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One-Half of the Smothers Brothers Discusses The Duo's Past and Present.

Guest host (and our TV critic) David Bianculli interviews Tommy Smothers of the comedy duo The Smothers Brothers. In 1967, their show The Smothers Brothers Comedy hour first went on the air. The show has been credited with helping pave the way for a new generation of TV comedy shows including Saturday Night Live.

30:17

Other segments from the episode on August 11, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 11, 1997: Interview with Tommy Smothers; Interview with Paul Haggis.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 11, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 081101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Tommy Smothers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, and I'm usually the TV critic here. But today and tomorrow, I'm sitting in as guest host.

My first guest is Tom Smothers, best known as the driving force behind the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which CBS yanked off the air in 1969 after three successful seasons. The show was pulled not because of its ratings, which were good, but because of its content which the network increasingly disliked, even though the Smothers Brothers had a contract giving them creative control.

Tom, who plays guitar, and Dick, who plays bass, are still out on tour and they've done plenty of other television over the years, including their 1988 revival series for CBS, in which Dick pretended he was disbanding the act to pursue a solo career as a game show host.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, 1988 SMOTHERS BROTHERS REVIVAL SHOW)

DICK SMOTHERS: I am thrilled to death, and you can't believe after all the years I've spent in Smothers Brothers Comedy Hours, it's going to be a pleasure to have my own show.

TOM SMOTHERS: Why -- how do you -- what do you mean by that?

DICK SMOTHERS: I think it's rather obvious, Tom. For instance, every week we're on a different time, a different night. We're on; we're off. Our fans don't even know where the Smothers Brothers are going to show up next. So now at least I'm going to be on 26 straight weeks, at least, you know, every night -- same time, same network. And it's going to be just a real pleasure.

TOM SMOTHERS: You know -- what -- what about me? What about me? What am I...

DICK SMOTHERS: What about the act?

TOM SMOTHERS: Yeah, what about the act?

DICK SMOTHERS: Tom, oh, Tom -- c'mon, let's face it. The act is getting a little bit trite, don't you think? Thirty years doing the same thing? Come on. How many years you want to milk it?

TOM SMOTHERS: Maybe another 30.

DICK SMOTHERS: Oh, come on.

BIANCULLI: No matter what else the Smothers Brothers do, though, they're best known for their three year variety series in the '60s. And for Tom Smothers, that's part of the problem.

TOMMY SMOTHERS, COMEDIAN: I felt that the success of the Smothers show and its impact was based on the venue -- the actual time and place and the emotions and there was the middle of the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated, and there was right-wing, left-wing, hawks and doves -- and it seemed to, to me -- and it -- it bore out, for me anyway.

When I saw my -- I kind of cringed -- I still wanted to edit them a little bit and make them a little bit better, and I thought that playing a daily, out of sequence, lost the impact. I was afraid that maybe people who remembered the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour so fondly would have been disappointed to see them out of context, and say, well, that wasn't like I remembered it. Like going back to your high school or your junior high school and saying the school isn't as big as I remember -- the old house.

BIANCULLI: But people got to go back to it when they were rebroadcast on "E" in the early '90s, and even at those things, you and your brother Dick did these wrap-around tapings, putting everything into context. And you even there looked to be on most shows having less of a good time than your brother did.

I mean, was I reading too much into that? Or were you...

SMOTHERS: That was very astute. Yes, I was having a miserable time. I started off looking at the -- looking at each tape, but there was 72 of them. Finally, I just went brain dead on it. And there was things I wanted to tighten up for the showing because I had to take some time out to put the wrap-arounds.

And over those 20 years, before they were shown again, I'd watched them, but I always felt there was a little too much applause and then I would -- I'd think that maybe we could have said -- spoken better; could have expressed some of the ideas better.

But I seem to be an exception to that. A lot of people liked them.

BIANCULLI: Well yeah, I was going to try and find a nice polite way to say that I think you're nuts.

LAUGHTER

SMOTHERS: That's what my brother said.

BIANCULLI: 'Cause, I mean, when it comes to the '60s, you really can't find anything on television that boiled it all down into one lump, than the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I mean, the sexual revolution, the drugs, the rock and roll, the peace movement, the generation gap, anti-authority -- it's all right there. And yet you did it without losing the core audience that you started with.

SMOTHERS: Well, that was -- that was an exceptional thing. Mason Williams was a great contributor. The process was really fun. We never quite had a chance to -- I always thought that -- to do the craft better. And that's probably what I'm thinking about.

Someone told me Bob Newhart was looking at -- they did an interview with -- and they were playing some of his old albums back. And, in fact, his first album -- "The Button-Down Mind" -- he says: "God, I can't stand it. Don't play it. Don't play it." And I says: "why? This is great."

"See, well they took some of the pauses out to tighten it up, and that's not my timing."

So I don't think anybody's who's ever been a writer or a performer or a musician whose recorded -- published something -- hasn't looked back at their earlier work with a more critical eye than the person who did it.

