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The Musical Magic Of 'Glee'

Ryan Murphy, the creator of Fox's musical-comedy series Glee, says that he drew on his childhood experiences as a choir singer when he conceived of the show.


Other segments from the episode on September 11, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 11, 2009: Interview with Ryan Murphy; Interview with Jay Leno; Review of the documentary film "No impaction;" Interview with Robert Hass.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Musical Magic Of 'Glee'


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli of, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

Last May, the Fox network demonstrated the faith it had in one of its new fall
prospects, a musical comedy series called “Glee,” by offering a sneak preview
of it right after the final night of competition on “American Idol.” This week,
“Glee” was launched officially as a fall series. So we’re listening back to
Terry’s interview with the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy. Ryan Murphy also
created the WB teen comedy titled “Popular” and the darkly comic FX series,
“Nip/Tuck,” about two egocentric cosmetic surgeons. Murphy also directed the
movie, “Running with Scissors.”

The series “Glee” is about a high-school teacher who is trying to put together
a winning glee club with a group of students who are, for the most part,
unpopular misfits and not particularly talented, with one or two key
exceptions. The high school teacher, played by Matthew Morrison, also has to
contend with challenges from the coach of the cheerleading squad, who sees the
glee club as competition. In this scene, the cheerleading coach confronts him.
She’s played by Jane Lynch.

(Soundbite of television program, “Glee”)

Ms. JANE LYNCH (Actor): (As Sue Sylvester) So I had a little chat with
Principal Figgins, and he said that if your group doesn’t place at regionals,
he’s cutting the program. Ouch.

Mr. MATTHEW MORRISON (Actor): (As Will Schuester): You know, you don’t have to
worry about glee club. We’re going to be fine.

Ms. LYNCH: (As Sylvester) Really? Because I was at the local library, where I
read Cheerleading Today aloud to blind geriatrics, and I came across this
little page-turner: “Show Choir Rule Book.” And it turns out you need 12 kids
to qualify for regionals. Last time I looked, you only had five and a half.
Here – cripple in a wheelchair. I also took the liberty of highlighting some
special ed. classes for you. Maybe you could find some recruits because I’m not
sure there’s anybody else who’s going to want to swim over to your island of
misfit toys.

Mr. MORRISON: (As Schuester) Are you threatening me, Sue?

Ms. LYNCH: (As Sylvester) Threatening you? Oh no, no, no, presenting you with
an opportunity to comprise yourself? You betcha.


Ryan Murphy, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now you know, the premise of this show is
that there's a teacher trying to put together a really good show choir who can
make it to the nationals and even win, even though he's working with this kind
of like ragtag group.

Mr. RYAN MURPHY (Creator, "Glee"): Right.

GROSS: I'm not familiar with a show choir, and I assume that these exist, that
you didn't just make it up for the series. But the show choir, it's like a
choir, and it's a singing competition, but what they compete with is big, like,
song-and-dance production numbers. It's not just, you know, people in robes
standing there singing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: No. I mean, it was an interesting thing that - when I was a kid, I
was in choir, but it was, you know, literally 16 of us in sad-looking tuxedos
and acetate dresses, singing, you know, Christmas songs. But the world has
changed since then. When we started writing this, we would go into YouTube, and
we would look at these videos of these extravaganzas, and they are literally
like Broadway-level shows.

I mean, we were working with a choir, during the pilot, from Burbank, who I
think literally would spend $100,000 a year on costumes and sets and production
value. So they had, I think, one woman who was a full-time sequin-sewer. So we
sort of tap into that a little bit, but on our show, you know, our show was
about underdogs, but we have the world's worst glee club. And I think the fun
of the show, to me, is being able to sort of chart these kids who have nothing
going for them but heart and, you know, natural talent, and then over the
course of the series, they will hopefully become national champions.

GROSS: So while you were going onto YouTube to look at all these show-choir
production numbers, what were some of the most unlikely songs that you saw show
choirs do?

Mr. MURPHY: I think - you know, it was very interesting about how moving it was
to me. I was not expected to be so moved by it, but I think there's nothing
more moving than kids singing and performing their hearts out, just because it
seems like they're tapping into something so pure.

MARTIN: That's why I'll even look at, like, high-school musicals sometimes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it's sweet. And you know, I remember being that
age, and when you do perform, and you are in high school, I mean, I grew up in
Indianapolis, Indiana, but I thought that I was on Broadway. You know, you have
this sort of weird misconception that the whole world is open to you, and maybe
that's not a misconception, maybe it's the truth, but I pulled from that.

That feeling is in the show, but to answer your question, the funniest thing I
saw was a boy-band tribute, where they did, like, a medley of 15 boy-band songs
that I thought was pretty amazing. But they did it through the prism of Western
wear. So they all wore cowboy outfits, and so it was sort of this weird smash-
up of elements that you kind of can't believe would work, but it did. And it
worked because it was just so earnest, they believed in it so much, and that's
what I loved about it.

