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'New Yorker' Cartoonist Imagines Washington At 7.

Through his many New Yorker covers, Barry Blitt has become one of the pre-eminent satirical cartoonists of America's recent presidents. Now Blitt has trained his eye and pen upon our first president in a new children's book, George Washington's Birthday.


Other segments from the episode on February 20, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 20, 2012: Interview with Barry Blitt; Interview with Bret McKenzie.


February 20, 2012

Guests: Barry Blitt-Bret McKenzie

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.We're going to observe Presidents Day in a way that presidents might not approve of, by talking about satirizing presidents. My guest Barry Blitt is best known for his New Yorker covers satirizing Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. The recent cover cartoon of President Obama watching the Super Bowl, that was Blitt's. So was the 2008 controversial cover that satirized the right-wing image of the Obamas, depicting them fist-bumping in the Oval Office.

Blitt won a Cover of the Year Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for his September 2005 cover of President Bush and his Cabinet meeting in the Oval Office while Hurricane Katrina flood waters rise around them.

Now Blitt has illustrated a new children's book called "George Washington's Birthday," written by Margaret McNamara. It follows the young George as he goes about his day, chopping down a cherry tree, fording a creek and worrying that his family has forgotten his seventh birthday.

Barry Blitt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, I know you didn't write the book, you've illustrated it. But do you know why the premise is that it's George Washington's seventh birthday?

BARRY BLITT: Well, I'm not inside the writer's head, but it seems to me it's a nice age to look at George Washington. He bears no resemblance to a severe and great man that we know him as. And he's young, and he's - he wants people to recognize his birthday. His family is going about the day as if it isn't his birthday, and he learns some important lessons about dwelling on stuff like that. And it's sort of an interesting way of seeing him.

GROSS: So, how did you figure out how to draw George Washington as a little child? And I should mention, he's like this little kid with a powdered wig that he hangs on his chair at night.


BLITT: Right. I mean, a big premise of the book is that we deal in the myths that are told about George Washington. And then there's like a disclaimer on each page, you know, saying this didn't really happen. And one of those disclaimers is that he actually didn't wear a wig.

But it was more fun to depict him that way and hard to resist. Obviously, developing the character of young George, I drew him several different ways, and it was nice to have him frowning, as he usually is when you see him depicted, you know, in later paintings of his life. But ultimately, I mean, he just looks like a normal child in a book.

GROSS: He's also wearing one of those jackets. I tried to figure out what they're called, but I really don't know. It's one of those jackets, in front buttons to the waist, but in the back, there's kind of like tails.

BLITT: Right, yeah. You won't get the answer from me, unfortunately.


GROSS: OK. I thought you might know.

BLITT: I mean, are you getting the feeling here that I fudged it because...

GROSS: No, no.


BLITT: Because I actively fudged it, basically. But, you know, I mean, there aren't pictures of him. And so, you know, no one's the wiser.

GROSS: So, what were you taught about George Washington when you were a child? And did you care?

BLITT: Well, first of all, I'm Canadian.

GROSS: Oh, right.

BLITT: So, do you want to start the interview over, maybe?

GROSS: No, I'm not even going to do it. I don't even think we should do it.

BLITT: He was - he was a guy down there, you know, an important American guy. I can't - really, I probably couldn't tell you what I was taught about John Diefenbaker. You know John Diefenbaker?

Who's John Diefenbaker?

GROSS: Oh, he was an important Canadian prime minister. For all I know, we were taught about George Washington in school. But, you know, I really don't remember much.

So, is it wildly inappropriate and terribly wrong for the author of this book to have asked you, a Canadian, to illustrate a George Washington book?


BLITT: I ask myself that every day. But the truth is, I'm sort of getting pigeonholed. I mean, first of all, there is a lot of Canadian illustrators working in the States. So...

GROSS: Infiltrating the States.

BLITT: Yeah, that's right. They walk among us. But this isn't the first, and it's not the last American - a sort of book about Americana that I've done. I did a - my last children's book was about Mark Twain that I illustrated. And I'm working on one about the Founding Fathers. So, you'd better get used to it, (unintelligible).


GROSS: OK. So, you not only have this new "George Washington's Birthday" book, you've done a bunch of presidential covers for The New Yorker magazine, satirical illustrations. Most recently, you did one of President Obama watching the Super Bowl, and he's sitting in his chair with, I think it's a beer, a bowl of potato chips next to him, watching this big, flat-screen TV of the Super Bowl. But the Super Bowl is actually Mitt Romney tackling Newt Gingrich.

BLITT: That's right, yes. What would you like me to tell you about that one?

GROSS: The genesis of the idea, how you came up with it.

BLITT: The genesis of the idea basically was the art director Francoise calling me sort of at the last minute, wondering if I had any ideas, political ideas but also to keep in mind that it was Super Bowl week. And Gingrich and Romney were beating each other up then. Remember when it was a two-man race?

