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Linguist Reflects On 'Years Of Talking Dangerously'

Linguist Geoff Nunberg has made a living out of parsing phrases. His new book, The Years of Talking Dangerously, analyzes the buzzwords, stock phrases and metaphors that were made popular during the Bush administration's tenure.

21:13

Other segments from the episode on June 3, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 3, 2009: Interview with Geoff Nunberg; Interview with Cloris Leachman; Review of “Lucky Thompson: New York City, 1964-65.”

Transcript

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Linguist Reflects On 'Years Of Talking Dangerously'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. When people look back on the language of
the early years of the 21st century, the first thing that will come to mind is
the political vocabulary and the language of real estate. That’s what FRESH
AIR’s linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks. He’s been looking back on the language of
this decade for his new book, “The Years of Talking Dangerously.”

It’s a collection of his pieces for FRESH AIR, the New York Times and other
publications. Jeff says this decade will evoke political language just as the
‘60s evoked the language of rock, drugs and disaffection; the ‘70s, the
language of disco and New Age; the ‘80s, management jargon and Valley Girl
slang; and the ‘90s, techno-talk and fitness-speak.

Geoff Nunberg teaches at the School of Information at the University of
California at Berkeley and is the chairman emeritus of the Usage Panel of the
American Heritage Dictionary. Geoff says a lot of the words and catchphrases
that were used earlier this decade, including in the 2008 presidential
campaign, have lost their power. Take the word elite, which is how candidate
Obama was described by some Republicans.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG (Author, “The Years of Talking Dangerously”): Elite was
certainly a word that, almost as much as any other, stands in for the cultural
politics of the last few decades, beginning really with Spiro Agnew in the end
of the Nixon years and continuing through the ‘90s. You remember Dan Quayle’s
railing about “Murphy Brown” and the cultural elite, and up to the president.

Over the course of time, it’s acquired a meaning that had, particularly for the
right, had less to do with having real wealth and influence and so on than with
the sorts of things you buy and your attitude. As long as you think you’re
regular folks, you’re not elite or an elite, as they say now.

Elites, as they say it, are people who look down on the regular people, so that
you can get – you have the spectacle of people who would, by any traditional
definition, qualify as more than elite, throwing the word around in a
dismissive way.

The height of this was during the campaign, when Lady Lynn Forester de
Rothschild, the American millionairess who married a titled Englishman, went on
Wolf Blitzer and said that she wasn’t going to vote for the Democrats because
Barack Obama was an elitist who looked down on the common people.

Now, this was a spectacle so remarkable that even people on the right felt a
certain distance from it, but at the same time the way the word is used by
people like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, Ivy-educated lawyers from
privileged backgrounds, gives a sense that it simply has nothing to with money
and power anymore but merely a question of attitude.

GROSS: Geoff, your previous book was called “Talking Right: How Conservatives
Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-
Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing
Freak Show.” And the premise of that book, the previous book, was that the
Republicans had succeeded in packaging their message in catchy slogans and that
the Democrats should learn from that.

Now that you see a lot of those catchy slogans as having kind of petered out
and that they’re not going to be effective anymore, what do you think of the
thesis of the previous book? Have you changed your mind about that? Do you
think that the Republicans no longer have the monopoly on the catchy phrases?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I do think certainly the Republicans no longer have a
monopoly. I think it began to unravel just after the 2004 elections. You could
put the moment just before the 2006 election when Bush said to George
Stephanopoulos we’ve never been stay the course. Even Fox News couldn’t resist
showing all the footage of Bush saying stay the course, but that begin a series
of slogan recalls…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NUNBERG: So that wanted dead or alive morphed into I don’t know where he is
and I frankly am not that concerned, and just before the 2008 election Bush was
asked if he had any regrets, and he mentioned the mission-accomplished banner
aboard the USS Lincoln in 2003 and said, well, I was trying to express myself,
I could have expressed myself more artfully.

Now, in retrospect, that’s certainly true. I’m sure the advance people for that
particular speech wish in retrospect that they’d gone with something a little
more non-committal like way to go, guys, or something like that. But what you
saw was in that period, the language of the Bush administration, with which
they had so skillfully dominated the political discourse over the first four or
five years, just crumbled, and it crumbled not because it wasn’t sufficiently
artful and certainly not because the Democrats made any inroads or were
particularly skillful in using language themselves, but just because of the
structure fatigue, if you want to call it that, based on trying to span this
increasing gap between words and reality.