GROSS: So how did you go about, like, shopping for songs that you should use,
and what were some of the more unlikely ones you decided on? I'll name on: "I
Kissed a Girl" for the audition.

Mr. MURPHY: Right. The best part of my job is I pick all the songs, and people
ask me how I do it, and it's just bizarre. I don't really know. Like for
instance when we were doing the pilot, there was the sort of arch-nemesis
group, the world's best show choir that's competing against our little ragtag
group of losers called Vocal Adrenaline. And they're sort of like, you know,
the neo-Nazis of show choir, that they train for 12 hours a day, and there
really are groups like this. So it's not too much of a leap of faith.

But I wanted them to do something that was sort of big and ironic, and then I
was in my car, and I was listening to the Amy Winehouse album "Back to Black,"
and "Rehab" came on, and I thought well, that's it because I think it would be
funny for 16-year-olds to be singing about rehab and not really knowing what
they're singing about, put through a prism of show choir.

So that's how we did that. There are other songs that, you know, I just loved
as a kid. Like you know, we're working on a show where we do a big finale to
the Queen song "Somebody to Love." We're doing our version of "Don't Stop
Believin'" by Journey. Also the show was fun in that, you know, we try and pick
songs where there's something for everybody.

You know, in almost every episode, we'll have a standard, we'll have a
Broadway, we'll have an R&B, we'll have a Top 40, we'll have a hip-hop. We're
doing country and western. So we're trying to hit everything.

GROSS: Now one of the kids in the choir is, like, the real nerdy guy who plays
a real, like shredding guitar, but he's in a wheelchair.

Mr. MURPHY: Yes.

GROSS: So how do you cast, like, the nerdy guy in the wheelchair? Like what
were you looking for, for that character?

Mr. MURPHY: For every character, you know, I mean, I think when you do a show
like this, you need to do archetypes, but you also need to do things that are
just original. And I wanted to do a character that, from day one, is in a
wheelchair and remains in a wheelchair for the rest of the show, and the show
is really about - you know, the show-choir thing I think is a metaphor for
being different and embracing your difference and being able to express
yourself no matter how hard or how much pain you're in.

So for instance, for that character, we just read and read and read, and the
actor we cast, his name is Kevin McHale. He actually was in a boy band and is
in a boy band, and I think the name of their boy band is - I think it's called
Not Like Us.

But he's hilarious, and we actually had to give him what we call a make-under
because, you know, in this boy-band stuff, he's in his tight little T-shirts
and come-hither looks, and we sort of put him in these polyester, horror-show
outfits. But that's how we cast that part. We just read and read, and you know,
the rule was the best performer wins for every role, and that's how we cast it.

GROSS: Now in the TV series, "Glee," there is a jock who it turns out sings
really well, and he's kind of recruited into the - enlisted into the glee club,
and he's accused by one of his fellow jocks of joining the homo explosion. Were
you accused of being gay when you were in choir - and you are gay - so what…?

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. I had a very strange experience with that. I mean, I'm from
Indiana, which is a very conservative state, and I don't know what happened to
me or by what grace of God I sort of was imbued with all this confidence, but I
dealt with my sexuality at a very early age.

I was 15, and I just sort of announced it, and I was that, and I guess because
I was popular, and I hung out with popular kids, you know, one of my best
friends - and who is still one of my best friends - was the quarterback, I kind
of was embraced.

People didn't really understand me, but I projected a certain confidence. So
they left me alone. I mean, certainly I got teased a little bit, but I had a
very sort of wicked tongue, and I could go right back at them. So it didn't
last very long. But looking back on it, you know, I'm sort of moved by the fact
that I didn't have a struggle, and I know so many people who did have a
struggle and were terrified of dealing with it, and I dealt with it with my
parents very early on.

And they, of course, were not happy about it. And they, of course, took me to
therapy. But I had a great therapist who, after two sessions, basically called
my parents in and said this is who your son is, and this is who he's always
going to be. And you either have a choice to love him or accept him, or he will
leave you, and it's your choice. And they sort of said okay, and they chose
accepting me, and so we never really had much drama about it again.

GROSS: Oh, you are so lucky, especially since they were - the parents who
wanted you to change were the ones who put you into therapy and to find a
therapist who got it is kind of so lucky and amazing.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, you know, and I don't blame my parents about that at all. I
mean, also I was 15 and having an affair with a 22-year-old, which was not

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MURPHY: When I have a child, and I will, I would not allow that to happen,
either. So I sort of look back - yeah, but certainly I write about all that,
and you know, as we move to series, we have, I think, a very moving storyline
about a father who is coming to terms with the fact that his child is singing
and is different, and he's a blue-collar guy.

And a friend of mine, who is a great actor named Mike O'Malley, plays the
father of the gay character, who works at a tire shop and just cannot believe
the fact that his son is dealing with skin care and astringents and singing.
And that is to a certain degree based on my life a little bit, but you know,
the show is - that's one-tenth of the show. The show, I think, is so much more
consuming about every aspect of being young, not just that.

