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Rock critic Ken Tucker

Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Don't Worry About Me, the posthumously released CD from Joey Ramone. The lead singer of the punk band the Ramones died last April at the age of 49.

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Other segments from the episode on February 21, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 21, 2002: Interview with Martin Short; Review of Joey Ramone's “Don’t Worry About Me;” Interview with Jon Ronson.

Transcript

DATE February 21, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Martin Short discusses his TV series "Primetime Glick"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Martin Short's series, "Primetime Glick," begins its new season this Saturday
on Comedy Central. The show is a satire of celebrity interview shows. Martin
Short got his start doing sketch comedy on "SCTV" and "Saturday Night Live,"
where he created the characters Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers Jr. and songwriter
Irving Cohen.

In a Washington Post review of "Primetime Glick," Tom Shales described Glick
as `the consummate Hollywood hanger-on and fabulous, fatuous phony,' and he
described Short as a deranged comic genius. In the role of Jiminy Glick,
Short looks nothing like himself. He wears a fat suit, has a prosthetic
double chin and looks like he tips the scale at around 300 pounds. The
celebrities Glick interviews are real celebrities. Tom Hanks and Ben Stiller
appear as themselves in this weekend's edition. Here's Martin Short as Glick
with Ben Stiller.

(Soundbite of "Primetime Glick")

Mr. MARTIN SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) There's so much I want to ask about this,
so much. Your father--let's talk about Jerry Stiller.

Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) He's in the wonderful series "Queer as Folk."

Mr. STILLER: No.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) No? What series is he in?

Mr. STILLER: You're mistaken. He's on "King of Queens."

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) Oh, that's what they're calling it now.

Mr. STILLER: Yes.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) And your mother is Anne Heche...

Mr. STILLER: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) ...and she's had the worst time of it, hasn't
she? She's had this because she thought she was a lesbian...

Mr. STILLER: No.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) ...and then she thought she was a normal
person. And then, before you know it, she's talking to aliens. How weird is
it to be the daughter of clearly someone who's that insane?

Mr. STILLER: I couldn't tell you that because, unfortunately, you've got her
mixed up. It's not Anne Heche. It's Anne Meara.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) Anne Meara?

Mr. STILLER: Right.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) See, I like her better than Anne Heche.

Mr. STILLER: Yes. Well...

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) Well, no wonder you've got all that DNA racing
for you, all that comedic DNA. That's got to be wonderful.

Do you have demons, Ben Stiller?

Mr. STILLER: I think we all have demons, Jiminy.

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) You do?

Mr. STILLER: Mm-hmm. I think we all do.

GROSS: Martin Short, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Let's start with Jiminy Glick. Can you give us, like, a capsule bio of who
this character is?

Mr. SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) Jiminy Glick is someone who grew up--was
privately tutored with his parents until he was around 28. Then he went out
into the real world and saw a wonderful production of "Forty Carats" touring
with Lana Turner, auditioned, got in as Onlooker Number Two, then went on to
Los Angeles where for six years he worked at Chason's as a busboy. And at one
night, catering a party at Roddy McDowall's, a very drunken George
Slaughter(ph) was helped home, declaring that a host for a syndicated show
that he wanted had walked out because they didn't expect George's double-scale
approach. And after that, the rest is history. I was asked to do the show,
and before you know it I'm suddenly talking to the likes of yous.

GROSS: Why is it so important for Jiminy Glick to always be in touch with
celebrities?

Mr. SHORT: I don't know. I think that Jiminy is someone who thrives on this
shallow world of celebrity. When I started the show, and then it went on the
air and then I would read some response to it--only the positive, of
course--that would claim, you know, great declarations of intent, you know,
`The ultimate satire of a form of a blankety-blank,' and I would just say,
`Absolutely.' But it's not always true. Sometimes you set out by just saying
that this character, if you've met him in life, whether he was a teacher or
whether he was a politician or whether he was a celebrity interviewer would
make you laugh because of his strange, sincere take on the world and how wrong
it is.

GROSS: And he has a great mix of self-involvement and insecurity.

Mr. SHORT: Right. Where I can laugh at Jiminy objectively is when he gets
very sincere and feels he's doing a hard-hitting, tough interview and the
finger is pointing. And he says, in the show, which is, I think, with Dave
Duchovny airing in a week or so--he says--(As Jiminy Glick) He says, `I worry
about Robert Downey. Do you worry about Robert Downey? And Duchovny says,
`Yes.' (In normal voice) He says--(As Jiminy Glick) I feel like calling him
and saying, `Bobby, stop it and stay stopped it.' (In normal voice) And
Duchovny says, `I think that's what he needs. He needs someone to point their
finger at him and say, "Stay stopped."' And in Jiminy's world he thinks he's
doing exactly what Charlie Rose would do.

GROSS: Right. Now one of Jiminy Glick's trademarks is that he's very
self-absorbed. So when he is interviewing a celebrity, he is also talking
about himself a lot and talking about his adventures with other celebrities
and...

