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'Fresh Air' Critic Ken Tucker: Loving and Hating TV

Ken Tucker's new book is Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy, a look at television. His new book touches on TV mainstays, from James Garner to Pamela Anderson and David Brinkley.

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Other segments from the episode on February 14, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 14, 2005: Interview with Ken Tucker; Commentary on the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.

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DATE February 14, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ken Tucker discusses his new book, "Kissing Bill
O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Everyone has strong opinions about television and what its best and worst
shows are. Critic Ken Tucker has written a book that describes his own
complex feelings about the state of television by dividing the TV world into
the programs he loves and those he hates. To give you a sense of how
unpredictable some of his opinions are, his book is called "Kissing Bill
O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy."

Ken is FRESH AIR's rock critic. He was the TV critic for Entertainment Weekly
from its founding in 1990 until last October. He's now the film critic for
New York Magazine.

Why did you decide to organize this book into categories of things that you
love and things that you hate?

KEN TUCKER (TV Critic; Author, "Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy"):
Well, because so much of the talk about television is that it's the passive
medium, that people are couch potatoes, when actually I think television stirs
up a lot of very, very strong emotions. And so I really wanted to pick things
that I felt extreme about, that I passionately loved, that I passionately
hated. And I hoped in that way to kind of spark an argument or agreement or
disagreement with the reader.

GROSS: OK. Well, your title demonstrates that one of the things you say you
love in the book is Bill O'Reilly. And in your entry about Bill O'Reilly, you
call him a `jerk of the first rank.' You say that you vehemently disagree
with him politically. So what exactly do you like?

TUCKER: I like the fact that he is a real throwback to old broadcasters, like
Art Linkletter and Arthur Godfrey, in the sense that he makes a real personal
connection to audiences. He looks straight at the camera. He talks straight
at the audience. I think he's a really good broadcaster. I'm always
surprised at people who can't separate his politics from what he does as a
performer. And I think that the format of the show--it's brilliantly
produced, I think. You have text running along the right side of the screen,
which is almost unheard of, when he has those Talking Points Memos. So you
have to kind of read along with him, which focuses your attention on him. So
I think "The O'Reilly Factor" is a brilliantly produced program, even though,
as you say and I say in the book, you know, `Would I be a good East Coast
media critic if I did not vehemently disagree with almost everything that
actually comes out of his mouth?'

GROSS: I want to read something you say about him. You write, `He's at once
arrogant and avuncular, ruthlessly aggressive and assiduously polite,
shameless and racked with shame, a know-it-all liar and a knowing TV
communicator. He is at once imperial and insecure.' So you see him as a
bunch of paradoxes?

TUCKER: Yeah. I think there's a lot of contradictions to him. He's a guy
who, you know, famously has shouted `shut up' at people numerous times on the
air. He's someone who also reads his mail and reads as much negative mail
about his show as positive mail. I think that he unders--he's
very--politically he's hard to pin down in the sense that he may be
politically conservative, but on social issues he's sort of squishy to
progressive. And, you know, you really can't figure him out, and I think
that's part of his success. I think he's managed to lasso that--he talks a
right-wing game but actually practices a more libertarian view.

GROSS: It sounds like part of what you think works about him as a broadcaster
is that he's tough on guests, but he really flatters his audience by the way
he directly talks with them and kind of flatters them and tells them he's
looking out for them. So he tries to get the audience on his side, and then
he shows how combative he is by attacking other people. But he's always
really nice to the audience, who he's talking directly to.

TUCKER: Yes, very, very flat--always bringing them over to his side. And,
you know, I think it's always, also, this kind of false humility, where he
refers to himself as `the factor,' which I think is both funny and very canny.
It's not all me, me, me. It kind of deflects it in a way. And I think that
people really like that kind of attack approach that he takes to a lot of
guests. They say to themselves, `That's what I would do if I was on camera.
I'd really, you know, go after that guy.' So he's managed to put himself on
the side of the audience, even though, you know, he couldn't be more different
and more aloof from the public than he probably is.

GROSS: I'll repeat that you call him a `know-it-all liar.' Should not that
overshadow everything else?

