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Comedian Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman: Turning Ignorance Into Comedy.

Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for delivering closely observed social commentary in a disarming, politically incorrect style. She tells stories about her childhood and her career in a new memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee.

21:37

Other segments from the episode on April 22, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 22, 2010: Interview with Sarah Silverman; Interview with Duff Wilson; Review of Merle Haggard's album "I am What I am."

Transcript

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Sarah Silverman: Turning Ignorance Into Comedy

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Not everyone likes my guest, comic Sarah Silverman. Her fearless social comedy
turns off some people but has also won her devoted fans. On the surface, her
comedy may seem offensive to Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, gay people, you
name it, but that's because she's in persona as someone who is clueless,
uninformed but certain in their beliefs.

Her Comedy Central series, "The Sarah Silverman Program," had its season finale
last week. It was the third and perhaps final season, but is available as
downloads.

Silverman is often the high point of award shows. She won an Emmy in 2008 for
her video, whose title I can't say on the air, so I'll just call it "I'm
Bleeping Matt Damon." It was first shown on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" and went
viral on the Internet.

Not being shy about herself, Sarah Silverman has titled her new memoir "The
Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee." A little later, we'll talk
about the bedwetting problems that plagued her when she was growing up.

Let's start with a clip from "The Sarah Silverman Program." Sarah is in a
restaurant, at a table with her sister Laura, who is played by Silverman's real
sister Laura, and Laura's husband, Officer Jay McPherson, who is played by Jay
Johnston.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Sarah Silverman Program")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JAY JOHNSTON (Actor): (As Jay McPherson) Did you tell Sarah the news?

Ms. LAURA SILVERMAN (Actor): (As Laura Silverman) Oh, it's nothing.

Mr. JOHNSTON: (As Jay) Nothing? What, have you flipped your lid or something?
Come on, tell her.

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) Well, I'm creating a Holocaust memorial for Valley
Village.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Jay) How adorable is that?

Ms. SARAH SILVERMAN (Actor): (As Sarah Silverman) Why would you have a memorial
for something that never happened?

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) That's not funny, Sarah. You know, a joke like
that just demonstrates that you don't understand what it really means to be a
Jew.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Sarah) I think I know what it means to be Jewish, Laura.
Check this out. Excuse me, these pancakes are ishy.

Mr. JOHNSTON: (As Jay) Laura is right. You really should be more interested in
the Holocaust. I mean, I'm not even a Jew, and I love the Holocaust – uh, love
reading about it because it's so interesting and stuff, the things that
happened.

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) You know, you should really think about becoming
more invested in our history. You know, there's a great class that you could
take...

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Sarah) Oh, Yawn Kippur. You know, Laura, I am getting
extremely bored at you, and I will not tolerate it, never again.

GROSS: Sarah Silverman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I have to ask you, are
you good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I'm good for the Jews, I believe.

GROSS: How do you know? How do you know?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I think that whenever a Jew has any kind of notoriety, good
or bad, the Jews find it to be good. You know, it's like - you know Son of Sam?
Jewish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: You know, so I think Jews tend to hold me in fairly high
regard. I don't think that I – you know, and also because Jews tend to be able
to take a joke. You know, it's kind of like there's a difference between...

GROSS: When it's coming from Jewish people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, or it's good-hearted.

GROSS: I want to play another example of your humor, and this was, the people
might remember in the 2008 presidential campaign that in support of Barack
Obama you did a video called "The Great Schlep" to get out the older Jewish
vote in Florida, and the excerpt we'll play explains the premise of "The Great
Schlep." So here it is. This is Sarah Silverman.

(Soundbite of video, "The Great Schlep")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: If Barack Obama doesn't become the next president of the
United States, I'm going to blame the Jews. I am, and I know you're saying,
like, oh my God, Sarah, I can't believe you're saying this. Jews are the most
liberal, scrappy, civil-rightsy people there are.

Yes, that's true, but you're forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are
not that way, and they go by several aliases: Nana, Papa, Zaidie, Bubby, plain
old Grandma and Grandpa. These are the people who vote in Florida, and the
Florida vote can make or break an election.

If you don't think that's true, who don't you think back to two elections ago,
when a little man named Al Gore got (bleep) by Florida? I'm making this video
to urge you, all of you, to schlep over to Florida and convince your
grandparents to vote Obama.