GROSS: Now in "Glee," all the kids in it are in some ways losers. Like everyone
in it is in some way a loser.

Mr. MURPHY: They're all losers.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like when you were in high school, you were pretty popular
and confident. So why do you relate to losers so much?

Mr. MURPHY: Well because I was different, you know, and my friends were
different. I had two groups of people. I had a group called the clique -there
were eight of us - and then I had my other group of friends. And the group that
we called the clique were all the people who were, like, in drama club or in
honor society. And we were just different and unusual, and our dreams were
bigger than where we were, and we wanted to get out, and that feeling I really

And that's the sort of the feeling that's in all those characters, that you
know, that their dreams are so big that their little heads almost can't contain
them. That's what's moving to me, and I certainly draw on my experience when
we're writing the show in that way.

BIANCULLI: Ryan Murphy, creator of the new Fox series “Glee.” He also created
the WB teen comedy “Popular” and “Nip/Tuck,” the FX series about cosmetic
surgery. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let’s get back to Terry’s interview from earlier this year with Ryan
Murphy, creator of the new Fox musical comedy series, “Glee,” about a high
school glee club. The series premiered this week.

GROSS: Now you covered Hollywood for the Miami Herald (unintelligible)…

Mr. MURPHY: A lot of places: the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Daily News.
Yeah, L.A. Times.

GROSS: So you covered Hollywood before actually becoming a part of it in the
sense of, like, creating television shows.

When you were just, like, covering it, and you were writing about, you know,
new shows, and, you know, the lives of famous actors and stuff, did you think I
really want to be a part of that, or did you think oh I could do that, or I
could do better than that? Like, what was your relationship to Hollywood as a
journalist, and did you want to get deeper into it?

Mr. MURPHY: I did. I mean I always wanted to do that. I couldn't really afford
to go to film school, even though I was accepted, but I always, in the back of
my mind, thought well, I'll get out there somehow, I don't know how. And how it
happened was I was transferred to L.A. at a very young age.

I was sort of like the L.A. bureau chief of the Miami Herald back when
newspapers had money and could afford to do things like that, and I was going
to start writing about news, but there's not a lot of news in L.A.

So it became about celebrities and the business of Hollywood and all that
stuff, and I had a syndicated column. And it never was that I wanted to be a
part of it, I just, at one point, I think what happened was I had interviewed
Cher for the fifth time and I was like okay, you got to do something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: Even though I love her, I can't keep writing about her. We had joke
about it. But – and I went, and I wrote a script, and at night when I was done
working, I would stay up every night till like three in the morning writing.
And I sold that script to Steven Spielberg, and that started my career. It just
sort of happened. It was very sort of miraculous and - easy is the wrong word
because guess that I had been preparing for that moment all along. But I
literally just sort of wrote it, sold it, and fell into it and have never
stopped working since. So it seemed to be a very…

GROSS: What was the script?

Mr. MURPHY: It was a great script that’s never been made, but it's called "Why
Can't I be Audrey Hepburn?" That was a big romantic comedy, and Spielberg
particularly to a shine to it because he directed Audrey Hepburn in her last
movie, which was "Always." So he had a great relationship with her, and it was
just about what she means as a metaphor in terms of romantic comedy to so many
people and this sort of this paragon of style that so many girls at a
particular age always aim to emulate.

GROSS: So your parents were religious; they were church people. Did that make
it harder for them when you came out?

Mr. MURPHY: Probably. Yeah. I think, you know, we were Catholic, and that was a
- you know, the things you don't want to do when you're a Catholic person is
talk about abortion or gay rights. So yeah, I think it probably was more
difficult for them - and I went to Catholic school, as well.

GROSS: Well, so how did you deal with Catholic school and with going to church.
I mean you had been in the church choir. Once you were out, like, could you
stay in Catholic school?

Mr. MURPHY: I only went to Catholic school when I was in, you know, first
through eighth grade. But I was just a weird kid. I mean I really, I lived in a
weird fantasy land, and I was obsessed with, you know, movies and TV shows and

books and anything to sort of get me out of there, and I got through Catholic
school because I became obsessed with the idea that I could be the Pope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: I was very...

GROSS: You got to be kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: No, I was - I wanted to be Pope. It was, like, well - and so in
first grade, I announced to family that I really wanted to be Pope, and I was
very confused about how do you be the pope. And so my mother would tell me that
you became the pope by not committing any sins. So I would sort of begin my day
every morning with a prayer, please don't let me sin. And, of course, by the
time I got off the bus I would've committed three, and then I was, like, well,
this day's ruined. I'll start again tomorrow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: But I would practice with my staff, and I had this outfit of robes.
I would pretend to - I mean, I was really into it for very, very many years,
and then slowly it dawned on me that I would not be able to go through a day
committing no sin, and chances were that I wasn't going to be the pope. So I
had to come up with another dream because I wasn't interested in just being a
priest. I wanted to aim really, really high.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: But that was my childhood.