TUCKER: You know, if you're toting up the board of moral sins, yes. But I
think as a broadcaster, as a communicator, I think part of the fun, the
challenge, the seriousness of watching his show is catching him out on his
falsehoods, calling him on it and seeing through that argument. Now I grant
that the millions of people who love him probably buy into his arguments
completely. But I think that the airwaves are better for Bill O'Reilly
because he's so much different from so many other commentators in that he has
actual content in what he's saying. The stuff can be parsed, as Al Franken
and other people have shown and exposed for what they are, but at least
there's some content there, unlike someone like, say, Tucker Carlson, who I
just find to be a kind of empty bow tie.

GROSS: OK. As if you haven't already surprised our audience enough with the
fact that Bill O'Reilly is in the column of things that you love, you don't
particularly like public television. And you say you have no sympathy for
PBS. What's your problem with PBS?

TUCKER: I think that PBS has completely backed down so many times over the
past, oh, you know, 20 years again and again in any kind of controversy. They
will back down, they will edit things. You know, I say in the book that I,
you know, choked on a bag of Cheetos while I was watching one of these
fund-raisers I just came across by accident 'cause I virtually stopped
watching PBS. And I thought, `They're still raising money? Who do they
expect to get money from? They're showing these, you know, old Lawrence Welk
specials. The thing that I happened to tune into was a Jack Paar salute that
was, you know, edited and cut within an inch of its life, so that they could
break in and do these promos begging you for money.

And they--PBS really has not produced enough original programming. They used
to--you know, just going back to the '60s with shows like "The Great American
Dream Machine," which were political satires and things that you would just
never see on PBS now. And I think at the very least, they could dip back into
their treasure trove of shows that they have, you know, when "Masterpiece
Theatre" really was putting on good adaptations, when--you know, I thought
when Julia Child died, the logical thing would be to immediately put a lot of
vintage Julia Child shows on the air, that people would really love to
experience that again. And instead, you know, she got kind of the merest nod.

I think it's become--I think that PBS has ceded so much territory to cable,
they've said, you know, `Well, the nature shows--there's cable shows that now
do nature, so we can't do that anymore.' And, you know, they change the time
periods of things all the time. "Masterpiece Theatre"--my poor old mother
used to have a terrible time finding "Mystery," her favorite show, and they
kept yanking it around. I just think it's a very badly managed, cowardly
network.

GROSS: Now Howard Stern ends up in the hate and love category in the sense
that you love him on radio, hate him on television. What's the difference?

TUCKER: The difference is that on television, he is just so focused on the
vulgar side of his persona; of presenting naked girls and leering and doing,
you know, passed gas jokes and stuff like that that it counteracts what's
really valuable about Stern, which is his social criticism. I think he's
never been better than now--than he's come under attack by the FCC. He's
really--like O'Reilly, he kind of appeals to a right-wing, working-class
audience but, really, has brought them around--he's come around 180 degrees in
the past year politically. He used to support Republican candidates down the
line, and now he's become this liberal free-speech proponent, very articulate
yet very funny.

I mean, people thought that once he started crusading against the FCC, which
was fining him and attacking him, that he'd become a big bore. I find those
to be the most fascinating segments of his shows now, when he inveighs against
government regulation and calls for Michael Powell's resignation. I think
that he had a very important part in Michael Powell's resignation. It was
probably a factor, so to speak.

GROSS: You also like Howard Stern's celebrity interviews.

TUCKER: I do. He digs much deeper than any talk show host, any nighttime
talk show host. And I like the fact that the celebrities, once they caught on
to the fact that--they kind of get into the spirit of it. You have
celebrities who will go on and submit to the most ferocious personal
questioning, and why they answer, I don't know. But I think it's partly
because Howard is so disarming and himself so self-revealing and
self-deprecating that they kind of join in, the celebrities. And so you avoid
all this promotion that goes on on the shows like "Entertainment Tonight" and
"Access Hollywood" and the late-night talk shows. And I think Stern's just a
brilliant guy in terms of squeezing out facts from celebrities that you would
never hear anywhere else.

GROSS: My guest is critic Ken Tucker. His new book is called "Kissing Bill
O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy." We'll talk more about television after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Tucker. He's FRESH AIR's
rock critic. He's also a film critic for New York Magazine, former television
critic for Entertainment Weekly. And now he has a new book about television
called "Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things to Love and
Hate About TV."

