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Have We Had Our Fill of Frank McCourt?

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Tis" Frank McCourt's sequel to "Angela's Ashes."


Other segments from the episode on September 17, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 17, 1999: Interview with David Hyde Pierce; Review of Frank McCourt's memoir "'Tis"; Interview with Chris Rock; Review of the film "American Beauty."


Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091701np.217
Head: Interview with David Hyde Pierce
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, one of the best comedic actors on television, David Hyde Pierce of "Frasier." He just won his third Emmy for his role as Frasier's younger brother, Niles. David Hyde Pierce co-hosted the Emmy Awards show last Sunday.

Also, we hear from another Emmy Award-winner, comic Chris Rock. His HBO show just won an Emmy for writing. It begins a new season tonight. Rock hosted the MTV Video Awards earlier this month.

Also book critic Maureen Corrigan (ph) reviews "Tis," Frank McCourt's sequel to "Angela's Ashes," and film critic John Powers reviews "American Beauty," starring Kevin Spacey.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

David Hyde Pierce not only co-hosted the Emmys last Sunday night, he won his third Emmy for his portrayal of Niles, the younger brother on the sitcom "Frasier." On this archive edition, we have an interview with David Hyde Pierce recorded last November.

Both Frasier and Niles are psychiatrists. Frasier, played by Kelsey Grammer, hosts a call-in radio show. Niles's psychological insights didn't save him from one of the worst marriages and longest divorces in history.

The brothers are snobbish, effete, egotistical and insecure. Although they have a close relationship, they're very competitive and suspicious of each other. Here's Niles calling on Frasier.


DAVID HYDE PIERCE, ACTOR, "FRASIER": Hello, I know I'm a bit early. I was hoping we might get a bite to eat before the theater.


PIERCE: Yeah, yeah. It'll be on me, of course, as a thank you for getting those replacement tickets.

GRAMMER: (INAUDIBLE) the tickets?

PIERCE: I know, I know I owe you money, and my gratitude. And if I keep talking, you won't be able to tell me because you weren't able to get the tickets.

GRAMMER: Just haven't been able to get them yet.

PIERCE: Oh, I knew you hadn't gotten them yet!

GRAMMER: Niles, please!

PIERCE: And now it's too late! It's six o'clock!

GRAMMER: Just calm down. I've made a few well-placed calls. I haven't heard back from a couple of people. Someone will call.

PIERCE: Well, someone better call because everyone who's anyone is seeing this play. And you know who you are if you're not anyone? You're no one! And I've been someone much too long to start being no one now!


GROSS: The character of Frasier originated on the show "Cheers." I asked David Hyde Pierce if, when he was cast in the show "Frasier," he studied episodes of "Cheers" to get a sense of the family traits and mannerisms.


PIERCE: Yes. In fact, that's specifically what I did. I watched a lot of old episodes of "Cheers" to get the physical behavior because I felt like when I looked at my own family -- first of all, I look more like Kelsey than I look like any other member of my real family. So physical resemblance isn't necessarily the key. But what does happen is people have the same kind of speech patterns and the same physical mannerisms.

I'm, we have all had the experience of looking in the mirror and being horrified to realize we were acting exactly like our mom or our dad. And that kind of stuff, I thought, was what would let people know that we were really brothers -- if we moved in the same way, if we had the same tilt of the head when we spoke, if we hit words and voiced words in a similar way.

GROSS: I know Kelsey Grammer is a big admirer of Jack Benny, and you can kind of see that in some of his gestures. Did you go back to Jack Benny also to kind of better get to know what Kelsey Grammer would be like and register that family trait?

PIERCE: I didn't. That's something else that Kelsey does which was a whole new kind of acting for me, which is -- I don't know if you know the term "sampling," which they can do with pieces of sound technology. You can "sample" the playing of an instrument with a synthesizer.

And Kelsey can almost sample famous actors, like someone who does impressions, except what he does is he will incorporate Jack Benny or Bette Davis or James Mason or whoever into the lines that he's saying as Frasier, so that it simultaneously echoes the famous person, but is really still Frasier speaking. And that gives him this enormous range. I even did a scene where he did Daffy Duck in a perfectly believable way.

GROSS: "Frasier;; -- in a way the show is a contrast of two types of masculinity. You have a father who is the retired cop and loves sports and his old easy chair and meat and potatoes, and Frasier and Niles who, you know, are impeccably dressed and are connoisseurs of wine and food and furniture. And in a way -- in a way, they're almost like -- they almost embody certain of the traits that are stereotyped as gay traits, including some of their gestures. And I wonder if that's something that's ever discussed on the set of the show.

PIERCE: We don't ever discuss it on the show, although we did address it, actually, in an early episode. There's kind of a famous episode from the first season called "The Matchmaker," where a new station manager took over Frasier's radio station, and the guy was gay, but Frasier didn't know it.

And Frasier tried...

GROSS: That's a very funny episode.