GROSS: Outside of being, like, the top guy, why did you want to be pope?

Mr. MURPHY: I was also obsessed with a book about the saints, and I thought it
would really cool to be the pope because then you could decide who would get to
be saints. And I was very interested in that process, of sort of sitting people
down or investigating them and figuring out what if what they had done made
them worthy of that.

I don't know, I was just very drawn to it. I think it's the same - there's no
difference to me in my head about the little six-year-old kid who was obsessed
with "Funny Girl" and who wanted to be the pope. It's the same thing. You just
wanted a way out. You wanted a way to express yourself and just sort of not
stay in Indiana and be an insurance salesman or a farmer. And they both were so
grand and bigger than life, I was just drawn to that. And I was actually
encouraged by my friends and family to keep doing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: So I did. I was just a weird little kid. I liked weird little

GROSS: So since you had at one point wanted to be pope, when you came out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... and you were kind of persona non grata...

Mr. MURPHY: Doesn't it sound ridiculous?

GROSS: Well...

Mr. MURPHY: That you wanted to be the pope, but I did. It's sad. I did.

GROSS: Yeah, whatever, you know, but so when you came out and making your
little kind of officially persona non grata in the Catholic church, did it hurt
to be rejected by the church, or were you already done with the church by then?

Mr. MURPHY: I was already kind of done with the church at an early age, but I'm
very, very glad that I had that religious upbringing because, you know, it
really taught me about storytelling, and it really taught me about
theatricality. I mean, you know, the Easter services and the idea of people
being raised from the dead and curing leprosy; and the, you know, the stations
of the cross and all that stuff I was very drawn to, and I realize now that I
was probably drawn to it because it was just about a way to tell a story.

And so, I feel like I was very well-served by that. And I still go to church,
you know, even though the church is not very embracing. As a whole, I think if
you look at individual archdiocese, you see that, you know, many of the priests
and the nuns and the people who work at the church are. So I do go to church.

I go to church, you know, here in Los Angeles, and I have always been embraced
in the church. The different kind of churches that I go to seem to have a sort
of large gay contingency, and no one says anything. So, I just think that it's
a different world than it was. I don't think anything is black or white

GROSS: As the creator of "Glee," which is a musical, and a music competition…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …about music competitions, I have to ask to you: If you could get up on
stage now and sing any one song, what would you choose?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: That's a good one. It would probably have to be "Don't Rain on My
Parade" because I remember that was the first movie I ever saw - and "Funny
Girl" - and I practiced that one a lot with a kitchen spoon in front of the

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: So I would probably give that one a try.

GROSS: Well, I wish I could see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Ryan Murphy, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. MURPHY: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Ryan Murphy, speaking with Terry Gross in May, when “Glee” was given
an advance sneak preview. The show premiered officially this week. Here’s the
version of “Rehab” that was performed in the pilot of “Glee” by a champion show
choir. I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Rehab")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.

They tried to make me go to rehab, and I said no, no, no. Yes, I've been bad,
but when I come back you'll know, know, know. I ain't got the time, and my
daddy thinks I'm fine. He's tried to make me go to rehab, but I won't go, go,

I'd rather be at home with Ray, with Ray. I ain't got 70 days, 'cause there's
nothing, nothing, nothing you can teach me that I can't learn from Mr.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Jay Leno's Path, From Struggling Comic To TV Star


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

On Monday, Jay Leno takes part in one of the most significant and potentially
game-changing experiments in TV history. The former host of NBC's "Tonight
Show" is taking his act to prime time on the same network, in a comedy and talk
show that gobbles up five key hours of TV time every week.

If Leno succeeds and other networks follow suit with low-cost programming
instead of expensive dramas, broadcast television as we know it will be vastly
different. If he fails, well, it's just the latest high-risk gamble by a
veteran, hardworking comic whose memoir was called, quite fittingly, "Leading
With My Chin."

Terry Gross spoke with Jay Leno in 1996, when his memoir was first published.
He told her his childhood was different from those of many other comics.

Mr. JAY LENO (Comedian): Most comics that I've read about are men who always
seem to have these horrible childhoods, and the comedy came out of this
horrible pain, which is legitimate, certainly. It just didn’t work that way for
me. For me, the humor was always the fact that my parents were in there 40s
when I was born. And besides my mom being an immigrant Scotland, my mom being
Italian, the differences were so hilarious…

GROSS: Your dad being Italian.

Mr. LENO: …yeah - were just hilarious to me. I mean, I’ll never forget, you
know, in that sort of teenage rebellion thing, I remember I was in the eighth
grade when the Beatles were on "The Ed Sullivan Show." And you know, I said,
hey, dad. The Beatles are going to be on. Hmm, ha, hmm. You know my father. The
Beatles - whatever that is, you know. And, so anyway, the Beatles come on and
they're singing, yeah, yeah or whatever it is, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and
I see my dad with the newspaper in front of his face, you know, deliberately
not watching, you know.

