DATE April 30, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Al Franken discusses his new book, which spoofs
how-to-succeed books, and his career over the years
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If you're looking for some bad advice, look no further than satirist Al
Franken's new book, "Oh, the Things I Know! A Guide to Success, or, Failing
That, Happiness." It's a spoof of cradle-to-grave advice books. Franken is
one of the original members of the "Saturday Night Live" writing team and
worked as a writer and cast member on and off until 1985. His book, "I'm Good
Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me" was written in the
voice of his "Saturday Night Live" character Stuart Smalley and spoofed the
His best-seller, "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations"
satirized conservative pundits and politicians. In the book "Why Not Me?"
Franken satirized presidential campaigns. He's done political humor for The
Comedy Channel and "Politically Incorrect," and has performed at White House
Correspondents Dinner. He's also a popular after-dinner speaker.
Have you been traveling around a lot, giving speeches, since September 11th?
I mean, have you been on the road much?
Mr. AL FRANKEN (Satirist): I have. I do especially a lot of corporate
speaking, believe it or not. I speak to--you know, I'm a fairly well-known
Democrat. I've been on your show when I did the book, you know, "Rush
Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," but I speak to a lot of corporations which are
usually two-thirds, three-quarters Republican. But what I've discovered is
that Democrats can't afford me. So I speak to these--and I tell them that,
and then they laugh and they feel good about themselves, because they feel
rich. And then I make fun of them and they laugh and they pay me.
So yeah, I've been speaking since 9/11, and the first six weeks was--first of
all, a lot of people canceled conferences. People were afraid to travel and
they just didn't feel it was a good idea. And then I started doing them where
people from--the organizers would say, `Can you do what you'd normally talk
about and politics and stuff, but can you not mention 9/11?' And I'd go,
like, you know, `You better just get like a really funny juggler or something,
because I can't not talk about it.' And they went `Oh, OK, yeah, you're
And you can talk about--you know, the first thing I was able to talk about was
Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Jerry Falwell on September 13th was on
"The 700 Club" and blamed 9/11 on various Americans, including gays and
lesbians and people who want to secularize, you know, the country, and Pat
Robertson said, `I concur.' And I remember Falwell said that he had been
quoted out of context. And I found the quote and the only way he could have
been quoted out of context was if it had been preceded with `I'd have to be a
nut to say.' And...
Mr. FRANKEN: So he gave comedians, or at least me, something to talk about.
And, you know, I found that people just--Americans, you know, want to laugh.
And they want to--and, you know, I--the first thing I did was I went on a USO
tour in October.
GROSS: Did you really? I mean, did you really go on--because there's a
parody of that in your book.
Mr. FRANKEN: No, that's true. I know it's hard to separate what's true, but
I did go on a USO tour. Yeah. I've done three of them. And this is my third
year in a row and in October, immediately after we started our action in
Afghanistan, I went to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany and I went to Italy
and Kosovo and Bosnia.
GROSS: To me, USO tours are still like Bob Hope with a lot of, you know, very
Mr. FRANKEN: Thank you.
Mr. FRANKEN: Oh, women, women, oh, yes. Yes. Well, there's women in the
GROSS: (Laughs) So what's a USO tour like now?
Mr. FRANKEN: It's sort of that idea but very scaled-down. It isn't--and
every time I've gone there have been--I've gone twice with Dallas Cowboy
cheerleaders and once with New England Patriot cheerleaders. This last one
was with New England Patriot cheerleaders. So there's a little cheesecake for
the guys. And then usually there's music. And a lot--they like country
music. We had--Oh, shoot, who was it?--Clint Black this time and I've gone
with Carole King and I've gone with Jewel and a lot of other--so there's--Ruth
Pointer. It's a lot of fun. The audiences are great. They really, you know,
appreciate the fact that you've come to Kosovo to do your show.
And they have a very dark sense of humor, actually. When I was in Kosovo I
told--I cleared this joke with the commander, and I said to him, `Can I tell
this joke?' And he said, `Sure.' And then I tell it and he said, `Sure.'
And this was the joke. I said, `You know, we were, back in the United States,
very worried about you guys when we were fighting here in Kosovo and Americans
just did not want to take any casualties. And because of that I know you're
very circumscribed. But, fortunately, there were no casualties here, but
you'll be happy to know that since 9/11, Americans are now willing to take
casualties here in Kosovo.' And they just thought that was hysterical.
Mr. FRANKEN: So they--and, you know, where else can you kind of tell a joke
about, you know, `We don't mind if you get killed'? Ha, ha, ha. You know?
Mr. FRANKEN: So you can't tell that at a corporate event for tomorrow.
