TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Lots of comics hope to get their own sitcoms and, like Jerry Seinfeld, emerge rich and famous. When comic Margaret Cho got her own sitcom it was a nightmare. Her ABC series "All American Girl," which aired in the '94-'95 season, was the first network sitcom abut an Asian-American family.
Now her sitcom experience and its aftermath is fodder for her one-woman show, "I'm The One That I Want," which is running Off-Broadway. Cho describes how she was advised by people at the network to lose weight before shooting the series and how she followed through with an extreme diet that landed her in the hospital.
Here's Cho on stage talking about publicizing her sitcom at a press conference where she and her producers were questioned by reporters.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM STAND-UP COMIC MARGARET CHO'S ONE-WOMAN SHOW, "I'M THE ONE THAT I WANT")
MARGARET CHO, STAND-UP COMIC, "I'M THE ONE I WANT": I stood in front of 101 television critics for a big critic's convention, and Gail (ph) is on one side and Gary was on the other side. And the producer -- a critic asked me, he said, "Ms. Cho is it true that the network asked you to lose weight to play the part of yourself on your own TV show?"
And Gail grabbed the mike from me and said, "there is no truth in that whatsoever." I was losing it. I was starving myself to death, and yet I would read in tabloids, "Margaret Cho has thunder thighs." Or, "the chow like Cho diet."
They printed this fake diet that I never went on with fake quotes from me like, "when I was young I was raised on rice and fish."
"So, when I get heavy I go back to that natural Asian way of eating."
You could almost hear the mandolin in the background.
IMITATES THE SOUND OF A MANDOLIN
"When I was a little girl..."
"... I rode on the rice patty."
"And we don't have any food. But even though we have no food, I have a tendency to put on weight."
GROSS: Margaret Cho, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MARGARET CHO, STAND-UP COMIC, "I'M THE ONE I WANT": Thank you.
GROSS: So, I want to hear more about how you were forced to go on this diet when you had your TV show. How and why did they approach you on this?
CHO: Well, it was very sort of sensitively handled. The producer of the show called me up and tried to break it to me as delicately as possible. I think she was chosen to do the job because she was my friend.
And I probably would have accepted things from her that I may not have accepted from a man, but I don't know. And I wasn't exactly forced into it, I was -- it was just put to me -- suggested as delicately as possible. Which I think is just the same as forcing somebody to do it, especially because women are so held up to this ridiculous ideal that we should be thin and kind of perfect looking.
And I fell very much into that trap, and I was very young and very impressionable. And I think it's so taboo in our society to ask somebody to lose weight, but when somebody actually says -- asks you then I think you really do feel forced even though it wasn't really, you know, against my will. I did it.
But it certainly was very terrifying. And I lost an incredible amount of weight because it was so terrifying. I'm sure that fear was definitely a factor in there, and I talk about it a little in the show that it was diet and exercise and sheer terror as the weight came off.
GROSS: So, when they asked you to lose weight had the -- the show hadn't started yet, right?
CHO: The show hadn't started yet, we actually hadn't even shot the pilot. It was in order to shoot the pilot where I was asked. And it was interesting because it had never been discussed at all before in the development process in any of the negotiations, in any of the script meetings, in anything. It'd never been brought up.
And even before that, my weight had never been an issue in my work. I had never had a problem with it, and I was quite a lot heavier than I am now even. It was never brought up. And suddenly it was, and it was an issue.
Suddenly, overnight it was a huge issue. And I really -- I didn't know how to deal with it. If I had had the presence of mind to say no, if I had had some self-confidence, if I had a little bit more love and care for myself I would have refused. I did not have that at that time.
GROSS: But it's awkward, you know, these are the professionals. These are the people in the business who know television, and they're supposed to be giving you advice and they're telling you, hey, you're too chubby. So, you know, you're in the position where you're supposed to be deferring to their wisdom.
CHO: Exactly. And I thought that this was Hollywood, this is how it goes.