PIERCE: Yeah, well, it was a great episode. Joe Keenan wrote it, one of our very good writers. And there was a whole mix-up where Frasier thought he was setting up this guy to date Daphne, and the guy thought it was a setup for him to date Frasier.

And near the end of it, because of a variety of confusing circumstances, this guy also thinks that Frasier's dad is gay. And finally, it all gets straightened out in the end. And he says, "So your dad's not gay?" And he says, "No, no. Dad's not gay." And then the guy says, "But Niles, come on."

And it was our away of addressing -- because a lot of people have talked about the fact -- especially with Frasier and Niles and a lot of stuff that they do together that, as you said, it's sort of a stereotypical gay relationship in that they like to dress well, they like fine wine and opera and all that stuff.

But there's one critical part of gay relationships which they're not really into -- and that seems to me to be the dividing line -- and that's more of the anatomical area, which is that they both love women. And so I think that the rest of it, as you said, it really is a stereotype if it necessitates them being gay because they like those things.

There's a certain sort of -- as you described different kinds of masculinity, there's a very English as opposed to an English peasant, but a kind of an upper-class English feeling about them, also a sort of Southern gentlemen feeling. It's a more of -- I guess you could say, a feline masculinity as opposed to Dad or Bulldog, who's the sportscaster on the show, who's more of a -- you know, eating hot dogs and beans and slapping people around kind of guy.

GROSS: Right. Now, the writing is so funny on the show. Can you think of an example of lines that you particularly like that kind of exemplify to you the quality of the writing?

PIERCE: Yes. The one that always pops into my head is there was a scene where the unseen Maris -- we're having a party at Frasier's apartment, and no one can find her. And I explain that she fell asleep, and she's under all the coats on the bed. And my line is that "She exhausts easily under the pressure to be interesting."

GROSS: (laughs)

PIERCE: And what I love...

GROSS: (laughs) That's...

PIERCE: What I love about that line is if you look at the actual wording of it, it's a little bit wordy. It's a little bit high-faluting -- "She exhausts easily under the" -- but what makes it funny is the description of this personality because, in some way, we've all been there. We've all been at parties and had to put on that face, and we know how you go home and it's supposed to have been a party, and you're wiped out from the effort.

And she just takes it to the Nth degree. So it's a combination of a skillful use of language, but also a skillful just depiction of character. And I think most of the humor of the show, as it should, comes out of situations like that, as opposed to jokes.

GROSS: Because there's a kind of almost ornate style of speaking that Niles has. I'm sure his cadences are a little bit different than yours. Was it hard to get into that rhythm?

PIERCE: It's a good question. It wasn't difficult. Because it's well written, it's easy to pick up on the speech pattern. And again, because I was sort of modeling it after the way Kelsey speaks as Frasier, I had a role model there.

One of the things that we are always playing with, and one of the differences between the writers who write for our show -- and sometimes when people send in scripts that they've written in hoping to get hired for the show -- is that the writers understand that there's a subtle difference between someone who uses language in a certain way and just simply writing a lot of big words because that somehow seems to be what the characters are all about.

A lot of times we'll find that you have to tone Niles's language down because in a given situation, a very emotional situation, say, or, for example, he might not fall into those elevated speech patterns that he would have when he's more relaxed and he's talking about the wine club. And I think that's also what keeps him real.

GROSS: Would you compare your voice and style of speaking with Niles?

PIERCE: Well, it's hard -- you know why? Because as soon as I start getting analytical and talking about the show and being philosophical about it then I automatically almost become him.

GROSS: (laughs)

PIERCE: And I mean -- let's see. There's a certain -- I guess there's a certain other placement in the voice, that he speaks almost in a little higher pitch than I do. And the pronunciation of the words is just a little bit archer, and a little bit more enunciated and, oh, what's the word -- that sort of thing. And there's little inflections like that creep in.

Sometimes I'll be, like, somewhere else in the country, and people will say, "Oh, you don't have an English accent," thinking that I do have an English accent because of whatever it is I'm doing as the character, it sort of -- it reads that way.

GROSS: Yeah, it's arch and clipped.

PIERCE: Yeah, and a little bit operatic at times.


PIERCE: He gets extremely agitated over not very important things. We just had -- he was just invited to a party where he brought a bottle of '81 Chateau Haute Briant (ph), and he wasn't there two minutes before he heard a pop, looked up and (IN NILES'S VOICE) saw it being decanted into a punch bowl of Sangria, canned fruit, and erotic ice cubes! So it's sort of a higher range, I think, when he gets excited.

GROSS: It must be interesting to play a character for so long that you have to, you know, different styles of speech that you know so well, your own and your character's.

PIERCE: Well, and in fact, I think I've played him so long that when you asked me the question about what was the difference between my speech and Niles's, I got extremely nervous because I suddenly thought, you know, I'm not sure there is one anymore. I think that the gap has narrowed over the last six years.

