DATE June 18, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mike Myers discusses his father's death, the genesis
of Austin Powers, Guru Pitka, and influences in his life
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Mike Myers has created some great characters over the years. When he
was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," from 1989 to '95, he became famous
for his sketches like "Wayne's World," "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman" and
"Sprockets." In his three "Austin Powers" films, he played both the swinging
superspy and his arch rival Dr. Evil. Myers' new satirical film, "The Love
Guru," is built around a character he's been developing for years, Guru Pitka.
Pitka has a posh ashram in LA where many celebrities come to seek
enlightenment. The movie is in part a comic tribute to Deepak Chopra, who has
become a good friend of Myers. In fact, Myers wrote the introduction to
Chopra's new novel about a comic who bears some similarities to Myers. Here's
a scene from "The Love Guru." It's a flashback. The young Pitka, who is still
known by his American name, Maurice, is in India, sitting at the feet of his
guru, along with another young acolyte. The guru is played by Ben Kingsley.
(Soundbite of "The Love Guru")
Mr. BEN KINGSLEY: (As guru) Deepak, why do you want to join the
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Deepak) To find my true self.
Mr. MIKE MYERS: (As Maurice) Ah right, kiss ass.
Mr. KINGSLEY: (As guru) Maurice, why do you want to join?
Mr. MYERS: (As Maurice) I want to become a guru so girls will like me, then
I will like myself.
Mr. KINGSLEY: (As guru) Deepak, you'll enjoy love in all forms.
Maurice, you must wear this chastity belt.
(Soundbite of elephant trumpeting)
Mr. MYERS: (As Maurice) Chastity belt? That sucks!
(Soundbite of gong)
(end of soundbite)
GROSS: Mike Myers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a real pleasure to have
you here. Let me start by asking you to describe the character of Guru Pitka.
Mr. MYERS: Well, the character is--he's an American who was raised in an
ashram in India, and he is taught a non-denominational, fictional belief
system, kind of like "The Force" in "Star Wars," called drama. And he's
taught in the ways of drama by his guru, the Guru Tugginmypudha, who is played
by Sir Ben Kingsley, and he's the number two guru in the United States, number
two self-help spiritualist in the United States. Number one is Deepak Chopra,
and he lives in his shadow.
GROSS: Now Guru Pitka has a self-help book for every problem in the world.
What are some of the titles of his books?
Mr. MYERS: "I Know You Are, But What Am I?" Another book he has about
self-talk is called "Stop Hitting Yourself. Stop Hitting Yourself."
GROSS: I like if...
Mr. MYERS: Hold on, there's one more. "Why Are You Still Hitting Yourself?"
And he has a book on the grieving process called, "What's This? A Dead One of
GROSS: And I like, "If You're Happy and You Know It, Think Again."
Mr. MYERS: Yes, that's correct.
GROSS: Did you read a lot of those books before writing the movie?
Mr. MYERS: In 1991, my father passed away. Two things emerged creatively
for me. One was Austin Powers. My parents are from Liverpool, England. My
dad used to literally wake me up at night, even on a school night, to watch
British comedies. So Austin Powers is a tribute to all the British comedies
that my father made me watch, in essence. I'm glad he did. And the Guru
Pitka started as a way of dealing with that loss. It kind of rocked my world.
I didn't understand why the universe would take away the one guy I wanted to
see all of this amazing success that was happening, all of my dreams--more
than my dreams because I never thought it would go this well. He died in '91,
and I just started reading. I started reading things, philosophical things,
spiritual, and this is something I've been working on for many, many years. I
wanted to have a very silly delivery system for some ideas that I actually
believe in, which is you've got to initially lighten up, go back to the old
pain and rewrite a new paradigm.
GROSS: Before your father died, had you ever explored anything remotely
religious or spiritual?
Mr. MYERS: And I'll add on to that, I hadn't even looked at anything
philosophical. It rocked my world, man. I was in a lot of pain. I
really--nothing really bad had ever happened to me. My career was taking off.
You know, all of those dreams were happening. And then there was this
interesting contradiction that, you know, on the weekends, I'd go home and
visit my father who was in a hospital with Alzheimer's. It was rough. And in
1994, I did a show of five characters, one of which was Austin Powers. The
other one was the Guru Pitka, both for the first time. And it just is the
flip side of it. One was all the British comedy that my British father had
exposed me to. And the other was all of the reading that I had been doing to
kind of--I was in a, "What's It All About, Alfie?" state. It wasn't
depression. It was--I call it being life slapped. Life smacked, you know?