It just seemed to make sense to put them on the screen. At first, I think the - as far as the genesis of the idea, it was just them on a football field, you know, tackling each other, beating the crap out of each other. And then it seemed like a funny idea to remove and pull back and have Obama watching the game, smiling, you know, at his good fortune, at his team winning, basically, or his team ahead, in any case.

GROSS: So, what kind of reaction did you get to that?

BLITT: It was a little bit of a suck-up, I'm afraid, that particular cover. It was sort of cheering for Obama. And you don't always want to be cheering for one side. I mean, you never want to be cheering, really, if you're a political cartoonist.

But - so, there were a lot of positive comments on Huffington Post about it, for instance. And I felt the sting of negative comments on the Huffington Post before. So - but, you know, I personally wasn't crazy about the drawing, it was done at the last minute, as those often are, topical covers for The New Yorker. So, I mean, I cringe over most of the things I turn in, whether they're kids' books or illustrations in magazines. So, I have to learn to live with that.

GROSS: Do I sense a self-esteem issue?




GROSS: Let me ask you about what's probably your most controversial New Yorker cover, political cartoon, and that was the one from July of 2008, the fist-bump cartoon. So, this is candidate Obama and Michelle are giving each other the fist-bump, and he's dressed in a robe and turban. Her hair is in a big afro, and she has a rifle. Is it an AK-47?

BLITT: I still don't remember this one. This - you'll have to keep describing it.


BLITT: That was a joke. Yeah, she's got - I think she's got an AK-47. She's dressed like - I guess like a Panther, perhaps, like Angela Davis maybe.

GROSS: And she has a bullet belt, too, strapped around her back. Meanwhile, the American flag is burning in the fireplace, and there's a picture of bin Laden on the wall. And I think the intention here was to draw the Obamas as the right wing was trying to describe them. She's a secret black radical; he's a secret Muslim. And they both want to destroy the country.

BLITT: Exactly.

GROSS: A lot of people misinterpreted this. A lot of people were, like, really angry at this cartoon. And they were thinking people are going to see this, they're not going to look at it carefully enough to realize it's a satire of a far-right stereotype. And they're going to think that this is proving...


GROSS: ...that she's like a guerrilla fighter, and he is a radical Muslim, and they're both intent on destroying the country. What was your reaction to the people who condemned you for that?

BLITT: Well, you know, anytime I produce a cover, I always regret it afterwards.


BLITT: So, I sort of agreed with them. I mean, even to this day, you know, I'm not sure if that was the worst thing I've ever done or - I know it wasn't the best thing I've ever done. But I'm still ambivalent about it.

It was obviously taking a chance. It was - I mean, the intention going in was trying something different and something interesting. I mean, there was all this stuff in the ether. You know, on the radio waves and on Fox and everywhere you went, you heard these descriptions of this guy, of the president being, you know, being a secret terrorist Muslim. And it just seemed funny to draw it all out, to put it all on a piece of paper.

And I brought the artwork into the New Yorker myself because it was really a last-minute thing. And I stood there with Francoise, the art director, and we sort of held it up. It was like a scene in "Citizen Kane," where, you know, this is going to change everything. This is the one they'll, you know, they'll remember. You know, no one will call him a Muslim again after this, which obviously was ridiculous.

I mean, part of it was the time when it came out. You know, people were nervous, and there was so much hope behind Obama becoming president. And, you know, I guess there was some, you know, underlying hysteria that a cartoon could change those fortunes and imperil that possibility. So - but luckily, you know, it faded quickly.

GROSS: What was your reaction to the people who thought the cartoon would actually prove - like in some people's minds reinforce the stereotype instead of laughing at it?

BLITT: Yeah. I mean, the magazine comes out on a Monday, but it sort of leaks to the press on a - I think it goes out to the press on Sunday evening. So, Sunday evening, I immediately started getting a lot of emails. I think it as - the Huffington Post got a hold of it and some other websites, and it was just all over the place, on the Internet.

And I started to get, you know, emails, personal emails to me from very, very angry people. And my reaction was to try and answer all of them. And so, I would answer each email personally, saying I don't know. This is obviously satire. Look at the ridiculousness of it. You know, I wasn't obviously - you know, this isn't how I feel, and no one can take this seriously. And I would - but then, you know, there were thousands of emails, and I couldn't answer all of them. And so my reaction, it was kind of horrifying, basically, for Monday and Tuesday. You know, my mother called me screaming: What did you do?

GROSS: Oh no.


BLITT: But the tide changed probably by, you know, by the middle of that week. And I have been living a sort of a normal life since then.

