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Philip Roth and His 'Everyman,' Revisited

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth's twenty-seventh book, Everyman, centers on a successful septuagenarian's response to his physical decline and approaching death.

The man, who's never named, has no religion or philosophy to cling to; reviewer Gail Caldwell of the Boston Globe writes that the book is a "swift, brutal novel about a heartbreakingly ordinary subject, and it is also testament to Roth that the book leaves you a little breathless and not at all bereft."

Roth, whose Portnoy's Complaint became a literary exemplar of the late-'60s sexual revolution, is one of only three living authors to see his work collected in the Library of America series.

This interview originally aired on May 8, 2006.

34:17

Other segments from the episode on June 1, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 1, 2007: Interview with Philip Roth; Review of the film "Knocked Up"; Commentary on the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Transcript

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

Interview: Novelist Philip Roth discusses "Everyman"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Philip Roth's novel "Everyman" begins at a grave in a run-down cemetery in New
Jersey, where the main character is about to be buried near the graves of his
parents. The novel ends with the main character's death in his 70s. In
between those pages, we are told the story of his life through the story of
his slow bodily decay, starting with the hernia surgery he had as a boy in
1942. "Everyman" is now in paperback.

Reviewing the book in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote, "Of all the
subjects that Philip Roth has tackled in his career--the Jewish family, sex,
American ideals, the betrayal of American ideals, political zealotry, personal
identity--none have proved as inexhaustible as the human body in its strength,
its frailty, and its often ridiculous need."

Roth has won two National Book Awards, two National Book Critic Circle Awards,
and a Pulitzer Prize. Terry spoke with Philip Roth in 2006 when the novel was
released in hardback, and just after he had won a Lifetime Achievement award
from PEN, the international literary organization. They began with a reading
from "Everyman." The main character is thinking back to his father's death.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH: (Reading) "His father had become religious in the last 10
years of his life, and after having retired and having lost his wife, had
taken to going to the synagogue at least once a day. Long before his final
illness, he'd asked his rabbi to conduct his burial service entirely in
Hebrew, as though Hebrew were the strongest answer that could be accorded
death. To his father's younger son, the language meant nothing. He'd stopped
taking Judaism seriously at 13, the Sunday after the Saturday of his bar
mitzvah, and he had not set foot since then in a synagogue. He'd even left
the space for religion blank on his hospital admission form, lest the word
`Jewish' prompt a visit to his room by a rabbi come to talk in the way rabbis
talk.

"Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all
religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless,
childish, couldn't stand the complete unadultness, the baby talk and the
righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus pocus about death
and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies,
born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died
before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for
himself, that was it. He'd come upon it early and intuitively and, however
elemental, that was the whole of it. Should he ever write an autobiography,
he'd call it `The Life and Death of a Male Body.' But after retiring, he tried
becoming a painter, not a writer, and so he gave that title to a series of his
abstractions.

"But none of what he did or didn't believe mattered on the day that his father
was buried beside his mother in the run-down cemetery just off the Jersey
Turnpike."

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's Philip Roth reading from his new novel "Everyman."

Philip Roth, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your
PEN/Nabokov Award. Now, you know, the title that this man in your novel would
have given his autobiography had he written one was "The Life and Death of a
Male Body," and it's kind of the title you could have given your book, if you
wanted to.

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Because your book is about the slow deterioration of one man and his
body, starting with his hernia surgery as a boy, and it's also about the
sexual urges of that body, which sometimes lead him in the wrong direction.
And the body is kind of a real problem for him. It's, of course, the symbol
of his mortality, but why did you want to write about a life as the story of
one man's mortal body?

Mr. ROTH: Mm. Well, first of all, it occurred to me--these ideas arise
spontaneously, you know--but to add to that, I didn't know of a book which was
formulated out of a medical history, as this one is. I knew of some books
that were about illness and disease--but very few by the way, that I could
think of, maybe others can think of more, but the great ones we know, Mann's
"Magic Mountain," which is about a tuberculosis sanatorium, and Solzhenitsyn's
great work "Cancer Ward" and Tolstoy's short novel--masterpiece, really--"The
Death of Ivan Ilyich." But beyond that, there are very few books I knew of
that were about illness to begin with. But none that I knew of where the
narrative line was really a medical history. And for so many people,
especially as they age, in our society today, their medical biography is their
biography, so that's what gave me the idea: just stick to his medical history
and see his progress through life in terms of that.