GROSS: Do you feel like you’re listening to both Democrats and Republicans now
trying to come up with new phrases, with a new language, to describe their
positions in ways that they hope will catch on?

Mr. NUNBERG: Yeah, the Republicans certainly are trying to find new ways of
turning their populism from cultural to economic issues, and I think these
cries of socialist and socialistic have a lot to do with that. The Democrats,
on the other hand, have the same problem.

What’s extraordinary about the Obama election was he did it really without
language. He was so skillful at speaking and conveying his message without
using buzzwords and the like that he could get enormous mileage out of these
essentially empty words like hope and change that nobody else – everybody else
tried it, and nobody else could use those words the way he could, but they have
no content.

They’re not the kind of words you can hand over to somebody else in the hope
that they’ll be able to use them, unlike the Republicans’ language. The
extraordinary thing about the values talk was that it could be used effectively
not just by an effective, charismatic speaker like Ronald Reagan or George W.
Bush, but by characters like Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell, who whatever their
considerable political gifts, are not what you’d think of as charismatic, but
they can use this language and get mileage out of it too. The Democrats don’t
have language like that right now.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Geoff Nunberg, who often comments
about language on FRESH AIR, and he has a new book called “The Years of Talking
Dangerously.” That’s a collection of his FRESH AIR pieces, as well as pieces
from the New York Times and other publications.

GROSS: I’m sure you’ve been keeping up with not only the debate about torture
but the debate over what word to use to describe the interrogation techniques
that were used, and some people have been using torture for a long time.

Some publications say you can’t use the word torture because that’s a legal –
there’s like a legal definition of torture, and when they were doing it they
had a legal definition that was different, courtesy of John Yoo and others in

the Office of Legal Counsel. So what are you hearing when you hear the debate
about whether – like when it’s appropriate to use the word torture, and if not
that word, what word should be used?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, you know, what’s interesting is that right after the Abu
Ghraib story broke five years ago, all the European papers right away were
using torture. The British, German, French press, left and right, not just the
Guardian but Rupert Murdoch’s Times, were calling it torture, and the American
press then and now have been very reluctant to use that word, and they have
this idea, well, it’s a legal category. That’s because the administration
insists it’s a legal category and have defined it in a way such that these
things won’t count as torture in the legal sense.

The administration’s definition obviously doesn’t have any broader legal
significance even beyond the administration, much less on a world scale. And
more to the point, it’s an English word, and the moral judgment that attaches
to torture doesn’t have to do with its legal status, it has to do with looking
at these acts and describing them as torture. So that somehow to – if the
administration was talking as if, if we can keep that word at bay, we can keep
at bay the moral disapproval that comes with it. So you’ve got all these terms
like alternative sets of procedures and vigorous questioning and of course
enhanced interrogation techniques, which people are still trying to use.

And with that came this word professionals that Bush kept using. He said these
are our professionals. We want our professionals to know that they can do this
in a professional – which suggests not simply that they know what they’re doing
but that they’re not taking any pleasure in it.

So I think this is a perfect example of the way in which the words you choose
determines whether you think something’s alright or not, not the thing itself
but the way you choose to name it. It’s something you see not just with torture
- with suicide, for example.

If you ask people in a poll is it okay for doctors to help terminally ill
patients end their lives, you get a lot more people saying yes than if you ask
them if it’s okay for doctors to help terminally ill patients commit suicide.
And again, this is a semantic debate. The important thing to realize is there’s
nothing merely semantic about it.

GROSS: For the past couple of years, we’ve all had to – if we want to know
what’s happening in the economic world, we’ve had to learn words like credit-
default swaps and derivatives and all of this, like, financially technical
language that those of us who aren’t intimately involved with Wall Street are
having to learn to make sense of what’s going on. And I guess I’m interested in
your observations on all of us struggling to learn that language.

Mr. NUNBERG: There’s a sense, certainly, in which we feel if we can learn the
language and learn to use the words, we’ll somehow be able to understand what’s
going on, and if we understand it, it won’t be quite as frightening. And
journalists have done, in recent times, a pretty good job on helping people to
understand, at least the people who want to understand these things.

But the facts, as Walter Lippmann said, exceed our curiosity. I don’t think
people are ever really going to be able to understand the ins and outs of this
crisis just because obviously so many regulators and people in Congress were
unable to, and in a funny way the effort to master the language of economics
and finance takes away from the immediate experience.

