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Oswalt on Rats, Werewolves and Lollipops

Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt stars in Ratatouille, the new animated feature from Pixar. He's also a writer and stand-up comic, who starred in his own comedy specials and appeared in the TV shows The King of Queens and Reno 911! He'll release a new comedy album, called Werewolves and Lollipops, on July 10.

14:03

Other segments from the episode on July 3, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 3, 2007: Interview with Frankie Valli; Interview with Patton Oswalt; Review of Stephen L. Carter's book "New England White."

Transcript

DATE July 3, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons on "The Jersey Boys"
and a recent CD/DVD set that collects many Four Seasons songs
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Frankie Valli, the lead singer of The Four Seasons. He's the
falsetto in this post-doo-wop harmony group. The group is the subject of the
hit Broadway musical "Jersey Boys." A new three-CD set collects 76 of The Four
Seasons' records, including their top 10 hits like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't
Cry," "Dawn," "Ragdoll" and "Let's Hang On." The fourth disc in the collection
is a DVD that includes TV performances from the '60s. The box set is called
"Jersey Beat." As you may remember, Frankie Valli also had a small part in
"The Sopranos."

In the '50s and early '60s, before they became The Four Seasons, the group
sang under the names The Four Lovers, The Romans and The Village Voices. When
they hooked up with music producer Bob Crewe, they had their first hit,
"Sherry, " which made it to number one in 1962. "Sherry" was written by Frank
Gaudio, who wrote or co-wrote most of the group's hits and also sang in The
Four Seasons.

(Soundbite of "Sherry")

The Four Seasons: (Singing) Sherry, Sherry baby,
Sherry, Sherry baby,
Sheerrry bay-yay-by
Sherry baby
Sherry, can you come out tonight
Come, come, come out tonight

Sheerrry baby
Sherry baby
Sherry, can you come out tonight

Why don't you come out
Come out
Come out to my twist party
Come on
Where the bright moon shines
Come out
We'll dance the night away
I'm going to make you mi-yi-yine

Sherry bay-yay-by
Sherry baby
Sheerrry, can you come out tonight
Come, come, come out tonight
Come, come, come out tonight

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Frankie Valli, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your new
box set. So what's the story behind "Sherry"? Bob Gaudio, who was in The
Four Seasons as a singer, but also wrote most of the songs that you recorded
over the years, wrote "Sherry." Was there a story behind the song?

Mr. FRANKIE VALLI: Well, the story is that once we went to Bob Crewe and
told him that either he record us or we were going to move on. He said, `OK,
put four songs together. We'll go in and we'll record.' We were rehearsing
every day the material that we were going to record, and Gaudio came into a
rehearsal one afternoon and brought "Sherry." And he said, `Hey, I just wrote
this song.' He says, `I wrote it 15 minutes before I left the house.' And we
rehearsed it. We called Crewe up. We sang it to him over the phone. He
loved it. We went and recorded it. And we ended up at Vee Jay Records, which
was a black label out of Chicago, and I think we were probably the first white
group that they had on that label. Everybody thought we were a Black group,
but it took guys like--out of Philadelphia--like Jerry Blavat, and Jocko, who
really laid on the record for three or four weeks when we couldn't get it
played anywhere. And then all...

GROSS: These are deejays you're talking about? Yeah.

Mr. VALLI: Yeah, and then all of a sudden, they were getting calls in and
all of a sudden it was a hit in Detroit and it was a hit in Philly and it was
a hit in Boston, and it was spreading. And then we did "The Dick Clark Show,"
and in one day I think we sold maybe 120,000 records. And that was very, very
strong.

GROSS: It went to number one, didn't it?

Mr. VALLI: Yeah, it did go to number one.

GROSS: So your falsetto is so prominent on this, I mean, you have such a big
range on this recording. Had you been singing largely in falsetto before
"Sherry" was recorded?

Mr. VALLI: Yeah, I guess I was. You know, very early on in my career--since
I had no formal musical education, I learned to sing by listening to a
variation of different artists, and, you know, I had an unusually high voice
to start off with, so--a wide range is what I really should say, because I was
always truly a baritone. A lot of people thought I was a tenor or soprano,
but soprano? Soprano, now, I know that guy. Where does that name come from?

GROSS: We'll get to that later.

Mr. VALLI: But--and it wasn't anything new, you know. R&B groups were using
it for years, using it in background. What we did different was we used it
doing the lead, and that was quite unique, and we created a style that became
the sound of what The Four Seasons were all about. And I guess that's really
the way it all went down.