GROSS: In the reading that you just did, the main character, Everyman,
explains that he considers religion "superstitious folderol," meaning
meaningless and childish, but there's nothing in his life to replace religion.
Like, he discards religion but there's nothing real to hold onto in his life.
There's no real larger philosophy or even passion that he can hold onto as his
body starts to diminish. Do you see that as a problem for people who reject
religion, like what do you find to replace it with?

Mr. ROTH: No, I personally think religion is the problem. So I don't see it
as the problem. No, I wanted to write about what seemed to me far from
unordinary, which is the secular life. I think that probably despite the
period we're going through in America now, that essentially it is a secular
country, and that people lead deeply secular lives; and in many ways, the
glory of America is its secularism, to my mind. But I was neither glorifying
him nor assailing him or doing anything in terms of his beliefs. I wanted
this man to face death the way I think most people do, and it is without the
consolation or comforts that come from religious belief. He faces it head on
with no belief in divine presence, no belief, certainly, in an afterlife, but
death is there, and it is oblivion.

GROSS: Your character describes the process of becoming less and less as he
gets older and older. The aimless days and the uncertain nights and the
impotently putting up with the physical deteriorating and the terminal sadness
and the waiting and waiting for nothing. And I think what emphasizes, for
him, this period of waiting for nothing and this process of becoming less and
less, is that, after he retires, he has this kind of vacuum in his life, you
know. He's no longer married. He's divorced. Two of his three children
really don't like him. He always fantasized that when he retired, he'd paint,
and he'd have all this like uninterrupted time to paint, but after doing that
for a while, he decides he's not very good and he's not really enjoying it.
He's lonely. He tries life in a retirement community but he doesn't like
that. But when he moves out, he's lonely. So, you know, I think the book is
in part about that part of life after retirement, like what do you do with it?
Or what does he do with it? Have you been thinking about that a lot? You're
not from a profession from which you retire. You're still writing.

Mr. ROTH: I'm still doing it. You just drop dead at the computer, and they
carry you away. Well, I haven't been thinking about it in any personal way,
no, because I intend to write for as long as I possibly can. But other people
are not so fortunate, or unfortunate, in their professions, and it's very
common that men and women who have been working all their lives suddenly stop
at age 65 or 70 or 72, whatever, and they are confronted with a huge problem,
which is, what will life be filled with? And I did want to think about that.

He does have an ambition, as you say, to paint, which he wants to fulfill
after retirement, and he begins with great enthusiasm. In fact, as you know,
in the book, he even gives a class or two, I think, in painting to other
members of his sort of affluent retirement community. But that peters out for
reasons that are explained in the book. And there is a great void, there is a
great emptiness, and the problem with the void isn't the void itself, it's
that it's accompanied by this medical deterioration, so you have to see the
two things together, I think, in the story of this man.

By the way, you call him "Everyman," which is perfectly all right with me, but
as you know, in fact, he--I don't call him Everyman. That's the title,
indeed, we can talk about that. But he's nameless throughout, and a very good
friend of mine, who's a very good reader, called me to tell me she didn't know
he's nameless until I mentioned it on a radio program that she was listening
to. So I think it can go unnoticed, the fact that he has no name. It isn't
something that I emphasize. It's just there. But he isn't called Everyman.

Now, his father, as you know, has a jewelry store in Elizabeth, New Jersey,
and rather than using his own Jewish name on the jewelry store, whatever name
that might have been, he finds--he feels that he can have more success in
Elizabeth if he calls it Everyman's Jewelry Store.

GROSS: Why didn't you give your main character a name?

Mr. ROTH: Mm. Well, first time round writing a story, I didn't have a name
for the character. It just didn't occur to me to give him a name. I was
struggling with the story. And, you know, you take things in stages, and I
wrote, I don't know, 60 or 70 pages, which was the entire story but was only a
rough first draft, and there was no name. And then on rereading it, it seemed
to me it was a good idea to have him nameless, not for any spectacular reason,
you know, but rather he's defined more by the matrix of relationships with
others than he is by a name. That is to say, he's his parents' child, he's
his brother's brother, he's his wife's husband, he's his daughter's father,
he's his boss' worker, etc. So he's defined by his relation to others, and it
seemed to me as I was writing that, indeed, that's the way we are defined,
really. Our names are convenient handles. But I wanted to emphasize that,
and I thought if he didn't have a name, that would be helpful.