GROSS: It is how it goes.
CHO: It is how it goes. And I'm not an unusual case. It happens all the time. It happens every day. And -- but, I was not -- I was not hired for that.
GROSS: Didn't you feel like, hey, didn't you guys notice this before?
CHO: Well, it had never been brought up. It had never ever been brought up. I think that suddenly they saw that I could be more than just a comedian; instead I could be an ingenue. It would be better for me to be an ingenue, and that's I guess what they had decided somewhere through it all.
When I had been hired for my comedic talent not for my looks, although I was always insecure about my looks anyway. So, I just -- I believed it and I didn't question them.
GROSS: So, you lost 30 pounds in one week, I believe, and then ended up in the hospital.
CHO: In two weeks, and I was hospitalized and, you know, it's really -- it's really sad. It's really sick that I did that to myself. And yet I don't blame anybody, it just happened. And it certainly makes for good -- good comedy later, all my adventures in the hospital.
GROSS: Yes, it does. I'll vouch for that.
CHO: I think it's OK now.
GROSS: So, what did you do to lose weight that quickly?
CHO: I went into this ridiculous diet and exercise regime that was far too intense for me, which is why I was eventually hospitalized. And, you know, after that I kind of didn't -- couldn't really work out too much so I started taking diet pills which made my health and my sanity just was worse.
And it was really difficult to cope with all the pressures on the set, and taking the pills set a dangerous precedent later, you know, for this drug use that would not cease for many years after.
GROSS: So, you think the diet pills led you into...
CHO: ... I think the diet pills -- I mean, I had always been predisposed to that kind of lifestyle, but that really was a dangerous introduction into something else, something higher.
GROSS: So, let's talk a little bit about the show. You had -- the network sitcom, "All American Girl." Did you like the show? It was built around you...
CHO: ... it was built around me, but I did not like the show. I had no real creative control over it. I really let it get away from me. And it was very difficult, it was a difficult process for me because I was so incredibly insecure, and already my attention had been diverted into this idea of, oh, I have to lose weight and put all of my energies into that.
And so, I had very little left over to be funny. I just really had a hard time fitting into the family hour of television. My act was always way too blue way too raw and edgy for that audience. And yet here I was presented for that audience, and, you know, there was kids on the show and I didn't understand that.
And it really was -- my image was taken and distorted, and, you know, completely got so far away from who I was. And I talk about it in the show where I was so unrecognizable to myself and all I know is that I had failed, but I had failed as somebody else, which was an incredibly painful experience.
GROSS: The premise of the show was, you know, you played a Korean-American young woman named Margaret Kim.
GROSS: And this show focused on generational conflicts between you and your parents.
CHO: But, you know, the real truth of it is that it was perceived as a cultural conflict, you know. Like, oh, you know, I think that people saw my comedy -- these network executives saw my comedy and said, oh, well, it's about the struggle between East and West and actually the real struggle is what I'm saying in my stand-up is my parents are a pain in my ass. And they're not -- it's not cultural. They're just a pain in the ass.
And that's what I -- I think that was misunderstood somehow.
GROSS: Maybe you could choose an episode from the show that was actually based on something that happened in you life and compare how it happened in your life with how it was written for the show.
CHO: Well, there's something that I do in my stand-up act where my parents owned a bookstore and it was in San Francisco and it was in the '70s and it was in a gay area. And my mother had the very interesting job of stocking the gay porn section.
And so I talk about it in my act -- it's a routine that I do. And it's just -- it was taken from my stand-up and then put into the television show like my parents had a video store and I was threatening my mother that I was going to wear an outfit that one of the porn actresses was wearing.
So, that's sort of how it was interpreted for the show is that it wasn't what I was talking about was the juxtaposition of this older Korean woman kind of dealing with the idea of gay pornography, and it was that -- there was humor there for my audience and then it was taken and kind of distorted into this idea that my mother was disapproving of me because I was rebelling threatening to be like a porn actress.