BIANCULLI: Well, wasn't timing always very, very important to you and your brother in terms of the pauses? In terms of the ways you would start and act with just a couple of minutes, and then, you know, you turned around a few years later, you guys are always evolving it, and all of a sudden it's a nine, 10 minute bit.

SMOTHERS: Mm-hmm. Well, I believe that timing -- it's like the most important. Silence is probably the most important part of music, and silence or tension are one of the most important things in comedy. The more air we can put in there, the better.

I also felt that even though the show was I thought a -- Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in totality was -- covered all those bases, a lot of things. I felt that Dick and I personally are -- we didn't have much air. I was involved with cue cards.

So this is a -- kind of a self-critical observation. I feel much better about the shows. I loved them when we did it. I just feel a little bit uncomfortable looking at them now, because it could have gone better. That's the thing.

But air, like Laurel and Hardy, had such wonderful space, and timing is -- doesn't even have to be an astute observation. It just has to be timed right, and if we can hold tension, that makes us unique. And whether it be content or no content, you can keep the tension of an audience that way.

BIANCULLI: Now do you feel that when you came around to do the revival series -- you know, CBS had you do a 20th anniversary special and then they would grant you a couple of shows here, a couple of shows there, a couple of shows -- that on those you were able to focus more on your own act with yourself and your brother?

SMOTHERS: I was better able to focus on the show and on the act, but definitely Dick and I, after watching the first shows, I remember that we were -- I would see cue cards -- I would be reading cue cards just -- eye contact wasn't there. So I made sure on this reunion show there was no cue cards; that we -- so the space we can really think and talk.

And also, that the actual show itself had a overall better pace.

BIANCULLI: How important is eye contact to the way you work with your brother?

SMOTHERS: It's everything. It's funny -- we -- you can see people when they're not looking at each other, if they're reading cue cards. Tension can hold much better when two people are staring at each other and you can -- it's palpable.

Even if it's a total side view -- facing each other where you can't even see the eyes, there's a head cock; there's a body language that tells you that there's eye contact being made.

BIANCULLI: When you got the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, didn't you get the opportunity of creative control because you were basically going into a no-lose time slot, like someone would today going in opposite Seinfeld?

SMOTHERS: Pretty much. We did a half-hour situation comedy just before that -- the season before; 32 shows. And I was very unhappy with the writing and they wrote for Tommy Smothers; I did most of the lines. Dickie was basically ignored. And I was working too hard.

So when we got this new show, they said we'll give you a variety show. I said, well, I want creative control. They said: "you got it." I said that means the content and writer approval and all those -- cast and people. And they said: "yeah" -- because there was no chance the show was going to make it anyways against "Bonanza," so all the shows had been failing.

So they were very cavalier and very flip about it. Also, there's no reason not to grant us creative control because we had shown no inclination. We were short-hairs. We were clean-cut. They didn't expect anything that happened happen.

I don't think anybody at that time in the mid-'60s expected the expression of dismay over the war and voter registration -- all these things that were just taking place; the sexual revolution -- all those things.

So ...

BIANCULLI: Well, were you just laying in the weeds? I mean, did you have this grand plan?

SMOTHERS: No, I had no plan. I think most people don't have plans and sometimes do something extraordinary. I got censored, so I started saying things that -- not evening know that there was anything wrong with them. Then I started becoming a little more involved and then pretty soon it became a -- someone says "you can't say that," I would say: "oh, we can too."

LAUGHTER

BIANCULLI: Well, you were basically the only young guy with a platform at that time on prime time television.

SMOTHERS: We were kind -- in hindsight, I can see that we were -- the Smothers Brothers were pretty much -- had no choice. We were young. The whole staff was basically young, with some seasoned writers in there. But primarily, it was under 30. Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Mason Williams, Bob Einstein (ph) -- they were all -- and they all felt the same way as youth did.

It was a great cultural clash, and we were there with a show and we had to reflect that. It was just -- I think it was a responsibility, even though I didn't think it then. But I perceive it now as we had no choice.

BIANCULLI: But I still don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. To say that you had no choice and were sort of dragged along, or you were at the -- you know, the fringes of this movement that we're carrying around anyway, is one thing. But you were, in terms of the rock and roll acts that you presented; the things that you brought on; the stuff that you discussed -- going against the war -- you basically were the center.

And there's actually a clip that I'd like to play for you...

SMOTHERS: OK.

BIANCULLI: ... that goes back from the old show, and this is basically November of '68, I think, and this is two weeks after you had had the Beatles on to premier "Hey Jude" and "Revolution," which is not a shabby musical booking.

LAUGHTER

And then...

SMOTHERS: It was ...

BIANCULLI: ... and then you're lining up the acts for that week's show, and then this happens.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR)

APPLAUSE

DICK SMOTHERS: Tommy also has a special guest, too, and he'd like to introduce him right now, wouldn't you?

TOM SMOTHERS: That's right. I have a Beatle.

