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"Guys and Dolls'" 50th Anniversary: A Deeper Look Into the Life of "A Most Remarkable Fella."

Susan Loesser daughter of Frank Loesser, who wrote the score for “Guys and Dolls.” He also composed the classic songs "Heart and Soul" and "Baby It's Cold Outside.” Loesser's 1993 memoir of her father is "A Most Happy Fella." (Originally Aired 6/18/93)


Other segments from the episode on November 24, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 24, 2000: Interview with Susan Loesser; Interview with Joseph Weiss; Review of Uri Caine's album "The Goldberg Variatiosn"; Interview with Teller; Review of…


DATE November 24, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Susan Loesser shares memories of her father, the
musical theater composer Frank Loesser

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The great musical "Guys and Dolls" opened on Broadway 50 years ago today. It
was based on a Damon Runyon story about gamblers and showgirls. In
commemoration, the Museum of the City of New York is presenting an exhibition
of photos and archival material reflecting the subject and era of the show.

"Guys and Dolls" was filled with great songs, such as "If I Were A Bell,"
"I've Never Been in Love Before" and "Luck Be a Lady." The songs were all
written by Frank Loesser, who also wrote the songs for the musicals, "How to
Succeed" and "The Most Happy Fella." Early in his career, he worked as a
lyricist in Hollywood, where he was matched with Hoagy Carmichael. They
co-wrote "Heart and Soul" and "Two Sleepy People." Loesser was soon writing
words and music for movies.

We're going to hear an interview with his oldest child, Susan Loesser. She
was born during his first marriage, when he was living in Hollywood. Let's
start with the title song from the original cast recording of "Guys and Dolls,"
which was recently reissued.

(Soundbite of music from "Guys and Dolls")

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, sir, when you see a guy reach for stars in the sky,
you can bet that he's doin' it for some doll.

Unidentified Man #2: When you spot a John waiting out in the rain, chances
are he's insane as only a John could be for a Jane.

Unidentified Man #3: When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent for a flat
that could flatten a Taj Mahal...

Unidentified Men: it sad, call it funny, but it's better than even
money that the guy's only doin' it for some doll.

Unidentified Man #4: When you see a Joe savin' half of his dough, you can bet
they'll be makin' it for some doll.

Unidentified Man #5: When a bum buys wine like a bum can't afford, it's a
cinch that the bum is under the thumb of some little broad.

Unidentified Man #6: When you a meet a mug lately out of the jug and he's
lifting platinum folderol...

Unidentified Men: it hell, call it heaven, it's a probable 12-to-7,
that the guy's only doin' it for some doll.

Unidentified Man #7: When you see...

GROSS: I spoke to Susan Loesser in 1993, after the publication of her memoir
about her father.

I love some of the stories of Frank Loesser working with singers. Tell us a
little bit about the audition for "Guys and Dolls," and what he had the
singers do as they auditioned.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER (Author, "A Most Happy Fella"): Oh, he had them yell for
help, and they wouldn't understand what he meant, and he'd say, `Yell help,
that's what I mean.' He wanted to hear how loud they were. His motto was
`Loud is good.' He wanted the audience to hear every word and every note from
every seat in the house, and he wanted no embellishments. He wanted his music
sung note for note and loud.

GROSS: In the movie version of "Guys and Dolls," Frank Sinatra played the
role of Nathan Detroit.


GROSS: And your father, the composer Frank Loesser, did not like what Sinatra
was doing with Loesser's songs.

Ms. LOESSER: No, he didn't.

GROSS: Why didn't he like it?

Ms. LOESSER: Well, Nathan Detroit is a very rough character, a Broadway
character, and the original Nathan, Sam Levine, couldn't sing. He only had
one song, "Sue Me," and he came in wrong all the time on the first note, so my
father had to write him a four-bar phrase, `Call a lawyer and'--and if you
listen to it--I will not sing it--it slides up to the correct note to come in
on. That was how bad Sam sang, but he was also brilliant and wonderful and
rough and tough and Runyonesque, whereas Frank Sinatra was very smooth and
crooned his songs. And, in fact, Goldwyn had my father write three more songs
for Nathan in the movie, for Frank Sinatra, and my father would listen to
Sinatra rehearse and would become angrier and angrier. And finally, they had
it out, and my father kind of met his match with Frank Sinatra, who exploded
about the same way my father did, both of them screaming words that I won't
say on the radio. As it ended, Frank Sinatra, of course, performed the songs
his way, and they never spoke again.

GROSS: Did your father sing around the house a lot?

