DATE March 2, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Lorne Michaels discusses his work as creator and
executive producer of "Saturday Night Live"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Saturday Night Live" is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. My
guest, Lorne Michaels, created the show and is its executive producer. In
October, he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in a ceremony at
the Kennedy Center. That ceremony will be shown as a 90-minute special this
evening on public television. It will feature clips, tributes and
performances. Lorne Michaels has been with "Saturday Night Live" for all but
five of its yeas, 1980 to '85. He produced many movies with performers who
got their start on the show. Here's a sampling of the past 30 years of
"Saturday Night Live."
(Soundbites from "Saturday Night Live")
Mr. LORNE MICHAELS (Producer, "Saturday Night Live"): Hi. I'm Lorne
Michaels, the producer of "Saturday Night."
Mr. CHEVY CHASE (As Himself): Good evening. I'm Chevy Chase, and you're
Ms. GILDA RADNER (Cast Member): Now, a lot (pronounced wot) of people
thought my last (pronounced wast) program (pronounced pwogwam) was pretty
(pronounced pwetty) crummy (pronounced cwummy). Well, this one's truly
(pronounced truwy) crammed (pronounced cwammed) with clever (pronounced
cwever) revelations (pronounced revewations), rapport (pronounced wappor), and
repartee (pronounced wepatee).
Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Guest Host): We are two wild and crazy guys.
Unidentified Man: But no!
Mr. DAN AYKROYD (Cast Member): Jane, you ignorant slut.
Mr. EDDIE MURPHY (Cast Member): (Singing) I am dark and you are light.
Mr. JOE PISCOPO (Cast Member): (Singing) You are blind as a bat and I have
Mr. DANA CARVEY: (As Hanz) I'm Hanz.
Mr. KEVIN NEALON: (As Franz) And I'm Franz.
Mr. CARVEY and Mr. NEALON: (As Hanz and Franz; in unison) And we want to
pump you up.
MADONNA: Wayne, do you want to play truth or dare?
Mr. MIKE MYERS: (As Wayne) Truth or dare? With me? No way.
Mr. MYERS: (As Wayne) No way.
Mr. MYERS: (As Wayne) Excellent.
Mr. AL FRANKEN: (As Stuart Smalley) Because I' good enough, I'm smart enough,
and doggone it, people like me.
Mr. ADAM SANDLER (Cast Member): (Singing) Paul Newman's half Jewish and
Goldie Hawn's half too. Put them together, what fine-looking Jew.
Mr. CHRIS FARLEY (Cast Member): You're going to be doing a lot of
doobie-rolling when you're living in a van down by the river!
Ms. CHERI OTERI and Mr. WILL FERRELL: (As cheerleaders; in unison) U-G-L-Y,
you ain't got no alibi. You're ugly. You're ugly. Not cute! Whoa!
Mr. JIMMY FALLON (Cast Member): "Weekend Update," I'm Jimmy Fallon.
Ms. TINAY FEY (Cast Member): I'm Tina Fey. Good night and have a pleasant
GROSS: "Saturday Night Live" is now the same age that Lorne Michaels was
when he created the show: 30. I spoke with him about how the show began.
Why was it important for you for "Saturday Night Live" to actually be live?
Mr. MICHAELS: I think the most important reason at the time was that we
wouldn't have to do a pilot. I had worked on enough pilots--three with Lily
Tomlin and with a bunch of other ones where when you're--the way people talk
themselves into things or the way that overthinking works is you say, `Well,
you know, when we're on the air, we can do different things, but now we just
have to get on the air.' And so you tend to want to please. And you tend to
do things that have already been done because that's the way you're guided.
And I thought if I could sort of get straight to the audience, if could just
do the show that I wanted to do and put it on the air, I thought there'd be an
audience for it.
And being live--the danger which I didn't fully comprehend at the time--I'd
done enough work on stage that I wasn't worried about that part. I just--and
also live audience, you know, I knew would be exciting. But there was--the
idea that the whole country would see it at the same time, including the
people at the network, who, while supportive, had bigger problems than what we
were doing in late night, you know. They had a prime-time schedule to worry
about. So we were left alone, and also we were in New York, which there
wasn't much production in. So we were kind of not on the radar or whatever
technology was dominant then.
GROSS: The way the legend goes, John Belushi had said to you, `I don't do
TV,' because he didn't like TV. And...
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah. That's true.
GROSS: ...that you didn't get along, you know, at first, you know, there's
this kind of, like, chemical difference between the two.
Mr. MICHAELS: Well, he...
GROSS: So how come you hired him?
