DATE August 24, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Artie Lange discusses his new movie "Beer League,"
becoming a radio celebrity, some of the bizarre bits on "Howard
Stern Show," and his dark family history
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Today we start the show with Terry's 2006 interview with Artie Lange of the
"Howard Stern Show." Lange is hosting the Friday night stand-up marathon
tonight on Comedy Central, a marathon that also includes the network's premier
of "Beer League," the movie he co-wrote and in which he stars.
Since joining the "Howard Stern Show" in 2001, Artie Lange has become famous
for his self-deprecating stories, which are usually about his drinking,
overeating, gambling, and his on-again/off-again relationship with his
girlfriend. At this point, it's definitely off. Artie was an original cast
member of the Fox sketch comedy series "MADtv," and was a regular on the ABC
sitcom "Norm." He's appeared in the films "Dirty Work," "The Bachelor," "Old
School," and "Elf." His movie "Beer League" is about a group of guys in New
Jersey whose softball team is in the league playoffs. For them, softball is
more about drinking beer and goofing off than playing ball.
Terry spoke with Artie Lange last year.
TERRY GROSS, host:
How close is the character you play in "Beer League" to you?
Mr. ARTIE LANGE: Too close. This would be me if I didn't get lucky and get
into show business. I would be exactly this guy, unfortunately. I'd be, you
know, by the time I was this age, probably, a raging alcoholic playing in a
softball league that I took way too seriously and probably living with my
mother. That sounds like an accurate description.
GROSS: Tell me a story from the movie that actually comes from your real
Mr. LANGE: You know, these leagues are all--they call them "beer leagues,"
they should really call them "hard liquor leagues." Drinking is just such a
part of the softball culture before, sometimes during, and after a game. I
played in a league where every base was a quarter keg of beer, and you had a
cup in your back pocket. If you got on base, you filled up. And I don't know
who in the town committee allowed this to happen, but within two weeks they
had to, you know, get rid of the league because people were just drunk by the
second inning, throwing bats, and it was violent.
And the fight in the film, in particular, the old guy on our team, played by
Seymour Cassel--he has a line in the movie where he tells the one kid to hold
another guy's head while he tries to kick him--that really happened. I played
in a league where a guy who was about 78 years old, who was our pitcher, and a
brawl busted out and he told my friend on our team to hold the kid's head
while he tried to kick him. And he went to kick him and he, you know, he
grabbed his gut and he fell down. We thought he had a heart attack. So it's
basically--the fight in the movie is based on several different fights that
GROSS: Now, the first time you were on "Howard Stern Show" was as a guest
with Norm MacDonald. You and he were promoting a movie.
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: You were really funny on it. How did you go from being a guest to
being part of the regular cast of characters?
Mr. LANGE: Well, that appearance was to promote a film called "Dirty Work."
And Norm knew how big of a fan of the Stern show I was. He was going in to
promote the film. He said, `Hey, why don't you come with me and maybe, you
know, Howard will have you on?' And Norm at the time was going through kind of
a crazy separation sort of divorce, and he didn't want to deal with that. And
Howard, you know, always asks those personal questions. So Norm said, `Hey,
if that happens, I'll bring you in and we'll talk about the movie.' So sure
enough, a minute into Norm's interview, that happened. And they bring me in,
and as they're putting the headset on me, Norm says to Howard, on the air--and
I did not he was going to do this--he said, `Howard, you'll love Artie. He
got kicked off of "MADtv" because of cocaine.' And I was--on the air, I just
looked at him like, `What the hell did you just say?' and Howard, of course,
darted his eyes right to me. And I told this whole story about getting
arrested and almost getting fired and going to rehab, and of course Howard
loved that. He loves stories like that. So he said to Norm, `Bring Artie
back when you come back and we'll hear more stories like that.'
We went back in three more times to promote a sitcom we were doing together
called "Norm." And every time I went in, I would tell another crazy story and
Howard always loved it. And when the "Norm" show got cancelled, it was again
one of those things in life, perfect timing. It was a coincidence. Jackie
Martling, the comedian who was on the show for years, left the show, and they
were looking for another guy. So Howard remembered me from going in with Norm
several times, and two months later they whittled it down to a couple of guys,
and then eventually I got offered the job.
GROSS: Now you know how you're saying Norm MacDonald brought you on because
he didn't want to answer the personal questions that he knew Howard would ask?
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: You're asked those questions all the time.
Mr. LANGE: Yeah.
GROSS: I mean, it's just anything about, you know, drugs, sex, your
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: ...or your ex-girlfriend, depending on what day it is.
Mr. LANGE: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: So, Art, were you ready for that? Are you comfortable with that? Are
there ever kind of consequences?