GROSS: (Laughs) I want you to read an excerpt from the USO tour that you
describe in your new parody of advice books. And tell me if these are jokes
that you've actually told or not? Why don't you do them first, and then you
can tell us.
Mr. FRANKEN: OK. Let me find them. OK. Yeah. These are jokes I did tell.
So this is in a chapter on `Oh, the giving back to your community you ought to
be doing instead of reading this.' And so I talked about, you know, you do
what you can do. So this was me on the USO tour. These were a couple of
jokes that I told.
`I gotta tell ya'--I just say, `I gotta tell ya' 'cause that's how Bob Hope
used to start his jokes. `I gotta tell ya, everybody's caught up in this
patriotic fervor, even the people I wouldn't expect. After September 11th, an
old friend of mine went right to his closet, got out his old America T-shirt.
Of course, it took him four hours to white out "sucks."' They liked that in
Bosnia. OK. `But everyone wants to do their part. My same friend told me
he's going to stop buying heroin, hit the Taliban in the pocketbook.'
You know, these are very, you know, sincere, sweet kids, but they have dark
GROSS: So you've told us some of the jokes that have gone over well. Were
there jokes where you said to a commander, `Can I get away with saying this?'
and he said, `Absolutely not. Over my dead body'?
Mr. FRANKEN: I had with me the New England Patriot cheerleaders, just three
of them, and the one thing they told me I couldn't do is like the wing
commander of the air force in Europe, which was I wanted to get burqas for the
cheerleaders and say that the Taliban cheerleaders are with us. And they were
going to--and so I was going to have them come out--and they were really up
for this. And so I was going to have the three women come out and talk to
them in their burqas, and then have them kind of whisper to me and saying,
like, you know, they're not allowed to, like, dance, and have everyone go
`Boo! Boo!' and then point out to them that they're now no longer in
Afghanistan, they could. And then they were going to do a routine in the
burqas, like `Everybody dance now! Err, err, err, err, err,' which I think
would have been hilarious.
So we get to Ramstein, and, like, I was on the plane on the way over talking
to the, you know, military attache saying, `We need burqas. Get me three
burqas.' And we get there and, like, the wing commander has gotten whiff of
this and he just said, `You know, we're trying to send out the message that
we're not fighting Islam, that we're just, you know, fighting terrorism, and
we think that maybe this might be a bad idea.'
And I kind of, you know--I couldn't, like, go, like, `No! It's funny, damn
it.' You know, and so we ended up not doing it. And I think it would have
been fine. It would have been fine and everyone would have enjoyed it, but,
you know, I didn't want to cause an international incident with a joke.
GROSS: Well, there is a kind of Taliban and the women joke that you did tell
on your USO tour.
Mr. FRANKEN: Oh, yeah. Let me find that. No, I know that joke. It's that
the Taliban and our military are very, very different militaries. One thing
in common, though. Neither we nor the Taliban allow our women in combat. The
Taliban take it one step further, however; they don't allow their women to go
outside or to look up or to hum.
GROSS: When you were growing up watching Bob Hope doing the USO tours, and
when you were in college during the war in Vietnam, did you ever think that
you would be on a USO tour yourself?
Mr. FRANKEN: No. I mean, in fact, you know, you said, `Was there any joke
they didn't like?' And that joke I told about the American flag T-shirt...
Mr. FRANKEN: ...my friend who got it out but he had to spend four hours
whiting out `sucks,' the one time they didn't like that joke I told it first
at Ramstein, which was the first place I did. I said, `I got out my American
flag T-shirt and it took me four hours to white out "sucks."' They didn't
like that because the difference in that joke was that it was me saying that
at one point I had had a T-shirt that said `America sucks.'
So, you know, no, I did not imagine, watching Bob Hope during the Vietnam War,
that I would be doing that kind of thing. But, you know...
GROSS: Now that's interesting that you figured exactly how to fix it and
still make it work.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yes. I just blamed it on somebody else.
Mr. FRANKEN: That's how you fix a lot of things in life, Terry.
GROSS: I've learned my lesson.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.
GROSS: Thank you for that advice.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yes.
GROSS: That's what makes your book so good, that wonderful advice.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yes. Well, I think that, you know, I was thinking about talking
to you about this book, and I tried to figure out how to deconstruct what I'm
doing in the book. And I've thought of an example.
Mr. FRANKEN: I don't know if I've ever done this before, and you've probably
never had a humorist do this, but I want to try this. This is a small thing.
It's about parenting. And it's in a chapter, `Oh, the violent television your
children will watch.' And it's in the chapter summary, actually. Let me read
from it, and then I'll explain...
GROSS: Yeah. Go.