Mr. SHORT: Right.

GROSS: ...his wife and his past. Have you met a lot of interviewers like
that where it seems to be more about them than it is about you?

Mr. SHORT: I was interviewed once for a show and the--I'm not going to say
who it was because he's kind of known and you--it seems to me--but he would
end up talking about himself to a degree that in my mind I was thinking, `It's
been about four minutes since I've spoken.' And it was an interview, not
unlike this, where it was just, you know, supposed to be an interview with me.

GROSS: So what does that bring out in you?

Mr. SHORT: You know what I do? Truthfully, it brings out no reaction other
than laughter, whether I can laugh then or laugh later. You know, I think
that the funniest character work is out there in life, whether you go to the
cleaners or whether you go to a restaurant or whoever you might meet. It's
just astounding how funny the people are. And sometimes I'll see situations
or be in situations, I'll look at someone and I'll think, `You know, if this
were a sketch, you'd say "Too broad." It--bring down the glasses. You don't
need that funny dress. You don't need that funny suit,' you know. And yet,
here it is. It's life. So in those situations, I just kind of make a mental
note and think I'll use it somewhere.

GROSS: Now one of the things that the Jiminy Glick show does is break for
commercials, as most broadcast shows do. But these are all satirical
commercials. I thought maybe we could break for one of your commercials from
"Primetime Glick," and this is a commercial for the Independent Film Channel.

(Soundbite of "Primetime Glick")

Unidentified Announcer: This Monday on the Independent Movie Channel's best
of the fest, Robin Herker's(ph) "Explaining Carlo,"(ph) the explosive story of
two young heroin addicts who drive cross-country and strike up a relationship
with two Texas lesbians.

Then on Tuesday, two different lesbians on their way to LA strike up a
relationship with a heroin-addicted ex-security guard from Texas in Kiera
Sandoval's(ph) controversial "The Wisdom of Sarah Finkelman."(ph)

Then on Wednesday, two ex-lesbians are drawn back into their former lifestyle
when they pick up three heroin-addicted hitchhikers...

GROSS: That's one of the very funny satirical commercials from Martin Short's
show "Primetime Glick." Do you write any of those commercials yourself?

Mr. SHORT: Yes.

GROSS: Good. They're very funny.

Mr. SHORT: Yeah. Well, I mean, I work with two brilliant guys. One is
Michael Short and one is Paul Flaherty. And the three of us create the show
together.

GROSS: Is Michael Short a relation?

Mr. SHORT: Yes, he's a brother.

GROSS: Aha. And is...

Mr. SHORT: My big brother Mike.

GROSS: Is Paul Flaherty related to...

Mr. SHORT: Joe Flaherty's brother.

GROSS: Joe Flaherty, yeah.

Mr. SHORT: Yep.

GROSS: Oh, wow. All right. All in the family.

Mr. SHORT: They're all, actually--well, obviously, I grew up with Michael,
but I met Paul on "SCTV," which Michael also wrote.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Hmm. Are your interviews on "Primetime Glick" scripted?
When you have on real celebrities and you're playing this satire of a
celebrity interviewer, do the real celebrities know what you're going to ask
in advance, and have they already had a chance to think through how they're
going to respond?

Mr. SHORT: No. None of it is planned and none of it's scripted. No one
knows what I'm going to say, and I don't know what I'm going to say. I have
pages in front of me that have facts about the celebrity. And often, I won't
even look at it until the last second because Jiminy wouldn't look at it till
the last second.

GROSS: Right. And you have a way of choosing the most unimportant movie that
an actor's made to zero in on. Sometimes when you have an actor on the show
who you're interviewing, they're clearly, like, trying to not totally crack up
'cause...

Mr. SHORT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...they think what you're doing is really funny, but they want to stay
in character if this was a real show.

Mr. SHORT: Right.

GROSS: Do you advise them not to laugh if at all possible?

Mr. SHORT: No. What we used to--last season when we were cutting some of
the early shows, I was very self-conscious about them laughing. It seemed
kind of cheesy to me that I would be executive producing the show that has
people sitting back going, `Oh, Marty. How can I get through this?' It felt
a little self-serving. And then, as I would look at it again, I'd think, you
know, `I'm wrong. It's natural. It's fun. It's not an indictment either
way.'

And everyone has a kind of a different approach. Some come with an agenda. I
interviewed George Segal once, and we got into a fight. I mean, a mock fight,
but it wasn't planned. So some of these things, particularly if you're
working with people from an improvisational background, can go many different
directions. And...

GROSS: Now you've said that when you were a kid you really, you know, wanted
to be a celebrity yourself. So do you feel like, on some level, you really
understand Jiminy Glick's need to be famous and to be with famous people?

Mr. SHORT: Well, I don't know if he needs to be with famous people as much
as that for Jiminy, these shallow tidbits that make up his life are important.
They're fascinating. But more importantly, society has rewarded him. He does
have his own show. He does live in a nice house. He is watched. And he
couldn't be less qualified to be in his position. He's not the only person in
the entertainment world that has that position.