And I just said to him, I said, you know dad, you know, the Beatles write all
their own music. And my father just puts the paper down and he says, let me
tell you something. You know, some manager gives these kids a couple of bucks
to go out on the stage and act loony and you kids all fall for it. And you
know, I couldn’t even argue with that. It was so ridicules. That was my
father's whole explanation for the Beatle's career. Some guy gives them a
couple of bucks and they go out and they act loony.

GROSS: Do you remember your first laugh in front of an audience?

Mr. LENO: Yeah. And this is sort of a story I've told a lot, but it’s - the
first adult laugh. I remember always doing things. I remember the first thing I
ever said that got attention, and I remember it was - I couldn’t have been more
than maybe four or five, but I remember I was over at one of my aunt's house,
and my mom was there. And, you know, woo-woo, all the women were fussing around
and there was some sort of get together going on.

I don't know if they were just getting together for coffee or what it was, but
it was like me and like five women, all my aunts and everything. And I remember
saying to my mom, I remember saying, just making this observation. I said, mom,
why do girls have humps like camels all across - woo-hoo. All the women were,
woo, did you hear what the child said? Woo. I had no idea what I said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: But I remember all the women…

(Soundbite of cough)

Mr. LENO: …excuse me, running around. My mom going, oh, for goodness sakes,
hustling me out of the room, and people laughing hysterically. And I'm
thinking, what did I say? What did I say that caused woo-hoo-hoo-hoo? You know,
my aunt, you know, those kind of big women that would fan themselves when they
heard something funny - woo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, like this. Ooh the child, you
heard what he said? Woo-woo-woo.

Mr. LENO: And I never got an answer to my question. But I just remembered that
getting this tremendous reaction. And, you know, as a comic, I have a sort of a
theory about comedians. They always remember everything that got a reaction.
Any kind of reaction. Just, it’s like it makes an etch in your brain, you know?
And that was the first thing that ever got a reaction.

And then, the second time I remember it happening was in the fourth grade, and
it was a joke - I didn’t think was that funny a joke, but at the time it was
the first joke I think I ever said that sounded like an adult joke. It wasn’t
just a kid joke.

We were in Miss Allen, who is still a great friend of mine. She was my fourth
grader teacher, and she's still teaching now. I realize now that must've been
like her first year. And she was teaching us about Robin Hood and, you know,
the Sheriff of Nottingham was very cruel. And I remember her saying that when
the Sheriff of Nottingham would catch Robin's men, he would boil them in oil.

And I remember putting my hand up and I remember saying, well, he couldn’t do
that to Tuck. And she said, why? And said, well, he was friar. You know, just a
stupid joke. And it got kind of a laugh. And then I got scolded for it. But I
remember later in the hall, I was walking down the hall and one of the other
teacher said, hey, Jay, come here. What did you say in Miss Allen's class? What
was the joke you told? I said, they couldn't boil him in oil. He was a friar.
Oh, yes.

And then another teacher asked me about it. And I said, geez I like this, you

know? This is great, this sort of feeling of influence. This is terrific. And
it just always kind of stayed with me.

GROSS: All he ever wanted was a little bit of attention.

Mr. LENO: Just a little bit of attention.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was your humor ever considered a behavioral problem?

Mr. LENO: Yeah. As a kid, I was one of those hyperactive kids, and, you know, I
was the classic - Jay has the ability, but does not apply himself…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: You know, if Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be
funny - I mean, I still have that on my report card from Mr. Simon, my fifth
grade teacher, that if I'd spent as much time studying as I do trying to be
funny, I would be a big-time comedian or something like that. And, of course, I
hear from Mr. Simon all the time now about, oh, how prophetic he was and that,
you know, and it just kind of makes me laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: When you were starting in comedy…

Mr. LENO: Uh-huh.

GROSS: …there weren't comedy clubs, yet. Not as we know them. Some of the
venues that you played included retirement homes, prisons, mental hospitals -
this is through a state program in Massachusetts.

Mr. LENO: Yeah.

GROSS: I think you got like 10 bucks for a performance?

Mr. LENO: We'd get 10 bucks a show to do an old people's birthday parties for
the state.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LENO: We used to do prisons. I did a show at, like, Walpole State Prison,
and prisoners are not a good audience, you know, because comedy is based on a
certain civility. How folks. How are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: You know? And when you got a guy sitting in the front row and he's
got a little blond kid on a choke chain…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: …wearing underpants sitting on the floor next to him, that's not an
ideal audience, you know?

GROSS: What material would you do in your prison…

Mr. LENO: You just do your regular act. I only had my act growing up, whatever.
You know, I used to do these psychiatric homes and, you know, they'd get like -
you know, and this is not to make fun of psychiatric patients, but, you know,
you go to them hi, everybody. How you doing? And then, like, in the middle of
your act, there’d be a guy in the corner going…

(Soundbite of Jay Leno screaming)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: And then orderlies would come in – and, like, oh, this would just
break the mood of the whole room, you know. Hey, anybody here from Boston?