APPLAUSE/SHRIEKS

DICK SMOTHERS: Yeah, but it's not the kind of "Beatle" you would expect it to be. It's the kind of Beatle that you, I think, you hoped it would be. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. George Harrison...

APPLAUSE/SHRIEKS

DICK SMOTHERS: Hey, George? Do you have something important?

GEORGE HARRISON, BEATLE: Something very important to say on American television.

DICK SMOTHERS: You know, we don't -- we -- a lot of times we can't -- we don't have opportunity of saying anything important because it's American television. Every time you say something...

LAUGHTER

... and try to say something important, they...

APPLAUSE

... dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot.

HARRISON: Cue the lines. Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.

DICK SMOTHERS: That's what's important.

HARRISON: You get that? Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, see, now -- what do you think about when you hear that?

SMOTHERS: I forget. It takes me back. Yeah. Well, that was very nice. We were, and there was work -- I'm not trying to diminish -- there was just a lot of serendipity in the Smothers Brothers. A young -- had a -- number one -- had a big show -- happened to be during these very culturally kind of -- earthquake -- cultural earthquake -- and social.

And we were young enough, and all those things happened. I always used to say, well, we were at the scene of the accident and made the best of it we could, sorting stuff out and we were very dedicated to putting out as much as we could possibly say; expressing as much as we could through the sketches and everything.

My God, it's -- I -- I just -- you know, you can't take credit for being at the -- being born in America or being born somewhere else or wherever. So we were there.

We did not shirk our duty to bring to television as intelligent and as interesting a show as we could. But I think circumstances really made a big difference because if we've had that show in the '50s or we had it in the '80s, it would have never had the impact, even if we'd have been diligently trying to do the most intelligent, thoughtful observations about life.

BIANCULLI: Well, we're going to move further up in the decades, but I've got a couple more things I want to ask you about that time, one of which is perhaps your most famous act of defiance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which is breaking the back -- the black list on Pete Seeger.

SMOTHERS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: And booking him. And was that a calculated effort on your part to sort of rail against the CBS censors?

SMOTHERS: I believe that was in '68 -- one of the last two seasons, and I did get more stubborn, more resolute in my need -- and our crew and our writers wanted to express things and it was more calculated. Matter of fact, I said to all our guests that were ever guests on it, whether the new groups or old groups or actors -- comedians always say -- you're -- our guests on our show, was there anything you'd like to do? And we'd like to present what you'd like to do. And Pete Seeger said: "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." And we sang it at rehearsal and I said: that's right on and be my guest.

And then the censors looked at it and says, veiled reflection on our policy in Vietnam. Wasn't very veiled. But I did purposely say yes, that's good. They cut it out. We brought him back the next year and I said: what would you like to sing?

He says: "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." I said, well, be my guest this time because it go so much publicity and the word, ugly word "censorship" was coming up, but they let it go.

And those -- it was the only show, I guess, that had a topical viewpoint about out involvement in Vietnam. It was a bad idea and it was morally bankrupt, I thought; ethically wrong. But that consciousness came all -- over all of us in the process of doing the show.

BIANCULLI: My guest is Tom Smothers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Let's return to my interview with Tom Smothers.

OK, so now, finally, we get into the late '80s, into the '90s. We're talking about the revival series, and I was going through old tapes of that before I talked to you here. And one of the things that leapt out at me was a Western skit that you did.

SMOTHERS: Wasn't that wonderful?

BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah, that was my favorite thing from the whole series, and it was basically a showdown sequence in which Dick and then Pat Paulsen, of course, one of your most famous contributors and people, went into a high-noon face off, but instead of being with guns, it was in trying to tell -- to distinguish the characteristics of a specific wine.

SMOTHERS: It was a winetasting bar shoot out.

BIANCULLI: And again, one thing that struck me watching it now, and that is only -- that was '89 or '90 so it isn't that long ago in TV time -- it was a sketch that allowed itself to develop very, very slowly and deliberately. It knew where it was going. It wasn't in any speed. So many sketches in variety shows today have no ending, barely have a middle, and are -- still seem to be over minutes too long before they should be.

SMOTHERS: Mm-hmm. That -- particularly in Saturday Night Live, they seem to get lost along the way. And I thought that sometimes we -- this particular sketch, we had a good idea. We liked the air. We liked the space in it. We knew it was going somewhere.

Sometimes in the '60s show, we would -- didn't have time enough to really maybe edit it down and clean it up so it had a nice brisk pace. But we had plenty of time in these '80s shows to work those. One show, we called a political show -- "politics and poker, politics and poker, politics and poker" -- we had this running song, and we'd go to a card game or -- one of -- we had trouble with CBS again. I had a bunny suit on. Did you see that one?

BIANCULLI: Yes. Go ahead. Describe it.