I was thinking of this because there’s a line in a Bruce Springsteen song, when
one of the characters says, lately times ain’t been too good on account of the
economy, and it occurred to me that 40 or 50 years ago, if Woody Guthrie had
written that song, 60, 70 years ago, that’s for Guthrie, he wouldn’t have said
on account of the economy. He would’ve said on account of times are hard.

And it strikes me that that’s exactly what’s going on now. We don’t know if
it’s a pullback or a depression or a bad recession or what. What we do know is
that times are hard, and in a funny way, maybe that’s the language we should be
using because it’s the language that grows out of our immediate experience of
what’s going on.

GROSS: I think part of the urge to understand credit-default swaps and
derivatives and all that stuff is to know, like, who got us into this mess and
who should we be holding accountable, and what should we change for the future
in terms of regulation, and that’s where times are hard doesn’t get you very
far.

Mr. NUNBERG: I think that’s right, and there’s a difference between knowing the
technical mechanics, so to speak, of what’s been going on and trying to get a
grip on it, and that’s something that a lot of people, myself included, are
trying to do, and trying to understand what’s actually going on in the world,
and we don’t want to lose sight, when people use these words like recession and
downturn and whatever, not that the words are inaccurate, but they don’t grow
right out of the experience that people are having, and in that sense something
like hard times, I’d like to see that phrase resuscitated and brought back just
to describe what’s actually going on in America.

I don’t think the two are at odds with one another. You can on the one hand try
as best you can to develop an understanding of what’s going on and who’s to
blame. At the same time, look at what’s going on in the country and describe it
in words that grow out of the situation itself, the words that ordinary people
use that they understand what going on, in terms of what’s going on in their
lives.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR’s linguist, Geoff Nunberg. His new book, “The
Years of Talking Dangerously,” is a collection of his FRESH AIR commentaries,
as well as his pieces for the New York Times and other publications. We’ll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Geoff Nunberg, and he often
comments about how our language is changing on FRESH AIR, and he has a new book
called “The Years of Talking Dangerously.” That’s a collection of his FRESH AIR
commentaries, along with articles he wrote for the New York Times and other
publications.

One of the things I learned from your book is that you sometimes edit Wikipedia
entries. You know, I always wonder who were the people who were actually
editing, you know, revising Wikipedia entries when they spot an error, and you
don’t do it often, but you’re apparently one of those people. So what are your
criteria for saying, okay, I’m actually going to go ahead and make the change
because, I mean, I’ve seen errors. I haven’t tried to correct them.

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I think there are two reasons why – there are people who
just spend all their time doing this, and more power to them. There are two
reasons I find for going to edit an entry. One is when I come up with some cool
observation and go to see if Wikipedia has it and they don’t.

So for example, Colin Farrell, in the opening sequence of a movie, the name of
which I forget, sings “I Fought the Law” in the persona of the character he
plays in the movie. And I went to Wikipedia, it wasn’t there, but there is an
entry for “I Fought the Law.” So I added that fact about - Brian Horwitz, San
Francisco Giant outfielder, briefly a San Francisco Giant outfielder, and so
forth.

On the other hand, sometimes you’ll see something really stupid in a Wikipedia
article or just wildly incorrect, and then you also feel an obligation to go in
and try to correct it, though there what often happens is you try to make the
correction and other people come back and correct your correction, and you wind
up going back and forth. It’s a frustrating process and sometimes you just
throw your hands up.

A friend of mine, a colleague, Paul Duguid at the School of Information, went
in to try to fix the article on Daniel Defoe, which he noted had five factual
errors in its first two sentences, and he went through a long, months-long
battle, struggle, to get these right, and at the end of three months, those two
sentences had nine factual errors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NUNBERG: So reader beware.

GROSS: What has this done to your sense of how to use Wikipedia and when to
rely on it and when not to?

Mr. NUNBERG: You know, I think the interesting thing is people are getting very
– it’s invaluable, and it’s also a menace, and everybody knows that, and I
think the trick is to know when you can rely on Wikipedia.

I mean, if you want to know who were all the guys in Humble Pie who weren’t
Peter Frampton, who but Wikipedia is going to know that? When did Barry Bonds
win the MVP, the National League MVP Award for the first time? There’s 7,000
people contributing to the Barry Bonds article, and it’s not conceivable that
they could collectively get that wrong.

Anything about Harry Potter or Star Trek, you can be dead sure that the
Wikipedia article is right. When it comes to other topics, the English
language, Daniel Defoe, Max Beerbohm(ph), or as you know, FRESH AIR, you have
to be a little more careful about interpreting what the collective wisdom is.