GROSS: My guest is Martin Short. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Martin Short. His TV series "Primetime Glick" is on
Comedy Central.

Now I know you did imaginary TV shows when you were a kid. Were any of them
interview shows where you got to interview the guests?

Mr. SHORT: Absolutely, yeah. Well, they were variety, variety-interview,
you know. I'd come out, sing a few numbers. I had, you know, a huge
orchestra. And then I would sit down. I would get, you know, Playboy
magazine and I would, you know, read the interview with, I don't know, Norman
Lear, and I'd do both voices. So I'd do a hard-hitting interview in the midst
of, you know, doing a medley of songs that weren't nominated or something.

GROSS: So when you were young and you were watching all these TV shows and
doing your imaginary show, did you have any training? Did your mother say,
`Send this boy to acting school,' or `Give him singing lessons; develop that
talent'?

Mr. SHORT: No, no, no. My mother was the concert mistress of the symphony.
She was the first female concertmaster, actually. So I grew up with, at times
during the season, five hours of practice heard within the house on the
violin. So the idea of rehearsal and opening night was not foreign. But no.
I think that growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, you don't
instinctively--you know, Broadway isn't down the street. So it all seems not
terribly realistic. I took piano lessons, but--and I never stated I was going
to be an actor. Again, it wasn't a realistic declaration. And I was always
drawn toward, I guess, reality in that respect.

So it wasn't until I was in university and having been through this at the
university, realized that there was actually an acting scene in Toronto,
Ontario, which is 40 miles away, and that it was not inconceivable to take a
year off school and try it.

GROSS: Did your mother measure talent according to more classical standards,
of, you know, rigorous studies and a more legit kind of singing voice than you
probably had? You had a more pop voice.

Mr. SHORT: No. You know what? It was very interesting. She was always
very encouraging. In fact, I have--when I was 15, Frank Sinatra had released
an album called "September of My Years", and I re-recorded that. I typed up
all the lyrics, and I had an attic bedroom and the hallway to the bedroom kind
of had an echo to it. So I set up my chair--I had a microphone, a
reel-to-reel, and I would play the introductions from the Sinatra album, but
it would be--and, of course, Frank was 53 and I was 14. But the introductions
would be in his key, so it would be (singing) `Do-do-do-do-do,
mmm-do-do-do-do-do-do-do, mmm--do-do-do-do,' and you'd hear `click,' (singing)
`Strangers in the night.' I was in Frank's keys.

But I would do the album, and it would take me about a week, you know, and I'd
make up an album cover. And then my mother, I remember, listened to it and
critiqued it, because she used to adjudicate at certain, you now, violin
contests and things in her life, and so she wrote a synopsis of--I mean, a
critique of each song, `In this, the pitch was very good,' `lovely old song,'
`well-phrased at the end,' `hold the note too long here,' and rated them on
a--four stars, three stars, three and a half stars. So I still have that.

GROSS: Was that helpful?

Mr. SHORT: It was helpful. I think it was mainly helpful because someone
was taking my fantasy world very seriously, and treating it with credibility
and respect. You know, Frank Sinatra once said that his father was always
around to piss on his dreams, and I think it's very important for parents to
constantly nurture and support eclectic interests of their children, because
you never know which one is going to develop, become the fuel that, you know,
drives their life.

GROSS: So I know that when you went to college, you studied--What?--social
welfare for the first part.

Mr. SHORT: Yeah, I started off in pre-meds. I was going to be a doctor.

GROSS: Huh.

Mr. SHORT: And I did that for two years, then I switched to a social work
course.

GROSS: Huh. So when did you decide to try acting?

Mr. SHORT: At the end of my fourth year at college, when I was about to do a
master's and I thought--and again, you know, I'd just done constant theater,
and it was for non-credit at McMaster University, where I went. So--Eugene
Levy, I remember, who lived in Toronto at that time, a struggling actor, said,
`You know, you should try this,' and you know, encouraged me to try it, and I
did.

But I was very determined. You know, it was one year in my brain. I was
going to do it for one year, and at the end of that one year if I wasn't
making a living, then I was back to school. I didn't want to be trapped or
caught, you know, at 30 in a profession that wasn't going to give me
confidence.

GROSS: And is this when you were in "Godspell"?

Mr. SHORT: The first show that I got was the show "Godspell," which was the
big, big, big show in Toronto and everyone wanted it and 1,000 people
auditioned, etc. And I got it. And I was still in university. I was still
finishing my fourth year. So I was ahead of my plan, you know. And it was a
remarkable time. It was the first time I wasn't in school. It was the first
time that I was getting an income. I was now doing this play every night,
this musical that was so much fun and meeting great people that would become
my friends for my whole life. You know, Paul Shaffer was the musical director
of "Godspell," and it was a first-time show for Gilda Radner and, you know,
Eugene got it and I got it and Dave Thomas would later come into it and Andrea
Martin. And it was astounding. It was only a cast of 10.