SMOTHERS: Ah, I'm sitting in a bunny suit and come out -- my brother's standing there. He says: "what do you want?" I says: "I want to protest our involvement in Central American politics." And he says: "well, why -- that's stupid wearing a bunny suit out here." I says: "so is our policy in Central America." He says: "well" -- what's the punch line? -- he said: "well, you ought to get out of that bunny suit." And I said: "we ought to get out of Central America" -- whatever it was.

BIANCULLI: That's the punch line. Yes, that was the punch line.

SMOTHERS: And then CBS guy comes, says: "uh, we want you to be out there a little, but, say, but -- put an added thing on that -- 'but that's not up -- up to us to decide; it's our representatives'" -- or something like that.

BIANCULLI: Now is it true -- I don't know whether to believe you when I read this in print or not -- but that you and Dick have actually attended brothers' therapy sessions?

SMOTHERS: When we were getting very near the end of our five-year -- "our five-year plan" -- which is last year, he called me and he said he's been going to a lot of these -- these group meetings, you know, like "Life Spring" and other names. And he said it -- there -- I met -- there are two people that I want to have a session with us. I think we'll work out some plans, he said. They're counselors.

And I go: oh, no, not a -- like a marriage counselor? He says: yeah, well, but not -- they work with big corporations. They make personal and corporate breakthroughs, allowing people to function. We'll just talk about the Smothers Brothers.

And I go, oh, man -- I've never seen this work, you know, so I went with it and these people came up and we had the -- a very productive time. It cleared out a whole lot of things and both Dick and I looked at each other and said: why didn't we do this 10 years ago? 15 year ago? Or on a -- every two or three year basis just to kind of clear the air -- a third party who had no vested interest and could listen to us.

Because we had legendary -- legendary fights. Our fights were over timing and over material. And we are exact opposites which is our little edge on stage because we don't have to assume too much of a persona difference.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

SMOTHERS: So this was a 12-hour session and people seemed to pick up on it. We said: "we went to see a counselor to help our relationship get stronger." One time, Dick said: how -- isn't it difficult working with your brother, like, 35, 40 years like this? And he says: "well, it's like an old marriage -- a lot of fighting, no sex.

I thought, that's a funny line coming from the straight man.

BIANCULLI: Tom Smothers. We'll talk more in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli filling in for Terry Gross.

Let's continue our conversation with Tom Smothers, best known as the driving force behind the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

OK. Now, at a risk of asking so many questions about the '60s, I want to go back even further, just for a minute, and just ask how you and your brother came to pick up the instruments that you did?

SMOTHERS: Well, my mother -- our mother Ruth Smothers -- was always a -- when we were going back and forth to grandma's house in the old Packard, we always sang songs. You know, we'd sing "Down in the Valley," "Home on the Range" -- all these songs we'd be singing. And when I was about seven years old, I just -- Mama, I wish I had a guitar. I want a guitar, guitar, guitar.

And she got me a guitar, and I couldn't believe it. And I started learning to play it. Burl Ives was my first influence as far as music about the guitar, and then I wanted to be a bandleader. Dick never played the instrument -- was not interested.

Then I saw -- who was the guy? -- little guy with the crewcut?

BIANCULLI: George Gobel?

SMOTHERS: George Gobel was my first comedic influence.

BIANCULLI: Hey, gimme credit. That was a good one. Go ahead.

SMOTHERS: That was good.

LAUGHTER

BIANCULLI: OK. Go ahead.

SMOTHERS: You did draw that right out there. As you get older, you know, the proper names go. But George Gobel was...

BIANCULLI: It was either him or Eisenhower. I just went for it. Go for it.

SMOTHERS: ... and I saw him on Ed Sullivan's show talking about losing a bowling ball, and I remember I was about 16-years-old. I said: ah, wow. That's funny. Didn't tell a single joke, but I was laughing. And I said: well, I'd like to do that.

I thought it was being a monologist -- giving a monologue. So I started doing stuff in high school and I was playing in a band -- a little dance combo. And I'd also MC things, and I had this kind of funny delivery that had some funny spaces in it.

And I was dreadfully serious and I'd get laughs all the time. So the instruments came in, and we got to be seniors in high school -- we were singing in quartets and choirs, and Dick was the best tenor in the South Bay area of Redondo Beach where we went to finish up high school. And so he was in our trio, our quartet.

And the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte started singing calypsos and folk songs, and we started singing those kind of songs, and the comedy just took over. And I kind of got way-laid musically because the comedy became our central focus.

And the most unique thing that we did -- it was a unique relationship, and didn't have to be the best, but had to be in the -- I always said the Wright Brothers plane wasn't that good, actually -- sure original, wasn't that good.

BIANCULLI: Well, I don't mean to get into another brother's therapy session, but if Dick hadn't been the best tenor at Redondo Beach, would you have wanted your little brother in your band? Isn't there -- isn't that the age where it's kind of geeky to...

