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The Long and Rich Career of Michael McKean

Actor, comedian, composer and musician Michael McKean is best known for co-starring in the spoofs This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. He is currently co-starring in the Broadway revival of The Pajama Game.




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Other segments from the episode on February 21, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 21, 2006: Interview with Michael McKean; Review of Deborah Eisenberg's "Twilight of the superheroes: stories."


DATE February 21, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Actor, comedian, composer and musician Michael McKean
discusses his career and starring in "The Pajama Game"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Michael McKean first became famous for his role as Lenny in the
sitcom "Laverne and Shirley." When you think of his musical career, you
probably think of his hilarious send-ups in the heavy metal mocumentary, "This
Is Spinal Tap," and the folk revival mocumentary, "A Mighty Wind." Well, now
he's singing on Broadway in a revival of the classic musical comedy, "The
Pajama Game." It also stars Harry Connick Jr. It's been in previews and opens

Before we meet Michael McKean and talk about his life and career, let's hear
him in "The Pajama Game." The show is set in 1954 in a pajama factory, where
the workers are preparing to strike if they don't get a raise. McKean plays
Hines, the factory's efficiency expert.

(Soundbite of "The Pajama Game")

Mr. MICHAEL McKEAN: (Singing) "The alarm clock rings. It's 6 AM. And then
right there in bed I shave."

Chorus Members: (Singing in unison) "Shave?"

Mr. McKEAN: (Singing) "That's what I said, while I am still in bed, I shave.
And the lather drips, and the bed gets wet, and, oh, what a lousy shave I get,
but think of the time I save."

Chorus Members: (Singing) "Think of the time he saves. Tick, tock, tick,
tock, tempus fugit. Tick, tock, tick, tock, time goes by."

Mr. McKEAN: (Singing) "How I love to sit and watch those seconds multiply.
At breakfast time, I grab a bowl, and in the bowl, I drop an egg, then add
some juice, for excuse for what I crave. And then I'll add some oatmeal, too.
And it comes out tasting just like glue, but think of the time I save."

Chorus Members: (Singing) "Think of the time he saves."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Michael McKean, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Is this your first time performing in a classic Broadway musical?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, there's--I guess you could call "Hairspray" a future
classic. I did "Hairspray" for six months in '04. And now here I am back
again. And this is indeed an American classic. This is a 52-year-old
musical. And we do it in period style. Nothing is updated. They are still
fighting for the 7 1/2 cents raise. You probably won't hear much about that
in this day and age. But "Pajama Game" is definitely from the golden age.

GROSS: It was really fun seeing you sing straight, and what I mean by that is
you're not in character as the heavy metal guy in "Spinal Tap."

Mr. McKEAN: Right.

GROSS: Or the washed-up folk guy in "A Mighty Wind."

Mr. McKEAN: Washed up but on the comeback trail, Terry. Always.

GROSS: So what's it like for you to still be singing in character but to be
singing straight?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, it's kind of what I started out doing when I was a kid,
when I would appear in a lot of shows in high school. Our high school drama
coach was, you know, one of those busy bees, and he liked to do a lot of
shows. He liked to do musicals. And we had a lot of game kids, and we had a
lot of fun. And it's still fun. I think your job should be fun. And if they
pay you for it, so much the better.

GROSS: When I saw the show, I realized, `Gee, I know so many of these songs.'
And some of them I had completely forgotten even existed.

Mr. McKEAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Including one of the ones that you sing, which is called "I Would
Trust Her."

Mr. McKEAN: It's called "I'll Never Be Jealous Again."

GROSS: "I'll Never Be Jealous Again," OK.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you sing a couple of lines for our FRESH AIR listeners' memory?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, it's a little hard to do alone because Roz Ryan and I do
it together, and she sings a line, "They picture this. You're sitting and
waiting for her to come back from a date." "There I am, I'm sitting"--so the
refrain is, "I would trust her. I would trust her. By George, I swear I
would trust her." And kind of seen as a microscope specimen, this don't look
like much. But that's what I do for a living.

GROSS: Now, were you ever a show biz kid? I'm thinking here of like Martin
Short. Martin Short always says that when he was young, you know, he dreamed
of having his own TV variety show.

Mr. McKEAN: Right.

GROSS: And he like this really old-fashioned sense of show business where you
had to sing and dance and tell jokes and, you know, like tap dance and all
this stuff. Did you have that kind of show business idea in mind when you
were young?