GROSS: Well, how much TV do you watch? What shows do you watch the most?

Mr. SHORT: I don't watch much TV at all, unless, say--you know, which I
don't say proudly, or `Aren't I something great?' I just--you know, it seems
like I get home, I have dinner, there are conversations--I have three children
and a wife--there's running around for the kids, there is--and then all of a
sudden, if it's 8:30, we might watch a movie. Now it's amazing, they'll have
anniversary shows for series that were on, you know, for 10 years and now
they're back for an anniversary show, and I never saw any of the episodes.

I'll read TV Guide and I'll get a sense of the land, the lay of the land. And
if, you know, a show has been in the top 10 for a certain amount of time, then
I will literally set the timer and watch it that way.

GROSS: Getting back to "Primetime Glick," Jiminy Glick has a sidekick and
band leader, whose name is Adrean Van Vorhese,(ph) a great name I have to say,
and he plays harp. Michael McKean plays the character. Can you talk about
coming up with this character?

Mr. SHORT: Well, I certainly didn't come up with the character. Michael did.
But we kind of wrote it in a direction. It was--you kind of find that the
more things you do with characters the more you come up with it. We'd be
writing something and Michael would come in and Michael said, `You know, I
want to play him like he's older, but he wears a lot of makeup to hide it.'
So that becomes part of the character. `Is he married?' we discussed. `Yeah,
he's married four times, no children,' Michael said one day. So that becomes
part of the character.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHORT: Does he like Jiminy? He doesn't dislike Jiminy, but it's a job.
So if Jiminy insults him or cuts him off, he goes, `Very good; no problem,'
because it's a job.

In one of the episodes, his first wife, who's around 85, is on. It's one of
those scenarios where you assume that he's married his first wife was 25 years
older. She's a horn player, and he just loses it. And there's a tape of
Buddy Rich, a pirated tape of Buddy Rich screaming at the band on a bus, once
his band. And so we made that Adrean Von Vorhese. So we come back from
commercial and he's just berating--(As Adrean) Clams! You've hitting nothing
but clams! (in normal voice), you know. And so that's a new side of Adrean,
the side of Adrean losing it. So that's what makes that stuff fun, is you
keep saying what if--`OK, what if Adrean, you know, was in a bad mood this
show, or what if Adrean gets hurt?'

I interviewed Michael last year, Michael McKean, as Adrean, and the idea was
that Russell Crowe hadn't shown up, and now we had to interview Adrean Van
Vorhese. And at one point--again it's all improvised--I asked him something
about--I made some comment about the fact that he wasn't terribly educated,
that was that ever limitation as a musician. And Michael's face completely
changed, and he started to tear up, real tears. And there was a split second
that even I as Jiminy thought, `Wait a second. Have I mentioned something
that's actually gotten Michael upset here?' I mean, it was so real. And he
then proceeded to let me know, as Adrean Van Vorhese, that this was a very
hurtful subject for him, and I could be hurtful sometimes and insensitive, and
that he was always--you know, it was a sore sport for him, his lack of
education. And it was an amazing exercise to watch, even after all these
years of improvising, to see someone that in to it and to make it that real.

GROSS: So how did your character, Jiminy Glick, react when...

Mr. SHORT: He became very--you know, (As Jiminy), `Oh, my God, Adrean, I so
didn't mean that.' (In normal voice) I mean, he became a little bit attentive
to the possibility that he'd gone too far. You know, Jiminy Glick has no
intention of hurting anyone. And when people get upset when they walk off or
they storm out. (As Jiminy) What have I done? Someone explain to me, what
have I done. (In normal voice) He doesn't know.

GROSS: Well, Martin Short, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHORT: My pleasure.

GROSS: Martin Short's TV series, "Primetime Glick," begins a new season this
Saturday evening on Comedy Central.

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

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, the men who declared holy war on Britain. We speak with
journalist Jon Ronson. His new book, "Them," is about extremists. He'll tell
us about spending time with Omar Bakri Mohammed.

Also, Ken Tucker reviews "Don't Worry About Me," a new posthumously released
CD by Joey Ramone.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Profile: Remembering Joey Ramone, lead singer of The Ramones
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Joey Ramone, the lead singer of the '70s punk rock band The Ramones, died last
April of lymphatic cancer. He was 49. In the months preceding his death, he
recorded numerous tracks for a solo album that has now been released under the
title, "Don't Worry About Me." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOEY RAMONE: (Singing) I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them
bloom for me and you, and I say to myself, what a wonderful world. I see
skies of...

