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'Man On Wire': Defying Gravity And Time

With a tightly woven narrative, James Marsh's superb documentary studies Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Critic David Edelstein says the film is often awe-inducing.


Other segments from the episode on July 25, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 25, 2008: Interview with Robert Smigel; Review of the film "Man on wire;" Interview with Don Rickles; Review of the second season of "Mad men."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM

Interview: Robert Smigel discusses his career and creating
animated comic episodes for "Saturday Night Live"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable
magazine and, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Robert Smigel isn't seen on TV a lot, but his drawings are. So are his hand
puppets and his other crazy creations. He's the guy behind several cartoons
that are featured on "Saturday Night Live": "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," "The
X-Presidents" and "Fun with Real Audio." He also created the puppet Triumph
the Insult Comic Dog for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." Smigel does the
voice of Triumph, as well as the voices of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton
and others in Conan's talking photo sketches. Smigel was the first head
writer on that show.

In 2000, Robert Smigel created a short-lived cult TV series for Comedy Central
called "TV Funhouse." It's finally out on DVD. "TV Funhouse" is a parody of a
typical children's show, but it's strictly for adults. The host, Doug, is
played by comic Doug Dale. His friends on the show are an assortment of
animal puppets called the Anipals. Each week, Doug has an idea for a themed
show--a cowboy show, a Hawaiian show, a Christmas show--but the Anipals are
always too grumpy and lecherous to have any interest in Doug's ideas.

Here's the opening of the first episode, featuring Doug and his animal
friends. Doug is dressed in a cowboy outfit and a 10 gallon hat.

(Soundbite of "TV Funhouse")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOUG DALE: (As Doug) Howdy, partners. Welcome to Western day here on
"TV Funhouse"! We're going to behave like wild Westerners.

(Soundbite of spurs jangling)

Mr. DALE: (As Doug) Hey, let's go give the Anipals their cowboy outfits.

Howdy do, Anipals. Y'all set for Western day?

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) Hey, Doug.

Mr. ROBERT SMIGEL: (As Fogey) Yeah, Doug.

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Hey, Doug. What's up?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Fogey) Whatever.

Mr. DALE: (As Doug) Nothing. I just reckon it's high time you varmints put
on these cowboy hats.

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Fogey) Eh, maybe later.

Unidentified Actor #3: (In character) Yeah. Not in the mood, Doug.

Unidentified Actor #4: (In character) Varmints?

Mr. DALE: (As Doug) I got my cowboy hat on.

Actor #1: (In character) Great. Why don't you shove it up your...(word
censored by station)?

Unidentified Actor #5: (In character) Whoa. That was harsh.

Actor #1: (In character) Could we get the hell out of here, please?

Mr. SMIGEL: (As Fogey) Doug, I apologize. Listen, Chickie's wife's on the
rag again.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke to Robert Smigel in 2000.


Let's talk a little bit about the animals who you have.


GROSS: One of my favorites is this mangy dog who's always chasing his tail.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, that's my favorite. That's my favorite character,
actually. He is based on a real dog. His name is Zabu, and that was the real
dog's name. And I even made the puppet look exactly like the dog. It was my
wife's dog. He was a German shepherd mix, and I believe part wolf. And they
took him to obedience school, and after two sessions, the teacher said, `You
know what? He's a beautiful dog. And you should just be--you just enjoy.
He's beautiful. Take him home.' He was that stupid. And one of the reasons
my wife and I get along so well is because we can both laugh for a half-hour
just watching a dog that stupid chase his tail, which is what we used to do.

The dog had this incredible rage, it seemed, toward his tail. And there are
few things funnier than watching a really dumb animal passionately go after
his tail. And then he had this way of chasing it and, I guess--I've seen this
with other dogs, but not to this effect--where he would just--he could go 90
miles an hour in a circle and then just stop on a dime and completely freeze.
And then go 90 miles, back on a dime, just like as if he was trying to--he
didn't look like he was catching his breath. He actually looked like he
thought he would trick his tail this way.

(As Zabu) I'll turn and turn and turn and then stop, and the tail will have no
idea what's going on. He'll be--he'll be totally frozen, you know? And then,
boom, I'm back at the tail.

It just stops Of course, it never worked. So...

GROSS: So that's your voice that the dog does? I mean...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. Basically, I have this stubborn insistence on making all
the dogs sound like Eastern European immigrants, you know. And some of
the--I've noticed that some people have criticized--you know, they've watched
the show, and they've said, `Why is he doing--why do all the dogs sound like
Triumph? You know? Why do they have the same accent? It's lame. He
doesn't--can't he come up with another voice?' And, well, yeah, I could, you
know. I realize there are more accents in the world than Eastern European,
but in my head that's how dogs talk. They just--they have for years.

Since I was 10 years old, I used to, you know, give dogs that voice when I
would look at dogs. I think it's because my grandparents are Eastern.
They're Russian immigrants. And I grew up with that voice, you know. I grew
up with that voice in my family for years, and I think I make an unconscious
connection. And this--let me finish the thought because it could sound
rude--but between dogs and immigrants just off the boat, because they both
have a certain element of wide-eyed wonder. As if to say like...