GROSS: Let me ask you, when your father died, he had already had Alzheimer's.
Mr. MYERS: Yeah.
GROSS: And I think I read that you felt his personality had disappeared about
a year before he actually died. So how did that affect your grieving process
for him since he'd already stopped being the person that you remembered and
stopped being the person that you could really communicate with in the way
that you did before he got Alzheimer's?
Mr. MYERS: Well, there's no conclusions. That's the hard part of
Alzheimer's. That's the cruel part of it is you start to see him be
forgetful, you start to see him not be present. And this is a funny guy. You
know how like the Beatles were funny in "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help" and
all the interviews.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mr. MYERS: (Using Liverpool accent) You know, the "turn left at Greenland."
You know, there's always a joke. Nobody can get too full of themselves in a
Liverpool house. You either, you know, get cut down verbally, or in some
cases you get a cuff to the back of the head; but, you know, very working
class background. And in Liverpool it's an interesting place because it's
always been economically depressed. So the only thing that people own are
their own bodies. It's the most sexual place I've ever been to, sensual,
passionate, one of the most violent places, one of the most loving, and
everybody can play guitar and tell a joke. It's an amazing--it is the pool of
GROSS: But getting back to your father and grieving after...
Mr. MYERS: Well, he was one of those guys.
Mr. MYERS: And so the ultimate irony of having somebody who is full of life
from the pool of life is watching the life force leave his body. And there's
nothing you can do about it. And so there was a time when I realized that his
personality had left his body. It was sad, but there was no body to grieve
over. And so it was a very, very protracted and hellacious experience. And
it sets a feller thinkin', you know. And, you know, like Father's Day was
just this Sunday. I mean, it's still a little rough. Christmases are rough.
But pain plus time, you know, time wounds all heals, as they say. And...
GROSS: Can I just stop you right here?
Mr. MYERS: Sure.
GROSS: Because I think a lot of our listeners are thinking, `Wait a minute.
This is Mike Myers. He's really funny.'
Mr. MYERS: Right.
GROSS: `And what he's talking about is pain.' Like he's talking about...
Mr. MYERS: Well, pain plus time. That's--you know...
GROSS: ..is his quest for spirituality, and I think people are going to be
really surprised by how serious you're sounding and how in pain you still
appear to be.
Mr. MYERS: You know, I'm highly functional. I do think that my father is up
in heaven watching all of this. I do believe that we'll all hang out later,
that temporarily I'm not able to see him. But honestly, you know, comedy is
pain plus time, as Lenny Bruce said, and there is just a, you know, I don't
know quite how to put it. I think, you know, my father's philosophy was
there's nothing so painful that can't be laughed at eventually. And the state
of grace is having that detachment to find even the darkest situations. And I
think that's what comedy does for us. You know, Loren Michaels used to say,
you know, no matter how freaked out he was, he used to put on Johnny Carson,
and all was right in the world. Because Johnny would talk about whatever's
going on in the world, and, I don't know, gives dignity to the proceedings.
That's how I like to see it.
But, you know, the movie's very silly. I mean, silly is the delivery system
of this movie. You know?
GROSS: So you were raised in part on British comedies. You say your father
used to wake you up in the middle of the night to show them to you.
Mr. MYERS: He'd be like, `Ooh, there's something really funny.' And I'd be
like half asleep in my jimmy-jams and I knew I had like a math test in the
morning. And he'd go...
(Using Liverpool accent) ...`Well, you can study the math test in the morning.
This is really funny. It's Peter Sellers in "I'm All Right, Jack," and you'll
And I would wake up and he'd make me a cup of tea to wake me up. He's like...
(Using Liverpool accent) ...`Ooh, let's make some tea and watch Peter
Sellers.' And it's one of my happiest memories. It was an amazing bond, you
know, with my father. You know, it's...
GROSS: What about James Bond films? Like how were you first exposed to them?
Mr. MYERS: Well, of course, he was British, and so my dad, you know, British
people are--there's nobody more English than an Englishman who no longer lives
in England. And so he lived in Canada and his house looked like a house in
Liverpool. It was like Canadian on the outside and, you know, filled with,
you know, brass horses and figurines and, you know, pictures of Liverpool and
stuff. James Bond was British. My dad loved Sean Connery. He loved Michael
Caine. Michael Caine because he had a working class accent. Most actors were
(Using British accent) `Hello. I say, how are you? I'm from England.'
And my dad had a...
(Using Liverpool accent) ...Liverpool accent like, you know, `Great, love it.