Mr. MICHAELS: Well, what happened was I was fairly serious about things
then, and I thought there was this little window, you know, that we could
maybe climb through and try and get this show on television in a way that was
pure. And so I wanted people who were completely committed. And I think
John, who I think was completely committed, came into our meeting and made
the point, which was a kind of backhanded compliment to me, that he didn't to
television, but that, you know, sort of what I was doing was the exception
that he was prepared to make. And I didn't want anybody who had any
ambivalence. So I just said, `Well, if you don't do television, that's all
right with me, because this is very much a television show.' Also, people
really looked down on television then. It was too big a medium, too mass a
medium, and I think people, you know--it was looked down on.
So--and I thought, having grown up watching television and loving
television--I thought, `Well, I don't want anybody who's, A, doing me a favor,
and, B, not completely committed to this. And I think John had really just
misspoken. And then--but it was just one of many, many meetings with lots of
GROSS: I want to read you something that Dan Aykroyd said in the book "Live
from New York," which is the book Tom Shales wrote, like a kind of oral
history of "Saturday Night Live." This has to do with the liveness of
"Saturday Night Live." He said...
Mr. MICHAELS: Right.
GROSS: ...`I once got mad and put a hole through a wall in Lorne's office.
I punched a whole in it because I was so mad at the way he would give us
last-minute changes before air. We would have to run down and give them to
the cue-card guys, and they would be going crazy and saying, "Are you
kidding? You want us to get this on?"'
So how do you deal with it when somebody in the cast puts a hole through your
wall? I mean, when their temper just gets so out of control that it actually
does physical damage?
Mr. MICHAELS: There was a fair amount of volatility in that period of the
show, but I think it was much more to do with all the changes that were
swirling around us and that sort of intoxicating brew of fame and celebrity
and money and power and all that, which was new to everyone there. It's not
that way now.
GROSS: People don't have tempers like that now?
Mr. MICHAELS: No. Well, you know, I can't vouch for everyone, but I'd say
that first period, or at least the period of around 1977, '78 was really the
period that Danny's talking about. Because up to that point, it had a very
strong, all-for-one, one-for-all quality. And I think that changed when the
opinion of the show changed.
GROSS: And then everybody got really famous and...
Ms. MICHAELS: Well, I mean, I think people--there was a little bit of a gold
rush quality to it. And I think it still was, and still is, physically
really hard to get that show on every week. I mean, we go from blank page to
on the air in six days. So--and with a different host each week, which is a
whole different set of writing problems. So writers and performers are
working side by side. There's designers, there's musicians, there's
filmmakers, there's a whole--and all of them tend to see and experience the
show through the prism of their own experience. If their piece got on, they
really liked the show last week. If their piece didn't get on, they didn't
think people really liked that show.
So it's a very intense process, and it can be bruising. It also is
exhilarating or else people wouldn't still be there doing it.
GROSS: You know, from reading about the show, it sounds like one of the
things that separates the first cast from subsequent casts is that the first
cast--people were very close, and then people were sleeping with each other.
So you have all these, like, professional competitions and jealousies mixed in
with, like, romantic competitions and jealousies. And that's, whoa, what a
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah. I tend to think all that's a little blown...
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah.
Mr. MICHAELS: But it made for excellent reading. And...
GROSS: Yes, it has.
Mr. MICHAELS: ...people are curious about it. And I think it's great. But
honestly, that wasn't what was the determining thing in the show. I think
everyone at the beginning of the show was unknown.
Mr. MICHAELS: Everyone.
Mr. MICHAELS: You know? And that meant the writers were unknown, the--I
mean, people had tiny followings, I suppose. But in terms of the national
level, no one was known. And then people became known and famous, and the
impact of it was, you now, overwhelming. And I think that altered people's
relationships, both with each other, their friendships, their, in some cases,
marriages. I think it was--you know, nobody had ever done it before. I think
it's much clearer now what sort of happens. And I think people know what it
GROSS: My guest is Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of
"Saturday Night Live." Tonight, PBS will broadcast the tribute to him that
was held at the Kennedy Center last October when he was awarded the Mark
Twain Prize for American Humor. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lorne Michaels. And he's the
creator and executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," which is celebrating
its 30th season this year.
You've said that the value system that was around at the beginning was as long
as people showed up on time and did their job, it was nobody's business what
they did in their bedroom or in their lives. And you said...
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...that value system turned out to be wrong.
Mr. MICHAELS: Well, I think that we were--what somebody older than me used
to refer to as my pseudo-egalitarian value system, or the way I ran the show
GROSS: (Laughing) Yes.
Mr. MICHAELS: ...that level. But I think that you just don't know. It
starts with the core thing, which is the comedy. No one knows for sure what's
going to work, what's not going to work. So no one has--there are people who
are more experienced and therefore maybe listened to more. But at the end of
the day, if the apprentice writer has a better joke than the senior writer,
well, you have to go to the best joke, you have to go to the--you know,
the piece that involves building a ship, you know, that costs a lot of money
didn't play, but the piece where the person sat on a chair worked perfectly.