(As dog) Oh, look at all of this. I cannot believe this.

And, you know, eventually European immigrants catch up and become jaded, but
dogs never do. And that's why I can laugh at dogs forever.

GROSS: The dog that chases its tail is kind of like a Road Runner cartoon
where the dog is Road Runner.

Mr. SMIGEL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And his tail's Wile E. Coyote or vice versa.

Mr. SMIGEL: No, the dog is Wile E. Coyote. It's absolutely an homage, you
know, beyond the initial idea. Yeah, in the first episode, the dog buys
products from the Acme corporation, and in the first episode he buys a tail
catcher and, you know, it's meant to deceive the tail. There's a little hole
and it says tail massager.

(As dog) Come on over here, tail. Look at this. Tail massager. Wow, it's
for 12 inch tails, just like you.

And then in a later episode, he actually dresses up as a tail to seduce the
tail. So you see a giant tail attached to the tiny little tail and Zabu's
face is just sticking out.

(As dog) Hey, tailie boy. Come on over here.

And in future episodes, I want Zabu to just become just impassioned and
obsessed with, you know, making everyone in on--like as if it's a Kennedy
conspiracy thing, where he's got photographs to prove that the tail is, you
know, a criminal, and he hires a detective to go after the tail.

GROSS: There are real animals mixed in with the puppets.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Like the puppets are driving a car, and there's a real dog in the car,

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Or the puppets are at a cockfight, and in the audience, there's a real

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right. There's a lot of real dogs. Yeah.

GROSS: Or there's a puppet cat who gives birth to real kittens.

Mr. SMIGEL: To live kittens. Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: What's the interest to you of mixing real animals with puppet animals?

Mr. SMIGEL: I love the idea that you can manipulate live animals into a
really funny bit, and they have no idea why it's funny, why they're there.
That just adds a layer of joy to the whole experience to me. And, you know,
we make it very clear and we make a real point of not making the animals
actually do anything. Like in the cockfight, for example, there's a bunch of
animals in the audience, but if you look in the background, a lot of them are
asleep. Even though we have cheering noises, a lot of them are just lying
down, have no interest in what's going on. And like, on the one hand, there's
like a practical joke element to it that we're playing on the live animals
that we're making them appear to be doing things. But, on the other hand, I
also enjoy the joke the animals are having on the show by expressing no
interest in what's going on, even though we're presumably trying to make them
appear to be extras. They're above it. They have better things to think
about than pretending to enjoy a cockfight.

GROSS: One of the things I think you're doing on "TV Funhouse" with all your
use of the Anipals, the puppet animals...

Mr. SMIGEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: having them do the kind of things that animals really do in
public but that people only do behind closed doors, such as...

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: ...having sex, defecating.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: I mean, I know, like, as a kid there's things you learn that people
don't do in front of other people, period.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. Right.

GROSS: But you see animals doing it all the time in the street.

Mr. SMIGEL: That's right.

GROSS: And it's very confusing sometimes as a kid. Like, `How come they let
animals do that in the street?'

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. I know. We can learn a lot from animals.

GROSS: Well, that's the whole point of the books that your parents give you
so you can learn...

Mr. SMIGEL: That's what the whole point...

GROSS: ...a lot from animals.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. And now I'm--now this is an adult show that's trying to
have animals teach people how to behave properly. No, there is something--you
know, it's fun doing a show that has characters that don't have the
inhibitions that humans do and that can talk casually about things like
pooping on the street or having sex, as if it's just a regular animal need,
you know.

I try to explain to people that when I write about sex or I write about
defecation--you know, this is going--I'm going to look like an idiot saying
this, trying to explain why I think this stuff is funny beyond, you know...

GROSS: Cheap, crude laughs.

Mr. SMIGEL: Going for a cheap laugh.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah. I mean, to me it's all about the way our dignity is
compromised, you know. Sex has always cracked me up because it makes people
do crazy things, you know, like working out. I mean, Jesus, can you imagine?
Anyway--but, you know, that's the funniest thing about it, that we are, you
know--I remember years ago, we were at "Saturday Night Live" and I was hanging
out with Conan O'Brien, you know, who I met there as a writer. And Rob Lowe
was hosting. And so everybody was passing around the Rob Lowe sex tape, and
it was just, you know, something that you don't get to see that often, is just
a real life porn like that. And, you know, just a lot of it was really
boring, but all this fuss was being made over something that was, you know,
quite common. And I don't know, I just remember Conan just laughing and just
saying, `We're just all animals.' It's hilarious.

And so that really is the heart of it, you know. So to write about characters
and have them just casually debate, (as character) `Oh, come on. Are you
crazy? Licking is much better than sniffing. You're out of your mind.' (As
different character) `Well, what about vomiting?' (As character) `Vomiting's
good, but, you know, it's not the same.'

GROSS: Did you have a lot of pets when you were a kid?

