DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest is Michael Solomonov, a chef who's based in Philadelphia but has earned a national reputation for his unique take on the cuisine of Israel. He's just won the coveted James Beard Award as outstanding chef, crowning him as the best chef in America. Currently, he's also featured in a new Roger Sherman documentary, "In Search Of Israeli Cuisine," in which he serves as a tour guide for distinctive Israeli foods, dishes and chefs.
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MICHAEL SOLOMONOV: This place, Miznon, Eyal Shani is, like, the top chef in Israel, one of the forefathers of modern Israeli cooking - used to be well known for doing European and sort of fancy, really got into his roots and is now doing sort of a celebration of Israeli street food. For example, ridiculously fresh, delicious pita stuffed with corned beef. This is a yam cooked for four hours at a very low temperature. It's all super fresh - a little bit of olive oil, a little bit of rock salt. This is isn't old school. This is grandmother. This is vibrant, good cooking. You can keep your truffles and foie gras. This is where it's at.
BIANCULLI: Solomonov grew up mostly in the U.S. but has strong family ties to Israel. The chef and his business partner, Steve Cook, have opened several restaurants in Philadelphia. And as The New York Times' Frank Bruni revealed in one column, Solomonov did a lot of that while battling a serious drug addiction.
His flagship restaurant is called Zahav, which is the Hebrew word for gold. As it happens, Zahav is only a few blocks from WHYY, which gave our contributor Dave Davies the chance to take an enviable research trip. In 2015, he spent an evening at Zahav hanging out in the kitchen, watching Solomonov work the bread station and oversee the preparation of hundreds of delicious offerings for customers. And every few minutes, he'd slip Dave one of the restaurant's memorable dishes to sample - nice work if you can get it. Afterward, Solomonov visited the FRESH AIR studio to talk with Dave about his latest cookbook, which is co-authored with Steve Cook. It's called "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking."
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DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: You know, so much of the cookbook is about Israel and your connection to Israel. You were born in Israel but moved to Pittsburgh as a kid - right? - and really grew up as an American. Did you feel a connection to Israel growing up?
SOLOMONOV: I did feel a connection. It was just very - it was muted. You know, we didn't really speak Hebrew in the house. My parents spoke Hebrew when they were trying to, like, hide something from me. And they were a little sort of bits of Israel in the house, you know, whether it would be, like, something that we would have on the dinner table that was a little bit strange or, you know, my dad's, like, accent or whenever there would be, you know, conflict on the news while we were eating dinner, we would have to be quiet sort of. So it was there, but it was sort of in the background.
DAVIES: So your family moved back to Israel when you were, like, a teenager. Fifteen or so?
SOLOMONOV: I was 15, yeah. We moved back when I was 15.
DAVIES: How'd you take to it?
SOLOMONOV: Not well, not very well (laughter). I think the year before - I mean, it's a tough age. anyways, I think. And I was a little bit disobedient. I don't know - I was, like, a pretty crazy kid. So I - it was already sort of a weird time for me. And I - the ensuing threat of moving, you know, across the world, basically, really bothered me. So I acted out, and I was, like, crazy. And then we moved over to Israel, and I was generally unhappy. But, you know, in hindsight, some of my closest friends are from that year, and a lot of that year really shaped sort of who I am today.
DAVIES: The year in Israel.
DAVIES: Hummus is a big part of the book. And you said that your - let me get this right - that it was the hardest thing for you to figure out. Why?
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's still sort of the most challenging thing. There's no tricks, and there's no bells and whistles to hummus. It's, like, got to be just made right. There's very few ingredients. And, you know, the way that people are super possessive and provincial and weird about things like burgers or pizza or barbecue - hummus is one of those things that people - if you don't get right, they just freak out.
And our - you know, I work at the - well, you saw where I work. I work at the pass where the bread station is, and I'm totally visible to the dining room. And there are times where if we don't get something right that is so personal to somebody, they will literally come over to the pass and tell me that I'm doing it wrong.
DAVIES: A customer will do this?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And that's cool. I mean, it's - at the time, I don't think it's cool. (Laughter) But it's - it's - you know, people take food very seriously, and it's very dear to their heart. And for a lot of people, they haven't been back home in a long time, and this is our way to take them back home - to transport them momentarily.
DAVIES: You know, hummus is something that, 20 years ago, nobody in America ate very much. Now you can find it in all these tubs in supermarkets.
SOLOMONOV: I - you know what? - it's funny. Everyone's, like, you must have great hummus at your house. And I'm like, the truth is I don't cook a lot at my house, and I work a bunch. So my wife - I don't make fun of her when she buys store-bought hummus. I don't. I don't judge. And I may eat it sometimes with, like, peeled carrot sticks at night, maybe. You know, I just feel like there's a huge difference between the store-bought stuff and the stuff that we make.