Ms. LOESSER: He sang when he was working on something. More often, he
played the piano, working on songs. But yes, he sang, too, and he and my
mother worked out songs together. There are some wonderful old recordings of
them singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and "Make a Miracle" from "Where's

GROSS: Yeah, it's interesting. You write about how "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
used to be your parents' song, and they would sing it...


GROSS: parties together until it was actually used in a film.

Ms. LOESSER: Right. They--and my mother adored that, because they would go
to parties and after the first time they sang the song, they were in great
demand, because it was such a wonderful, fun song, and they had such a good
time singing it together, and they were very good performers of it. And so my
mother felt it was her claim to fame at that time to perform this song at
parties, and when he sold it to MGM for a movie called "Neptune's Daughter"
with Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban, it broke my mother's heart. She
was very upset about losing the song. But then it won an Academy Award, so it
made up for it.

GROSS: After hearing your father sing on that "Evening With" album, I assumed
he was from an immigrant family of Jews in New York, probably Brooklyn, maybe
Manhattan, probably the first in his family to finish school, and after
reading your book, I found out this was his background at all. Now tell us
what his background really was.

Ms. LOESSER: My father's father was a music teacher, a Prussian, who was
very fearsome. My father came from a family of intellectuals, musicologists
and people who felt that the route that my father chose to go was very low
class and very unappealing. They were amused by him and they didn't think
much of him most of his life.

GROSS: Your life must have really changed dramatically when you were 12 and
13. That's when you moved to New York from Hollywood.


GROSS: Your father's show, "Most Happy Fella," opened on Broadway and it was
during that show that he fell in love with his second wife, Jo Sullivan...

Ms. LOESSER: Right.

GROSS: ...and left your mother, and your mother was actually involved in
introducing Jo Sullivan to Frank Loesser.

Ms. LOESSER: My mother did a lot of the casting for "The Most Happy Fella."
She was co-producer with Kermit Bloomgarden, and when she heard Jo sing, she
said, `Boy, this is a voice and a personality Frank would just love.' So she
sent Jo to audition for my father, sealing her fate. It was a very hard time
for everybody. My brother and I were uprooted from our California suburban
lifestyle and brought to New York City. We had visited but never lived here.
I went to a new school; I was living with my mother--we were both, my brother
and I, living with our mother and nurse in an apartment situation. We at
first stayed with friends and then moved to a small apartment. My mother was
not happy and was drinking more and more, and I had never lived in such close
quarters with her before. And that was when I began to see that she had big

Everything changed for all of us. My father was living across Central Park in
an apartment of his own and having his affair with Jo, and everybody was--he
wasn't real happy either. It was a time full of turmoil, although for him I
think it was mitigated a great deal by the great success of "The Most Happy
Fella." I think, you know, for him that show was so important. He wrote not
only the music and the lyrics, but he wrote the book, and he was involved
day-to-day with every aspect of it. To Joe Anthony, the director's great
consternation, you know, my father attempted to direct it as well.

GROSS: Well, you write that when your father left your mother, when your
mother was 40, that your mother lost her man, her lifestyle and her status.

Ms. LOESSER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did she every recover from that?

Ms. LOESSER: No, she never did. She never did. She used to say that my
father fired her, because she had worked for him for so long, and that was all
very funny and clever, but she never recovered. She never was re-employed by
anyone. She tried to make it on her own as a producer. She had flop after
flop, and eventually, she had terrible health problems, which were exacerbated
by her drinking, and she died lonely and alone. It was a very sad life. She
rejected the friends who didn't reject her in the beginning, the people who
stayed with her she one by one rejected them, threw them away, and was a very
lonely, bitter person.

GROSS: When you were growing up and still living in the same house with your
father, did you ever eavesdrop on him while he was writing a song?

Ms. LOESSER: Well, I didn't really have to eavesdrop. He had a little organ
in his room and I would stop there on my way down to breakfast, because he was
a very early riser, and he would already be deep at work, but I didn't see it
as work. I didn't know what he was doing. He would be playing a phrase over
and over again on the organ, and then he would get up and pace for a while,
and then he'd sit in his chair and smoke seven or eight cigarettes and drink
some more coffee and get up and play some more music, and I'd say, `What are
you doing?' And he'd say, `I'm working.'

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Ms. LOESSER: And, you know, that was another one of those surreal mysteries
to me.

GROSS: Is there any song that you feel particularly a part of because you
were either with him while he was writing it or you heard it ringing through
the house, or he told you about it or...

Ms. LOESSER: I think the song of his that means the most to me is a very
small, short song in "Guys and Dolls," and it's called "My Time of Day," and
it's a poem, it's an ode to New York at 4 in the morning when the street lamps
light the gutter with gold. It was a song that Sky Masterson sings to Sarah
Brown, and it really characterizes my father, I think. I think that he liked
that song the best in that show, and I--to me, that song is my father.