He would say the word squirrel...
(Using Liverpool accent) ...`squirrel.'
And I'd go, `Hold on. There's not that many L's in that word.'
(Using Liverpool accent) `Squirrel, cookbook, squirrel.'
And, you know, Michael Caine was one of the first people with a working class
regional accent to be in the movies. Sean Connery was just British cool.
Just he's British. We're so happy he's--you know what I mean? And, you know,
there's a lot of stuff that you're endowed with, you know?
GROSS: So let me play a scene from "Austin Powers," and this is from the
first "Austin Powers" film. And Austin Powers is on the trail of Dr. Evil,
and he's with a fellow spy, a beautiful spy, of course, played by Elizabeth
Mr. MYERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And they're pretending to be husband and wife so that they can check
into the hotel together, and here they are having just checked into their
(Soundbite of "Austin Powers")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MYERS: (As Austin Powers) So which side of the bed do you want?
Ms. ELIZABETH HURLEY: (In character) You're sleeping on the sofa, Mr.
Powers. In fact, I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you that the
only reason we're sharing a room is to keep up the context that we're a
married couple on vacation.
Mr. MYERS: (As Austin Powers) Right. Shall we shag now, or shall we shag
later? How do you like to do it? Do you like to wash up first? You know,
top and tails, whore's bath? Personally, before I'm on the job, I like to
give my undercarriage a bit of a "How's your father?"
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's so funny. Mike Myers and Elizabeth Hurley in the first "Austin
Powers" film. And I should say, in that scene, you're wearing an orange
jacket, multicolored striped pants and a blue polka-dot shirt.
Mr. MYERS: Yes.
GROSS: So how did you come up with words like, you know, deciding you were
going to use "shag" a lot and "shagadelic"?
Mr. MYERS: I, you know, me and my brothers are the only people in my gene
pool who are not from Liverpool. I have a couple of cousins who are just
north of London, but they were all from Liverpool. And they would say things
like shag and randy and, you know. The genesis, I mean, everything evolves.
The first time I did a character that was like Austin Powers, I did it on
stage. And it was a parody of all those British shows where...
(In character) ...really, really enthusiastic scientist would tell you how
And so it was a show called...
(In character) ..."This Is How It's Made."
And so I would show, like...
(In character) ...`This is a clothes washer, and here we have the barrel that
the clothes go in and a piston that goes up and down. Does that make you
horny? Does it? That piston, does it make you randy? To you, is it Eros
And that's where that crazy rift came from, and just really made the audience
And that just was that thing of the '60s and everything that was sexualized,
eroticized. There was sexy jobs, being a stewardess; sexy countries, Sweden.
You know? And just how one day that just didn't happen anymore. And that's
really the genesis of "Austin Powers" is whatever happened to swingers? I
literally was driving home from hockey practice, and I heard "The Look of
Love" by Burt Bacharach and went, `What happened to swingers?'
Let me play a clip of Dr. Evil, also from the first "Austin Powers" film.
And in this scene, he's in a group therapy session for fathers and sons that
are having problems together. And Dr. Evil's son is played by Seth Green.
The group leader of the therapy session is Carrie Fisher. And Dr. Evil's son
has a really serious complaint about his father.
(Soundbite of "Austin Powers")
Mr. SETH GREEN: (As Scott) I just think like he hates me. I really think he
wants to kill me.
Ms. CARRIE FISHER: (In character) Now, Scott. We don't want to kill each
other in here. We might say that we do sometimes, but we really don't.
Mr. MYERS: (As Dr. Evil) Actually, the boy's quite astute. I really am
trying to kill him, but so far unsuccessfully. He's quite wily, like his old
Mr. GREEN: (As Scott) This is what I'm talking about.
Ms. FISHER: (In character) OK, well, we've heard from you, Scott. Now you
tell us a little about yourself.
Mr. MYERS: (As Dr. Evil) The details of my life are quite inconsequential.
Ms. FISHER: (In character) Oh, no. Please, please. Let's hear about your
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Yeah.
Unidentified Actor #3: (In character) Come on.
Unidentified Actor #4: (In character) Come on.
Unidentified Actor #5: (In character) A story.
Actor #4: (In character) Come on. Come on.
Unidentified Actor #6: (In character) Please.