SMOTHERS: You're absolutely -- you know, that's a great -- I think when we -- I think when we were in high school, the only reason we started singing was because he was the best tenor. He was really good. He sang really in tune, and we always argued doing rehearsals. I always wanted to rehearse a lot, and we'd get in our car and we'd drive up and -- three, three of us in the car, Dick would drive, and I'd be playing the guitar in the front seat, and rehearsing harmonies and things.

But I think the musical side of it -- I got to know my brother very well. Without that, we'd have been kind of strangers, like, sometimes it happens.

BIANCULLI: I gotta -- gonna have to ask you one last question, because TV critics carry around these bizarre factoids and if I don't ask at these sorts of times, I'll never get to use them.

SMOTHERS: OK.

BIANCULLI: There has not been a top 10 variety show on television in more than 20 years. Last one was the "Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour" in '73, '74. Do you think people would still watch one, when the idea that you can get your music off of MTV or VH-1, or you can get your -- you know, your comedy off of Comedy Central -- would today's audiences stay put for an Ed Sullivan-style or Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour-style variety show in the late '90s?

SMOTHERS: Well, I think definitely they would. I mean, that's -- that's -- I think that in this TV act, they were switching -- I think if we had something on Sunday nights -- America On Stage, and it'd be a swift show. I think they would, but I think a variety show would go.

But obviously, no one else thinks that, except you and me.

LAUGHTER

BIANCULLI: Well, I...

SMOTHERS: For the whole family to sit down and watch some very good stuff, and juggling and tumbling and, you know, cutting-edge comics and stuff -- that'd be great.

BIANCULLI: Well, in the meantime, if you guys want to, like, call me every Sunday night, I'll keep my line open.

Well, listen, I want to thank you -- I want to thank you for being part of the show here and giving us the hour. And for all the television you gave me and my generation. I mean, I'm not real super geeky here, but I'm definitely a fan and I feel like you helped form my personality a little bit and my musical tastes and my politics.

So thanks.

SMOTHERS: Well, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Tom Smothers makes wine in California and comedy wherever he and his brother are booked.

Dateline: David Bianculli, Philadelphia
Guest: Tommy Smothers
High: Guest host David Bianculli interviews Tommy Smothers of the comedy duo The Smothers Brothers. In 1967, their show The Smothers Brothers Comedy hour first went on the air. The show has been credited with helping pave the way for a new generation of TV comedy shows including Saturday Night Live.
Spec: Media; Television; Music Industry; The Smothers Brothers
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tommy Smothers
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 11, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 081102np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: EZ Streets
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: Last month, David Caruso took the first big step in his attempted return to prime time television by appearing before TV critics in Pasadena to discuss his new fall series, "Michael Hayes."

I was there, and so was Paul Haggis, who just joined the staff as an executive producer. Paul Haggis isn't exactly a household name, and neither are some of the shows he's created. But to most fans of quality TV, his "Due South" and "EZ Streets" are about as good as series television can get.

I started off our interview by asking Paul Haggis why he thought EZ Streets had failed in the ratings.

PAUL HAGGIS, TELEVISION WRITER: Personally, I blame the critics, especially the New York critics.

LAUGHTER

I mean, you guys -- the New York critics just loved this to the extent of, I think, antagonizing everyone. I think when -- it was Marvin Kittman (ph) who called me the "Percy Bysshe Shelley of TV fiction" and...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, that'll get them right to the tube.

HAGGIS: You know, and that's the one -- exactly, I was going to run out there and -- so I called him up and thanked him for ruining my career and now to get somebody to, you know, walk around Hollywood and go: you know, what are we going to do? Let's get that epic poet guy to do our next big blockbuster series. So, yeah, I blame the critics.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. Well actually, what you did with EZ Streets, since it wasn't just New York critics, it was critics all across the country who went crazy over that show. You basically proved for the '90s, if not for all time, that critics have no power. Critics have no, you know -- you basically made my life meaningless, so...

HAGGIS: I'm surprised they'd let you on NPR, Dave.

BIANCULLI: Well, it's a -- this is -- well, we'll just move on to the next question here. But, I mean, after Due South; after...

HAGGIS: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ... EZ Streets, why -- Les Moonvez (ph), the guy who runs CBS, comes to you and says we want to have you involved with what is one of their big high-profile shows of the fall. What did they want you to do?

HAGGIS: You mean: what in God's name were they thinking? You know -- getting me involved in this?

BIANCULLI: You keep re-phrasing my questions.

HAGGIS: I know. As you said, given my track record, I have no idea, Dave, thank you again -- why they'd get me involved in this...

BIANCULLI: No, but...

HAGGIS: ... but I jumped at it. I thought that working with David Caruso, who I thought was just magnetic when he was on "NYPD Blue" and working with John Romano (ph), who I admired a long time as a writer. I jumped at the chance.

BIANCULLI: But the second -- what is now going to be the second episode of this -- the pilot, which you didn't have a part of, which critics were shown before a press conference last month in L.A. -- it, to me, had a couple of weaknesses in it where you could sort of predict what was going to happen, which -- that sort of stuff is not really a hallmark of your kind of writing.