Mr. SMIGEL: I had a cat when I was four years old. My parents gave me a
cat, and the cat just sat on the foot of my bed and did nothing all day long,
just grew, sort of developed that mashed potato body that cats get, just sort
of spread on the carpet as the years went by. But I just adored it. It had
no interest in anything, but I just like, `Oh, pretty kitty.' I just loved it,
loved it like nothing else.

And then later on, after the cat died, my sister--who didn't really like the
cat--suddenly--this is--I've noticed this, too, that like, it's the sibling
who didn't like the animal that suddenly gets all emotional about the animal
when it dies and wants to replace it immediately. And that's what happened.
And then we got a little tiny bichon, and all I could do all day was talk to
the bichon in its own voice. And it was very similar to Triumph's voice, but
just a higher pitch, you know, because it was such a froofy little thing, and
it was just very spoiled.

(As dog) I want to eat now, please.

GROSS: Did you talk to it a lot?

Mr. SMIGEL: I used to drive my sister crazy just--you know, she would like
walk into the room and I would say hi, and the dog would run up to her, and I
would be like...

(As dog) Hello. Hello. I've waited all day for you. Where the hell have you

BIANCULLI: Robert Smigel speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with pet lover Robert Smigel,
whose cult TV series, "TV Funhouse," is now out on DVD. She spoke to him in
2000 when the show was first telecast by Comedy Central.

GROSS: There's some very funny cartoons on "TV Funhouse." I want you to
describe the premise of Wonderman.

Mr. SMIGEL: Wonderman is a classic superhero who has an alter ego. His name
is Henry Moore. And basically we follow the adventures of Wonderman trying to
help his alias have sex with women who are impressed with Wonderman. Because
Wonderman, of course, has to maintain the, you know, `I'm married to
crime-fighting' attitude. But, at the same time, he needs to have sex. And I
never understood why Superman didn't use this technique for Clark Kent. It
would have been so simple for him to just explain to Lois Lane that Clark
Kent's really cool, and then he could have had it just both ways.

GROSS: Well, in Wonderman and in your animation "The Ambiguously Gay Duo,"
you seem to really know that sex is the subtext of so much pop culture, even
the stuff for kids.

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Like even the superhero stuff, the way they're dressed, a lot of their
feats of strength, a lot of their kind of rescuing, which is almost like S&M
imagery. Right?

Mr. SMIGEL: Wow, I guess so.

GROSS: So much of it is about sex. Yeah.

Mr. SMIGEL: I guess so. You know, that's another new one for me. I'm
amazed how, you know, I seem to write a lot about sex but I'm always surprised
by what people read into stuff. And then when I think about it, it's usually
true. Like even with "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," it's based on something that
never really occurred to me for years, which was this homoeroticism of the
Batman and Robin cartoon.

I remember doing a Superman special, the 50th anniversary, that Lorne Michaels
had, you know, been asked to produce, and I remember Lorne Michaels telling
me, `Oh, well, of course, Batman and Robin have that underlying gay thing.'
And I just sort of played along like, `Oh, yeah. Right. Right.' But my heart
was broken. `What? What are you talking about? I don't'--I mean, I don't
know. I was 26 years old, and I just, `Why does there have to be sex in
Batman and Robin?' You know, and years later, those movies started getting
gayer and gayer, and they started sprouting nipples and, you know, there'd be
tight shots of their rear ends and their crotch-etal areas. And, you know, by
now, I understood what they were going for, but my feeling was, `Why can't we
just leave Batman and Robin alone,' you know? `They do good work. Just let
them do their thing. We don't have to speculate on--what they do is their
business, whether it's with each other or, you know, or, you know, Kim
Basinger. It just doesn't matter.' And so that's where that cartoon came

But then the irony was that I thought gay people would love the cartoon for
that reason. Like, `Yes! You're right. People are obsessed with sexuality.
Why can't they just let things be?' But it turns out like every gay friend I
have loved that cartoon because they watched the imagery and they're like,
`Ha, ha, yeah! Of course they're gay. That's right. They're gay. You
nailed them.' They're just as obsessed with sexuality as everyone else.

GROSS: Some of the episodes of "TV Funhouse" have these parodies of those old
1950s personal hygiene films where, you know...

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah.

GROSS:'re taught like how to behave at dinner, how to behave in class.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. Right.

GROSS: How to go on your first date.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: And you're discouraged from doing anything sexual alone or with
others. And I have an excerpt here of one of your personal hygiene film...


GROSS: Or educational training film parodies.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: And this is about mnemonic devices.


GROSS: And mnemonic devices are those little word games you can make up to
help you memorize something you're supposed to memorize. So let's hear this

(Soundbite of "TV Funhouse")

Unidentified Actor #6: Memorization, it's the hardest part of school, and
probably life. But remembering facts can be easy and fun, too, with a little
help from something called mnemonics.

(Soundbite of music)

Actor #6: You've probably used an mnemonic without knowing it. For example,
to remember the notes for reading music, you might use the mnemonic "Every
good boy deserves fudge." Starting to get it? It's fairly easy to remember
our friends north, south, east and west. But in case you're having trouble,
all you have to think of it "No Spaniard enjoys washing." Easy, isn't it?