DAVIES: You write that hummus should never be refrigerated. That's not to say served refrigerated; it should never be refrigerated. Right?
SOLOMONOV: I don't - we don't - we make our hummus, and we serve it. I think that temperature is a really big thing, and I think that a lot of people are used to, like, cold dips. But the truth is, all the nuances and the richness that you get and the robustness from the chickpeas and the butteriness of the tehina (ph) - all that is sort of pronounced when it's at room temperature.
DAVIES: You grill a lot at Zahav.
DAVIES: How is it distinct from grilling at other places?
SOLOMONOV: Well, we use charcoal only. And we - most of the protein that we cook is on little shipudim or, like, little skewers that - they suspend right over the charcoal. We don't - we use a grill grate for things like fish or things like eggplant that you can't really skewer. And on the rest of it, though, it's almost like extreme hot smoking.
DAVIES: And why do you do it that way? What's distinctive about the flavor?
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's unique to Israel and the Middle East and a lot of Arabia. And I just think that it is amazing. I mean, I think it's - you know, being that close to the charcol - extremely hot charcoal - is - I don't know. The flavor is just fantastic. And we cook kebabs, which are like ground meat mixtures that are, like, heavily spiced and distinct to the region that we want to represent. The kofta - if it's, like, Bulgarian, we, you know, do the black pepper and the paprika. And if it's Romanian style, we use, like, tons of garlic. We make lamb merguez, which is lamb - which is North African, you know, with, like, harissa, and it's piquant.
So there's an easy way to sort of - to get these, like, cultural nuances into the meat. Right? And then if shishlik - like, chunks of meat - we marinate them, usually with a mixture of onion juice, which sounds - I know it sounds crazy, but onions have got all this sugar and acid, so it helps break down the meat. Plus it caramelizes really, really nicely over the charcoal, and that gives it, itself, a distinct flavor. So we do chicken shishlik, you know, which is like a chicken thigh. And we take amba, which is like a fermented mango pickle, and puree that with onion and garlic and just let the meat sort of soak in that for a while and then grill it. And it's just - you know, it's special.
DAVIES: It is special. And of course, grills in a lot of restaurants simply mean - what? - a propane burner over a grill.
SOLOMONOV: Right. It means, like, a grill grate. And there's nothing wrong with that. I just feel like for what we're trying to do, we need - you need the charcoal.
DAVIES: One of the interesting parts of the book is you write about cooking rice...
DAVIES: ...Which is something that everybody does...
DAVIES: ...All the time.
DAVIES: And you write about a - I think you describe him as your half brother-in-law, Avi Mor...
DAVIES: ...And how, even though you'd been cooking professionally for years, his rice was a revelation.
SOLOMONOV: Yeah. Well, he's Persian. And, you know, he cooks rice with tahdig, so it's like a - this crust on the bottom of it that is developed. And I think it's - you know, the...
DAVIES: Is the - the crust is rice that's just burned enough at the bottom.
DAVIES: It's absolutely delicious. It's (unintelligible).
SOLOMONOV: It's the best. It's what you give to the guests. It's, like, the best part. It tastes like popcorn a little bit or almonds. It's so, so good. It's not impossible to make very well, but it's not very easy. What's interesting, though, is that you get this perfect crust, and then you get these great grains of rice that are fluffy, still intact and still have got all this integrity. So you've got this sort of pluralistic (laughter) pot of rice that's happening, which is - you know, from where I come from, we use chemicals. We sous vide. We, you know, confit. We do all these, like, fancy things. We do sauce-work.
But, I mean, nailing a pot of Persian rice is, like, very, very difficult. So I was struck by that. Also maybe the older I get, the more I'm just like I am uninterested in things that are incredibly complex. And the simple things are more impressive to me and also make these memories. I mean, that's the real thing. You know, you cook all these, like, fancy things. You cook for these great chefs. You maybe go to Europe and maybe not. But what are the things that like - what are the things that make me excited to cook or what are the memories that I've had that have sort of steered me to being a chef or, more importantly, being in hospitality, inviting people in to, you know, make them food and to serve them and to have them feel sort of special for that moment in my house or in my restaurant?
And it's not the Michelin-rated meals that I've had before. It's the pots of rice. It's the savory pastries that my grandmother made that, you know, if I can close my eyes right now, I can still taste. That's what we want to convey in the restaurant, and that's what we want to convey with the book.
DAVIES: Is street food in Israel an inspiration to you?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, street food is absolutely an inspiration. I think it's almost what I crave the most when I go back there.
DAVIES: What are your favorites?
SOLOMONOV: Well, there's like the shawarma falafel, which is good, and you can kind of find that all over the place. And there's arguably better ones in different locations. I like traveling for that sort of thing. Sabich is really good. Do you know what that is?