Mr. LANGE: Yes, absolutely. I--and again, it's my fault. Before anybody
takes the blame for that, I would have to. I offered it up. From the very
beginning, I was always sort of honest about my life and the bad parts as well
as the good parts. And now, you know, I'm just known for being so honest that
it's almost expected of me to just come clean and say everything.
There are lines I won't cross. Dating someone, that's a fine sort of--that's
a difficult road to go down. And I found the boundaries as we went along.
There's a story about a hooker that ripped me off in Las Vegas for $500 that I
told him off the air. And on the air, he just brought it up, and he said,
`Come on, tell the story, tell the story.' And he ended up getting it out of
me. It happened before I was dating my girlfriend, but we were dating at the
time he got me to tell the story, so it was a very sensitive thing. She was
like, `I can't believe you told that story,' and I said, `Well, it was before
you.' She goes, `Yeah, but it's still embarrassing and...' So, stuff like that
GROSS: Now, listeners know that your girlfriend--or now ex-girlfriend?
Mr. LANGE: Right now, unfortunately, it's ex-girlfriend, yes.
GROSS: Yeah, well she had always wanted you to go into therapy. You got a
lot of issues...
Mr. LANGE: Right. Definitely.
GROSS: ...with gambling, drugs, alcohol, food, other things.
Mr. LANGE: Every self-destructive thing, yeah.
GROSS: Commitment. Yeah. So she wanted you to go into therapy. You've
always avoided therapy. Now my producer Amy pointed out that being on
Howard's show is almost like therapy in the sense that you're always talking
about yourself, telling stories about yourself.
Mr. LANGE: Yes.
GROSS: And Howard's always, like, forcing you to go deeper and deeper. But
then my producer Phyllis pointed out, though--although the talk part might
sound like therapy, therapy expects you to change. But on Howard's show, it's
kind of like you're rewarded for that kind of behavior...
Mr. LANGE: Oh, absolutely.
GROSS: ...because if you can get a good story out of it, that's all anybody
Mr. LANGE: Yeah. No. That's very perceptive of both of them, actually.
Yeah, you know, it's weird. A lot of comics--actually, Andrew Dice Clay, who
I met through the show and worked with once, would say, `What do you want to
go through therapy for? The fact that you're so screwed up in the head is why
you're funny. You know, why would you want to fix that?'
And in a way, it makes sense. I guess all comics--at least, most of them that
I know--could probably use a good dose of therapy. And a lot of them are
reluctant because they feel in some way maybe it'll lose their edge and their
crazy view of life and why they're funny. And that sounds a little ridiculous
to me, but maybe deep down I really do feel that way.
GROSS: One of your most famous stories from the "Howard Stern Show" is
when--back when you were a regular on "MADtv," the sketch comedy TV show...
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: ...and you were doing a lot of cocaine at the time and you were very
high and totally lacking in sleep--I think it'd been, like, four days without
sleep at this point.
Mr. LANGE: Yes.
GROSS: So the story, it's a really long and very funny kind of tragic
Mr. LANGE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...about how you ended up punching one of the producers and then
fleeing from the cops, because they had called the cops on you.
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: Fleeing from the cops and then you end up punching one of the cops,
and he finds cocaine on you.
Mr. LANGE: Yes.
GROSS: So you're arrested for assaulting an officer and possessing cocaine.
OK, great story, people on "Howard Stern" really loved it. What's it like,
when you're working with Howard and Robin and say you don't show up? Say
you--I don't know if you're still getting high, whatever.
Mr. LANGE: No.
GROSS: But say something not quite as out of control like that happens in the
context of their show, do they think it's so funny?
Mr. LANGE: Well, first of all, I've stopped doing cocaine. I had to. The
last time I did coke--and from going to rehab, everybody remembers dates.
June the 14th, 1997, is the last hit of blow I did, thank God, because that
was just killing me. I still drink, and a lot of people say, `Well how can
you do one without the other?' I've been able to do it, thank God. And, look,
I've had coke put in my hand on the road at gigs, and I'm able to just throw
it away. I just look at it like death, the devil.