Do you -- are you free enough in terms of your opinion to be able to say whether you notice the same sort of things and whether or not you were brought in to help correct that part of it?

HAGGIS: Well, no one came to me and said: "you know, Paul, the writing you do is incredibly obtuse. Could you use a little of that in this?" But, I think it makes a nice mixture because with EZ Streets, we went, I think, 10 episodes and nobody knew what the hell was going on at any time. And so if you mix that with perhaps a couple of errors in the pilot, which may be a little too obvious, then they'll somehow come down the center.

BIANCULLI: So when it comes to getting the show together and getting it up and running, what have you found to be the things that you had to correct the most, in terms of the initial concept?

HAGGIS: I guess the writers fell into the same trap I did on EZ Streets, in just that we tried to tell too much in one hour. And so having just, you know, well-learned my lesson from that, I think we ought to just try to simplify the story and tell a more -- a more emotional and a simpler story on one level, and more emotionally complex on another.

BIANCULLI: OK. Now, tell me what the comeback of David Caruso means. You were at the press conference in July where there was a lot of incendiary stuff going on in terms of people wanting him, I guess, to talk about his film career and why he would come back to TV now.

HAGGIS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: And I wonder what it's like playing backstage. I thought that Caruso handled that conference as well as could be expected, but a lot of people seemed to want him to fall on his own sword.

HAGGIS: Yeah. I think he did a pretty good job, there, and did some sort of reasonable mea culpas for his mistakes, while not falling on the sword.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

HAGGIS: I -- I mean, there's got to be a lot of pressure on him. There is a lot of pressure on him, to see him -- he's literally backstage. He's -- he's got a lot riding on this show. And there's -- that's always going to cause problems.

It did between the two of us at the very beginning. We're trying to feel our way through, and we're both, you know, trying to do the best show we possibly could, and I'd write a script, and he'd go: "no, no, no, you can't -- I can't do that."

And I'd go: well, what the hell do you know? And we'd argue back and forth, and come to some sort of mutual respect, and he'd so: "oh, cool. Let's do this." So it -- it's worked out quite well so far.

BIANCULLI: Now, I heard one David Caruso story from -- that was told by a writer on the show -- on the original episode of Michael Hayes. Supposedly at the very first meeting, David Caruso came in holding an eight-by-ten glossy of himself, and announced: "this is what this show is about."

HAGGIS: Well, I have no idea, actually, that the story is true or not. The -- sorry, I can't really comment on that -- but, I mean, if it's indeed -- if you're saying is it indicative of like a huge ego, no I haven't found that at all. I found him to be actually -- well, not easy to work with, you know -- actors in general aren't easy to work with. Look at Joey Pants (ph). I mean, one of my favorite actors in the world is the one -- he's just a huge piece of work.

BIANCULLI: That's Joey Pantoliano (ph) from EZ Streets...

HAGGIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ... who played Jimmy Murtha (ph).

HAGGIS: And I love the man. We'd work with him -- and he would work with -- with me any second, but we had screaming fights. So, and then we'd leave the room, you know, argue back and forth, and then say, you know -- "you have no respect for the actors," and I'd say, "oh, what do you know? You hack actor -- you have no respect for the writers."

And then he'd leave the room and come back, and throw his arms around me going: "I love you, man." And then walk around going, "oh, we had the greatest talk."

So it's -- there's always a dynamic between writers and actors that you have to be able to work things through, and David is certainly no exception to that.

BIANCULLI: OK. Now you -- you carry around a mantle right now because of the series that you've done as a "quality TV writer/producer."

HAGGIS: I have that mantle with me.

BIANCULLI: You have that mantle, yes. It's...

HAGGIS: I carry it everywhere.

BIANCULLI: I hope it's not too heavy. And we go back to your earliest TV credits, and I see "Diffren't Strokes" and "The Facts of Life."

HAGGIS: I don't see those.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

HAGGIS: What are you looking at?

BIANCULLI: I'm looking at probably a more complete resume than you might be carrying.

HAGGIS: Than I would ever admit. Yes.

BIANCULLI: And perhaps, as a writer/producer on those shows, I have to admit that in the '70s when I was a TV critic and the '80s, I wasn't watching every episode of Facts of Life and Diffren't Strokes, and I may have missed the good ones...

LAUGHTER

... that you wrote.

HAGGIS: Yeah, yeah -- you, in fact, did. They were -- that -- they were some of the best television, I think, to air in the '80s, I personally think, but that's just one man's opinion.

BIANCULLI: So tell me about those years, and how you outgrew them.

HAGGIS: I was very fortunate to get the job from those shows. So I fought to get them. I was a young man in Hollywood -- 23 -- when I started trying to break into writing. And I finally was lucky enough to come to the attention of Norman Lear, who then put me on Diffren't Strokes and Facts of Life and "One Day At A Time" and a little show called "Sweet Surrender" for Dana Delaney (ph).

And I had just a helluva time, and learned my craft.