Biology is nothing but tedious memorization. But mnemonics can make it easy.
The complicated order of animal classification--phylum, class, order, family,
genus, species--are easier to remember as "Please come over for gay sex." Now
you'll never forget it. Look out, biology!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's really so funny, and I wish our listeners could actually see
the film because it looks like the real thing, it's shot in black and white,
everybody looks very 1950s, there are puzzled students scratching their head
in biology class. Did you sit through these films when you were in school, or
were you past the era of these movies?

Mr. SMIGEL: I was a little bit past that era, you know, but I love anything
that's, you know, I'm one of those people who loves kitsch and things that are
rooted in innocence. So, you know, yeah, I grew up more in the '70s, but, you
know, even back then, you would see these things rerun, and you were aware of
them. So I still get a kick out of that stuff. And mnemonic devices
specifically are something that I became intimately familiar with in college,
and I just found them contemptible because they basically encapsulated what I
hated about being a pre-med student, or pre-dental student, which was that,
you know, I would take these courses, like, you know, organic chemistry that
had nothing--and the approach to teaching them had nothing to do with
education. It had everything to do with weeding out the best students. So it
used to drive me crazy.

GROSS: Well, Robert Smigel, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. SMIGEL: All right. Thanks, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Robert Smigel speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. His "TV Funhouse"
series has just come out on DVD. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: David Edelstein reviews "Man on Wire"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

It has been called the artistic crime of the 20th century. In 1974, a
daredevil acrobat from France strung a wire 200 feet between the towers of the
World Trade Center and spent 45 minutes on it without a net. British director
James Marsh has turned that story into a documentary called "Man on Wire." It
opens this week in New York and Los Angeles and expands to more cities in
August. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: The famous American male daredevils--the Evel Kneivels,
the test pilots--carry a macho vibe; when I see them interviewed, I often get
a sense they're still trying to prove themselves to their dads. But the
Frenchman Philippe Petit has a different aura. He's the guy who in 1974
walked and danced on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center,
110 stories aboveground. When it was over and he was taken down in handcuffs,
American reporters pressed close to ask him why. In James Marsh's
exhilarating documentary "Man on Wire," Petit, now in his late 50s, still
can't get over the absurdity of the question.

(Soundbite of "Man on Wire")

Mr. PHILIPPE PETIT: You know, why? Why? And that was a very, again, in my
way of thinking, America, very American finger snapping question. I did
something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a practical why? And the
beauty of it is I didn't have any why.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: In "Man on Wire," Marsh asks not why, but how the hell? He
tells Petit's story like a heist picture: part talking heads; part period
footage of Petit honing his balance and pulling off lesser, but still
breathtaking, stunts, like a walk over the Sydney Harbor Bridge; and part
"Mission: Impossible"-style re-enactments.

Those re-enactments are stylized, obviously fake, but they're edited with such
urgency they snap right into place. They're bridges to the main event, the
"coup," as Petit calls it, which we get to see from many angles. Petit
doesn't know why he did it, but remembers when the idea came to him. Here he
recounts it, complete with re-enactments and sound effects.

(Soundbite of "Man on Wire")

Mr. PETIT: Here I am, young, 17 years old, with a bad tooth in one of those
unicolor, full waiting room of a French dentist, and it's really lit with a
little 40 watt bulb, and you have old ladies and people, you know, sheepishly
looking at magazine. It's quiet, and suddenly, I freeze because I have open a
newspaper at a page, and I see something magnificent, something that inspire
me. I see two towers. And the article says one day those towers will be
built. They're not even there yet. And when they are, they will become the
highest in the world. Now I need to have that, this little tangible start of
my dream, but everybody is watching. But I need that page. And so what I do
is under the cover of sneezing...

(Soundbite of page ripping)

Mr. PETIT: I steal the page, put it under my jacket, and go out. Now, of
course, I would have a toothache for a week, but what's the pain in comparison
that now I have acquired my dream?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: What follows are two threads: the building of the World
Trade Center, in footage from the '60s, magnificent, awesome, deeply sad; and
Petit's idee fixe--magnificent, awesome and deeply egocentric--that the towers
are being created for him. Petit had a girlfriend at the time, who says each
day is like a work of art to him. He talks in the film of seizing the space,
defying society's soul-killing laws, defining oneself through action. Very
existentialist, very inspiring, unless you're driving under the Sydney Harbor
Bridge and a guy falls through your roof and you die. Part of me says, we
can't permit people to endanger themselves and the public. The other part
says, wow.