Mr. MYERS: (As Dr. Evil) Very well. Where do I begin? My father was a
relentlessly self-improving...(unintelligible)...owner from Belgium with
low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a 15-year-old
French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize, he
would drink, he would make outrageous claims like he invented the question
mark. Sometimes he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy, the sort of general
malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament. My childhood was
typical. Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring, we'd make meat
helmets. When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with
reeds. Pretty standard, really. At the age of 12, I received my first
scribe. The age of 14, a Zoroastrian named Vilma ritualistically shaved my
(Soundbite of gasps)
Mr. MYERS: (As Dr. Evil) There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum.
(Soundbite of gasps)
Mr. MYERS: (As Dr. Evil) I suggest you try it.
Ms. FISHER: (In character) You know, we have to stop.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Such a funny scene.
Mr. MYERS: Thank you.
GROSS: That's Mike Myers as Dr. Evil. And, of course, Mike Myers is
starring in the new movie "The Love Guru."
Listening to Dr. Evil, to you do Dr. Evil, I'm thinking, `He sounds like if
James Mason was a Nazi.' Tell me about getting the voice for him.
Mr. MYERS: It's Donald Pleasence's more than anything. All bad guys in
James Bond movies have a strange, mid-Atlantic accent. And they often want to
give away exactly how they're going to take over the world. They give up the
GROSS: That's true, isn't it?
Mr. MYERS: Yes.
Mr. MYERS: `Here's how I'm going to do it, so that you can have a
countermeasure that will thwart it.'
Mr. MYERS: And so that accent emerged.
GROSS: A lot of people say that the character of Dr. Evil is based in part
on Loren Michaels, and that Loren Michaels had the habit that Dr. Evil has of
putting his pinkie in his mouth. Is that true?
Mr. MYERS: Well, he doesn't have that habit anymore.
GROSS: That would definitely break you.
Mr. MYERS: It's not your--no. No. The thing is, Loren Michaels and I both
have Canadian accents. And so my exotic guy is just going to end up sounding
like somebody from Canada. You know, I hardly saw Loren Michaels. The man
who gave me a break in television and the man who gave me a break in films,
the man who I reference almost every day because he's one of those really
brilliant thinkers, really the accent is Donald Pleasence's. The pinkie may
have a faint resemblance to Mr. Michaels, but I have nothing but the utmost
respect for Loren Michaels. He's a great Canadian. I did a project on him in
grade eight, and he's been a tremendous ally to me, and just an amazing
mentor. He's a guy who has the patience to teach and what he has to teach is
GROSS: You know, I like in Mel Brooks' movies--a lot of his movies are based
on the premise like if Mel Brooks was back in history, what would history be
like? You know?
Mr. MYERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: If Mel Brooks was a romantic lead, what would that be like? Did you
feel that way about "Austin Powers"? If you, you know, if Mike Myers was this
kind of like international spy, a man of mystery, what would he be like?
Mr. MYERS: Mm. Well, I would be operating from a tremendous amount of low
self-esteem and unprocessed wounding. You know, it's funny, when I started
going out with girls, it was like right at the end of the sexual revolution.
So I watched my older brothers, and it was like, `Wow, this is great. I can't
wait.' And then it was like, `Whaa, whaa, whaa, but not for you.'
You know, that looks great when you're 11. It's like, `Wow, I can't wait.'
You know? `That'll be awesome.' They were like on the game show, and `It's a
brand new car!' I get on the game show and `It's a donkey.' Whaa, whaa, whaa.
So it is a little bit of a fantasy realized. But, you know, the main thing
that's interesting, you know, "Austin Powers," the reason, in my opinion, and
this is the dramatic thesis, if you will, of a very, very broad and silly
comedy. And everything I do is broad and silly. I try and give it an
underpinning of something that is on my mind, but ultimately, the delivery
system is very broad and silly. But my belief is, is that the sexual
revolution didn't end because of a sexual counterrevolution. I don't think
the right had anything to do with it, the moral right or whatever you want to
call them. I think what happens is that that kind of swinging is an
unsustainable lifestyle. I think when people cheat, it hurts their feelings.
You know what I mean?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Mr. MYERS: I think that--you know what I'm saying?
Mr. MYERS: I think that kind of stuff hurts. There's a hangover. There's
an aftertaste. There's a price to be paid.
GROSS: So were you scarred by...
Mr. MYERS: So true love triumphs over lust is the message of "Austin
GROSS: So were you scarred by missing the sexual revolution?
Mr. MYERS: I felt a little bit ripped off, yes.
It didn't seem at all fair.
GROSS: Now there was a period when I was sure you were Jewish even though it
turns out you were raised Protestant.
Mr. MYERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But I think I thought you were Jewish because you did the Linda
Richman character so well on "Saturday Night Live."