GROSS: Now, I know you shoot in front of a live audience, which means that there's real laughter that you have to deal with which will effect the timing. You can't talk over the high point of a laugh.

The trick is, I think, if the audience is laughing and it's a fairly extended laugh, the camera doesn't pan to the audience. It's still on you. So you have to be doing something while you're not speaking during the laughter.

PIERCE: Yes. Well, we've all become masters of sort of idle fiddling and, you know, stirring coffee during long laughs, or you can check your shoelaces and see if they're tied. What it is -- it's just fun. It's -- you try to find behavior that the character would actually be doing in the moment.

But what your also doing is you're feeding the laughter because it just makes people laugh more when they see you riding that wave of laughter, however you choose to ride it out. If Kelsey and I are in a scene together, then we can do a good 10 minutes of just making faces at each other until eventually we both laugh, and then it's over.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Hyde Pierce, and he's the star of "Frasier." He plays Niles, Frasier's brother. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

PIERCE: All right.


This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is David Hyde Pierce, and he plays Niles on the series "Frasier."

Now, the story goes that, you know, no one knew that Frasier had a brother when Frasier was a character on "Cheers." I don't think Frasier knew he had a brother. And then when he was given the new series, he still wasn't supposed to have a brother, but the story goes that the creators of the show were given a picture of you, saw this incredible facial similarity, then watched tapes of you, loved your performance and thought, "Well, let's write him in as the brother."

Did you see the similarity when you looked at Kelsey Grammer?

PIERCE: My mom, when I first came out to L.A., which was about six or seven years ago, said to me, "Now, you look like Kelsey Grammer. Maybe you could be on his show." And that was back on "Cheers."

GROSS: Oh, really?

PIERCE: Yeah. And no one else thought that at the time. But then, totally without me having anything to do with it, this casting director, Sheila Guthrie (ph), who was working with Jeff Greenberg, the main casting director for "Frasier," she brought them my photo. And they didn't know who I was, like most people. And like you said, she also brought them some tapes from the only other TV show I'd ever done, the only other sitcom, which was called "The Powers That Be." It was a Norman Lear political satire, where John Forsythe played a senator. I played a suicidal congressman.

And they looked at those tapes, and based on those, they actually met with me. And this is the humiliating part because they met with me for about half an hour, and then they went away and wrote Niles. So I don't know what that says about me, but that's the way it fell out.

GROSS: (laughs) Right. So -- it's funny because although I see certain similarities between you and Kelsey Grammer, you're a much more kind of refined version of it -- you know, smaller and, you know, more elegant.

PIERCE: "Refined" is nice. I like "refined." He -- you know what? If you see pictures of him -- I saw a shot of him, he was just out of college, taken in New York, and -- or also he was on a soap opera back then, when he was still going to Juilliard. And he looks -- it's me. It isn't even he looks like me, it's me. And so I think we -- depending on the year of the show, we look more or less alike each other. But there's definitely a familial resemblance kind of thing.

GROSS: David Hyde Pierce is my guest, and he plays Niles on "Frasier."

I'd like to run through some of the movies that you've been in, and maybe you could just say a few words about your part in each one and...


GROSS: ... what it was like for you. Let's start with your movie premiere debut, "Bright Lights, Big City."

PIERCE: Yes, that was my first ever. It cost me more to join the union than they paid me to do the film. In fact, my agent had to advance me the money so I could do this movie. And I had one line. It was with -- Michael J. Fox was in this movie. If you ever see it, there's a scene where he goes to disrupt a fashion show that Phoebe Cates is doing, and I'm standing behind the bar, and I say, "I'm sorry the bar is closed." And that was my first memorable line.

GROSS: Did you practice saying that a thousand different ways before doing it for real?

PIERCE: Well, for one thing, I was a nervous wreck. I mean, I had been a stage actor for many years; I'd been on Broadway and off-Broadway and gone all over the place. I'd never done a movie, and they don't know that, and they treat you as if you're an old pro. And they say, "OK, now this -- he's going to come up. The camera's going to be here. You're going to hit your mark. You're going to do that and this."

And of course, you say, "Yeah. Right. I'll be there." And you're thinking, "What's a mark? Who do I hit? Who's Mark?" It was very disturbing, but I got through that, and no one was injured. So I think I did OK.

GROSS: OK, "Crossing Delancey."


GROSS: Let me guess. You were the non-Jewish character.

PIERCE: I did once audition for a play in New York they did called "A Shayne Maydel (ph)," and it was for a Jewish character. And I had to say the line "You only love me for my mother's bagels."

GROSS: (laughs)

PIERCE: And I -- you know, I didn't believe me saying it, and so -- they were very nice during the audition. No one asked me to leave or anything. But, anyway, no, I was a non-Jewish character in "Crossing Delancey." I love that movie, by the way. It's a sweet film. And what I most remember about it was I had to learn to play the cello.

My character was a cellist, and there was a scene where Amy Irving, who was the lead in the movie, was having a birthday, and all of us who were worked in this little bookstore with her were singing "Happy Birthday" to her, and I was playing it on the cello.