"American Idol" is back on TV. It's doing very well in ratings. You really
love Simon Cowell; you hate "American Idol." Do you admire Simon Cowell as a
critic?

TUCKER: As a critic, yes. You know, he's British, so we cut him a lot of
slack, Americans do, you know? And he is sort of posited on that show as the
show's villain, but at the same time he does offer succinct criticism of these
singers in a way that you never hear. I mean, he goes against the grain of
everything that we're taught elsewhere on television, which is that
everybody's special and everybody has talent and, `You did a good job. You
may not sing really well, but you did a fine job.' That's what the other two
judges do. Cowell just says, you know, `Really, this is just absurd. You
have a very bad voice. You should find another line of work. Go away.'

As for the show itself, I really detest "American Idol." I think that the
music that's on display--of course, I'm speaking as somebody who really likes
rock 'n' roll--I think the music is the worst kind of middle-of-the-road
schlok and that it prizes most the kind of overenunciated, overemotionalized
singing that I think--it dates as far back at least as someone like Whitney
Houston holding a note too long, the melodramatic, melismatic notes that just,
you know, make your heart stop because they're just lasting way too long, and
it's just too annoying and saccharine.

GROSS: Let me quote what you write about "American Idol." You write, "An
entire generation of young people has now grown up thinking that the closed
eyes croon, the insincere melisma, the exaggerated gestural mannerism and
songs chosen for their bombast content are the best ways to entertain
America." Oh, so what's wrong with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TUCKER: It's sort of the worst of both worlds because, you know, it doesn't
have the kind of freedom and challenge and the rebelliousness of rock music.
And--but it's also not as if it's introducing people to old standards, the
kind of subtle, swinging phrasing of, you know, great popular singers, like
Sinatra or Tony Bennett. And so, to me, it just falls right in the middle.
And the show's just become worse in its structure. They draw out for weeks
all those early auditions, where you see all the bad singers. And I'm really
convinced that they let in so many ringers who they--who come on knowing
they'll be bad and will get camera time. So I think the whole thing's
completely fixed in the early stages. And then when they narrow it down, they
just narrow it down to whoever has, you know, got the biggest, most-booming
voice and that sort of phone-in vote that--you know, it's--oh, gosh, it just
really makes me just despair for America.

GROSS: Two of the really popular cult shows on television that have had
really long lives and spinoffs and movies, you hate. One of them's "Star
Trek"; one of them, "The Brady Bunch." And you think "The Brady Bunch" is
actually not only, like, the worst series in the history of television but
that it's kind of generated a whole aesthetic that you hate. So what's that
aesthetic?

TUCKER: That aesthetic is the `It's so bad, it's good'; you know, `It's so
junky and cheap and tacky that I just love it.' It's that sort of camp
approach that I really detest. I--as I say, there's a whole younger
generation that thinks anything schloky is kind of cool. And so "The Brady
Bunch"--a lot of people were brought up on "The Brady Bunch," and, you know,
this was this, really, cheaply produced show. It had this--if there wasn't a
laugh track, you really would have no idea where a punch line was in "The
Brady Bunch."

It was about this, you know, blended family and this--I--it was just the worst
kind of bland sitcom. And to have this through the power of syndication and
the power of, I think, gradual sociological changes, in which more women went
into the work force, more kids were put in front of the TV set and they were,
you know, raised by sitcoms, like "The Brady Bunch"--and they can't
distinguish between the fact that this is stuff that they watched 25 times and
the fact that it's good. Just the fact that it's so familiar, that they know
every single episode, people think, `It must be good because it's stuck in my
mind for so long.' No, I'm sorry, it's garbage that's stuck in your mind for
so long.

GROSS: Well, but one of the interesting things about television is that you
start watching it when you're really young, and things just get imprinted into
your brain. I mean, it has this kind of special place in your brain, well, in
part, because you're so impressionable when you're young. And it's part of
the mental environment you've grown up with. So I think you just develop an
automatic affection in a way for shows you saw when you were young, whether
you liked them or not.

TUCKER: I think that's true, and I think that's what distinguishes television
from other mediums, like music or the movies, where you have to make an active
decision to put down your money to buy a CD, to buy a movie ticket.
Television is there; it's in your living room. A lot of times you just get
exposed to stuff that you didn't really expect you were going to watch, and
you sort of get hooked. I also think that there's a kind of false nostalgia
that builds up that's part of what I'm talking about with "The Brady Bunch."