Mr. MYERS: (Unintelligible)...
GROSS: And she was the Jewish woman from New York with the big '80s
eyeglasses and the bouffant hair that she kept fluffing with her hands, and
her conversation always had Yiddish words in it like verklempt...
Mr. MYERS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and shpilkes.
Mr. MYERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So what did--where did that come from?
Mr. MYERS: Well, when I grew up in Toronto you would hear in culture like
even the Indians in "F Troop" were like, `I'm an Indian.' You know? `This is
meshugana.' You know?
Mr. MYERS: You know, as a comedy fan, you know, everybody, you know, Phil
Silvers, you see this. My father was like, people weren't American, they
weren't Canadian, they weren't English. They were from "Show Biznia." You
know, Bing Crosby was from Show Biznia.
Mr. MYERS: And you just hear an accent that is New York, and I'm guessing
now New York Jewish, could be New York Italian. It's hard to know. And when
I came to New York I couldn't believe that that accent existed in nature and
that it wasn't just a literary convention. And it all came down to hearing
somebody say, `Would you like a coffee?' A coffee? And I thought k-a-u-p-h-y,
coffee. You mean coffee. And it was daughters, dogs, coffee, you know, no
big whoop. And it's mellifluous. And it's, because of comedy culture, it's
familiar and it's comforting. The language of Yiddish is, I guess, it's
onomatopoetic. You know, to say something is drek--actually the word shrek is
Yiddish for scare. `Oh, I got such a shrek.' And now that I live in New York,
and have since 1989, it's the language of my people I feel. I get very happy
when I travel abroad and I hear, you know, dogs, daughter, coffee. And, you
know, since I'm 12, pocketbook, online, all of these things that remind me of
what is now my home which is New York City, you know.
GROSS: What did you love about expressions like verklempt? Like, `I can't
talk now, I'm getting verklempt.'
Mr. MYERS: `I'm getting a little verklempt.' It sounds like it is. You
know, you go into somebody's house and it's schmick, which means clean. `They
keep a very schmick house. Although, there's not enough windows, it's a
little finster.' Which is dark. Nit ahin, nit aher, that's another one I
GROSS: For neither here nor there.
Mr. MYERS: That you know. Yeah, it's nit ahin, nit aher, and gai
gezunterhait...(unintelligible)...these are the things. It feels closer to
the sentiment. It's a very...
GROSS: But does verklempt mean...
Mr. MYERS: ...expressive language.
GROSS: Verklempt means `I'm getting choked up.'
Mr. MYERS: Yes.
Mr. MYERS: And then some stuff I made up. Like shpilkes is real, but
"geneckteckessoink" is not. You know? `He has shpilkes in his
geneckteckessoink. I'm getting a little verklempt when I talk about him.
He's in Boca Raton. He's recovering nicely, but he is shpilkes in his
GROSS: Now you were a child performer. I mean, you were in commercials
starting when you were nine or 10. Did you get the kind of training
that--like a lot of kids in the '60s and maybe in the '70s, too, were trained
as if they were old vaudevillians, you know, like they would need to tap dance
and sing and do comedy and acting.
Mr. MYERS: Right.
GROSS: Were you trained to do all of that?
Mr. MYERS: I wasn't. You know, Conan O'Brien, when I first got on the show,
because he was a writer on "Saturday Night Live," he looked at me and he said,
`You're from olden days, you're from yesteryear.' And I went, `I guess I am.'
I don't know. Just recently PBS had a pledge and they had the singing and
dancing documentary, and I was watching, you know, "An American In Paris" and
"Gigi." And I was like, `God, I want to make a movie like that.' Then I
thought, of course, not at that level of skill, but in my own way, I did sort
of make movies like that. There is dancing in "Austin Powers" and in "The
GROSS: There's a little "Singing in the Rain" tribute.
Mr. MYERS: Yeah. And I'm just saying it's like, you know, I think I'm old
school that way. I think the training I did as an actor as a child ultimately
is irrelevant to what I did in my adult years. I think it's night and day. I
think, you know, when you're a little kid it's the, `Isn't it great that he
can do that for a little kid.' And then once you hit 18 there's no `for a
little kid,' you know, disclaimer attached to it. I loved doing it as a kid.
It was very, very interesting. My real training began at "Saturday Night
GROSS: What's the worst thing that happened to you live on "Saturday Night
Live"? The thing that really caught you up short.