(Soundbite of Jay Leno screaming)

Mr. LENO: You know, hey, hey, calm down there fellow. How you doing? You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, did this give you confidence, performing in front of people who

Mr. LENO: Well, it was fascinating…

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LENO: …because you realized - it wasn't until I performed at like this
place Lenny's on the Turnpike in Boston that I ever got a professional

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: You know, I could always say in my own mind, well, you know, the
audience, it's a psychiatric hospital.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: They didn’t laugh because there's obviously something wrong with

GROSS: Well, yeah, you could say - right, if they don’t laugh…

Mr. LENO: Yeah.

GROSS: …they're crazy.

Mr. LENO: Yeah. It was like strip clubs.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LENO: When I play strip clubs, they wouldn't laugh or applaud or do
anything. But it gave you the confidence just to stand on stage because the
people weren't paying any attention to me, anyway. I mean, there's a story in
the book about playing this club called the Mineshaft where - it was in
Minnesota. People would pay $5 to get in, and then for another $5, the
customers would get a miner’s hat with a light on it.

Now, there were no lights in the club. It was just a big, empty building. And
then women would come out and dance. And, of course, the guys had the lights on
their heads, and they would look at whatever part of the women they wanted to
look at with the light, and I would just be standing in the darkness telling
jokes. Hi, everybody. How you doing?

Occasionally, somebody would look over at me, and I couldn’t even look at them
because they had the bright light on their head. So if they looked at me, ow,
it burn my eye. I had to look away. So most of the time, for the whole week I
was just standing in darkness while guys looked at these women with those
miner’s hats on.

GROSS: On your first shot on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson"…

Mr. LENO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: …did he laugh at your jokes?

Mr. LENO: Yeah. He was very good, actually. He was a terrific audience. I mean,
that's what "The Tonight Show" is. It's not trying to get the audience to
laugh. It's trying to get Johnny to laugh.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LENO: But, you know, the audience gets the cue from the host.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LENO: And if Johnny is laughing, they're enjoying it more.

GROSS: Did Johnny Carson give you advice about your standup act, or later on
about guest hosting or hosting when you took over?

Mr. LENO: Not so much about hosting, but he did about, you know, the first time
I did "The Tonight Show" - well actually, I was the guy that was sort of the
last of my graduating class to do "The Tonight Show." My graduating class, I
mean all the guys I sort of started with: Robin Williams and well, not Robin. I
mean Letterman and, oh, guys like George Miller and so many of the comics. They
all did it before me.

And, you know, Johnny came in one night at The Improv to see me. Harvey Korman
brought him in, and, you know, there are two kinds of comedians. There are
comedians that have a lot of attitude and not many jokes, and they are
comedians that have a lot of jokes but not much stage persona.

By attitude, I mean those kind of comics who can get on stage and go, hey pal,
nice hat. All right. What did you win - somebody guess your weight? You know,
that kind of thing. And they're loud and they're boisterous, and they're just
funny in their nature, but there are no jokes.

And then there are other comedians like, well, you take a guy like Steven
Wright, who a just natural joke writers. You know, very monotone. They tell the
joke a certain way. And to me, the best comedians are the ones that combine
both those elements, you have a joke and you have an attitude.

I remember Johnny came to see me and he said, you know, he thought I was funny,
but I wasn’t ready for the show because my jokes were too far apart. You know,
I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but I listened. And then I started
watching his monologue and I realized, you know, he's doing 15 or 20 jokes in a
space where I was doing five.

I mean, I could get on stage and - being sort of physically big and loud and
imposing - I could get a laugh where there wasn’t any. But that really, that
was great for a nightclub, but not for TV. You know, the idea of being on
television, if the joke doesn’t work, your funny attitude will carry you
through. And if your funny attitude doesn’t carry you through, your joke will
carry you through. And if they both work, you’ve got a killer joke, you know?

GROSS: You strike me as more secure, less insecure than a lot of comics.

Mr. LENO: Yeah, I think I'm pretty secure that way.

GROSS: Less neurotic?

Mr. LENO: No, I'm not neurotic at all, actually. I'm not neurotic at all. I
mean, I - you know, Rich Lewis is a friend of mine and he, you know, I watch
him agonize, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LENO: He agonizes over every little thing. What's the joke - you like that
joke? You know, Rich will say, here’s a joke. He'll tell you a joke and you go,
eh, that's funny. No, you didn’t think it was funny. It was funny. Yeah, how
funny was it? It was really funny. No, it wasn’t that funny. You’re being
polite. And this will go on for days. It'll go for weeks if you let it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: And, you know, I say to myself, my God. Where's that come from?

GROSS: So you don’t understand neurosis?

Mr. LENO: Well, I mean, I understand it, and I'm lucky I don’t necessarily
suffer from it.