KEN TUCKER:

Hearing Joey Ramone sing a typically out-of-tune but in-the-zone version of
the Louis Armstrong hit, "What A Wonderful World" is now a little sad, a
little ironic and, thankfully, pretty exhilarating and funny. Recording the
song which leads off his posthumous album was Joey's way of saying that he had
a heart despite his punk cynicism. It was also a part of his never-ending
quest to score a hit record, or at least a song that would get some radio air
play.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RAMONE: (Singing) Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it. Stop
thinking about it. Stop thinking about it. This world is driving me crazy.
(Unintelligible) don't you know what that says? Yeah, you don't know what she
want--she wanted.

Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it.
Stop thinking about it. This world is driving me crazy. And, baby, don't you
know what that says? Yeah, you don't know what she want--she wanted.

TUCKER: There's a typical Ramone song, fast and blunt, unrelenting in its
adherence to a single riff and a catchy chorus. Working with his longtime
producer Daniel Rey, Joey obviously wasn't interested in disturbing his
career-long musical strategy. Indeed, in their later years, The Ramones
achieved their greatest success as a nostalgia act, a living re-enactment of
classic '70s punk rock. This development may have fattened Joey's bank
account a bit, but it was bittersweet recognition.

The Ramones formed initially as a reaction to '70s corporate and art rock,
everything from The Eagles and Peter Frampton to R.E.O. Speedwagon and Yes.
Joey thought his band's music wasn't radical at all, but rather a return to
old-school basics. Yes, they were brats who celebrated sniffing glue, but
there was a melancholy in Joey's dolorous voice that always leant even the
most goofy or misguided music some poignance. And for a guy who used to sing
about the joys of being sedated, it's striking to hear him lament his
cancerous condition and utter unambiguously the words `I want my life,' on
this song called "I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RAMONE: (Singing) Sleeping in a hospital bed. Sleeping in a hospital
bed. Sleeping in a hospital bed. Sleeping in a hospital bed. I, I want my
life. I want my life. I want my life. I want my life.

TUCKER: It may be the biggest irony of Joey Ramone's life and death that his
band, which spent its existence reacting against the most entrenched
conventions of rock music, is going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame next month. I'll bet if he showed up for the ceremony at all, he'd
have had a few withering, if hopelessly mumbled words for all those rock
industry insiders who'd done their best to ignore The Ramones when they were
in peak condition.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Joey Ramone's posthumously released CD, "Don't Worry About Me."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RAMONE: (Singing) What's happening on Wall Street? What's happening at
the Stock Exchange? I want to know. What's happening on "Squawk Box"?
What's happening with Nasdaqs? I want to know.

I watch you on the TV every single day. Those eyes make everything OK. I
watch you every day. I watch you every night. She's really out of sight,
Maria Bartiromo, Maria Bartiromo, Maria Bartiromo.

What's happening with Yahoo!? What's happening with AOL? I want to know.
What's happening with Beech Hill? What's happening with Damasol? I want to
know.

I watch you on the TV every single day. Those eyes make everything OK. I
watch you every day. I watch you every night. She's really out of sight,
Maria Bartiromo, Maria Bartiromo, Maria Bartiromo.

GROSS: Coming up, adventures with extremists. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Jon Ronson talks about his book "Them: Adventures with
Extremists"
TERRY GROSS, host:

British journalist Jon Ronson wanted to know what makes extremists tick and
what makes conspiracy theorists believe that a shadowy elite secretly rules
the world, so he spent time with neo-Nazis, religious extremists and
new-world-order conspiracy theorists. His new book is called "Them:
Adventures with Extremists."

As part of Ronson's research, he spent a year around Omar Bakri Mohammed, who
before September 11th had described himself as bin Laden's man in London and
had declared holy war on Britain, yet he seemed kind of clownish to Ronson.
Omar was born into a wealthy family in Syria. In his teens, he moved to Saudi
Arabia to preach jihad on university campuses. After hearing he would be
arrested, he went to England.

I asked Jon Ronson how he got close enough to Omar Bakri Mohammed to see what
he was like.

Mr. JON RONSON (Author): I just called him up and he said, `Oh, yes, please
do come over.' The first thing he said to me was, `I'm actually very nice,
you know?' And I said, `Are you?' And he said, `Oh, yes, I'm delightful.'

So I went to his house and the first we did was watch "The Lion King," which
is the only way he can relax--he said he watches "The Lion King" every
night--while he was bouncing his baby daughter up and down on his knee,
singing along to "Hakuna Matata," which was the only way he could relax. So
immediately he became very surprising.

I asked him his daughter's name and he said that his baby daughter's name,
when translated into English, is the `black fleck of Islam.' And I said,
`Really, your baby daughter's called the black fleck of Islam?' And he said,
`Yes.' And I said, `Really?' And he said, `Do you see now why our cultures
can never integrate?'

So right from the beginning Omar was playfully teaching me how his views of
the world--you know, his segregation, separation and so on. He was kind of
playfully giving me a lecture in those things.

GROSS: The way you portray him in your book, he seems almost more like an
absent-minded kook than a serious threat. What were some of the ways that he
came off to you as kind of absent-minded and goofy?