Mr. McKEAN: I don't think I really had that particular thing. You know,
Martin Short's imaginary show was so vivid that I think people all over the
world felt that it was real. And, of course, it had to become real, hence
Jiminy Glick, which is this kind of great dirigible that evolved out of that
notion. But, no, I thought of myself as a guy who--originally I thought of
myself as a guy who would do a lot of cowboy movies, because that's all I
really cared about when I was very little. And then I--you know, as I got
older, I thought, `Well, I'm going to do, you know, I'm going to do theater.
I'm going to do "Glass Menagerie." I'm going to do, you know, great plays, and
I'm going to direct them and everything.'

And I--you know, fate took me out to Los Angeles, and I worked on the radio,
then I started working on TV. So, you know, reality eventually takes over.
But, no, I never really had that. I had the dream of maybe someday making a
living acting because it looked like a lot of fun. And it is.

GROSS: So when your ambition was cowboy movies, which character type did you
see yourself playing?

Mr. McKEAN: Oh, I was going to be the hero. I liked this guy Lash LaRue
because--I think I was kind of a junior fetish as to he wore all black and he
had a whip, and he had like this--he had this kind of black lace up shirt, you
know, that had this kind of shoelace kind of thing. But I--and I couldn't--I
had a dark shirt, but I didn't have a lace on it. So I took a ballpoint pen,
and I would make these X's on my skin to show where the lacing was supposed to
be when I was playing Lash LaRue. So I was into the picture that way. I
wanted to be a really tough and kind of easy-to-misunderstand cowpoke.

GROSS: Wearing a lot of leather.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah. But, you know, later I just thought, `Well, this is
great.' The whole gimmick to this job is that you get to be a lot of different
people. And, you know, that's what I've kind of tried to do, not do one job
that was too much like the last job I did, because it's just, you know, it's a
great license to be able to do a lot of different people. Even if, you know,
your physicality or your look keeps them all in the same ballpark. That just
makes you are recognizable character actor. But that's what's always sounded
interesting to me.

GROSS: Now, I read that your father was a record company executive.

Mr. McKEAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did he do and did that connect you in anyway to show business?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, one thing that he did was bring home a lot of free
records. So I had a lot of records that other kids didn't have. When he
worked at Columbia, for example, he brought home a record called "'Ere's
'Olloway." I'm leaving off the H's. Stanley Holloway, who played Doolittle in
"My Fair Lady" on Broadway and in the film, and was an old music hall
performer, and he had an album of music hall songs. And I was about, I guess,
eight or nine. And the songs are very actable. They are all character songs.
And I learned them all, and I thought, you know, `This is the greatest stuff
ever.' And my dad took me to see him when he did a one-man show. Stanley
Holloway did a one-man show. And that was really the night I decided that
this was a very wonderful profession to entertain people and to go there and
everyone in the whole building is looking at you. It's, you know, what could
be more fun that that?

GROSS: So you...

Mr. McKEAN: I guess some people are terrified by that, but I think it's

GROSS: So one of your early inspirations was music hall kind of comedy.

Mr. McKEAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I think the idea of taking three
minutes and telling an entire story and wrapping an audience in that kind of,
you know, that kind of vein is pretty impressive. It's pretty amazing thing.

GROSS: Do you still know those by heart?

Mr. McKEAN: Sure. Sure. Listen, there is a song that I know, it's one of
the first songs I learned from that record called "Sweeny Todd, the Barber."
And it is the--it uses the same source material as the Sondheim musical, which
is now in this amazing, brilliant production here in New York. And I'm not
affiliated, but I can plug them. And it's the same story, but it's the whole
story in three minutes.

GROSS: Oh, would you do some of it?

Mr. McKEAN: It's pretty cool. I'll give you the intro.


Mr. McKEAN: (Singing) "In Fleet Street, that's in London town, when King
Charlie wore the crown, there lived a man of great reknown, was Sweeny Toddy
the Barber. One shave from him and you'd want no more. You'd feel his razor
sharp. Then tumble whallop through the floor and wake up playing a harp and
singing `Sweeny Todd, the barber.'" And there you go.


Mr. McKEAN: It's pretty cool.

GROSS: Yeah, I didn't even know that existed. That's great.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah, it was written in the '20s. I knew the guy's name but I
don't right now. He also wrote "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm," the
great Anne Boleyn's ghost song that Stanley Holloway used to do.


Mr. McKEAN: `You're in my field now. You'll never escape.'

GROSS: Well, getting back to your dad for a second.


GROSS: So what did he do in the Record World?