GROSS: My guest is artist Barry Blitt. He's contributed more than 40 covers to the New Yorker. He illustrated the new children's book "George Washington's Birthday." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Barry Blitt. He illustrated the new children's book "George Washington's Birthday," and he's done satirical illustrations of Presidents Obama and George W. Bush for The New Yorker. When we left off, we were talking about his controversial 2008 cover of the Obamas fist-bumping in the Oval Office.

So, the White House was very critical of your fist-bump cover cartoon for The New Yorker. But later, President Obama asked for an autographed copy of one of your cartoons. Which one was it?

BLITT: It was a drawing I did shortly after health care was passed. Health care was passed, right? And it was a drawing of an elephant, you know, in a hospital robe sitting in a doctor's room and a donkey as a Democrat, a Democrat donkey is behind him. He's the doctor. And he's slipping on his, you know, his glove. He's going to give him a rectal exam.


BLITT: And I did a drawing of that - I mean, we made a print of that for the president.

GROSS: And then you had a cover illustration of President Obama, I think it was on the cover, walking on water, but then it's several panels. And in the final panel, he's kind of sinking into the water.

BLITT: That's right, yeah. He was looking kind of vulnerable then.

GROSS: And - yeah.

BLITT: And so, you know, it seemed only right to let everyone know that we didn't believe he could walk on water, and that's OK.

GROSS: So, what's the editorial process like at The New Yorker when it comes to covers? Do your covers had to be in political agreement with the, like, editorial staff of the magazine? I have an idea of what, like fact-checking and editing is like for a written piece, but what's the process like for a political cartoon, for a satirical cartoon?

BLITT: I think they are looking for good ideas. I really - there isn't any - I mean, we've done anti-Obama covers. But if you're asking about the process, as I mentioned, the art editor, Francoise Mouly, sends out a calendar, you know, to - there's a sort of a regular stable of artists who contribute covers and illustrations.

And often it'll have dates on it, you know, Valentine's Day is still open, it'll say, or Purim. There isn't a Purim cover yet.


BLITT: And then, you know, people will send in ideas for those days. And they're always open to, you know, to topical covers. Sometimes I will get a phone call, and I'd imagine other people will, too, at the same time, saying, you know, it would be great to do something about, you know, about Santorum, say, you know, rising in the polls or something. And then you send stuff in.

And as it does go to press a week before, it's often - it comes down to doing it, you know, the Thursday of the week. And if it's decided on the Wednesday, you really have to scramble to, you know, to put something down on paper.

And that sort of thing does suit me, actually, because, you know, I'll just redraw things a million times. I'm never happy with what I've done. And so, I'll draw it once and think I can do a better job of it. I'll draw it again, and I'll go back to the first one and say that was a little bit better and start a third one.

And so, it's nice to have someone come and actually take it away from me. Usually a courier is sent and waits outside the door, and they just pull it away from me.

GROSS: Is that true?

BLITT: There's not really pulling, but they're there and I have to give them something.

GROSS: So, you're doing both children's books and New Yorker covers. Do they draw on different parts of your brain?

BLITT: Yeah, completely. I mean, children's books are a marathon, and it's against my nature. And New Yorker covers are a perfect thing for me. I can just - you know, as intense as it is for one day or maybe two days, you know, it ultimately gets taken away from me quickly. But a children's book is, you know, it'll go on for months. And if you've got a character, you've got to imagine him from all sides and be able to, you know, make him look the same on every page. And it's really a job for someone with a greater attention span than I have.

GROSS: What materials do you use for your drawings, like for the cover illustrations for The New Yorker?

BLITT: So many people are putting their drawings together on the computer with Photoshop and stuff, and there are so many advantages to that. I mean, I'm using pen and ink, basically. I'm like a scrivener. I mean, it's harder to find nibs that I like. It really makes me feel old.


BLITT: And a lot of the inks that I liked are, like, discontinued. You know, God knows what was in them. But, you know, I use India ink and scratch I drawing onto a piece of watercolor paper and then color it in. And a lot of my contemporaries will - you know, they'll do a drawing one way or another and then scan it and put the colors in that way and change the colors.

And that would be a great thing to do to be able to, you know, after you've painted something, and it looks terrible, to be able to change the color on something. And, you know, maybe one day. But I don't adapt very easily. But we'll see. But right now...

GROSS: Why else have you resisted? What do you like about the pen-and-ink scrivener approach?

BLITT: What do I like about it? I didn't say I liked it, it's just what I'm doing.


BLITT: It's just what I'm doing now. I mean, it's - you know, a number of people have tried to, you know, sit me down and teach me how to use Photoshop, and it's just my eyes glaze over. It does feel kind of mechanical. And I guess there's something - you know, there is a certain amount of control that you have with pen and ink. I don't know.

GROSS: So, in addition to your New Yorker cartoons, you know, you do the books for children. Do you have children? Do they read your books? Are you a star among your children and your children's friends?