But last year, I had a lot of stress. I was traveling to promote a DVD of my
stand-up comedy, and I did six months on the road while I was doing the show
at the same time, weekend gigs. And then I was going in to shooting this film
"Beer League," and I was really, really stressed. And I was drinking a lot on
the road. And when I got back from Chicago, last June, the week after the
gig, in between the road and shooting the movie, I sort of had a breakdown to
where I couldn't get to work. And I've suffered through depressions, and I
think it all stems from addictions. I think my depression was caused by the
drugs I was using way back when, and I think the alcohol that I was consuming
on the road and just the stress of traveling and the strain caused me to go
into this depression. I couldn't--when I go into these depressions, it's
insane. Like, people say, `I get depressed sometimes, too,' but it's a
different kind of thing, and anyone who suffered from this will know what I'm
It like, it just stays on you like a wet blanket. You physically can't move,
you're so out of it. You can't function, you can't shave, and like I went
through one of these episodes, you know, last year, and I couldn't make it to
the show for four days. Now, it was way more amplified publicly at this point
because I'm more famous now, and the Stern show is, obviously, a high-profile
thing. And in the context of the show, he just made a joke about it, you
know. It's just, it's a tragic thing, I guess, but, you know, it's a comedy
show and a lot of the material's dark and it's based on our real life, so when
I got back after missing four days, I got teased and reamed and everything
else by the callers, by him, and I never stopped it. I just took it. Because
if you take it, you're able to also dish it out. And I wanted to prove to
myself that I had a thick, thick skin and could deal with it. So I dealt with
it, and after a few days it went away.
If I had told him, `Look, this is a serious issue and we shouldn't really
handle it this way on the air,' believe me, he would respect that; that's how
he is. But I never did that. I said, `To hell with it, I'm going to go in
and fess up to what happened and just deal with it,' and that's what I did,
and eventually it went away, you know?
GROSS: Well, getting back to that similarity between being on the show and
being in therapy, although you're not in therapy, when you go through a really
bad depression like that and then you come on the show...
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: ...and everybody's kind of ribbing you for it, and you're talking
about it and they're talking about it and the callers are talking about it...
Mr. LANGE: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...what does--does it help or hurt, in terms of your own emotional
Mr. LANGE: I don't know. You see, I created a sort of a monster on the show
with this bit that I do where I go like this with--if somebody's complaining
about something, I'll say, `Wanh!' I do this thing where, you know...
Mr. LANGE: ...the whining `Wanh' thing, and that became a bit that I did for
like a year on the show. And then, of course, as soon as I got back, the
first caller hits me with, `Wanh, I'm depressed, wanh. Wanh, I got to make a
movie and I'm stressed out! Wanh!' So, and I--I mean I have created--God
forbid, if I ever died, some of these crazy fans would show up to my wake and
go up to my mother and go, `Wanh! My fat son died! Wanh!' I mean, they're--I
mean, they're that nuts.
So, look, I sat there and I said to myself, `I dish it out and I got to take
this.' And I'm doing OK now. Maybe it helped, but I don't know. I have never
really figured out, in a really deep sort of thorough way, what causes that in
my head. I mean, obviously, therapy would...
GROSS: I was going to point that out.
Mr. LANGE: Therapy would help that. But I'm still reluctant to go, and the
only therapy I get is on national radio, so--maybe I'm a human experiment.
We'll see if it's working or not.
BIANCULLI: Artie Lange, speaking to Terry Gross last year.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Artie Lange of the
"Howard Stern Show." He's the guest host for tonight's lineup on Comedy
Central, which includes a late night showing of his own movie "Beer League."
GROSS: What are the preparations like for the show?
Mr. LANGE: The lack of preparation, early in the morning. I always thought
that, you know, Howard got there at like a quarter to 5 and got bits together
and, you know, every newspaper article he wanted to talk about was out. And
he gets a lot of that done at home through the use of a computer now with
everybody. And like the first time I showed up, I got there at 20 to 6, and
I'm sitting there, I wanted to make sure I'm early, I'm like, `Where's Howard?
Where's Howard?' He walked in at, like, three minutes to 6, said hi to me.
Gary went over a couple of minor things with him, and he went right on the
air. So I got used to that.
The preparation for me is, I mean, I have the dream job. I have no
preparation. Like, all my work is what you hear me say on the air. I'll try
to read the New York Post, Page Six, because that's probably the part of a
newspaper that he'll refer to the most, so I'll try to get familiar with that
real quick in the morning over a cup of coffee. And then, I--and I like it
this way, because it sounds more conversational--I genuinely have no idea what
he's going to bring up. And my job is just to roll with the punches, whatever
the subject is, and try to add humor to it. And it's been working so far. I
like the spontaneity. I don't like to be overly prepared for anything.
GROSS: Let me ask you something about the show that, I just want your
impression of this. Sometimes I think that some of the more, like, homophobic
humor on the show...
Mr. LANGE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...and misogynist humor on the show, it's like when you're doing it on
the show, I can see you guys are really funny. And even when things rub me
the wrong way...
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: ...you're pros, you're good at what you do. You're all brilliant at
what you do. But then I wonder about the people listening who, you know, if
they think like, `Hey, it's really cool to be homophobic'...