Well, you can't think of anything other than what's working. So people are
up and down in that value system all the time. And I think that turbulence,
which I like to think of as a sort of creative turbulence, is the defining
thing of the show. You're always--somebody who shouldn't emerges as the most
interesting thing that week because it's not ordained. It's just sort of you
go in, we go in always long, and until that audience comes in, you really
don't know what's going to work and what's not going to work.
And I think that what was going on in the '70s nationally was--I think there
was a strong fear of the government in the bedroom, I think there was a strong
fear of, you know, too much--you know, this is right after Watergate and the
Vietnam War. So I think there was a sort of new freedom, and we were testing
the limits of it. And I think that what I believed in was that you didn't
have responsibility--it wasn't your business, therefore it wasn't your
responsibility. And I think that turned out to be wrong. We just didn't know
GROSS: At some point, did you feel that you were the executive producer, so
it became your business to draw the line, even in people's personal lives, if
you felt it was interfering in some way with...
Mr. MICHAELS: Well, I think...
GROSS: ...your work on the air?
Mr. MICHAELS: In the first five years, I wasn't executive producer. I was
Mr. MICHAELS: And that lofty title didn't exist. But I think that we were
all the same age. We were all friends. We all came from, you know,
approximately the same kind of place. And so I wouldn't have--in the same way
that when Chevy was leaving, he and I talked mostly as friends much more than
as producer-cast member. You know, whether or not it was the best thing for
him to move on was much more about what would be best for him than it was,
`Hey, come on,' you know. I think that we were--it was fraternal. And I
think as the years went by, I realized that more and more people looked to me
in a paternal role, which was shocking to me, 'cause I was 31.
And I think that when the same thing happened, for example, in the late '80s,
when Chris Farley got into trouble, at the very first sign of it, you know, he
was in rehab, whereas I think when John Belushi was getting into trouble, it
was hard to tell what was being on the cover of Newsweek and starring in
"Animal House" and what people's limits were, what people could handle or what
was--you know, 'cause it was all--and most of--I hope I'm not sounding
defensive on this, but I think most of what happened to people that was
destructive happened away from the show. In the case of John Belushi or the
case of Chris Farley, it happened years after they left the show. And I think
that the discipline of actually having to get that show on every week and of
letting down your fellow cast or the writers--there was just--always been too
much of a standard there and too much of a work ethic for people to screw up
I think, you know, you finish a show at 1:00 in the morning, and there's an
enormous amount of adrenaline's gone through your system, and you're not ready
to go to sleep. And so people go to a party, and sometimes, people want to,
you know, obliterate the recent past or whatever. And I think, you know, it
was all sort of uncharted territory then. I think it's very, very
well-defined territory now, so I think people are just on the lookout for
stuff that's destructive or self-destructive.
GROSS: Well, you know, let me read you something that Bob Odenkirk, who had
been a writer on "Saturday Night Live," something that he said in...
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah, go ahead, sure.
GROSS: ...the book "Live From New York." He says, `The greatest thing I
ever saw Lorne do was the way he wound up treating Chris Farley. I think
Lorne was determined not to have what happened to Belushi happen to Chris on
his watch, and it seemed to me that Lorne very seriously put it to Chris:
Every time Chris messed up, he had to get cleaned up before he could come back
on the show. Lorne really made Chris think about what he was doing, 'cause
the most important thing to Chris in the world was performing on that show.
That was the goal of his life, and Lorne knew it. And Lorne took it away from
him multiple times and forced him to go to rehab.'
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah, I think that--well, it's so. But I think it was we just
knew more. You know, people would--you know, you'd see people in the '70s at
4:00 in the morning and they'd--you know, looked fine. Sometimes they
wouldn't look fine, but I don't think anybody ever saw anybody in trouble and
walked away from it. I think it was, you know, the next day, we had a show to
do, and people showed up. And that writers' meeting, which is on Monday, is
the same now as it was then, and people had to show up for it. And they had
to come prepared with an idea or two. So I think when people got away from
the show and they didn't have the structure and the discipline that the show
demanded of them, I think people got into trouble.
GROSS: Yeah. You know, I'm thinking that it sounds like you really
intervened in a positive way in Chris Farley's life when he was on the show.
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah, but we did with John Belushi, too, multiple times.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. MICHAELS: It's--what I'm saying is that in--the show is and was a caring
environment. You know, it isn't like you want to see anybody get in trouble
or you're aware that anybody's in trouble.
