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Listening to Susan Sontag, One More Time

Writer Susan Sontag died Wednesday at age 71 of leukemia. We listen back to two interviews with her: a 1989 conversation about her book AIDS and Its Metaphors; and 1993 interview conducted shortly after Sontag returned from Sarajevo, where she directed a performance of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Serbo-Croatian.

19:36

Other segments from the episode on December 29, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 29, 2004: Interview with Matt Groening; Obituary for Susan Sontag; Obituary for Jerry Orbach.

Transcript

DATE December 29, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Matt Groening discusses "The Simpsons"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This week we're ending the year with some of our most entertaining interviews
of the recent past.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Marge, what's my blood type?

Ms. JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) A positive.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh, nuts, extremely rare blood and I
don't have it.

Ms. YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) You know his blood type? How
romantic.

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) A mother knows everything about her family.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Oh, yeah. What's my shoe size?

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Four B.

Ms. NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) How many teeth do I have?

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Sixteen permanent, eight baby.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) How many hairs on my head without
looking?

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Oh, Homie, you have lots of hair. Why did you
want to know your blood type?

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh, old man Burns is going to kick off
if he doesn't get some OO negative blood, but nobody at the plant has it.

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Bart does.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh! Yes! All right! Whoo!
Congratulations, boy. You've got a date with a needle.

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Hey, wait a minute.

GROSS: "The Simpsons" is one of the funniest shows on TV. As Jordan Raphael
wrote in the LA Times, "The Simpsons" not only paved the way for a rich
collection of prime-time animation shows, it raised the bar for all TV
sitcoms. We're going to hear from the creator of "The Simpsons," Matt
Groening. Groening also created the animated series "Futurama" and draws the
syndicated comic strip Life in Hell. Before he started cartooning, Groening
was a music critic. When I spoke with him a year ago, I asked how his vision
of the characters had changed since he created the series.

Mr. MATT GROENING (Creator, "The Simpsons"): Here's the problem with doing a
sitcom which has lasted more than 300 episodes, is you're trying not to repeat
yourself, you're trying to surprise the audience and you're trying to keep
everybody who works on the show surprised. As a result, the show has gone off
in some very peculiar directions. Sometimes I was alarmed. I was thinking,
`Oh, my God, we can't do this. We can't do this,' and then it turned out to
be OK. It's funny, it's crazy, and the show is so fast-paced. We learned as
we went along that we can cram a lot of jokes in there. So if there's a joke
you don't like, just wait a fraction of a second and there'll be another one
to come along to replace it.

GROSS: Well, you know, you said that there things to which you said, `We
can't do this.' What's an example of that? Because, let's face it, "The
Simpsons" does a lot of satire about homosexuality, the church, you know,
violence on television.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. You know, at the beginning, virtually anything we did
would get somebody upset. And now it seems like the people who are eager to
be offended--and this country is full of people who are eager to be
offended--they've given up on our show. So if you're bothered by "The
Simpsons," by now you know to tune out. And so we don't get that much problem
anymore. We do sometimes with advertisers. We'd gotten in trouble a few
years ago for--Homer's watching an anti-drinking commercial and it said,
`Warning, beer causes rectal cancer.' And Homer responds by saying, `Mm,
beer.' Fox didn't want us to do that because beer advertisers are part of the
Fox empire, and it turns out that the writer was able to track down the actual
fact, where some study showed that indeed it does, or did, or has a tendency
to, so we were able to keep that in. But that's the kind of thing we put up
with.

GROSS: One of my favorite episodes is where Homer goes to Rock 'n' Roll
Fantasy Camp. It's kind of like Baseball Fantasy Camp but instead of being on
a baseball fantasy team, you're in a rock 'n' roll band. And you know, he's
taught, you know, how to be a guitar hero. And like Keith Richards and--Oh,
who else was in the...

Mr. GROENING: Mick Jagger.

GROSS: Mick Jagger, yeah. Elvis Costello, their voices.

Mr. GROENING: Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROENING: That was a lot of fun. You know what's great on this show is
because we basically can get pretty much whoever we want to. And for a while
we weren't able to get older Hollywood stars but then their grandchildren
started telling them to do the show, so we've gotten some of them, too. And
that's how we got Ernest Borgnine and Sting. No, no. Kidding about Sting.
But Sting said his kids liked it. That's why he did the show.