But even in sort of my--what I wanted to do was, you know--I'm 50 years old.
I was raised on things like--when I was a kid, I loved Westerns. So I went to
the Museum of Television when I was researching this book, and I looked at
things that I remember really loving, like Steve McQueen in "Wanted: Dead or
Alive." And I thought, `When I was a kid, I thought this was the coolest
thing in the world--was to have a sawed off shotgun that you would carry
alongside of your right leg, and you could just blow away anybody who bothered
you.' You know, to a little boy, this was, like, just a wonderful thing. And
then I watched Steve McQueen in this, and it was just awful. It was just so
corny. The same is true of a Western like "Bonanza" that I used to like; it
was just terrible. But then there are things that do hold up. I watched
reruns of "The Rifleman" with Chuck Connors, which was another show that I
really liked.

And those are really beautifully done, spare, almost classical, sort of Howard
Hawksy, little mini Westerns. And I realized, looking at the credits, that
more than half of those shows were written and directed by Sam Peckinpah, who
went on to do a lot of great movies.

GROSS: Did music and movies and television and books always matter to you a
lot?

TUCKER: They mattered a huge amount. It was really kind of my escape. I
wasn't an athletic kid. I had that kind of difficult relationship with my
father. And so it was always something that I could escape to. They were
very important things. I was always interested in the arts. I was never a
performer. You know, I did a little acting, I played the flute in junior
high school, so I had these kind of very minimal kind of things.

But I really found the pleasure of writing, the pleasure of--what I really
learned from Robert Christgau, The Village Voice, who was the best line editor
I ever, was you work on every single sentence, and everything had to be
absolutely airtight before you go on to the next sentence. And I would finish
a piece, I would think it would be closed, and Christgau would liberally call
me up and say, `In the second paragraph, the third line, I'm going to change
the semicolon to a period 'cause I think it should stop there.' And
he--that's--and I've done a certain amount of editing, and that's how I
learned to edit, which is to pay respect to the writer and to--even when you
make so minor a change as a semicolon to a period, the writer should be
informed.

GROSS: Were you offended at first that your writing needed to be gone over
word by word and that your editor, Robert Christgau, was going to make a
change probably in every sentence early on?

TUCKER: No.

GROSS: Instead of appreciating it, did you feel offended?

TUCKER: Early on I was so insecure, I literally--this first piece that I
handed in to him was this long piece because I had criticized him for
neglecting a whole kind of middle area of rock 'n' roll. There was a place on
14th Street called the Academy of Music that had these kind of
middle-of-the-road acts, like Black Oak Arkansas and Foghat, these hard-rock
acts that everybody disdained. And I said, `You're not covering this.' And so
he said, `You cover it. Go spend a month at the Academy of Music and watch
every single show, and write about what it's like to spend a month watching
everything from Foghat to a then very green Bruce Springsteen on the stage of
the Academy of Music.' And that's what I did.

And so it took me a month to--of watching the shows and then writing this
piece. And I handed this review in, and then I immediately--I remember
dropping it off at the front desk of The Village Voice, going back home,
calling him up and leaving him a message saying, `It's terrible. I know
you're never going to print it. I'm sorry,' and hanging up. And he called me
up, and he said, `Don't you ever call an editor and put down your work in
advance. Don't ever do that again. This is a perfectly good piece, and now
we're going to make it better.' And so I was so grateful for that kind of
editing.

Of course, now I've become, like, such a pro that now it's like, you know, I
do bristle when somebody wants to change something because I think, `I've been
doing this for years. I'm a pro.' You know, `Who are you to mess with my
beautiful golden prose.'

GROSS: Ken Tucker is former TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. He's now
film critic for New York Magazine. And, of course, he's FRESH AIR's rock
critic. His new book is called "Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of gunshots; "The Rifleman" theme song)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz considers the work of
composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. He turns 80 next month. Also, Ken
Tucker talks about pop music on television. He's a rock critic and a TV
critic.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ken Tucker. His new
book describes his complex feelings about television by dividing the TV world
into programs that he loves and ones that he hates. It's called "Kissing Bill
O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy." Ken is FRESH AIR's rock critic. He was TV
critic for Entertainment Weekly from its founding in 1990 until last October.
He's now film critic for New York Magazine.

