Influence on Me."

[SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE A BAD INFLUENCE ON ME"]

BARBARA LEA: (Singing) Since first you crossed my horizon with your load of love charms, I spend my whole time devising means to stay in your arms. There must be some tricky treatment that would cool my brain, for to me it's so plain, and you'll admit the fact that I'm practically sane.

(Singing) You're a bad influence on me. Sorry, but you're a bad influence I must say. For I get in such a dither when you use your famous come hither that all thought of shame and mither(ph) seems to wither away. The thing your eyes do to me is such folly that I feel sure your middle name must be Svengali.

(Singing) You throw me right off of my stride. Still I beg of you stay by my side and be a bad influence on me. When you appear, my dear, I want to start shooting 'cause I'm sure you used to say black mass with Rasputin. I wish you'd cease singing my wings, but before you do, take off your things and be a bad influence on me.

[END SOUNDBITE]

TERRY GROSS: That was great. It's a wonderful lyric. It must be really nice to sing songs that you can sing with conviction because the lyric's so well-written you don't have to be embarrassed by any lines.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

LEA: Yes, yes, yes. Sometimes you get a request for a song that isn't well-written, and then it's really a test, it's really a challenge to think what am I going to do, this is such a nice person I want to do this song for this person, what can I do to it to make this lyric come alive. Often you find you just have to go counter to the intent of a song. Sometimes it'll be so ridiculously romantic that you have to take it very casually, or sometimes it's a kind of casual, hardboiled song that you have to bring romance to it.

TERRY GROSS: But really I want to find out a little bit about you.

LEA: Oh, all right.

TERRY GROSS: Now, you started recording back in 1955.

LEA: Yes, yes.

TERRY GROSS: What were you like then? How was your voice different? What were you singing?

LEA: My voice was very much the same except that for the last five years or so, I've been solvent, so I've been able to take voice lessons.

TERRY GROSS: You're taking voice lessons now?

LEA: Now, I've just started, and it's wonderful, and it hasn't changed my voice at all except it's - my voice, it's easier. Everything flows more easily now. It's opened up the range. I've got a little more range on top and a little more on the bottom. Basically I've had the same range since I was a tiny child.

TERRY GROSS: When we asked you to do the concert, we asked you to do some songs that we'd all know and a couple songs that would be discoveries for us, and I think the song you're about to do is something that's going to be a discovery for us.

LEA: Yes, yes, I hope so. I've never heard anyone else do it. I just found a piece of sheet music in Lincoln Center Library. It was sung by the mother of the debutante in "50 Million Frenchmen."

[SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC]

LEA: What is that, my note? Give me a chord. Don't give me a note.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

[SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE QUEEN OF TERRE HAUTE"]

LEA: (Singing) My mother and father once went to a lot of bother to make me the happiest of girls. To further my station, they gave me an education, not to mention a string of pearls. But in spite of my backing, I still feel there's something lacking and that fate has rather let me down, for instead of being famous, I'm an unknown ignoramus from a small, Middle-western town.

(Singing) Why couldn't I have been Salome or Mary Pickford or Joan of Arc? If I were Elinor Glyn or even Anne Boleyn, the future wouldn't look half so dark. Why couldn't I be Whistler's mother or any other woman of note? Why did the gods decree that I should only be the queen of Terre Haute?

[END SOUNDBITE]

TERRY GROSS: That's great. So you found that on sheet music?

LEA: Yes.

TERRY GROSS: And you've never heard it performed?

LEA; No.

TERRY GROSS: You think it's recorded anywhere?

LEA: I don't know. I don't know. I know it's from the '20s.

TERRY GROSS: So this is the kind of thing you do a lot, just go searching for sheet music of obscure songs?

LEA: Oh yes, it's my favorite pastime.

TERRY GROSS: And we'll contrast that with a very well-known song that you're about to sing for us.

[SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGIN THE BEGUINE"]

LEA: (Singing) When they begin the beguine, it brings back the sound of music so tender. It brings back a night of tropical splendor. It brings back a memory evergreen. I'm with you once more under the stars and down by the shore, an orchestra's playing. And even the palms seem to be swaying when they begin the beguine.

(Singing) To live it again is past all except when that tune clutches my heart. And there we are swearing to love forever and promising never, never to part. What moments divine, what rapture serene 'til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted. And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted, I know but too well what they mean.