GROSS: Now, how'd you work out the harmonies on the songs? Like, let's start
with "Sherry," for instance. How did you work out the harmonies on that? You
said the song was written in 15 minutes. What was in like to actually work
out how you were going to do the song?

Mr. VALLI: Well, we did a lot of what I call church harmony, and church
harmony is probably the simplest form of harmony. But the way you lay the
harmony out, it creates a lot of overtones. A lot of people were not able to
figure out who was singing what on our records because of the overtones. So
we kept the harmony open to give a bigger sound, and closer harmonies, like in
modern harmony, with groups like The Four Freshmen or The HiLos or the
Modernaires or The Manhattan Transfer, one of my all-time favorite groups,
they sing closer harmonies, and modern singing does use closer harmonies.

GROSS: How did you learn to sing harmony? You mentioned church harmonies.
Did you sing harmony in church?

Mr. VALLI: I just, you know, it was an ear thing. I mean, I just heard it.
Most of the guys in the band, except for Bob Gaudio--Bob Gaudio, who was the
only guy that had any sort of formal musical education. I mean, he studied
classical piano...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: But the guy that did a lot of our early vocal arrangements, Nick
Massi, he structured harmony right in his head and gave each guy parts, and
that's how we did it.

GROSS: He'd write it out or he'd sing it for you?

Mr. VALLI: He'd sing it out for us and...

GROSS: So he would...

Mr. VALLI: ...we rehearsed them and practiced them, and that's what we came
up with.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Frankie Valli, and there's a
new box set out called "Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons: Jersey Beat." And
there's three CDs and one DVD of performances.

So once "Sherry" came out and it was a big hit, you know, immediately followed
by other big hits, and you suddenly started getting this money and fame, what
did you spend your money on at first?

Mr. VALLI: Well, you know, very early on, there really wasn't that much
money. You know, first of all, we were four guys. We were a partnership, and
we split the money. And by the time you got through with agents and
everything else, there wasn't that much money. We lived on a budget, took a
salary from the corporation. It was hard to believe that the success was
really happening. You know, you work and work and work for something, and you
believe in everything you're doing, but your struggle is long and hard and
when it happens, I mean, I was scared to death. I said, you know, what now?
So I was...

GROSS: Why was that frightening?

Mr. VALLI: It was just frightening because I, you know, I lived most of my
life as a kid in the projects with not a whole lot, a kid with a lot of dreams
and a lot of ambitions, but not really knowing how to get to where I wanted to
go. See, that was the hard part. When you--your roots are what mine were,
and you know, you hung on street corners or in pool rooms and you know, and
you want to be a singer, how do you get to that place?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: You know, and...

GROSS: I know like some singers of your generation, like Dion, for instance,
once he started to make it, he was groomed. You know, there was someone who
was hired to teach him how to like use the right fork at a fancy restaurant
and how to dress a certain way, so, you know, and, you know, young stars were
groomed to eventually play Vegas and things like that. Did you have anybody
in your life who was hired to like teach you that kind of stuff?

Mr. VALLI: No, not really. You know, I certainly had a taste for nice
things in life. And when they came, I was very careful to learn as much as I
could possibly learn...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: ...about great restaurants and eating properly and speaking
properly and all of the other things that go with it.

GROSS: Do you speak differently now than you did before you were famous?

Mr. VALLI: Well, I think that, you know, coming from where I grew up and the
part of the country that I grew up in, you kind of have a New York sound or a
Jersey sound, but singing is really wonderful because it really straightens
all that out. Once you really are into singing, it will teach you--without
even trying, it will teach you all the correct ways to say words...

GROSS: Oh, because you have to pronounce them?

Mr. VALLI: ...without having an accent, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: No New York accent.

GROSS: Right. And you have to hear like the "t" at the end of the word and
things like that.

Mr. VALLI: Right, and you know, on the East Coast in most cases, it's
chocolate and coffee and water and banana, and it's, you know, the way I just
said all those words to you, if you tried to sing them that way, they would
sound awful. It would be "aw-ful," not awful. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah.

My guest is Frankie Valli, the lead singer of The Four Seasons. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Frankie Valli, the lead singer of The Four Seasons.
There's a new Four Seasons box set called "Jersey Beat."

Let's hear another Four Seasons hit. Now we heard "Sherry," you know, your
first big hit, and that's not a very highly produced record, whereas "Dawn"
is. Do you want to talk about how the production and the sound changed from
"Sherry" to "Dawn"?