In addition, the everyman aspect came into it, too. I don't mean that he's a
universal figure. I don't mean he's an allegorical figure, by any means. But
rather, he is every man inasmuch as he signs the contract, the bad contract we
all sign and fulfill, which is that you're born to live and you die. And in
that sense, he is Everyman and Everywoman.

And as you would know, by the way, "Everyman" is the name, title of a
15th-century English play, part of that genre called morality plays. It's
probably the greatest piece of writing in the medieval period, and it's deeply
allegorical, and the main character is called Everyman and death appears as
Death and other characters such as Fellowship and Kindred and Knowledge and
Beauty, etc., appear. So the virtues and the vices are all personified in the
old play "Everyman." My book is not an allegory. I have no allegorical
intentions, but I did borrow the title of that allegory for my realistic
novel.

BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with Philip Roth. His
latest novel, "Everyman," is now out in paperback.,

GROSS: The novel opens at a funeral service, where we learn a little bit
about all this character's connections to his family. He's buried where his
parents are buried, and the cemetery is run-down, you're right. Things have
rotted and toppled over. The gates are rusted, the locks are gone. There's
been vandalism. Now, in other books you've written about, like, you know, the
old neighborhood being run-down, and this is kind of like the parallel. The
old cemetery is run-down.

ROTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I wonder what your feelings are about cemeteries. Like, do you visit
like your parents' graves? Do you feel closer to the dead when you're at the
cemetery?

Mr. ROTH: Yes, I do visit the gravesite of my mother and father. And, yes,
I do feel closer to, if not to the dead, to their memories when I'm there.
I'm rather glad that my parents were buried in the ground in a box and not
cremated and their ashes scattered somewhere. It gives me a place to go. I
don't believe they're present; I know they're dead. But somehow, the place
has a significance. It focuses your thinking. It allows you to be alone and
uninterrupted in your thinking about them and your past with them and who they
were. And I don't do it more than once a year, but I do do it regularly, and
it does mean a great deal to me.

GROSS: So, do you have like a plot picked out? Do you know what kind of
cemetery where you'd want to be buried?

Mr. ROTH: Where would it be easiest for you to visit my grave? And I'll
pick out a plot that's convenient, and we can continue this interview series
on into eternity.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. But do you want to be buried? I mean...

Mr. ROTH: In time, yes.

GROSS: I have this sense that, like, cemeteries in their own way are almost
outdated. You know, because people are so scattered all over the place
geographically, friends and family, and they're not tied together in a
physical community anymore. And cemeteries--I don't know, they seem like--you
need to like take care of the neighborhood.

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You know, you go in there, and it's as if, like, you bought this home
for somebody in the neighborhood and it's like--is it a nice neighborhood? Is
the neighborhood being kept up? What are the neighbors like? And it's just
like a weird way sometimes of thinking of the dead.

ROTH: Well, I feel differently. As recently as last February, I guess, I
visited the gravesite of my mother and father. And also buried there are many
members of my mother's family: my grandmother; my grandfather on her side;
their brothers and sisters, those are great aunts and great uncles; one of my
mother's sisters, and so on. So I wander around, and I find, to repeat what I
said earlier, that my attention is focused by virtue of those gravestones and
those dates that I see. They're very powerful. They're very powerful, those
dates that you see on a gravestone. It's just four numbers and a hyphen, and
four more numbers, but they pack a punch, you know.

And especially the older parts of the cemetery, I find quite interesting. In
fact, I write about that in the book. You know, there's quite a bit of
history in those gravestones. You see how long people lived in a certain era.
You see, as I did, the bunching together of death in 1918. You realize it was
the influenza epidemic. You see age--you see children--the graves of children
and even infants, which you rarely see in our era. But they were more than
plentiful, alas, in the beginning of the 20th century. So I find cemeteries
quite interesting. And what isn't outdated?