Mr. MYERS: On "Sprockets," it was "Dieter's Dance Party." And Lawrence said,
`If you can take two minutes out of the sketch, the sketch gets in.' And he
said this with, the show's at 11:30, he said this at 11:10. So I ran
"Broadcast News" style to the PAs and I made cuts, and it went from "Dieter's
Dance Party Top 10" to "Dieter's Dance Party Top 5." And they still hadn't
changed the cue cards. And so some dude was behind the cue card guy sweat,
buckets of sweat, changing the cue cards, because you can never really
memorize your lines on "Saturday Night Live" because they change all the time
because of standards and practices and Lawrence' notes between dress and air.
And I had to stall at one point. I go, `Number three,' you know, "Who Are You
to Accuse Me?' or whatever the name of the song was. `Number four, uhhhhh.' I
did an `uhhhhhh,' And the dude was furiously writing on the card.
"Shreibmaschin" by The Love People, or whatever the name of it was.
The other thing was when I did "Wayne's World" it was a cold opening. It was
the day that the Gulf War broke out. It was being changed 33 seconds up until
air because we wanted to make sure that if the invasion, the first Gulf War,
was going to be horrendous casualties that we would be sensitive to the people
in the armed forces. So anything that we thought might suggest, I don't know,
being anything other than appreciative of the men in the armed services, we
cut with 33 seconds to go to a live show. So those are the two moments that
were very significant to me.
I've also cracked my head a million times backstage.
Mr. MYERS: My body is mostly--oh, sure, because I go night blind. You know,
it's very, very bright lights and then you go backstage to make a quick
change, and I can't see anything. Literally they have to, you know, pull me
by the hand. I've like cut open my hand. My head is mostly scar tissue now.
GROSS: Have you been bleeding live on the air?
Mr. MYERS: Yes, I have. And then you just have to put the bleeding hand
down stage behind your back.
GROSS: Seriously? Yeah?
Mr. MYERS: Oh, many times. I get very nervous or not--it's adrenaline. And
sometimes you cut yourself you don't even know it.
Mr. MYERS: And I've like knocked out teeth. I've got a scar over my right
eye. My hand is all cut up. Many, many, many, many quick change accidents.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MYERS: Not at all. My pleasure.
GROSS: Mike Myers' new movie "The Love Guru" opens Friday.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dr. Hugh Sampson discusses food allergies
TERRY GROSS, host:
If it seems to you that more people are developing life threatening food
allergies, you're right. There's no definitive explanation, but there's a few
theories about why.
My guest, Dr. Hugh Sampson, is the president of the American Academy of
Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. He's a professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai
School of Medicine, where he directs the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute.
Dr. Sampson, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the foods most likely to
cause an allergic reaction?
Dr. HUGH SAMPSON: Depending on the age of the individual, in very young
children the most common foods causing allergic reactions are milk, egg and
peanut. Less so things such as soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. In older
individuals, in adults, the most common foods are peanuts, tree nuts, fish and
GROSS: So what causes an allergic reaction in the first place? Why do our
bodies sometimes respond to food as if there's some kind of toxic?
Dr. SAMPSON: Well, this is part of the immune system protective response.
At a time when we had a great deal of difficulty with things such as parasites
and worms, this form of the immune system was very effective in trying to rid
us of those various pathogens. Now we don't confront those as often, and
there seems to be some missed signaling on the part of the immune system
whereby part of the immune system will inadvertently or incorrectly react
against specific foods.
GROSS: If our immune system is built the way it was to deal with parasites,
why is it having a different response when it reacts to a food that it
considers an enemy?
Dr. SAMPSON: Part of it may be related to the way we program our immune
system. And one of the theories out there as to why we're seeing more in the
way of allergy is the so-called hygiene hypothesis. We know that the immune
system gets programmed by bacteria that enters our gastrointestinal tract and
on our skin shortly after birth. And also there are effects of various
infections that we have, and the theory is that we're not getting the
appropriate signals and that's leading to this misprogramming in certain
individuals that lead to the allergic reactions.
GROSS: OK, so there's different theories about why so many people have
allergic reactions to food now. You started describing one of them which is
that we're not exposed to the same amount of pathogens as we used to be.
Dr. SAMPSON: Correct.
GROSS: And that's because of, what, antibiotics and high strength cleansers
and things like that?
Dr. SAMPSON: Better sanitation, more frequent use of antibiotics, better
preservation of food products. You know, a number of things that we've done
that have very positive health benefits but may have, you know, led to this
GROSS: So our immune system, which would have learned how to react to these
genuine pathogens, isn't exposed to those pathogens that much and so it freaks
out with certain foods?