GROSS: Geoff, if you had to choose like one source to eavesdrop on or to read
to see how language is changing, what would it be? Taking Google out of the
picture. I guess that would be cheating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NUNBERG: Wow. I might want to read my daughter’s Facebook page, but though
I have access, it’s only through a thin window and she’s got the settings fixed
so I don’t get to see any of that stuff, and probably I wouldn’t want to see it
for other reasons. But I think that one of the interesting things is that with
Facebook and email and the Google groups and blog comments and so on, you can
get a look at the language of groups like young people or social groups that
haven’t been participating in written discourse whose writing and whose
language was never publicly visible before.

So you don’t have to go around with a tape recorder the way people have done,
although that still helps, but you can actually can go on, say, Google groups
and see how people are talking, actual people are talking.

GROSS: In your new book, Geoff, you mention one of your English teachers, and I
guess this was in high school, Mrs. Bosch(ph), who was, like, really a stickler
for correcting grammatical errors and things like that. Was that helpful or
just irritating?

Mr. NUNBERG: I think everybody has to have an English teacher like Mrs. Bosch
if you want to learn to write well. Mrs. Bosch is the English teacher who, with
withering sarcasm, dismisses all the errors and grammatical solecisms in her
students’ papers. So somebody has the misfortune to write, Having been thrown
in the air, the dog caught the stick, or something like that. And Mrs. Bosch is
the one who says, The poor dog being thrown in the air like that, and you’re in
seventh grade or eighth grade and you laugh. You’re being let in on this
secret.

So you have to have a teacher like that, and then at some point later in life
you have to renounce her and then finally forgive her, and that’s the point at
which you become, let me say, a mature speaker of English, and the trouble is
that a lot of people kind of never get over that moment.

They’re the people who write comments on any blog entry or newspaper article
that involves grammar, going on sarcastically about someone else’s use of
language. And the sarcasm that people apply to language is really something
that they learn in seventh grade and kind of never overcome, and it’s what’s
wrong with the way people think about language nowadays.

GROSS: Why is it wrong? Because the people who do that - and you know, I’ve
been target of many corrections over the years - do people who do that think A)
they’re doing you a favor; and B) they’re right and therefore they almost have
an obligation to let you know that you’ve made a mistake? So what do you think
is the problem and the motivation?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I don’t think the motivation is merely to inform someone
else. That can be done when it’s appropriate, and it usually isn’t. But when
it’s appropriate, it can be done graciously, without sarcasm.

The sarcasm comes when, oh, I don’t know, somebody writes in broad daylight and
somebody says, well, could there have been narrow daylight? And it’s this
adolescent way of congratulating yourself on having mastered the elements of
English grammar when you were 13. And it’s kind of stupid because the things
you learn at 13, while they’re the basics, are hardly the source of – should
hardly be the source of enormous self-esteem.

I mean, if it’s really a source of self-esteem for you that you know the
correct rules for using apostrophe, maybe you should get out more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is coming from a linguist. Well Geoff, great to talk with you.
Thank you so much.

Mr. NUNBERG: It’s great to talk with you. Thank you.

GROSS: Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book is called “The Years of Talking
Dangerously.” Geoff is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information of
the University of California at Berkeley, and he’s chairman emeritus of the
Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. I’m Terry Gross and this is
FRESH AIR.
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Cloris Leachman, from Actress to Autobiographer

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of film, “Young Frankenstein”)

Ms. CLORIS LEACHMAN (Actress): (as Frau Blucher) I am Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

(Soundbite of horse hoofs)

Mr. WILDER (Actor): (as Dr. Frankenstein) Steady. How do you do? I am Dr.
Frankenstein. This is my assistant. Inga, may I present Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) I wonder what’s got into them?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Your rooms have been prepared Heir doctor, if
you will follow me.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Igor, would you bring the bags as soon as
you're finished, please?

Mr. MARTY FELDMAN: (as Igor) Yes master. After you, Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

GROSS: That was my guest, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher with Gene Wilder as
Dr. Frankenstein in the scene from the Mel Brooks movie, "Young Frankenstein."
Leachman also co-starred in the Mel Brooks movie, "High Anxiety." She won an
Oscar for her performance in the 1971 film, "The Last Picture Show." On "The
Mary Tyler Moore Show," Cloris Leachman played Mary's neighbor and landlady,
Phyllis, which led to her own spinoff series, "Phyllis," in 1975.