GROSS: Did you have to put yourself into a certain mood to write this book?
I mean, every time I'd pick up this book, it would really get me into that
mood of just thinking about, you know, mortality--my own, my friends', you
know, families'. It's just so drenched in that. I can only imagine what it
must have been like to actually sit and write this book. So did you have to,
like, go into a certain frame of mind each day when you sat down to continue
writing?

Mr. ROTH: Well, not much different from the frame of mind I have to enter
into with any book, really. I wasn't living the experience. I was trying to
make a literary object out of it. And I had the same problems to deal with
that I would deal with in writing any book, which is to see the thing as
clearly as I could, to find the incidents and events that would most vividly
deal with mortality, to make a family, to invent a family, to invent their
relationships, to invent, invent, invent, invent, invent. That's what I would
say. The subject doesn't change the task. And was--did I--I guess in a way,
you're also asking, was I particularly grim and gloomy and despairing when I
wrote it? Only when the book was going badly did I--was I those things. So
it was an act of writing; it wasn't an act of grieving.

GROSS: No, I know, but still, to get into the subject that you're writing
about, I'd imagine that you had to like focus your thoughts a lot on
mortality, on death, on the slow diminishment of the body over time, on pain,
illness.

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I mean, that's what you were writing about; you had to be thinking
about it.

Mr. ROTH: Well, sure, but it's all around one, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Yes.

Mr. ROTH: I mean, you see it every day, and people who aren't writers have
other tasks, and their task is not necessarily to look at that. This is no
judgment on the way people go about their lives. But it's really the task of
the writer to look at this stuff that is not so pretty.

BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. His latest novel,
"Everyman," is now out in paperback. It just added to Roth's pile of prizes.
PEN has given "Everyman" the 2007 award for fiction, making Roth the first
writer to receive that award three times.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Let's get back to
Terry's 2006 interview with Philip Roth, one of the most acclaimed living
American writers. His books include "Portnoy's Complaint," "The Human Stain,"
and "The Plot Against America." His new novel, "Everyman," follows one man's
life and death through the story of his body and its breakdowns and failures.

GROSS: When you're writing a book, do you have everything mapped out before
you start? Do you know the fate of all the characters? Do you know what
urges will lead them astray and where their fulfillment will be, if they ever
find it?

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And how they'll interconnect? And what surprises are going to happen
and overturn their expectations?

Mr. ROTH: I know that when I hand the book into the publisher.

GROSS: But not before?

Mr. ROTH: No, I don't know anything in the beginning, which makes it great
fun to write, you know. You don't know anything. You don't even know how to
write. So you begin every book as an amateur and as a dummy, and in the
writing, you discover the book. Of course, you're in charge, but gradually,
by writing sentence after sentence, the book, as it were, reveals itself
through you to your language--through your language, rather. So each sentence
is a revelation. I'm not exaggerating. Each and every sentence is a
revelation. And what you're trying to do is hook one sentence to the sentence
before and the next one to that sentence. And as you do, you're building a
house, you know, and the architect and the contractor, they know what the
house is going to look like when it's done, and that's the big difference. I
don't have any idea what it will look like when it's done. I don't have any
idea whether it will even be done, because you don't know what you're doing
when you're at work, which is to say that I don't know the answers to those
questions that you raise.

GROSS: There was an article about you recently in The New York Times by Chip
McGrath, and there's a quote that you said to him that I really want to read
here. You said, "If you're lucky, your grandparents will die when you're,
say, in college. If you're lucky, your parents will live until you're
somewhere in your 50s or 60s. And your children will never die before you.
That's the deal. But in this contract, nothing is written about your friends.
So when they start dying, it's a gigantic shock."

When did that shock start happening to you?

Mr. ROTH: Hm. Well, probably some 25 years ago with friends who died
relatively young, but it's gathering momentum in recent years, because usually
one's friends vary in age from maybe being 15 to 20 years older than you and
being 15 to 20 years younger than you. So the people I knew, say, when I was
in my 30s who were in their 50s are now people in their 90s or they're dead.
And those deaths begin to pile up, and the death of friends is a very, very
difficult thing to come to grips with. I think every--I'm not the first
person to notice this, by the way. There's a line in a Yeats poem where he's
speaking about some of the harsher experiences of old age, and he speaks of
the death of friends. So I think that it isn't so much when it began,
because, sure, there's someone who unfortunately dies young, but when you
reach your 60s and your 70s, then the winnowing out takes place.