There's a long-distance shot of Petit on that Sydney bridge in which you can't
see the wire; he looks as if he's walking on the air. There's another shot of
him suspended between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral: Inside, priests are
prostrating themselves before the altar, unaware there's a man above them
swaying on a thin wire, juggling. The Trade Center scheme involves cohorts
from several continents, figuring out how to shoot a steel cable from one
tower to the other, rocking the wire to simulate the wind while he practices
in a field. And then comes the day and night and day, which I won't spoil.
It's funny, though, that at the same time Petit is going up, Richard Nixon is
coming down. It goes without saying--and happily, "Man on Wire" doesn't say
it--that all this took place in a more naive time, that the notion of
foreigners with fake IDs slipping past guards into the Twin Towers has a
different meaning now. So does the prospect of falling from the top.

The most miraculous thing about "Man on Wire" is not the feat itself. It's
that as you watch it, the era long gone, the World Trade Center long gone, the
movie feels as if it's in the present tense. That nutty existentialist
acrobat pulled it off: For an instant, he froze time.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

Coming up, comedian Don Rickles. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Don Rickles on his memoirs, "Rickles' Book," his mother
and his relationships through the years

Don Rickles has been a night club comic for more than 50 years, relying on a
mostly ruthless barrage of observations and insults. He waited until age 81
to write his memoirs, which have just come out in paperback. They tell of his
days with Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Bob Newhart and other famous friends.

It still can be startling to hear what Don Rickles got away with in his prime,
and the laughs he got from his jokes mining stereotypes about
African-Americans, Jews, Mexicans, Poles and homosexuals. If you're
Scandinavian, you're safe. Here he is in 1968, 40 years ago, playing with
certain members of his audience in Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of nigthclub show)

Mr. DON RICKLES: I'm a Jew. We're the chosen people. We don't have to do
nothing. Pick up a couple of dollars and phone God. `Hello, God.' Jews, got
to be like the Jews, just sit in the house in the living room in your
underwear. `Put on the TV, Shirley.' (Burps) That's all Jews do, sit in the
underwear, belch and watch TV.

The Irish guys are staggering around, the colored guys are going, `Glory,
glory, hallelujah.' The Mexicans: `I'm going to the toilet. I don't care
what the colored guys do.' And the queers, they're going, `Let's go in the
park and have a love out.'

These are the jokes, lady. If you're waiting for Billy Graham to come in
here, forget about it. At the finish, I give out dirty pamphlets. You got to
be a Jew, lady. You're the only one with a stole on, and it's a 105 in here,
for crying out loud.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RICKLES: You're either a Jew or an old beaver in heat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKLES: Is she laughing? Take a look. Ah, it doesn't matter.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Don Rickles' book, co-written by David Ritz, is titled "Rickles'
Book." I spoke to Don Rickles last year when his memoir was first published.

Don Rickles, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. RICKLES: Thank you, Dave. Nice to be here.

BIANCULLI: You start the book with a great anecdote about the time that you
got up the nerve to ask Frank Sinatra to come to your table and say hello to
impress a date.

Mr. RICKLES: What it was, was that the punch line is, I was with this--I was
in my single days. I'm married 42 years. I don't want to blow it now. I was
with this young lady who I thought would be an easy mark for me, and we had
this evening and we went to the Sands Lounge, and she was all dressed up and,
you know, kind of a good kid, but not my cup of tea for life, let's put it
that way.


Mr. RICKLES: And Frank Sinatra was over at the other side of the lounge. In
those days, they had walking, strolling violins and they had the caviar and,
you know, the flaming things for hors d'oeuvres. It was really plush. Today
it's not like that at all. Anyway, so I was sitting there with her and she
said to me, `Oh, this is a lovely evening,' she said. `Is that Frank Sinatra
over there?' and he was there with a couple of security officers and Lena
Horne, I remember, and some other stars of that caliber...


Mr. RICKLES: ...all sitting with him and Dinah Shore. And she said, `Do you
know Frank Sinatra?' And I said, `Are you kidding, sweetheart? He's like a
brother. What are you--don't be ridiculous. Of course I know him,' because I
figured if this works out, it will be a big help. She said, `Wow. You think
we could ever meet him?' I said, `It's done. Forget it. Relax. Boom. Just
you wait here, hon, OK?' And I got up and I went over and I went, `Frank,' and
he had the security guys and he always called me Bullethead and the guy said,
`Rickles is here,' and he said, `Oh, what is it?' `He wants to talk to you.'
`My pleasure.' I said, `Frank, if you could walk over--I know you're busy with
these people--and just say, `Hi, Don,' it would help me a lot. He said, `It's
done.' `But don't come right away.' And so I went back to the table and she
said, `What happened?' I said, `Just chatting with him, sweetheart. Don't

And we had another tea, I had another drink, and boom, and with that Sinatra
walked up, and the violins are playing, and he walked over and he said, `Don,
how are you? It's your old buddy, Frank Sinatra.' And I went, `Not now,
Frank! Can't you see I'm with somebody?' And I stood up and did that loud,
and the whole lounge stopped. The violins stopped. The waitresses stopped.
Everything stopped. And the girl went into sugar shock, and it resulted in
good things for me.

BIANCULLI: And then, of course, you had Frank Sinatra come to see you when he
pretty much ran not only Miami, but the world.