Mr. RONSON: You know, it's just always surprising. After September the 11th
and then more recently it's been said that the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was
radicalized by Omar and some of the British extremists at Camp X-ray had been
radicalized by Omar. And I thought to myself, `Well, Omar always portrays
himself as a laughable clown, really, a buffoon. Is this the same Omar? Is
this the same guy who radicalized Richard Reid?' I thought, `Well, yes, it is
the same person.' So maybe the way he behaved towards Richard Reid was the
same way as how he behaved towards me.

GROSS: Well, how did you behave towards you?

Mr. RONSON: Kind of silly and clownish and funny and absurd. Now I've been
accused of poking fun at these people, which is not something I think I do. I
think--you know, one of the things I like most about human beings is our
capacity to be absurd and so I really liked Omar's absurdity. It was very
recognizable. It was a recognizable human characteristic.

It was kind of silly. You know, on our first day together he was handing out
leaflets and saying, you know, `Death to homosexuals, you know, homosexuality
is the deadly disease.' And he was handing out these leaflets and yelling,
`Homosexuality, the deadly disease! Homosexuality!' And nobody would take a
leaflet, so he was adapting his technique and he was saying, you know, `Beware
from homosexuality. There are homosexuals everywhere.' And still nobody
would take a leaflet, but people weren't attacking him. They were kind of
smiling. The passersby were kind of smiling benignly at him. And then
finally he told me he had a good idea, and he turned over the leaflets and
said, `Help the orphans! Help the orphans!' And so people began to accept
the leaflets. And he said to me, `Oh, this is good. This is good. You know,
Jon, if I wasn't a Muslim, I'd be working for--How do you say?--Saatchi &
Saatchi.'

So Omar had, you know, a great understanding of our world, but at the same
time was trying to destroy it.

GROSS: Another way he was just trying to destroy the world is--I mean, he
loved being in Britain, having its free speech. He could speak at Trafalgar
Square. He could hand out his leaflets. He could preach the overthrow of
Britain and the creation of an Islamic state. And, you know...

Mr. RONSON: We just let him.

GROSS: And everyone would just let him--free speech.

Mr. RONSON: Yeah.

GROSS: But he's using that free speech to destroy--his goal ultimately would
be to destroy free speech.

Mr. RONSON: And the irony wasn't lost on him. He always got his leaflets
photocopied at Office World because of their special price promise, that if
you find a photocopying service that's cheaper, then Office World will give
you a discount. And when he told me that, I just said, `Well, that's
capitalism.' He says, `Oh, yes, I benefit from your capitalism to convey the
message.' And he'd always laugh about it. You know, `What's going to happen
to me here?'

He used to be very thin, you see, and swarthy and good-looking, but now he
lives in Britain; he's fat. And he'd say to me, `Well, of course, I got fat,
because what's going to happen to me here? So I got fat. You know, when I
was living in Saudi Arabia or Syria, I was always on the run. But, oh,
nothing's going to happen to me here, so I got fat.' So he was kind of
laughing at us.

GROSS: You went with the sheik to a jihad training camp. Did you know that
that's where he was taking you?

Mr. RONSON: Yeah. He kept on mentioning his jihad training camp to me, and
I kept saying, `Well, can I come? Will you bring me?' And he'd go, `No. Oh,
no, no, no.' And then after a little while he finally relented. And I said,
`Well, where is this jihad training camp?' And he said, `It's in Crawley.' Now
Crawley is a very anonymous commuter town near Gatwick Airport. It's really
the last place in the world you'd expect to find a jihad training camp.

So I went there with him and it turned out to be a scout hut, a kind of
well-stocked scout hut in the middle of a forestry center. And all these
young jihad trainees, I guess, were kind of beating the punch bag and so on.
And the thing I remember most about our time at the jihad training camp was
Omar suddenly announcing--he hushed the room and said, `Look at me.' He said,
`Look at me with an infidel. Look at me with Jon, who is a Jew.' And the
whole room went--(gasps). And I had no idea that Omar knew I was Jewish.
I've kind of hidden my Jewishness from him.

The whole room gasped and then a voice--well, I said, `Well, surely it's
better to be a Jew than an atheist.' And this voice from the crowd said, `No,
it isn't.' And then Omar started lecturing me in front of the room. You
know, `Why do you hide it? Why do you lie? Why do you hide it?' You know,
`Be proud to be a Jew. Are you a Zionist?' And I kinda said, `Mm, not
really; yeah.' He said, `Well, if you were a Zionist, that's different. But,
you know, be proud. Be a Jew.'

And then they all surrounded me, these young--'cause they'd never met a Jew
before. And obviously I was fearful that they'd attack me, but, in fact, I
think they treated me like a tropical fish you'd find in a coral reef, you
know, this kind of strange, slightly frightening, colorful presence. And they
just kind of surrounded me and just asked me lots of questions about what it's
like to be a Jew and, you know--and at the end--I kind of figured it worked
out OK, because at the end, you know, I left with them thinking, `Well, he was
OK, so maybe the Jews are OK.'