GROSS: What are some of the things that strike you as emotionally different
about the death of friends than the death of family?

Mr. ROTH: Hm. Well, I think we could begin with what I said to Chip. We
all know--we don't think about it, but we all know--that the scheme is
grandparents go and then parents go and then, as I said to him, one thing you
left out is we don't die so--and then--but one's children certainly never go
before you. That's the fairy tale. The actuality is that there's no rhyme
nor reason to the dying.

But in my thinking, friends never figured in it. Your friends are your
friends for life, as it were. You're all in this thing together. You're
equals. We call them your peers, your contemporaries. I don't know what
fosters this illusion. I'm not saying it's not stupid to think this way, but
it's one of those human illusions you have, and you have a kind of feeling for
friends unlike the feeling you have for family, and you're quite astonished, I
think, by the depth of the feeling when someone dies. What you felt for a
friend, and also the re-estimation which happens when someone dies, happens
all the time with friends, I think. I don't mean that you suddenly think,
`Gosh, he was a wonderful fellow, and I always thought he was a son of a
bitch.' Not that. Nothing as crude as that. But rather, you suddenly see
them clearly, vividly, and it's very strong medicine.

GROSS: In the reading that you did at the beginning of our interview, your
main character dismisses religion as being superstition, as being childish.
Is there any part of you that ever wishes that you were a believer, that you
were like a man of faith and believed in some kind of, you know, like, eternal
spirit after death and believe...

Mr. ROTH: I have no desire to be irrational.

GROSS: Well, a lot of people say it would be, you know, like, well, it might
be irrational but it doesn't make it--like, rationality only goes so far in
this world.

Mr. ROTH: If only it went further in this world.

GROSS: So there isn't any part of you at all that like wishes that you could
believe?

Mr. ROTH: I have no taste for delusion.

GROSS: And was it always that way, that you never had a taste for...

Mr. ROTH: Delusion. Yes.

GROSS: Your parents. Did they believe?

Mr. ROTH: I don't know, really. They were--deeply identified themselves as
Jews for historical, genealogical, social reasons and family reasons and
community reasons. They were powerfully identified as Jews. But
theologically? I wonder. I wonder, really. I don't know.

GROSS: Since your book is so much about mortality and one man's process of
slowly reaching death, I'm wondering if you believe in that expression "a good
death." Do you think that there's such a thing as a good death?

Mr. ROTH: What does that mean, exactly?

GROSS: Well, I guess, I would think that it means--I mean, to me, it means
probably not dying this really long, painful kind of death, but also, you
know, kind of facing it with some degree of, you know, acceptance, and--I
don't know.

Mr. ROTH: Well, I don't know that I can answer that question. Each death is
different.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROTH: And each person suffers death differently. For some, it's
physically agonizing; for some it's not physically agonizing. I'd be hesitant
about the adjective. There are different deaths, I would say, rather than a
good one or a bad one. I mean, of course, I can recognize if someone's in
great physical agony. That's not what one would choose. But as for the
second thing you talk about, which is accepting, oh, boy! That's asking a
lot.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. ROTH: You're confronting--after all, one is confronting that which one
has feared all one's life. Think of all the things you've feared in life and
add them up and then multiply it by 1000, and now you're confronting that. So
I wouldn't judge anyone's response to dying by words like--I know you didn't
suggest these words, but "courage" or "cowardice" or--I reserve judgment on
that. It's the hardest thing of all to face. Didn't Henry James say when he
was dying, `Here it is, the great thing'?