So, I guess that's not the best -- that's the closest example that I can think of how it was all misinterpreted.
GROSS: My guest is comic Margaret Cho. She's performing her new one-woman show Off-Broadway. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is comic Margaret Cho. Much of her new one-woman show focuses on her adventures starring in her own sitcom, "All American Girl," which ran during the '94-'95 season. Here she is on stage describing an absurd experience she had while promoting her sitcom on local TV shows.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM STAND-UP COMIC MARGARET CHO'S ONE-WOMAN SHOW, "I'M THE ONE THAT I WANT")
MARGARET CHO, STAND-UP COMIC, "I'M THE ONE I WANT": I would go in front of talk show audiences, I had to do the talk show circuit all over the country -- there's morning shows in every market -- and some of them just didn't get it. I was on one show and the announcer said, "hey, Margaret, we're changing over to an ABC affiliate, so why don't you tell our viewers in your native language we're making that transition."
So I looked at the camera, and I said, "they're changing to an ABC affiliate."
GROSS: After your sitcom was cancelled you sunk into a bad depression and got really deep into drugs and alcohol. Did you feel at that point that you were becoming this Hollywood cliche?
CHO: Well, I kind of really got into the role of being a Hollywood casualty, you know, because to me that was a secure thing to be. That's something that I could really do, you know? That's -- I have complete control over that image, you know, like that was something that I in a way really treasured because it was -- that was me and I could do that.
And of course I eventually lost control of that and lost control of my life completely. I think that all those things that were done to me was amateur compared to what I was capable of doing to myself. I fell into an incredible depression and an incredibly self-destructive way at being that I cannot believe I survived. I was very close to death many times.
And it really is a miracle and truly great that I can look back on it and say, well, you know, it's over.
GROSS: Is three a turning point you can put your finger on where you changed things around?
CHO: Well, it -- I talk about it in the show -- it's a true story, I was dating this guy who was an incredibly irresponsible alcoholic as well and he and I ran around together. And it was one night where we just went way too far, and we woke up in the morning after a terrible drunken-drug-filled night. And we woke up in the morning and the bed was wet, but the stain was in the middle and we couldn't figure out who wet the bed.
And that is really the turning point. I mean, truly I was just -- maybe if I had -- if it had been clear who had wet the bed, maybe I would still be in that part of my life now. But the fact that it was unclear is so incredibly disgusting and rude to me that I -- you know, that nobody could claim ownership that it was all up in the air, that there was just -- we couldn't even be for sure like what happened even on that base level.
You know, it was just unendurable. And I cannot tell you what incomprehensible demoralization that is. So, you know, that really was the turning point, and after that I turned my life around completely and I feel so much better now.
GROSS: So, did you start performing more, and did you start turning the really difficult things that happened to you into comedy at that point or were you already talking about it?
CHO: Well, I had already -- you know, while it was happening I talked about it. I think the only reason that I really survived was because I still could out on stage every night and tell audiences about how terrible things were, and I had some sort of magic where I could turn it around for myself.
And on stage there I could tell them and find a funny way to talk about it and have them laughing with me and truly enjoying my despair but not at my expense. You know, it was a way to take that pain and to turn it outward, you know.
And I'm so grateful that I did because that's probably what really saved my life is that I could turn to the audience and they were there for me. But, you know, still this occurs, too, is I have a wonderful time onstage and I always have. And I am such a great person on stage and I so envy that person on stage because she's strong, she's so funny and she's so on top of it.
Because I come off stage and I fall apart. And I still have those tendencies, certainly. But now it's a little bit more manageable because I'm not drinking and I don't take drugs and I don't have any of these destructive people in my life.
But, you know, I still am not the person that I am on stage which is the person that I would always wish to be.
GROSS: But still, I mean, so much of what you talk about that's so funny onstage relates to all those insecurities that the rest of us have too.