Mr. FRANKEN: ...what I think I'm doing in the book. I say, `Oh, and another
thing. You and your spouse have to present a united front. Resolve any
differences in philosophy away from your children. If, for example, one
parent is prejudiced against certain minorities, you will have to decide as a
couple whether to both tell racist jokes in front of them or to avoid racist
jokes altogether. And remember, there are no right answers.'
Now to me--and I'll never do this again, but I'm trying to deconstruct what I
was doing here. I think this is what I do in the book a lot, which I tell
good advice, which is parents should resolve differences away from the kids
and, you know, present a united front. And then I'm just coupling it with a
very ugly, unfortunate reality that exists. So that's kind of what I'm doing.
GROSS: My guest is satirist Al Franken. His new book spoofing advice books
is called, "Oh, the Things I Know!" We'll talk more after our break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Al Franken is my guest, and his new book is called "Oh, the Things I
Know! A Guide to Success, or, Failing That, Happiness."
Now getting back to political humor, the kind of thing you were doing on your
USO tours, has it become more difficult to make jokes about President Bush
since September 11th, 'cause you don't hear a lot of comics mocking Bush-isms,
or, you know, mocking his intelligence, which you heard a lot of before
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah, although we may be getting back to it a little bit. No.
I mean, you wanted to fall, you know, close ranks behind the president when
the country's attacked.
GROSS: Did you want to do that? I mean, let's remind our listeners you did
some writing for Al Gore during his presidential...
Mr. FRANKEN: Yes.
GROSS: ...campaign. I mean, you're very much a Democrat. Did you feel that
you wanted to get behind the president after the 11th and put a moratorium, at
least a temporary one?
Mr. FRANKEN: I wanted, certainly, on foreign policy.
Mr. FRANKEN: You know, President Clinton said immediately after 9/11 we have
to get behind the president and do whatever he wants to do. And I agreed with
that. I did. And I agreed with the policy in Afghanistan. Now I said
immediately after 9/11, or, like, starting six weeks afterwards I started
talking about, you know, the president's language is not his strong point.
For example, `evildoers,' just not a great word. And you notice that, like,
members of the administration started using `evildoers,' you know, like they
felt like they had to to make it sound like it's like a word. Like Cheney;
it was very interesting to watch him. He's say something like, `This war is
not about fighting Islam. It's about eradicating the (sighs) evildoers.' So
that was the kind of tack I could take as a comedian was...
Mr. FRANKEN: ...about, you know, some of the president's weaknesses.
GROSS: Al Franken, I have it through one of my sources that you have a funny
Gene Simmons story. And for our listeners who missed this, Gene Simmons, of
the heavy metal band KISS...
Mr. FRANKEN: He was on your show.
GROSS: ...was a guest on our show, and it was quite a to-do. He hurled
around many insults toward me in particular and public radio in general. So
entertain us with your Gene Simmons story.
Mr. FRANKEN: OK, here's my Gene Simmons story. It was 1982, and at the time
I was playing racquetball a lot and I was at this racquetball club in Midtown
Manhattan, and I played a weekly game with a guy. And my partner was late, so
I'm hitting the ball around by myself in the court, and it has a glass wall,
the back wall. And I hear this knock on the door and it's Gene Simmons. I
didn't know, actually, it was Gene Simmons till later. But he knocks on the
door and he said, `I play with you?'
And I said, `Well, I'm waiting for someone. Sure. Why don't you come in.'
He says, `I'll kick your ass.'
So I said, `Oh, OK. Well, fine.' I said, `Well, look, you want to warm up?'
He goes, `No, I'll kick your ass.'
And then I said, `Well, go ahead. You serve.'
And he hit--now he's very big, Gene. He's like 6'2", 6'3". Big, big guy.
GROSS: And that's without the platform shoes.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yes. And he serves, and he hits the ball harder than I've ever
seen anyone hit the ball before, and I've played with, like, you know, really,
really good players. And so the first point, you know, just goes past me and
I, you know, whiff on it. And so he gets a point. He says, `I kick your
And so I said, `Well, OK.' Then he does it again and I miss the second one,
and he's ahead 2-nothing. Then I figure out what he--you know, I catch up to
how hard he's hitting and I beat him, like, 15-3 or 15-4.
And by then my partner has come. And Simmons says to me, `We play again.'
And I said, `Well, no. My partner's here and I've got to play with him.
And he said, `I kick your ass.'
And I said, `Well, no. Look, my friend's here. I'm going to play with him.'
And he goes, `Bock, bock, bock, bock, bock, bock, bock. Bock, bock, bock,
bock, bock, bock.' And he's taunting me.
And I say, `OK, we'll play this game for 500 bucks.' And he just turns around
And my partner says, `That was Gene Simmons.'
And that's my Gene Simmons story. He was the most awful person I've ever met.