BLITT: Well, that - actually, that you mentioned that, it reminds me of a story. I took my son Sam to a movie recently. I was dropping him off to meet a bunch of friends there. So I dropped him off, and a bunch of his little friends were there. And he, like, didn't want me to come anywhere near them. He wanted me to drop him off and not say hi to friends.

And I was, like, offended. You know, I'm just going to say hi to them. And he said - he basically, I guess I was just too uncool for him. And I said: But I did the cover of the New Yorker last week.


BLITT: He - that didn't change his mind.

GROSS: How old is your son?

BLITT: He's 41.


BLITT: Sorry, he's 15.

GROSS: So, I don't know how you get around that. You know, there just seems to be that moment when parents are just - are an embarrassment to their children no matter...

BLITT: I know. It was awful.

GROSS: No matter how famous you are, you know.


BLITT: Well, or not. But, yeah, I mean, I left him, and we text to each other. I just wrote (beep) you.


BLITT: And he wrote back: I'm sorry, dude.


BLITT: So we understand each other.

GROSS: So, has it changed the relationship, or are you just adjusting to this new phase?

BLITT: The phase has been - it's not new. We're getting along fine, actually. You know, we're honest with each other. So...

GROSS: So do you do anything special on Presidents Day? I know you're Canadian, but do you have a George Washington children's book, and you do a lot of presidential covers.

BLITT: I'll probably lie down.


BLITT: I don't know what I'll do. I don't think I'll do anything special. I'm sure I'll be working. You know, I work weekends for the most part.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like a great way to observe Presidents Day. Barry Blitt, thanks so much for talking with us.

BLITT: It was fun.

GROSS: Barry Blitt illustrated the new children's book, "George Washington's Birthday." You can see his New Yorker cover illustrations, the ones that we talked about, on our website, We've got a great concert coming up tomorrow with Catherine Russell, who was a backup singer for Steely Dan, David Bowie and Paul Simon before becoming a solo artist. Her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's music director.

Here's a track from Catherine Russell's new album, "Strictly Romancing." The song was written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.



TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Sometimes I realize I'm singing to myself, am I a man or am I a Muppet. Since I am neither, you can tell how much I like that song. The song "Man or Muppet" is from last year's movie "The Muppets," and it's nominated for an Oscar in the category, Best Original Song.

Last week, Bret McKenzie talked about writing the song. Today we're going to hear a longer version of that interview, in which he talked about writing some of the other songs for the Muppet movie.

You might know Bret McKenzie as half of the satirical music duo Flight of the Conchords, along with Jermaine Clement. They starred in an HBO comedy series called "Flight of the Conchords." The movie "The Muppets," stars Jason Segel as a guy whose half-brother is a Muppet named Walter. Walter has always lived in the human world but he's going on a pilgrimage to the old Muppet studio in LA with Segel and Segel's girlfriend. After Segel's girlfriend leaves him, accusing him of caring more about the Muppets than her, he sings about his identity crisis and Walter sings about his own identity crisis.


JASON SEGEL: (Singing) (as Gary) I reflect on my reflection and I ask myself the question what's the right direction to go. I don't know. Am I a man or am I a Muppet. Am I a Muppet? If I'm a Muppet, then I'm a very manly Muppet. Very manly Muppet. Am I Muppet? Muppet. Or am I man? Am I a man? If I'm a man that makes me a Muppet of a man. A Muppet of a man.

GROSS: Bret McKenzie, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on the nomination. Such a great choice for...


GROSS: ...for them to have made. I love that song.

BRET MCKENZIE: Thanks very much.

GROSS: You are welcome. So when the screenwriters told you that they needed this song, what did they tell you about what they needed?

MCKENZIE: The script was already written. And Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, who wrote the script, and James Bobin had sort of...

GROSS: He was the director. Yeah.

MCKENZIE: James Bobin, the director. They had song briefs. And "Man or Muppet" it was just a - it'd say "Man or Muppet" and they wanted a song about being a man or a Muppet. And then James had this visual idea that the man would see a reflection of himself as a Muppet and the Muppet, Walter, would see a reflection of himself as a man.

So within the song it needed to incorporate some sort of echo-y sort of idea so that you could go between the two characters within the melody.

GROSS: Do you see the song as a Muppet power ballad?

MCKENZIE: Absolutely. Yeah. I just - I really wanted to do a power ballad tune and just wanted it to be as dramatic as I possibly could get it to be.

GROSS: So what - was there certain songs or certain performers you were thinking of when you wrote this? You know, like power ballad performers?

MCKENZIE: Yeah. I was really influenced by Harry Nilsson's "Without You" and Eric Carmen's "All By Myself."

GROSS: Sing a few lines so people know the song you're talking about.