More recently, she co-starred in the 2004 film. "Spanglish." And last year, she
became something of a phenomenon when at the age of 82 she became the oldest
contestant ever on "Dancing with the Stars." Cloris Leachman has written a new
autobiography, which includes a section on "Dancing with the Stars."

GROSS: You write that you had to pass a three-hour rehearsal, and to list
physical problems which for you included osteoporosis, asthma, 28 percent lung
capacity, a bad knee, and high blood pressure. Your doctor didn't think your
knee was strong enough to do "Dancing with the Stars" and he wouldn't sign off
on you doing it, so you just found another doctor. So what was it like when
your partner did that lift and spin thing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: It was - I wouldn't do it. It was too scary. It was so scary...

GROSS: Describe the move?

Ms. LEACHMAN: He grabs my right hand and my right foot, and then you let go of
your life, and oh, it's all right when you’re a child. You don't have the kind
of weight you do as an adult. To give that up is just you know you’re going to
die, there's no doubt about it.

GROSS: And you did it? I mean you went through with the move.

Ms. LEACHMAN: And I died. And it felt like I was dying. I, I had to do it on
"The View" after I was voted off in the seventh week, and he did it twice on
the show because we didn't do it correctly. I don't know we lost about six
measures the night of "Dancing with the Stars." And he said, do it. Do it. Do
it. Do it. So I said okay. And I put my arm and my leg out and we did it. But
we had already lost six measures so he was only able to throw me around twice.
But on "The View" we did it the proper amount of time, which was eight
measures. So I went around eight times and I, when I go up I knew, I knew that
I was dead. There wasn't any doubt about it. And they saw how I was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...and they brought me a chair. And it took me about you know
five or 10 minutes to recover.

GROSS: I want to talk about some of your movies. You've made what, two or three
movies with Mel Brookes. The first was "Young Frankenstein," in which you
played Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Blucher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And just, I want to play a scene from this. So just to set it up, Gene
Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who is the...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

GROSS: Franken, Frankenstein.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

GROSS: Frank...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And he...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Igor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And he's the grandson of the famous mad scientist who created the
monster. And then he...

Ms. LEACHMAN: He vas my boyfriend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... then he learns he's inherited the Frankenstein estate so he goes to
the mansion in Transylvania. And your character, Frau Blucher, is one of the
servants there and she was in-love with the mad scientist.

Ms. LEACHMAN: I...

GROSS: And in this scene Gene Wilder, the young Dr. Frankenstein, goes to the
lab...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... with his two assistants, where he finds you releasing the monster
from his restraints. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film, “Young Frankenstein”)

Mr. GENE WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

(Soundbite of running)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Stop. Don't come closer.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) What are you doing?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) I'm going to set him free. No. No you mustn't.
Here.

(Soundbite of feet running)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Are you insane? He'll kill you.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) No he won’t. Not this one. He is as gentle as
a lamb.

(Soundbite of screams)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Stand back. Stand back. For the love of god,
he has a rotten brain.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) It's not rotten. It's a good brain.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) It's rotten I tell you. Rotten.

(Soundbite of screams)

Mr. MARTY FELDMAN (Actor): (as Igor) X-nay on the ooten-ray(ph).

(Soundbite of heavy sigh)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) I'm not afraid. I know what he likes.

(Soundbite of growl)

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of growl)

(Soundbite of whimpering)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) That music.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes. It's in your blood. It's in the blood of
all Frankenstein's. It raises the soul when words are useless. Your grandfather
used to play it to the creature he vas making.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Then it was you all the time.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: as Dr. Frankenstein) You played that music in the middle of the
night...

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) ... to get us in to the laboratory.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) That was your cigar smoldering in the
ashtray.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) And it was you, who left my grandfather's
book out for me to find.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) So that I would...

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Then you and Victor were...

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes. Yes. Say it. He vas my boyfriend.

(Soundbite of growl)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest, Cloris Leachman with Gene Wilder...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Oh god, can you believe it's the same one who played on Raymond,
"I Love Raymond?"

GROSS: Oh, Peter Boyle who plays the monster, yes.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Isn't it remarkable to be the same person who was doing those
very divergent roles?

GROSS: Yes. Oh yes. He was a great actor. He was a great actor. Well how did
you...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Mm. He was.

GROSS: ... figure out how to play Frau Blucher, Blucher?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Blucher. I didn't know. I had a wonderful hairdo by Mary, the
head of the hair department and at 20th, and a wonderful costume they made it
fit me perfecting and wonderfully designed. And that's all I knew. And I was
made up. Now I go on the set and I don't have any idea how to be Frau Blucher
or have any German accent. I’d never done one before. So all the time when
they're, they were shooting, I kept saying...