(Singing) So don't let them begin the beguine, let the love that was once a fire remain an ember. Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember when they begin the beguine.

(Singing) Oh yes let them begin the beguine, make them play 'til the stars that were there before return above you, 'til you whisper to me once more darling I love you. And we suddenly know what heaven we're in when they begin the beguine

[END SOUNDBITE]

TERRY GROSS: That's beautiful. I think that's the saddest and most felt version of that I've ever heard. It's usually much more kind of up-tempo and danceable.

LEA: Yeah, yeah.

TERRY GROSS: Tell me about thinking through the song and deciding to do it that way.

LEA: Well, all I can tell you is that you have to know the story before you can tell the story. People are so interested in selling their sadness or selling their joy or whatever it is, but they don't ever bother to feel that, and I just - you know, I was an actress for many years, and I just, I know what that song's about from my life.

If I didn't know what it was about from my life, I'd know what it was about from my imagination. And I tell the story, that's all. And I love it. I love that. I think it's possibly the greatest song ever written. I know it's never been done this way, and I know if they try, they won't be able. So this song is mine. "New York, New York" is Liza Minelli's, this one is mine.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

BIANCULLI: Barbara Lea, recorded in 1991. She died December 26th at the age of 82. Coming up, a review of the new film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." This is FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: Jonathan Safran Foer's 2006 novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" explored the horror of 9/11 via multiple narrators, photos, drawings and even mathematical equations. It's now a film directed by Stephen Daldry, who made "The Hours." It stars Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and newcomer Thomas Horne. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Some critics are indignant over Stephen Daldry's film of Jonathan Safran Foer's book "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." They say the appropriation of 9/11 for such a sentimental work is exploitation.

It is a knotty issue. I think Foer wasn't writing about 9/11 so much as using it to explore themes he introduced in his Eastern Europe-set debut, "Everything is Illuminated." That book had an American trying to come to terms with the legacy of his Jewish forefathers, to counter the elusiveness of memory, and "Extremely Loud" also has a son hunting for clues. Eleven-year-old Oskar Schell struggles to find meaning after his dad dies in the World Trade Center.

In his lifetime, the father devised puzzles and scavenger hunts to force his fearful son into the world, and Oskar's convinced there's a message at the finish line of his dad's final challenge. Cryptic communication between other fathers and sons show up throughout the book, along with accounts of other attacks, like the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima. Foer also prints blurry photos of a figure in mid-leap from the World Trade Center: they're items in young Oskar's 9/11 scrapbook.

In the film of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," screenwriter Eric Roth eliminates other characters' perspectives along with some of the boy's more cutesy tics and finds a middle ground between jumpy postmodernism and formula uplift. The movie works you over. The first thing on-screen is a body - you can't see whose - falling in slow motion through the air, and it made me want to flee: It was too much horror, too fast.

The other wrenching device is a series of six answering-machine messages left by the father, played by Tom Hanks, after the planes hit, his calm assurances increasingly less convincing. For reasons only later apparent, young Oskar, played by Thomas Horn, replaced that machine with an identical model and lied to his mother, played by Sandra Bullock, about calls that came in before she got home. It's the last message he can't bear to share, and it's withheld from us, too, a kind of dramatic striptease, until the end. And yes, it's devastating.

Thomas Horn was discovered on Kids Week on "Jeopardy," and he's not really an actor, more of an intelligent reciter. Fortunately, Oskar is supposed to be a kid with no social graces. When he finds a key in a vase in his dad's closet in an envelope with the word Black, he decides to visit every Black in the phone book, all five boroughs, starting with the Black played by Viola Davis, upset because her husband is moving out.

[SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE"]

THOMAS HORN: (As Oskar Schell) Who's that?

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Abby Black) My husband. You must think this is very odd.

THOMAS HORN: (As Oskar Schell) Oh, I think a lot of things are odd. People tell me I'm very odd all the time. I got tested once to see if I had Asperger's disease. Dad said it's for people who are smarter than everybody else but can't run straight. The tests weren't definitive. Are you sure you didn't know him, Thomas Schell? He was in the building in 9/11. I'm trying to find a lock for this key that was in the envelope that once belonged to my father.

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Abby Black) I'm sorry, I don't know anything about the key or your father.

[END SOUNDBITE]

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The parade of photogenic multiracial Blacks does get tedious, but the cinematography by Chris Menges gives every neighborhood its own distinctive color and character. And the boy is accompanied in later visits by a mute, elderly man known as the Renter, a guest in the apartment of Oskar's German grandmother and played by Max von Sydow.