Now, Ken, since you've been a rock critic, our critic as well as having been a
TV critic and now a film critic, I'm wondering about the impact of seeing
musicians on television. Like, what are some of the touchstone music moments
from your childhood watching television?

TUCKER: Well, I think I share a lot of things will millions of other people,
like seeing The Beatles for the first time on "Ed Sullivan," seeing--I was a
little young for Elvis Presley, but I saw, you know, some of Elvis Pres--I
certainly saw Elvis Presley's incredible 1968 comeback special, the one where
he's in black leather and he had slimmed down, and it was just him and his
backing musicians in this very kind of spontaneous setting.

But you know, television is an inherently conservative medium. And so
especially in the '50s and '60s and early '70s, there was something exciting
about seeing a rock 'n' roll act on television because you thought at any
moment all hell could break loose because rock 'n' roll was just so rebellious
and it didn't really fit on television.

Soon enough, both the rock industry and TV tamed that. One of the very
earliest examples of a rock 'n' roll musician on television was Ricky Nelson
on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." And I used to love that because
you'd watch, you know, 25 minutes of "Ozzie and Harriet," which was produced
and directed by Ozzie Nelson, the father. He basically put the whole family
to work. And then in the last five minutes, you would often have, apropos of
absolutely nothing--there'd be some inane, silly, charming plot that Ozzie and
Harriet would go through, and then Ricky Nelson would come on with his guitar,
you know, embossed with `Ricky' on the guitar. And he had James Burton, Elvis
Presley's guitarist, behind him. And he'd do these great rockabilly numbers,
these great rock 'n' roll numbers that would almost completely contradict what
had come before in the preceding half-hour. So I thought Ricky Nelson was a
great TV presence.

GROSS: You mean in the sense that the preceding half-hour was all about, you
know, being a good nuclear family and living in a nice suburban home, and then
he'd do this rockabilly number?

TUCKER: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I mention one particular episode that's
all about--at a certain point in real life, Rick Nelson got married. And of
course the wife became part of the show. And the plot was all about how he
had somehow gotten in the doghouse about--he'd forgotten something. At one
point, she actually picks up--it was the most cliched thing in the world.
She picks up a frying pan and chases him around the kitchen for, you know,
forgetting her birthday or something like that. Then, you know, fade to
black, go to commercial, come back, and Ricky Nelson sings this song about how
he's a happy guy because he can go wherever the four winds blow, (singing)
`That's why I'm a happy man.' And it's all about him being completely
footloose and single. And it's like this fantasy of, like, man, if I could
only escape my father the producer and this wife, I could really bust out. I
thought it was great.

GROSS: You know, here's another kind of surprising program that comes in the
love column in your list of loves and hates on television. And it also has
to do with music. And that's "Hee Haw." You really love "Hee Haw" for--what?

TUCKER: `For what?' she says in disbelief. For the fact that it showcased a
lot of really good country music stars. And you know, there was no place else
to see people like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Porter Wagoner--just real
classic old, hard-core country acts at that time. Granted, it was framed
around this sort of country rip-off of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In"--blackout
sketches, lots of corny cornball humor. But even that, I thought, was almost
more--it was easier to take than the "Rowan & Martin" we're a couple of slick
nightclub comics who lucked into the '60s Zeitgeist and have Goldie Hawn in a
bikini boogalooing around. To me, there was something, in a weird way, more
authentic about "Hee Haw," produced in Nashville with true hayseeds--you know,
people like Grandpa Jones, who was, like, a really good bluegrass banjo player
who was one of the hosts. Minnie Pearl, who was really the host of the Grand
Ole Opry for years and years and a very funny comedian. So these were
authentic performers. And I thought that "Hee Haw" always got a bad rap
because, you know, it was supposed to be so corny and cornball when actually
it showcased a lot of really good music.

GROSS: My guest is Ken Tucker. He's FRESH AIR's rock critic. He's the film
critic for New York Magazine, former television critic for Entertainment
Weekly. Now he has a new book about television that divides television into
things he loves and things he hates. It's called "Kissing Bill O'Reilly,
Roasting Miss Piggy."