MCKENZIE: You know the one, (singing) I can't live if living is without you. I can't give. I can't take anymore. (Speaking) And it just - it's just so epic, man. I mean, Harry Nilsson's got the best voice ever and he sang that at, you know, the height of his career just when his voice was still there before he started partying like a maniac with John Lennon.

And then Eric Carmen's song "All By Myself," which I love that song. A friend of mine used to sing it when she was single, you know, with a group of couples going, (singing) all by myself. Don't want to be all by myself anymore.


MCKENZIE: Both those songs have a very similar feel, I think, and so what I wanted to do was get this man or Muppet song to be like one of those, like a really heart-wrenching, genuinely sincere, you know, power ballad about being a man or a Muppet and that was what I found really funny. Yeah.

GROSS: And then there's a part where Jason Segel's like bending over in agony and shaking his fists.

MCKENZIE: Ah, it's a great visual. He's on the street, like a downtown Los Angeles street and the rain's flooding down him. He's buckled over, just in agony of the melody.

GROSS: And of his dilemma of whether he's a man or a Muppet.

MCKENZIE: Yeah, whether he's a man or a Muppet. Yes. And then, of course, at the end of it they - it's a sort of turning point in the movie, so he realizes he's a man and the Muppet guy, Walter, realizes he's a Muppet. So it's a crucial moment in the movie as well.

GROSS: Of them finding their real identity.

MCKENZIE: Yeah. Yeah. And, I mean, what I like about it is it kind of - I think everyone's had that crisis at some point, trying to figure out whether they're a man or a Muppet.


MCKENZIE: It's a real theme song for everyone.

GROSS: That's kind of true.

MCKENZIE: Well, I like the idea of people having that crisis, driving around singing it to themselves, trying to figure it out.

GROSS: I sing that to myself all the time, actually. I love the song. So, early on, Jason Segel has to sing "What's the right direction-n-n-n to go?" Tell me about making sure he said, like, lots of echo-y Ns in there.

MCKENZIE: Yeah. I don't know how that happened. That was one of those things I was just doing as I was sitting on the piano and then I just made him copy it. I would sing a line and he'd watch me through the studio window. And I'd sing it quite dramatically and then he'd copy me. And so that's why, that's how we kind of got the performance going.

GROSS: Let's hear another song that you wrote - words and music, and this is "Life's A Happy Song." And this is like the opening production number. It starts with Jason Segel and his Muppet half-brother brushing their teeth, looking forward to their trip to LA, where they're going to visit the old Muppet studio. So the song begins there, but it ends on Main Street of Small Town where the whole town is parading down the street singing "Life's A Happy Song." And you've somehow managed to make this a delightful happy song with it also being really funny like winking but still being infectious and making me smile throughout the whole thing.

Is it difficult to write a song where you almost have it both ways? Like it's kind of humorous but it really is such a happy song.

MCKENZIE: Yeah. The song is definitely very happy. It was one of those songs where the visual kind of dictated what was going to happen to it. So I wrote the initial sort of melody and bridge. And then James wanted to visually go on the street and these characters be accompanied by all the people in the town until there were 100 people singing along. So it gradually needed to pick up people. A little bit like a song in "Oliver Twist," that old musical "Consider Yourself" in London, where these two street urchins - Oliver and the Artful Dodger - are walking through London and all the people in town start singing along - the butcher and the florist. So we took those - that sort of idea and then made it more American. Yeah.

GROSS: Great. OK. So this is "Life's A Happy Song," which is from "The Muppet" movie soundtrack, and my guest is Bret McKenzie, who wrote the song.


PETER LINZ AND JASON SEGEL: (as Walter and Gary) (Singing) Everything is great everything is grand. I got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand. Everything is perfect it's falling into place. I can't seem to wipe this smile off my face. Life smells like a rose...

PETER LINZ: (as Walter) ...with someone to paint.

SEGEL: (as Gary) ...with someone to pose.

SEGEL: (as Walter and Gary) (Singing) Life's a piece of cake...

SEGEL: (as Gary)...with someone to pedal.

LINZ: (as Walter) ...someone to break.

SEGEL: (as Walter and Gary) (Singing) Life is full of glee...

LINZ: (as Walter) ...with someone to saw.

SEGEL: (as Gary) ...and someone to see.

SEGEL: (as Walter and Gary) (Singing) Life's a happy song when there's someone by my side to sing along. I've got everything that I need right in front of me. Nothing's stopping me, nothing that I can't be when you're right here next to me.

SEGEL: (as Gary) Life's a piece of cake with someone to give...

LINZ: ...and someone to take.

SEGEL: (Singing) Life's a piece of pie with someone to wash and someone to dry. Life's an easy road with someone beside you to share the load. Life is full of highs with someone to stir and someone to fry. Life's a leg of lamb with someone there to lend a hand. Life's a bunch of flowers with someone to while away the hours. Life's a fillet of fish, hey, yes it is. Life's a happy song when there's someone by your side to sing along.