The inception of his muteness is chronicled in the book but not the film, and it could have seemed precious if von Sydow, now 82, didn't have such gravity. He's a tragic figure, yet there's a bit of Stan Laurel in his weary shrugs: He makes this man an irreducible mixture of father and child. The other actors - Hanks and Bullock and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright - aren't as lucky: They have dialogue. But they're suitably somber, like guests at an important funeral.

The problem with "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is that once the filmmakers strip away the novel's postmodern pastiche and tack on an inspirational Hollywood ending, what's left, this story of a boy's search for a lost father, doesn't fully mesh with 9/11 and doesn't fully earn the right to use such terrible images from our recent past. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is extremely powerful and incredibly manipulative. When you dry your tears, you might feel, as I did, angry.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Tina Fey, wrote an entertaining memoir last year called "Bossypants." In it she writes about her life before she became famous, and also tells great stories about being the head writer on "Saturday Night Live;" serving as the co-anchor of "Weekend Update;" creating and starring in her own TV series, "30 Rock;" and returning to "SNL" to portray Sarah Palin.

Tina Fey also writes about being a daughter and a mother. In 2010, she became the youngest winner of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She's won two Golden Globe Awards for her performance on "30 Rock," and that show also won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. She's won a total of seven Emmys for writing, acting and producing. Terry spoke with Tina Fey last April when "Bossypants" was published. It's just come out in paperback.

TERRY GROSS: Tina Fey, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you here. Your book is hysterical. So I'd like you to start by reading an excerpt from it. And I'd like you to read the mother's prayer for its daughter.

FEY: It would be my pleasure.

TERRY GROSS: Thank you.

FEY: I will try to read it in what I imagine is the vocal style of Danielle Steel.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

The mother's prayer for its daughter. First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither the Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches. May she be beautiful but not damaged, for it's the damage that draws the creepy soccer coach's eye, not the beauty. When the crystal meth is offered, may she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half, and stick with beer.

Lead her away from acting, but not all the way to finance - something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels. What would that be, Lord? Architecture, midwifery, golf course design? I'm asking you because if I knew, I'd be doing it, youdammit.

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a bitch in front of Hollister, give me strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, for I will not have that nonsense. I will not have it.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

TERRY GROSS: That's so funny. Tina Fey, reading from her new book, which is called "Bossypants." There's one story in your book that I so related to. Your mother made you try on a bra over your shirt at J.C. Penney. And I don't know how many girls went through this kind of thing with their mother, where you had to, like, try on clothes not in the dressing room but in the middle of - in the middle of the store, where everybody's going to see you. And then the store manager, if there is one, is going to be really angry, too. How horrible was that?

FEY: At the time, it was horrifying. And also, I was - I developed very early. I was probably in, you know, fifth grade, getting a bra. And it was - yeah, it was mortifying but in that same way that I can absolutely see making that same mistake of - because you're so used to - you transition as a mother from - at some point, from literally just, you know, pulling a booger out of that person's nose whenever you see one until at some point, they assert to you, like: No, I'm a person. You can't, you know, fix my underpants on the subway.

TERRY GROSS: I watched you accept the Mark Twain Comedy Award at the Kennedy Center. And your parents were in the audience. They looked so proud of you, in spite of the fact that you made a joke about preparing to send them to a home.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

FEY: I did. They rolled with some jokes there.

TERRY GROSS: Yeah. But were they proud of you when you decided to move to Chicago to study improv?

FEY: Yes, they were very supportive, always. And...

TERRY GROSS: That's a risky thing. They really were OK with that?

FEY: They were OK with it, yeah. And they never - you know, to their credit, they never said, like: You like entertainment? Are you sure you don't want to be an entertainment lawyer? Like, that could have been a depressing thing.

They - you know, because my dad is a painter, and so I think he understood that part of me that wanted to pursue this - and also understanding, you know, wanting to pursue that before you have commitments, before you have a family. And I think they knew that we weren't -neither my brother nor I would ever really end up, you know, coming back to them, destitute. We always had jobs to, you know, pay for our classes or whatever, you know, whatever we were interested in.

TERRY GROSS: So you worked at the Evanstown Y.

FEY: Yes, the Evanston...

TERRY GROSS: Evanston.

FEY:...Illinois, McGaw YMCA.