GROSS: Were you in on the writing of the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp episode?

Mr. GROENING: You know, I think I stuck my nose in the door, but the writers
definitely deserve credit for the show. The show has so many things that need
to be taken care of, the writing is the least of our problems, and so I run
around. I work on the editing for a little bit and sometimes the writing and
designs and--but not on that particular episode. I don't think I had anything
in there.

GROSS: Tell me more about what your job is now.

Mr. GROENING: I'm the spokesmodel for the show. I do FRESH AIR interviews
and, you know. No, you know what? What I do is, like I said, I stick my nose
in where I think it's needed. I'm there at the beginning of the process and
I'm there at the end of the process and it's most fun on Thursday mornings
when the actors all got together around a big table on the Fox lot and read
and perform the script for the first time while the writers furiously scribble
notes and mark little checkmarks on what gets laughs and what doesn't. And
then we rewrite the script and then six months goes by with story boards and
animatics and character designs and re-records and rewrites and all this
stuff. And then at the very end of the process there's a final edit and a
final sound mix of the show and it's amazing how many times the show really
doesn't come together until that last part of the process, which is the final
sound mix, which is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing.

GROSS: Why do you love that part?

Mr. GROENING: Well, because you can take something that, if you watch
silently, would not get a laugh. And if you--with the right sound effects and
the right music and the right pauses, actually you can pull comedy out of
something that didn't seem to be there. We had once--a few years ago we had a
vicious fistfight between Homer and Smithers. I know it's hard to believe
that Homer and Smithers would fight, but they did. They got into a fistfight
and were hitting each other over the head with blunt instruments like
telephones and things. And in listening to it back and watching animation, it
wasn't funny. It just didn't get a laugh. It was horrifying. And what--we
tried all sorts of experiments to try and make it funny--you know, crazier
sound effects and this and that. And finally what we did is we pulled out all
the sounds of exertion, so when Homer clonks Smithers on the head with a
phone, he goes, `Uh,' and instead of--we took that out and we left in the
Smithers sound of pain. And for some reason, the sound of pain, the sound of
outrage, the sound of injury is funny and the sound of anger and aggression is
creepy and scary. And it's really funny.

GROSS: You said that, you know, you go over the script and make checkmarks
next to everything that gets a laugh. Who is it getting a laugh from? Is it
the other writers or do you do this in front of a test audience?

Mr. GROENING: Well, there are people who come to these table reads who are
not writers. The writers all sit around one end of the table and just, you
know, are listening, you know, have their heads tilted and, you know, see what
gets a laugh from the guests in the room. And there's a lot of people who
work on the Fox lot who sneak in and they generally sit along one wall and we
call it the sour wall because they're often sitting there with their arms
crossed, disapproving, and, you know, shaking their heads at certain jokes.
But if we can get the sour wall to laugh, then it's good, it's a good script.

GROSS: My guest is Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons." Let's hear a
scene from "The Simpsons." Krusty the Klown has been invited to the Simpsons'
house for dinner.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Krusty, would you do the honors?

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Klown) Well, all right. I'm a little rusty.
But I'll try. (Hebrew spoken)

(As Homer Simpson) (Laughing) Oh, he's talking funny talk.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) No, Dad, that's Hebrew. Krusty must be Jewish.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) A Jewish entertainer? Get out of here.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Dad, there are many prominent Jewish
entertainers, including Lauren Bacall, Dinah Shore, William Shatner and Mel
Brooks.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Mel Brooks is Jewish?

(As Krusty the Klown): (Sobbing)

GROSS: I want to ask you about some of the characters that didn't exist in
the very beginning stages of "The Simpsons," starting with Krusty the Klown,
who's this really funny character. I mean, he's basically like an old
vaudevillian type, and, you know, really bitter and, you know, Jewish, like a
lot of comics and, you know--but this is, like, an old-style Jewish
comic-clown. What did you think of Krusty when he was first created?

Mr. GROENING: Well, Krusty was based on a TV-show clown who I grew up with
in Portland, Oregon...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GROENING: ...named Rusty Nails. Rusty Nails was a Christian clown. He
had his own show and he showed old "Three Stooges" shorts. And he was great.
And he wasn't like Krusty at all. He was very nice, a very nice guy and a
very sweet clown. But he had that name, Rusty Nails, which I found incredibly
disturbing as a child because, you know, you're supposed to avoid rusty nails.
So the idea of a clown named Rusty Nails...