GROSS: That's "Life's A Happy Song," from the soundtrack of "The Muppet" movie. My guest Bret McKenzie wrote the song. He wrote several of the songs for the movie, and one of them "Man or Muppet," is nominated for an Oscar. And you also probably know him as half of Flight of the Conchords.

So when the Muppet movie was first released, I spoke with Jason Segel and Nick Stoller who co-wrote the movie and - of course Jason Segel stars in the movie. And one of the things Jason Segel said about working with you - having you write the songs, he said, we didn't have to tell Bret much in terms of tone because he's, by nature, very Muppet-y. Flight of the Conchords is a very...


GROSS: He said Flight of the Conchords is a very Muppet-y vibe. Its two wide-eyed innocents making the way through a tough New York, so he knew what to do right from the start.

So he's saying that you are by nature very Muppet-y.

MCKENZIE: That's very kind of him. That's very kind. That's very kind. Yeah.

GROSS: And what does Muppet-y mean to you?

MCKENZIE: Yeah. Muppet-y is a word that I've started using a lot since working on this. I think Muppet-y is sort of loose and slightly shambolic and with a lot of imperfections. So I'm not sure that I'm that Muppet-y, but I guess I am a little bit like that.

GROSS: And what does Muppet-y music mean? What makes music Muppet-y?

MCKENZIE: Well, Muppet-y music, for me, is the sound that Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher created when they did the first film and it which had, you know, classics like "The Rainbow Connection," "Movin' Right Along," and it had the Electric Mayhem, which is that band with Dr. Teeth and Animal, the drummer. And they had that sort of, you know, almost Dr. John, sort of New Orleansy sound, but more chaotic. And so working on the film, we tried to make these songs capture a little bit of that sound.

And one of the guys, one of the arrangers, Chris Caswell, who worked on some of the original Muppets stuff, he told me that Jim Henson used to say if the music sounds too good it's not right, and so I took that to heart. And it's that thing of if it sounds too perfect or too produced, it definitely doesn't sound Muppet-y.

GROSS: So how do you make it be a great take, yet imperfect?

MCKENZIE: Luckily, most of the Muppets can't sing.


MCKENZIE: So it means that they always sound a little bit off and that makes it so much more charming and relatable, and sort of Muppet-ly human.

GROSS: And what about the musicians?

MCKENZIE: The musicians, I just tell them to keep it simple - not to get too fancy on it. There were a lot of LA session players and, you know, there's that sound. There's a few instruments that are crucial. There's that tack piano, where you get a normal piano and you put thumb tacks along all the hammerheads, so when it hits the string it gets that saloon bar ting, and then also the banjo and a kind of loose sloppy bass track.

GROSS: My guest is Bret McKenzie. He wrote several songs for the film "The Muppets." His song "Man or Muppet" is nominated for an Oscar. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bret McKenzie and he wrote some of the songs for the "Muppet Movie." And one of those songs which he wrote himself, "Man or Muppet," is nominated for an Oscar. I know that there's a Muppet Code.

Like, you can't call the Muppets puppets because they're – people are supposed to believe that they're real, that they're real living creatures. What are some of the other things that you were told you couldn't do in the songs that you were writing?

MCKENZIE: One of the mistakes I made was thinking that chickens and penguins could sing just like all the other animals in the Muppets. But it turns out that those animals are not allowed to actually sing words. They can just cluck and quack. And then I also had another line – I had one of the Muppets reminiscing, I remember when I was just a little piece of felt, and that got shut down pretty soon as well.

Because the Muppets are real and they never were bits of material in their world. And then the other one was I was really tempted to have the line mother-frogger...


GROSS: Yeah.

MCKENZIE: there. Yeah, that got shut down for being a little bit too grown up.

GROSS: So did they explain why chickens and penguins can only cluck and quack, why they can't sing like the other Muppets?

MCKENZIE: No. It's just one of those things that they created years ago. I mean, it's great in the early shows where, you know, Gonzo loves the chickens and they just go bawk(ph) bawk when they talk back to Gonzo. So it's a good setup that they can't talk and they can only quack - I mean cluck.

But it was funny in the studio when I was like, OK, now the penguins sing this line and the Muppeteers, very serious guys, are like just like, um, I can't sing that line. Uh, the penguins, they don't say the words.


MCKENZIE: Is that how you learned it, that they can't sing?

Yeah, that's how I learned it, in the studio and they told me. I was like, oh, OK. They take it very seriously. Fair enough, you know? And they – sometimes in the studio they're kind of method Muppets where they – in between takes they stay in character. So I'm in the studios, we do a take, and then they're like can we do it again? Can you try it just a little more energy or something like that.

And then they talk back to you as Fozzie the Bear or whoever they are.


GROSS: Seriously?