SOLOMONOV: So it's fried eggplant. It's stuffed in pita with hard-boiled eggs and tahini and, like, the amba, the mango pickle - so so good, delicious. And there is malawah, which is, like, a Yemenite flatbread that's kind of like this, like, layered, laminated, puffy, kind of greasy bread that you, like, roll up and stuff with, like, tomatoes or fresh cheese. And there are just, like, kebab sandwiches that you get. In Jerusalem, there's actually Jerusalem grill or Jerusalem mixed grill, which is, like, a bunch of organ meat, minced, put on, like, a plancha, also stuffed inside of a pita - so good.
BIANCULLI: Chef Michael Solomonov speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2015. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to contributor Dave Davies and his 2015 interview with Chef Michael Solomonov, who is featured in a new documentary called "In Search Of Israeli Cuisine" and just won the James Beard Award as outstanding chef.
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DAVIES: You'd gone to culinary school. You'd been a sous chef at a well-known Philadelphia restaurant when the idea of opening Zahav, this Israeli restaurant, came up with you and your partner, Steve Cook. The restaurant opened in 2008. It was a unique kind of venue, and the food was really unique. But you struggled at first. I mean, there was a point where you had to stop taking a salary, and you were kind of cutting back on staff.
SOLOMONOV: Yeah. We had such a hard opening. 2008 was not an easy year, I think, anywhere to open...
DAVIES: 'Cause of the recession, yeah.
SOLOMONOV: ...A small business, certainly an Israeli restaurant that nobody knew - nobody knew what Israeli anything was. And what was happening that year? OK, so the economy was tanking. The Phillies were in the World Series, which is great for Philly, not great for you're a new restaurant. And I was struggling with addiction and had to (laughter) had to have, like, an intervention and go to rehab. You know, it was just - there were so many awful things happening. And we, Steve and I, were completely in the weeds. We did not - you know, we didn't take paychecks for a very long time. And if we did, it was, like, minimal and, you know, took about a year or so to get back to being healthy.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned addiction and - well, let's talk about that for a moment. This is something that had been happening for years. You'd used, like, pot, I guess, in earlier years.
DAVIES: But when you got into the depths of this, you were actually using crack and heroin at the same time seriously. I mean, boy, you don't do things halfway.
SOLOMONOV: No, I don't. I think that, you know, towards the end of it, I mean, things were just sort of falling apart. And unfortunately, that's how it goes with addiction. I mean, it's progressive, right? So as a kid, I'm, like, wild and, you know, you experiment with pot and alcohol. And then if you've got the gene or if the context is right, you end up sort of almost dying or in jail or whatever. And I just kind of feel like that's how it went with me. And then I - of course, the problem with addiction is that you drag everybody down with you. So my wife, my business partner, every one of our employees, all these people unfortunately get affected by this sort of behavior.
DAVIES: One of the things that's interesting to me about this is addiction can take over people's lives and ruin marriages and jobs and everything. But you were actually, you know, at least on the surface a pretty productive human being. I mean, you were running this big restaurant. Do you think that there was a line there that would prevent you from destroying yourself, that the restaurant was important enough that you were not going to let the drugs take over?
SOLOMONOV: No. I don't actually. I think that it would have been a matter of time, that I would have destroyed everything that I had control to do. And I think that I continue to be surrounded by people that are loving and supportive and that care. And it's also, you know, in their best interest that I don't, like, get arrested or die. I mean, so I - no, I think it would have been a matter of time. I think eventually it would have just caught up with me, and I would have stolen or done whatever I had to do. I had enough people and I was ready to stop. I mean, it was just too much for me. And I wasn't happy, and - I mean, wasn't happy. I was, like, miserable. I felt like I was dying, you know?
And I was ready to stop, and I had people that were in my corner that were there to support me and to get me help and to be there for me for, like, not only up until I went to rehab but, I mean, for the first year, I didn't drive by myself. I wasn't by myself. I mean, I didn't carry money on me. Steve would pick me up every single day, drive me to work, talk to me and make sure I was OK, get me - you know, whatever support I needed. And my wife would pick me up every single night and drive me home. And it was like I - you know, I needed that.
DAVIES: You know, one thing that people know about the restaurant business is how intense it is when things are busy. And that's certainly something I observed when I was there. And it, you know, it made me think about your experience with addiction and think restaurant people, they, you know, do four or five hours or more that's just this really crazy, intense thing.
DAVIES: And I wonder if it makes people more inclined to, you know, use chemicals to come down or to stay up.