Ken, you've been a rock critic, TV critic and now film critic. Let's talk a
bit about some of the stylistic differences in each form, if you feel that
there are. I mean, like rock criticism started with, I think it's fair to
say, a more, like, youthfully defiant, bad-boy kind of style, whereas, you
know, television and film criticism is a much older form of criticism that
probably had a lot more to do with daily newspapers early on or maybe weekly
magazines than--you know, a lot of rock criticism was the alternative weeklies
where it started. So are there differences, having worked in all of these
forms? Are there differences?

TUCKER: Yeah, there are big differences. I mean, I started out as a rock
critic 'cause I liked the music and, as you say, a lot of it was being
published in alternative newspapers. So when I was just coming out of college
with this useless English degree, I thought to myself, `Well, what am I going
to do?' And I thought, `Well, I like to write, and I like music.' So I just
sent an idea to The Village Voice, and the editor there, Robert Christgau, you
know, said, `Do this, write this up.' And it was my first published piece.
And I liked the fact that rock 'n' roll was kind of--rock criticism was
criticism that was being kind of made up on the fly.

On the one hand, you had very thoughtful criticism by people like Robert
Christgau and Greil Marcus that were based on a kind of literary
criticism-based theories. And then on the other hand, you had wild men like
Lester Bangs who just wanted to kind of explode the form, to do in prose what
rock 'n' roll was doing at the time, which was exploding past all kinds of
boundaries of what was supposed to be considered good music. And so it was a
very liberating time to write about rock 'n' roll, I think, in the early to
late '70s, especially again, when punk rock came around, there was a kind of
infusion of energy.

When you write about television, it's a completely different sort of thing in
the sense that you're writing about an inherently more conservative medium.
And you have to deal with personalities that millions and millions of people
know. A lot of times in rock 'n' roll, you're sort of introducing people--you
have to--the challenge is to describe music in ways that aren't technical but
are vivid and precise, and that summon up what a sound is. With television,
much more often, all you're doing is being an informed fellow viewer. You're
saying to someone, `Look, I know you've watched this, I've watched this, we
watch this together; here's what I think about it; bounce your opinion off
mine.'

Now I find when I write about movies, the challenge now I'm finding is, oh,
it's the opening weekend of a movie, so I can't presume that somebody's seen
this the way I can that they've seen, you know, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or
"The O.C." So now I have to give a plot description in as quick and vivid a
way as I can, I have to set it all up, what's going on here, and then provide
also some kind of context and judgment. So they're three very separate kind
of challenges.

GROSS: How did you first become aware that criticism existed?

TUCKER: Pretty early on I was really attracted to the idea of criticism. I
had read people like Pauline Kael. Wilfrid Sheed used to write wonderful book
reviews. And I grew up in a household where--my father was a very dominating
figure and a very domineering, very harsh guy, very quick to put people down.
And when I look back on it--not to psychoanalyze myself too much--but I
realize that one of the ways I felt I could defend myself was to become more
articulate. I had to stand toe to toe with my father to argue with him. And
I think that hones a kind of critical skill that then when you go out into the
world--you know, to me, it was like, I was a working-class kid and it was like
the lower-middle class version of being on the debate team. So if I could
argue with my father and then transpose this love of writing and then what
rapidly became a love of criticism of the work of people like Pauline Kael and
Dwight MacDonald, who wrote wonderfully about movies; Manny Farber--just an
incredible stylist who could write about both movies and art wonderfully, then
this was something to really aspire to. To me, criticism was a real calling
at a certain point.

GROSS: What were some of the things you'd argue with your father about?

TUCKER: Oh, he hated most rock 'n' roll. The only person he liked was Elvis
Presley. Other than that, it was country music. And then so therefore for
years, I hated country music just in reaction to my father. It was a
knee-jerk reaction. And I was forever, you know, bringing home Rolling Stones
records and The Lovin' Spoonful and people like that, and just, you know,
trying my best to sort of drive him crazy and see what the reaction would be.
And he would, you know, put on Buck Owens and, you know, I'd hear this
Bakersfield whine, this, you know, Buck Owens singing, `Well, I've got a tiger
by the tail, it's plain to see,' you know? This struck me as the ultimate in
corn.

And now I listen to Buck Owens and I think, `This guy was doing something in
Bakersfield, California, that nobody was doing in Nashville.' So, in a lot of
ways, my father gave me a great grounding in a certain kind of music which I
appreciated now only after his death. But in some ways, it also created the
kind of spark that I needed to do the kind of work that I wanted to go on to
do.