Mr. MICHAELS: I think that the sheer fatigue of, in those days, four shows
in a month was, you know, people were bleary-eyed, people were exhausted, and
people were still going on and doing the show. And I think that people who
are used to that level of excitement, that level of whatever, when they
suddenly left, people tried to get it in different ways, I think.
GROSS: I have to say, it must be exhausting for your to have to oversee a
weekly live show and also take some responsibility for helping people who are
having trouble in the cast.
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah. I think I'm certainly better prepared to do it now than
I was then. I think it was more--you know, it's glib to say we were making it
up as we went along, 'cause I think we were more sure-footed than that, but I
think there was so much we just didn't know, and then I think we didn't even
know that there was much of an audience reaction to the show till this first
summer, because we were always there. And New York City was moving along
quite well without us, so it was only when we got out into the country that
you realized people were actually watching the show, 'cause up to that point,
you sort of just hear about it from your friends or your family. But we had
no idea of the impact of it until, I think, Danny and John drove cross
country, you know, in that first break we had in July of '76, and they were
amazed that Pe--you know, John came back and said, `People really loved that
samurai thing I did.' And at that point, we hadn't--we sort of had a rule
about doing anything twice. And John was, you know, a prime proponent of that
rule, so he was sort of taken aback when people went, `When are you going to
do it again, you know?'
GROSS: Lorne Michaels is the creator and executive producer of "Saturday
Night Live." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Let's hear a Chris Farley sketch, "The Christ Farley Show." Farley plays an
inept talk show host who's more a nervous fan than interviewer. In this
edition, his guest is Paul McCartney.
(Soundbite of "The Chris Farley Show" sketch from "Saturday Night Live")
Mr. CHRIS FARLEY: You remember when you were with The Beatles?
Mr. PAUL McCARTNEY: Sure. Sure.
Mr. FARLEY: That was awesome.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, it was, yeah.
Mr. FARLEY: OK. Oh, you remember when you went to Japan and, at the airport
they arrested you 'cause you had some pot, and made a hit in all the papers
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, to be honest, Chris, I'd kind of like to forget all
Mr. FARLEY: Idiot! I feel so stupid! What a dumb question!
Mr. McCARTNEY: No, no, no, Chris. I get asked that all the time in
interviews. Maria Shriver asked the same question last week.
Mr. FARLEY: Really? Did you know that she's married to Arnold
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, I've heard that. Yeah.
Mr. FARLEY: Did you see "Terminator?"
Mr. McCARTNEY: No, I missed that one.
Mr. FARLEY: It was a pretty awesome flick. OK. You remember when you were
with The Beatles and you were supposed to be dead, and there was all these
clues that, like, you'd play some song backwards and it'd say, like, `Paul is
dead,' and everyone thought that you were dead or something?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah.
Mr. FARLEY: Yeah. That was just a hoax, right?
GROSS: Coming up, more with Lorne Michaels, creator of "Saturday Night Live."
Also, we talk with Ed Levine about his new book "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven."
And David Bianculli reviews two shows created by David Milch: "NYPD Blue,"
which aired its final episode last night, and "Deadwood," which begins season
two this weekend on HBO.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lorne Michaels, the
creator and executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," which is celebrating
its 30th anniversary this year. Tonight PBS will broadcast the tribute to
Michaels held at the Kennedy Center last October when he was given the Mark
Twain Prize for American Humor. Michaels insists he's not comfortable in
front of the camera, but he's made some memorable appearances on "Saturday
Night Live." Here he is in 1976 trying to convince The Beatles to reunite and
perform on the show.
(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")
Mr. MICHAELS: Now here it is, as you can see. Verifiably, it is a check
made out to you, The Beatles, for $3,000. All you have to do is sing three
Beatle tunes, "She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)." That's $1,000 right there.
You know the words. It'll be easy. Like I said, this is made out--this check
here is made out to The Beatles. You divide it any way you want. You want to
give Ringo less, that's up to you.
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Lorne Michaels.
Tom Shales says that although it's "Saturday Night Live," you hate ad-libbing
on the show. Why?
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah. Well, I like spontaneity. I just--you know, we're a
written show, and because a lot of the people who appear on the show come from
an improvisational background, I think the fantasy or the illusion was created
somewhere in the '70s that it wasn't--you know, that people were making it up
as they went along, but that's--you can't set camera angles and cuts without,
you know, a sort of real discipline. And that's a script. And, you know,
it's a very strong writer's show. And people like Tina Fey, who's a, you
know, absolutely brilliant writer, is also a performer. You know, now can
she--as she's going, if something happens that she wasn't expecting, can she
react to it and say something that hadn't been, you know, written?
Absolutely. But by and large, what people are doing has been written, and the
control room is sort of following that same script.