Mr. McKEAN: My father was mostly in editorial, so he wrote bios, he wrote
liner notes.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. McKEAN: He, in fact, used to farm them out to me. If, you know, if
there was an act--this was, I guess, he was with Columbia, and then he was
with Victor, and then he was with Columbia again for quite a while. And a lot
of them were special products. A lot of them were reissues on their budget
labels, etc. And he would farm them out to me, and I would write these liner
notes under the name of David Morpheus. And the joke was I could do this in
my sleep. OK, it's very egotistical for a 19-year-old writer. And, you know,
so--kids, look into your record collections, all you 40, 50-year-old kids.
Look in your record collections. See if you've got any David Morpheus in

GROSS: So what did you do liners for?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, I did one for Marty Robbins, who was this guy who had this
record "El Paso."

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. McKEAN: Famous single. And I wrote this--it was like, you know, kind of
a greatest hits album. And I wrote this kind of glowing thing. And I said,
`Well, I'm sure Marty is going to keep having hit after hit.' And then I got
this note that he had been dead for like five years. So we had to do a little
editing on that. But, yeah, that's pretty amazing, very pretentious and kind
of amusing there.

GROSS: It sounds like perfect practice for the mocumentary work that you did
later because you were doing like the real thing.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah. Yeah. Well, a lot of the work we do with Chris is people
who take themselves very seriously. And that's kind of the central gag of a
lot of his films, a lot of his work, is that whether it's a dog show or this,
you know, this kind of faux folk music or the amateur theatrics in "Guffman,"
you know, there is at its heart people--it's a classic farcical situation,
really. I mean, it's something that is treated as direly important and, you
know, on the outside we look at it and see, `Guys, don't get excited. It's
just a dog show' or, you know, what have you.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McKean. And he's now
one of the stars of a revival of "The Pajama Game" on Broadway.

Now, you got started performing in "The Credibility Gap," which was an
improv--or a sketch comedy group, let's say.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah, mm-hmm.

GROSS: And that's where you met Harry Shearer, who was also in it. And I
think that's also where you met David Lander, who played...

Mr. McKEAN: No, I had known David Lander...


Mr. McKEAN: ...who played--also was later to Squiggy my Lenny, to put it in
the verb form. We met at college, and he was out in Los Angeles as of '67.
And in 1970, he called me. He said, `We just fired a guy, would you like to
come in and replace him in this group called "The Credibility Gap." And we do,
you know, funny stuff on the radio and takes on the news.' So it especially
was really part of the news department of KRLA AM radio. So I was on my way
out there anyway, and so I became a member of that company kind of on a, you
know, day player basis and then later permanently.

And, yes, Harry had been there for a couple of years. Richard Beebe was kind
of the news director of the station. And we would make fun of the news. We'd
read a straight news story, and then it would segue right into a sketch, you
know, where characters were Nixon and Agnew and Sam Yorty who was mayor of Los
Angeles forever around that period, and Governor Reagan and, you know, people
of that nature. And we tried to cover the news in satirical way. We kind of
later segued onto the stage and had some interesting times opening for rock

And then in '75, David and I started working on "Laverne and Shirley." Our
friend Penny Marshall had, you know, gotten this show and wanted us aboard as
writers and also to do these characters. So we became TV actors. And that's
it. That's the middle of the '70s for me. How about you?

GROSS: Same for me.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: My life was exactly like that. All the performing...

Mr. McKEAN: Was it?

GROSS: ...and the TV and--yeah.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah, such a cliche.

GROSS: Yeah, I know. I know.

So was "Laverne and Shirley" like your comic sensibility?

Mr. McKEAN: Not really except that those characters were ours. We came with
those characters. David and I had been doing them for 10 years at that point.

GROSS: Well, how did you first develop them?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, we both knew these guys. You know, we knew this specimen
of guy in high school. David actually went to the High School of Performing
Arts. So he was remembering a little further back to junior high. But, you
know, I went through public high school, and there were these guys who were
just sort of like really kind of loud and kind of tough looking, but kind of
cowardly as well. So we just kind of had these two very similar specimens,
and it just became something that was fun to do. And Penny and her
then-husband, Rob Reiner, heard us, you know, do them innumerable times,
whenever anyone dropped a hat. And so Penny decided, `Well, these guys would
be really funny, you know, kind of neighbors or whatever.' So that's what we

And we did have to--you know, I think initially they were very obscene. We
would do them with "The Credibility Gap" on stage, we do, you know, just a
little piece of them. And it was improvised, and it improvised with the
audience. And it was basically, you know, trashing the audience. And, you
know, we couldn't be obscene, you know, at 8:30 on a Tuesday night, but, you
know, we could be at least moronic. And so, you know, it was an adjustment.
But at least we made each other laugh. And at least we--you know, we did have
a good time doing that show.

GROSS: My guest is Michael McKean. He is now co-starring in the Broadway
revival of "The Pajama Game." It opens Thursday.