GROSS: So that's Sarah Silverman, and by the way, she has a new book called
"The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee." So what kind of
reaction did you actually get from the two audiences that this was aimed at,
the grandchildren who were supposed to convince their grandparents to vote, and
the grandparents who were supposed to be convinced to vote for Obama?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: You know what? It was universally positive. It really was. I
don't remember...

GROSS: Wow, have you ever had anything that was universally positive before?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: No, no. And you know what? I mean, I said stuff like: Get off
your fat Jewish asses. And you know what I mean? And like I made – but I guess
you're right. Coming from a Jew, you know, it eases the blow, but I think that
ultimately people like to be seen, even if it's not in the most beautiful
light, you know, I think, and I think it's a culture that has a dark humor and
has a humor about itself in general.

GROSS: Okay, so you've titled your book "The Bedwetter," and some of your book
is devoted to the fact that when you were young, you used to wet your bed just
about every night, which was a horrible humiliation for you, particularly for,
like, sleepover parties, camping trips. How long did this last?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: You know, I was a bedwetter until I was about 15, and it was
humiliating. You know, I was sent to sleepover camp since I was six, and you
know, it's a recipe for disaster. But, you know, I guess the silver lining is
there's not much to lose after that in life, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I think, you know, doing stand-up when I got a little older,
the prospect of bombing was like - who cares? You know?

GROSS: As long as you're not peeing on stage accidentally.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Please, yeah.

GROSS: So what did you do to cover up when you were young, and you were going
to sleepover parties or summer camp?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: A lot of it was just denial. I think I pretended it didn't
happen more often than not. You know, at camp I would just make my bed over it.
I would take my clothes off and put it deep into the hamper, and I probably
reeked of pee.

At sleepovers, I would kind of pinch myself awake and try to not drink anything
too late and just go to the bathroom as much as I could. But, you know, when
you pinch yourself awake all night, eventually your body gives in when you're a
little girl and you fall asleep even deeper than ever. So it was usually
unfruitful – or fruitful in a bad way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did it make you feel out of control - something so fundamental that you
couldn't control? Did it make you think that you were just out of control of
your body in general?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah, I think so. That's interesting. I mean, it was
frustrating to have something that I couldn't control. It was – you know, I was
a hairy kid, you know, with hairy arms and hairy legs because I wasn't allowed
to, you know, shave my legs yet. And it was so different than everybody else.

I grew up in a very blonde, L.L. Bean kind of New England town, and so the
things that were frustrating were things I couldn't control, and that's
probably the way it is for everybody to a degree.

GROSS: So you tell a great story in the book about when you were – I think you
were, like, in high school or something, you were watching "The Tonight Show"
with Johnny Carson, and a comic comes on, a woman comic, who's talking about
bedwetting. And you talk about the impact that had on you. Can you tell that
story?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: It actually wasn't a comedian but an actress.

GROSS: An actress, yeah.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Her name was Jane Badler, and she was an actress going on
Johnny Carson to talk about a miniseries she was in called "V," which
coincidentally is now a series that they've revamped.

And she was beautiful, and my mom got excited. She sat with me to watch it
because she said this woman had been a Miss New Hampshire once. So it was
exciting for us, you know, and there was like a connection. Here's this woman
who had been Miss New Hampshire and she's on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny
Carson.

And we're watching her, and she very cavalierly talked about being a bedwetter
as a child, and I – it was like the Earth stood still. I couldn't believe it,
you know, and I - this thing that I was sure would be my deepest, darkest
secret of my life was something that was an anecdote for her, that life went on
for her, and she was even beautiful and, you know, an actress on television and
on Johnny Carson. And it wasn't dirty that she said it, and it wasn't – no
one's head exploded, and it kind of blew my mind. My head exploded.

GROSS: I have a question that's maybe much to personal, but – so you can tell
me it's too personal, and then I'll drop it.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Okay.

GROSS: So after you got over the bedwetting part of your life, you discovered -
not too long after that you discovered sex and liked it and had lots of it with
lots of people. And would it be going too far to suggest that the part of your
body that caused you the most humiliation then became a part of your body that
gave you a lot of pleasure, connected you to men, opened up, like, a different
world?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I think I definitely, at the time, associated it with power.
You know, and that is such a neat point that I would never have thought of, but
yeah, the part of me that caused so much pain and was so, I was so unable to
control, became the part of me that controlled, was able to kind of control
others.