GROSS: So many people on "Saturday Night Live" have gone on to not only be
incredibly successful in the show but to have incredible, you know, acting
careers, movie careers afterwards. A few people who were on "Saturday Night
Live" who had really incredible careers afterwards were almost invisible while
they were on "Saturday Night Live," and I'm thinking specifically of, like,
Robert Downey Jr. I just, like, don't even remember him when he was on
"Saturday Night Live."
Mr. MICHAELS: That was a very bumpy season. It was him and Anthony Michael
GROSS: Right, yeah.
Mr. MICHAELS: ...and Joan Cusack was in that group, too. No, that was a
cast that didn't show, and the person responsible for it not showing was me,
because I made all the choices. But I think that Randy Quaid was in it as
well. I think it was--you know, there were elements of that 1985 cast that
ended up being part of the--you know, the following year I brought in Dana
Carvey and Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, and that group began to gel in a way
that it hadn't in the '85, '86 cast.
GROSS: Now in that '85 cast, did you think, like, `I lost it. I've lost my
talent for picking people'?
Mr. MICHAELS: Well, no. Yeah, it was a very tough time for me because, you
know, I did the first five years and then I left. And then when they were
going to cancel the show, Brandon Tartikoff asked me if I'd come back and do
it. And that was a sort of difficult decision for me, and when it looked like
it actually would be canceled--although I wouldn't have cared if it had been
canceled in any of the years between then, or if they'd canceled it when I
left in 1980, I think I would have been all right with that, too, then, but
somehow, turned out it mattered to me.
But when I came back in, I still had sort of--you know, I'd forgotten so much
how bruising it was, and I had very nice memories of what the first five years
were like. And of course, what had been a very--you know, `Saturday Night
Dead' appeared somewhere in the middle of the first season as a headline and
never went away. And so suddenly, to be beat up in 1985 by not having, you
know, it be the golden years, which, as I was living, were not called the
golden years, it took awhile to find a new way of doing the show. And I
think when Brandon was trying to get me to come back, he said, `You know,
like, in the '70s, you had to be the center of everything, of every sort of
creative decision, but, you know, you're older now, and you have to learn how
to delegate, and, you know, once you can delegate and, you know, give
authority to others and not be the center of things, then it'll be much
easier.' And then at the end of the '85 season, he said, `You can't delegate
anything. You have to be'--you know. And so I went back into it in a
different way, and it worked out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lorne Michaels, and he's the
creator and executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," which is now
celebrating its 30th year on the air.
There's something I really want to ask you.
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah.
GROSS: And this is kind of under the category `But enough about you. What
Mr. MICHAELS: Uh-huh. sure.
GROSS: There was a sketch on "Saturday Night Live" that involved a public
radio cooking show, and one of the hosts was named Terry...
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and some people, including members of my own family, have said to
me, `Does that sketch have anything to do with you?' And I say, `No, it has
absolutely nothing to do with me.' But let me ask you, do you know the
origins of where--or what inspired that sketch?
Mr. MICHAELS: Well, when it was Anna and Molly? I mean...
GROSS: Yes, exactly.
Mr. MICHAELS: I think it was just the--I think they were playing with the
dryness of--and the, you know, cheerfulness of a certain kind of approach to
what was--I don't know. I don't want to speak for them. I think they were
just fooling around, and I think it was meant in a complimentary way.
GROSS: Uh-huh. OK.
Mr. MICHAELS: I don't think you can get much more out of me on that, but I
think, as with all things, you know, part of it's drawn from something they
experienced or thought they could play.
Mr. MICHAELS: And then after that--you know, by the time it reached Alec
Baldwin and `Schwetty balls'...
Mr. MICHAELS: ...it was sort of a completely different kind of piece than
where it started at the beginning.
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah.
GROSS: Just one more thing. Did you ever want to be a full-time performer
yourself as opposed to, like, the behind-the-scenes guy? You've been on
"Saturday Night Live" as yourself many times.
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah. No, and in the show I did in Canada, I was a performer.
And I think--when I was at college, I was in a bunch of plays, and
occasionally I would look over at the person who was talking to me on stage
and I'd realize they actually were that character, which was kind of--I
thought, `Oh, my God. They're completely lost in--you know, they are that
person.' I could never go that deep with it--that deep. So I thought the
best I could be, you know--OK, I didn't think I could be great at it. And
when I used to watch the show I did in Canada, I'd be in the editing room
editing myself, and I'd see myself before the slate, and I'd see myself
looking around, checking the lighting and looking at camera angles and all
that, and then the slate would happen and then there would be a big smile on
my face that suddenly happened, and I thought, `I'm not a natural at this.'
And I think that's fairly evident with today's interview, but I think, you
GROSS: You're not comfortable talking?