TERRY GROSS: Yeah, and then got a spot at Second City. And you know, you describe some of the rules of improv. And one of them is, you know, make statements. Don't ask questions, and put the onus on the other person to come up with something. You come up with something, give it to them, and then they have to react with something.

FEY: Exactly.

TERRY GROSS: And you say that this applies to women, too. Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions.

FEY: Yes.

TERRY GROSS: Were you ever in that category of speaking in apologetic questions and having to be more assertive, or speaking all the time in statements that sound like questions, you know?

FEY: Hopefully, I don't really have that behavior - that kind of...

TERRY GROSS: Exactly.

FEY: Once again, I'm maybe a little on the old side? I think that became standard issue in the late '80s. I don't know. I mean, I'm a shy person. And so I definitely learned in those early improv classes to initiate, and to step forward.

And you learn so much in those classes because you also, eventually - once you get better at improv, you learn like, you know, when do you step forward?

A great - you know - thing, an improv Olympic thing, I think, too -which is another improv - you know, you ask - when you're teaching, you ask improvisers who have been a couple classes in, a couple sessions, whatever you say - here's a question: When do you enter a scene? And people say: Well, when you have an idea. No.

When do you enter a scene? When you think of something funny to say. No. And the answer is: When do you enter a scene is when someone needs you. You're only to enter when someone needs you. And so if you're observing the scene and you feel it start to lull, or if someone in the scene refers to something that it would be beneficial to see.

And so it's this great mindset of contributing, but as a group. You never just come in - I mean, people do because you always make mistakes in the practice of it - but come in just because that scene looks fun and I want to be in it, too, or I've got a great idea for a loud character that could enter this scene.

TERRY GROSS: How did what you learned in improv compare to what you learned in more traditional acting classes?

FEY: Well, for me, I had studied drama at the University of Virginia, with great teachers. And we studied Stanislavsky technique and Meisner technique, and all these different things. And I tried my best, but I was never sure - when I was doing those things - I never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about during the actual performance.

Am I supposed to be thinking about the journal that I made for the character? Am I thinking about my moment before? And with improv, because it is more of a sport, and you must stay focused - and what you're supposed to be thinking about is actively listening to that person because you truly don't know what the next thing is. So you're listening to your partner so that you can truly respond - that was the first technique that clicked for me, personally. Because I think that all acting techniques are all different sets of tricks to just give you something to think about other than yourself in the moment, so that you're not kind of watching yourself act, which leads to all kinds of awkwardness on stage. And so for me, improvisation was the only one that worked.

BIANCULLI: Tina Fey speaking last year with Terry Gross. Tina Fey's memoir "Bossypants" has just come out in paperback. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to our interview with Tina Fey, who stars on NBC's "30 Rock." She's also the creator and head writer of the show. Her memoir "Bossypants" has just come out in paperback.

TERRY GROSS: You know how we were talking about that, you know, you say actresses shouldn't, like, speak in questions all the time?

FEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

TERRY GROSS: Like you have to make statements. So this is from an episode of "30 Rock" called "Sexy Baby," and this is like, a new writer on the show.

FEY: Oh yeah, the episode, the actual title of the episode is "TGS Hates Women."

TERRY GROSS: Oh right, yeah, yeah, because this writer is hired to kind of change things around because the show's being accused of being misogynistic. So this new writer's hired, but she's a real sexy baby type.

FEY: Mm-hmm.

TERRY GROSS: And you're trying to tell her to, like act - like knock it off.

FEY: Right.

TERRY GROSS: You don't have to put on that act when you're not acting. You know, just, like, knock it off and be yourself. And so here's that scene.

[SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK"]

FEY: (As Liz) Abby, thanks for meeting me here. This place is very special to me.

CRISTIN MILIOTI (As Abby Flynn) Is this where you got your V-card punched?

FEY: (As Liz) What? No. Does this look like the makeup room of a clown academy? No. This is a statue - and I know you know this - of Eleanor Roosevelt: first lady to the world, champion of the rights of women, and the lid on my high school lunchbox. Look, I know it can be hard. Society puts a lot of pressure on us to act a certain way. But TGS is a safe place, so you can drop the sexy baby act - and lose the pigtails.

CRISTIN MILIOTI: (As Abby) I like my pigtails. My uncle says they're sexy.