Mr. VALLI: Well, there was "Sherry," and "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a
Man," and there were three number ones in a row. And we probably could have
gone on and stayed right in the same place, but we felt that we should make a
surprising change, so we used more orchestra and we did a different kind of
song with a little bit more story.

And it went, I think, to number three, and when it didn't go to number one, I
thought it was over. I said, `Oh my god, our career's done,' but it was a
good move. We always were not afraid to be innovative, and even today--you
know, I think that's a big mistake. I listen to some artists, even those whom
I love a lot, and everything sounds the same. And music is much broader than
that...

GROSS: Well, and, you know...

Mr. VALLI: ...and you should not be afraid to try different things and do
different things. If you're a singer, you're a singer, that's what you are.

GROSS: Why don't we hear "Dawn"? And this is featured on the new box set
"Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons." And my guest
is Frankie Valli and we'll talk more after we listen to "Dawn."

(Soundbite of "Dawn")

THE FOUR SEASONS (Singing) Hm...
Pretty as a midsummer's morn
Hm...
They called her Dawn

Dawn, go away
I'm no good for you
Oh, Dawn
Stay with him, he'll be good to you
Hang on, hang on
Hang on to him
Ahhhh
Think, think
What a big man he'll be
Think, think
All the faces you'll see
Now think what the future would be
With a poor boy like me-ee, me-ee

Dawn, go away,
Please go away
Although, I know, I want you to stay
Dawn, go away, please go away
Baby, don't cry
It's better this way-ay-ay
Ah-ah-ah
Oh, Dawn, go away back where you belong...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's The Four Seasons, recorded in 1964. My guest is Frankie Valli,
and that song is one of the many included on a three-CD box set that also
includes a DVD called "Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli and The Four
Seasons."

I'm wondering if Bruce Springsteen ever said to you that he was influenced by
that particular track.

Mr. VALLI: No, he didn't, but you know...

GROSS: Just curious.

Mr. VALLI: ...I find with time--I saw him at a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame
inauguration, and he expressed that he was a fan...

GROSS: Mm.

Mr. VALLI: ...and I was also a fan of his, you know, and it was nice to see
so many people out of New Jersey having success like...

GROSS: Now...

Mr. VALLI: ...Springsteen and Connie Francis and Frank Sinatra and The Young
Rascals, so it was kind of neat.

GROSS: Now, "Dawn" entered the charts just at about the same time The Beatles
came to the United States for the first time.

Mr. VALLI: The who?

GROSS: How did The Beatles and the British invasion affect your popularity?
You know, a lot of bands, a lot of singers felt that they were, you know,
wiped down and knocked off the charts by the British invasion.

Mr. VALLI: Well, that's like saying that you should never have any
competition. I think that's the most ridiculous thing in the world. You
know, they did what they did. One of the big problems I found with many of
America's artists is that they tried to cop the British sound and leave the
successes that they were already having. Well, some people didn't do that,
and those people all went on to continue to be successful. We can start right
out with the Beach Boys. They did not change their thing.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: They did not try to sound English or copy what The Beatles were
doing. And The Four Tops didn't, and The Temptations didn't, and Marvin Gaye
didn't, and Bobby Darin didn't.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you a question about somebody else who, you know, was
in the original group, and I'm thinking of Tommy DeVito. You know, from what
I read, he was an ex-con when the group got together.

Mr. VALLI: Right.

GROSS: I think he'd done time for petty larceny, whatever...

Mr. VALLI: Right.

GROSS: I don't know exactly what the...

Mr. VALLI: Well, he did time for a lot of things, but...

GROSS: Did he? What kind of things?

Mr. VALLI: Well, you know, I don't want to get, you know--Tommy DeVito,
until the day he dies, God love his soul, will always be Tommy DeVito, you
know? The things that--he was a little bit more careful, and all the things
that had happened in anybody's life before we had had any success, we kind of
kept quiet because we were afraid if anybody found out, they'd stop playing
our records and record companies would not want us on their label, and not
until "Jersey Boys" did we finally decide that we were going to tell the story
the way it was, as close to the truth as you could possibly ever get.

GROSS: Did you worry that at some point he would get into trouble and then
the story would get out and it would be all over?