I think I also just developed so late that by the time I became, like, a sexual
being, I was already a comedian, so it was – even though I wasn't known at all,
I was in a comedy community where I got around a little for a couple years. But
I don't regret it. I really loved it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I got it out of my system.

GROSS: My guest is Sarah Silverman, and she's a comic. She has a Comedy Central
show, "The Sarah Silverman Show." Now she has a new book called "The Bedwetter:
Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee." Let's take a short break here, and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Silverman, and she has a
new book called "The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee." In
your book, you write about how before you were born your parents had a baby who
died as an infant. The baby was staying over at your grandparents' house and
got accidentally strangled in the crib, by the way it...

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, it was a faulty crib, and yeah. He – it had broken, and
the baby had slipped down into the corner and had suffocated in that space.

GROSS: A really horrible thing. Did your parents talk to you about this as a
child?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: You know what? Maybe they did. The way I remember it is my
oldest sister, Susan, who was older than Jeffrey, she knew the story, and we
were all very young and she kind of told my sister Laura and I, told it to us
almost like a ghost story. You know, we were kids.

And that chapter's actually called "The First Time I Bombed" because it's about
how, you know, my father taught me how to swear when I was little, and I saw
how adults would be shocked but give me – you know, I got approval from it. And
it was addicting.

You know, I saw this way that I could get approval, and I killed all the time,
you know, as a very young kid. And I call that chapter "The First Time I
Bombed" because my sister told us the story of Jeffrey, and shortly after, my
grandmother, who picked us up for our Sunday breakfast at a local diner, and
she said, everybody buckle up, and I - thinking I was going to kill, I said,
yeah, we don't want to wind up like Jeffrey. And just silence. And my sisters
turned and looked at me like I was crazy, and my grandmother just burst into
tears, which I had never seen before, and I thought - what did I do, you know?

GROSS: That interested me so much, since so much about your humor is about
saying things that seem horribly inappropriate and potentially offensive, but
it's not personal in the way that this is. I mean, your grandparents felt so
guilty because the baby died at their home. And so this was hurtful in a way
that your humor now is not. What did you learn from that experience?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I think, you know, I've been called edgy, but you know, in
all honestly, I think that there is a safety in what I do because I'm always
the idiot. And unless you're listening to the buzz words and not really taking
into account the context or the content of it, you see that I’m always the
idiot always, the ignoramus in the scenario. So no matter what I talk about or
what tragic event or, you know, off-color, dark scenario is evoked in my
material, I'm always the idiot in it, you know.

GROSS: Because your persona is the idiot, yeah.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Whereas I guess in the car you were really behaving like an idiot, as
opposed to being in the persona of an idiot.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, well, I was five.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I was five and had been taught repeatedly that saying bad
things was adorable and appreciated. So it was the first time I was - kind of
had the first adult though of there are consequences to my words.

GROSS: I want to next play a clip of you on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" and precede
this by saying I was sad, as probably a lot of fans of yours - and fans of
yours who are also friends of Jimmy Kimmel were sad - when you split up. You
know, you feel sort of like, oh, two people I really like are together, isn't
that nice? And then, like, oh no, they're split up. Oh, how sad, you know.

And so I can imagine it's probably very uncomfortable to have a relationship in
the public spotlight like that. But you both did something so funny with it.
You were on his show – you'd been on his show several times when you were a
couple, and then after you split you were on his show, and everybody, I'm sure,
would be thinking, oh, this is going to be so uncomfortable, and boy, did you
use that to effect. So let me play the excerpt of you on Jimmy Kimmel after you
had both split up. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live!")

Mr. JIMMY KIMMEL (Host): So how are things?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Good, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIMMEL: What have you been up to? Everything good?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, everything's been great, really, really great. And
you're good?

Mr. KIMMEL: Good, yeah.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Good.

Mr. KIMMEL: Nothing, you know, just doing the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIMMEL: So how'd you get interested in acting?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I just, you know, I was, like, I was the class clown and, you
know, the kind of funny one in my family.