GROSS: You’re kind of famous for hating vacations, for not liking to not work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You like to work a lot. Is that still true, that you still don’t like

Mr. LENO: I'm not a vacation guy. You know, I was somewhat dyslexic as a kid,
and I always remember my mom saying to me, well, you’re just going to have to
work that much harder than the other kids to get the same thing. And when
you’re brought up being insecure before - I never thought I was insecure. I
just thought I was being lazy. And that may sound silly, but to me, if
something didn’t work, it didn’t work because I wasn't working hard enough.

Like when the whole thing with "The Tonight Show" is going on. Is Jay going to
be replaced? Is he going to get fired? Are they going to replace him with
Letterman? Well, obviously, 16 hours a day is not enough. Maybe I need to do 18
hours a day. And it worked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: You know. I mean, that's what works for me. You know, I never said I
was the best. I never said I was the funniest. I just said I will work at this

harder than anybody else, and that seems fair. I mean, that's sort of the
American way, you know? I've always been the guy that worked on commission,
even when I was washing cars or had regular jobs, I was never a salary guy. I
was always the kind of guy that would say, listen, why don’t you pay me by

You know, when I took over "The Tonight Show," when I used to go into bars with
the $50. If you think it's good, pay me what you think it's worth. And
eventually, if you get screwed at the beginning, yeah. But everybody gets
screwed at the beginning. You know, to this day people say, oh, you’re getting
screwed. Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: I mean, I do very well. I've hosted "The Tonight Show." I got the job
I wanted. I mean, it's what works for me. And in my mind, if I'm one of those
guys - like if I take a - you know, I went to Hawaii once. This is like a
nightmare. I was doing a gig in Hawaii, and I had to stay down there like three
days. And the second day I'm sitting on the beach and I look at my watch, it’s
10 o'clock. And I'm sitting on the beach about four hours, and I look at my
watch, and it's 10:30, and I go great. My watch broke. The battery's dead. And
I ask someone, what time is it? And they said, it's 10:30. And I said really?
I've only been sitting here for half an hour? I thought it was two o'clock.
This is like a nightmare. Get me out of here. And, you know, I'm not a vacation

BIANCULLI: Jay Leno, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996.

On Monday, “The Jay Leno Show” premieres on NBC in primetime, five nights a

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on a new environmental documentary.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
In 'No Impact Man', A Stunt To Save The Earth


A new documentary called "No Impact Man" follows a year and the life of writer
Colin Beavan, who embarks on a radical lifestyle change and takes his family
along. Beavan's book about his project is in bookstores now. It's subtitled
"The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the
Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process."

Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the movie.

DAVID EDELSTEIN : “No Impact Man” is an environmental documentary that also
works as a 21st century climate change comedy of manners. Its protagonist,
Colin Beavan, is the latest in a line of idealist heroes who are both admirable
and somewhat ridiculous, an Albert Brooks sort of character. In 2006, the
Manhattan writer came up with a book proposal: He would live for a year, quote,
"eco-effectively." That means, he said, having zero net impact on the
environment. So he stopped driving or taking the subway and biked around the
city. He ate only locally grown organic food. He bought no clothes. For the
last six months he turned off the electricity in his apartment. And he and his
wife, Michelle Conlin, and their toddler Isabella lived in candlelight, trying
to keep their food cold in an earthenware pot placed inside a larger pot.

A device supposedly used with success in Nigeria, but not in Manhattan. He did
do one thing hi-tech. From an office outside the home he wrote a blog, which a
New York Times journalist read, which lead to a mocking feature titled A Year
Without Toilet Paper. Soon, Beavan was on with Steven Colbert, and cameras from
“Good Morning America” were there to film him throwing the switch that shut off
his electricity. It must have been a tight squeeze in that dark apartment with
documentary cameras filming TV cameras. “No Impact Man” centers on a flight
from technology, but directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein set it firmly
inside a media circus.

Beavan's book, also called “No Impact Man” and just out from Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, is a different experience. His voice on the page is deeply earnest. He
writes things like: I became excited about the possibility of breaking through
our socially endemic isolation and connecting to our community and to some
larger sense of purpose as a replacement for the material things we’d be giving
up. But onscreen, his wife Michelle makes a hilarious counterweight. Although
it’s not her project, she also has to live without lights or TV. She writes
for, of all places, Business Week, and is an unapologetic materialist. Enduring
withdrawal from her Starbuck's coffee, she incinerates Beavan with a stare.
When the family strolls through the local farmers market and Beavan remembers
what else he needs, her face is a study in revulsion.

(Soundbite of movie, “No Impact Man”)

Mr. COLIN BEAVAN: Oh, you know what, are the worm people here?

Ms. MICHELLE CONLIN: What do you need the worms for. I don’t know if I’m…

Mr. BEAVAN: Compost. Well, I was going to tell you about it after.

Unidentified Man: Basically the worms make it compost faster.

Ms. CONLIN: Honey I’m not into that at all.

Mr. BEAVAN: Okay we can talk about it.

Mr. BEAVAN: Michelle.

Ms. CONLIN: Yeah.

Mr. BEAVAN: Want to come to see the worms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ISABELLA: (unintelligible)

Mr. BEAVAN: See ’em wiggling around in there, Mom?