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's interesting that you say that. I mean, I think that - it's possible. I think that, you know, the rush that you get from cooking or being in a, you know, volatile sort of environment I think can sometimes replace maybe the substance. I don't know. I go home right (laughter) - I go home after work. You know, I walk home. I live two blocks away. I walk home.
I listen to a song and then I - on my walk home with headphones and put, like, a hoodie on. And then I, like, watch TV for, like, 45 minutes and drink chamomile tea. And then I go to sleep, you know?
DAVIES: What do you watch on TV?
SOLOMONOV: I actually watch horror movies (laughter), like, a lot of - I don't know. So maybe that's an argument against - I don't know. So in any case, that's what I do now. I don't go out, really. I mean, sometimes we'll go out and I'll, like, eat food. But I try not to eat that late at night. And I feel like it's very difficult to go home after you've sort of, you know, saved the world or what - you know, as line cooks, you think that you're, like, destroying the comet that's going to explode, right?
SOLOMONOV: Like, you think you're going to save the world and...
DAVIES: Well, you're sending 200 people away happy, you know, I mean...
SOLOMONOV: Listen, it's a lot of work, and you don't do it for that long if you don't love it and you don't think it's important. And we're not necessarily saving the world. But there are, you know, 200 people every single night that we create this special environment for for a few hours. And that, to me, is, I guess, my life's work, right? So it's very, very hard to go from doing that to going directly to sleep.
You know, it doesn't really work. So it's natural to go out, to maybe have a couple of drinks and wind down. And, you know, if you've got an insane personality, it's natural to drink, like, many beers or party or do whatever. So I don't - it's not as easy as just, like, going home.
DAVIES: You have a really busy life. You've got all these businesses. You get in the kitchen as often as you can.
DAVIES: What's food like at your house? What do you and your family eat?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, God, I knew you were going to ask that. I - let's see. Food - my wife is a fantastic cook, and we've got two, like, little kids. So I don't know. It's probably oftentimes eating, like, organic, like, chicken fingers over the sink trying to get them to eat stuff. Luckily, my kids have always liked - our oldest too has always enjoyed Asian noodle soup and pizza and, like, brisket.
And that is a gift. That's a blessing, you know? But I don't know. Like, I made - the other night, I just, like, slow roasted some meat and put it over, like, butter noodles. And I got one of our kids to eat a little bit of it. And the rest my wife and I ate over the sink.
DAVIES: And I would think you'd be bringing home delicious bags from Zahav, no?
SOLOMONOV: No, no, we don't do that (laughter). Our oldest came in and ate hummus and spit it out on the plate, like, in the dining room. And I was like, dude, come on, have some respect. This might be paying for your college one of these days, you know?
DAVIES: (Laughter) Were you a picky eater as a kid yourself?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, my God, I was the worst eater - the worst. Yeah, I, like, ate nothing. I would take pizzas and, like, take that cheese off of them and wipe the sauce off and put the cheese back on. And, yeah, it's hilarious to my family that I became a chef.
DAVIES: And when did it change? When did you get a real interest in food?
SOLOMONOV: Actually, when I started cooking I did. I started cooking in Israel when I was, like, 18 years old or - yeah, I was 18.
DAVIES: At a bakery, right?
SOLOMONOV: At a bakery and then as a short-order cook at a cafe. And I really loved - I think I loved sort of creating and building and, you know, formulating things. I don't know, I was definitely inspired by that. And I enjoyed the camaraderie of the kitchen. And then I started to love to eat.
BIANCULLI: Chef Michael Solomonov speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Solomonov, who is featured in a new documentary called "In Search Of Israeli Cuisine," just won the James Beard Award as outstanding chef. After a break, we'll visit with comedian Chris Gethard and have reviews of two new films. John Powers reviews the new documentary called "Risk" and David Edelstein reviews the newest Marvel Studios movie "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. The American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras is best known for her works about post-9/11 national security policies. She won the 2015 Academy Award for "Citizenfour," her documentary about the controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden. Her latest film, "Risk," centers on the man who started the whole WikiLeaks revolution, Julian Assange.
Our critic at large, John Powers, has a review.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in 2014, Laura Poitras brought our "Citizenfour," her Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden's revelations of the NSA's illegal surveillance program. Unfolding like a thriller, the film knew exactly what it was about - Snowden's heroism, the evils of clandestine government snooping and the virtues of making such hidden programs known. Poitras clearly expected to make a similar kind of movie when she started shooting "Risk," her new film about Julian Assange, the 45-year-old Australian founder of WikiLeaks, whose way of cyber-releasing classified documents has radically changed journalism. Yet over the years, the film began morphing into a messier, more ambiguous kind of doc. While this makes "Risk" less shapely and dramatic than "Citizenfour," it's more interesting for that very reason.