Dr. SAMPSON: Yes, that's generally the theory.
GROSS: Did I put that scientifically enough for you?
Dr. SAMPSON: That's perfect.
GROSS: So does that explain why the number of food allergies seems to be
Dr. SAMPSON: Well, I'm not sure it does in total, and there are probably a
number of different theories. So for example if we look at the prevalence of
peanut allergy in our country, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New
Zealand, it's the highest in the world. You go to areas of China where the
consumption of peanut is really the same per capita and you see virtually no
peanut allergy. Similarly in other countries. In Africa, for example, peanut
products are introduced very early. They're ingested quite frequently and
they see very little in the way of peanut allergy. Some of that may have to
do with the way we prepare the foods that we eat. So with the case of peanut
in the US and the other countries I mentioned, we generally consume them in a
dry roasted form. And this high heat of dry roasting actually brings about
some changes, something called a Maillard reaction, in the peanut protein that
actually makes it more allergenic or more likely to cause allergic reactions.
Whereas in other countries, in Africa and China, for example, they will much
more frequently boil it so you don't get that same change.
We actually have developed a mouse model of peanut anaphylaxis whereby we can
sensitize a mouse to experience a similar kind of reaction if they were to
ingest peanut. But if we try to do it with the boiled peanut as opposed to
the dry roasted, we really can't get much of a response. So it may have
something to do with the way we prepare the foods.
It may also have something to do with when we introduce foods. So for
example, there has been a study looking at the prevalence of peanut allergy in
Israel. And in that study it was noted that the prevalence was about
one-tenth of what you saw in children in Hebrew school in London. And one of
the things that is very different there is that in Israel they use a weaning
food or a food that they first give to a baby called bomba, and this bomba
contains peanut. And it may be that actually rather than trying to restrict
exposure to things such as peanut, which has, you know, been more of a common
practice in our country, that perhaps giving large amounts early on may induce
something called high dose tolerance or may actually help prevent it. So this
is another thing that is being looked into. And there actually is a very
large study going on in London right now addressing this particular issue.
GROSS: I know you've done some studying of Chinese medicine and Chinese
herbs. What have you learned from Chinese medicine about food sensitivities
and food allergies?
Dr. SAMPSON: A lot of this work has been done by Dr. Xiu-Min Li who is in
our group and who actually came to Mount Sinai with me from Hopkins when I
came about 10 years ago. Interestingly, there is nothing about food allergy
in the books of traditional Chinese medicine. So she, through a lot of
reading and such, came up with some formulations that she thought potentially
would be effective. So she combined things that were related to allergy and
also related to some kinds of responses in the gastrointestinal tract, and
used these formulations in our mouse model of peanut anaphylaxis, and was able
to show that it completely blocked the allergic response we were seeing.
We've subsequently done some work trying to understand what they actually do.
And they have direct effects on the immune system turning down some of the
signals that promote this allergic reactivity. So we don't fully understand
what they're doing, but they're very impressive in these animal models. And
now we do have approval from the FDA and have a study that has been started in
humans, looking at the possibility that this may be an effective way to treat
GROSS: I think it's kind of exciting that the medical field is looking into
Chinese herbs as a way of treating food allergies.
Dr. SAMPSON: We have to certainly keep an open mind and I'm always open for
anything that might be useful in treating food allergies. I've been dealing
with it for about 25 years and, you know, up until this point about the only
thing we could tell our patients was you had to avoid foods and try to teach
them what dangerous situations were, and people continue to make mistakes.
Food allergy is still a leading cause of anaphylaxis.
GROSS: Which is what?
Dr. SAMPSON: Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction in which many of the,
again what I'll call target organs, so you're respiratory tract like your
nasal passages, your throat, your lungs, your gastrointestinal tract, your
skin and even your cardiovascular system, your heart and your blood pressure
can all be affected at one time. And this is something that can happen very
rapidly and lead to death. And in this country, as I say, it is the single
leading cause of the kinds of reactions that are treated in the emergency
departments in the US. Various estimates would put that in the range of
125,000 visits to emergency rooms in the US. This is based on a recent study
published by one of the FDA groups. And then also leading to about or over
3,000 hospitalizations and possibly, from other studies, 100 to 150 deaths per
year. So, you know, fairly serious problem.
GROSS: How reliable are food labels in packaged products now in terms of
telling you if there is, you know, soy or nuts or gluten or egg, you know,
whatever the offending product is? Because sometimes there's just like traces
of it. It's not like it's an egg product per say.