Mr. MICHAELS: Yeah. I like to perform and I love being around performers,
and I love being around people that are funny.
GROSS: Well, Lorne Michaels, congratulations on...
Mr. MICHAELS: I have a good job, is my point. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Congratulations on 30 years of "Saturday Night Live."
Mr. MICHAELS: Thank you.
GROSS: It's an incredible story. You've done incredible work. Thank you for
talking with us, at least about some of it.
Mr. MICHAELS: Oh, happy to. OK.
GROSS: Lorne Michaels is the creator and executive producer of "Saturday
Night Live." Tonight public television will broadcast the Kennedy Center
tribute to him at which he was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Coming up, the perfect food: pizza. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Food writer Ed Levine talks about his book and about
the perfect food, pizza
TERRY GROSS, host:
Food writer Ed Levine describes pizza as the perfect food, so he doesn't seem
to have minded doing the research for his new book, "Pizza: A Slice of
Heaven." It tells the history of pizza, collects recipes and also collects
essays by many food critics discussing the burning issues surrounding pizza.
Levine is also the author of "New York Eats" and contributes to The New York
Times dining pages. He says there are many reasons why pizza is the perfect
Mr. ED LEVINE (Author): It's the ultimate communal eating
experience--Right?--when you think about it. It's the food that we grew up
with that sort of emancipated us from our parents, right? I don't know about
you, but the first time I ever ate away from home by myself with my friends
was a slice of pizza. And I think a lot of people...
GROSS: You know, I've never thought of that before, but that is so true...
Mr. LEVINE: Right.
GROSS: ...because where I grew up in Brooklyn, there were pizza places--there
were, like, three great pizza places within two blocks. So even as a child, I
could walk with a friend to one of the pizza places and have lunch on our own.
Mr. LEVINE: And you were free at last. You know, you were free at last, and
you had two slices and a soda, and at the time...
Mr. LEVINE: I don't know how old you are, but, you know, for me, I'm 53.
The earliest memories I have of two slices and a soda, the slices were 15
cents, and the soda was a dime. So for 70 cents--and you could even leave a
really generous tip of 30 cents if you had a dollar. Now that's a pretty
fulfilling and cheap meal.
GROSS: Let's define our terms when we're talking about perfection. What kind
of crust do you like?
Mr. LEVINE: I like a crust that is made with either yeast sourdough starter,
salt, flour, water. Pizza crust is, at its heart, great bread, right? So it
should be the same things that go into great bread. And I like a crust that
has a veneer of crispness that gives way to tender, sort of internal bread
dough. So, you know, that first bite, you want to hit a little bit of
crispness, and then you want it to be tender, the same way when you bite into
a great baguette or a perfect piece of rye bread.
GROSS: And what about the surface, the cheese? What makes perfection there?
Mr. LEVINE: I like discrete areas of cheese and sauce. I like the
mozzarella to be fresh mozzarella, so it should look white. It shouldn't be
yellow, that aged mozzarella. That creepy yellow--that aged mozzarella is--I
don't like on pizza. And then I like sort of bubbles. I like the dough when
it's cooked in a very hot oven that's either fueled with wood or charcoal. I
like bubbles, you know, those little bubbles that you find in bread or on the
outside of pizza crust. I like those. You know, it means the pizza's going
to be crisp. It means the pizza's going to be light. And I don't like the
space-blanket school of pizza cheese, you know, like the raised pizza, you
know, where they put a half a pound of that weird cheese. You know, that's a
color not found in nature. I don't like that.
GROSS: And what about the sauce? What makes a good sauce?
Mr. LEVINE: My favorite kind of pizza sauce is as they serve it in Naples,
which is merely canned, strained, fresh tomatoes, preferably from Italy, from
San Marzano, but I've also had great California tomatoes. And I don't want
it to be cooked, and I don't necessarily even want any seasoning in it. I
like the taste of tomato, of simple tomato. I don't want it to taste like a
pasta sauce. If you cook the sauce that you put on the pizza, then it tends
to taste like a pasta sauce, and I like the simplicity of simple, canned,
GROSS: Most places do use the pasta sauce, don't they?
Mr. LEVINE: Yeah, they do. It varies. It varies. A lot of places use
canned pizza sauce, also not a good thing. And most of the canned pizza
sauces are cooked. It's more forgiving. I'm sure it has a longer shelf life.