Mr. KIMMEL: You know, I've been reading a lot about you. I read that you
started in, like, community theater in your hometown.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah.

Mr. KIMMEL: What was that like?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I just think that's really great. Sarah Silverman, how did you and Jimmy
Kimmel decide to do that together on his show?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Well, like you said, we wanted to take advantage of the stuff
we couldn't necessarily control, which was that, you know, people were aware of
our private, you know, private stuff, and yeah, we took advantage of it, you
know. I don't know, it's just what you would imagine, you know.

But, you know, it was – we did use – we had a source to pull from for our
awkwardness with each other, certainly.

GROSS: So can I ask you a personal question? Do you want to have children?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Probably. I love children. I'm embarrassingly baby-crazy. I
could be in the middle of any intense conversation, and if somebody walks by
with a baby, I'm gone, you know, just – but you know, I really, I want to do it
when it's kind of all I want, and I don't – you know, I think that I could have
a baby or have children and still have a rich life filled with other things,
but I really want to do it when it's kind of the most important thing to me.

And also, you know, I'm – I'm not going to have a baby. You know, I happen to
think that there are already tons of perfectly good babies out there already
born, and I don't necessarily need to see a little me and, like, do it right
this time. I'm already trying to do it right this time with me.

You know, so I can see myself adopting. I'm not in a rush to do it. I'm 39, I
know, but when I think about having kids of my own, I think, you know what, the
older I am, as long as I can lift them and be alive for the big parts, I
probably will be, have more patience and be able to be a better parent at
young-grandparent age. I don't know, I'm going with it because I'm 39 and not
ready, but I do love kids, and I'm very good – I've got a lot of really good
moves.

Like, a three-year-old girl that's age around three to five or six, I've got a
really great move. This is what I do. I go: I'm going to tell you something,
but you can't tell anybody - and I know you're not supposed to tell kids to
keep secrets, but that's part of the rebellion.

And then they go okay, and I say: I'm a princess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: But I dress normal because I want people to treat me regular.
And their brains explode. It's really fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of reactions do you get?

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Oh my god, their eyes go so wide. It's really – and I went
really far with it with my friends Sam and Nicki's daughter. I did that whole
thing where I say I'm a princess and don't tell anybody, and I said when I come
visit you in New York, I have some of my old princess stuff that doesn't fit me
anymore. Would you be interested in it? Yes, yes I would.

So I came to New York, and there's, like, this huge Halloween store on 4th and
Broadway that used to be a Tower Records, and I went there and I bought a bunch
of three-year-old, you know, size three little girl princess stuff, and I took
it out of the package and mussed it up and put it in a trash bag and brought it
over. It's the little pleasures.

GROSS: Sarah Silverman, it's been great to talk with you. Thanks you so much.

Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Thank you so much. It's always exciting to be on FRESH AIR
with Terry Gross because I'm an avid listener and fan.

GROSS: Sarah Silverman's new memoir is called "The Bedwetter." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.
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New FDA Regulations Could Change Smokers' Habits

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Last summer, Congress passed the Tobacco
Control Act that will, for the first time, allow the federal government to
regulate the tobacco industry. It puts tobacco products under the authority of
the Food and Drug Administration. New regulations and restrictions are on their
way. Also, cities and states across the country have been enacting indoor
smoking bans, so tobacco companies have come up with new smokeless products so
people can get their nicotine fix indoors.

One new nicotine product looks and tastes like little candies. Just this week,
the Harvard School of Public Health released a report warning that these
products pose the risk of serious nicotine poisoning for children who eat them,
thinking they're just candies. We’ll hear about these new developments in a
minute.

Reports about the health dangers of cigarettes first began appearing in the
1950s. Reader’s Digest published a widely read article titled “Cancer by the
Carton.” The following year, cigarettes sales declined for the first time.
Cigarette advertising was one of the subjects in the premier episode of “Mad
Men,” about an ad agency in the early ‘60s.

Let’s hear a scene from that episode. The head of creative for the agency, Don
Draper, is designing a new ad campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes and responds
to the health care scare. He's making his pitch to the father and son who own
Lucky Strike.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Mad Men”)

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (as Don Draper) Gentlemen, the Federal Trade Commission
and Reader’s Digest have done you a favor. They've let you know that any ad
that brings up the concept of cigarettes and health together, well, it's just
going to make people think of cancer.