GROSS: See, I asked you to tell it...
Mr. FRANKEN: So I...
GROSS: I asked you to tell it because wherever I go people just want to ask
me about, you know, Gene Simmons' appearance on FRESH AIR, so I figured it's
time for me...
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, I just...
GROSS: ...to ask somebody else about Gene Simmons.
Mr. FRANKEN: I just want, Terry, you to stop beating yourself up and feeling
that that whole interview was your fault.
GROSS: 'Cause I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like
Mr. FRANKEN: I wouldn't go that far, but, no, I know that you felt terrible,
that maybe there was something you could have done to make Gene more
gentlemanly. And I would stop beating--don't lose any more sleep over that.
GROSS: Which reminds me--thanks for the advice, Al.
Mr. FRANKEN: Sure.
GROSS: Which reminds me, now that you've written your advice book, what's
some of the worst advice you've ever been given?
Mr. FRANKEN: Some of the worst advice I've been given doesn't sort of sound
like terrible advice. And maybe it's the way I've internalized the advice.
Always stand up for your principles is probably good advice. The way I've
internalized it is burn your bridges. So I think that--you know what I mean?
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah. So in the book I say that you're going to receive bad
advice throughout your life, and even from people you respect. So a big,
important part of my book--in fact, in the book I deliberately tell the reader
that throughout the book I give some bad advice to keep you on your toes. And
my point is that you have to sort of take and leave advice as you get it. And
however, I do remind the readers that the law is not advice. That you can't
take or leave.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.
GROSS: Well, Al Franken, so much fun to have you on the show. Thank you so
much for talking with us.
Mr. FRANKEN: Oh, I could--well, thank you, Terry. And I just, you know,
could do this forever.
GROSS: Al Franken's new book is called, "Oh, the Things I Know! A Guide to
Success, or, Failing That, Happiness." It's a satirical version of advice
books. Here's the introduction. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Mr. FRANKEN: This is called `To the reader.' `I've never met you. I don't
know much about you, but I do know you have unlimited potential. You can do
anything you really set your mind to and be anything you really want to be.
What a crock, huh? Look, I'm not going to sugarcoat this. Your life is going
to have a lot of ups and downs. Some of you who read this will have miserable
lives and be disappointments to your parents, your children, your spouse and
to yourself and, to some extent, to me, because, after all, you've read this
book, or at least this part of it, and still made a mess of things. But I'm
not here to add to your burden. No, I'm here to lighten it with wisdom, with
humor and with the firm belief that no one piece of advice works for
(Soundbite of music; funding credits)
GROSS: Coming up, Michael J. Fox on life after the diagnosis of Parkinson's
disease. His new memoir, "Lucky Man," is at the top of the best-seller list.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Michael J. Fox discusses his acting, his experience
with Parkinson's disease and his new book "Lucky Man"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, his
doctors said he'd probably be able to continue acting for another 10 years.
That was about right. In the spring of 2000, Fox's symptoms progressed to the
point where he had to give up his leading role on the sitcom "Spin City."
After keeping his illness a secret for many years, he writes about it in his
new memoir, "Lucky Man," which is at the top of the best-seller list.
Fox became a star in his early 20s with the success of the sitcom "Family
Ties." Some of his best-known movies are "Back to the Future," "Teen Wolf"
and "The Secret of My Success."
The symptoms of Parkinson's include rigidity, shuffling, tremors, lack of
balance and diminished motor control. The intensity of Fox's symptoms varies.
He's given several interviews for his new book. I asked him what he does when
he gets symptomatic during an interview.
Mr. MICHAEL J. FOX (Actor; Author, "Lucky Man"): Well, actually, I've been
erring on the side of caution--I think `erring' is actually the right word--in
that I've been medicating perhaps too much, in the sense that a lot of times
the symptoms that people see in some of these interviews that have been on are
actually dyskinesia, which is a reaction to the medication. Because if I were
purely symptomatic with Parkinson's symptoms, a lot of times speaking is
difficult. There's a kind of a cluttering of speech and it's very difficult
to sit still, to sit in one place. You know, the symptoms are different, so
I'd rather kind of suffer the symptoms of dyskinesia, which is this kind of,
you know, what I call Axl Rose singing "Paradise City." You know, this kind
of weaving and this kind of continuous thing is much preferable, actually,
than pure Parkinson's symptoms. So that's what I generally do. And, you
know, it's kind of like shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, but that's
the approach I take.
So I haven't had any, you know, problems with pure Parkinson's symptoms in any
of these interviews, because I'll tend to just make sure that I have enough
Sinemet in my system and, in some cases, too much. But to me, it's
preferable. It's not representative of what I'm like in my everyday life. I
get a lot of people with Parkinson's coming up to me saying, `You take too
much medication.' I say, `Well, you sit across from Larry King and see if you
want to tempt it.'