CHO: I think that I just -- I find a way to be strong. I find a way in revealing all of those insecurities and failures and pain and sadness that through that I have strength, a kind of strength that I don't necessarily have when I step off the stage. It all kind of goes away and I have a really hard time living.
That's more personal life stuff, it's really strange.
GROSS: Well, I think if you didn't have that strength onstage that people would be feeling sorry for you instead of laughing with you.
CHO: Yes. Yeah. And I don't...
GROSS: ... don't want that.
CHO: I don't want that. I do want them to feel the strength. I do want them to feel lifted up, and that's what the response that I've really gotten from the shows that, you know, people feel really just like so happy for me and so, you know, like inspired by what I'm doing. And hopefully they can use some of that strength on themselves.
GROSS: Comic Margaret Cho is my guest. You do very funny impersonations of your mother in your performances. When did your parents come to the United States from Korea?
CHO: 1964. The same year as the Beatles.
It wasn't as exciting when they came.
GROSS: Why did they decide to come here?
CHO: My father wanted to attend University of San Francisco, and he did that. And they were actually going to leave after he finished school, but they ended up staying. And then, you know, right after I was born my father was deported.
So, I spent quite a lot of my time very early on in my life separated from my parents and then with one parent and not with the other. So, I had a very -- my memories from when I was very young are very strange. They're very disjointed and not very clear.
GROSS: Why was your father deported?
CHO: He was in immigration difficulty -- with Immigration and getting visas and things like that. It was really an awful time for them.
GROSS: But he made it back?
CHO: He made it back eventually.
GROSS: Now, you said your parents owned a bookstore.
CHO: Yes. In San Francisco, called Paperback Traffic, in the '70s and the '80s.
GROSS: What kind of books did they sell, in addition to the gay pornography?
CHO: Well, it was really a very eclectic bookstore. They sold a lot of books on art. It catered to this -- it catered to the gay community, more or less, you know. And they had a lot of books on art and photography and film and an extensive section on metaphysical studies and social studies.
And it was one of those, you know, just -- it was a really great family bookstore. And there were a lot of employees that were gay and lesbian. And my father really kind of thrust me into the care of them and saying that, you know, they would be able to educate me in a way that he couldn't. And that I should be exposed to their culture because they will teach me about art and they will teach me about the things in the world that I need to know about.
And even though he was incredibly conservative in many ways, that was the greatest way to grow, with a wonderful group of gay nannies. And it's odd, they were a very interesting bunch of guys and girls, and it was a great way to be, like, a kid.
GROSS: That's a really interesting story. Now, you have performed in a lot of gay venues: gay cruises, gay clubs.
GROSS: And though you've described yourself as heterosexual, you've also described yourself as a slut, but we'll get into that later.
But anyway, I'm wondering if when you perform, say, at a gay venue if people don't realize that you have boyfriends when they find out that you do if they feel that you're -- that it's inappropriate that you should be performing there?
CHO: Oh, no. I've never come across that. I really feel at home in gay clubs and gay bars. That's how I started, you know. One of the first gigs I ever had was working in gay bars doing comedy. And I always have had that audience. That is my audience in life, and certainly it makes sense for that to follow me into my career.
GROSS: Margaret Cho. She's performing her one-woman show, "I'm The One That I Want" Off-Broadway through mid-August. She'll be back in the second half of our show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with comic Margaret Cho. She has a new one-woman show called, "I'm The One That I Want" that she's performing Off-Broadway. Much of the show is about her adventures starring in the sitcom "All American Girl," the first network sitcom about an Asian-American family. It ran during the '94-'95 season. Her new show is also about her real family. Her parents moved to San Francisco from Korea in the mid '60s.
Now, in addition to running the bookstore, I know your father also wrote joke books.
CHO: He wrote one joke book and -- which was a kind of a reference book for speakers to, you know, like toastmaster's quotations or jokes for speechmaking or -- I don't really know. I can't read it, it's in Korean. I don't read Korean.
GROSS: Is he a bit of a jokester himself?