Some of the serious sort of artisanal pizza makers will use a cooked tomato
sauce on their Sicilian-style pizza and a fresh tomato sauce on their
GROSS: You know how a lot of pizza makers--and this is particularly true in
the good old-fashioned pizzerias. They'll take the dough and they'll toss it
and twirl it in the air and they never drop it. What does that do for the
Mr. LEVINE: You know, I'm not sure, because I'm not a practiced bread baker,
but most of the serious pizzaoa(ph) I know say that you don't really have to
toss the dough. I think it's to stretch the dough and to stretch it in an
even way. But I also think it became part, you know, theater for all the
pizzaoa in the country that had an open space, you know, where they could toss
GROSS: Of course, so many restaurants serve those individual-size pizzas now,
and you can't very well toss those in the air.
Mr. LEVINE: No, exactly. And that's why, when you--in Naples, where pizza
in this culture was born in the 1830s, you never see them tossing, because
they only make one size of pizza. They only make the individual size pizza.
And this whole thing about larger pizzas only came into being when pizza moved
GROSS: You know, a lot of restaurants brag now that they have a brick oven
for their pizza. What does the brick oven get you?
Mr. LEVINE: Well, the brick oven reflects heat really well and allows heat
to build up and stay at a constant temperature. So it could be brick, it can
be many other kinds of stone. Actually, the key thing is that it be brick or
stone, and that it--you know, because even in gas-fired pizza ovens, they have
stone linings or stone on the bottom. And of course, when we reheat pizza or
make pizza at home, we use what is known as a pizza stone. And so what's
important is that it be stone or brick. Brick happens to be a particularly
effective heat transmitter and a holder of heat, but it doesn't necessarily
have to be brick. All kinds of stone can be used.
GROSS: So a gas oven with stone in it is good?
Mr. LEVINE: Yeah, is better than a gas oven without stone. The key to the
oven is how hot you can get that oven and whether you can maintain that heat.
In other words, the reason we can't make great pizza at home is because our
ovens only go up to 550 degrees. In a wood-burning pizza oven in Naples or in
this country or in a coal-fired brick oven, which is what all the seminal
pizzerias in America used in New York and New Haven and all these other
places--the coal-fired brick ovens and the wood-fired brick ovens get to a
thousand degrees. So the reason you can't make great pizza at home is because
we can't get the ovens hot enough.
GROSS: I've one last, very important question for you, which is, do you
always eat the crusts, the rim? Some people leave that over.
Mr. LEVINE: I know, but I think, if it's good, that great pizza crusts, like
at the pizzerias I love--I couldn't bear to leave the crust. The Neapolitans,
interestingly enough, because--they eat pizza with a knife and fork, because
they don't cut the pizza in Naples, so they often leave the outer rim, which
is called the cornicione, and they don't eat it. They just eat, you know, the
inner parts of the pizza. But I think that if it's a great pizza, that the
crust deserves to be eaten in full.
GROSS: Ed Levine, thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. LEVINE: Oh, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Ed Levine is the author of the new book "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven."
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on the end of "NYPD Blue" and the new
season of "Deadwood," two shows created by David Milch.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Analysis: Review of the final episode of "NYPD Blue" and the first
episode of "Deadwood's" second season
TERRY GROSS, host:
Last night, "NYPD Blue" ended its run after 12 years on ABC. This weekend,
the HBO Western series "Deadwood" begins its second season. TV critic David
Bianculli says the two shows have a lot more in common than pushing the
boundaries of sex, nudity, violence and language.
(Soundbite of "NYPD Blue")
Mr. DENNIS FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) What do you got?
Unidentified Man #1: Looks to be like a high-priced call girl.
Unidentified Man #1: And the doorman called in the job. The manager's on his
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) What are you doing out of uniform?
Unidentified Man #1: Talked to building management, find out who's paying the
Unidentified Man #2: They're not in yet. You know, I thought once we cleared
the shooting, you were going to go back to patrol.
Unidentified Woman: Tell him already.
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Chief of detectives gave me to squad.
Unidentified Man #1: When?
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Last night at Medavoy's racket.
Unidentified Man #2: And you didn't say anything then?
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) I wanted to make sure that Duffy didn't change
his mind, and I didn't want to take away from Medavoy's night.
Unidentified Woman: The message came through this morning that it was a done
Unidentified Man #2: So wait. You're actually squad commander?
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Yeah.
Unidentified Man #1: Congratulations.
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Thanks, Gruten(ph).
Unidentified Man #1: I'd sure like to work with you.
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) No, huh?
Unidentified Woman: I'm not sure any of us can.
Mr. FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Well, that'll work out good, then, 'cause I
was planning on bringing in my own people anyways.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
That's Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz, the one actor and character who was in
every episode of "NYPD Blue," at the beginning of last night's finale. He's
just shown up at a crime scene and he's almost shyly informing his co-workers
that he's just been promoted to precinct commander. It's an amazing journey
that Andy Sipowicz covered since "NYPD Blue" premiered in 1993. When we met
him, he was a mess--a racist, a drunk and on a self-destructive streak that
came within an inch of killing him, and that was all in the pilot episode.