Poitras began filming Assange back in 2011, after his group released classified files from Private Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley. She follows Assange as he lies low in the English countryside, gets accused of sexual assault in Sweden and winds up taking asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he's been living for nearly five years. Poitras interrupted shooting him to make "Citizenfour," and most of "Risk's" footage comes from that earlier period, although she works to include his and WikiLeaks' vexed role in America's 2016 presidential election.
"Risk" takes us closer than we've ever gotten to the enigmatic rebel. We watch him plan strategy with sidekick Sarah Harrison; grow paranoid about being overheard during a woodsy chat; do his daily sit-ups inside the embassy; ponder the nature of political risk; and in a scene that defies satire, get interviewed by Lady Gaga, who asks inane questions while filming him. Of course, it's part of today's culture that Assange and even Poitras should have become pop figures with Benedict Cumberbatch playing him in a Hollywood movie and "Homeland" doing an unflattering riff on her. Yet the Assange we meet in "Risk" is no caricature. He's brainy, thoughtful, unafraid and elusive, with unsettling white hair and an air righteous certainty, although he comes off softer and less stentorian then you expect - more Paul Dano than Cumberbatch. Here he talks on the phone with Harrison about the upcoming 2016 election.
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JULIAN ASSANGE: It looks almost certain now that it's going to be Hillary versus Trump.
SARAH HARRISON: Yes.
ASSANGE: Basically, it will be Hillary versus Trump unless one of them has a stroke or is assassinated.
ASSANGE: So that's quite a bad outcome in both directions. We have a definite warmonger in the hands of Hillary, who's gunning for us.
ASSANGE: And in the case of Trump, we have someone who is extremely unpredictable.
ASSANGE: I just got quite a lot of interesting stuff in relation to Hillary. Unfortunately, for Trump, there's not so many known interesting documents. And you would think with these business ventures all over, there must be a whole bunch of stuff.
POWERS: Now it must be said, the Assange we meet in "Risk" is not especially sympathetic. Take those sexual assault charges. You don't need to be a cynic to think it quite possible that the accusations against him could have a political motive, to discredit him and WikiLeaks. Yet when Poitras shows him talking to his female lawyer about the case, Assange says such creepy things about radical feminist conspiracies that you believe he could be guilty.
Things are equally murky when it comes to knowing precisely what Assange believes in. He insists that his feelings don't matter - that what counts are his actions - but his underlying politics are a subject I wish Poitras had pushed him on. Assange clearly believes that the world's power elite maintains control by doing things the public never gets to see. By leaking documents, he thinks, WikiLeaks is revealing how the world actually works - for instance, how Democratic National Committee big shots actually were conspiring to help Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders.
Yet here's the problem. Just as most of us don't want our government secretly hoarding people's private information, we also don't want the release of sensitive documents to be controlled by a handful of leakers who answer to no one. In last year's election, WikiLeaks didn't just leak things to damage Clinton, whom Assange considered a personal threat. The leaks failed to redact personal info about Clinton donors, like credit card numbers, a violation of privacy called out by Snowden himself, though ignored by Poitras. I don't trust Assange or any other unvetted source - and there will be more - to decide which documents from Russian hackers or NSA leakers get put on the web.
At one point in "Risk," Poitras tells us she's surprised that Assange trusts her with so much access because he doesn't seem to like her. I suspect the truth is she doesn't much like him, which helps explain why "Risk" lacks the rousing neatness of "Citizenfour." She defends him but can't quite make him a hero. Like Assange, Poitras believes in making secrets public and abhors this country's draconian treatment of whistleblowers and its increasing threats against journalists. They're on the same team, and they share the same grand ideal of transparency. But whether or not it was Poitras's intention, "Risk" reminds us that grand ideals are finally no grander than the flawed human beings who bring them to life.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Coming up, comedian Chris Gethard - his one-man stage show, "Career Suicide," has been turned into an HBO special and premieres Saturday night. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Comic and actor Chris Gethard had a successful off-Broadway solo show called "Career Suicide," which was a comic monologue about his depression and suicidal thoughts, a verbal voyage in which he managed to be genuine and funny at the same time. That show has been adapted into an HBO TV special, which premieres Saturday night. Gethard also recently co-starred in the movie "Don't Think Twice" about a small improv group, which was written and directed by Mike Birbiglia. Gethard worked with the improv group the Upright Citizens Brigade for about 16 years.
He's becoming known through the movie, his HBO special and stage show, his cable access and Fusion TV program "The Chris Gethard Show" and his podcast, "Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People." When Terry spoke to him last fall, they started with a clip from his off-Broadway show, "Career Suicide." He's looking back on an incident in 2001 when he was 21 years old and having suicidal thoughts. He was driving near his hometown in New Jersey.