(Soundbite of whispering)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...do you know how, do you know a German accent?

(Soundbite of whispering) Ms. LEACHMAN: Hello? Excuse me? Do you know a German
accent, to everybody and about three people there thought they may be they,
they didn't know for sure. They try, and I think one of them was Mel Brooke's
mother. I think she helped me the most. And...

GROSS: Was she from Germany?

Ms. LEACHMAN: I don't know anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: When I first came out the door and say I am Frau Blucher. And I
think it's said with such measurement. I was so careful to try to do it right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: That's why it’s so slow. Otherwise, I’d say, I am Frau Blucher.
But I said I am Frau Blucher.

GROSS: The running gag in "Young Frankenstein" is whenever anybody say Frau
Blucher the horses whinny.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Mel told me a few years ago that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ... Blucher meant glue. I'm not sure that's true, but it sure is
funny. So...

GROSS: So it was like they’re threatening the horses with the glue factory.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what do you learn about comedy working with Mel Brookes?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Hmm. I'll tell you one thing, I was going up the steps with Gene
and the other two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Remember in the castle I'm going to show them around? And I had a
Candelabra with the candles not lit. And I turn, I say, stay close to the
candles. The staircase can be treacherous. And then Mel came up to me, climbed
up the steps and whispered in my ear, and it was a line reading, and here it
is, stay close to the candle. The staircase can be treacherous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Which means we've already lost a couple of people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Cloris Leachman. She's written her autobiography. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Cloris Leachman. She writes about her stage and screen
career in her new autobiography. When we left off, we were talking about her
role in the Mel Brookes film, "Young Frankenstein."

I want to play a scene from another Mel Brookes movie that you were in, "High
Anxiety." I love this film. This is a parody of a lot of different Alfred
Hitchcock films. And Mel Brooks plays a psychiatrist who's become the new
director of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. And...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Dr. Ashley felt that color...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...has a great deal to do with the well-being of the emotionally
disturbed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you're the very severe Nurse Diesel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And in this scene Mel Brookes, the new head of the institute is in his
room at the institute and he hears screams coming from your room. And he's very
concerned so he knocks on your door. And you come out in a hooded terrycloth
robe. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film “High Anxiety”)

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. MEL BROOKES (Writer, Actor, Director): (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) Is
everything alright in there? Nurse Diesel.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) Are you all right?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Yes.

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) We heard some weird noises emanating

from your room. We were worried.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Weird noises. It was the TV. Sorry it disturbed
you. Turned it down. Is there anything else? It is rather late.

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) No. We were concerned. Good night.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Good night. Good night.

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) Good night.

GROSS: And as the scene continues, Nurse Diesel, played by my guest Cloris
Leachman, goes back to her room, takes off her bathrobe, and underneath the
robe she's in full dominatrix regalia. She's wearing a policeman's hat and
shirt, leather shorts, high leather boots. She opens her closet and inside is
Dr. Montague, played by Harvey Korman, hanging from chains in full bondage.

(Soundbite of film “High Anxiety”)

Mr. HARVEY KORMAN (Actor): (as Dr. Montague) Who was it?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) It was Thorndyke. You're making too much noise.

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) I can’t help it. You're hurting me. You're going
too hard tonight.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Oh get off it. I know you better than you know
yourself. You live for bondage.

(Soundbite of groaning)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) ... and discipline.

(Soundbite of groaning)

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) Too much bondage. Too much bondage. Not enough
discipline.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) You want discipline?

(Soundbite of groaning)

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) Yes.

(Soundbite of slapping)

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) Yes. I'm sorry. Yes. The sound of it so good.

(Soundbite of groaning)

GROSS: That's such a funny scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest, Cloris Leachman with Harvey Korman and Mel Brookes as "High
Anxiety." It must've been so much fun to shoot that scene. Was it hard to go
through it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean to like open the door and see Harvey Korman hanging there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Oh no, we were all serious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Just playing our parts. There's another scene that is so
hilarious to me. I'm just sick that they had to cut it out. But, Princess of
Monaco, Princess Grace...