"NYPD Blue" was co-created by Steven Bochco and David Milch. Bochco also was
one of the primary forces behind an earlier landmark police drama, "Hill
Street Blues," which also had at its center a recovering alcoholic with a
badge. But that character, Daniel J. Travanti's Frank Furillo, was in charge
from the start and ran his precinct as crisply as he dressed. Whatever his
demons were, he had conquered them long ago. He wasn't tempted by drink, he
carried on an affair with a defense attorney played by Veronica Hamel, and he
was one of the first leading characters on a prime-time cop show who actually
took time out to pray, to visit church, even to seek confession.
Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue" was a very different animal. For him, sobriety,
tolerance and personal growth came slowly, but come they did, and viewers
loved him for both his vulnerability and his persistence. Last night's finale
had him taking command and walking that tricky tightrope of having a bit more
power and responsibility than your friends and peers, but still having to deal
with and sometimes fight with the powers above you. Andy Sipowicz ended where
Frank Furillo began, with the respect of those under him but not those above
him. It's a nice, full-circle story arc, and it's also a familiar one.
On "Deadwood," the HBO Western series beginning its second season this Sunday,
central character Seth Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant, is pretty much in
the same place. Cop shows often are deconstructed as modern Westerns, and
"Deadwood" makes it easy to track the comparisons. There's as much
lawlessness in isolated "Deadwood" as in Lower Manhattan, and town Sheriff
Seth Bullock, like squad commander Andy Sipowicz, accepted his position of
authority recently and reluctantly. And where Andy fought with the powers
that be last night on a political level, Sunday's season opener of "Deadwood"
has Seth prepared to fight his powers that be on a more literal level. In
this case, it's the town's most powerful figure, Ian McShane's imposing,
tough-talking Al Swearengen. Swearengen has insulted the sheriff by publicly
ridiculing his private affair with the wealthy town widow, insults Swearengen
continues to hurl privately once Seth shows up at Swearengen's room to pick a
fight. Swearengen is talking about outside interests trying to influence and
take over the "Deadwood" mining town, but Seth is more interested in removing
his gun and badge and throwing some punches.
(Soundbite of "Deadwood")
Mr. TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) How do you have this information?
Mr. IAN McSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) From the governor himself and a pricey
little personal note. They want to make us a trough for Yankton snouts and
them hoopleheads out there, thinking they booked us against going over to
those (censored). Now I can handle my areas, but there's dimensions and
(censored) angles that I'm not expert at. You would be if you'd sheath your
(censored) long enough...
Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Shut up.
Mr. McSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) ...and resume being the upright pain in the
(censored) that graced us all last summer.
Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Shut up, you son of a bitch.
Mr. McSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Jesus Christ. Bullock, the world abounds in
(censored) of every kind, including hers. Of course, if it would steer you
from something stupid, I could always profess another position.
Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Will I find you've got a knife?
Mr. McSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) I won't need no (censored) knife.
(Soundbite of struggle)
BIANCULLI: The major link between "Deadwood" and "NYPD Blue," of course, is
David Milch, who co-created "Blue" and is the sole creator of "Deadwood." In
1993, long before cable's "Oz" and "The Sopranos," ABC's "NYPD Blue" was as
bold as TV got. Today "Deadwood," with its adult themes, brazenly coarse
language and complicated characters and plots, can make the same claim. Milch
left "NYPD Blue" a few seasons before it ended, but it's impossible to imagine
"Deadwood" without him. And you thought Andy Sipowicz had his demons? Check
out Seth, who has so much darkness battling with his essential decency that
he's almost as much villain as hero. In the same way, despite so many
despicable traits and acts, Al Swearengen is almost a noble villain.
"Deadwood" is no white-hat/black-hat Western. Everything and everyone is
painted with shades of gray.
In Sunday's season premiere, there's a moment when all the simmering emotions,
especially the lust and the anger, come to a head. When the violence erupts,
it happens suddenly and shockingly, and it matters. As on "NYPD Blue," change
occurs slowly, and actions have ramifications. It's a stunningly written and
stunningly performed series, easily one of the best on all of television.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with music by the British invasion band The Searchers. The band's
drummer, Chris Curtis, died Monday at the age of 63. This record was a big
hit in the US in 1964.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) I saw her today. I saw her face. It was the
face I loved. And I knew I had to run away and get down on my knees and pray
that they'd go away, but still they began, needles and pins. Because of all
my pride, the tears I gotta hide. Hey, I thought I was smart. I wanted her.
She didn't think I'd do, but now I see she's worse to him than me. Let her go
ahead, take his love instead. And one day she will see just how to say please
and get down on her knees. Yeah, that's how it begins.
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.