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: Or `It's like really cool to just have girls who are strippers and to
think of all girls as strippers.' Do you worry about that at all?
Mr. LANGE: Yes, to a certain extent. I'd be lying if I said I don't worry
about it. But to me, the people you're describing are dumb people, you know.
The "Howard Stern Show" is a big hit because it entertains dumb and smart
people at the same time for the different reasons. And there's a couple shows
like that. "The Simpsons" is another one. Smart people and stupid people
love "The Simpsons" for totally different reasons. That's why it's a big hit.
Everybody's either smart or stupid. So a lot of people watch it.
Mr. LANGE: Our show, smart people and stupid people love it for different
reasons. And early on in my career, I sort of just made a commitment to
myself, I refuse to cater to stupid people. What we do on the air is just try
to be funny and hope that the smart people listen more than the dumb people.
GROSS: How do you feel about the part of the show where people become
regulars because of a physical deformity, like a mental problem.
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: You're comfortable with that part?
Mr. LANGE: You know, again, there's times where it's heartbreaking to see
some of the people come in and get on the air and speak about their lives.
And this is a very difficult subject, because the one argument is, you're
giving some sort of wonderful gift to these people that they're becoming sort
of mini-celebrities, like Beetlejuice is an example...
Mr. LANGE: ...of a guy. He's a retarded black midget who, you know, drinks
all the time and he's got bad teeth and he--I mean, the guy's a rock star. He
makes over six figures a year doing appearances because the show made him
famous. And I really think he's having a good time with it. You know, I
really--he seems happy. He seems to like the attention and all the partying
and everything, whereas without that, his life would be, you know, lonely and
pathetic and everything.
Now that's me sort of justifying what we do, you know, that's the positive
argument. He could go home and have really, really dark, dark times thinking
about, `Oh, they're laughing at me and I'm being exploited,' and, you know, he
gets paid a lot of money and there's people that handle him. They seem to be
good, honest people, and I hope that they take care of him. But look, we
don't see him 24 hours a day. He seems to be fine with it. But if I knew
that one of these people that comes on our show all the time was really
hurting about it and felt exploited and was sad, to be honest with you, that
would really make me upset. And I would question having them on again, if
that were the case. I genuinely think that the people that come on our show
enjoy it, enjoy the attention, and I think it enriches their lives that
would've been, you know, really, really, maybe boring, mundane, and, you know,
for lack of a better word, horrible without all this love. They get a lot of
You know, Beetlejuice, again, is a guy who was born with this deformity, but
when he walks onstage, he gets all that affection. They love him. It's like
Elvis. And I genuinely think he digs it. If I thought he didn't, it would
bug me. It really would. And I'd have to, like, I'd have to be honest about
that. I go, `Look, this kid's miserable doing this. We shouldn't, you know,
have him on anymore.'
Artie Lange, speaking to Terry Gross. We'll have more of their conversation
in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're
listening back to an interview Terry conducted last year with Artie Lange of
the "Howard Stern Show." Tonight he shows up on Comedy Central to host a
marathon of stand-up comedy shows and to preside over a late night showing of
his own movie "Beer League."
GROSS: When you were--I forget what year it was, but your father was a
contractor and he had an accident...
Mr. LANGE: He installed television antennas, yeah.
GROSS: He had an accident, he fell off the roof.
Mr. LANGE: Yes.
GROSS: And be, you know, had quadriplegia after that.
Mr. LANGE: Right.
GROSS: How did that change your life?
Mr. LANGE: Oh, God. Well, he, I mean, he was my best friend. It was the
quintessential father/son sort of American relationship. We played baseball
together and he, you know, he was everything to me and I sort of looked at him
like Superman. I mean, almost literally. I would go to him to work, and I
would go to work with him, and he would be on the roof and I thought he could
fly when I was, like, seven years old. Literally. And he fell a week after
my 18th birthday, and it was like `Here's adulthood.' Like throwing cold water
in your face.
And it changed my life in the sense that--I was a horrible student, I was
never going to go to college. I just used that as an extra reason not to go.
But I was definitely a lost soul. I knew I wanted to be a comedian, but that
seemed like a huge mountain. How was I going to make that happen? And when
he fell and we went broke, my mother, you know, he--he fell off a ladder that
he had stolen and he wasn't even using it properly, and he fell off a house
that had no homeowner's insurance, so there's always somebody to sue usually,
so at least you get a settlement. There was nobody to sue.