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CHRIS GETHARD: I'm behind this truck. The truck puts on the blinker. The driver has decided he's going to turn left, and I don't even slow down. I swing out. I'm going to go around him on the right, and as I do so, he starts coming back into the right lane. It's very clear the driver has decided he's not going to make the turn, and it's also clear I am in his blind spot. He does not see me. And I have time to think to myself, you should hit the brakes. And then I think, no, don't because this way it's just a car crash. And this way your parents don't have to go around town being the parents of the kid who killed himself because we don't judge people for dying in car crashes, but we do judge people when they die of suicide. It's one of the strangest things, I think, we've given ourselves permission to do as a culture. And honestly, I think it's really mostly a branding problem.
GETHARD: No, I do. I really think suicide has a branding problem because it has - it has a tagline. It has a catch phrase, and I bet a lot of us know it. It sucks. It's really condescending. I bet we've heard it - suicide, the coward's way out. I bet a lot of us have heard that. What a [expletive] tagline. A tagline's supposed to get you, like, pumped up, right? Like Nike - that's a good tagline. Just do it, you know? And I'm not saying that suicide should take that one at all. That's not what I'm saying.
Really, none of the big ones apply here. Although, I mean, Burger King, have it your way. I guess that does apply a little bit. And I'll say this. I'll say this too. I don't really understand how it's cowardly to kill yourself. I don't get it. Suicide - when I think of it, to me it means someone had a lot of problems, and they couldn't fight through them anymore. That's not cowardly. It's sad and nothing but.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That's Chris Gethard with an excerpt of his show, "Career Suicide." Chris, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GETHARD: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Congratulations on the show.
GETHARD: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: I don't usually start with suicide in an interview. I usually work my way up to that. But I think in this case we'll just start there with your permission. So why did you decide to do a show in which you talked about some of your darkest thoughts, the kinds of thoughts that scare your family and friends and that you tried to protect them from?
GETHARD: Well, you know, it's funny because a lot of the impetus behind doing this show comes from a conversation I had with my friend Mike Birbiglia, who I'm sure many people out there are very familiar with. And I was on the road with Mike for a long time. Most of 2014, I was I was opening for him as we toured across the country. And, you know, when you're opening for someone and you're out there in the Midwest, there's a lot of, like, late-night drives. And on one of these long drives, he was like, you know, I've heard you make, like, some jokes about your depression stuff and talk about it a little bit. But what's the real story? Like, what's the darkest it gets? And I actually told him the story that you just excerpted.
And it's, you know, it's about kind of causing this car crash or going along with this car crash. And at the end of the story, I told him and I thought he was going to be really sad and he goes, dude, that's hilarious. You have to tell that on stage. And I was like, I don't think so, man. Like, my family doesn't know that story. A lot of people I'm really close to now, they don't really know all the details on that. And he said to me - he's like, you know, if you can get up there and make that funny, you've got something really special on your hands.
And I took that as a real challenge and, you know, I've always sort of talked to this stuff to a certain degree in my work, on my TV show. Like, I've never shied away from it. And I really, a few years ago, made a conscious decision to not be ashamed of it. But that conversation with Mike really - it kind of felt like he was throwing down the gauntlet a little bit. And you know, I'm kind of driven by having a chip on my shoulder. So I was like, all right, I'll do it and told a couple stories on stage and figured that the audience would be really turned off and that I could go back to him and say, see, I told you, man. Nobody is going to buy this.
And instead, the audiences in New York, they really met the stories warmly and a lot of people - almost immediately people started waiting for me after shows when I would perform stories that became "Career Suicide." And they'd tell me that they identified with them or knew people in their family who dealt with that stuff. And it was like on a one - like a one-on-one basis people were waiting for me to say, like, hey, here's my story. And you got to keep going with this.
GROSS: You know, the impression I get from the story that we excerpted is that one of the reasons you decided not to swerve into the oncoming truck and not to kill yourself was that you wanted to protect your parents from being the parents of the son who killed himself.
GROSS: So I'm just wondering, for real, if that was, like - if that's been a reason why you've managed to stay alive all these years is to protect your parents.
GETHARD: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely been elements of that, and I think there's - you know, having dealt with depression since a young age, you know, protecting my parents was actually a really big one. I remember - my first experience hearing of suicide in real life, I remember a kid who was a few years older than me in high school. He unfortunately killed himself. And I remember his parents tried to establish a scholarship in his name at our high school, and the school board wouldn't allow it because they didn't want to glorify it. And I remember feeling that that was so horrible. That was just so horrible that his parents were trying to remember their son, and they were being told, no, you're not allowed to - you're not allowed to make, you know, something positive in your son's name because your son did something that - you know, effectively they were saying this is shameful and shouldn't be talked about publicly. And I remember feeling so horrible for him and so horrible for his parents, even when I was a kid. So that was already at a point where I think I had been dealing with that. And that was something I always remembered was, you know, thinking about people like my parents and, you know, a handful of, you know, friends, girlfriends along the way, where, you know, you think about how is it going to affect those other people, and that was something that kept me hanging on from time to time. Ultimately, though, being largely on the other side of it now, I needed to I think stop hanging that on other people and eventually learn how to kind of deal with myself and fix things for myself.