GROSS: Well, Susan Loesser, it's been a pleasure to talk with you.

Ms. LOESSER: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Thank you for talking with us.

(Soundbite of music; "My Time of Day" from "Guys and Dolls")

Unidentified Man #8: My time of day is the dark time, a couple of deals
before dawn, when the street belongs to the cop and the janitor with the mop,
and the grocery clerks are all gone, when the smell of the rain-washed
pavement comes up clean and fresh and cold, and the street lamp light fills the
gutter with gold. That's my time of day, my time of day, and you're the only
doll I've ever wanted to share it with me. Obadiah.

Unidentified Woman: Obadiah? What's that?

Unidentified Man #8: Obadiah Masterson--that's my real name. You're the
first person I ever told it to.

GROSS: Susan Loesser's memoir about her father was published in paperback
this year. We spoke in 1993.

Coming up, discovering Frank Loesser's demo recordings. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Joseph Weiss, music archivist, tells about finding
the Frank Loesser demo recordings

When Frank Loesser wrote his shows, he made demo recordings to demonstrate to
the cast what the songs sound like. Those demos were discovered years later
by Joseph Weiss, the copyright manager of Paul McCartney's publishing company,
which acquired Loesser's publishing company in 1979. Along with the
acquisition came hundreds of unindexed tapes. Weiss listened to those tapes
and discovered, to his delight, that some of them featured Loesser himself.
In 1992, Weiss produced a CD of the demos, and I spoke to him about the
recordings. Loesser is the first voice you'll year on this trio version of
"Fugue for Tinhorns," which he wrote for "Guys and Dolls."

(Soundbite of music; "Fugue for Tinhorns," from "Guys and Dolls")

Mr. FRANK LOESSER: I got the horse right here, the name is Paul Revere, and
there's a guy that says if the weather's clear, can do, can do, this guy says
the horse can do. If he says the horse can do, can do, can do.

Unidentified Woman: Are you crazy?

Mr. LOESSER: Can do...

Unidentified Woman: I'm thinking Valentine...

Mr. LOESSER: Can do...

Unidentified Woman: ...'cause on the morning line...

Mr. LOESSER: Can do...

Unidentified Woman: ...the guy has got him figured at...

Mr. LOESSER: This guy says the horse can do.

Unidentified Woman: ...five-to-nine. Can dance...

Mr. LOESSER: Can do...

Unidentified Woman: ...can dance...

Unidentified Man: But it says Epitaph, he wins it by a half...

Mr. LOESSER: Can do...

Unidentified Woman: This guy says the horse can dance.

Unidentified Man: ...according to this here in the Telegraph. I tell you

Unidentified Woman: Valentine!

Mr. LOESSER: Paul Revere!

All: I got the horse right here.

Unidentified Woman: But mine, I know, is Valentine. Besides, the jockey's
brother's a friend of mine. Needs rein...

Unidentified Man: Now just a minute, boys...

Unidentified Woman: ...needs rein...

Unidentified Man: ...I got the feed box noise.

Unidentified Woman: My friend says the horse needs rein.

Unidentified Man: It says the great-grandfather was Equipoise.

Mr. LOESSER: Well, Paul Revere, I'll bite.

Unidentified Man: Needs rein...

Unidentified Woman: My friend says the horse needs rein...

Mr. LOESSER: I hear his gait's all right.

Unidentified Woman: ...needs rein...

Mr. LOESSER: Of course, his ...(unintelligible) didn't ride last night.

Unidentified Woman: ...needs rein.

Unidentified Man: I tell you Epitaph!

Unidentified Woman: Valentine!

Mr. LOESSER: Paul Revere!

All: I got the horse right here.

Unidentified Woman: I'm thinking Valentine, 'cause on the morning line,
the guy has got him figured at...

GROSS: Tell me what the experience was like the first time you found one of
these Frank Loesser demo recordings, and you put it on and heard it?

Mr. JOSEPH WEISS (Music Archivist): It's a very hard thing to explain, not
only because of how great the recordings themselves are, but because of how I
feel about Frank Loesser. It was a very exciting experience, and it was
immediately satisfying. The first time that I heard his voice, I wasn't even
sure it was his voice. It was a guess, because it was one of his songs--I
honestly don't remember now which one it was--but it was clearly not a
commercial singer, and it was just that interesting voice with the piano.

There are, I'd say, five geniuses in musical theater whose names always come
up when we talk about the creation of American musical theater, and they are
George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.
And I always feel that there should be a sixth name in there, that Frank
Loesser's name belongs in that group. And there are a few reasons it probably
doesn't show up there. One of them is that his output for Broadway was only
five scores, and it only spans 15 years, and that he's actually a later
writer than the rest of them. He wasn't there for the formative years, which
all of the others were. And he also wasn't excessively self-promoting, which
is not to say the others were, but that had he chosen to do so, I think his
name could have become a household word, just like the others.