GROSS: OK. So you were able to go with an extremist Islamic sheik who made
his home in England. You were able to go with him to a jihad training camp in
England and meet a bunch of young Islamic extremists in training who hated
Jews and leave thinking, `Well, that was a kind of interesting experience.'
And then September 11th happens. After September 11th, did you rethink all
the experiences that you had had with the sheik?

Mr. RONSON: Well, my first thought was that somehow maybe these things
weren't true. And then I thought actually...

GROSS: Wait, wait. Which things weren't true?

Mr. RONSON: Well, that there was something fake about my relationship with
Omar. Maybe he was putting it on. Maybe he was a monster disguising himself
as a laughable buffoon. But then I thought, `Well, it is all true,'
everything that happened in my year with Omar. And I spent a whole year with
him, you know, chauffeuring him about and so on. And it all happened. And
then I thought, `Well, the way that I portray Omar in the chapter is an
accurate portrayal of him,' and I think it troubled some people that I portray
him as a--you know, I portray him humanely, I think, and I portray him as a
human being and silly and laughable and I portray him in all these incongruous
ways.

And maybe the disquieting thing about it is that in light of September the
11th it's easy and possibly accurate in some ways to portray these people as
one-dimensional demons. Maybe this portrayal of him as a human being with all
the human frailties and the absurdity of a human being is a more, you know,
uncomfortably accurate portrayal of him.

And, of course, Omar Bakri isn't Osama bin Laden.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is British journalist Jon Ronson.
His new book is called "Them: Adventures with Extremists."

Now the sheik used to brag about knowing a lot of the big men in Islamic
extremism, including Osama bin Laden, and again, this was before September
11th. How did bin Laden sound to you from the sheik's descriptions of him?

Mr. RONSON: Oh, as a charismatic, warm man with amazing, penetrating blue
eyes. It's funny. When you watch that video of bin Laden talking to the
Saudi Arabian mullah, the thing I found interesting about that is the human
interaction, the interaction between the two of them. You have this mullah
kind of giggling like a schoolgirl on meeting Britney Spears, and bin Laden
acting like this kind of munificent, benevolent leader, this king, this highly
charismatic man. And that's certainly how Omar portrayed him to me, as this
kindly--and they were all impressed.

They were hugely impressed about the fact that here was a multimillionaire who
lived in a cave, even though I have my inkling that bin Laden doesn't actually
live in a cave. Because if he did, his fingernails wouldn't be that good. So
it's the sacrifice, it's the financial sacrifices that bin Laden made, I
think, make him so appealing to people. And that's certainly the way Omar
portrayed him.

GROSS: What were Sheik Omar Bakri's public comments about the attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

Mr. RONSON: Delight. He said he was delighted and excited by the attacks,
and that somebody had telephoned him and said, `The United States has come
under attack,' and he said, `This is so exciting.' And then he was arrested,
but they released him that night because he hadn't committed any crime. Being
delighted wasn't a crime.

And what I found interesting about Omar around then was that in public he was
showing great bravado and joy, but in private he seemed very scared. I'd be
talking to him on the phone and he'd say to me, `Oh, Jon, this is terrible.
They say they may deport me. They're calling me bin Laden's man in Great
Britain. Why are they calling me bin Laden's man in Great Britain?' And I
would say, `Well, because you've been calling yourself bin Laden's man in
Great Britain for years, Omar.' And he said, `Oh, Jon. Jon, why don't people
believe you when you tell them that I'm just a harmless clown? You know I'm
just a harmless clown, don't you, Jon?' So it was a kind of interesting--in
the way Omar was responding was really interesting because you'd think that
somebody would be contrite and apologetic and soft in public and then full of
great bravado in private, but Omar was actually doing the opposite.

GROSS: My guest is British journalist Jon Ronson. His new book is called
"Them: Adventures with Extremists." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is British journalist Jon Ronson. His new book, "Them,"
profiles extremists and conspiracy theorists. The first chapter is devoted to
Omar Bakri Mohammed, an Islamic extremist based in London, who before
September 11th preached holy war on Britain.

What are Sheik Omar Bakri's reactions to the way you have portrayed him?

Mr. RONSON: Well, it changes. In public he's always been outraged. I'm the
Zionist pig. He tried to demonize me, but that failed. So instead, he
ridiculed me, which I don't believe I've ever done. I don't think I ridicule
anybody in the book. I think--as I say, I portray them sometimes as absurd
and funny, but, you know, I think being absurd and unintentionally funny is
something that's good about human nature. I'm glad we have that capacity for
being absurd.

So in public Omar always responds like that. In private, it varies.
Sometimes I phone him up and he goes, `Oh, Jon, it's so lovely to hear from
you. How is my friend Jon?' Then other times I telephone him and he says,
`Yes, what do you want? Jon Ronson, what do you want?' And I figure that the
times when he's like that is because there's other people in the room.