GROSS: Grace Kelly?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes. She was going to see that movie that night at 20th and he
was worried about including this scene, so he cut it out, and forgot to put it
back in or they didn’t have time. But to me, it's hysterical. I again take off
my hood and I'm in snakes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ... and they're wrapped around my big, huge breasts, then right
between my legs is a long panel, and I have very high heels on, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: I go to my closet, open the door, hang up my hooded, you know,
robe, and make my way to my bed in these high heels. I throw myself in the bed
on my back with my arms and legs out, and you hear...

(Soundbite of creaking)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...and you see, you’re the camera now, and the camera starts from
the floor up to the bed, and I'm lying there, it keeps going higher, higher,
higher, higher, higher, higher, finally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...you stop on the ceiling and there's Harvey Korman hanging from
chains over me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...exactly my shape, arms and legs out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: And he says something funny. But he thought it was a little racy
to show. I'm sorry. I hope he puts it back in sometime or includes in a, you
know, with a DVD.

GROSS: So he really took it out so as not to offend Grace Kelly?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes. I mean she was a little rabbit. I don’t know why he thought
she was a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You mention your big breast in the movie. You have these big fake like
conical breasts underneath your clothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you have these big pointy protrusions...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...sticking out of your clothing. Describe the look that you came up
with for Nurse Diesel.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Well when I walked into their wardrobe department, they put this
dress on me and zipped it up and it for perfectly with these big conical
breasts, and but I looked like an unborn gosling. My, I looked...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...it didn't fit me, my, whoever the personality was. So I said
let's put a little something on my back, a little, fatten that up, gave me a
little, you know hump on my back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: And that balanced the breasts better, if you want to call them
breasts. And then I said I’d like to have a shortened neck you know they, so
they put some, they put some padding in my shoulders. But it was on the sides
and it didn’t work so we took that out. And then I had them put it right on top
of my shoulders and that raised these breasts up under my chin, and so we, it
was wonderful.

GROSS: We’ve been focusing on your comedic roles but you won an Oscar for Best
Supporting Actress for a dramatic role in the movie “The Last Picture Show,”
which is from 1971 - is that 1971?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And in this you play a kind of depressed middle aged housewife who is
neglected by her husband, who is the high school basketball coach and may be
gay. She wants to experience love and have an affair. She has an affair with a
teenager played by Timothy Bottoms, but he has been getting involved with a
girl his age and neglecting you. And in this scene he comes to your door and
asks for a cup of coffee. You’re in your bathrobe, you pour the coffee with
very shaky hands and then throw the cup against the wall.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Last Picture Show”)

(Soundbite of coffee brewing)

(Soundbite of cup shattering)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) What am I doing apologizing to you? Why am I
always apologizing to you, you little bastard? Three months I've been
apologizing to you without you even being here! I haven't done anything wrong.
Why can't I quit apologizing? You’re the one that ought to be sorry! I wouldn't
still be in my bathrobe if it hadn’t have been for you. I'd have my clothes on
hours ago. You're the one made me quit caring if I got dressed or not! Just
because your friend got killed. You want me to forget what you did and make it
all right? I'm not sorry for you. You'd have left Billy too, just like you left
me. I bet you left him plenty of nights, whenever Jacy whistled. I wouldn't
treat a dog that way. I guess you thought I was so old and ugly you didn't owe
me any explanation. You didn't need to be careful of me. There wasn’t anything
I could do about you and her, so why be careful of me? You didn't love me. Look
at me. Can't you even look at me?

GROSS: And that’s Cloris Leachman in a scene from “The Last Picture Show.” Was
it at all awkward to be starring in a film opposite a teenager?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Strangely no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: But I think he was very embarrassed. He didn’t say anything at
the time but later he said, I was in bed with a middle aged woman, you know. I
was 45 years old.

GROSS: Did you talk about this kind of stuff before?

Ms. LEACHMAN: No, no, no not a word. But we went into the bedroom, the little
room in the house to do that scene and he said, I ain’t taking my clothes off
for this scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Peter and I looked at each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Okay, well so we started to design the scene without taking our
clothes off. So there were two closets one on either side of this dresser. And
so I went in to the first one and he went in to the other one. We took off our
outside clothes, I left on my bra and panty and he had shorts on and we made
our way to the bed and each got in his own side. Then they planted some
underwear in there for us to throw out. So it looks as if we took it off under
the covers. And now with action - and all the lighting was done, we did – I
just described you and we got into bed. And I took my underwear off and threw
it out, I forgot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: I forgot to keep it on and throw out what was planted there. I
mean I was playing my part. So we had to do as we can.