GROSS: Well, one of just the revelations of this record is listening to Frank
Loesser sing "Sue Me" from "Guys and Dolls." This is a different version of
it that you'd hear on any of the cast recordings or in any of the shows. You
want to describe what's different about it?

Mr. WEISS: Yes. Well, two things are different. One is that it's not a
duet, which is the way the song is done in the show, and it also has a verse
which isn't used in the show, and it's a very sweet, low-key, subtle, as far
as the comedy's concerned, version of the song. It's not only done this way
on this demonstration recording. It was actually published this way at the
time "Guys and Dolls" opened on Broadway, and there were recordings by other
artists in this style.

GROSS: Now in the original cast recording, Sam Levine sang the part, or
played the part, I should say...

Mr. WEISS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of Nathan Detroit. That's the same part that was played by Frank
Sinatra in the movie. And Sam Levine couldn't sing, so he just kind of like
brays the song, you know, he just kind of hollers the song, whereas Frank
Loesser sings it as a lovely ballad with really kind of funny lyrics.

Mr. WEISS: Yes.

GROSS: Why don't we hear Frank Loesser singing "Sue Me."

(Soundbite of music; "Sue Me" from "Guys and Dolls")

Mr. LOESSER: So you're all the time right and I'm all the time wrong, so my
character's weak and your character's strong, so your brow is so high and my
brow is so low--well, brow, schmow, I'm close to you now, and all I can tell
you is oh, go sue me, sue me. What can you do me? I love you. Give a holler
and hate me, hate me, go ahead and hate me. I love you. All right, already,
I'm just a no-goodnik. All right, already, it's true, so ...(unintelligible),
so sue me, sue me. What can you do me? I love you.

GROSS: You got these Frank Loesser demonstration discs just in a kind of
bundle, I guess. How come, do you think, they weren't taken better care of?

Mr. WEISS: Well, I think the reason they weren't taken better care of is
that, to a large extent, I don't think the people who were handling the
catalog for several years realized that that's what was there. The way discs
and tapes of this kind are often marked would be as simple as a label that
says "Luck Be a Lady," and there would be hundreds of discs marked "Luck Be a
Lady" in a catalog like that, and most of the time they'd identify the artist.
On a demonstration disc, the artist is rarely identified, whether it's a
commercial singer or the original composer. So I don't think that anyone
neglected material because they didn't care, but just because it wasn't
obvious that it was there.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEISS: And that was one of the things that made it such a pleasure to
play through the material was that if I picked up a disc that said "Luck Be a
Lady" and dropped the needle on it, I didn't know if I was going to hear just
another reference dub of the cast album or if the voice that came over the
speakers was going to be the genius who wrote the song.

GROSS: What a thrill this all must have been.

Mr. WEISS: It was. It was. The period--it was about 10 years ago that all
of this took place, that my playing through the recordings took place, and I
was fairly new in the music business at the time, and it was an incredible
experience for me. It was--now it occurs as a very sweet, romantic period for
me to be new to the business and yet have the privilege of listening, and
listening alone, in, you know, the late hours of the day to material that
probably hadn't been heard by anyone for decades.

GROSS: Joseph Weiss, recorded in 1992, the year he produced a CD of Frank
Loesser demo recordings.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LOESSER: Well, the people all said, `Sit down, sit down, you're rocking
the boat.' The people all said, `Sit down, sit down, you're rocking the boat.
And the devil will drag you under by the sharp lapel of your checkered coat.
Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, you're rocking the
boat.' I sailed away on...

(Credits given)

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

Review: Kevin Whitehead talks about the new Uri Caine CD, "The
Goldberg Variations"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

GROSS: J.S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations" of 1742 is a set of 30 variations
for solo keyboard. It's based on the aria we're listening to. This version
is played by Uri Caine. Caine is best known as a jazz pianist, but in recent
years he's recorded and performed the music of Gustav Mahler, freely resetting
Mahler's melodies for small band and incorporating elements of jazz and Jewish
liturgical music. Caine followed his "Mahler" with projects devoted to the
music of Wagner and Schumann. Now comes his two-CD "Goldberg Variations."
Critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")


For Uri Caine, Bach's "Goldberg Variations" sum up what the composer had
learned over a lifetime. "The Goldbergs" reflected a variety of styles and
strategies, and Caine's version follows suit. He was also inspired by Glenn
Gould's 1955 recording and how his radical take could make folks hear Bach
with fresh ears.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