GROSS: So I know you have comparatively good and comparatively bad days. Is
today a good day or a bad day?
Mr. FOX: I have good and bad days 10 times a day.
Mr. FOX: So, you know, right now this is a good moment in a fairly good day.
I feel pretty good today. And this is pretty mellow and comfortable, so I'm
pretty good. And I'm flopping around a little bit like a fish in a boat
today, but there's nobody here to see me. I'm just in a little sound studio,
so it's great.
GROSS: That's the nice thing about radio. When did you first realize...
Mr. FOX: Yeah.
GROSS: ...there was something wrong?
Mr. FOX: Well, I woke up one morning. I was down in Gainesville, Florida,
and I was doing a film called "Doc Hollywood," and it was a Tuesday morning,
which means the night before I was probably in the bar watching "Monday Night
Football" with all the crew. And so I woke up the next day a little
fuzzy-headed, to put it mildly, and I noticed that the pinkie on my left hand
was twitching uncontrollably and just, you know--it was a curiosity as much as
anything else. I just was fascinated by it, 'cause I couldn't stop it, no
matter how I tried to restrict it or--you know, I couldn't will it away. And
actually, I would physically hold it, but as soon as I released it, it would
start up again.
And I consulted with a neurologist down there, who said that it was probably
an injury to my ulna or my funny bone. I went down that track very quickly in
thinking that it was something physiological. And it was a year later that,
with some other rapidly building symptoms--you know, rigidity on my left side
and some slowness and some other things, in addition to the escalating tremor,
which had by then gone into my hand and into my arm--that was when, a full
year later, that the neurologist finally gave me a definitive diagnosis.
GROSS: Yeah. As you mention in your book, Parkinson's is very rare for
people under 50, and it's usually people even older than that who get it. And
you say that the first literature you were given had an elderly couple on the
beach at sunset, and there you were in your 20s.
Mr. FOX: Yeah. I remember the pamphlet. I can't remember what the
medication was. And there was this elderly couple strolling on the beach, and
there was a seagull above their heads, and they both looked really happy. I
say in the book that it was hard to tell which one had the incurable
neurological disease, because they both looked great and pretty pleased with
things. And there was a seagull flying overhead and he looked good, too. I
wanted to hit him with a rock. And it just was very hard for me to process
the whole thing. It just made very little sense to me.
I found that, you know, looking back on it, I took the news very passively and
very--you know, I just kind of sat there and I didn't have a big explosive
reaction, because it was literally like somebody telling you you may have just
discovered your parents were martians, you know? It just didn't compute.
GROSS: Now you say that about three other people who you used to work with
when you were in your teens and you did a Canadian TV show--this was in
1977--that three other people who worked on that show also had early-onset
Parkinson's disease. What do you make of that?
Mr. FOX: Yeah. I've since learned that they did. And, you know, it's being
investigated as a cluster, and it certainly sounds like a cluster. You know,
and clusters exist with other diseases and in other situations, and they're
usually associated with something environmental or a sick building or that
kind of thing. It could be viral, which is the hypothesis, or at least the
theory, of the investigating doctor up there--researcher up there in Canada.
I don't know. I mean, it could certainly be a cluster. It could also quite
possibly be coincidence. You know, I'm concerned for my co-workers, but from
a personal point of view, it's not something that I'm, you know, devoting a
lot of time or energy into in the sense that `Oh, this is the answer.' I've
kind of moved beyond this being a personal thing, as strange as that might
sound. And so I'm interested in clusters in general and I'm interested in
things like biomarkers and genetic predisposition and issues like that, but
not, you know, wholly on a personal level and not to the extent that I want to
put aside a lot of those things to focus on this, you know, one event.
GROSS: After your diagnosis, you decided to tell only families and selected
friends and associates. What were your fears of what would happen if
everybody found out?
Mr. FOX: My experience with the celebrity and with certain, you know,
elements of that made me very distrustful of letting anything out that--I
wanted to process it myself first, or at least I wanted to ignore it myself
first and then, in time, process it. But I just didn't want to put it into
the machinery and have it kind of processed publicly and have, you know, the
tabloids have a run at it and let other people have a run at it and come up
with opinions and conclusions when I was, you know, still kind of flailing.
So I was very distrustful of letting it out there. And also, you know, I
didn't really articulate it this way early on, but I eventually did, you know,
because I was involved in comedy. I thought, you know, if people know that
I'm ill, would they be able to laugh at what I do? You know, I say in the
book, `Can you laugh at a sick person without feeling like an asshole?' You
know, it was a concern of mine.