GROSS: My guest is critic Ken Tucker. His new book is called "Kissing Bill
O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things to Love and Hate About TV." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ken Tucker, FRESH AIR's rock critic, film critic for New
York Magazine, and former TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. His new book
is called "Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things to Love
and Hate About TV."

When you were living in Los Angeles earlier in your career, you covered the
punk scene for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. And this was, like, the late
'70s, early '80s. And, you know, that was the extreme music of its day. And
I've been working with you for years since you've been, you know, working on
FRESH AIR, and so I know you a little bit. And you don't strike me as, like,
an extreme personality outwardly. (Laughs) Who knows what happens inside?
But...

TUCKER: Well--I'm the only guy who--people used to literally know me in Los
Angles because I was the only guy who would bring a book to read in the mosh
pit at punk concerts. And they knew it was OK to slam-dance against me, but
just don't jostle the book out of his hand.

GROSS: (Laughs) So when you were covering punk rock and not being a kind of,
like, physically outgoing person in the way that punk music is, and not being
a loud person, did you feel uncomfortable or miscast at all? And did you want
to get to know these people, but feel like you were a different kind of person
than they were?

TUCKER: I wanted to say as far away from these people as possible, I mean,
for a couple of reasons. I mean, I find in general it's always a bad idea for
a critic to meet the person that he or she admires. Most of the interviewing
I've done are people that I like. And then I find, oh, my gosh, then, you
know, whether it's a month or a year later, they put out a bad record or a bad
TV show, and I think, `Gee, I had such a pleasant time with that person, it's
so difficult now to do that.'

A couple of things I've learned, certainly in the art of interviewing, is that
anybody can be charming to you for an hour. You know, I have interviewed
people who've been just incredibly nice to me, and I'll walk out, and then the
door will close and I'll hear them, you know, screaming at an assistant or
something. So everybody plays their roles that way.

But as far as--I was very intimidated, especially during the punk era, which
was all about aggression. I loved it for its adrenalin. The music was just
wonderful to write about and it was really inspiring to listen to. But, you
know, one time I interviewed Johnny Rotten-slash--at that point--John Lydon in
his hotel room. And he was sitting on his hotel bed, and he fixed on my name,
but sneeringly of course because it was Johnny Rotten.

And he would say, `Well, Kentucky, what do you have to say for yourself
today?' And we'd have this kind of back-and-forth, which was kind of
adversarial, and literally--I'm warning your listeners that this may be
slightly upsetting. But at one point, he just very calmly said, `Excuse me.'
And he'd been up, like, the whole night. And he was in the middle of a
sentence, and he leaned over the side of the bed, and he vomited, and then
sort of wiped his mouth, turned back and finished his sentence. And it was
just like I was really, like, not supposed to really acknowledge that this had
occurred apparently. And I said, `Are you feeling OK?' And he just, you
know, kind of raised his eyebrows quizzically as if to say, you know, `What's
the problem here?' And I just looked down at my notebook and asked the next
question. So rock 'n' roll, you know, it's a very dicey business.

GROSS: Did you mention in your article that he vomited?

TUCKER: Yes, I did. Yeah. And people really liked that. They thought that,
you know--that completely fit with their image of him. And, you know, for all
I know, maybe it was a stunt for my benefit.

GROSS: Well, I think it's hard to control that, so...

TUCKER: I think so, too.

GROSS: One last question. Now that don't have to watch TV--'cause you're no
longer a TV critic; you're a movie critic--what are some of the shows that you
watch because you want to?

TUCKER: Oh, I still watch "The Simpsons." I really like "Arrested
Development" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" among sitcoms. "The Wire" is just
hands down the best television show on the air or off the air, and I hope it
comes back. I like things that other people my age may consider junk, like
"The O.C.," which I think is really well-written and has great performances,
both by its young cast and the adults, especially Peter Gallagher. So I found
it surprisingly easy to stop watching an enormous amount of television, but
there are things that I still make sure I catch.