GROSS: I think it was a psychiatrist who told you that it might be helpful to find out if there was a history of mental illness in your family. So you asked your mother. What did she tell you?
GETHARD: That was an eye-opening day of life and made me realize how hidden we keep this stuff. I found out - you know, I knew that there was - you know, I come from an Irish Catholic family. There are some drinkers, and I always knew that, but I didn't realize that I had a number of aunts and uncles on both sides of the family who were medicated. That was kept kind of quiet and hidden. And most strikingly, I found out that my grandfather had been put in a mental hospital at one point in his life. This isn't - I didn't know any of that. It was all swept under the rug. And I have to say what a shame. If I had known that, I think maybe I might have acted a little sooner when I started feeling like I was really in trouble. Finding that out was a real shock.
GROSS: Why do you think you might have acted sooner had you known about the history of mental illness in your family?
GETHARD: Well, you know, I should also mention, like, my grandfather lived across the street from me growing up. We were a very close family. So this is not like he was some - it's not like he had passed away or he lived hundreds of miles away. This was someone who was in my life on a very frequent basis and I was close to. And the fact that I didn't know that some of my closest relatives, who were in my, you know, weekly if not daily life, suffered - I didn't know that.
If I had known that, I wouldn't have felt as alone. I just can't - I just don't - I'm just so flummoxed that we're - this stuff's so stigmatized and viewed as so shameful that we hide it. And then what happens is that cycle perpetuates. And in my case, it did. I think if I knew my grandfather had been sick, I think maybe I would have been able to say to somebody sooner, hey, I think - I want to know what happened to my grandpa because I think it's happening to me.
I didn't even know that was a sentence I had the option of saying until after it was - things had hit rock bottom.
GROSS: Is it helpful to know that there might be a genetic component 'cause it relieves you of some of the responsibility? It's like, it's not your fault that you're depressed, it's not, like, you have a bad attitude. That's not the problem (laughter). The problem might be something more genetic and biological and therefore, that you can be a little distanced from it.
GETHARD: Yeah. Oh, yeah. The amount of times I was told to toughen up or stop being a baby, I think (laughter) - when in reality, what I needed was years of therapy and a litany of antidepressants. I think, yes, knowing there's a genetic component would have maybe helped me feel less like a baby and more like a sick person.
GROSS: You were initially afraid that medication for your depression would blunt your creative edge, but now you feel like, no, it made you funnier. It made you healthier and funnier. What are some of the ways that you feel it's been, you know, liberating for you as an artist and performer to have the appropriate medication?
GETHARD: It really helps. Like, the whole romanticized sad clown thing, we have to get rid of that. That has to go. That's just getting sick people to voluntarily stay sicker and sadder than they have to be. For me, I took medication and there's a few things. A, my ideas weren't born out of mania anymore. I would go and - I, you know - I very classically would go into manic phases, which were as dangerous if not more so than the depressed phases.
And I'd think I'd come up with the best ideas I ever had. And then the next day, I'd look at them and I'd be like, this is nonsense because it was born out of a manic episode. What a waste of time. And then on top of that, being medicated means that I can get out of bed consistently. I can do second drafts. I can keep things organized. I'm not giving into all sorts of impulsive behavior. Like, I can sit down and work and get things done.
So both creatively and organizationally, being medicated has helped me immensely. My career did not start until I was medicated. And then I can track - the years I was off medication, things dipped. And the years I went back on medication is when things started to get good for me again career wise. It is 100 percent in my case undeniable that being medicated helped my creativity.
BIANCULLI: Comic and actor Chris Gethard speaking to Terry Gross last fall. "Chris Gethard: Career Suicide," an HBO special based on his autobiographical one-man stage show, premieres Saturday night. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new sequel to "Guardians Of The Galaxy." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GRIFFIN'S "OPERATE")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The comic "Guardians Of The Galaxy" is part of a vast and interlocking Marvel universe of superheroes. But few expected its 2014 film adaptation would be such a big hit. Now there's a sequel called "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," featuring the same cast, including Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. It also adds some new players, including Kurt Russell as a god who identifies himself as Peter's father. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: By the bloated standards of Marvel Comics movies, the 2014 "Guardians Of The Galaxy" was a modest affair, a goofy break from the "Dark Knights" of the soul of "Captain America" and company and way less grim than DC Comics movies, which are Wagnerian. There were five superheroes of mixed sizes, powers and temperaments. Chris Pratt's Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, was a likeable screw-up who carried a mixtape of '70s AM radio hits made by the mom he still mourned.