Mr. JOHN CULLUM (Actor): (as Lee Garner Sr.) Yes, and we are grateful to them.

Mr. HAMM: (as Jon Draper) But what Lee Jr. said is right. If you can't make
those health claims. Neither can your competitors.

Mr. CULLUM: (as Lee Garner Sr.) So, we got a lot of people not saying anything
that sells cigarettes.

Mr. HAMM: (as Jon Draper) Not exactly. This is the greatest advertising
opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies
making six identical products. We can say anything we want. How do you make
your cigarettes?

Mr. CULLUM: (as Lee Garner Sr.) We breed insect-repellant tobacco seeds. Plant
them in the North Carolina sunshine. Grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it...

Mr. HAMM: (as Jon Draper) There you go.

Mr. DARREN PETTIE (Actor): (as Lee Garner Jr.) But everybody else's tobacco's
toasted.

Mr. HAMM: (as Jon Draper) No. Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky
Strike is toasted.

GROSS: That’s Jon Hamm in a scene from the AMC’s series “Mad Men.”

Our guest, Duff Wilson, covers business and the tobacco industry for The New
York Times. He talked about new smokeless tobacco products and new tobacco
regulations with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well Duff Wilson, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in June, while
all of us were focused on health care reform and other issues, there was
actually this very important piece of tobacco legislation enacted by Congress.
What does it do?

Mr. DUFF WILSON (Journalist, The New York Times): It regulates cigarette
products and tobacco for the first time in history. They’ve always been totally
exempt from regulation basically, as a food or a drug, because of a Supreme
Court decision about 10 or 12 years ago. So finally the government can require
tobacco companies to disclose what’s actually in those cigarettes and it can
regulate the contents of them.

DAVIES: Right. And so now the Food and Drug Administration, right, the FDA...

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...will have this under their purview. And you say for the first time,
they’ll actually have to tell us what’s in cigarettes? We haven't known that up
tell now?

Mr. WILSON: That’s right. We haven't known that. They won’t have to tell us.
The cigarette companies will have to tell the FDA. And then they may try to
protect some of that as trade secrets, but it gives the FDA something to try to
regulate. You know, like not only the nicotine levels but all the other
additives that they have in cigarettes.

DAVIES: Did this bill have specific provisions regarding say, marketing and
advertising of their products?

Mr. WILSON: Yeah it did. It rolls out a few important provisions really. One of
the main ones is they can no longer say they're light, mild or low tar
cigarettes as of June 22nd this year. It was amazing to me to learn that these
light and mild, so-called cigarettes, are just as dangerous as the regular full
strength cigarettes, because people tend to inhale them deeper and hold them
longer and to take more puffs per cigarette, all to satisfy that nicotine
addiction.

DAVIES: Now is there a ban on advertising in color here? I mean is there some
specific provision regarding their advertising?

Mr. WILSON: Yes. Their advertising is supposed to be black and white text only.
No colors, no images, except inside tobacco stores where kids aren't allowed or
in adult reader magazines. So they're really trying to remove the color
advertising that can be seen, let say, from the street, outside the, you know,
the corner bodega or convenient store.

There’s a further provision that would not allow any of those signs within a
thousand feet of a school or playground.

DAVIES: There's a much more visible warning label requirement with this new law
as well?

Mr. WILSON: Yes. That’s one of the major changes we're going to see is
cigarette packs, instead of that little warning that the surgeon general says,
are going to have to be half covered, half the pack covered with a graphic
warning label, including images. So we're probably going to see images of lung
cancer and lip cancer and those kind of awful pictures that you see in some
advertising nowadays in Canada and other countries. They're supposed to go in
effect in 2013, so it’s a ways off. And this packaging image, if you will, like
the disease pictures on the pack, are going to be fiercely opposed, really, in
the courts and we’ll see which way the courts go.

DAVIES: Wow. You know, I want to talk about some other provisions and some
other trends in the industry. But I have to ask you, first, where did the
impetus for these tough new regulations come from? You know, I think a lot of
us, you know, and I'm sure, I know they were reported on but a lot of us may
not have been paying close attention.

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Where did the political momentum for these changes come from?