CHO: Well, I guess so. I think he's more of a scholar, but he's not really that, you know, he's not really a cut-up. I suppose it's more of a literary thing.
GROSS: Did he take an interest in jokes when you were young?
CHO: No, but when I was young I used to watch this show called "Comedy Tonight" with my father, and it was stand-up comedians and, you know, there were a lot of people on that show like Whoopi Goldberg and Bobcat Goldwaite and all these different comedians. And it was a local show, it was like San Francisco and it was just all these different people.
And my father and I would watch it on Thursday at 9:00, and we would laugh and he would laugh. And my father loves stand-up comedy. And we would also watch Richard Pryor movies together; even though I was so young and I didn't really understand what was happening, you know, and all of the sexual material and everything was lost on me.
Yet, it was so delightful to see my father laughing -- my father, this incredibly serious, incredibly dour stoic man laughing. And I thought, oh, well this will be, ultimately, a way to please him if I go into stand-up comedy. Which really wasn't the case. He was very angry at me for years for embarking on that career.
But I think early on I kind of thought, oh stand-up comedy is something that my father likes and, you know, maybe can I do that.
GROSS: Why was he angry with you for becoming a comic?
CHO: Well, he just did not believe that it was possible for me to have a career. My parents, both of them, did not want me to do stand-up comedy. They didn't want me to into acting. They didn't want me to go into anything that they did not just -- they were not able to kind of see the outcome in.
They just did not think it was possible, you know. They experienced such intense racism and hatred and difficulty just surviving as Americans in the '60s and '70s. And so they just could not believe that this country would accept their child in that way.
GROSS: Did you run into racism when you were starting your career and trying to establish yourself?
CHO: Yeah. Oh, yeah. But not really -- you know, it's always there. It's always a little bit there and it never really goes away. I left a manager pretty recently, maybe a little more than a year ago, because he said, "you know, Margaret I think the Asian thing puts people off."
And that's -- what an incredibly strange thing to say. Like, you couldn't -- you can't imagine what that does, you know, but it's so subtle and doesn't sound racist and maybe it can almost be like, oh, he's trying to be helpful. But how is that helpful? I don't know.
It happens still, you know, and it's never been really extreme and it's never -- it's always subtle. It's always these little things that say, well, you don't really belong here and you're going to be treated differently no matter what.
And it's these little reminders that somewhat undermine, you know, I guess my strength but not really. I think it also fortifies my strength. It's just a very -- it's a strange environment, yet I don't know how it would be any other way. I know that what I do is ultimately a political thing.
I know that I am political because of my existence, but I can't think of it in those terms because I just -- I have no idea what it's like not to be me. You know, I don't know what it would be like as anybody else so I can't speak from that experience or say that it's -- that I experience racism or, you know, I know that I do but I don't really think about because I always have. So, it's not a big deal.
GROSS: Can you give us a sense of what your act was like when you were a teenager and just getting started?
CHO: Well, it was pretty much the same thing, you know, I was just talking about my family and talking about my relationships and how hideous they all are. And that's all I've ever done, you know, just talking about my life.
GROSS: What would you say about your mother then?
CHO: When I talk about her, I don't really talk -- I don't really judge her or say anything about her. I just say what she says.
CHO: You know, I'm just repeating what she says. And to me the voice of my mother in my act really is the voice of my Asianness (ph). The fact that I am very -- a very modern person. I'm very independent and yet there is a part of me that is ancient and as old the culture and I cannot let go of. I cannot let of the color of my skin and I cannot let go of these things that will always be there.
And so I cannot let go of this voice that is always going to be there.
GROSS: Could you do your mother's voice for us?
CHO: Oh, yes. Well, she -- whenever I talk to her lately she's very...
IMITATES MOTHER'S VOICE
"Mommy is so famous because you always do mommy, and mommy is so famous. I play golf and everybody know who mommy is."
And it's true, they all know.
GROSS: How does your mother feel about you doing her onstage?