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: And in the book--well, you credit your mom with making that
connection. How did she do that?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, my mother was sort of a Jew Patton, as I said in the
book. She was a very strong-minded lady and American born in the sense that
she knew what was going on, and Dolly Sinatra lived in the Fontainebleau at
the time, that was the very major hotel. And my mother said, `I want to get
Sinatra to see you.' I said, `Ma, take it easy.' And she said, `Don't worry,
dear. I know what to do.'

And she went up to Dolly Sinatra's house--apartment in the Fontainebleau and
said, `Dolly, darling'--because she knew Dolly, as I did--and she said,
`Dolly, would you get to see'--she called me `my sonny boy.' Would you get
Frank to see sonny boy Don at Murray Franklin, she said, `Etta, it's done.
It's done, darling. Don't worry.' And sure enough a few days later, in walked
Frank with an army of people, and that was the beginning of our friendship.

BIANCULLI: And I know this is a familiar story, but one more, I can't resist
hearing as you tell it. What you said to Frank Sinatra from the stage when he
was watching you perform that basically launched your career into a different

Mr. RICKLES: Well, for some reason, the press picked up on it right away and
it got all over Miami. I said, `Frank, stand up. Be yourself. Hit
somebody.' And nobody ever talked to Frank like that, and in my style, in
my--which I take pride in. When I perform, I have a funny attitude, which is
very important, and he, thank God, he laughed like crazy. And the guys with
him went, `Frank, we find that funny.' Had they not, I would've been on the
Jerry Lewis telethon.

BIANCULLI: And are there things in your act that were OK for you to say
decades ago, in terms of the ethnic jokes that you make? You haven't had to
change any of those through the times. You're OK with what you did then, what
you're doing now, and the audience is OK with the way you're doing them?

Mr. RICKLES: David, they say politically incorrect, you know, what they say
today is very strong. But after so many years of having this reputation, that
people accept me for my ethnic humor...


Mr. RICKLES: ...because I'm an established person. They know it's not
somebody that came up Thursday and made up these things. They know my
reputation and they know how far and long I've been doing it, and I've been

BIANCULLI: A couple of times in your book you refer to Spider--I'm going to
need some help here, because I think it's a name for, what...

Mr. RICKLES: Take a wild guess, Dave.

BIANCULLI: I'm thinking a bodily organ.

Mr. RICKLES: Absolutely, absolutely, and he's a great friend of mine.


Mr. RICKLES: He takes naps and he wakes up and helped give me two children
and he's a wonderful guy and I'm very proud of him.

BIANCULLI: Well, and it just seemed so odd to me, and you've put it in print,
so I feel it's OK to ask...

Mr. RICKLES: Oh, sure.

BIANCULLI: ...where did "Spider" come from?

Mr. RICKLES: My sense of humor. I always used to, you know, I didn't want
to say other words, and I thought Spider was kind of cute, and the audience
responded to it. I suddenly started talking, at the beginning of my show, I
said, `Oh, Spider's so tired tonight. I don't know what's the matter with
him.' And it tells the whole story right then and there, and the audience
laughs, and again I say, what the audience laughs at, I do. I keep hitting,
so to speak.

BIANCULLI: The book, in many places, is a love letter to your mother.

Mr. RICKLES: Yes, it is.

BIANCULLI: And I'm wondering how her support of you, not only when you were
young and starting out but what appears to be all through your life, translate
to the way you've treated your own children and grandchildren?

Mr. RICKLES: You know, that was very sweet what you said. I got a little
emotional when you said that. It was a love letter to my mother, now that I
think about it. And she was a great lady, a very domineering lady and a very
possessive lady, she had those sides, but she had a great charm. She was very
educated, and she was very supportive. Because as all actors are,
David--trust me when I say that. I can say it for all of us...


Mr. RICKLES: ...every actor when he was a kid was shy--I really believe
that--as I was, and my mother was my strength, although at times she made me a
little nutsy by saying, you know, `Do this, do that.' In other words, we'd go
into a restaurant when I had gained a little fame and they would know me, and
I'd walk in and she'd say, `Darling, I know the maitre d'. Don't--just stand
over there. Charles, how are you? A table for my son and my friends.' And
she would be a take-over person.


Mr. RICKLES: And I used to go, `Oh my God, why'd she do that?' But I found
out, as years and years went on, that her strength was a great boost for me as
a person and as a performer. And she lived through me. She really did. She
was a frustrated performer herself but never admitted to that, but she lived
through me.

BIANCULLI: You were in "Casino," opposite Robert De Niro.

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: And how did that offer from Martin Scorsese come to you?

Mr. RICKLES: Marty Scorsese, who's the best, and he somehow said, `Rickles
would be perfect for "Casino,"' and a lot of people didn't know it, but the
part of Billy Sherbert was not in the original script. Marty wrote that in,
and the joke was that Rickles played a mute, because I didn't have much
dialogue. But they said I was pretty damned good in it and I was kind of
happy to hear that, and Marty said, `I want that presence,' and I said,
`Marty, I don't have a lot of dialogue.' He said, `But your presence, Don,
your presence is going to be great.' And he was very demonstrative about it.