GROSS: You were a sensitive little kid.

Mr. GROENING: Well, you know, clowns are scary to begin with, and even though
this was a nice clown, I was slightly perturbed by him.

Anyway, so Krusty the Klown--Krusty rhymes with Rusty--and I actually created
him as a little on-screen character on "The Tracey Ullman Show" for those
little shorts there. And...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GROENING: ...the idea of the design of him is he actually is basically,
originally, Homer in clown garb. And the satirical conceit that I was going
for at the time was that "The Simpsons" was about a kid who had no respect for
his father but worshiped a clown who looked exactly like his father. But we
sort of lost that. And I didn't make Krusty Jewish. That was--Jay Kogen and
Wally Wolodarsky, I think, came up with that idea, two of the old "Simpsons"
writers. And then the rest is, you know--he's one of the richest characters
on the show. In fact, this year we have Krusty having his bar mitzvah
finally. Turns out he...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: And it's a pretty wild show.

GROSS: My guest is Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons."

OK. Let's talk about Itchy and Scratchy, and this is the recurring cartoon
that Bart and Lisa watch on TV. And it's the kind of like a super-violent
version of all the cat-and-mouse kind of cartoons. How'd you come up with
this?

Mr. GROENING: Well, it was from watching cat-and-mouse cartoons growing up,
Pixie & Dixie, the Hanna-Barbera mice, and Tom and Jerry in particular. Very,
very violent and very, very funny cartoons, MGM cartoons. And the fantasy was
seeing--you know, wanting these cartoons to extend their violence even more.
And so with Itchy and Scratchy it's probably as extreme as it can get for a
cat-and-mouse cartoon. And it's been really fun because it turns out the way
these shows come together that whatever the theme of that particular episode
is of "The Simpsons," there's some Itchy and Scratchy cartoon that obliquely
relates to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: They're very hard to write now. We've done so many of them
that they're harder and harder to write. And originally, of the actors, Harry
Shearer, a sophisticated guy, seemed to laugh the hardest at Itchy and
Scratchy during the table reads. I think he's--I don't know if he's the voice
of Itchy or Scratchy, (speaking in a very high voice) `but he's the voice of
one of them.' He talks like that, while Dan Castellaneta is the voice of the
other one, the cat or the mouse, I don't know. I sometimes have difficulty
remembering which is the cat, then I go, `Oh, it's Scratchy because he
scratches.' That's how I figure it out.

GROSS: So were you in on the writing of the Itchy and Scratchy theme song?

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. Well, yeah, that was obvious. By the way, it's
not--everybody thinks it's `They fight and fight and fight and fight and
fight.' It's not. It's `They fight and bite and fight and fight and bite.'
So...

GROSS: Do you remember the theme for "Ruff & Reddy"?

Mr. GROENING: No, I don't. I loved "Ruff & Reddy," another great
Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but I don't remember it.

GROSS: Oh. 'Cause the bridge was, `Sometimes they have their little spats.
They even fight like dogs and cats,' etc., etc. I was wondering if this was
an homage to that at all, but I guess not.

Mr. GROENING: I do have a lot of cartoon themes running through my head. In
fact, over the years, I wake up out of a deep sleep with a specific theme
running through my head. It's the end of, again, a local Portland, Oregon,
kids show, "Heck Harper." He was a cowboy and he used to sing, (Singing)
`Sadly now we bid adieu to all our barnyard friends. Rocky and Bullwinkle and
Mr. Magoo, Felix and Popeye all say toodle-loo,' or something like that.
That's as far as I remember, but I wake up to that lots and lots of times.
It's really, really...

GROSS: Sad?

Mr. GROENING: ...a cause for concern.

GROSS: Well, I think it's time to hear the Itchy and Scratchy theme song.
Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of Itchy and Scratchy theme song)

ITCHY and SCRATCHY: (Singing) We fight and bite and fight and fight and bite,
fight, fight, fight, bite, bite, bite, the Itchy and Scratchy show.

Mr. GROENING: The lyrics to that were written by Sam Simon, one of the
original producers who developed the show along with Jim Brooks and basically
set the tone of the show.

GROSS: OK, I have to ask you now about Troy McClure. I love the name. It's
just like Troy Donahue and Doug McClure, a kind of like washed-up former
handsome actor, who's never been in really important movies. Can you talk
about the creation of Troy McClure?