Here he is in an episode of "Laverne and Shirley." McKean is playing Lenny.
David Lander plays Squiggy.

(Soundbite of "Laverne and Shirley")

Mr. McKEAN: Oh, Laverne and Shirley.

Ms. CINDY WILLIAMS: Oh, Lenny, Squiggy, my, what a surprise!

Ms. PENNY MARSHALL: Hi, fellas. We didn't see you.


Ms. MARSHALL: Well, see you around.


Mr. McKEAN: Hey, listen, if you're not doing anything tomorrow night, we got
the truck, the big one.

Mr. LANDERS: Yeah. There's a great makeout picture playing at the drive-in,
"The Robe."

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, thank you. We're going to a formal society dinner.

Mr. McKEAN: Woah! Pardon me, ladies.

Mr. LANDERS: Yeah. I would have worn my tuxedo but my polo pony ate it.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Michael McKean will be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McKean, and he's now
starring in a new revival of "The Pajama Game" on Broadway.

How did you first get together--I know you had already been friends with Harry

Mr. McKEAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I think you already knew Christopher Guest, too.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: But how did the three of you come up with the idea for Spinal Tap, for
a band that would be a satire of heavy metal bands?

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah. Well, Rob Reiner had become a big star on "All of The
Family," had won Emmys, had, you know, he was very--had a very high profile.
He did a pilot for a show. It was a 90-minute special for--oh, I'm sorry, a
one-hour special of a guy sitting there at home switching, you know, the
remote--channels with his remote. And it was basically a day of TV
programming, and that was the pilot. It was idea, you could parody everything
on TV. It's something SCT-TV later kind of, or around the same time, was
doing, you know, did something similar to that. And one of the things he
wanted to do was a parody of "Midnight Special," which was this show of
Wolfman Jack, where he would present these rock acts, and they could come on
and they would do a performance and sometimes have, you know, kind of pretaped
proto video junk, you know, covering the drum solos.

So they created this show. I wasn't working on the show at the time, but Rob
and Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest were three of the writer, producers
and performers on the show. So, you know, they said, `Well, we want to do
this band.' So they invited me, and `Let's create some band.' So we did. We
said we wanted them to be English because there was this, at the time, there
was this band called Slade who seemed to be on TV more than any American-born
act. So we wanted to do that kind of thing. And so we created this band.
The original lineup was me, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Russ Kunkle,
legendary rock drummer on drums, and Loudon Wainwright III on keyboards. That
was the original lineup, all of us in heavy rock disguise.

And so it was a sketch on this. And then later, when Rob was going to begin
his feature directing career, he was looking around for something to do, he
thought, `Well, let's do this documentary-style, you know, film about this
band.' And kind of that's how it got under way. And the four of us--myself,
Christopher, Rob and Harry--sketched out this tour. And, you know, kind of
wrote the scenario without the dialog, because who wants to write that
dialogue? It's much more fun to make it up as you go, especially if you're
doing a documentary format.

So that's how that was done.

GROSS: Would you talk about creating your character? David St. Hubbins is,
you know, singer and guitarist.

Mr. McKEAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, and full-time dreamer. Yeah, he's this guy who
kind of entered the spiritual side, and there is no shortage of specimens of
this guy. Of, you know, for a guy who fancies himself the intellectual among
a bunch of not very bright people, I think he fills the bill. And he does a
lot of kind of half-reading. And like he says in the film, he believes pretty
much everything he reads and finds that broadening.

I have found--you know, I have met people over the years, and this is not to
knock people who have a spiritual side, obviously. But I've noticed that
people will incorporate 10 or 12 mystical disciplines in their lives, a lot of
which seem to be pulling against each other. And I don't know how they manage
it, you know? What I'm saying is a lot of people kind of fall for everything
at the same time, and it makes a real loud thud, and they're the only ones who
don't hear it. And I think that's what David is. He kind of--he tries to be
spiritual every which way, and that doesn't work.

GROSS: Michael McKean is co-starring in the new Broadway revival of "The
Pajama Game." It opens Thursday. McKean will be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael McKean. He is
co-starring in the new Broadway revival of "The Pajama Game," which stars
Harry Connick Jr. It opens Thursday. McKean also co-starred in the heavy
metal mocumentary, "This is Spinal Tap"; the folk music mocumentary, "A Mighty
Wind"; and the dog show mocumentary "Best in Show." From 1976 to '82, he
played Lenny in the sitcom "Laverne and Shirley." When we left off, we were
talking about "Spinal Tap."

I want to play one of the songs from "Spinal Tap." And I thought we'd hear
"Big Bottom."


GROSS: Would you talk about...

Mr. McKEAN: A medley of our hit, is what you're saying.