MCKENZIE: So it's like - yeah. So it's like I'm having a conversation with the Muppet and it was pretty strange, a very surreal job.

GROSS: Wow. So I want to play another song from the "Muppet Movie" and this is more of a rap than a song. Chris Cooper plays an evil oil magnate who wants to buy the old Muppet studio so that he can destroy it and drill for the oil that's been discovered underneath. He's very wealthy and very powerful and he has a rap about how very wealthy and powerful and wonderful he is.

And I want you to describe what your task was in writing this. What was the job description for this one?

MCKENZIE: This song was written by a guy called Ali-D initially, a New York hip hop songwriter, and um - who's worked with Disney a lot. And then when I came on they needed the rap itself to be rewritten, so I wrote Chris Cooper's part. And it needed to be a rap about him, yeah, just bragging about how much money he's got and, you know, how proud of himself he is. And that was all very well. That was all fun.

And then I was given the challenge of teaching Chris Cooper himself how to rap, which was another highlight on this roller coaster of a job. Like, it started with me on Skype, and he was in Boston and I was in Los Angeles and we had a rap – had a bit of a rap session on Skype just me and Chris Cooper. And luckily he's got some pretty mad flow.


GROSS: So what were some of the moves you had to teach him? Did you...

MCKENZIE: For the moves? Oh, no. I was more like I would rap a line and he would rap a line back to me.


MCKENZIE: And I think someone said on set they saw him reading a book on how to rap.

GROSS: Did you have to tell him exactly how to say "mo' money"?

MCKENZIE: That's funny you should say that line, because the way I – yeah. He was trying to copy the way I did it, that mo' money line. I got mo' mon-ay. That's what I was trying to do. And he never really got that. He didn't quite get that one.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it. This is Chris Cooper and this is "Let's Talk About Me" from the "Muppet Movie" soundtrack. And my guest Bret McKenzie, who's half of Flight of the Conchords, wrote the song.


CHRIS COOPER: (As Tex Richman) (Rapping) I'm Tex Richman, Mr. Texas Tea. People call me rich 'cause I got mo' mon-ay. I got more cheddar than some super-sized nachos. Got cash flow like Robert has Deniros. I use more greens than Vincent Van Gogh. I make the baker bake my bread out of dough – no, no, don't eat it, though. It'll make you ill. There ain't no flour in a hundred dollar bill.

CHORUS: (Singing) He's Tex Richman.

COOPER: Oh, yeah.

CHORUS: (Singing) Everybody listen...

COOPER: Here we go now.

CHORUS: (Singing) ...just how great it is to be him.

COOPER: Oh, it's great to be me. Yeah.

CHORUS: (Singing) He's the greatest.

COOPER: I'm the greatest.

CHORUS: (Singing) You're the lamest. Muppets are a waste of time, oh, can't you see?

COOPER: Uh, uh, uh, uh. Yeah. (Rapping) It's funny in a rich man's world...

GROSS: That's Chris Cooper from the soundtrack of the "Muppet Movie". The song was written by my guest Bret McKenzie who was also half of Flight of the Conchords - and he's nominated for an Oscar for another song he wrote for the "Muppet Movie" that's called "Man or Muppet."

MCKENZIE: Whoo-hoo.


MCKENZIE: I'm just celebrating over here in Los Angeles.

GROSS: So I and a lot of our listeners know you as half of Flight of the Conchords. And Flight of the Conchords is the band that you and Jermaine Clement were members of, were the founders of, and appeared on the HBO--

MCKENZIE: Yeah, we're the two original members.

GROSS: That's right. That's right. And the HBO series that you created to showcase, you know, the band and the songs you'd written for the band was called Flight of the Conchords and it was just really a hysterical series. The plots were really funny. You'd moved from New Zealand to New York to try to make it, and you were just as small-time as small-time could possibly be.

You had a fan base of, like, one person. And anyway, so I'm used to you being like a duo. And here you are as a single, writing these songs. Were you...

MCKENZIE: This is some of my solo stuff.

GROSS: Were you used to writing songs on your own?

MCKENZIE: More Muppet-based stuff.


MCKENZIE: No. Yeah, all the Conchord stuff, you know, we worked on together so it was different doing the Muppet stuff by myself. But I was working with the same producer who did all the Conchord stuff, Mickey Petralia. And James Bobin is the same director, so it was very, you know, similar in that sense.

GROSS: Why did the HBO series end?

MCKENZIE: That finished because we, sort of, ran out of steam, really. It was quite intense, making the show. We hadn't really learned how to delegate. Like, most American TV shows have staffs of, you know, have a staff of 12 to 20 writers and then – but we didn't really like working with other people very much, so we always did a lot of it ourselves. And then we're acting in it as well.

And then, in the weekends, recording the songs. So we were just a little bit overwhelmed by it all. And then - so by the end of two seasons we were really running out of ideas.