BIANCULLI: Philip Roth, speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. His newest novel,
"Everyman," is now out in paperback.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on "Knocked Up." This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: David Edelstein on the film "Knocked Up"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Judd Apatow wrote and directed the new screwball comedy "Knocked Up." Apatow
worked on some of TV's most ground-breaking comedies, among them "The Larry
Sanders Show" and "Freaks and Geeks," before his movie success with "The
40-Year-Old Virgin." In "Knocked Up," he casts many of his old "Freaks and
Geeks" actors in a very different kind of story. Film critic David Edelstein
has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

The premise of "Knocked Up" is as blunt, as basic as its title. Katherine
Heigl, of "Grey's Anatomy" plays Alison, an attractive and newly-successful TV
correspondent who becomes pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with Ben,
played by Seth Rogen. Despite the advice of her mother and friends to get an
abortion, Alison chooses both to have the baby and to bond with its father,
which is no easy task, given that Ben is an unholy monument to
self-indulgence. He's slovenly, he's unemployed, and he shares a sty with
unhygenic stoners who tinker with building a Web site that documents nude
scenes of famous actresses, but who mostly hover over their bong. The writer
and director Judd Apatow has carved out a niche that I envy. He makes films
about backward boy-men driven to face up to their adult responsibilities, but
along the way, he gets to wallow in their geekiness and childishness and
druggy dissolution. He gets to keep a foot in both worlds.

"Knocked Up" is very conventional, and its values are conservative, maybe even
reactionary, but it plays like one of the hippest movies ever made. Apatow
can show riotous scenes of getting drunk and stoned and having unprotected sex
and leering at naked babes on the Internet because his movie builds to a
message of nuclear family and baby worship. "Freaks and Geeks" freaks will
recognize Rogen, along with Martin Starr and Jason Segel and James Franco in a
cameo as himself, and they'll know that Apatow's heart is with this overweight
eyesore Ben, even when the camera lingers on Rogen's huge buttocks as Alison
gazes on him in horror the morning after. Of course, it's improbable that
they'd pair up in the first place. As in "Sideways," the idea of a tall
drink-of-water blond falling into bed with a pudgy, penniless, alcoholic dweeb
suggests wishful thinking on the part of male filmmakers. Listen to Alison's
attempt to get to know the father of her child.

(Soundbite from "Knocked Up")

Mr. SETH ROGEN: (As Ben) I'm Canadian.

Ms. KATHERINE HEIGL: (As Alison) Oh, cool.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ben) From Vancouver. I live here illegally, actually. Don't
tell anyone. But it works out in my advantage, I think, ultimately, because I
don't have to pay any taxes. So, financially, that's helpful, because I don't
have a lot of money, you know. I mean, I'm not poor or anything, but I eat a
lot of spaghetti.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Alison) So, you know, the Web page, or whatever is just
something that you guys do for fun? Do you have a real job?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ben) Well, that is our job.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Alison) Oh.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ben) We don't technically get money for the hours we put in,
but it is our job.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Alison) So how do you...

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ben) How do I pay rent? When I was in high school, I got ran
over by a postal truck.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Alison) Oh my God!

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ben) It was my foot more than anything.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Alison) Uh-huh.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ben) But I got like 14 grand from the British Columbia
government.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Alison) Right.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ben) And that really lasted me, I mean, until now. I mean,
it's been almost 10 years. I have like 900 bucks left, so that should last me
for like--I mean, I'm not a mathematician, but like another two years.

(End of soundbite)

EDELSTEIN: Ben is appalling, but he doesn't exist in a vacuum. Apatow
depicts the rest of Alison's life as a tiptoe among unruly brats, from the
whiny celebrities she interviews on the E! network to her affluent sister
Deb, played by Leslie Mann and brother-in-law Pete, played by Paul Rudd. Deb
and Pete represent marital stability and seethe with loathing for each other.
It's against the ghastly example of their marriage and the obsession with
skinniness of her network employers that Alison decides to have her baby.

"Knocked Up" bogs down as it approaches the two-hour point, which out to be
the outer limit for a screwball comedy. This one is two and a quarter, and
each new section begins with a high resolution shot of an actual growing
fetus. For all the baby worship, though, Apatow never explores Alison's
decision to go ahead with the pregnancy, and he has little say about the
struggles, economic and otherwise, of single motherhood. For better or worse,
this feels like a post-Roe v. Wade-era movie. The message is that there's
never a reason to terminate a pregnancy. Wow. I've gotten so serious, and
the movie isn't, at least on the surface. As Apatow explores the question of
how to build and sustain a family in a culture obsessed with youth and freedom
and fantasies of escape, the banter is bruisingly funny, the characters
brilliantly childish.

Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, gives the breakout performance, her voice all
girlish and purring until it builds to a fusillade of expletives at her
clueless husband. Heigl is a great Alice in a Wonderland of loons, and Rogen
never lets Ben get too cuddly. His aversion to commitment is instinctive.
He's the perfect mascot for Apatow's universe, dragged into adulthood by his
sperm, one side stoned, the other sober, the Janus head of the modern male.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

Coming up, a nonmilitary salute to "Sgt. Pepper." This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: David Bianculli looks at his favorite covers of the songs
from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
(Soundbite of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) It was 20 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you
The act you've known for all these years
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band!

(End of soundbite)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

I know I'm the TV critic here, but nothing in pop culture excites me like The
Beatles. Nothing. I'm addicted. The albums, the books, the bootlegs, the
Cirque du Soleil show. I've scarfed them all up, and more. When I was asked
to bring in my favorite "Sgt. Pepper" covers to play on FRESH AIR to honor
the album's 40th anniversary, well, let's just say it was an easy day's night.

BIANCULLI: We'll start with the title track, recorded in concert only two
days after "Sgt. Pepper's" was released by someone who loved it so much he
couldn't wait to play it live--Jimi Hendrix.

(Soundbite of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")

Mr. JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) It was 20 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you
The act you've known for all these years
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band!

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Then comes one of the most famous Beatle cover versions ever,
arranged by Leon Russell and performed by Joe Cocker, "With a Little Help from
My Friends," from 1969.

(Soundbite of "With a Little Help from My Friends")

Mr. JOE COCKER: (Singing) Oh! Yeah, yeah, yeah...

Backup Singers: (Singing) Could it be anybody...

Mr. COCKER: (Singing) Oh, it's got to be somebody to love
Somebody to love now
Oh, yeah, yeah

Backup Singers: (Singing) Have a little help from my friends

Mr. COCKER: (Singing) Said I'm goin' to get by with my friends, I tell ya!

Backup Singers: (Singing) Have a little help from my friends

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: The next song on "Sgt. Pepper," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,"
became a number one hit when Elton John recorded in 1974, but he had help.
The rhythm guitar on that session was credited to Dr. Winston O'Boogie, but
his real name was John Lennon.

(Soundbite of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds")

Mr. ELTON JOHN: (Singing) Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you
You answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes....

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Those last two were gimmes. Now it gets tough. The best version
of "Getting Better" is from an unlikely source. The British group Gomez, who
recorded their cover in 2000 at Abbey Road, where Lennon, Paul McCartney,
George Harrison, and Ringo Starr recorded the original.

(Soundbite of "Getting Better")

GOMEZ: (Singing) I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved
Man I was mean, but I'm changing my scene
And I'm doing the best that I can

I admit it's getting better
A little better all the time
Getting better all the time
Yes, I admit it's getting better
It's getting better since you've been mine
Getting so much better all the time

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: The next track on "Sgt. Pepper's" is "Fixing a Hole." My favorite
cover of this song is from a jazz vocalist in Minneapolis. Her name is Connie
Evingson, and she recorded this in 2003 on "Let It Be Jazz," a CD full of
wonderful Beatles covers.

(Soundbite of "Fixing a Hole")

Ms. CONNIE EVINGSON: (Singing) I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
Stops my mind from wondering
Where it will go

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Jimi Hendrix wasn't the only performer to rush out and cover a
song from "Sgt. Pepper" when the album came out in 1967. Harry Nilsson did
it too, by covering "She's Leaving Home" that same year. The Beatles loved it
and liked Harry, too. He and John Lennon became infamous drinking buddies in
the mid-'70s and even recorded an album together. But here's Harry Nilsson on
his own with "She's Leaving Home."

(Soundbite of "She's Leaving Home")

Backup Singers: (Singing) She...

Mr. HARRY NILSSON: (Singing) We never thought of ourselves

Backup Singers: (Singing) ...is leaving...

Mr. NILSSON: (Singing) Never a thought for ourselves

Backup Singers: (Singing) Ah!

Mr. NILSSON: (Singing) We struggled all of our lives to get by

Backup Singers: (Singing) She's leaving home after living alone

Mr. NILSSON: (Singing) Bye-bye...