Dr. SAMPSON: Right. With the new food labeling law that went into effect
about two years ago now, the labeling has become much better and is much
clearer. So for example, a number of years ago they could have on the label
sodium caseinate and this is on something that's called a non-dairy creamer.
And you would think well, `There's no milk.' But caseinate is milk protein and
it's actually the major milk protein. Today, if you put something like that
in there it has to have "milk." So the eight foods that are most often
responsible for food allergic reactions--so milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut,
various tree nuts, fish, shellfish--all have to be specified on the ingredient
label that they are contained in this particular food.
I think one of the problems we're getting into is there's never really been
sufficient studies to know can there be any trace at all of a particular food
within a product and have it still be safe, because we know from doing these
various food challenges that often people will tolerate very low amounts of
food. And what's happened is, if the company is not completely sure that
there's no--we'll talk about peanut--that there's no peanut at all in there,
they will put "may contain traces of peanut," or, you know, "made in a plant
that contains or that handles peanut." And what's happened is many foods that
people had been eating without any difficulty all of a sudden have this
warning label on it and now their diets are even more restricted. So this is
something that really needs to be looked at carefully in order to help us give
people, you know, the best possible diet.
GROSS: Are there issues that pregnant women or mothers who are breast-feeding
should keep in mind that might increase or decrease their child's tolerance to
Dr. SAMPSON: Yeah, this is--you've really hit on one of the new hot areas
that's become very controversial. In the past we thought we knew what to do,
which was we were recommending that people delay the introduction of some of
these major allergens. But then stepping back and looking at what's happened
with the prevalence of food allergy, which is that it's increasing, and
looking at the evidence that we have to support the idea that people should
restrict their foods, the evidence doesn't support that as, you know, a valid
way to go. And the American Academy of Pediatrics just came out in January
with new guidelines basically saying that we don't have sufficient evidence to
tell either pregnant mothers or mothers who are breast-feeding that there's a
great advantage to trying to restrict any of these major allergens.
If we look at what studies are out there, there are studies that really
suggest either approach. Either there's a little bit of data but it's not in
any way conclusive and there's conflicting data to suggest that if you
restrict it you may prevent some of these allergies. But there's also some
evidence out there--in the experience in Israel with the early introduction of
bombas is one such case--where it's suggesting that maybe we should be
introducing these foods earlier in larger amounts. So right now we really
don't have good evidence-based data to tell us what is the best way mothers
should go. And so I can tell you in my clinic basically I explain to the
mothers that we don't have good data and that they can really do what they're
most comfortable with, and should in no way feel guilty about the outcome
because we can't tell them at the moment what is the best way to do it.
GROSS: Let me ask you, there's a lot of reaction some people get to food that
I'm not sure you'd describe as allergic or not or as an official sensitivity
but it doesn't agree with them. For instance, certain foods in some people
can cause bloating or cramping or, you know, bowel problems. Some people
think they get itchy after certain foods, but it's not a full blown, you know,
not full-blown hives, or certainly not an anaphylaxis reaction where, you
know, several organs swell and are, you know, possibly endangering your life.
What do you think of those more minor reactions? Do you think of them as food
allergies or intolerances or something different altogether?
Dr. SAMPSON: Right. No, I think many of these are what we call food
intolerances. We don't have or we don't believe they're due to a reaction in
the immune system, but clearly there are people who can't ingest certain kinds
of vegetables or fruits without getting cramping. Now we know there's some
individuals, especially young children, have something called delayed
maturation of the fructose enzyme. So this is like lactose that's used to
break down sugars in milk, fructose is one to break down sugars in fruits and
certain vegetables. And there are some young children that don't turn that on
right away and consequently end up getting fairly severe cramping and
diarrhea. And it's likely that there are other kinds of variations in some of
this enzyme activity that happens in adults that lead to cramping and, you
know, significant discomfort. And I think a lot of adults just figure out
they can't eat a certain food and just don't eat it.
GROSS: Is that something you're studying or is that like too low level for
Dr. SAMPSON: Well, it's not too low level because I have a few of my own.
But, no, right now I'm focusing on the allergic response. I'd love to be able
to, you know, get by that one, have some forms of therapy, and then I'd be
very interested to look at many of these others, because it is clearly
something that does distress fairly significant portion of the population.
GROSS: Dr. Sampson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. SAMPSON: Oh, well, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
GROSS: Dr. Hugh Sampson is the president of the American Academy of Allergy,
Asthma & Immunology. He directs the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Mount
Sinai School of Medicine.
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