And I, literally -- they paid for lessons. I learned how to play "Happy Birthday" on the cello. Amy Irving, who had done a movie called "The Competition," where she had to pretend to play the cello, made endless fun of me because, you know, I was squeaking. But I finally got through the take and did it, and it was all perfect.

And that scene segued into a scene on a phone from Florida, where her parents' friends, who are a barbershop quartet, are finishing singing "Happy Birthday" over the phone. Well, when they put the film together, the guys singing in the barbershop quartet were in a different key. So they dubbed the cello playing. So what I had slaved for weeks to learn - I never had to do the first place. They were just going to lay it in anyway, so...

GROSS: Oh, tough luck.

PIERCE: Yeah, that was hard.

GROSS: Yeah. "Sleepless in Seattle."

PIERCE: Oh, that was my first connection with Seattle. And that, you know, of course was a big hit movie. I had a very small part in it, but the funny thing is if you go back and watch it, the little scenes that I have -- I play Meg Ryan's brother -- I'm actually married -- I'm in a very similar marriage to the one that Niles has with Maris.

The actress who plays my wife is a little on the petite side, and we have -- she's kind of shrewish the way the character's written, and we have sort of a hate-hate relationship, I think. But it was sort of foreshadowing of my -- the rest of my life.

GROSS: In Oliver Stone's movie, "Nixon," you played John Dean. What did you do to get in character?

PIERCE: Met with John Dean. Had several meetings with him, and did a lot of reading about John and the whole Watergate crisis. And found out that, depending on which book you read, John Dean was either a completely innocent victim of this whole thing or the evil mastermind behind the entire Watergate scenario, which was a little bit of a of a history lesson.

And the other thing I did was watch the tapes of the hearings, and other than that, it was just the thrill of, you know, acting scenes with Anthony Hopkins.

GROSS: What'd you do with your voice for John Dean? It's such a familiar voice for people who remember the Watergate hearings.

PIERCE: Yeah. I didn't do a lot. I -- there was some -- a little bit of -- I'm trying think what it was. He's from California, and it wasn't that he had a particular accent. I think maybe some of the vowels were a little flatter than mine. Again, I didn't -- none of us were trying to do exact imitations of the people.

I mean, Anthony Hopkins is the most obvious example, that he -- when he did Nixon -- he's completely capable of doing a spot-on Rich Little-quality Nixon impression. But he didn't want people to watch him do a Nixon impression because the most you get out of that is sitting there thinking, "Oh, he's really good doing a Nixon impression."

So he kind of split the difference between hinting at Nixon's actual voice and certainly getting the physical mannerisms, but really making it more of a character performance for him. To my taste, I think that was a really smart choice.

GROSS: So, I want to hear about other movies and stuff that you have coming up outside of "Frasier."

PIERCE: Over the past hiatus, I was in Montreal shooting a movie which is a biography of Jacqueline Susann that stars Bette Midler as Jackie, and Nathan Lane as her husband and manager, Irving Mansfield. And John Cleese is in it, Stockard Channing, Amanda Peet. It's a great cast, and it's a terrific script by Paul Rudnick, who wrote "In and Out," and "Jeffrey," and "The Addams Family" movies, and stuff like that.

GROSS: David Hyde Pierce, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you. I really want to thank you.

PIERCE: Well, thanks Terry.


GROSS: David Hyde Pierce, recorded last November. He just won his third Emmy for his portrayal of Niles on "Frasier." The new series begins next Thursday. The new season, that is, begins next Thursday. The Jacqueline Susann movie, "Isn't She Great?" is due out early next year.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: David Hyde Pierce
High: Emmy Award winning actor David Hyde Pierce plays Niles Crane on NBC's sitcom "Frasier." Pierce has also appeared in the films: "Bright Lights, Big City," "Little Man Tate," "The Fisher King," "Crossing Delancey," "Sleepless in Seattle," and "Nixon," and his voice appears in the new movie "A Bug's Life."
Spec: Entertainment; "Frasier"; David Hyde Pierce; Television and Radio

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with David Hyde Pierce
Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091702NP.217
Head: "'Tis: A Memoir"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The sequel to Frank McCourt's blockbuster memoir "Angela's Ashes" has just been published. It's called "'Tis." A movie adaptation of "Angela's Ashes" is scheduled for release in December.

Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan (ph), wonders if we've had our fill of Frank McCourt.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: We Irish Americans, together with our old country cousins, are an odd people, psychologically speaking. From generation to generation, we pass down sad songs and stories about Ireland's tragic history. Our ethnic mascot is the underdog. But when one of our own, like Frank McCourt, becomes a smashing success, instead of applauding we collectively mutter, Who does he think he is?

All the people I know who grew up in an Irish household heard that putdown whenever they were thought to be getting too full of themselves. That's why that as the McCourt craze is cresting this month with the publication of "'Tis," the sequel to the phenomenally, some would say inexplicably popular "Angela's Ashes," the McCourt backlash is also gathering force among his own kind.