But at the time, he liked being portrayed as a human being.

GROSS: Now you said that one of the things you wanted to do with your book,
"Them: Adventures with Extremists," is to see our world through the eyes of
extremists, to see how do they see us. So what did you learn from spending a
year with Sheik Omar Bakri about he, how he as an Islamic extremist cleric
sees you or your country or the United States?

Mr. RONSON: A lot of the extremists that I spent time with had absurd
conspiracy theories that Henry Kissinger transformed himself into a 12-foot
lizard, kind of ludicrous things. They're kind of almost talking in
metaphors. But Omar Bakri would say, `Well, look, here's a 12-year-old
Palestinian boy hiding behind his father's back for safety. And, look, there
he is getting shot by the Israeli army now.' So it was very hard to laugh at
Omar's portrayal of the Western world and what he saw as a pact between the
Zionists and the United States and Great Britain.

And, of course, he saw how he was demonized, how he was the most dangerous man
in Britain. And then he found that funny. But it made me feel how we need to
have these monsters living amongst us. At the time Omar wasn't particularly
monstrous. He was just silly, but we like to portray him as a monster.

GROSS: Do you think he got more power through that portrayal as being a
monster?

Mr. RONSON: Oh, certainly. He loved to be portrayed as this evil man. He'd
say to me, `This is great. This is great.'

There was one time when the Observer newspaper wanted to take his photograph,
so he was standing there smiling. And they'd go, `No, don't smile.' They
said to him, `Say cheese. Say tease. Say tease.' He said, `What? You want
me to show my teeth? And you want me to do this for you?' And he kind of
gnarled his fingers like a Nosferatu vampire, and they took a photograph of
him and they printed it in the newspaper. He said, `I was joking with them.
I was joking with them, and look, look what they do.' But he loved it
because, of course, the Observer says he's the most dangerous man in Britain.
And people say, `Ah, well, he sounds very interesting. We should study with
his group.' So, of course, he loved that portrayal.

It works both ways, you see; the demonization works both ways.

GROSS: But maybe he really was the most dangerous man in Britain, in part,
because he knew bin Laden and he knew all the other major Islamic extremists
and he had his own training school in England and he was doing a decent job of
training recruits for jihad. So maybe you were the one who got it wrong;
maybe he really was dangerous and you missed that.

Mr. RONSON: Well, I don't think I don't portray him as dangerous; I think I
portray him as complex. And towards the end of the book he was putting up
posters, saying `The final hour will not come until the Muslims kill the
Jews,' and his cell phone number was at the bottom of the posters.

So I don't think I portrayed Omar just as a joker, I think I portrayed him
accurately as the complicated mixture of the burlesque and the chilling that
he actually is.

GROSS: Jon Ronson, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RONSON: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.

GROSS: Jon Ronson is the author of the new book "Them: Adventures with
Extremists."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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

Profile: Remembering Rick Madden, founding director of Radio
Program Fund
TERRY GROSS, host:

We close on a sad note today, with the news of the death of someone very
important in the public radio world, Rick Madden. He was the founding
director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Radio Program Fund. He
played a major role in the creation of many radio programs, including the
national launch of FRESH AIR. Last May he won public radio's highest honor,
the Edward R. Murrow award. The president of CPB, Bob Coonrod, said, `Madden
personified public radio. He pushed it to pursue larger imperatives, to do
more for more people. He celebrated radio's mission and took tremendous pride
in its public purpose.'

We'll close with music Rick loved, Gilbert and Sullivan.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: For he's going and married Yum-Yum.

Chorus: Yum-Yum!

Unidentified Woman #1: Your anger pray bury, for all will be merry, I think
you had better succumb.

Chorus: Cumb--cumb!

Unidentified Woman #1: And join our expressions of glee.

Unidentified Man #1: On this subject I pray you be dumb.

Chorus: Dumb--dumb!

Unidentified Man #1: Your notions, though many, are not worth a penny. The
word for your guidance is `mum.'

Chorus: Mum--mum!

Unidentified Man #1: You've a very good bargain in me.

Chorus: On this subject I pray you be dumb. Dumb--dumb. I think you had
better succumb. Cumb--cumb. You'll find there are many who'll wed for a
penny, who'll wed for a penny. There's lots of good fish in the sea! The
fish, the fish in the sea. There are lots of good fish, the fish in the sea,
there are lots of good fish, the fish in the sea, the sea, the sea, the sea,
the sea.

Unidentified Man #2: The threatened cloud had passed away.

Unidentified Woman #2: And brightly shines the dawning day.

Unidentified Man #2: What though night may come too soon...

Unidentified Woman #2: ...we've years and years of afternoon.

Chorus and Unidentified Woman and Man #2: Then let the throng our joy advance
with laughing and song and joy and merry dance. Song and joy and dancing,
song and joy and dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing. With laughing song.
With joyous shout and ringing cheer. Inaugurate our new career.
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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