Rocket was a raccoon with a longshoreman's potty mouth. There was a neurotic muscleman, a sentient tree and a warrior woman who alone had sense. The B-movie vibe was an agreeable reminder of the first "Star Wars" and Joss Whedon's TV series "Firefly." "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2" is back to the old Marvel bloat. It's overlong, it's repetitious and for every good joke, there are two that don't land.
Kids, fans and the "Dredd" fanboys will still love it because the studio knows how to push its audience's buttons. But everyone else should steer clear of multiplexes this weekend. After a prologue I'll tell you about later, we see the Guardians in action - Pratt's Peter, Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana's Gamora, Dave Bautista's Drax and a cute little twig that's the reincarnation of the tree Groot. They're fighting a kind of giant space squid while making wisecracks.
And director James Gunn and his designers have done a good job recreating a typical "Guardians" comic book panel. But it's still a big mess with dumb jokes. That squid stole powerful batteries belonging to a high-strung but rather attractive gold-hued race. Its Sovereign, played by Elizabeth Debicki, rubs Rocket the wrong way, so he steals some batteries too, which puts a massive armada on the Guardians' tail.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2")
CHRIS PRATT: (As Peter Quill) This is weird. We've got a Sovereign fleet approaching from the rear.
ZOE SALDANA: (As Gamora) Why would they do that?
DAVE BAUTISTA: (As Drax) Probably 'cause Rocket stole some of their batteries.
BRADLEY COOPER: (As Rocket) Dude.
BAUTISTA: (As Drax) Right. He didn't steal some of those. I don't know why they're after us. What a mystery this is.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEAPONS FIRING)
PRATT: (As Peter Quill) What were you thinking?
COOPER: (As Rocket) Dude, they were really easy to steal.
SALDANA: (As Gamora) That's your defense?
COOPER: (As Rocket) Come on, you saw how that high priestess talked down to us. Now I'm teaching her a lesson.
PRATT: (As Peter Quill) Oh, I didn't realize your motivation was altruism. It's really a shame the Sovereign have mistaken your intentions and are trying to kill us.
COOPER: (As Rocket) Exactly.
PRATT: (As Peter Quill) I was being sarcastic.
COOPER: (As Rocket) Oh, no, you're supposed to use a sarcastic voice. Now I look foolish.
SALDANA: (As Gamora) Can we put the bickering on hold until after we survive this massive space battle?
PRATT: (As Peter Quill) More incoming.
COOPER: (As Rocket) Good, I'm going to kill some guys.
EDELSTEIN: If you found that dialogue labored, what's on screen is its visual equivalent. Stuff swirls around, things get zapped and explode and it's all just fodder. There's zero suspense. Coming to the Guardians' aide is the guest star of "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," Kurt Russell, as Ego, a god or demigod. Marvel has so many gods. In the prologue, we meet a computer-generated version of Russell's younger self, an image that haunted me over the next two hours.
That computer recreation is far more disturbing in its real-world implications than any threat to a fictional galaxy. Ego claims to be the father of Pratt's Peter Quill and to possess vast powers he wants to pass on. That gives the movie its storyline and emotional hook. Will Peter abandon his surrogate family for his supposed real father? What of his volatile adopted father, corrupt space ranger Yondu, played by Michael Rooker?
Reinforcing the idea that bad fatherhood is the galaxy's greatest destabilizer is the B plot in which Gamora and Karen Gillan, as her artificially enhanced sister, Nebula, prepare for a faceoff. Nebula has never forgiven Gamora for allowing their cruel father to pit them against each other as girls. So much adolescent angst up there in space. "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2" has some witty flourishes. Among them, a ship like a white melon with an eyeball and a shot of little Groot pressed against a spaceship window staring with childlike wonder at a receding planet.
Actually, little Groot steals the picture, though Rooker is moving as a man swamped by melancholy over a misspent life. And Gillan makes a scary Nebula, seething but still watchful. The vibe, though, is all about marketing. It's not enough you paid for this product. You have to sit through commercials for other ones. There are four - count them - teasers during the credits.
One was Sylvester Stallone as a space ranger surrounded by actors palpably salivating for a Marvel paycheck. Watching Marvel and DC spread their tentacles through the movie galaxy is far more terrifying than any space squid.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, Gabourey Sidibe. She made her acting debut in the Lee Daniels film "Precious" in 2009. She played the main character, a role that got her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Sidibe has a new memoir. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY BUTLER AND STEVEN BERNSTEIN'S "HENRY'S BOOGIE")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. 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.