Mr. WILSON: Politically, I think it kind of came from Henry Waxman in the House
and Ted Kennedy in the Senate. It came from 1994 hearings in Congress, when
those tobacco executives for the seven large companies testified under oath
that tobacco - or that cigarettes - were not addictive, not harmful and that
they had not been targeting kids.

And so Henry Waxman, the Chairman of the House Committee, he told me recently -
after that whistle blower started coming out and industry documents were leaked
out, he said after those executives, you know, lied before the whole American
public in a Congressional hearing. A couple of years after that hearing in
1996, the FDA tried to assert its own authority cigarettes and say they were a
drug delivery device and that nicotine was a drug. That was appealed, and the
Supreme Court knocked that down by a five to four vote saying that they needed
special congressional authority. So it’s taken from ’96 until last year – 13
years – to get that congressional authority.

DAVIES: And how much of a factor was the election of Barack Obama, himself a
smoker who has struggled to quit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: You’re right, that was a big factor. I think having a Democratic,
you know, House and Senate and Obama in the White House. President Bush was not
a big supporter of this proposal. In fact, it only passed the Senate by a two-
vote margin last year in one of those filibuster votes.

DAVIES: We're speaking with New York Times business reporter Duff Wilson.

We’ll take a short break and then we’ll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we're talking about new regulations on
tobacco enacted by Congress and soon to come from the Food and Drug
Administration. We're speaking with New York Times business reporter Duff
Wilson.

I wanted to talk about some of the new products that tobacco industry has come
up with. One of them are these products that are called snus. What are they?

Mr. WILSON: Snus is a spit-free, kind of, tobacco-filled pouch. Kind of like a
tea bag, but smaller, that the user is supposed put inside their upper lip to
get a nicotine hit without, you know, having to spit like they do on the
baseball games and the cowboy movies.

DAVIES: And how long have they been around?

Mr. WILSON: Snus is hardly even around now. It’s only been test marketed in a
few cities and it’s supposedly going to national distribution by one or two of
the companies now. I don’t think you can really find it very easily at stores,
but they have hopes that it will grow.

DAVIES: Now the other product that I've heard about are dissolvable tobacco
products.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

DAVIES: Tell us about those.

Mr. WILSON: The major one is from R.J. Reynolds. It’s called Camel Orbs. And
again, it also comes in a mint flavor as well as regular, and they look kind of
like Tic-Tacs. They come in a box kind of that size and they're these little
pellets that are dissolvable nicotine. Sorry Dave, I haven't tried one and I
don’t really want to yet, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: ...they’re what anti-smoking groups for kids are really concerned
about. The youth smoking opponents are really concerned that those Camel Orbs
and similar dissolvable products are going to be, you know, attractive for kids
because they look and sometimes taste a little bit like candy.

DAVIES: Now, I guess one of the big questions about these new smokeless tobacco
products is whether they are safer. What do we know about that?

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Safer than cigarettes. I mean you don’t get it in your lungs, I guess,
right?

Mr. WILSON: Oh yes. Yes. Absolutely. The actual product itself is much less
harmful than a cigarette, 90 to 99 percent less harmful, I think most people
would agree. So the issue on it is whether it encourages more people to start
down the path of cigarettes, as this kind of a gateway product or actually
helps more cigarette smokers who would otherwise be hurting themselves to hurt
themselves less.

DAVIES: But I guess the serious health issue that some are raising is whether
they're making this product, which as, you know, in some cases can look awfully
appealing and somewhat like candy, they can make it, you know, that much easier
for a young person to get started on.

Mr. WILSON: Right. And they can also make it easier for current smokers to
continue smoking and get around the fresh air laws so to speak. You know,
there’s three things that have been proven to help people quit. And smoking in
this country has gone done over - since the surgeon general’s report in 1964 -
from 42 percent of adults to less than half of that under 20 percent. So we're
making headways on less smoking but we're still at 20 percent of adults.

Three things are proven to help encourage people to quit. Number one, high
prices and so, the governments both state and federal are taxing cigarettes at
a very level and the prices have gone up. It’s very price sensitive. The second
one is these fresh air or indoor air laws, now expanding I guess, to some
sidewalks in New York. But that really has encouraged more people to quit
because it’s kind of stigmatized smoking. And the third one is education and
knowledge about the dangers of smoking.