FEY: (As Liz) Enough with the gross jokes and that voice. I want you to talk in your real voice.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) This is my real voice. And the little sexy baby thing isn't an act. I'm a very sexy baby. I can't help it if men are attracted to me - like that homeless guy. He likes what he sees.

FEY: (As Liz) OK, that could be for me.

HANNIBAL BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) It's not. It's for her.

FEY: (As Liz) Abby, I'm trying to help you.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Really? By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk? And what's the difference between me using my sexuality, and you using those glasses to look smart?

FEY: (As Liz) I am smart. I placed out of freshman German.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Or Lutz, using that sexy English accent to get me in the sack.

FEY: (As Liz) No, you didn't. What? Is that even possible? I mean, I was there when he Belvedered. God, Abby, you can't be that desperate for male attention.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) You know what, Liz? I don't have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.

FEY: (As Liz) Except it is because you represent my show, and you represent my gender in this business, and you embarrass me.

BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) Kiss!

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Dude, I am sorry, but this is who I am. Deal with it.

[END SOUNDBITE]

TERRY GROSS: That's my guest, Tina Fey, with Cristin Milioti. Am I saying her name...

FEY: I think so, yeah.

TERRY GROSS: In a scene from "30 Rock." Do you know actresses like that, who -or writers like that, who have that kind of like, sexy baby persona?

FEY: Mm-hmm. It's funny because as we were listening to that, I was thinking: Yeah, it's just your typical sitcom, two-minute-long discussion about gender. No wonder no one wants to watch this program.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

Yeah, actually, I was remembering, as we were listening to it, that the thing about the moment - and this script was written by Ron Weiner(ph) - but I remember one of the things that - we talked about this story a lot in the room - the moment where I say to her: Talk in your real voice.

It's actually a thing that I remembered from a college acting class where there was a girl - this beautiful, really beautiful, voluptuous, little, tiny actress - who had one of these tiny voices. And I had one of my acting teachers - I remember she was doing a monologue in class, and he very gently said to her - he was like OK, I want you to do the monologue again, and I would like you to use your adult-woman voice.

And she did, and all the other women in the class looked - I remember looking at each other like, I knew it! I knew that voice wasn't real. And that moment was kind of inspired by that because sometimes, those voices are real; sometimes, they are a habit that's just kind of worn in. But this episode was - that story is so kind of loaded and complex and that I was really glad that we did it. And I think it - it confused it sort of opens up more questions than answers.

I mean, for me it was about Liz - Liz is in the wrong to try - she thinks she's doing the right thing by trying to correct this woman, by trying to say like, you don't have to be this way. And at the same time, this girl has every right to be whoever she wants. And so that, to me, was what the story was about, that it's just such a tangled-up issue, the way women present themselves - whether or not they choose to, you know, as I say, put their thumbs in their panties on the cover of Maxim - and the way women judge each other back and forth for it. It was - it's a complicated issue, and we didn't go much further, saying anything about it other than to say: Yeah, it's a complicated issue, and we're all kind of figuring it out as we go.

And in the episode, we have a fake website that we're referring to, a feminist website called Joanofsnark.com - that the women at Jezebel.com immediately recognized that it was their website, basically. And it was kind of a - it was. It was, you know, a reaction to the way I saw Olivia Munn, who is a correspondent...

TERRY GROSS: On "The Daily Show."

FEY: ...treated on that "Daily Show," which was, you know, I - I don't have the answer. But I find it interesting - is all I can say - is I find it interesting that Olivia gets people - go after her, sometimes, on these sites because she's beautiful - I think is part of it. You know, I think she was posing - I think if she were kind of an aggressive, kind of heavier girl with a, you know, Le Tigre mustache, posing in her underpants, people would be like: That's amazing, good for you. But because she is very beautiful, people are like: That's - you're using that. It's just a mess. We can't figure it out.

TERRY GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guess is Tina Fey and she has a new book, which is called "Bossypants." When you got to "Saturday Night Live" as a writer, how long did it take for you to feel comfortable actually writing something?

FEY: I came from Second City, where we had - the process was that you would improvise and re-improvise and re-improvise and work together and then eventually, write down - kind of just record the final version of your, what you've improvised. And that would become a sketch.

And then my first week at "Saturday Night Live," the way it works there is you come in on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning, you have to turn in about 20 pages of writing. And that first week, I completely froze. I couldn't think of anything. It was just too fast a gear shift. I had been - I was only at Second City a week before. That was only, you know, I left on a Friday - or left on a Monday, and was at "SNL" the following Monday.