So we, you know, had no money saved anyway, and there were doctor bills and my
mother had to go on welfare. I remember driving my mother to the welfare
office at 18, and she was a very proud Italian woman and she hated going
through that. And my father was sitting there, he couldn't move, and I used
it as an excuse to just go into an insane downward spiral. I mean, every
self-destructive thing you can imagine. Drinking, drugs, gambling, you know,
overeating, bar fights--getting into fights with guys I knew could kick my
ass, bouncers--just because I just wanted to just get in my own dark world and
just, you know, sort of wallow in it and just escape. And that was my excuse,
that was my `wanh,' you know. It was, `My old man's a quadriplegic, so I
deserve to get drunk.' And that's when all my addictions really kicked in.
So before he fell, I really didn't have those issues. I might've been on the
road to them. After he fell, they all kicked in and I just went--it was the
four years that he lived after the accident, was--it's all a blur to me. I
can barely remember it.
GROSS: Did you take any responsibility for taking care of him?
Mr. LANGE: Well, yeah. What happened was, because we couldn't afford
24-hour nurses, Medicaid allowed for a nurse eight hours a day, and my mother
got a secretarial job. So he had to be turned every couple of hours,
otherwise he'd get bad bedsores. So if I was home, hungover or something, I
would turn him and talk to him.
And we had these crazy just like one-on-one conversations when my mother was
at her job as a secretary, my sister was bartending to put herself through
college and it was just me and him in the house and he's like looking at me
like, `How did I do this? What happened?' And it was just really dark,
depressing conversations. And more than once he asked me to kill him, and
that had to be, like, such a hard, you know, task, as son. He would even say
stuff like, you know, he had all these crazy pills, painkillers, which I stole
every once in a while to get high. And he would say, `Look, just leave them
on the table, I'll somehow get them in my mouth, you know, you don't have to
shoot me in the head or anything.' And that's literally what the conversations
were like for four years.
And I just stayed self-medicated and I would try to turn him when my mother
couldn't. And then I would go out at night and get drunk or whatever, and my
mother would literally have to set her alarm for every two hours to get up and
turn him, and then get up and go to work all day. So I took over some of his
accounts, installing antennas, climbing roofs, just because we needed the
money so desperately. My mother hated that. But I was capable of doing it, I
had learned how to do it through him. So I started installing antennas in the
first couple of years after he fell, just to get some immediate money. But of
course my mother was freaked out. Now I'm climbing a roof, you know.
GROSS: Right, right, right.
Mr. LANGE: So that's how I tried to help, by doing some work. But I was
basically, in those four years, no help at all. That's probably why I'm so
guilty now and I try to--I lavish my mother with everything I possibly can,
GROSS: Your father died four years after the accident.
Mr. LANGE: Yeah.
GROSS: And it was after that that you started trying out comedy?
Mr. LANGE: Yeah, the first time I ever tried it, I was 19 years old.
GROSS: So that's when he was still alive, then?
Mr. LANGE: Yes, July 12th, 1987. I'll never forget that day, because it was
the first--I had been saying to myself `I got to try this' and I officially,
got up one day, I read in the paper that the old Improv on 9th Avenue and 44th
Street was having a lottery. Like, 200 people show up, they put 10 pieces of
paper--they put a bunch of pieces of paper in a hat. If you get a piece of
paper that has a number on it, that's your number that night. So, first try,
sure enough, on my first time going--people would go constantly and never get
a number and have to come back. My first try, I get the number 10. I was
10th in a line-up of 12 guys. I had to go back that night. And I had just
told my mother and father that I was going to try to do it. I took my
father's handicap van into New York, I parked it on 9th Avenue. I was afraid
it was going to get towed. I went into the Milford Plaza and tried out five
minutes of stuff that I had prepared in my head and I went up and bombed
But I was proud of myself that I actually did it, you know. So I went home
and told them about it, but I had bombed so bad it intimidated me and I didn't
try it again for another four years, until after he died. So I tried it once
while he was still alive and it was a bad experience. Then I went back into
the booze, wallowing, I was like, `God, this dream of mine didn't work out.
Now what am I going to do?' I did it once and I thought I just would always
suck, when everybody sucks the first time.
And it took him dying for me to really go, `I'm going to try this again. I'll
give it one more shot.' So, almost in honor of his memory, `I'm going to give
it another shot.' And it felt better that time. And at a lack of anything
else to do, I just kept going back, you know?
GROSS: Do you think your mother's surprised at how you turned out and how
successful you are?
Mr. LANGE: I think my mother, in a lot of ways, is surprised I'm alive, much
less successful. She always had confidence in me. She was never this
old-fashioned sort of Italian mother who would say, `No, that's too much of a
risk; get some sort of steady work.' Because I worked as--my friend got me a
job as a longshoreman right after my father had passed away, unloading ships
at the port in Newark. And that's a great job if you didn't go to college.