Mr. GROENING: Well, Troy McClure was--yeah, again, he's a stand-in for a lot
of--exactly what you said, washed-up phony baloney Hollywood actors. And Phil
Hartman--the late, great Phil Hartman--played Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz and
a few other characters on the show. And what's great about Phil Hartman was
that you could give him any line and he could figure out a way of pulling the
maximum amount of humor out of it. And not only that, he was just a great
person. It's easy to say that about people who have passed on, but I think
everybody on the show would agree that Phil Hartman was always a delight to
work with, and because he's gone, we have retired those characters. We don't
want to revoice them.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, sure.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. GROENING: So...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROENING: So--yeah.

GROSS: Well, can I share my favorite Troy McClure moment? And I think this
is a lot of people's favorite Troy McClure moments. He is engaged to one of
Marge's sisters and the sister knows that there's some kind of sexual secret
that he's keeping from her and she thinks that the secret is he's gay. But he
says--Do you want to do the line?

Mr. GROENING: Oh, I don't remember.

GROSS: Oh, he says, `Gay? I wish.' It turns out he has a really weird
sexual fetish. That is an example of the type of thing that "The Simpsons"
really gets away with. You know, it's a kids' show on the one hand--or at
least a lot of kids watch it--a lot of adults watch it, too--but there's this
really funny sexual humor on it.

Mr. GROENING: What's the fetish? I don't remember. Was it fish or...

GROSS: Oh, I don't remember either. I think it was a fish thing. Yeah, it
was some kind of weird thing, but...

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. Fish, that would make sense.

GROSS: Right, exactly. So--I mean, do you ever get any problems coming back
at you as a result of humor like that?

Mr. GROENING: Well, you know, stuff that's so farfetched like that, no, we
don't get much problem with that. We--you know, we deal with, you know,
various sexual aspects of contemporary culture and, you know, what I try to
hope that we do is that the stuff that's not appropriate for kids, they don't
get. And again, the idea of "The Simpsons" always has been that it's a show
for everybody; that is, you know, for all ages and not every joke is for every
person. In fact, I always said, well, the dumb jokes, the ones that you don't
think are funny, those are for the kids. And the sophisticated ones, you
know, the references to Dostoevsky and so on, those are for the grown-ups.
And so the idea is to basically redefine family entertainment and do stuff for
the entire family that you can all stand to sit there and watch. And how much
of TV can you sit there and say that about? Most TV is--it's so fragmented in
the demographic that it's trying to get to that, you know, there are very few
things that I can watch that my kids dig, so--but they do like "The Simpsons."

GROSS: The last time you were on FRESH AIR, David Bianculli was guest
hosting, our TV critic. And one of the things you said to him was that "The
Simpsons" is about the anxiety and consternation of living with people who
drive you out of your mind. How do you live with people you love and you want
to kill? Do you still see it that way?

Mr. GROENING: Wow! Now that sounds really smart.

GROSS: Doesn't it?

Mr. GROENING: Yeah, that sounds true. That sounds--I--that sounds like
you're in a court and you're--`Did you say the following?' Yeah, that's what
it's about. I mean, that's at the core. It's about being in a family and
families drive you crazy. So nothing changes about that. We can all relate
to that, I'm sure.

GROSS: Matt Groening, so great to talk to you. Thank you very, very much.

Mr. GROENING: Always a pleasure, Terry. Great show.

GROSS: Matt Groening is the creator of "The Simpsons." Our interview was
recorded late last year. The fifth season of the series was just released on
DVD.

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

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Mr. HARRY SHEARER (As Announcer): Live from Springfield Penitentiary's
fabulous big open area in Cell Block D, it's the Krusty the Klown prison
special.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Klown) I slugged some jerk in Tahoe. They
gave me one to three. My high-priced lawyer sprung me on a technicality. I'm
just visiting Springfield prison. I get to sleep at home tonight.

(Soundbite of grumbles)

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Klown) Hey, hey, I kid. I kid 'cause I
love. I tell you, the best folk in the world are prison folk.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Wait a minute. These cons love Krusty.
Inside every hardened criminal beats the heart of a 10-year-old boy.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, we listen back to interviews with marvelous essayist and
critic Susan Sontag and actor Jerry Orbach, who starred in "Law & Order."
They both died yesterday, Sontag of leukemia, Orbach of prostate cancer.

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

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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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