GROSS: Would you talk about the process of writing the song?

Mr. McKEAN: Of that particular song?

GROSS: Yeah, or another if it's more vivid.

Mr. McKEAN: Sure. Well, there's not much more vivid than that. No, it was
actually--there was a song by Queen called "Fat Bottom Girls," you know, who,
it is alleged, make the rocking world go round. And, you know, we kind of
wanted to take, you know, do another version of that. And so we did. The
stuff we threw out, we are sworn to secrecy about that. But we put in the
lines that fit and rhymed.

GROSS: And...

Mr. McKEAN: That's it.

GROSS: And your voice on this, what did you try to do to get the right kind
of voice?

Mr. McKEAN: I was still just trying to establish who David St. Hubbins was
vocally. You know, I didn't really have the right pipes. You know, you need
that kind of upper register, you know, which I didn't really have. I'm more
of a barry than a tenor. So, you know, I was still just trying to find his
timbre that was believable. I couldn't get way up there like Mr. Daltrey,
you know, I didn't have like a really, really great rock 'n' roll voice, so I
was just pretty much trying to find him and be as, you know, to let the voice
kind of drip with innuendo. Which you don't really need when you got lyrics
like this. You don't need innuendo.


Mr. McKEAN: Innuendo is just gravy.

GROSS: Well, here's "Big Bottom" performed by Spinal Tap, with my guest
Michael McKean as the guitarist and singer David St. Hubbins.

(Soundbite of "Big Bottom")

Mr. McKEAN: (Singing) "The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin',
that's what I said. The looser the waistband, the deeper the quicksand, or so
I have read.

My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo. I'd like to sink her with my pink

Big bottom, big bottom, talk about bum cakes, my girl's got 'em. Big bottom
drive me out of my mind. How could I leave this behind?"

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That was Spinal Tap, and my guest is Michael McKean, who played the
part of David St. Hubbins, the guitarist and singer.

It must have been so much fun to do this. Whenever I hear the music or see
the movie, I just think, `God, that's fun.'

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: What was it like performing on stage, because you actually did
concerts as Spinal Tap, in addition to doing the mocumentary?

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So what's the difference for like doing it for the film and like doing
it on stage in front of a real audience that came to hear Spinal Tap?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, in '84 when the film came out, the film had been out about
two months, and we did just a few cities. We played in Boston where the film
was, you know, still running, San Francisco, New York and LA. And in between
there were cities that didn't really get the film. We played Detroit, for
example. And the film kind of limped along for two weeks and disappeared. So
people thought we were real. And it was kind of an awed gig. It was just
sort of like, you know, these people just kind of out in the audience saying,
`Now, who in the hell are these people again? Where is the real act?'

But by '91 or '92, rather, when we kind of launched a full-scale tour with the
new album and everything, we ran into our meat and potatoes audience, which
is--I think the theory goes like this: We pretend to be this rock 'n' roll
band, and they pretend to be our fans. So everyone is sort of role playing.
And it's win-win. We really have a great time and people get the jokes and
laugh at the jokes, but they also, you know, it's a pretty tight band. I
mean, we were traveling with our original drummer, Rick Parnell, who is an
amazing drummer. We toured again in 2001, just again, you know, just a
handful of cities and had an amazing time, just a great, great time.

And, you know, it's the joke that's hopefully more than a joke. I mean, it's
really a fun concert. And if we could figure out a way to actually make money
doing it, we'd probably do it again.

GROSS: One of my favorite lines of the movie is when Chris Guest is talking
about how a lot of young girls are afraid of the band because, `We have
armadillos in our trousers.'

Mr. McKEAN: Yes.

GROSS: You guys must have had such a good time kind of talking about and
making fun of that kind of heavy metal band...

Mr. McKEAN: Fan base?

GROSS: ...conceit about their sexual prowess and their sexual endowment.

Mr. McKEAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Yeah, well, that's--yeah, I guess we did. We tried not to think about it too
much, but that's, obviously, you know, something. It's kind of a 14-year-old
boy's ideal of how to be a sexy man.

GROSS: Perfect.

Mr. McKEAN: That's really what it is. Girls have very little to do with it
because, you know, the girls are, you know, with any luck, of age. And--but
it's really about the fantasy more than anything else. It's--you know, when
you're 14, you think, `Boy, when I'm grown up and I can go to bars and like be
sexy and take, you know, go home with women, this is how I'm going to do it.
I'm going to, you know, wear the Spandex and, you know, this fur collar and,
you know, I'll have eye makeup and long hair.' You know? Or now tattoos. So
now you really commit when you're, you know--when you're a young man now,
you're kind of like really committed. You really go ahead and you put the
dragon on your forearm.