So a lot of these things were in my mind. And, you know, who among us, you
know, walks down the street and leads with, `Hi, I've got a boil on my ass,'
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. FOX: We keep these things to ourselves.
GROSS: Well, the comedy thing--especially if there's physical comedy involved
where, you know, part of the joke is that you walk into a wall or something
Mr. FOX: Right.
Mr. FOX: Yeah, exactly. It's--and that was a difficult thing, you know? It
was--one of the nice things about having written this book is it was a really
nice transition for me from going from a craft where I relied on a good deal
of physicality and a good deal of mastery over, you know, making my body do
things that were, you know, kind of bizarre and athletically demanding in some
cases, to a place where I couldn't do that anymore, but instead was able to
basically lock myself up for 14 months and write a book.
Mr. FOX: And it was nice to have made that transition, at least for myself.
GROSS: When you were telling selected friends and family that you had
Parkinson's, were you confident that people would keep the secret, or did you
have to go around worrying, `What if somebody leaks it?'
Mr. FOX: No. I'm lucky that I think the quality of the friends that I had
and my family--and especially with them having gone through, you know, four or
five years of what I call the fun house--you know, having been in the public
eye, that at that point I was pretty confident in the discretion of those that
I had chosen to talk to about it. And they were all pretty great. So it
was--you know, it's kind of funny. I was so good at keeping the secret from
so many people that it shouldn't have been a surprise to me that I was equally
good at keeping the secret from myself. And that was really, you know, what I
GROSS: What do you mean by that, by keeping it from yourself?
Mr. FOX: Well, you know, I just--I would constantly--somehow, you know, I
would not deal with it as a fact. I would deal with it as something that was
negotiable. Because in so much of my life I'd been able to negotiate--you
know, kind of dealing with acting and dealing with things where it's about
impression and it's about `If I can make it look a certain way, then that's
really what it is, for all intents and purposes.' But when you have this
constant reality, this, you know, implacable fact of the disease--you know, it
took me a long time to get to that. And so almost, in a way, by keeping it
from other people I could, in effect, keep it a secret from myself. And that
probably goes to the core of your original question about why keep it a
secret. It was like the less people knew, the less people that could bring it
up to me; and the less people that brought it up to me, the less I had to
really deal with it.
GROSS: My guest is Michael J. Fox. His new memoir is called "Lucky Man."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Michael J. Fox. He has a new memoir called "Lucky Man."
It was after you were diagnosed that you got the job on "Spin City." How did
you decide who to tell about it? Like, did you tell Gary David Goldberg, the
creator of the show, who had also created "Family Ties"?
Mr. FOX: Yeah, I did. Well, I went into it--by that point I was kind of--had
gone over the curve of acceptance and had done a lot of work on my own with
understanding and accepting the disease. And so when I went into it, you
know, I specifically picked the people that I worked with and also the forum.
And, you know, the idea of doing a sitcom again, doing it in New York, being
near my family, kind of setting the schedule, and for the first time making
sure that everybody that I worked with was aware, in the tightest inner
circle--you know, my production partners and network and whatnot--knew what I
was dealing with and had accepted the possibility there might be a problem
down the line; certainly not in the short term. And that was a great relief
to me and it was very liberating.
GROSS: Everybody was confident that you could do it.
Mr. FOX: Well, they were willing to take a bet. You know, it seemed like a
good pony. It was one of those things where the pony might go lame in a
while, but we think he can make it down the home stretch. So...
GROSS: So at what point did you have symptoms that you had to disguise during
Mr. FOX: Well, I think before I ever--right from the beginning, in the sense
that even something as small as a tremoring hand is something that--you know,
you find yourself putting your hand in your pocket. Or you can interrupt
symptoms, at least with Parkinson's early on, by, you know, manipulating props
and putting your hand in your pocket, leaning against a wall. Any kind of
break in the circuit causes a pause in the tremor. And then as time went on
and I was doing the show, when it started to get more kind of global in my
body, and so the three or four body parts would be going at the same time, and
it kind of got to where I had to be more than just a sleight-of-hand artist
and almost a contortionist. You know, that's when I really started to
consider, you know, moving on.
GROSS: You describe Parkinson's as being about resting tremors. If you're
resting, the tremor starts, but if you move, it temporarily stops the tremor.
So you say if you, say, picked up a cup or picked up a pencil, it would stop
the tremor. And so you did that a lot while you were shooting "Spin City."
Mr. FOX: Right.
GROSS: Do you think it ever gave you the look of being fidgety or having a
certain nervous energy in the show because you were doing things like that?