And sure enough, I got to be in "Casino" just because Scorsese reached out for
me, and of course I had to meet Robert De Niro. You went through a cycle.
You had to first go and sit with Marty and talk, then you had to go and see De
Niro, and I went over to his place at the Bel Air Hotel and I said, `Bob I'm
here--supposed to talk to you.' And he said, (Imitates De Niro) `Well, oh, OK,
OK. It was good to see you.' And he mumbled, and that was it and that was the
beginning of our friendship.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, you tell a story in the book--I don't remember whether it
was at rehearsal or during the first day of filming, where you actually make
fun of him...

Mr. RICKLES: I did.

BIANCULLI: ...which again, is sort of like Frank Sinatra all over again.

Mr. RICKLES: I did. I did. They told me, David, they said, `Don't make fun
of De Niro, Donald. Don't kid around. He's a very serious actor and he likes
to work very hard.' And I said, `Well, I do, too,' but you know, `Just cool it
with the kidding around.' So I said, `OK.' But I don't listen. You know, the
first day we were doing a scene and he was--of course, we talked and so forth,
but he walked and he said--we had what they call a handheld camera walking
down the casino, and he went, `You know, Don, it's so good mm mm.' ' And I
said, `I can't, Marty. I can't work with a mumbler. I walk out. I don't
need this. I got a lot of money. And I'm walking. I don't need it. Stop
making him mumble, otherwise I walk.' And he started to laugh, and that broke
the ice, and I've kidded him ever since.

BIANCULLI: You dance around it, or allude to it gently through most of your
book, but at one point you actually acknowledge that mob connections simply
were part of a successful Vegas nightclub career back then. Would you
consider that a fair assessment?

Mr. RICKLES: Absolutely. I mean, when you say, you know, "mob," they were
great guys, and I didn't get involved into delving into what time they went to
bed or what gun they had. It was nothing like that, but they were the guys
that ran Vegas and they were the guys that ran nightclubs and I was very--they
were very kind to my mother and to me, at the time. I was single then, and I
knew a lot of them by first names, but I never delved into their personal life
because I wanted to live. That's a joke. But...

BIANCULLI: Yeah. A little late on the laugh, but I got it. Yeah.

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah, but they were also great to me and you needed them.
Without them--the Copa Cabana in New York. I don't think I ever would have
got to the Copa unless certain people made some calls and said, `You've got to
put Rickles into the Copa Cabana.' That was a big shot for me, to be in the
Copa Cabana. My God, to headline there was highlight of my career, really.
One of my highlights.

BIANCULLI: Finally, I want to ask you about one other part of your book,
where you're actually very tender, and that's talking about your friendship
with Bob Newhart. And you talk about traveling with Bob Newhart. We've
interviewed--we on FRESH AIR have interviewed Bob Newhart, where he's given
his side of your traveling stories. And here in the book you talk about it as
being like a tour of the loudmouth and the librarian.

Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: What's the ongoing appeal of traveling with Bob?

Mr. RICKLES: We both have, believe it or not, the same sense of humor when
we're alone socially. On stage it's apples and oranges.


Mr. RICKLES: He does brain humor and I do what I do and he's beautifully

BIANCULLI: You do Spider humor, is that what you do?

Mr. RICKLES: You're really hung up on that, aren't you, Dave? You like
that. Are you married?

BIANCULLI: No, not anymore. Keep moving. Nothing to see here.

Mr. RICKLES: OK, well, I was going to tell you, you have Spider talk to her.


Mr. RICKLES: Anyway, David, we've always hit it off as family and as
friends, and it's a great unwritten quality that we both have for each other.

BIANCULLI: How long have you know each other now?

Mr. RICKLES: Oh my God. I'm married 42 years. I don't know, about 35

BIANCULLI: Well, that's amazing. What is it about you that allows you to
claim as close friends, not only Bob Newhart, you know, who's so quiet and
shy, at least on stage, but Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra, who could be so
aloof and hard to approach?

Mr. RICKLES: Well, what can I tell you, Dave? It's my personality, and
Frank, he always had a thing about me that was kind of warm and sweet, and
Johnny got a kick out of me, and Johnny was a loner, as David Letterman is,
and I became good friends with David Letterman--anyway, so I hit it off with
them. What can I say?

BIANCULLI: You've said a lot, and it's in your book. So Don Rickles, thank
you very, very much for being on FRESH AIR today.

Mr. RICKLES: Thank you, David. I hope you'll read the book again.

BIANCULLI: Comedian Don Rickles in a conversation recorded last year. The
now 82-year-old entertainer's memoir is called "Rickles' Book."

Coming up, I review the second season premiere of "Mad Men." This is FRESH

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

Review: David Bianculli reviews the second season of "Mad Men"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli.