But these new products that we're talking about, the snus and the orbs and the
rest of it, are really directly a way around the indoor air laws that’s been a
very important component of the quit smoking movement.

DAVIES: What do the statistics tell us about how often smokers try to quit and
how likely they are to succeed?

Mr. WILSON: Nicotine’s really hard to quit. It’s really hard to quit smoking
especially if you start young. The statistics say that a lot of people try,
though. Like 45 percent of smokers try every year – every 12 months. Almost
half of smokers try to quit but only two and a half percent succeed per year.
So it’s very hard to quit and anything that can be done to help people quit,
whether it’s let’s say the carrot of a nicotine replacement product or the
stick of a stigma in indoor smoking bans, you know, has encourage more people
to quit.

DAVIES: Only two and a half percent succeeding in quitting is a pretty striking
number. Which raises a question about the, you know, the future of whether
we're really going to get people off of cigarettes. How does the public health
community view these smokeless products?

Mr. WILSON: They’re sharply divided over smokeless products and the so-called
reduced harm products. It’s the most divided or divisive issue in the public
health community because a lot of scientists and doctors that have battled
smoking for decades say hey, these are much safer than cigarettes. Let’s
encourage these reduced harm products. And others say indoor air laws, for
instance, are a good way to get people to quit smoking. And if you give them an
alternative like a, you know, a pouch or a, you know, oral tobacco product
during the work day, then they’ll keep smoking outside of it.

DAVIES: Now there’s a major case that could be reviewed by the Supreme Court
dealing with the industry’s marketing of so-called light cigarettes are
healthier. But there’s a longstanding action by, I guess, the Justice
Department, that they sued the tobacco companies for their past marketing of
this. So tell us what that case is about and what the stakes are.

Mr. WILSON: The Justice Department sued nine leading cigarette companies for
racketeering, conspiracy, fraud, lying about the risk of cigarettes, lying
about marketing to kids, the whole nine yards. They sued all these companies in
the Clinton administration, I think. And then, a federal judge convicted the
tobacco companies of racketeering for all that activity in 2006. She said some
really harsh things about the tobacco company’s deceptive marketing and that’s
been on appeal. It was recently upheld by a court of appeals and now both the
tobacco companies and the Department of Justice have appealed this case to the
Supreme Court.

The tobacco companies want the racketeering conviction overturned. They don’t
want to be called racketeers. The Department of Justice wants to have the power
to force them to disgorge past profits, over $200 billion in past profits.
They're asking for the authority to force the cigarette companies to disgorge
it because they were profits from an allegedly racketeering enterprise.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. WILSON: So there’s high stakes. The Supreme Court hasn’t announced yet if
it’ll take the case, although that announcement may come within the next month
or two.

DAVIES: So this would be a criminal conviction of big tobacco?

Mr. WILSON: It is a conviction under the racketeering law that’s mostly used
for organized crime figures. Yes. It’s a criminal conviction and they can be
called racketeers, which they don’t like.

DAVIES: Right. And when this happens to mob bosses they go to prison. No
tobacco executives are going to be in the dark, are they?

Mr. WILSON: No. No. There’s no prison proposed here at all. It was mostly used
as a way to get all this evidence into the public arena about the deceptive
marketing and the light cigarettes and then to convict them as corporations.
They're not being convicted as, you know, individual executives.

DAVIES: Okay. So that is, the current rulings have upheld the racketeering
conviction and the huge fine, and it may or may not be decided ultimately by
the Supreme Court.

Mr. WILSON: Yes. The latest appeals court ruling upheld that racketeering
conviction. It may or may not be heard by the Supreme Court and while the
companies are trying to reverse the racketeering conviction, the Department of
Justice is trying to push it even harder than they did years ago and to force
them to give back over $200 billion in past profits.

If that happens somehow, it could bankrupt the companies, so business analysts
think that's very unlikely that the court would allow all the tobacco companies
to be bankrupted and have to give back all their past profits, just from a
practical view. Because a lot of this goes back to a practical consideration of
do we want to try to ban cigarettes or to have a prohibition on cigarettes? And
that didn’t work very well with alcohol and few people want to actually do it
with cigarettes.

You know, you’ve got tens of millions of addicted customers and they're going
to find some way to satisfy that addiction whether it’s with a black market or
legally through convenient stores, like they do now.