GROSS: Have you had any real bands who came of age during the "Spinal Tap"
era for whom Spinal Tap was a genuine inspiration?

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah, but most--I think in the right way. I don't think there
is anybody--hopefully, I don't think there is anybody who said, `Boy, those
guys in "Spinal Tap" really had a great time of it on that tour.' I don't
think they've said that. But I think we've maybe inspired people to not take
themselves so seriously and to remember that it's about amusement and
entertainment and that over the top, you know, is something you do for fun. I
think if you're going over the top to make people swoon with--you know, with
artistic fervor, I think you're barking up the wrong tree.

Hopefully, they understand this. There have been a lot of bands who have come
up to us and say, `That's the funniest movie ever made. And we always have
that on our bus when we are touring.' And so, you know, I think people know
that it's a satire and know that it's not--you know, that the world of those
guys on that 1982 tour, those lives are not to be envied. But, hey, you know,
some very successful bands come up to us and said, `Boy, that's the saddest
movie I've ever seen.' Because they remember the days when it was things
didn't look so good.

It really is. It's a bleak--it's a bleak landscape they're looking at there.
They are watching themselves, you know, collapse. They don't know they're
going to be big in Japan any minute and, you know,
and...(unintelligible)..saved the day.

GROSS: My guest is Michael McKean. He is now co-starring in the Broadway
revival of "The Pajama Game." It opens Thursday.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael McKean, and he's now starring on Broadway in a new
revival of "The Pajama Game."

We were just talking about "Spinal Tap." I want to read something from Rolling
Stone from May 24th, 1984. And it says, "Now that "This is Spinal Tap" is at
least something of a minor hit, Guest, McKean and Shearer are talking about
another film, one that would spoof the attempted comeback of a once-popular
folk trio, quote, "Guys like us in our late 30s who were hot in the early
'60s," said McKean. A folk group getting back together again and not having
seen each other for 10 or 12 years. And then Christopher Guest says, `My
favorite idea, shaving our heads to look like Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul &
Mary, having a mustache and wearing the turtlenecks and a little pot belly.'"

So you had the idea for, you know, a spoof of folk trio back in 1984?

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah. Yeah, and we kind of tried to hatch it as a TV special at
one point. You know, and we kept trying to make those attempts and breaking
down stuff and thinking, `Well, maybe we do the story about a folk club, like
Gertie's Folk City here in New York closing, and there's a memorial concert,
you know, some kind of special concert. And, you know, then it kind of lay
fallow for awhile. And we were doing "Spinal Tap" stuff. We were--you know,
in 2001, we started playing some gigs, and we rereleased the film and did a
remix on the music, blah, blah, blah. And so we--then Christopher and Eugene
had done three films at that point, and so this was kind of a new idea. No,
two. I guess just, yeah, "Guffman" and "Best in Show."

And so they said, `Well, listen. Let's take this idea, etc.' And so he and
Eugene expanded it to what became the story of "The Mighty Wind," with--you
know, eventually there was, of course, more than the trio. There was other
acts. And so, you know, the film kind of had a long gestation, but in its
current form, it was really the brainchild of Christopher and Eugene in 2001.

GROSS: So what is the process like of writing the songs? You co-wrote a lot
of the songs for "A Mighty Wind."

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you immerse yourself in New Christie minstrel records and Highway
Men and Peter, Paul & Mary?

Mr. McKEAN: Well, actually we knew the examples. When Chris said, `Well, we
need a sea shanty.' So C.J. Vanston, who was the musical director on the
film, wrote this tune, which was a very kind of jaunty, you know, kind of horn
pipey thing. And Annette and I, Annette O'Toole, my wife, and I wrote the
lyrics to what became "Fair Away," which was the song that the New Main Street
Singers do in the film. And so in that case, it was like the music came first
and then the lyrics. Chris and I wrote "Just that Kind of Day." We just knew
exactly what kind of song it was supposed to be, and we just kind of sang it,
you know, it didn't take very long, to be honest with you. And others, you
know, the title song, Eugene came in with the entire lyric and a version of
the melody, and we--Christopher, Eugene and I--kind of reworked the melody and
kind of added a bridge and, you know, a chorus that was largely different,
and, you know, did things like that.

So there's no one process. Annette and I wrote "Kiss at the End of the
Rainbow" alone.

GROSS: What about "Never Did No Wandering"?

Mr. McKEAN: "Never Did No Wandering," OK. Harry and I were just, you know,
kind of brainstorming some kinds of songs that we didn't have in the movie
yet. And we heard this minor-keyed kind of wandering type song played by a
group--and you're not going to believe this--a folk group, an actual folk
group from the late '50s called The Yachtsmen. Now what--what is more folk
and ethnic than yachting?