You can make, you know, 80 grand a year with overtime. And I quit. I saved
up a few grand and I quit to try comedy. Now, a lot of mothers would've
went--especially old-school Italian mothers--be like, `Don't quit this job!
It's such a great job!' She was never like that. She was like, `This is your
dream. I believe in you. Go try it.' So I think she always knew I had it in
me, but the level of success I've had, maybe she didn't, you know, sort of
predict that, because I've been very lucky, you know.
GROSS: Well, Artie, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. LANGE: Thanks. I hope this was all right. I feel like--in this
atmosphere, you really do, you even pour your heart out more than on Stern,
because there's just two people. It's like a one-on-one. It really does feel
like a shrink session. But this was...
GROSS: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Mr. LANGE: So this--no, it's good.
GROSS: So you going to go into therapy now?
Mr. LANGE: Maybe. Maybe I'll just keep coming here every day. We can do
this. Thank you very much, Terry. This was...
GROSS: Thank you very much.
Mr. LANGE: ...a lot of fun. Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Artie Lange of the "Howard Stern Show," speaking with Terry Gross
last year. You can see him, and his movie "Beer League," tonight on Comedy
Coming up, another archive interview. Author and activist Grace Paley who
died this week. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Author and poet Grace Paley discusses her life and
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Author, poet and activist Grace Paley died this week of breast cancer. She
was 84. When she was named New York's first official state writer in 1986,
she said the only thing nicer might is if she got an award from her block.
That's because she became famous and acclaimed for writing about the
neighborhood and the everyday life of her neighbors: in the Bronx where she
was born and raised, in the village where she raised her family, and in
Vermont where she lived out her life with her husband, playwright Robert
Nichols. Though her career as a writer spanned have a century, Paley
published only three collections of short stories: "The Little Disturbances
of Man" in 1959, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" in 1974, and "Later the
Same Day," in 1985. In addition to her writing, Paley was known for her work
as a women's rights and peace activist. The FBI kept a file on her in the
'60s. Terry spoke with Grace Paley in 1985. Here's Paley reading an excerpt
of a story from her collection "Later the Same Day."
Ms. GRACE PALEY: (Reading) "First I wrote this poem: `Walking up the slate
path of the college park under the nearly full moon, the brown oak leaves are
red as maples and I have been looking at the young people. They speak and
embrace one another. Because of them I thought I would descend into
remembering love, so I let myself down, hand over hand, until my feet touched
the earth of the gardens of Veasy Street.' I told my husband, `I've just
written a poem about love.' `What a good idea,' he said. Then he told me
about Sally Johnson on Lake Winnipesaukee, who was twelve and a half when he
was 14. Then he told me about Rosemary Johanson on Lake Sunapee. Then he
told me about Jane Marsden in Concord High. Then he told me about Mary Smythe
of Radcliffe when he was a poet at Harvard. Then he told me about two famous
poets, one fair and one dark, both now dead, when he was a secret poet working
at an acceptable trade in an office without windows. When at last he came to
my time, that is the past 15 years or so, he told me about Dottie Wasserman."
"`Hold on,' I said. `What do you mean, Dottie Wasserman? She's a character
in a book. She's not even a person.' `OK,' he said. `Then why Veasy Street?
What's that?' `Well, it's nothing special. I used to be in love with a guy
who was a shrub buyer. Veasy Street was the downtown garden center of the
city when the city still had wonderful centers of commerce. I used to walk
the kids there when they were little carriage babies half asleep, maybe take
the ferry to Hoboken. Years later I'd bike down there on Sundays, ride around
and around. I even saw him three times.' `No kidding,' said my husband. `How
come I don't know the guy?' Ugh. The stupidity of the beloved. `It's you,' I
said. `Anyway, what's this baloney about you and Dottie Wasserman?'"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The voices that you write with for the narrator...
Ms. PALEY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and for the characters, I think they're really like vernacular
voices and they're always so perfect. Everybody doesn't speak the same.
Everybody has their own really distinctive way of speaking. It's very--for
some of them it's very ethnic, for others it's just very urban. You grew up
in the Bronx...
Ms. PALEY: Yes.
GROSS: ... in the 1920s. Can you describe what your neighborhood was like?
Ms. PALEY: Well, every week somebody's furniture was on the street. I mean,
that's my first memories of my block is that all of these people were evicted,
well, everyday. And you'd see this pile of furniture out there covered with
newspapers and covered with tarpaulin. And it was mostly, it was practically
entirely Jewish and people there came from East Europe, Poland and Russia
mostly. And in our house, the languages that were spoken were Russian,
Yiddish and English...
GROSS: Did you speak all of those?