Mr. VALLI: Well, we always worried about that. You know, that's why, when
everybody was out there making a rumpus and getting drunk and using drugs and
breaking up hotel rooms, we were very careful not to do any of those things,
you know. We were trying to protect a career. This was a wonderful
opportunity. These are four guys who came from rather dim backgrounds, except
that, you know, Bob Gaudio was the only guy who was a little different. He
came from the Bronx and was younger and had no problems with the law and was
into music and had the backing of his parents, financially and otherwise, and
we didn't. You know, Tommy DeVito learned how to play guitar on the street
and in jail, and Nick Massey learned how to play guitar and bass the same way.

GROSS: In jail?

Mr. VALLI: Absolutely.

GROSS: Did your parents ever tell you to stay away from them, that they'd get
you into trouble?

Mr. VALLI: My parents told me to stay away from everybody. My mother had
the greatest insight of anybody. You know, she just was the greatest. She
could feel trouble. And had I listened to her more when I was a kid, I
probably would have avoided a lot of things. But you know, I...

GROSS: Including a music career.

Mr. VALLI: I came up and grew up in a period of time and a place that I was
a street kid. I lived in the projects. There was everything going on.
Everything that's happening today was going on. There was drugs in the street
and there were gangs and there were all of these things happening, and it was
a kind of situation where it was all about guys had honor with each other, you
know what I mean? If you gave your word, that was it.

GROSS: Frankie Valli will be back in the second half of the show. The new
Four Seasons box set is called "Jersey Beat."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Ragdoll")

The Four Seasons: (Singing)
Ooooh ooh-ooh-ooh ooooh
Ooh ooh ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh oooh
Ahhh ah ah ah ah ahhh
Ragdoll, oooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh oooh
Hand me down

(End of soundbite)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Frankie Valli, the lead
singer of The Four Seasons. A new box set called the "The Jersey Boys"--no,
that's the Broadway show. I'm sorry. A new box set called "Jersey Beat"
includes three CDs of their recordings and one DVD of their TV appearances
from their '60s and promotional films from the '70s.

You went solo at some point. What was it like for you to sing without, like
the harmonies behind you?

Mr. VALLI: You know, I never really went solo, and I get this all the time.
You know, I was--I stayed a part of The Four Seasons.

GROSS: So you stayed with the group. You just had some solo records in
addition.

Mr. VALLI: Yes. I decided that I wanted to do some things that were a
little different, more orchestrated...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: ...and a little bit more in keeping of what I originally wanted
to do, you know, songs like "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," or "My Eyes Adored
You," or "Swearing to God," were not exactly Four Seasons songs.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: You know, it was an extension of something that was always in the
back of my mind. It was where I really wanted to be.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"? Did you
choose the song?

Mr. VALLI: It was written specifically for me.

GROSS: By Bob Gaudio?

Mr. VALLI: By Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," and
this is Frankie Valli. And it's one of the tracks included on the new box
set.

(Soundbite of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You")

Mr. VALLI: (Singing) You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off of you
You'd be like heaven to touch
I want to hold you so much

At long last love has arrived
And I thank God I'm alive
You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off a you

Pardon the way that I stare
There's nothing else to compare
The sight of you leaves me weak
There are no words left to speak

But if you feel like I feel
Please let me know that it's real
You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off a you

I love you, baby
And if it's quite all right
I need you baby
To warm the lonely night
I love you, baby
Trust in me when I say

Oh, pretty baby,
Don't bring me down, I pray
Oh, pretty baby
Now that I've found you, stay
And let me love you, baby
Let me love you

You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off of you
You'd be like heaven to touch

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Frankie Valli, one of the tracks included on the new box set
"Jersey Beat: Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons."

Now, I should ask you about "The Sopranos."

Mr. VALLI: And I did seven episodes and probably would have done more but,
you know, my working schedule was really heavy, but...

GROSS: Wasn't your character whacked?

Mr. VALLI: Yeah, eventually--well, all of the guests were...

GROSS: Who wasn't?

Mr. VALLI: ...eventually, whacked, I mean, you know, unless you were an
original part of the Soprano family...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: ...and occasionally even those guys got whacked. But all the
characters, you know, that's what kept that show so interesting. You know,
what's really amazing, I mean, with all the television shows that we can think
about and all the crime shows and everything else, I have never seen such a
list of actors that wanted to do that show. So I really felt privileged to be
working with really great actors and writers, and David Chase is--he has to be
a genius. I mean, you know, he didn't just come along. And you hear all the
controversy about the way it ended. I guess everybody was waiting to see Tony
Soprano get whacked out, but it didn't happen, and I'm glad it didn't happen,
to tell you the truth. He ended it the way he thought it should end.