So it was on this record called "Hootenanny," hosted by that other, you know,
real backwoodsy guy Jack Linkletter. And it was from the TV show
"Hootenanny," and The Yachtsmen did this song about wandering. So we said,
`Well, let's write a minor-keyed wandering song about a guy who never went
anywhere.' So Harry and I wrote that one. And "The Good Book Song," we wrote
that at the same--we started that the same day and took us a couple days.

GROSS: I want to play "Never Did No Wandering." It's a...

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: about someone whose father was a railroad man from the West of

Mr. McKEAN: That's right, bad neighborhood, boy, that West end of Hell.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it from the soundtrack of "A Mighty Wind." This
is "Never Did No Wandering," and it's a song that's sung and co-written by my
guest Michael McKean.

(Soundbite of "Never Did No Wandering")

Mr. McKEAN: (Singing) "My mamma was the cold North Wind. My daddy was the
son of a railroad man from West of Hell, where the trains don't even run.

Mr. McKEAN and Unidentified Man: (Singing in unison) "Never heard the
whistle of a south-bound freight or the singing of its driving wheel. No, I
never did no wandering, never did no wandering, never did no wandering at all.

Mr. McKEAN: (Singing) They say the highway is just one big road and it goes
from here to there. And they say you carry a heavy load when you're rolling
down a line somewhere.

Mr. McKEAN and Man: (Singing in unison) Never seen the dance of the
telephone poles as they go whizzing by. No, I never did no wandering, never
did no wandering, never did no wandering after all.

Never did no...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's "Never Did No Wandering" from the soundtrack of "A Mighty
Wind," the mocumentary spoofing folk music. And my guest is Michael McKean
who is in "A Mighty Wind" and "Spinal Tap," "Best in Show." And now he's on
Broadway in the new revival of "The Pajama Game."

Now, the band that you were in in "A Mighty Wind" was called the Folksmen.

Mr. McKEAN: Uh-huh.

GROSS: That's the band we just heard. And there was a period when the
Folksmen opened for Spinal Tap...

Mr. McKEAN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: concerts. Was that before the movie or after?

Mr. McKEAN: Boy, I can't remember the first time. The first time we did
that, oh, was quite a bit before "Mighty Wind."

GROSS: So people--people couldn't have been in on the joke. They didn't know
you were doing a band like that.

Mr. McKEAN: No, but what we would do is we would say in the advertising or
on the poster, we would say, `Special guests: the Folksmen.' And we would
have a shot of us. And you see these three guys and, you know, `I know this
guy is bald now and he's got a mustache, but maybe that could be the same as
the same Christopher Guest as this guy who is Nigel Tuffnel.' You know, it was
like a little puzzle in the poster. You know, not as deep as Dan Brown, for
example, but you had to look and find the story within the story. And we
forgot to do it once when we played the Beacon Theater here in New York. We
forgot to mention the Folksmen. So we came out as our own opening act, as the
Folksmen, and the crowd, who were ready to rock, if I may capitalize, they
didn't like it. They were--oh, they wanted these old guys off the stage.

And so it was kind of--we had the experience of being booed off the stage so
that we return as somebody else.

GROSS: Really funny.

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah, I think it's maybe unique.

GROSS: I read that when you were in college, was it, that you had insomnia?

Mr. McKEAN: I still have insomnia. I still...

GROSS: That's what I was wondering. What do you do with it?

Mr. McKEAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you work when you can't sleep? Do you give up and, you know, just
watch TV or...

Mr. McKEAN: No. I wish I could do--I wish I could be that guy who got up
out of, you know, a toss and a turn and, you know, gone to work and write
things or, you know, do music. But instead I just kind of stay awake and
horizontal and it's not very rewarding.

I could--you know, I'm better now. One problem with doing a show is you come
home and your buzz won't stop. You know? You're still replaying the show you
did, you know, especially if you've done two in a day. You're exhausted
physically, but you--you know, you've done the matinee and you've done the
evening show, and then you're lying there in the dark, and you're trying to,
`Well, gee, was it the afternoon or was it the evening when I did this. Oh,
boy, that was the wrong tack I took there.' You know? So it's kind of little
mini regrets of the day, I think, that keep me up, if anything does. But I
also do a little yoga. I get back to sleep, pretty much. Sometimes if I'm
awake, I do a turn on the TV and see what people watch at 4:00. Not much.
Pretty much what I was watching before. Yeah, I mean, it's mostly the same
movies that I don't want to see again.

GROSS: Michael McKean, thank you so much. It's really been really fun to
talk with you. Thank you.