And so I'd found, you know, I had some pieces that I had written to try to get the job, and I ended up turning them in. And so it took a couple - by the next week, I was able to write something and turn it in. And by the - I think the week after that, maybe, I got something that actually got - made its way to the dress rehearsal.

TERRY GROSS: And of the many guest hosts that you wrote for, who was a pleasure to write for?

FEY: Well, Alec Baldwin is always a pleasure. Queen Latifah was always very good. Gwyneth Paltrow, actually, has a great ear or instinct for sketch comedy because you have to kind of make a quick choice and go with it, and not really over-think it. And she was really good. Ben Affleck was always really good.

And then there are people - I don't know if I got anything on with him, but I remember enjoying his show very much - was John McCain. Because sometimes when you have a person who's all the way not an actor, it's just delightful to watch them kind of be game and try.

TERRY GROSS: That was pre-you-doing-Sarah-Palin.

FEY: Yes.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

TERRY GROSS: So you already had a pre-existing relationship...

FEY: Yes.

TERRY GROSS:...with him. Did that help?

FEY: I think so. We all liked him tremendously when he hosted. And my husband and I went down, I guess, in 2004, to Washington. And I did a photo shoot with Senator McCain. And he gave us - we spent the afternoon together - and gave us a tour of the Capitol and stuff.

And in fact, we did this cover for Life magazine together - when they were trying to bring Life magazine back - in a sort of a nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote cover. And Lorne Michaels always reminds me of that, that Senator McCain has that framed in his office from 2004 'til 2008. And he thinks that subliminally, that that's why he liked Sarah Palin when he saw her -because he was used to looking at me standing next to him, in that picture.

TERRY GROSS: So how did it change your life to be a person on TV as opposed to behind the scenes?

FEY: Well, it's very fun, you know. And it's very fun to be a writer on "Saturday Night Live," but it is more fun to be able to do both. On the most basic level, they give you a party dress to wear every week and so they have party and they do - fix your hair and makeup.

And so when you're a writer and you hit that after-show party or, you know, exhausted and you maybe combed your hair, and you maybe bought yourself something at Ann Taylor.

[SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER]

But if you're on the show, you're all fancy. So in that most basic level, it was an upgrade in the job. And the other thing about "Update" is that it is the only segment in the show that is never cut. So you never have that fear and disappointment that the sketch players have. It's the only segment in the show where you, week after week, look right into the camera and tell America your name.

TERRY GROSS: True.

FEY: Because a lot of times - I realize now, now that I'm on the show too - you see the sketch players; you see them a lot. You see them in wigs and when they're new you go wait, which one is - who's that; which guy is that? And in "Update," you look like a version of yourself. And every week you say hi, this is me. And so it's career-changing.

TERRY GROSS: Tina Fey, it's been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

FEY: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It's a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Tina Fey, speaking last April with Terry Gross. Her memoir "Bossypants" has just come out in paperback. Next up, I slip into TV critic mode and review two new TV shows: Showtime's "House of Lies" and NBC's "The Firm," and lots of returning ones, including "Downton Abbey" on PBS. That’s after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The New Year brings with it new TV programming, and this Sunday is an especially busy one for television. Two new series premiere, and one miniseries and several other series return.

BIANCULLI: Because it's a new year, let's start with the new shows. First up is NBC's "The Firm," a spinoff continuation of the John Grisham book - the one that, in the 1993 movie adaptation, starred Tom Cruise as a lawyer on the run from sinister forces within his own corrupt law firm. This new version, starring Josh Lucas in the role of Mitch McDeere, starts out hitting the same notes - literally.

The soundtrack aims, at least at first, to evoke Dave Grusin's dramatic piano music from the original movie. And this new Mitch, like the old one, is first seen running for his life in broad daylight, this time on the Washington Mall.

[SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC]

After this high-energy opening, the TV show flashes back to six weeks earlier - borrowing a trick from "Damages," where the plot will slowly, but surely work its way back to the present. But first, it regresses again, a full decade, to explain how Mitch came out of hiding, and started his own law practice, assisted by saucy Tammy and brother Roy.

In the movie, that trio was played by Tom Cruise, Holly Hunter and David Strathairn. Now they're played by Lucas, Juliette Lewis and Callum Keith Rennie. Only Molly Parker from "Deadwood," playing Mitch's wife, is a step up from the original movie, where Abby was played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. Otherwise, however you compare this TV version to the movie or the book - even with Grisham's blessing and involvement - it comes up wanting, and, at times, even boring.