GROSS: That’s from the scene that won you the Oscar.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Oh, no doubt. And the producer called him, before it came out.
They had to cut it – it was too long. And they’d cut it as much as humanly
possible. And finally the producer calls in, Peter I have the perfect answer,
because they had to cut some more. He said when Timmy drives away in his
pickup, that’s when we should end the picture. And all the credits can come
under his driving away, it will be really good. Peter said no, no. And he
insisted, and fought for, and kept my scene in and that’s of course why I won
the Oscar.

GROSS: My guest is Cloris Leachman and she’s written her autobiography. You
know, I went through a list of all of your movie and TV credits. And I realize
looking at that list that you guest starred on just about every TV show I grow
up with. I’ll - I will now read an abridged copy of that list. “Lassie,” “Perry
Mason,” “Dr. Kildare,” “Mr. Novak,” “The Defenders,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Alfred
Hitchcock Presents,” “Wagon Train,” “Laramie,” “Route 66,” “The Untouchables,”
“Twilight Zone,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Gunsmoke,” “Hawaiian Eye,”
“Checkmate,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and “Rawhide.” Wow, how did you manage to
guest star on so many TV shows.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Well, I was always building my house and improving it and fixing
it up…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: …making it more beautiful. So I always needed money to do that
and that helped me. I don’t know I think I tried not to do the same kind of
role every single time. One time I was doing “Suspense,” he would hire me every
week to do something. So this one time I got a part, I said oh this is just
like I did, you know, four weeks ago to myself and I thought no I don’t want to
do the same thing. And I had to find other aspects of the same kind of
character which was tricky, you know, it’s difficult. But I did it and I was
very happy about it and I think that was a basic decision for the rest of my
life. I would never be the same way twice.

GROSS: Well, thank you. Thanks for talking with us and…

Ms. LEACHMAN: You are very welcome. It was very good, thank you.

GROSS: Okay. Cloris Leachman has written her autobiography. Coming up some
newly released rare recordings by the late saxophonist Lucky Thompson reviewed
by our Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. This is FRESH AIR.
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Sax In The City: A Rare Recording Of Lucky Thompson

TERRY GROSS, host:

Saxophonist Lucky Thompson was in the thick of jazz for 30 years, playing with
Armstrong and Basie and Monk and Stan Kenton and making records of his own in
the U.S. and all over Europe. He dropped off the scene in the 1970s and never
returned, passing away in 2005. Some rare, live Lucky Thompson is now out. Jazz
critic Kevin Whitehead says that’s good luck for us.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Lucky Thompson’s Octet, with Richard Davis on bass, at New
York’s Little Theater in 1964. Thompson was real saxophonist’s saxophonist. Not
a household name in jazz maybe, but I know some tenor players who scarf up
every note they can find. I expect they’ll be elated by the new set: “Lucky
Thompson: New York City, 1964-65,” on two CDs from the indie label Uptown.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Thompson loved midsized ensembles that maneuver like a small group
and hint at the hurly-burly of a big band. His octet sounds a little like Sun
Ra in the 1950s.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Widely as the writing is, the real attraction on these rediscovered
live dates is Lucky Thompson’s saxophone. Like his early idol Don Byas he could
play in and with different dialects, modulating his voice like a stage actor.
You can spot some swing era swagger, Stan Getz’s pleading tone and a little
restless Coltrane. But Thompson used all that inspiration to sound more like
himself to expand the expressive qualities he had already. I think that’s why
saxophonists love him. He shows how to fold influences into a well-rounded
style of your own. This is “’Twas Yesterday.”

(Soundbite of song, “’Twas Yesterday”)

WHITEHEAD: The other half of the new Lucky Thompson set is a 1965 nightclub
broadcast with a quartet giving him even more room to run. He was one of the
first modernists to pickup the unfashionable soprano sax in the late 1950s -
after Steve Lacy, but before John Coltrane. Lucky’s liquid tone falls between
Lacy’s watery purity and Coltrane’s vinegar bites.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Lucky Thompson hated the music business, hated how promoters and
critics and publicists tried to categorize musicians as hot or cool, swing or
bebop. He was above all that. I fought all my life and said you’ll never

stereotype me, he told an interviewer after he gave up performing. His cool
charts and hot playing, his hard or soft tone on two saxophones all made Lucky
Thompson too slippery to pin down. That was a good artistic choice and maybe a
bad career move.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of
Kansas. And he’s a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed “Lucky Thompson:
New York City, 1964-65,” on the Uptown label. You can download podcasts of our
show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I’m Terry Gross.
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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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