WHITEHEAD: As composer or pianist, Uri Caine has a solid grounding in
classical music, and his "Goldberg Variations" includes a few in jokes for
Bachophiles and affectionate parodies of Baird, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. Many
of Caine's settings employ ancient instruments, to put the sound of Bach's
time in your ear. At best, the music has a double consciousness, as 1742 and
1999 overlap. The effect can be like spotting a cell phone in a Vermeer

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

WHITEHEAD: Caine restages most of Bach's 30 variations one way or another,
interspersed with some 40 new ones. He draws on a diverse cast of jazz and
classical musicians, singers, poets, deejays, a choir and two string quartets.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

WHITEHEAD: One way Caine unifies the program is to keep bringing back key
soloists, including reed players Don Byron and Greg Osby, trumpeter Ralph
Olessy and singer David Moss.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

WHITEHEAD: Bach has been updated before by jazz combos, Moog synthesizer
players and rock organists showing off their education. Those are all baby
steps next to this. Uri Caine's own variations are in form by the
"Goldberg's" chords and general architecture and by aspects of Bach's method.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

WHITEHEAD: Bach wrote religious music and used the dance steps of his time.
Caine taps gospel singer Barbara Walker, also Colombian salsa and merengue
singer Marco Burmudez, as Caine uses Latin rhythms as a recurring motif. He
also plays with the associations listeners may bring to a style. When Bach
composed the "Goldbergs" in his late 50s, his improvisational and contrapuntal
music had begun to seem old-fashioned. In a single piece, Caine can hint at
Bach's archaic quality and look ahead to a future music that'd revive his
beloved improvisation and counterpoint.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

WHITEHEAD: Some of Caine's variations lead him far afield, but that's OK.
Writing the "Goldbergs," Bach deviated from his plan once or twice with the
same intent; to open the music out and let it breathe. Uri Caine plays all
the keyboard parts here, which doesn't get overbearing because he doesn't
play all the time and because of his wide, practical experience as a working
New York musician.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

WHITEHEAD: For Uri Caine, as for J.S. Bach, the "Goldberg Variations" is a
sort of musical autobiography; a portrait of what he's learned on the job as
an improviser who composes. It's hard to think of any recent project with
comparable sweep, grandeur and humor. I can't think of anything quite like
it or anyone else who could pull it off, or even think it up.

(Soundbite from "Goldberg Variations")

Ms. BARBARA WALKER: (Singing) Mmm. Yeah. Blessings from above. I look to
him for help. Sometimes it ain't easy to find your way. Trouble came today.
I know a man who'll wipe it all away. It's my Savior. He'll give you
beautiful days. He'll be kind, for he is good. He healed the blind. Lord
above, giver of love, giver of peace, giver of truth. He'll give you love.
Blessings, blessings from above.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead is based in Chicago. He reviewed Uri
Caine's new CD, "The Goldberg Variations" on the Winter & Winter label.

Coming up, Teller, the magician of the duo Penn and Teller. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Magician Teller talks about his career as a magician

Nothing is more lame than a bad magic act. And no two people know that better
than the magic and comedy duo Penn and Teller. They won't even call their act
magic; tricks, cons and swindles are more like it; pretty amazing ones. My
guest, Teller, has stayed locked in a water tank for longer than Houdini.
David Letterman called Penn and Teller evil geniuses after he told them to
trick him and they responded by magically releasing dozens of live cockroaches
onto the set.

Now Teller has a new book that isn't about magic; it's about his father. It's
called "When I'm Dead, All This Will Be Yours." It's about his father's
adventures before Teller was born when he was a hobo and artist. The book
includes his father's drawings, paintings, and journal entries.

Penn and Teller are a study in contrasts. Penn is large and loud. Teller is
shorter and never speaks on stage. In fact, for years he didn't speak to the
press. When I spoke with him in 1997, I asked him why he was speaking.

(Soundbite from 1997 interview)

TELLER: Over the years, we've grown to trust our audience more. It used to
be that when I was in the lobby, I would stay silent after the show. And then
it gradually dawned on us that the entire audience knows perfectly well that I
can talk. And it was kind of a sign of respect to, when they said, `We
enjoyed your show,' to say, `Thank you.' And that's been extending over the
years and--to the point where I've--I've done print interviews for a long
time; and then I started to do little pieces on NPR on "All Things
Considered." Now here I am with you.

GROSS: How did you start not talking in your performances?