GROSS: So how has it changed the profile of The Four Seasons to be the
subject of the Broadway show "Jersey Boys," which was--and is--such a big
success?

Mr. VALLI: Well, one of the most unusual things that I have learned, you
know, since we have recorded so many different ways, I'm not quite sure that
the public was aware of the fact that we were all of those records, and that's
one of the things that has been cleared up.

GROSS: What do you mean? Did you think they thought other bands did your
sound?

Mr. VALLI: Well, yeah, because we were constantly changing. We never
stayed...(unintelligible)...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALLI: You know, "Sherry," "Big Girls," "Walk Like a Man" were one
place. "Dawn" was another place. "Ragdoll" was another place. "Ronnie" was
another place. "Big Man in Town" was--"Let's Hang On," "Working My Way Back
to You," "Opus 17" was another place. "My Eyes Adored You," "Swearing to God"
was another place. "December '63" and "Who Loves You?" was--you know, we were
constantly looking for new places to go.

GROSS: Frankie Valli. The new Four Seasons box set is called "Jersey Beat."

Coming up, Patton Oswalt, the star of "Ratatouille," returns to talk about his
new comedy CD. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Patton Oswalt of "Ratatouille" on his new comedy CD,
"Werewolves and Lollipops"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Patton Oswalt is the star of the new animated film "Ratatouille." He plays
Remy, the rat who wants to be a gourmet chef. We talked with him about the
film last week. Then we asked him to stick around to record an interview
which we're about to hear about his new comedy CD, "Werewolves and Lollipops."
It will be released next week. Here's an excerpt from the track "The Best
Baby in the Universe."

(Soundbite of "The Best Baby in the Universe")

Mr. PATTON OSWALT: I got married last year. Oh, it burns!

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: It's fun being married, although now she's trying to trick me
into have a kid.

Audience: Oh.

Mr. OSWALT: She's going to trick me. When we got married, we had an
agreement. We were going to have an invisible baby and name it "Ten Hours
Sleep a Night." That was our plan.

(Soundbite of audience laughter, applause)

Mr. OSWALT: A mute, invisible baby. That was the agreement. He was going
to be awesome. We could do mushrooms in front of him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: ...or go to a concert on a Thursday, come back Sunday. `He's
fine. He made chili. Look at that kid. He's the best.'

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Patton Oswalt from his new comedy CD, recorded at a comedy club
in Austin, Texas. Oswalt was one of the stars of the sitcom "The King of
Queens" and created the Comedians of Comedy Tour. He first joined us on FRESH
AIR in 2004 after the release of his first comedy CD.

Patton Oswalt, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Now, the last time we spoke, one of the things we talked about was that you
had been doing a bit about President Bush and the war...

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...in your act, and you were getting booed.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: You were getting booed by people who supported the war and then, for
some of the sarcastic things that you were saying, you were getting booed by
opponents of the war because they thought--they were taking at face value the
things you were actually saying ironically. So...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

GROSS: How has the comedy climate about the president and the war changed?

Mr. OSWALT: Well, oddly enough, now it's not fun at all to make jokes about
President Bush, because you're not going to get that kind of delicious
controversy. Because no one's going to stand up at this point and go, `Excuse
me, he rocks!' Making fun of--people who were into Bush in 2000, now in 2007,
they're like Creed fans. They're like, `Look, I know, OK? The guy was really
good looking. I was young. Just--you liked Limp Bizkit. Leave me alone.'
You know, they've kind of come around so you have to approach it in a much
different way.

I'm more fascinated now by the fact that he's still the president. That if
you're--if the standard for impeachment is like you cover up a burglary or you
have extramarital sex, then how is Bush still--if that's the standard for
impeachment, how is he still the president? It's amazing. He and Cheney are
like the "Dukes of Hazzard" at this point. You know, just...

GROSS: In what sense are they like the "Dukes of Hazzard"?

Mr. OSWALT: Well, I mean, doesn't it seem like every week they get
themselves in these amazing predicaments where you're like, `Well, there ain't
no way they going to get out of this one.' And then they jump the General Lee
over the Bill of Rights. It's, I mean, they should just have like--they
should have footage of him and Cheney walking in the Rose Garden and then
freeze-frame it and then have Waylon Jennings come on and go, `Now, can you
believe these two guys lied about a war that they knew--there ain't no way
they going to get out of this book and the syrup and the--bowt dow dooda wow.'
They just--that's how it is now. It's amazing.

GROSS: Are you talking about that in your act?