BIANCULLI: But we go from there, and we go from Diffren't Strokes and Facts of Life -- I'm not holding you responsible for those, nor am I saying that Norman Lear didn't do some wonderful television. And it just happens...

HAGGIS: He just didn't do them with me. I know.

BIANCULLI: ... it's just -- Diffren't Strokes and Facts of Life -- I wouldn't push into that pile. But then, you do "Tracey Ullman Show" -- and this is stuff I didn't know about you until I did research for this -- Tracey Ullman and the last season of "L.A. Law." Right?

HAGGIS: Yeah. Yes.

BIANCULLI: So what skits did you do on Tracey Ullman show? You just looked at them recently, you can't even say you don't remember.

HAGGIS: They're two of my favorites. One was called "My Date With Il Duce." It was for Isabella Rossellini. And the concept was...

BIANCULLI: Oh, you wrote that?

HAGGIS: That was me.

BIANCULLI: That was wonderful.

HAGGIS: I went into pitch it, and said: OK, I believe, you know, everyone knows that Mussolini started out as a meek, mild school teacher. Well, I say "meek, mild" -- he at least started out as a school teacher. And somehow he made the transition from school teacher to the greatest fascist leader of all time.

I think it was on a date with Isabella Rossellini, and so I wrote that sketch and that was a lot of fun -- just watching him transform from the school teacher into the fascist leader in four minutes. And I think rather well.

And then the other one I did was for Marty Short, and it was actually the only sketch ever to have been banned on Fox, and it was called...

BIANCULLI: On Fox?

HAGGIS: Yeah. It was called "P.S.: Your Wife Is In Hell." And it was about a widower and a priest and a nun who were returning from a funeral, and the priest has to explain to the widower that he faked last rites, and his wife was in hell. And so we tried to get that by, but didn't quite make it.

BIANCULLI: Paul Haggis is an executive producer of Michael Hayes, the new David Caruso series premiering this fall.

We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Paul Haggis, creator of EZ Streets and Due South.

We just left off with Tracey Ullman, so you do Tracey Ullman for two weeks, and then you get in on the last -- one of the stranger seasons -- of L.A. Law. Was David Kelley (ph) still there? Or was he gone by then?

HAGGIS: No, it was Billy Finkelstein (ph) ...

BIANCULLI: OK.

HAGGIS: ... and so, no, David Kelley was gone. Actually, before that I did the pilot for Due South, and then while waiting for Due South to be picked up or not, Steven Bochco (ph) asked me to come over and consult on the last year of L.A. Law. And since I knew nothing about the law -- had never written anything like that -- I said "cool. I mean, if you're foolish enough to hire me, I'll come do it."

BIANCULLI: OK. So, but meantime, your heart is in Due South, and...

HAGGIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ... how does this show develop in the first place? It's one of the first programs to come out of Canada and show up on American television. And I think that it surprised CBS in terms of how well the movie pilot did. And how did it -- how did it come about? What was your inspiration for this?

HAGGIS: Well, I wanted to create animosity between countries that had lived peacefully together since the War of 1812. And so I said, you know, Canada and the States have gotten along much too well for much too long, let me see what I can do about that.

And so I decided to start pointing out the differences between Canadians and the Americans, and see if I couldn't start my own little border war. And I think I succeeded for awhile.

BIANCULLI: Well, in the pilot, there is actually a scene in which the two stars, Paul Gross (ph) as Fraser (ph) the mountie, and David Marciano (ph) as the Chicago cop, actually are back up in Canada discussing some of those very differences, while they're being pursued by some bad guys intent on killing them.

I'd like to play that just for a second and give a taste of Due South.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "DUE SOUTH")

PAUL GROSS, ACTOR, AS CANADIAN MOUNTIE: When I graduated from the academy, my father gave me one piece of advice. He said: "always" -- no, he said: "never" -- well actually, he gave me two pieces of advice. I've forgotten the other one, but the important one is: "never chase a man over a cliff."

DAVID MARCIANO, ACTOR, AS CHICAGO COP: That's supposed to mean something in Canadian, isn't it?

GROSS: If you're going to take on a man, you better now more than he does. Our strength is, I know this area better than anyone. Their weakness is they think they have an advantage. Let me see that bag.

SOUNDBITE OF A BAG BEING OPENED

MARCIANO: Being American, I also know where my strength lies, and that's in being as heavily armed as possible at all times.

BIANCULLI: How many of these sorts of Canada/America things did CBS feel that Americans were going to either get or appreciate?

HAGGIS: I don't think they noticed them, for the most part. They saw the scenery and they thought it was funny and they put it on. I mean, the -- in the lines like, I mean, when David Marciano at the end, the "Ray" character, they finally win and they've bested all these bad guys, and he turns to the mountie and says: "you realize we just took out seven guys. You know, one more and you qualify for American citizenship."

And it just goes right past everyone. And so -- no one really notices or cares. So -- and I think the fact that we -- that the Canadians took a lot of abuse in the episode; balance things out -- our own particular xenophobia was satisfied here.