Ms. CONLIN: Yeah. And how do you make sure that they don’t get out?

Mr. BEAVAN: They can’t get out.

Ms. CONLIN: Hey, is there no cover?

ISABELLA: (Unintelligible)

Mr. BEAVAN: Of course there’s a cover (unintelligible).

Ms. CONLIN: Let’s cover it up.

Mr. BEAVAN: No, Isabella is looking at them.

Ms. CONLIN: Okay - nature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CONLIN: Mom doesn’t really like nature, dad likes nature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: If you see “No Impact Man” you’ll get a big close up of that box of
worms and later of the larva that hatch and infest, you can only imagine
Michelle’s face then. There’s a dramatic arc to the film though, an opening
out. Beavan sets off to report on the tons and tons of trash we generate. He
interviews community gardeners, people who’ve attempted to be self-sufficient
even in the urban jungle. And Michelle comes around. She tones up. She has an
epiphany while working on an organic farm. She begins to feel more sure of this
project, even as her husband is treated as a figure of fun, a limousine

Beavan’s book was trashed a few weeks ago by Elizabeth Kolker in the New Yorker
as a stunt, although she admits that Thoreau's sojourn to Walden Pond was a
stunt, too. She writes, the real work of saving the world goes beyond the sorts
of action that “No Impact Man” is about. Yes, and no. Both the book and the
movie focus on one man, but the film demonstrates his strong impact on the
culture thanks to media coverage, and by that I include the film itself. That
he's not perfect, that he's sometimes even a self-righteous jerk, makes him a
less intimidating bearer of the movie's message, that our modern way of
consumption has become unsustainable.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up
remembering 9/11 with poet Robert Hass. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air

12:00-13:00 PM
Poetic Reflections On 9/11


Today is the 8th anniversary of 9/11. Eight years ago - 10 days after that
tragic event - Terry Gross spoke to poet Robert Hass and we’d like to replay
parts of their conversation today. Terry wanted to know at that depressing and
frightening time if there were any poems Robert Hass was turning to. He was
America’s poet laureate from 1995 to 1997. He also translated poetry and edited
the book “Best American Poetry 2001.” Terry called him at his home on September
21st, 2001, and he told her he had spoken recently at a memorial service
attended by 12,000 people at the University of California at Berkley where he
teaches. Terry asked what he had said at that service.

Mr. ROBERT HASS (Poet): No, I think I said that we are a community that took
its meeting from teaching and learning and it seemed like the lessons of the
last week are ones that I don’t know if they can be taught. The courage and
resourcefulness of, you know, the placement of the fireman and the ambulance
drivers and doctors and nurses were one of those powerful things about the week
and I don’t know if there’s anyway to teach people to respond that way. You
know, one hopes that one would.

That was one thing and another was that way in which it just brought us up
against the mystery of our lives the way death does, you know, people going
about their business. One friend of a friend described on the Internet his
being saved by, at the last minute, deciding not to go in to a meeting because
he passed a bakery two blocks away where he smelled cinnamon rolls, which he
resisted the scent of. And then when he got to the World Trade Center and was
about to go into the building he thought oh, what the hell and turned around
and wandered back towards the scent of cinnamon buns.

One, you know, reads the stories about everybody the person who just was
phoning a wife and the person who was just starting to trade bonds and the
person who was just booting up their computer - suddenly gone. So finding a
language for that - and I had just seen in the New Yorker the translation of a
poem of Czeslaw Milosz that I had done with him. This was a poem written when
he was 89 that I thought spoke to this, you know, for this mystery of who we
are, what our lives are. It’s - so I read that poem it’s called “In A Parish” …


Can you read it for us?

Mr. HASS: Sure. Were I not frail and half broken inside I wouldn’t be thinking
of them who are like me half broken inside. I would not climb the cemetery hill
by the church to get rid of my self pity. Crazy Sophies, Michaels who lost
every battle, self-destructive Agathas lie under crosses with their dates of
birth and death. And who is going to express them. Their mumblings, weepings,
hopes, tears of humiliation in hospital muck and the smell of urine with their
weak and contorted limbs and eternity close by, improper indecent like a
dollhouse crushed by wheels, like an elephant trampling a beetle, an ocean
drowning an island. Our stupidity and childishness do nothing to fit us for
this variety of last things. They had no time to grasp anything of their
individual lives. Any principiam individuaisonous(ph) nor do I grasp, yet what
can I do enclosed all my life in a nutshell trying in vain to become something
completely different from what I was. Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow
parishioners, with the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our
names instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds they rise then
thousands of Sophies, Michaels, Matthews, Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews so at
last they know why and for what reason.

BIANCULLI: Robert Hass reading the Czeslaw Milosz poem “In A Parish.” Recorded
in 2001, 10 days after 9/11. You can download podcast of our show at For Terry Gross I’m David Bianculli. We will close with this
recording by bassist Charlie Haden.

(Soundbite of song, “America the Beautiful”)
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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