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah. That's one of the things that I kind of go off on in the
album, is that it did come full circle where you would--and I wasn't ever
courting controversy but I just remember back in 2003 leading up to the war, I
was really scared and frightened and concerned. And I had bits about it, and
the reason that people were booing me off stage is they were equally scared
and frightened and concerned and they didn't...

But you couldn't have a dialogue about it back then because, I think, the kind
of media machine had ratcheted up the hysteria so there could be no debate. A
debate equalled treason. And now it's gotten to the point where we just--we
were so openly lied to so many times that you come out and say anything about
President Bush, and people are like, `Oh, I'm so ahead of you on this. Why
are you even bothering to talk about it,' you know? Because now people are
just tired and angry. It is this weird full circle at this point.

GROSS: Well, you know, one of the things in addition to acting you've done is
a lot of writing and...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you've punched up scripts, and one of the scripts...

Mr. OSWALT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...you've worked on--from what I read, correct me if I'm wrong...

Mr. OSWALT: Sure.

GROSS: ...is the "Borat" movie.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

GROSS: What did you do on Borat?

Mr. OSWALT: I wrote on that movie for three months when the first director
was on it. You know, I had some hiatus--I was still on "The King of Queens"
at the time...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OSWALT: ...and then the first director left, and there was a production
shutdown for a few months. So while everybody was waiting around, "The King
of Queens" started up again, and I couldn't go back to the movie that I'd been
writing on. And then, so when the movie came out, the wonderful WGA, in order
to protect me, said, `You either give him a writing credit or nothing,' and at
that point Sacha and I watched a very early cut of the film, like four months
before it came out in an editing bay, and I laughed--I was laughing so hard
that it was one of those times that I--this isn't an exaggeration. We had to
stop the movie so that I could--because I thought I was going to get sick.
Like, I was laughing way too hard--I thought I was going to throw up. And I
was like, `If you guys want to give me a special thanks, I'm totally happy
with that. I understand how the scheduling got really crazy,' and the WGA was
like, `They're not going to get away with giving you a special thanks.' I was
like, no, no, I want them to give me special thanks on the movie. No, it's
either `written by' or nothing. Oh!

So I didn't get a writing credit, and you know I have a few little scenes in
there that I wrote stuff on--the driving instructor thing was mine. You know,
most of the stuff he's screaming out the window, and all of the stuff about
the steering wheel, and just lines here and there. But, you know, so many
writers came on and off that movie, and there were so many like really, really
talented people on it. There were like some "Simpsons" writers early on that
were there with me, and then--so people ended up getting credited that
deserved credit, though. You know, really good--like Anthony Hines,
especially, was amazing on that so...

GROSS: Well, you know, in the driving instructor scene he's...

Mr. OSWALT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat, is getting driving instructions...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and he's driving with the instructor at his side, and he sees women
driving and he's saying, `What, they let you drive in America?' And...

Mr. OSWALT: Well, especially when the guy says, he goes, `Let's pull over
and have sex,' and then the guy says, `Well, no, the woman gets to choose who
she has sex with.' He goes, `What?' like that's such an amazing thing for him.

GROSS: Is that your line?

Mr. OSWALT: I wish that was my--no, my lines were the--remember when he's
yelling? I can't repeat them but he's yelling stuff out the window to the
other drivers when he's angry at them, and they are, quote, unquote,
"insults," but they're way more insulting to Borat, and then, again I cannot
repeat--I can't say them on the air. I don't want to get you guys fined. And
then, there's all stuff about when the guy says, `You have to have your hands
at ten and two on the steering wheel,' he goes, `But I look like I'm holding
down a gypsy'... and then goes into some very graphic--and there's also a
line about a jar of gypsy tears that I'll just leave at that, that he says
early that was mine. But I mean--it was such a weird experience to--because
we were traveling in New York and West Virginia, and, you know, to sort of see
the early footage was really amazing.

GROSS: So it must be--you know, there's so much that seems improvised, like
the driving instructor, for instance. Was he a real driving instructor?

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, he was. What's amazing about Sacha is he goes over the
script. You write for like 10 hours a day because what he wants to do is
drill every single possibility of a response into himself and totally absorb
that character the way he does. I mean, it's a really--it's an amazing
process. That way when he gets out there with these people, with the comedy
instructor or the driving instructor who--he doesn't know what they're going
to say, but he's prepared for anything that could happen, and then, because
he's so prepared and he has that base, then he can go off and just riff things
right on the spot.