"Out, out, damn McCourt," intoned an Irish friend of mine upon seeing McCourt's face on the cover of last Sunday's "New York Times" magazine. Looking at this new memoir's book jacket, another friend, Irish by marriage, grumbled, "`'Tis,' eh? Why doesn't he just put a big dollar sign on the cover?"

And it must have been my own perverse Irish blood at work some months ago when I'd only just heard of, and not yet read, "'Tis," that made me scribble down the first sentence of my review, "T'isn't."

But see, I couldn't use it. Much as my heritage makes me ache to cut down the mighty McCourt, I enjoyed the book, a lot. Oh, sure, it's not as rich as "Angela's Ashes," but that's almost inevitable. After all, the first memoir dealt with childhood, the magical and, in McCourt's case, often nostalgically nightmarish time of life.

If I liked McCourt the man in "'Tis" less than I did the boy, it's because I held him more responsible for the awful fixes he finds himself in. The toilet problems and drink troubles that were a staple subject in "Angela's Ashes" surface here too, but now I'm more impatient rather than sympathetic.

What's still so attractive about McCourt, however, is his voice. Almost every paragraph here could be used to illustrate the dictionary definition of black humor. That's another behavioral quirk the Irish learn early. Always be sure to make fun of yourself and your situation before somebody else beats you to it.

In "'Tis," which is a essentially an immigrant memoir, we learn about McCourt's escape from damp Limerick to dazzling postwar New York City. No sooner does he land in America than he also lands, against his timid will, in the bed of the predatory priest he met on the boat going over.

As is obligatory in these kinds of stories, McCourt soon encounters all manner of New World eccentrics, the literary bartender who won't serve him a beer until he goes off to the public library and reads Dr. Johnson, the drunken landlady who invites him in for a Christmas meal of kielbasa (ph) around the bedside of her son, who's a vegetable.

The burnt-out principal of the vocational school where he gets his first teaching job, who advises him to "just stay a few pages ahead of the kids. Tell them this is 1958. Tell them their names. Tell them they live on Staten Island. And they'll be surprised and grateful for the information. This is not High IQ Plateau."

What elevates Frank McCourt out of the company of all those hail-fellow-well-met type of Irishmen, like his raconteur brother Malachy, whose own recent autobiography bombed, is his somber respect for some horrors that can't be cauterized by laughter.

In a classroom closet of that same vocational high school, McCourt finds piles of ungraded essay written by his current students' old neighbors and uncles, guys who were killed in World War I. His hardboiled students read the essays and weep.

When recalling his very first job in New York, as a houseboy sweeping up after college kids at the Biltmore Hotel, McCourt dramatizes brutally the self-loathing that's bred deep into his working-class bones. That's maybe the greatest strength of "'Tis," how McCourt captures the isolation of a working-class kid trying to better himself.

When he finally makes it into college courtesy of the GI Bill, he's patronized by his professors and alienated by his fellow students, who revel in existential despair.

Meanwhile, on the New York City docks where he's supporting his studies by unloading frozen meat, his fellow workmen call him a fairy, drop crates into his arms, and, the last straw, smear pigeon droppings onto his ham sandwich. Most of them seem to be Irish. It's the old Who do you think you are? backlash again.

Speaking of backlash, I think that one not-so-flattering reason why "Angela's Ashes" continues to be such an astounding best seller is that it comes at a cultural moment when a lot of embattled white readers want to be affirmed in their feelings that, hey, my family had it rough too.

"'Tis" will speak implicitly to those same feelings. And because it's also affecting and finely written, it'll probably be another megahit for McCourt -- damn his eyes!

COLMES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Frank McCourt's new memoir, "'Tis."

Coming up, an interview with comic Chris Rock.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Maureen Corrigan (ph)
High: MAUREEN CORRIGAN of Georgetown University reviews Frank McCourt's new book "'Tis: A Memoir."
Spec: Entertainment; Authors; McCourt

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "'Tis: A Memoir"
Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091703NP.217
Head: Interview with Chris Rock
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:36

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Chris Rock has spent a lot of time in the public eye recently. He hosted the MTV Video Awards. Last Sunday he got to pick up his own award at the Emmys when his HBO variety series won for its writing.

"The Chris Rock Show"'s new season begins tonight. His latest HBO special ran earlier this summer.

Rock is a fearless comic, whether he's tackling highly charged subjects like race and politics or just making fun of fellow celebrities. The first time he joined us on FRESH AIR was in 1991, when he was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live." One of the characters he did back then was a homeboy from the projects with his own talk show called "I'm Chillin'."