TELLER: The first I remember not talking was when I was actually about,
maybe, 10 or 11 and going out for Halloween. And I discovered that if I
didn't talk, people never recognized me in my Halloween costume. They always
recognized my voice, which was very distinctive to them. You know, I mean,
what--there's 10 people on the same street, of course, they're going to
recognize my voice. And then as I began to work more in theater and magic, I
became really interested in plot. And I started to pay attention to what
magicians usually said. And what they usually said was things like, `Here I
have a red ball. Now I'm placing it into my left hand. And now, lo, it is
gone;' all stuff that the audience could see for itself. So it became obvious
to me that there ought to be a level of any piece of performance, especially
any piece of magical performance, that people can perceive by watching it.

So I felt this was a kind of interesting challenge because nobody was doing it
at the time at all. And I began to work on this with a college drama
professor of mine. I went to Amherst College. And we worked on several
pieces that were silent. I then tried the silent stuff at the fraternity
parties and found, miraculously, that--if I had gone in and started to try to
shout down the crowd...

GROSS: Yeah.

TELLER: know, I would have been heckled to death. Go in, don't say a
damn thing, shine spotlight--little spotlights on you. Turn off all the
other lights in the room. And, lo and behold, the frat boys would
momentarily remove their hands from their girlfriends' breasts, set down
their cups of beer and pay attention.

GROSS: Now since you didn't speak in your performances and since you don't
speak in your performances, were you ever afraid you'd be confused with a

TELLER: Well, mimes generally don't use props, and mimes generally have their
faces painted white and behave much like a piece of sugar candy. And I don't
think anybody's apt to confuse me with that because, among other things, I'm
very unconscious of exterior manifestations of what I'm thinking; that is, I
don't think about making faces. I don't think about holding positions. And
mime is sort of more akin to dance and that, you know, where people do think
about their postures and the shapes they're making. I just think about the
evil thoughts I'm thinking, and that's how I work.

GROSS: You have evil thoughts in your head when you're performing?

TELLER: Oh, very often, yes.

GROSS: Like what?

TELLER: Well, in the show, you know, one of the things that I've done for the
longest time is to slash a rose to bits by cutting its shadow apart. There's
a sort of a white-paper screen and a rose in front of it and a little lamp.
And the lamp casts the shadow of the rose on the screen. And wherever I slash
through the paper of the screen, the corresponding portion of the rose withers
and dies. There are very evil thoughts that go through your head when you're
doing that. The punch line to that, which I'm very proud of, because not that
many pieces of magic have a good twist at the end, is that I accidentally
prick my finger with the knife. And when I'm holding my hand out to look at
the wound, the shadow bleeds. There's lots of evil thoughts around that.

GROSS: Now tell me more about why you got into this kind of malevolent side
of magic; thinking evil thoughts with magic? Because magic, for a lot of
people, is just this kind of pure delight and, you know, very kind of joyful

TELLER: Insipid.

GROSS: Yes, right. Yes, right. Yeah.

TELLER: Joyful and insipid or fraudulently mystical. I like drama. I like
drama. It's very simple, you know, and I always have. I've--the things that
have attracted me have never been frivolous sorts of comedies, you know.
I'm--the things I like--my favorite movie is "Psycho"; my favorite play is
"Oedipus Rex;" my favorite Shakespearean play is "MacBeth"; my favorite
short-story writer is Poe. That's just me. I--you know, I don't know that I
pulled magic in that direction so much as I was pulled in that direction by
those desires.

And I've found a curious thing, which is that the darker the thought that I'm
thinking, the funnier the audience finds it.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

TELLER: It reminds me of the curse of Cassandra. I think Apollo came down
and offered to make love to Cassandra, the Greek maiden. She turned him down
and he cursed her. And the curse was she would always make correct prophecies
and no one would ever believe her. And that's kind of the way I feel when I'm
thinking the darkest of thoughts and the audience is laughing its head off.
And I'm happy, though.

GROSS: On your TV show, "Home Invasion," one of the things you do is you get
into the water tank. This is something you've done on stage, but in this show
you're doing it in a family's living room. Do the setup for us. Describe
what's happening in this.

TELLER: Well, we have sent a family out of their house. We've gotten their
consent to be on a television show. They don't know anything about what we're
going to do, so we sent them out of their house and set up our lights and set
up our water tank, which is a thing that looks like a phone booth full of
water in their living room. And it's an unpleasant looking thing because I am
inside the water tank and I am locked in there with bars keeping me from
getting my face to the surface of the water. We then drape this entire thing
with a piece of fabric so they just saw this red monolith in their living
room; brought them back in and sat them down. And Penn announced that he was
going to do a little bit of close-up magic; something very un-Penn and
Teller--just a piece of close-up magic. But to keep the home audience
interested, at which point he whips away the sheet, revealing me in the water
tank, `Teller,' he says, `will hold his breath until Penn finds the correct,
selected card.' Now this is something we do on stage and it's pretty
effective. But putting it in somebody's living room and having them suddenly
find a couple of hundred gallons of water in a large tank in the middle of
their living room with a man holding his breath in a life-and-death situation
is quite another thing.