GROSS: Did he give you any new ideas about comedy to work with him and watch
him work?

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, yeah. Especially just the fact that his comedy is so not
punchline-oriented. It's so much more situational oriented. It's that kind
of--it was something that I was always trying in my stand-up but I was so shy
and timid about taking it all the way of let this situation build and then
kind of let it get out of your control and see where that goes. And a lot of
my, I think, on the new CD--not that I'm comparing my CD to the "Borat" movie,
because the "Borat" movie's amazing, but there are moments that you'll see on
the CD where I really kind of let--I have the plan down so tight that I let it
go and let's see what happens.

GROSS: Who's the comedian who most influenced you?

Mr. OSWALT: Growing up, I think my biggest influence was--now that I look
back on it, when I was a teenager, it was--I would definitely say, like
Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. But when I really--now that I've had some
time to really look back, it was Bill Cosby. It was the way he could use like
volume and silence at the same time. You listen to those early albums, and
it's amazing. It's like a symphony, and the audience is the symphony, and
he's just, `I will conduct.' It's amazing.

GROSS: So do audiences respond to you differently now that, you know, you've
been on television, you've been in movies. Like, you're much better known, so
do they show up with different expectations and respond to you differently
when you perform?

Mr. OSWALT: Well, there's definitely, once you've been on TV and you've
gotten some, I guess, fame that way, there's an initial like, `Hey, we're
happy to see a guy who's been on TV and who's famous,' but then that gets you
15 seconds of excitement, and then you've got to then--you'd better start
being funny and original or--you saw what happened with Michael Richards. I'm
sure that audience was so happy when he walked out onstage, you know, that `Oh
my god, this guy's really funny,' and then he just kind of disintegrated. So
with, you know, with me, I really went out of my way to put out CDs and do the
Comedians of Comedy Tour to let people know, `I'm glad you like me on "King of
Queens" and it's a very funny show, but this is a much different thing. This
is not an 8:00 family-oriented thing I'm doing right now,' which, you know,
that was more my responsibility so...

GROSS: Did you ever have a complete meltdown onstage?

Mr. OSWALT: Did I ever have a complete meltdown onstage? I've certainly had
times where audiences got the better of me, but I don't think--I am not
courageous enough to like explode and rant and rip people apart the way
that--you know, the bad version of that is what Michael Richards did at the
Laugh Factory. The good version of that, you can see it on YouTube, is a
comedian named Bill Burr, who was facing this horrible audience in
Philadelphia--I think it was last year, and he had the most articulate,
beautiful, symphonic--it was operatic how he exploded on this crowd and ended
up winning them back over, because you're like, `I can't believe this guy is
just attacking us this way.' It's beautiful. It was like poetry.

But I've never had the courage to do either one. I usually either just shut
down or the thing I do when the audience is really going the wrong way, is I
start talking very quietly, because when you start talking quietly, it quiets
them down. Sometimes silence can be really threatening. When you start
quieting down, then they'll go, `Why is he talking so quietly?' And you can
end up really refocusing them.

GROSS: Will people really pay attention when you're talking that quietly, or
at that point are they just talking over you and ignoring you?

Mr. OSWALT: Sometimes that strategy doesn't work, but a lot of times, when
you start talking quieter and people go, `I can't hear you,' you go, `Well,
then you'll have to shut up or you won't be able to hear this.' And if you
have this look on your face, not like `I hate you guys' but it's like, `It's
all the same to me. I'm walking out of here with your money so you either
watch the show or you know eat your fried mozzarella. It's really all the
same to me.' And sometimes that kind of indifference. You know, it's like,
when you really love someone and they're like, `well, whatever.' But if you're
indifferent towards them, they're like, `Why is he indifferent towards me?'
And then they get kind of attracted to you and a lot of times, I hate to say
it, crowds are the same way. When you walk up and you're kind of indifferent,
they're like, `whoa,' it makes them pay attention.

GROSS: Well, Patton Oswalt, great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. OSWALT: Well, thanks for--anytime. I love doing this show. It's such a
relief. So thank you.

GROSS: It's great to have you...

Mr. OSWALT: A lot of the radio that I've got to do is...(sighs)...so this is
very nice. Thank you.

GROSS: What is a lot of radio you have to do?

Mr. OSWALT: Well, you know, sometimes I go "Flappy and the Bean." `Hey, we
got Patton Osweird here from Hollywood, California. Hey, Pat, how you doing?'
`Well,' `All right! We got our reader call-in or our I-Hate-My-Boss doughnut
toss. So come on down to'--this is such the difference. Right now I'm so
happy.