CHRIS ROCK, COMEDIAN: Yo, yo, yo, yo, (INAUDIBLE) up? Welcome to "I'm Chillin'." The showsy, showsy, showsy with the howsy (ph) howsy howsies. Now, I'm your host, on ski (ph) to the highest degree, to the TLP (ph). Yo, it's all about money (ph). And sittin' by my side is my main man, my ace in the hole, my New Jersey toll, my Esther Rolle, my 10-foot pole, my Billy Joel, my Nat King Cole, my Dead Sea scroll, my Dr. Scholl, my Helmut Kohl, my grassy knoll, my Kid Creole, my "La Cage aux Folles."


GROSS: We're going to hear an excerpt from Chris Rock's second FRESH AIR interview in 1997, just before the release of a CD adapted from an HBO special, which furthered Rock's reputation for controversial material.

GROSS: Probably the most controversial part of...

ROCK: (laughs)

GROSS: ... that's part of this? Cutting right to the chase -- is what you describe as the civil war between black people. In fact, let me play an excerpt of this sketch.

ROCK: Oh, boy.


Now, we got a lot of things -- there's a lot of racism going on in the world right now. Who's more racist? Black people or white people? Black people. You know why? 'Cause we hate black people, too.


Everything white people don't like about black people, black people really don't like about black people. There's some (expletive deleted) goin' on with black people right now. There's like the civil war going on with black people, and there's two sides. There's black people and there's niggers.

The niggers have got to go. Every time black people want to have a good time, 'ignant-ass niggers (expletive deleted) it up.


Can't do (expletive deleted). Can't do nothin'. Can't keep a disco open more than three weeks -- brand opening; brand closing. Can't go to a movie the first week it come out. Why? 'Cause niggers are shooting at the screen.


GROSS: What is the range of reaction, Chris Rock, that you've gotten to this sketch?

ROCK: Wow, you know what's weird?

GROSS: What?

ROCK: It's been nothing but positive reaction. This whole special -- the only negative reaction I've ever gotten from this special, and I'm not jumpin' on a bandwagon here trying to get, you know, famous, is Bill Cosby.

GROSS: What did he say?

ROCK: Well, he didn't say anything. He just wanted his -- in the beginning of the special, I have a bunch of old comedy album covers flashing. And these are just guys I grew up with and I really loved, and there's Bill Cosby and there's Woody Allen and there's Flip Wilson and Dick Gregory and Pete McMarkham (ph) and Eddie and Pryor. And they're just some of like my heroes. And he wanted his album removed, so I guess he didn't like the special.

But other than that, it's been nothing but good reaction.

GROSS: Were you thinking about particular experiences you had or particular people you know when you wrote this?

ROCK: Well, again, it's like the "Hulk Syndrome." It's like -- I'm not really thinking about anything. I'm just interpreting. This is like, you know, everything I said in that routine, my mother said. My father said. I hear it in barber shops. It's not like I'm, you know -- it's not like I invented anything, you know.

GROSS: Help me out.

ROCK: This has been...

GROSS: Yeah.

ROCK: ... you know, these views have been out there forever. Just nobody said it.

GROSS: You know, I couldn't help but wonder, listening to it, if a white comic said exactly the same thing you said, it would have a completely different meaning, I think.

ROCK: Yes, it would. Why would a white comic want to say what I said, though? Why would that ever be -- in what context would that ever be necessary?

GROSS: So what's the difference between you saying it and a white comic saying it?

ROCK: I can say it. What's the difference between someone calling your kid an idiot and you calling your kid an idiot? It's a big difference -- it's a huge difference.

GROSS: Right. Do you have...

ROCK: Your kid knows what you mean when you say it. Your kid knows you just mean he's messing up. But when somebody else says it, boy, that's mean.

GROSS: Did you go through a radical black consciousness period when you were in your teens?

ROCK: No. No, you know, I didn't go through a rad -- I mean, when I was in my teens, that's like the '80s, so it's not exactly the most conscious decade or time. You know, I was bussed to school as a kid.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. From where to where?

ROCK: From Brooklyn -- Bed-Stuy Brooklyn -- to Garrison Beach, Brooklyn and to Bensonhurst. And you know, I was getting called "nigger" since I was like in the seventh -- you know, second grade. So I never -- I was always in tune with my blackness, you know, from the time I was, you know, in the second grade.

GROSS: Were there a lot of other people from your neighborhood who got bussed to Bensonhurst?

ROCK: There was -- there was like a contingent, about like five of us.

GROSS: Five? That's all?

ROCK: Yeah, wasn't, you know -- wasn't a -- from my, you know, when I say "the neighborhood," I'm just talking about like a block, like a two-block radius. You know, when you grow up like in a bad neighborhood, there's not a lot of venturing out. So, my neighborhood was like two blocks to me. Then the rest of the neighborhood, I didn't go anywhere 'cause anything could happen. My mother wasn't having it.

GROSS: So, how many African-American students would you say there were in the schools that you got bussed in?

ROCK: In the schools, OK, I was like the only black kid in my grade a couple of times.

GROSS: Wow. Mm-hmm.