GROSS: While a card trick is being done.

TELLER: While a card trick is being done. And also, in the theater, you
know, there's something about the frame of a theater...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TELLER: ...that makes you know that everything's going to come out just fine
in the end. Well, when it's happening in your living room, where real things
happen, it has quite a different feel. And, as the plot unfolds, Penn fails
to find the card, but I insist on remaining in the water tank. And Penn
acknowledges my heroic insistence to remain in the water tank and then ignores
me, while I completely drown. And the thing ends up with Penn shrugging and,
basically, telling the people that from now on it's a pretty easy trick, as
this corpse is floating there in their living room and leaving them in their
living room with--it's--I think it's four or five people with a large tank of
water and Teller's corpse. And the final moments of the show are just very
pleasant in watching these people trying to deal with the fact that they now
have a corpse in their living room.

GROSS: Which makes the trick even better because, of course, you're not dead,
which means that you are under that water even longer than we could have ever
imagined you'd be able to survive there. You've been under so long that you
have--you're forced to play dead to be credible.

TELLER: It's exceedingly unpleasant to do.

GROSS: I was going to ask you that. Especially, I should point out, you're
wearing a suit and tie, your standard, you know, theatrical garb in that
water tank. So in addition to what you must be going through with air, you
know, you're wearing a suit and tie in there.

TELLER: The suit and tie doesn't bother me very much.

GROSS: That's nothing, huh? Yeah.

TELLER: Nothing compared with the strain on my lungs.

GROSS: Tell me what it feels like. I--you know, I have no clue how you make
this trick work.


GROSS: But whatever it is, I'm sure it's not pleasant.

TELLER: No, it's not. If it were only the claustrophobia of being in that
confinement it would...

GROSS: It would just be like an MRI.

TELLER: Yeah. Yeah, it would--that would still be pretty unpleasant.

GROSS: Yeah.

TELLER: But I'm used to it now. You know, I've done that thing for 10 or 15

GROSS: Yeah.

TELLER: And I've grown comfortable with it and all the physical things that
I need to have good and strong and workable are very comfortable and workable
now. When I first tried it, it was very strenuous. The first time we ever
did it was on national television on "Saturday Night Live" and there were
serious problems that very first performance. And if you should ever see it
in rebroadcast on TV, they do close-ups of my face and my eyes look very full
of anxiety, and they are very full of anxiety. Now not actually full of
anxiety over death. They're full of anxiety over embarrassment because we
never do anything that would actually risk my death or Penn's death. It's
extremely important if you're going to do dangerous things to always have
several levels of safety precaution on them. And in that particular one on
"Saturday Night Live," there was a particular gesture that if I made this
gesture, one of our assistants would run out, unlock the tank and drag out my
waterlogged body before I had a chance to drown.

GROSS: Just tell me one thing about the water tank. How much of that really
depends on you holding your breath for a long time or breathing in a most
minimal way?

TELLER: You're asking questions about how we're doing the trick? Is that
what you're asking?

GROSS: Do I get punished by the Magicians Union for this?

TELLER: No. No. No. No, you don't. You just get reminded that a good
piece of the pleasure in watching one of these things is wondering how real it
is. You know, that's really an interesting feature about watching a magical
performance. It isn't just wondering how it's done. It's wondering where
reality leaves off and trick begins.

GROSS: So, anyway, we're just going to let me wonder about...


GROSS: ...where that line is.

TELLER: We're going to let you wonder, but....

GROSS: Right. That's OK.

TELLER: ...but not without saying that magic seems to have a very useful
function in society. And that useful function consists in making people
realize that even when people are lying straight in their faces and saying, `I
am lying,' that they can still be fooled. And that means when they turn on
their TV the next time and someone lies straight in their faces; someone
dressed usually exactly like Penn and Teller in gray business suits, they
view it with a little more skepticism. And that's a very salutary effect.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Teller, of the duo Penn and Teller, recorded in 1997. Teller has a
new book about his father called "When I'm Dead, All This Will Be Yours."

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD from the hip-hop group OutKast. This

(Soundbite of music)

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

Review: Ken Tucker talks about the new OutKast CD, "Stankonia"

OutKast is an Atlanta-based hip-hop group led by Andre Benjamin and Antoine
Patton, who goes by the name Big Boy. Their fourth CD was just released.
It's called "Stankonia," and rock critic Ken Tucker says its ambition and
accessibility should expand OutKast's audience.