Ms. PALEY: ...and they were spoken in equal parts. Well, I never spoke
either Yiddish or Russian well, but I always understood it very well and spoke
it to my grandmother because she really never got English.
GROSS: Were there real talkers in your family or in the neighborhood who you
would listen to and whose...
Ms. PALEY: Well, almost any...
GROSS: ...speech you think really affects you now in your writing?
Ms. PALEY: Well, my father was a great talker. My mother was very quiet and
I think probably because my father was such a great talker, but he really was
a good storyteller and very smart and very funny. And my mother was very
serious and quite different but very straightforward and very honorable
person. And in the neighborhood, the people talked all the time. I mean,
people sat outside in the street, you know? The street life was very
exciting. You couldn't get me--some summer nights--since I was the youngest
by a lot, I was also overprotected and also neglected at the same time. Like
I'd have to wear long stockings, you know, into the end of April but on the
other hand they'd kind of forget that I was still outside at 11:00 at night on
a summer night. So I had that kind of happy mixture.
But the street was full of people and it was a great--I think all writers are
people who get in the habit, who love to listen, who listen a lot so that one
of the stories in this book is called "The Story Hearer" and it's really what
every storyteller has to be.
GROSS: Were there stories that would get told to you over and over again or
was it not that kind of storytelling? Was it just like more like gossip in
the street that people would talk about?
Ms. PALEY: Well, first of all, I have a lot of regard for gossip. I regard
it as the last great oral tradition. And the reason it's called gossip is
that women do it so that therefore it's kind of denigrated for that reason.
So those were stories to me, you know, that people told about their life.
`What happened to you yesterday?' You know, that kind of story. `What
happened?' `Oh.' You know? `So he came home then, did he?' `Yeah.' You know?
And all of that kind of thing. And then the stories of my family at home were
always, they were always telling what had happened, well, first in Europe and
then here. And there was a lot to hear and a lot to listen to. And you
listen because you think, `Oh, this is going to be my life. This is my life.
I'm hearing my future. I'm hearing what I'm about.'
GROSS: When you started writing, did you go through a period of wanting to
get the neighborhood out of your voice?
Ms. PALEY: Well, no. Once when I wrote stories I was what I was, you know?
And I never felt I wanted to change my language in my own speech. I remember
when we were going to school and there was something that I used to call
Hunter College English and I swore to God I'd never talk like that, no matter
what happened, you know? It seemed like a theft of my language, of my New
Yorkese, and it bothered me. And there was a lot of the older people, a
little bit older than I, were among my sister and brother's friends really had
begun to talk like that. And also, I don't think people realize this but
during the Depression, or after the Depression, the only jobs people began to
go into were teaching. Women could go into teaching. Well, the exams they
gave in New York for teachers, and that included my sister and many of her
friends and my sister-in-law, the exams they gave were very strict orals. So
those orals were really designed at that time, although it seems now that
three quarters of the teachers in the city of New York, say, are Jewish. It
seems like that whether it's true or not. At that time those exams were
designed to keep immigrants out, and so people were going around like crazy
trying to talk American, you know, and taking classes in it. And that was
what used to drive me mad. I mean, I would just say, `Oh, you're all talking
Hunter College English.' Yeah.
GROSS: You didn't start writing short stories until you were in your 30s.
Why weren't you writing short stories before? It just seems such the natural
form for you.
Ms. PALEY: Well, I thought my natural form was poetry. It's easy to say
that now. But I thought of myself as a poet. I never thought of myself as a
poet. I always thought of myself as a poem writer, but in my 30s the poems
couldn't serve me, I mean, for what I wanted to and for what I was thinking
about. And of course what I was really thinking about and what was pressuring
me in my life, which is where things come from really, is something about
women and men and how we live and how we were not living together well on this
earth. And also by then I'd had a couple of kids and I'd gotten much closer
to women and thought a lot about women's lives and I was very interested in
them, and that's what I wanted to understand. I mean, you come to writing not
from what you know but you come to it with what you don't know, and that's
what presses you to go on.
GROSS: How much did you want your political views and your political activism
to enter into your stories?
Ms. PALEY: Well, I can't say I ever felt I pushed them in. I mean, I think
when I began to write about women in the beginning, those were really--that
was not so much a political view as it was a political concern. That is to
say, when you write, you really--what you do is you illuminate what's hidden
and that's a political act. So if I did, and I hope I did, illuminate the
lives of the women I knew who were alone with kids and all that, that was a
political act. So I illuminated them. They didn't happen--whatever their
political positions were, that was another story, but that was from the
beginning political so to speak.
As for all the other interests of the women, insofar as--in the way that it's
a natural part of their lives, I certainly want it in there. I am interested,
as I said, in certain events and then certain directions and world trends and
I am fearful for the world, and of course that has to get into it. You
can--it's not a question of want. It's there. You don't want or you do want.