Friday morning...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: The reason I can't stop collecting Beatles covers is that they
keep coming, and this one just arrived this spring. It's an amazing cover of
George Harrison's "Within You, Without You" by Patti Smith.

(Soundbite of "Within You, Without You")

Ms. PATTI SMITH: (Singing) We were talking
About the space between us all,
And the people
Who hide themselves
Behind a wall
Of illusion
Never glimpse the truth
Then it's far too late when they pass away

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: The version I like of "Lovely Rita" was one of the hardest
recordings to track down. It's from a British charity compilation from 1988
called "Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father" and got very limited release. I finally
tracked down an audiocassette copy on eBay from somebody in England, but it
was worth it.

(Soundbite of "Lovely Rita")

Ms. MICHELLE SHOCKED: (Singing) Lovely Rita, meter maid
Nothing can come between us
When it gets dark
tow my heart away
Standing by the parking meter
When I caught a glimpse of Rita
Filling in a ticket in a little white book
In a cap
She looked...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: It's by Michelle Shocked, who's from Texas, not England. Not only
is it a fabulous rendition, but the fact that she's a woman singing about a
sexy female meter maid gives the song a sly lesbian subtext--at least to me.

The next song on the original "Sgt. Pepper" album is "Good Morning, Good
Morning," and here's a good, modern version by a group called The Lolas.

(Soundbite of "Good Morning, Good Morning")

THE LOLAS: (Singing) Nothing to do save his life
Call his wife in
Nothing to say but, `What a day;
How's your boy been?'
Nothing to do but talk to you
I've got nothing to say
But it's OK

Good morning
Good morning
Good morning, ah

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: The Beatles performed the title song twice on "Sgt. Pepper," but
we'll skip right to the famous final song, "A Day in the Life." This is the
novelty version, but a brilliant one. A group called Big Daddy specializes in
imitating the styles of vintage rock performers, and in 1992, Big Daddy
released its own version of "Sgt. Pepper." Each song was sung in the style of
a famous pop star: Jerry Lee Lewis, doing "Lucy in the Sky"; Johnny Mathis,
doing "With a Little Help from My Friends," stuff like that. Big Daddy closed
the album, as The Beatles did, with "A Day in the Life," but imagined it as
Buddy Holly might have recorded it.

(Soundbite of "A Day in the Life")

(Soundbite of audience, voices, clapping)

BIG DADDY: (Singing) I read the news today, oh-oh boy
About a lucky man who made the gra-a-a-ade
And though the news was rather sad,
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photogra-a-ph, a-a-aph, a-a-aph
He blew his mind...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Buddy Holly, of course, died in a plane crash before The Beatles
made their first record, but somehow this sounds right. Here's their version
of the famous ending, where that unforgettable final piano chord is
approximated by a sound that's even more ominous.

(Soundbite of piano chord)

Announcer: (Unintelligible)...nation was shocked
today...(unintelligible)...plane crash...(unintelligible)...pop singer Buddy
Holly, Ritchie Valens and...(unintelligible)...the Big Bopper.
(Unintelligible)...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Happy 40th birthday, "Sgt. Pepper." I know I skipped a couple
songs, but I wanted to save time for a little something extra. Because why
stop at "Sgt. Pepper" or at 1967? After all, if it's the 40th anniversary of
"Sgt. Pepper," that means it's 45 years since The Beatles first hit the
charts with "Love Me Do." And that gives me the excuse to play one of my
favorite Beatles covers of all time. It's "Love Me Do," all right, but as
performed by a rarely heard group called The Beatle Barkers. When you hear
this, you'll understand why. Prepare to be stunned.

(Soundbite of "Love Me Do")

THE BEATLE BARKERS: (Singing) Baa baa baa moo!
Baa baa baa moo!
Baa baa baa moo!

Yip yip, yip yip yip yip yip!
Yip yip ruff ruff!
Ruff yip yip ruff ruff!
Ruff ruff yip yip yip yip yip!
Yip yip yip yip yip
Ruff ruff ruff!

Baa baa baa moo!
Baa baa baa moo!

BIANCULLI: Special thanks to Jonathan Menjivar for putting that tribute
together.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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