ROCK: I was the only black boy, and then there were like two black girls -- two black girls, for like most of my grade school. And the girls had each other. I was kind of like by myself, and I would have -- you know, it's weird. Even though I would get, you know, beat up and, you know, all that other stuff, of course my best friend would end up being white in that same environment. Then he'd get beat up for being my friend.

And it's a weird circle of events.

GROSS: So you think that contributed to your being a comedian, because you were so alienated?

ROCK: Yes, I was alienated. And I had nothing else to do. You know, I always loved comedy. You know, I had nothing to fall back on. I have no real skills. You know, if I picked up a paper right now and, you know, went through the want ads, there's nothing I could get that would pay me more than the minimum wage.

So I loved comedy, got into it, was a little twisted. You know, my schooling had twisted me somewhat. And it really helped me out. I mean, most -- I would say probably today, most black people -- not most black people, but a lot of black people -- you don't really experience racism hands on.

You always -- the way my brothers, who didn't get bussed to school -- my big experience -- the effects of racism, you know, living in a bad neighborhood, you know, you can't get the cab, you know, bad jobs, all that stuff. But very few people get that, especially in the North, that, Hey, nigger, you know, that in your face every day. You know, there's not a lot of guys my age that have been through what I've been through.

GROSS: Now, I have a question about your voice. Your voice in your on-stage performances, and when you're doing comedy, is much deeper, louder, and rougher than your voice in conversation, which is higher and lighter...

ROCK: Right.

GROSS: ... almost sweeter, if I could use that word.

ROCK: Well, thanks.

GROSS: And I always feel like, gee, are you not comfortable with that voice on stage? Do you feel like you need a harder-edged voice to do your comedy?

ROCK: Well, you know, it's -- the money's on the line. It's like people are paying $25. They want a performance. They want -- they don't want me, they want me to be better than me. I gotta look better than me. I gotta be taller, louder, funnier-- I gotta -- I have to be more.

So I mean, when you're on stage, it's kind of like being a woman, you know. It's like put on the makeup; do the hair. You know, nobody wants me. They want Chris Rock. They want -- I'm just Chris.

GROSS: So -- so you got to put on a personality on stage.

ROCK: Well, I gotta be bigger than I normally am. I mean, at the same token, I couldn't walk through life acting the way I act on stage.

GROSS: Well, right, without getting hit a lot, probably.

ROCK: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: (laughs)

Well, did being really skinny, do you think, affect who you became and how people thought of you, or you know, how you see yourself as a comic? Were you kind of scrawny as a kid?

ROCK: I'm scrawny now as a man.

GROSS: (laughs)

Totally. Being skinny has affected every aspect of my life -- every decision I make; everything I put on. Put it this way: look at my standup. In my standup, I have twice as many -- I always say comedy, standup comedy and boxing are pretty much the same. You know, boxing is to sports what standup is to entertainment, 'cause there's just a guy out there by himself.

And I perform like a skinny boxer, where I don't have the ability -- I don't have the ability to knock you out, so I have twice -- I have -- you take my hour special and anybody else's hour special, I probably have twice as many jokes compact in it, 'cause I'm so in -- my size has me so insecure, I'm always working twice as hard.

So yeah, being skinny has totally affected me, and totally, totally, totally weirded me out.

GROSS: Though speaking of boxing...

ROCK: Men are crazy.

GROSS: ... did you get -- did people fight with you a lot when you were young and take advantage of your size?

ROCK: Totally, totally.

GROSS: Did you...

ROCK: And the only reason they don't do it now is 'cause I get -- you know, I'm me.

GROSS: Right. You're famous.


ROCK: That's the only reason.

GROSS: Did you learn to fight?

ROCK: When you're as small as I am, it doesn't really matter.

GROSS: Try martial arts or anything?

ROCK: You know, it's a big -- martial arts -- some big guy will just grab you and throw you down. What's the -- what's the point?

GROSS: (laughs) Well, did you try to cripple your opponent with comedy?

ROCK: Wow, I'm just -- you know, stayed out of environments and situations where fights may occur. No drinking. Like, I don't drink because I can't fight. Wherever it is alcohol's served, there's a bouncer 'cause people get out of hand. So I can't -- too little to be around guys that get out of hand.

So I can't drink. Poor -- woe is me.

GROSS: (laughs)

ROCK: I'm sure Woody and Spike think the same.

GROSS: Right, right. Well, that's true isn't it?

ROCK: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, you could have 'em on your show and talk about it -- a little self-help. (laughs)

ROCK: Yeah. That's why I love Spike -- Brooklyn and skinny.

GROSS: Chris Rock, recorded in 1997. The new season of "The Chris Rock Show" premieres tonight on HBO.


GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews the new movie "American Beauty," starring Kevin Spacey.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Chris Rock
High: Comedian Chris Rock's HBO show "The Chris Rock Show" just won an Emmy for writing for a variety or music program. Rock grew up in Brooklyn, and got his start in show business performing stand-up comedy routines in Manhatten. He spent three years on "Saturday Night Live" and appeared in a few films, including the recent "Beverly Hills Ninja." (Rebroadcast from 2/6/97)
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Chris Rock

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Chris Rock
Date: SEPTEMBER 18, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091704NP.217
Head: "American Beauty": A Review
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our film critic, John Powers, has a review of "American Beauty" starring Kevin Spacey. It's the first film by British theater director Sam Mendez (ph).

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: At the beginning of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," we're greeted with the voice of a dead man who proceeds to tell the story of how he came to die.

Something similar happens in "American Beauty." But where Wilder's movie was about extraordinary things -- pure Hollywood Gothic -- this hilariously wrenching portrait of a disgruntled family takes place in that bastion of normalcy, suburbia.

Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham (ph), an ad man who feels he's lost something but doesn't know what it is. He can't stand his wife, Carolyn, played by Annette Bening, an uptight real estate agent who wants everything around her to be picture-perfect. And he mourns his lost closeness to their teenage daughter, Jane, played by Thora Birch (ph). She's become the romantic obsession of the boy next door, Ricky Fitz -- that's Wes Bentley (ph) -- a video-mad doper with the air of a handsome alien.

In a desperate quest for rejuvenation, Lester starts ogling his daughter's tardy friend Angela, played by Mina Suvari (ph), who coyly leads him on. Soon he's pumping iron to get in shape for Angela, hoping she'll provide an escape from things like the snippy coldness of dinner with his wife and daughter.


THORA BIRCH, ACTRESS: Mom, do we always have to listen to this elevator music?

ANNETTE BENING, ACTRESS: No. No, we don't. And as soon as you've prepared a nutritious yet savory meal that I'm about to eat, you can listen to whatever you like.

KEVIN SPACEY, ACTOR: So, Janie, how was school?

BIRCH: It was OK.


BIRCH: No, Dad, it was spectacular.

SPACEY: Well, you want to know how things went in my job today? They've hired this efficiency expert, this really friendly guy named Brad. How perfect s that? And he's basically there to make it seem like they're justified in firing somebody because they couldn't just come right out and say that, could they? No, no, that would just be too honest.

And so they've asked us...

You couldn't possibly care less, could you?

BIRCH: Well, what do you expect? You can't all of a sudden be my best friend just because you had a bad day. I mean, hello. You've barely even spoken to me for months.

SPACEY: Oh, what? You're mother of the year? You treat her like an employee.


POWERS: "American Beauty" is the first screenplay by Alan Ball (ph), who worked on the TV show "Sybill (ph)" and "Grace Under Fire." And its opening hour is filled with the nasty, Wilderesque humor you'd expect from a sitcom writer who can finally uncork his malice and libido.

At first, Ball's characters seem like cartoons, the Martha Stewart wannabe, the tract house Humbert Humbert, and so forth. But Ball's trick is to give them shading, to gradually transform them into flesh and blood. We feel the sadness pulsing beneath each of their habitual stances toward life, be it Lester's smart cracks, Carolyn's self-help mantras, or Ricky's Zenned-out notion that there's an entire world behind the immediate surface of things.

Though Ball fills his plot with wonderful twists, we don't really feel him stacking the deck until the powerful but slightly fishy climax, when the story's taken over by that obligatory American prop, a gun.

It helps that "American Beauty" is wonderfully acted. We believe the gravely moving performances by Birch and Bentley, relative newcomers whose brooding intelligence as Jane and Ricky passes a harsh judgment on their run-amok elders. If Bening is too broad, she's still very funny in a role that's only half misogynistic.

And Spacey's work is brilliantly rich and kaleidoscopic, sniping at his wife, belting out a stoned chorus of "American Woman," tiptoeing around young Angela like a lovestruck teen. In the process, Lester goes from being the familiar Spacey figure, smirky and snide and a bit creepy-crawly, to a genuinely touching soul, a disillusioned man who rediscovers, perhaps too late, how to be a decent human being.

The movie's a triumph for director Sam Mendez, best known here for bringing "Cabaret" and "The Blue Room" to Broadway. Mendez is a double outsider, both an Englishman and a newcomer to filmmaking, and his debut is astonishing for his ease with a new country and new medium. He neatly orchestrates the tricky shifts in tone, from stinging satire and chilling violence to breathless longing.

As his camera glides over the treetops that line the Burnhams' neighborhood, Mendez makes us feel the many resonances of the film's title, not all of them ironic.

At one point, Ricky shows Jane his favorite piece of video footage, a plastic bag caught in the wind, circling and leaping in a miraculous dance. It's an image of grace, a stolen moment in which the most prosaic of things provides a glimpse of the transcendent.

You could say much of the same thing of this revelatory movie, which is suffused with absurdity, lost innocence, and a yearning for something more, a distinctively American kind of beauty.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews the new film "American Beauty" starring Kevin Spacey.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; "American Beauty"; Kevin Spacey

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "American Beauty": A Review
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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