GROSS: Ken, great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

TUCKER: Well, thank you an awful lot, Terry.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is the former TV critic for Entertainment Weekly and
current film critic for New York Magazine, and of course, he's FRESH AIR's
rock critic. His new book is called "Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss
Piggy: 100 Things to Love and Hate About TV." He loves Ricky Nelson singing
on "Ozzie and Harriet." Here's Nelson recorded in 1958.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. RICKY NELSON: (Singing) I believe what you say when you say you're going
steady with nobody else but me. I believe what you say when you say you don't
kiss nobody else but me. I believe...

Backup Singers: I believe...

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) ...do believe...

Backup Singers: ...do believe...

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) I belive...

Backup Singers: I believe.

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Yeah, believe, pretty baby, believe you're going steady
with nobody else but me. Well, there's one thing, baby, that I want you to
know. When you're rockin' with me, don't rock too slow. Move on in, get
toe-to-toe. We're going to rock till we can't rock no more. I believe...

Backup Singers: I believe...

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) ...do believe...

Backup Singers: ...do believe...

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) I belive...

Backup Singers: I believe.

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Yeah, believe, pretty baby, believe you're going steady
with nobody else but me. Well, let's take it now.

GROSS: Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz considers the career
of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who's about to turn 80. This is
FRESH AIR.

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

Profile: French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez
TERRY GROSS, host:

The French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was once the avant-garde's
most outspoken critic of the establishment. Now, as he's about to turn 80,
he's become one of the world's most admired musicians, an opinion classical
music critic Lloyd Schwartz shares. Lloyd has been listening to new discs of
music performed by and written by Boulez. He's heard a memorable live concert
in New York, and he even got to sit down and talk with the maestro.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

What happens when an iconoclast becomes an icon? Composer and conductor
Pierre Boulez has been the most articulate and provocative spokesperson for
the musical avant-garde since the 1950s. Three months after 9/11, he was
actually dragged from his hotel room in Switzerland and arrested as a
terrorist suspect at the age of 76 because some 40 years earlier he had made a
widely quoted remark about blowing up opera houses, those bastions of the
establishment. But now, Boulez's recordings win Grammys, and the very people
who used to find him a cold perfectionist are praising his warmth and
expressiveness.

This year marks his 80th birthday on March 26th, and he'll be appearing in
concerts all over Europe and the United States. This is good news for his
admirers. Ten years ago at his 70th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, he led
the London Symphony Orchestra in one of the works most closely associated with
him, Stravinsky's revolutionary "The Rite of Spring." I thought it was the
greatest orchestral performance I'd ever heard until I heard them do it again
this year. With Boulez, this wasn't just music depicting a sacrificial ritual
in ancient Russia or an exercise in complex rhythm; it seemed to be about the
way the universe functions: mysterious, spiritual, sexual, cataclysmic, also
intimate and seductively beautiful.

Here's an excerpt from Boulez's 1992 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra,
which has just been reissued and which captures some of the remarkable
qualities of the live performance.

(Soundbite of Cleveland Orchestra performance)

SCHWARTZ: To honor his landmark birthday, Boulez's record label, Deutsche
Grammophon, is issuing five new recordings, two with Boulez conducting his
own challenging, unsettling but engagingly colorful and increasingly
comprehensible work, as well as a recording of his three controversial early
piano sonatas with the brilliant young Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen.
There's also a disc of works by Mahler, whom Boulez regards as a bridge
between 19th-century romanticism and 20th-century modernism, and one of
Bartok, his three exhilarating piano concertos, each with a different soloist
and orchestra.

The Mahler disc, with Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, includes
three song cycles. One of them, the exquisite and melancholy "Songs of the
Wayfarer," with German baritone Tomas Quasthoff, is one of the subtlest and
most moving vocal recordings I've ever heard; even the orchestra sings.

(Soundbite of "Songs of the Wayfarer")

Mr. TOMAS QUASTHOFF: (Singing in German)

SCHWARTZ: While I was in New York for the Stravinsky concert, I got to talk
to Boulez. I asked him how he achieved that all-embracing expansiveness I had
felt so powerfully in "The Rite of Spring." His first response was personal,
that this music was very close to his heart, his first encounter with
something radical, with modernity. Then he spoke more about technical
matters, about pacing, not letting the climax get too fast or it would lose
its sense of weight. And then this master of precision and rhythmic nuance,
of color and clarity and detail, said, `Of course, one cannot really explain
the mystery.'

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix. 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.

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