(Soundbite from "Stankonia")

OUTKAST: (Singing) Ain't nobody dope as me. I'm just so fresh, so clean. So
fresh and so clean, clean. Don't you think I'm so sexy. I'm just so fresh,
and clean. So fresh and so clean, clean. Ain't nobody dope as me. I'm just
so fresh, so clean. I love when you stare at me. I'm just so fresh, so
clean. So fresh and so clean, clean.

(End of soundbite)


Funny and frank, OutKast's "Stankonia" extends and transcends the Southern,
funk, rock hip-hop synthesis that this Atlanta duo nurtured so fruitfully on
their previous release, 1988's "Aquamini." Andre Benjamin and Antoine "Big
Boy" Patton may be intent on proving they are, as they say at one point on
this 17-cut epic, `the coolest mother funkers on this planet.' But these guys
are nothing, if not down to Earth. Their influences include, most crucially,
the comedian Richard Pryor, as well as funk guru George Clinton. Like both of
those artists, Benjamin and Patton love puns and word play. Their CD's
references to `the underground smell road' and nursery rhyme chants of `I
stank, I can. I stank, I can' emphasize the blues definition of funky as
smelly; that is to say, low-down, blunt, pungent, a measure of authenticity.

(Soundbite from "Stankonia")

OUTKAST: (Singing) I'll call before I come. I won't just pop over at the
blues. I hope that you do, too. I'll call before I come. I won't just pop
over at the blues. No, after you. Oh, thank you, Lord, (unintelligible)
bones in my body. Let me tell you why. If not so, I'd be too, too bad when
they come to pink polka dots and plaids. Glad to meet you. My name is Drey,
but you can call me Possum Alewiscious Jenkins Andre 3,000, so shout. No, I
don't want us to get (unintelligible) I kinda dig them old-school, cute,
regular drones. I'll call before I come. And I will pause for your calls. I
won't just pop over at the blues. I hope that you do, too. I'll call before
I come.

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: Benjamin and Patton shift with dizzyingly assured fluidity between
the real and the surreal. A cut such as "Ms. Jackson" is a beautifully
detailed sung-spoken apology to the grandmother of the narrator's baby, in
which he laments his break-up with the child's mother and promises to uphold
his responsibility as a parent.

(Soundbite from "Stankonia")

OUTKAST: (Singing) I'm sorry, Ms. Jackson. Whoo. I am for real. Never
meant to make your daughter cry. I apologize a trillion times. I'm sorry,
Ms. Jackson. Whoo. I am for real. Never meant to make your daughter cry.
I apologize a trillion times, times. My baby ...(unintelligible) momma don't
like me. So you know what I mean, it's like having the boys come from her
neighborhood to the studio trying to fight me. She needs to get a piece of
the American pie; take her light out. That's my house. I disconnected the
cable and turned the lights out to let her know her grandchild is a baby and
not a paycheck. Private schools, day care, medical bills, I hate it. I love
you, momma, and everything. See, I ain't the only one who lay down. But you
want rip me up, start a custody war ...(unintelligible) stay down. She never
got a chance to hear my side of the story. We was divided. She had fish
fries and cookouts for my child's birthday. I ain't invited, invited. I
showed her the utmost respect when I followed through, all you. You would
defend that lady when I called you. Sorry, Ms. Jackson. Whoo. I am for

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: At the other sonic extreme is the more militant song "Explosion",
which exhorts black performers to avoid being, quote, "brainwashed to be
commercial clowns." The song is a powerful distillation of the message that
Spike Lee is delivering in his current movie "Bamboozled." Similarly, the
CD's first single, "BOB,"--that stands for bombs over Baghdad--is a
frenetically shouted tour de force, featuring drum beats that spray across the
melody like a round of gunfire.

In the whirling universe of "Stankonia," Teddy Pendergrass, the old sitcom
"Three's Company," and Anne Frank all get name checked to good effect. And to
all the commentators who've lauded Eminem for his use of internal rhyme,
OutKast offers the white homophobe a superior example of such poetic rhetoric.
Quote, "speech only reaches those who know about it. This is how we go about
it;" all this while demonstrating that the way they go about it is to be
endlessly good-humored and imaginative, even when dealing with the most grim
and mind-deadening facets of ghetto life.

"Stankonia" reeks of artful ambition rendered with impeccable skill, or, as
their song title so concisely has it, "So Fresh, So Clean." Take a deep
breath and jump into this music.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Denny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey
Bentham. Dorothy Ferraby is our administrative assistant. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from "Stankonia")

OUTKAST: (Singing) We just can't be amazed. Even if you pull the pin from
your hand grenade, we just can't be amazed. Even if you pull the pin from
your hand grenade, we just can't be amazed. Even if you pull the pin from
your hand grenade, we just can't be amazed.
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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