GROSS: But you're still friends, I hope.

MCKENZIE: Oh, yeah, yeah. I think we'll do something. I don't know whether it'll be another TV show. I think, maybe, a film would be more fun, though.

GROSS: That would be great. My guest is Bret McKenzie. He wrote several songs for the film "The Muppets." His song "Man or Muppet" is nominated for an Oscar. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Bret McKenzie. He's half of the Grammy-award winning comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. He wrote songs for the film "The Muppets." One of them is nominated for an Oscar. So when you were growing up in New Zealand, where you still live, at least part of the time, did you watch the Muppets? Were the Muppets popular in New Zealand?

MCKENZIE: Yeah. The Muppets were really popular in New Zealand but there were only two channels on TV so there weren't that many options. You just watched what was, really, on there.

GROSS: Do you think that's one of the things that maybe encouraged you in the direction of song parody?

MCKENZIE: Hmm. No, I don't think that's – I don't think it influenced me in that way, but it definitely was a good comedy stuff. Jermaine and I were more influenced by people like R. Kelly and Beck, that song "Debra." I don't know if you know that song?

GROSS: I don't think I know that song.

MCKENZIE: (Singing) I met you at JC Penny. I read your nametag, it said Jenny. I cold step to you with a fresh pack of gum. And somehow I knew you were looking for some. Oh, no.


MCKENZIE: That's one of my favorite Beck songs. It is so funny, but really beautifully produced. And so that was kind of where I, sort of - what I was inspired by.

GROSS: So before you started doing satirical songs, were you ever in, like, a straight up band, you know, doing like genuine covers or, you know, original songs?

MCKENZIE: I was never in a covers band but I was in a lot of bands in Wellington. Wellington is like a little San Francisco. I think it's kind of like a mini-San Francisco mixed with Portland. And so growing up, it's a very – the arts community was really small and all the bands – everyone played, you know, played in each other's groups and every year there'd be a new manifestation of the same people with a different band name.

And, yeah, so I played in lots of different bands for about, you know, 10 years.

GROSS: And what kind of songs did you play?

MCKENZIE: When I was a teenager I was in like a – it was more like a James Brown inspired band.

GROSS: Really?

MCKENZIE: I was the drummer. Yeah, I was the funky drummer.


MCKENZIE: And I was at an all boys school, but one of the guys in the band organized a tour of the girls schools in our town. So we became very famous amongst our year group. It was a really good idea, a very successful tour. I'd recommend that for anyone starting a band.

GROSS: Since you were playing in a James Brown kind of band, did you try to learn certain gestures or moves, or get a certain attitude to, you know, look, like, authentic? And then did you start kind of mocking, exactly, those same things when you started doing comic music?

MCKENZIE: Early on, Jermaine and I ridiculed a lot of stadium rock moves and we'd come out on stage and be like: are you ready to rock? With these rooms with only like five or six people in the room. Are you ready to rock, Wellington?


MCKENZIE: But we – and then we'd go into these very small, folky little plinky-plunky songs. So, but then we switched it around and as we started doing the gigs it seemed to work better when we were more understated when we spoke to the crowd and then we put our energy into the songs.

GROSS: So as we record this, it looks like the nominated songs, the two nominated songs, are not going to be performed at the Oscars. I feel cheated, but probably not nearly as cheated as you feel.

MCKENZIE: I was disappointed when I found that out. That was just the other night. And, I mean, I'm not complaining to have to go to the Oscars. I'm pretty excited about it all, but, yeah, it would've been fun to get a man and a Muppet up there and really hit this one home.

GROSS: Do you know why they're not performing the songs?

MCKENZIE: I don't, actually. I'm not sure. I mean, it seems crazy. From my experience, it's always good to put a couple of songs in a show. So I don't know. It just seems that, like, even if they weren't going to broadcast it they could just have them and then cut them.

GROSS: It's a live show.

MCKENZIE: Oh. It's live. Oh, that's probably their problem.

GROSS: Yeah, that would be a problem.


MCKENZIE: Maybe they're worried that we're just going to keep singing.

GROSS: Yeah. If you were doing "Man or Muppet" at the Oscars, how would you have liked to stage it?

MCKENZIE: Well, I don't know. I think maybe I would've played some piano and then get Jason Segel and Walter the Muppet up on stage and then, I think, then bring in a chorus of background singers with all the Muppets across the back of the stage. Maybe get, you know, Clooney and Pitt out there as well singing along.

GROSS: Well, Bret McKenzie, thank you so much for talking with us. I really wish you good luck at the Oscars. I love the song. So thank you.

MCKENZIE: Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Bret McKenzie wrote several songs for the movie "The Muppets" including "Man or Muppet" which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. You can see the "Man or Muppet" video on our website where you can also download a Podcast of our show.

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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