Mr. McKEAN: You're so welcome.

GROSS: Michael McKean is co-starring in the new Broadway revival of "The
Pajama Game." It opens Thursday. It stars Harry Connick Jr. Here's Connick
singing the song from the show that became a big hit.

(Soundbite of "The Pajama Game")

Mr. HARRY CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) "Hey there, you with the stars in your
eyes, love never made a fool of you, you used to be too wise.

Hey there, you on that high flying cloud, though she won't throw a crumb to
you, you think some day, she'll come to you.

Better forget her."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Twilight of the
Superheroes," a new collection of short stories by Deborah Eisenberg. This is


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

Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan on Deborah Eisenberg's
"Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories"

Deborah Eisenberg has won a host of awards from her short stories, which have
earned her comparisons to such other masters of the forum as Alice Monroe and
Henry James. Her latest collection is called "Twilight of the Superheroes,"
and book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Among all the other things September 11th has come to
represent, of late it has been credited by some critics as dealing the fatal
blow to the novel. As the argument goes, no novelist has written a great
fictional account of 9/11. Instead, nonfiction, whether it be in the form of
journalism, memoir or documentary or obituary, has been the medium most
adequate to capturing the feel and dread significance of that day. Ergo the
novel is dead once again. Or not.

The novel, like "Rasputin," has been declared prematurely so many times that
the pronouncement itself has turned into a cliche. And if the novel so far
hasn't been up the challenge of dealing with 9/11, that doesn't mean the event
is beyond the reach of all forms of fiction. Maybe, like World War I, whose
horrors found their best literary expression in poetry, 9/11 demands a short
literary form to convey the shock of the spectacle, the forced intrusion of
the horrific in to the mundane.

I hatched this theory after I read Deborah Eisenberg's ambitious and resonant
short story collection, "Twilight of the Superheroes," whose title story
directly describes the attack on the World Trade Center, while most of the
five stories that follow take place in what we have now come to call the
post-9/11 world. Eisenberg's story, "Twilight of the Superheroes," is jagged
and full of deftly placed silences, yet it conjures up a multigenerational and
swift changing world.

Four roommates locked into a luxury loft with a spectacular view of Lower
Manhattan. The main character named Nathaniel is the youngest child of Jewish
refugees who were themselves children when they escaped from Hitler's Europe.
We're told that Nathaniel's older brothers fulfilled their nervous parents'
deepest hopes by turning out to be blindingly inconspicuous. The boys were so
reliable and had so few characteristics, it was hard to imagine what anyone
could think up to kill them for.

Nathaniel is the oddball exception to this resolutely bland family, and so
naturally he moves to New York City. That's how he and his roommates happen
to be on the terrace of their sublet drinking morning coffee on that September
morning when a low-flying plane makes an annoying racket and something flashed
and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited.

The short story, "Twilight of the Superheroes," is extraordinary, setting
quick personal anecdotes of world weariness and loss against the larger
context of the attack. Doubtless, Eisenberg will rile some readers with her
story's politics. She writes, for instance, "That following September 11th,
the wars in the East were hidden behind a thicket of language: patriotism,
democracy, loyalty, freedom. The words bounced around, changing purpose, as
if they were made out of some funny plastic. What did they actually refer to?
It seemed that they all might refer to money.

The political angle of the title story and others in this collection, however,
speaks to Eisenberg's reach and willingness to take risks with the form.
She's not just regarding the short story here as a mausoleum for finely
wrought feelings. And she's funny, which can be an advantage, as she does in
these stories of global politics, fractured families, mental illness and the
sexual loneliness of the late middle-aged.

Much of Eisenberg's humor derives from her inventive use of language.
Sometimes her metaphors or just her pairings of nouns and adjectives make you
want to laugh out loud. For instance, in the story called "Some Other Better
Otto," an older aloof gay man named Otto bends to pressure and attends
Thanksgiving dinner at his sister Corinne's house. He is surprised to see
that a nephew has grown up and even had a wife, whom Corinne treated with a
stricken, fluttery deference, as if she were a suitcase full of weapons-grade

In other instances, Eisenberg's precise way with words nails sad truths.
Writing about a beautiful narcissistic teenager who makes an appearance in a
story called "Like It Or Not," Eisenberg observes that perhaps never again
would she be so dazzled by the primacy of her own life.

The inevitable displacement of those at the center of power to the dim margin
is Eisenberg's unifying theme in this collection. Whether the subjects be
lovely young girls grown old or waning superpowers, Eisenberg makes masterful
short work out of marking their decline and fall.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Twilight of the Superheroes" by Deborah Eisenberg.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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