CHO: Well, she loves it, yet my parents have never come to see me perform. I think that what I do terrifies them I think that they cannot bear it, in a way. That they are so proud and so excited for me and always watch me on television and are always there showing their friends videotapes and playing my records and being there for me; but they cannot come see me because I think they just are so afraid.
And I don't invite them because I'm terrified as well. I don't know if I'd be able to do it if they were there. I don't know.
GROSS: What are they afraid of?
CHO: I'm not sure. I think that what I do also is so culturally -- it's just this very outlaw thing. You know, to discuss your feelings and intimacies and failures and pain so openly and so loudly. And to do so, all these things, and get laughter and on top of it all, be a woman, is so outrageous that I think that it's hard for them to really, really enjoy what I do. But they have to.
GROSS: My guest is comic Margaret Cho. She's performing her new one-woman show Off-Broadway. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is comic Margaret Cho.
You were on "Star Search" when you were getting started.
GROSS: Do you remember how Ed McMahon introduced you?
CHO: Well, you know, I wasn't -- I was really heartbroken because I wanted to do "Star Search." All my friends were doing "Star Search," and it was like this big deal, you know. And they didn't let me do regular "Star Search," they had me do "Star Search International," which was a special section of "Star Search" where you would make less money. It wasn't for $100,000, it was for $5,000.
It was only one competition and it was -- you were battling out people from other countries.
GROSS: What country were you supposed to be from?
CHO: I was supposed to represent Korea, which is ludicrous because I'd only been there like twice. And I really found that incredibly insulting, yet there was no way around it. You know, there was no way around it. I could do that or not do the show.
And so I just decided to do it, and fortunately it turned out well enough for me because I did write about it, you know, and talk about it in my act later. Which was really good, and yet it was very heartbreaking at the time because it made me realize that I was always going to be judged, you know, to a different standard.
It would always be harder for me, and that I would have to be twice as good, three times as good, four times as good to just be even thought of as an equal. And, you know, it really set me up for future pain, I guess. But -- or helped me learn how to deal with that future pain.
GROSS: Did you win?
CHO: I didn't even win.
I came in second to a guy from Canada, which is unfair.
GROSS: Exotic Canada.
CHO: I think part of the problem was that I wasn't foreign, you know. I just wasn't international.
GROSS: We talked a little bit about the show, the sitcom that you used to have, "All American Girl" and the conflicts between your character and that show and her parents. Have you had a lot of kind of cultural conflicts with your parents over the years?
CHO: No, well, you know, what was lucky for me was that I was expelled from high school when I was 15 years old. And so I disappointed my parents so young that they learned not to expect anything from me, and that gave me the freedom to really have the best life.
Because I know so many people that are my age and my generation who are Koreans and are just paralyzed by parental control. They cannot break free from the expectations and the needs and desires and wants of their parents to go into certain careers that, you know, they wouldn't necessarily pursue. But only do it to keep their parents happy.
And because I was so assured not to get parental approval so young that I just -- I had this incredibly, like, free ride. Like I could just go and pick and choose whatever I wanted to do because I didn't have to worry about what they were thinking and what they were going to be concerned with.
GROSS: Why were you expelled from school?
CHO: Juvenile delinquency.
I am really a juvenile delinquent, also, which is a kind of funny aspect I guess of my life. I was a young thief, a young hustler. Always -- always working a grift, but now I'm walking on the straight and narrow.
GROSS: Well, tell me more. What did you do?
CHO: Well, I just, you know, I never went to class. I was in a school -- I was smart enough to get into a school that was for school that was for kids with above average intelligence, kind of like a magnet school. Which, you know, was a big deal where I was from.
And then I was eventually expelled from that school. And it was all for bad grades, and, you know, cutting class and there were other, you know, petty crimes likes shoplifting and, you know, possession and all this like ridiculous stuff.