DAVIES: Well, I'm sure you'll be keeping track of it. Duff Wilson, thanks so
much for speaking with us.

Mr. WILSON: Thanks for having me, Dave.

GROSS: Duff Wilson spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Wilson covers
the tobacco industry for The New York Times. You'll find links to all of
Wilson’s stories about the tobacco industry on our website freshair.npr.org.

Here’s an old cigarette song sung by Abbey Lincoln.

(Soundbite of song, “Two Cigarettes in the Dark”)

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Jazz vocalist, songwriter, and actress): (Singing) Two, two
cigarettes in the dark. He strikes a match 'til the spark, clearly traces one
face is my sweetheart. Two, two silhouettes in a room. Almost obscured by the
gloom. We were so close yet so far apart. It happened that...

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Merle Haggard’s new album.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
..COST:
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*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
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..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
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..SGMT:
Merle Haggard: A Gruff Voice Filled With Vitality

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Merle Haggard’s new album is called, “I Am What I Am,” a phrase that recalls
the pugnaciousness of the cartoon character “Popeye.” But rock critic Ken
Tucker says that this new album is neither combative or passively nostalgic.
Instead, it’s a collection of new songs – all of them written by Haggard – that
proves how thoughtful the 83-year-old country star remains.

(Soundbite of song, “I Am What I Am”)

Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) I'm no longer a
fugitive and I'm not on the lam. I'm just around. I am what I am. I do what I
do...

KEN TUCKER: The relaxed, utterly confident twists in the phrasing Merle Haggard
uses throughout his new album, “I Am What I Am,” proves that he is what he is,
a country-music star who takes great pleasure in Western swing, train songs and
the blues. He's made an album that's in his comfort zone for a 83-year-old, but
he's a senior citizen bringing fresh takes on old romantic themes. Two new
songs he's written frame the idea of love, both new and old.

(Soundbite of song, “Pretty When It's New”)

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) Love’s always lovely when first two lovers meet. Hand in
hand, arm in arm, walking down the street. Always seen together in everything
they do. Love is always pretty when it’s new.

TUCKER: On that jaunty little shuffle called "Pretty When It's New," Haggard
gives us a wink of reality in the midst of a lovely reverie about the pleasure
of a new love affair. There's nothing bad about it 'til your lover says we're
through, he croons, letting the dance floor fall out from under you just as
you're ready to keep waltzing to that pretty rhythm. At the other end of the
spectrum, Haggard creates a vision of what love is like when a lover never says
it's through, and the years go by.

(Soundbite of song, "We're Falling in Love Again")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) We're falling in love again after all these years. We're
smiling for real again after all these tears. Somehow life took its toll and
caused us to frown and the weight on our shoulders took us all the way down.
But the children are grown now...

TUCKER: That’s a beautiful song on many levels. What's most immediately
striking is the gentle ache in Haggard's voice, the way he reaches for a higher
note in a manner that echoes the narrator reaching back into the history of the
relationship he's singing about. The lyric is shrewd as well. You're not quite
sure whether the narrator is falling in love again with his wife because of
difficulties they've survived, or are simply entering a new cycle of closeness.

There's rock-solid craftsmanship behind this music. Haggard has written or co-
written every song on the new album and it's striking the way he can come at
familiar themes from different angles. A prime example of this is a song in
which the ornery coot compares himself not to an outlaw or to a stubborn
cowboy, but to a bad actor incapable of disguising his true feelings in the
moment.

(Soundbite of song, "Bad Actor")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) I’ve never been much at making believe. Don’t have any
tricks hidden up my sleeve. If life is a comedy where’s all the laughter?
‘Cause here on the stage I'm a bad actor. I don’t know...

TUCKER: On songs like "Bad Actor" and the title song I played at the start of
this review, Merle Haggard surrounds his gruff voice and delicate phrasing with
acoustic guitar, piano and the gentlest of drums to create music that courses
with vitality. This is not the work of an old man basking in his past glories;
it's the music of an artist who refuses to let you dismiss him as an old man -
an artist whose time isn't even close to being up.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Merle
Haggard’s new album, “I Am What I Am.”

You can stream Haggard’s new album in its entirety on nprmusic.org where you
can also hear individual tracks from the album.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
..COST:
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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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