Mr. FOX: Well, I think that it's so long been a part of my persona that it
was kind of seamless, in a way. You know, in fact, I say in the book, you
know, talking about the inverse kind of outward physical deterioration and
inward emotional and personal development that I couldn't really be still
until I could no longer keep still. You know, it's this great irony that by
the time that I had kind of an inner calm, I was so outwardly frantic, and I
get very used to the fact that--you know, I tell people all the time, `Body
language lies. Don't make any assumptions based on what you see my body doing
or the way I may look, you know, as to whether I'm nervous or agitated or
excited. There's a complete separation between the two.'
But in performing--no, like I said, just I would incorporate it into
everything I did. You can see a lot of times if you watch those old tapes,
I'll be leaning against a desk or I'll be picking up a prop. And as I said,
by then, you know, it surprised me how few people noticed it. I had a thing
that I showed my son very early on that he could--if he saw my hand shaking,
he could grab my thumb and give it a twist, and if he counted to five and did
it again he would, in fact, stop it from ever tremoring, 'cause that's about
the period of time that it takes. And, you know, I'll never forget teaching
him that. And then at one point he did it for a while and thought it was
great that he could do this every time, and then when he realized that it
would start up again, he kind of looked at me like, `Oh, my God, what have I
gotten myself into?' And I said, `No, you don't have do do this all the time;
you know, just if you want to.'
But yeah, it was an interesting thing, so that whatever I appeared to be doing
at any given time, I was really doing something else. I was constantly doing
the math and constantly figuring out, you know, what my options were when that
next tremor would come, so that I--you know, how it was going to get to
something that could disrupt it.
GROSS: Were you in on what the final script of "Spin City," the final episode
that you starred in, would be like and how your character would be written
Mr. FOX: Yeah. The actual device that was used was something that the
writers came up with, but as we got into the nuts and bolts of doing the show,
I got more involved and actually took, you know, pen to paper, just in terms
of trying to integrate some of the things that I was feeling and anticipate
some of the things that the audience might feel.
GROSS: Why don't you describe what the premise of that final episode was.
Mr. FOX: Boy, if memory serves, I think my character took the fall for an
apparent connection between City Hall and organized crime, and he realized he
had to take the hit for the mayor. And that's something that, you know, he
felt--Mike Flaherty felt, you know, fell within his job description, so he did
it. And he was aware that that meant that he would have to City Hall and
leave politics for a time. And so the last part of the show was really this
kind of prolonged goodbye.
GROSS: What were your thoughts about how to best promote your departure from
the series, you know, like a very special "Spin City" kind of thing?
Mr. FOX: Well, you know, the thing is, yeah, I'd always said that. I said it
early on, too, when we were talking about what kind of show we wanted to do,
and that if you ever read in TV Guide, `A very special "Spin City,"' you
could, with my permission, come up and hit me in the head with a frying pan.
That was never, you know, my intention. But at a certain point, you know, the
network kind of does what they do, and they're going to promote it the way
they're going to promote it.
But, you know, I'd also experienced this disconnection that I'd had, you know,
that I'd always kind of rationalized away previously between myself and an
audience that had come to know me over the years. And earlier on in my
career, it'd been much more convenient and it seemed to me to make much more
sense to say, `Well, in a way, this is this, you know, kind of business thing
that's been transacted, and I go out and do what I do, and people watch it or
don't watch it and buy the product that's advertised or don't,' and, you know,
it just seemed much safer to look at it that way.
But once I had disclosed my diagnosis, the depth and the sincerity of the
connection that I felt with people that approached me and that watched the
programs and wrote to me and called and whatnot and supported our foundation
and our efforts just seemed so real that I felt that in the last show, I had
to in some way address that and be respectful of it. And, you know, then how
the network, through their promotion, may kind of up that a notch or not
really was beyond my control, but I did feel very overwhelmed in a good way by
the response and wanted to honor it. So that kind of went into it.
GROSS: I want to quote something that you write in your memoir about acting.
You say, "Actors don't become actors because they're brimming with
self-confidence. For those of us lucky enough to become professional
performers, the uncertainty about who we really are only increases. For many
actors, this self-doubt is like a worm eating away at you and growing
incongruously in direct proportion to your level of success. No matter how
great the acceptance, adulation and accumulation of wealth, gnawing at you
always is the deep-seated belief that you're a fake, a phony." Is that what
you were experiencing as you became like more famous, that you were
experiencing less self-confidence and...
Mr. FOX: Yeah. I write that earlier in the book. And then I think later in
the book, I kind of expand that in a way, in the sense that for most of us,
the first word probably that we learn and understand is `no.' And in a lot of
ways, you know, `no' describes home to us in a way. You know, it defines
boundaries. And all of a sudden, you're in this place where you hear nothing
but `yes,' and you, in turn, say nothing but `yes.' And I don't mean this by
way of complaint. In fact, when I talk about celebrity, I try to step back
from it and become somewhat detached. Because, you know, there's a lot about
it that's fun.