The AMC cable series "Mad Men" returns for its second season Sunday night and
arrives with so much momentum it risks being hit by a backlash because people
are so tired of hearing about it. Certainly more people have heard about it
than have seen it. In its first season, this drama series about the men and
women in a New York advertising agency in 1960, was viewed by an average of
only 1.1 million people. The lowest rated show on the CW network gets more
viewers than that. But "Mad Men" has gotten all this attention and broken
through because it's so daringly original. The period, the themes, the
characters--"Mad Men" is exploring unique territory here.

In terms of being totally unlike anything else on TV at the time, it's like
"Hill Street Blues" or "Twin Peaks," like "The Cosby Show" or "Seinfeld." And
attention has been paid. "Mad Men" just scooped up a huge amount of Emmy
award nominations, including the first Outstanding Drama Series nod ever given
to a show from basic cable. And just last weekend, the Television Critics
Association honored "Mad Men" with three awards, including Program of the

That may make a lot more people curious enough to check out "Mad Men" Sunday
night. But if they didn't do their homework by watching the first season DVD
set, series creator Matthew Weiner isn't going to make it a particularly
smooth reentry. Even for loyal fans, the return is jarring because we rejoin
the characters and the story at a later point in time. When we last saw the
employees at Sterling Cooper, it was 1960. For season two, we pick up the
action on Valentine's Day in 1962. It's supposed to be the age of Camelot,
but you also feel the anxiety a lot. In his dream factory of an ad agency, no
one seems to have what he or see really wants. Every time "Mad Men" hones in
on a character, we can almost taste the longing and the desperation.

Jon Hamm, as the agency's creative director Don Draper, is starting to feel
the first pressures from what his own industry has dubbed the Pepsi
generation. Clients want the men designing their ads to be younger. And
Peggy, who used to be Don's secretary, has risen through the ranks to be one
of the few women writing ads. You'd think she might be nicer to the woman
who's taken her place as Don's secretary, but instead Peggy enjoys the small
sense of power that comes with her new position. Here's Elisabeth Moss as
Peggy approaching the desk of her replacement.

(Soundbite of "Mad Men")

Ms. ELISABETH MOSS: (As Peggy) Do you have any idea when you'll be expecting
Mr. Draper?

Unidentified Actor: (As Lois) I was expecting him at the beginning of work
today, but then he called and said he'd be late. He said he was going to the
movies, "Pinocchio."

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Thank you. Are you insinuating something?

Actor: (As Lois) I wasn't doing anything, I don't think.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Well, I believe that. I want you to imagine when you
talk about Mr. Draper that he's standing right behind you. And think about
that whenever you speak of him.

Actor: (As Lois) Are you going to tell on me? I didn't know. What did I do?

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Do you know where Mr. Draper is?

Actor: (As Lois) No. I don't. I think he was joking.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Lois, do you know where Mr. Draper is?

Actor: (As Lois) He's out.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Thank you, Lois.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: The first two episodes, the only ones sent for preview, are much
less concerned with specific story lines than with probing the attitudes and
insecurities of the characters. Joan, the redheaded office manager played by
Christina Hendricks, gives a cold welcome to the company's newest arrival, a
brand new gizmo called a Xerox machine. Then she gives an even colder
shoulder to one of her colleagues, making you realize there are elements to
her character we've barely seen yet.

And that's true of almost every person in "Mad Men," which is why it's so
rewarding. Don's picture perfect wife Betty, played by January Jones, isn't
so perfect after all. At one point, she flirts with a car mechanic to lower
his rates, just to prove to herself that she can. Young ad account salesman
Pete, played by Vincent Kartheiser, has such a slick surface veneer that when
tragedy strikes, he doesn't know how to act--or more precisely, how to not
act. "Will I cry?" he asks Don. He doesn't really know. And neither does
Don, who offers him a drink instead.

There's an awful lot of drinking in "Mad Men," and even more smoking. But
like the fashions, the IBM typewriters and the music, they're just other signs
of the times. Weiner uses those times to comment on our own--about job
insecurities, office politics, gender relations--but not with a heavy hand.
Even though his characters seem to know the world is changing around them,
Weiner is enjoying himself every step of the way. The first thing we hear in
the second season premiere is Chubby Checker singing "The Twist," with a lyric
that seems chosen intentionally to welcome back viewers who found and enjoyed
"Mad Men" last July, almost exactly a year ago. "Let's twist again," Chubby
Checker sings, "like we did last summer." The invitation is infectious, just
like the series itself.

(Soundbite of "The Twist")

Mr. CHUBBY CHECKER: (Singing) Come on, let's twist again
Like we did last summer

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Doo bap bap
Doo bap bap

Mr. CHECKER: (Singing) Yeah, let's twist again

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Doo bap bap

Mr. CHECKER: (Singing) Like we did last year

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Doo bap bap

Mr. CHECKER: (Singing) Do you remember when

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Doo bap bap

Mr. CHECKER: (Singing) Things were really humming?

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Doo bap bap

Mr. CHECKER: (Singing) Yeah, let's twist again

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Doo bap bap

Mr. CHECKER: (Singing) Twisting time is here


Mr. CHECKER and Unidentified Singers: (Singing)
Around and round and up and down we go again

(End of soundbite)


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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