And really, you know, I think I had so much energy and was so frustrated with my life that I was just looking for -- I didn't want to be bad. I was just looking for, you know, something to do. I think I was just bored. And thank God I found comedy, you know, because that really kept me busy and got my mind off of crime.
GROSS: Now, your new show is Off-Broadway. What are some of the differences for you performing at a theater Off-Broadway versus performing at a comedy club? Are there things that you can do in a theater that you don't think you can really do in a comedy club?
CHO: I think there are really practical things like I have a dressing room with beautiful flowers and telegrams from all over the world. And, you know, lovely things to drink and eat, and everything around is mine and I have a wonderful rack full of costumes from designers like Jemma Cong (ph) and Todd Oldham (ph) and all these like beautiful things.
Whereas at a comedy club I'm in a storage room with big blocks of lard and straws. So, you know, the fact that I have the ability to, you know, eat chocolates and, you know, sit in front of a beautifully lit mirror and have all these books and just really be comfortable. That's really why I love being in a theater. It's really wonderful.
GROSS: One last question about your parents. As you explained, they ran a bookstore and there was a gay porn section in the bookstore. You use a lot of sexual language and sexual description in your show, and I'm wondering if you think your parents would be shocked or offended by the language that you use.
CHO: Well, you know what htey do is whenever they see it -- they do see it eventually, you know, after a while like on video or on a record or something. And then that's when they're -- they use their selective understanding of English.
IMITATES MOTHER'S VOICE
"I don't know what this mean, but everybody think that so funny."
So, that's what my mother would say.
IMITATES MOTHER'S VOICE
"Why is (unintelligible) this. That's not that funny."
She doesn't know what it means, but she does. Which is ultimately the greatest joke of all.
GROSS: Well, Margaret Cho, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
CHO: Thank you.
GROSS: Margaret Cho is performing her one-woman show, "I'm The One That I Want," at the Westbeth Theater in Manhattan through mid-August.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Greenwich Village in the '60s is the focus of the new tribute CD, "Bleeker Street." It features the songs of such folk originators as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen re-interpreted by Marshall Crenshaw, Loudon Wainwright, Chrissie Hynde and others.
Music critic Milo Miles has a review.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP-- MUSIC FROM "BLEEKER STREET")
MILO MILES, MUSIC CRITIC: Here's a sharp idea: take a batch of current musicians known for their vivid songwriting and turn them loose on the best material done 30-odd years ago as folk was turning into folk rock. Back then Bob Dylan had moved from reverent roots music imitations to more poetic urban and modern visions.
A community of performers centered around lower Manhattan was knocked out by his move, and began painting in brighter, wilder colors themselves. Of course this sweet ideals and romantic fancies of that era are long gone, and that's not all that's changed.
Nearly all the performers here have rock and roll associations, though none suffer from fear of folk music.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP-- MUSIC FROM "BLEEKER STREET")
MILES: Marshall Crenshaw does Dylan's "My Back Pages," Jonatha Brooke does Simon and Garfunkel's anthem "Bleeker Street," Chrissie Hynde does Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory" and so forth. Some combinations are strange; nobody would have called Suzanne Vega and John Cale a natural singing duo, but they cover a Leonard Cohen song and people never thought he could make it as a vocalist.
And the voices are surprisingly at least as rich and resonant as their models.
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MILES: What the original Greenwich Village folky crowd had that cannot be improved is plain old-fashioned smarts. Their best tunes were literate without being literary, cultured without being academic. The clarity, wit and forceful language of songs like "Pack Up Your Sorrows," "Everybody's Talkin'" and "Thirsty Boots" make them plain exciting to hear, whether they refer to personal or public upheavals.
I'm not going to fall into the trap of saying, "they don't write them like this anymore." I will say it's delightful that the modern musicians who honor these oldies have the sensitivity to make the most of them without protective irony.
If the hearty optimism of, say, Dino Valenti's (ph) "Let's Get Together" has grown pale and tattered there's no reason to be bitter, it's still a fine tune.