There isn't anyone who writes a novel or a story that it isn't political one
way or another.
BIANCULLI: Grace Paley, speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. The author, poet,
and activist died this week at the age of 84.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on "The Nanny Diaries."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Film critic David Edelstein on "The Nanny Diaries"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
"The Nanny Diaries" is a new film based on the best-selling book. It stars
Laura Linney, as the composite character Mrs. X, and Scarlett Johansson as
Nanny. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: I've heard the juiciest stories from nannies who have
plenty of time on the playground to trade intimate details with other nannies.
That's why caregivers of celebrities' kids sign nondisclosure agreements.
Still, Britney's disgruntled nannies are everywhere. Madonna was able to halt
publication of her English nanny's tell-all, but the proposal got out, and let
me tell you, it was irresistibly vicious.
Emma Mclaughlin and Nicola Kraus's best-selling novel-slash-roman a clef "The
Nanny Diaries" targeted the families of Upper East Side Manhattan finance
bigwigs and lawyers: the absent dads, the smartly turned-out wives who don't
work but are still so self-obsessed they have little time for their kids, and
the children both spoiled and neglected. The book is contemptuous, but in its
ghastly way funny, with a vein of sympathy for the sad, angry little boy who
no sooner forms a relationship with a nanny, then she's fired for some
The writer/directors of the film are Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini,
who came up with a marvelous ironic framing device for Harvey Pekar's
"American Splendor," and have another good one here. Scarlett Johansson plays
Annie, an unaffected working-class recent college grad with an interest in
anthropology. And the film begins in New York's Museum of Natural History,
where Annie presents us with a series of fake dioramas featuring Manhattan
families, placing their child-rearing rituals in a world historical context.
It's a good surreal start. Most American movies down play issues of class and
privilege. Unfortunately, the people we meet have no more depth or surprise
than those diorama figures.
After failing a Wall Street interview because, she tells us, she doesn't know
who she is, Annie wanders through Central Park and finds herself set upon by
young Grayer and then his mom, Mrs. X, played by Laura Linney. With scarcely
any time to orient herself, Annie, hereafter known as Nanny, finds herself
sleeping in a cramped back bedroom in a sumptuous apartment and trying to
raise a child almost on her own. Her mom, a nurse played by Donna Murphy,
would be devastated to know her daughter is working as a domestic instead of
on Wall Street; so in phone calls home, Annie tells whoppers.
(Soundbite of "The Nanny Diaries")
Ms. DONNA MURPHY: (As Annie's mother) How are you, honey? How's the job?
How's the apartment?
Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Annie) Oh, God. Everything is just perfect. I
mean, the job is a dream and the apartment is just incredible.
Ms. MURPHY: (As Annie's mother) Yeah?
Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Annie) And my roommate could not be nicer.
Ms. LAURA LINNEY: (As Ms. X) Nanny, in the morning I need you to stop at
Tiffany's and get Mr. X's watch. Then I need you to Xerox some
recommendation letters for Grayer's collegiate application. Also, I was
thinking, we should introduce French food into his diet. It might enhance his
study of the language. So tomorrow night why don't you make him Coquille St.
Jacques for dinner. Hmm?
Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Annie) Mm-hmm?
Ms. LINNEY: (As Ms. X) Dry cleaning.
Ms. MURPHY: (As Annie's mother) Who was that? Your roommate?
Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Annie) Mom, I have to go. I have some work stuff to take
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: Laura Linney is the best thing in "The Nanny Diaries, " her
face a tight mask under which you catch glimpses of the frightened human
being. In some ways, though, she kills the comedy. The poor woman is so
obviously suffering. Scarlett Johansson isn't a comedian either. She's funny
when she uses her drugged sexiness to convey lazy entitlement, as in "Ghost
World." But adorably clumsy and eager to please? That's a stretch.
As Mr. X, the myopic horndog mergers and acquisitions tycoon, a strawberry
blond Paul Giamatti seems just as checked out as his character. Alicia Keys
is wasted as the sassy sidekick, a tired device. And Chris Evans is the rich
guy in the Xes's building, whom Nanny calls the "Harvard hottie" and whose
insipid decency allows Annie to reject upper East Side values but potentially
marry into the world anyway.
It's possible that the filmmakers are too humanistic for their material. They
can't get past the exploitation of the help and the neglect of a child, which
is fine, admirable. But the balance is off. "The Nanny Diaries" is too
shallow and unsurprising to be good social criticism, and too grimly unfunny
to be a good satirical chick flick.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
Podcasts of the show are available at our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
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.