BIANCULLI: Well, in Canada, this program went on to win lots of the Canadian equivalents of the Emmys over the years...

HAGGIS: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ... and was -- what would it be America's equivalent of, in terms of its popularity way up there in Canada?

HAGGIS: Well, in the second year, we actually bested hockey as the most popular show in Canada.

BIANCULLI: Is that possible?

HAGGIS: Yeah, we beat hockey night in Canada. I have the trophy sitting at home. I thought that was incredibly cool. So it's -- it was a bit of a phenomenon up there. So we were all very, very proud of that.

BIANCULLI: Is it true that you offered to come back to Due South to help a little bit or offer some scripts, and they really did say "no thanks?" Or was that another Paul Haggis joke?

HAGGIS: You really like to stir up trouble, don't you? Yeah, that's true.

BIANCULLI: Well -- well, tell me more about it, because I don't think anybody knows about this yet. I...

HAGGIS: No, I'm not going to tell you about that.

BIANCULLI: These are the rules: I ask good questions, I mean, you were sworn in before we began the interview.

HAGGIS: No, I offered to get back for the third season, and well, they just didn't find my services necessary, and it wasn't quite that, but at any case, I'm not doing the show.

BIANCULLI: So now we're up to EZ Streets, which I...

HAGGIS: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ... which I went on the record plenty of times here on NPR and in the Daily News, about absolutely unabashedly loving, so this is where you should get a little bit less defensive.

HAGGIS: I'm a lot more comfortable suddenly.

BIANCULLI: OK. Was the pitch meeting easy for this program to get it on the air? You see something like EZ Streets, and I'm baffled. I really appreciate quality television, but I don't know how this one got on the air in the first place.

HAGGIS: Neither do I, and that's I guess why I'm so grateful to CBS and continue to be. They -- I pitched this thing very badly, and I went in and said I want to see like good guys and bad guys, only you're not going to be tell who's who. And it's, well, it's about, you know, it's sort of dark and it's about moral ambiguity that can never really be understand what's going on.

And they said: "oh, oh, cool, cool. Do that." And I said: what? And they said "oh yeah, that sounds great. You're going to do mob stuff. Great, and make it as dark as you want." And I said: oh -- sort of checked the door, made sure I was in the right building, and went away and did it.

This was I think the first thing that Leslie Moonvez bought as a -- when he took over, and he wanted to make his mark and I was so thrilled that he had that faith in me. I went away and wrote the script and gave it to them -- to him.

They read it and called me up two days later and said: "we're doing it." And I said: did you read the script? And they said: "yeah, yeah. We love it. We're doing it." I said OK, and so went up and shot it, and they, again, they called up and said: "we love it. It's fabulous. We're putting it on." I said: were you watching the same show I was?

It -- and so I was thrilled to get it on the air, and the fact that it only lasted for 10 episodes I figure is 10 more than I ever thought would get on and stay on, so...

BIANCULLI: OK. Now what about -- do you have an ending of EZ Streets that you're not sharing with anyone?

HAGGIS: Yes, in fact, I do. I knew what was going to happen from the beginning, and I still know. I get calls -- I think I get about four or five calls a week still from people asking me if I'll tell them or if I'll give them some of the scripts or something. And of course, I won't. And that's just my perverse nature.

BIANCULLI: So it's not that you feel that there may be some wrap-up telemovie in the future where you would assemble the cast out of goodwill and finish it. It's just you're being mean and not going to share?

HAGGIS: Yes. No, on some level, I guess, I can't let go of that series. I really love it, and hoping that -- hoping beyond hope -- that I'll be able to do something with it in the future, whether it's on television or in a book or something. I don't know what. But I certainly hope -- I would -- I dearly miss that cast. I miss them very much, and I'd love to get together and do something with them again.

BIANCULLI: And if we were to guess that it was corruption high within the police department...

LAUGHTER

HAGGIS: Then you'd be guessing, and that's what you'd be doing.

BIANCULLI: And you would -- all right, OK. Well listen, I love your failures, so I am glad that you're still there to produce them and I hope that at some point...

HAGGIS: That Michael Hayes is not one. Yes.

BIANCULLI: ... that critical success and popular success coincide for you.

HAGGIS: Thank you, Dave.

BIANCULLI: And thanks a lot for being here today.

HAGGIS: Oh, thank you. This was a lot of fun.

BIANCULLI: Paul Haggis is an executive producer of Michael Hayes, premiering next month on CBS.

Dateline: David Bianculli, Philadelphia
Guest: Paul Haggis
High: Emmy-award winning writer-producer Paul Haggis. He's written for Norman Lear's sitcoms, was writer-producer of the first season of thirtysomething, and wrote sketches for The Tracey Ullman Show. His new TV series is "EZ Streets."
Spec: Media; Television; Tracey Ullman; EZ Streets
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: EZ Streets
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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