GROSS: Milo Miles is the editor of rock.com He reviewed "Bleeker Street: Greenwich Village in the '60s."
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Will the Internet be the death of English? That's a prediction we hear from a lot of critics. It's the most recent in a long line of dire complaints about the state of the English language.
But our linguist Geoff Nunberg isn't so sure our language is in a state of decline. From one point of view, he says, the language is in better shape than ever.
GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: In the stock market, being bearish hasn't been a very successful strategy these days. On the language market, though, it's always a sure thing. At any time in the past 400 years you could claim that the language is falling apart in full confidence that you'll never get called on to cover your short positions.
From Jonathan Swift to the current crop of Sunday supplement language pundits, commentaries on the state of the language are an unbroken stream of Jeremiah's and complaints. When you take the history of complaints as a whole, in fact, it can be little perplexing. Surely those bears couldn't all have been right or we'd be reduced by now to communicating in orsine (ph) grunts.
But none of that shakes the faith of the current generation of critics, and to tell the truth I have the same impression myself. I look around me and the signs seem unmistakable that the language is in a bad way.
I'm not talking just about the arcane rules of grammar that tell you when to use "each other" and one another," or what the difference is between "in behalf of" and "on behalf of." Nobody knows that stuff anymore, not even the copy editors at "The New York Times."
But people seem to have lost their grip even on the simple things like when to write "it's" with an apostrophe. But are we really in worse shape than we used to be? Maybe it's just that I'm getting old and cranky.
The fact is that complaining about the state of English has always been an old man's game. And I mean man, curmudgeon is not a word we use of women. And it occurs to me that maybe there was just as much of this going around 20 or 30 years ago, but that I was merely too callow to notice it or too mellow to care.
It would be a hard point to prove one way or the other. We don't actually expect the people who complain about the state of the language to document their claims the way we would if they were economists. "The pronoun `whom' was off sharply last quarter as the language was already reeling from a 37 percent increase in the use of `office' as a verb."
Critics just assume that most people knew how to write and spell correctly until things started to fall apart a generation or so ago. But maybe this is just an affect of the selectivity of literary memory. Whatever becomes of the general run of evil that men do, their bad writing is usually interred with their bones.
We don't have to read the inner office memos or popular journalism of earlier generations, and it can come as a shock when you rummage through a pile of old magazines at a garage sale and realize that the "Saturday Evening Post" was a lot worse written than "People" is.
For that matter, we tend to forget how bad our own writing used to be. Here's a high concept idea for a little language book: somebody should publish a collection of the freshman compositions of John Simon, Edwin Newman and William Safire, always assuming you could get them to give them to you.
And yet, something has been changing over the years. It isn't that people are writing worse, but that they're writing more and spreading it about more widely. It's the effect that Jacques Barsan (ph) described 50 years ago as, "the endless multiplication of dufferism."
On a per capita basis, we aren't producing a lot more novels or histories than we were in the 18th century. But there's been a huge growth in sectors like popular magazines, government pamphlets, press releases and user manuals; most of them written by people who would not have been putting pen to paper in the age of Samuel Johnson.
The Internet is just the latest development in this process. People keep pointing out that the wonderful thing about the Net is that anybody can post a message and reach a potential audience of millions. And anybody has been doing exactly that.
The proportion of the population who wit down at a keyboard everyday has probably increased tenfold over the past few years. A great number of them people whose writing use to be seen only on the refrigerator doors.
They're people who were never able to spell very well, but over the telephone you couldn't tell. They're two ways to think about this: on the one hand, you could say that writing was generally better when three were fewer people doing it the way Major League pitching was better before league expansion.
On the other hand, there's never been an age when the average person has written so much or so well. Writing is like whistling after all, people tend to get better at it the more they practice.
But even with the broad indexes up, I wouldn't look for the language bears to change their tune any time soon. That's what makes language criticism different from economics, it never pays to be bullish.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
I'm Terry Gross.