But it is strange and it's strange to, you know, realize that you're doing
something and you're doing it as well as you can, but really what is it in the
fullness of human endeavor that is so spectacular about this? And you're torn
because you love the cars and you love the girls, you know, that never would
give you the time of day that are, all of a sudden, you know, very available
to you, and all these great things are happening to a 22-year-old. And at the
same time, too, you're thinking, `This is strange. You know, someone's going
to come and knock on the door and say, you know, "This is all over. You know,
go back to Canada and don't take any of the stuff with you."' So there's this
feeling that, yeah, there's no way that you can deserve this.
GROSS: My guest is Michael J. Fox. His new memoir is called "Lucky Man."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Michael J. Fox is my guest. He has a new memoir called "Lucky Man."
You say in your book that you've gone back and you've watched old tapes and
older movies that you made. Do you notice symptoms or tremors that you didn't
realize were symptoms at the time?
Mr. FOX: Yeah. I can see it now, even with old "Family Ties" episodes that
was, you know, four or five years before I was diagnosed. And they say that
by the time the first symptoms are present, as much as 80 percent of the
dopamine-producing cells in your brain are already dead or dying. So the
great likelihood was that I did have cell death occurring during that time.
And, you know, I can see a weakness on the left side or certain things that I
was doing, you know, obviously not consciously, but I can see an interruption
in the rhythm on my left side and other things in some of that old work. So,
you know, the brain is an amazing machine, both in the way that it works and
in the way that it breaks down. You know, it's fascinating from that point of
view, and I've actually gotten to a point where I can be fairly detached about
GROSS: You say in your book that when you got sick, you eventually gave up
drinking. Had drinking been verging on a real problem for you?
Mr. FOX: Well, you know, in the '80s when I was younger, as I said, you know,
when we were talking about that feeling that someone was going to come and
knock on the door and take it all away, and so my kind of loosely thought-out
theory was that I'll be drunk when they get there and, you know, not so much
that I drank when I was working and in those kind of situations, because that
was fantasy enough for me that I was actually doing that for a living. But on
the other time, I wanted to distract myself from the possibility that, as I
said, perhaps it was undeserved or perhaps it was going to end. But by the
time I got married, that had really calmed down a lot.
And then shortly on the heels of getting married, of course, came the
diagnosis. And then drinking--well, again, not rising to the level that would
be dramatically dysfunctional. I certainly recognized that I was using it,
you know, more as a means of escape and more as a means of self-medication,
not looking at what my new reality was. And when that hit a point where it
was obviously disrupting my family and breaking down the communication that I
had with them about my health and other issues, then I just knew that it was
time to stop it. And really stopping it, although not immediate, the next
phase was not immediate, it certainly led to my being able to really look at
my diagnosis and accept it and move on.
GROSS: Do you think that dealing with the tremors of Parkinson's has made you
more of a self-conscious person, and were you self-conscious before that?
Mr. FOX: Well, actually, now it's actually really terrific because, you know,
vanity goes out the window. I mean, if you're talking about self-conscious in
the sense of how one appears to others and one's awareness of how they appear
to others, you know, it's so apart from how I feel and perceive myself that I
think about it very little now. I think about dealing with symptoms in public
more on the level of how will it help me to function and accomplish the things
that I want to accomplish? In other words, if I'm in a situation where I need
to communicate, will I be able to communicate? Or if I have to perform some
physical task, you know, whether it was with my children or something else,
will I be able to do it? In terms of how will I appear, well, that might have
been the major concern earlier on. It's little or no concern now.
I write in the book about being at a public function where I was clearly
symptomatic and demonstrably tremoring and twitching, and a lot of people were
looking at me and I was aware that they were looking at me. Yet it didn't
concern me. And then at some point, the lights went down, and a concert
began, and I was happy that once the lights went down, actually my medication
kicked in, and I smoothed out and I was really relieved and pleased that I
would be relatively symptom-free to enjoy the music. And that really
represented a 180-degree turn for me in that I wanted to be symptom-free for
me to be able to enjoy what I wanted to enjoy, as opposed to wanting to be
symptom-free to create an appearance that I was healthy or at least create an
illusion that I was healthy. So it changed a great deal.
GROSS: Michael J. Fox, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FOX: My pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Michael J. Fox's new memoir is called "Lucky Man." He chairs the
Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Disease.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music; funding credits)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, author Carol Shields discusses her life, her
work and her diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer. She won a Pulitzer Prize
for her book "The Stone Diaries," which was also a best seller. Her new book,
"Unless," was written after she was diagnosed with cancer. I'm Terry Gross.
Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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