GROSS: Well, thanks so much for doing our show.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Patton Oswalt's new comedy CD "Werewolves and Lollipops" will be
released next week. Oswalt is the star of the new animated film
"Ratatouille."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel by Yale law professor
Stephen Carter, the author of the best seller "The Emperor of Ocean Park."
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan on Stephen L. Carter's new novel,
"New England White"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Stephen L. Carter made his debut as a suspense writer in 2002 with his
best-selling novel "The Emperor of Ocean Park," which explored the long-buried
secrets of the black upper class in Washington, DC. Carter's anticipated
second novel has just come out in time for vacation reading. Book critic
Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

How can I recommend a novel that I've just read and already mostly forgotten?
That's my ethical dilemma right now. Up until the last 75 pages or so, when
the plot buckled under its own weight, I loved reading Stephen L. Carter's
latest jumbo literary suspense novel, "New England White." Couldn't put it
down. I happily stuck with its entertaining, convoluted story, one that roams
from ghostly mansions in Harlem to sinister private dinners at the White
House, from car chases to anagrams to hidden messages in mirrors, to secret
societies that sort of rule the United States. But be forewarned that "New
England White" generates one of those odd reading experiences where, after you
leave the world of the book, you find yourself asking, `What was that all
about?'

Carter first made his mark as a suspense writer five years ago with the best
seller "The Emperor of Ocean Park." Before that he was known to smaller
audiences as an African-American professor of law at Yale and a public
intellectual who distinguished himself by his traditionalist views on religion
and civility in American life. Carter's conservatism shines through in his
fiction via his choice of the old-fashioned, plot-driven thriller form and his
characters, who are drawn almost exclusively from the upper reaches of the
black bourgeoisie. The main characters of this new novel are Lemaster and
Julia Carlyle, who made walk-on appearances in "The Emperor of Ocean Park."
Lemaster is the Colin Powell-like president of a Yale-like university in
Connecticut. His wife, Julia, is a dean at the divinity school and the
troubled moral center of the book.

In the wry lingo of the tale, Lemaster and Julia are well-heeled citizens of
the darker nation living in the heart of whiteness. Carter has fun playing
with images of white power throughout this story, most blatantly by
manufacturing constant flurries, snowstorms and the occasional blizzard to
blanket the landscape.

Things get worser faster, as the novel tells us, from its very first
snowstorm, when Lemaster and Julie, driving home at night, lose control of
their SUV and conveniently stumble upon the body of Kellen Zant, half buried
in a snow drift. Kellen was an economics professor at the university, a noted
campus Casanova and a former flame of Julia's. To make a long winter tale
short, Kellen was investigating the 30-year-old murder of a white student and
has left cryptic clues to the murderer's identity for his old girlfriend Julia
to decode. Why the obsession with an old murder? Because, as some of the
messages Julia cracks indicate, one of the chief suspects is an old college
roommate of Lemaster's, a white guy who now occupies the White House.

As he did in "The Emperor of Ocean Park," Carter here gives us readers entree
into the exclusive social clubs and McMansions of the African-American elite,
and that social context is what lingers long after the plot and the
characters, who are pretty one-dimensional, have melted away. In particular,
the maxims of Julia's well-heeled grandmother, a doyenne of Harlem high
society, give the novel a patrician-yet-sassy voice. Enduring the nonstop
chatter of a friend, Julia recalls her grandmother's complaint about people
who `listen with their mouths.' Bristling at Lemaster's arrogance, Julie
thinks about her grandmother's warning, that `if you married a man because you
wanted him to take care of you, you ran the risk that he would.'

I guess, though, because of Carter's intellectual renown, it's natural to
expect something more than an unusual setting and folk wisdom to remain at the
end of this novel, some impression that he's used the suspense form to probe
into moral conundrums, or the larger mysteries of race in America, that he's
bidding to join the ranks of Chester Himes or Walter Mosley. Instead, as "New
England White," like its predecessor demonstrates, Carter seems to embrace
Graham Greene's oft-quoted attitude toward mysteries, regarding them chiefly
as entertainments and saving the heavier material for his other nonmystery
books. "New England White" is a novel that's, for the most part, utterly
engrossing while you're reading it, and largely forgettable after you've
finished, and that curious combination of qualities will probably make it the
literary thriller of the summer season, a mental vacation without troublesome
baggage.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "New England White" by Stephen L. Carter.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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