That's not the case with Showtime's "House of Lies," another new series that launches Sunday. This one stars Don Cheadle as Marty Kahn, a high-priced management consultant who leads a team of fast-talkers and faster thinkers, including one played by Kristen Bell. Cheadle first impressed me playing the district attorney on "Picket Fences" where every time he stood and spoke, you couldn't help but lean in and take notice.

It's the same way here, except that effect is enhanced through technology. Every so often, the action around Marty will stop - literally stop, like in a still photo - so he can step forward, look into the camera and address the audience directly to explain a particular term or tactic.

It's a gimmick, sure, but it works here, and with an impressive injection of high-octane energy - as in this scene when Marty stops talking to his colleagues, who freeze like statues, so he can talk to us instead.

[SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "HOUSE OF LIES"]

DON CHEADLE: (As Marty) Consulting's like dissing a really pretty girl so that she'll want you more. We need them to think they're almost perfect, so we can book that after-work. After-work: After-work really is the goal of all consulting. Get them on the tit, thinking that their business is going to fail without you. They hire you week-in and week-out. That’s millions and millions in billable hours. That's what we want, baby.

[END SOUNDBITE]

BIANCULLI: "House of Lies," based on a nonfiction book, is adapted and produced by Matthew Carnahan, whose last TV series, the Courteney Cox comedy-drama "Dirt," was nowhere near this sharp. "House of Lies," to its credit, is a lot more complex than it might have been. Marty wins battles each week as he goes into the field to consult, but he's still losing the war at his own firm.

His boss Skip, played by Richard Schiff from "The West Wing," is supporting a merger with a giant company, even though someone at that company has it in for Marty. And while Skip supports the merger, he explains in a future episode why he doesn't support Marty.

[SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "HOUSE OF LIES"]

RICHARD SCHIFF: (As Skip) It's a relationship business. You know, we're pollinators. All right, we go from flower to flower. We are very sweet. We gorge on the royal jelly, and then we quietly buzz off. We do not use our stingers. We are all about relationships. Other people do what you do without leaving a swath of destruction behind them.

Yeah, your numbers are amazing, but then I - I am the one left behind spending half my life making nice with all the people whose lives you've carved up and gutted. I like my garden peaceful and quiet with big, beautiful blooming buds. Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz.

CHEADLE: (As Marty) Okay, Skip. Listen, maybe my style points leave something to be desired. Yeah, granted. I'll try to do better. I'm sorry.

SCHIFF: (As Skip) Do you realize how long I've known you, and you've never once invited me over here?

CHEADLE: (As Marty) Skip, I have personally put about $100 million in your pocket, let alone what I've done for your company. All right? It's not about us ever being friends here.

SCHIFF: (As Skip) It is to me. It's personal. To me. And that’s kind of what matters now, isn't it?

[END SOUNDBITE]

BIANCULLI: "House of Lies" definitely, is a show to add to your weekly viewing list. Other shows on TV this Sunday may be on that list already. Showtime presents the season premieres of the David Duchovny series "Californication," which jumps ahead two years in its narrative, and the William H. Macy series "Shameless," which picks up right where it left off last season.

"Californication" is reinvigorated by the time jump, and in "Shameless," while the writing isn't that outstanding, the acting certainly is. And on BBC America, there's a 20th-anniversary reunion special of "Absolutely Fabulous." If you loved "AbFab" before, as I did, chances are good you'll love it again.

And that's true, as well, of Season 2 of "Downton Abbey," the hit costume drama presented by Masterpiece Classic on PBS. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries last year, and became such a surprise hit that writer-creator Julian Fellowes instantly was asked for more.

Frankly, I don't know why its popularity should be considered surprising at all. "Downton Abbey" is "Upstairs, Downstairs" for a new generation, and has the exact same appeal. It's like watching the 1 percent living under the same roof as the 99 percent - only with completely different accommodations. Season two jumps forward two years in its story line, just as "Californication" does.

This puts us to 1916 and the Great War - and before episode one is over, we're in the trenches as well as in the kitchen. Some of the subplots this season are more predictable, and thus a bit less delectable. But the actors, led by Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith and Jim Carter, still enhance every scene in which they appear. As with last season, I still enjoy spending time at "Downton Abbey," whether it's upstairs or down.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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