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Seth Meyers On 'SNL' And Campaign Comedy

Comedian and writer Seth Meyers discusses Saturday Night Live's treatment of the recent presidential election. Meyers has been with SNL since 2001, and currently serves as co-anchor of the show's "Weekend Update" segment.

20:05

Other segments from the episode on December 29, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 29, 2008: Interview with Seth Meyers; Interview with Tina Fey; Interview with Stephen Colbert; Review of the music album "The best of hearts of space."

Transcript

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Seth Meyers On 'SNL' And Campaign Comedy

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the year with a series of entertaining interviews from 2008. Today, political satire. It was a big year for "Saturday Night Live." A little later, Tina Fey will describe how she did her Sarah Palin impression.

First, we hear from Seth Meyers. He's been "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and the co-anchor of "Weekend Update" since the fall of 2006, after Tina Fey left to develop her sitcom, "30 Rock." Meyers was the lead writer in all but one of the Sarah Palin sketches. This is his eighth season with the show. Let's start with a "Saturday Night Live" sketch which featured appearances by both Tina Fey and the real Sarah Palin. In this part of the sketch, Palin is backstage, talking with producer Lorne Michaels. Alec Baldwin comes by, but thinks Lorne is talking with Tina Fey dressed as Palin.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. ALEC BALDWIN (Host): Hey, Lorne. Hey, Tina.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. BALDWIN: Lorne, I need to talk to you. You can't let Tina go out there with that woman. She goes against everything we stand for. Good Lord, Lorne.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. BALDWIN: They call her - what's that name? They call her Cara(ph), Cara - what do they call her again, Tina?

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): That would be Caribou Barbie.

Mr. BALDWIN: Caribou Barbie.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. BALDWIN: Thank you, Tina. I mean, this is the most important election in our nation's history, and you want her - our Tina - to go out there and stand there with that horrible woman? What do you have to say for yourself?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. LORNE MICHAELS (Producer, "Saturday Night Live"): Alec, this is Governor Palin.

Gov. PALIN: Hi, there.

Mr. BALDWIN: I see. Forgive me, but I feel I must say this. You are way hotter in person.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Gov. PALIN: Oh, I thank you.

Mr. BALDWIN: I mean, seriously - I mean, I can't believe they let her, you know, play you.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Gov. PALIN: Oh, thank you. And I must say, your brother, Steven, is my favorite Baldwin brother.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. BALDWIN: You are a delight. Now come, let me take you for a tour of the studio. You know, I've hosted the show - how many times, Lorne?

Mr. MICHAELS: A hundred and seventy-five times.

Mr. BALDWIN: A hundred and seventy-five.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

GROSS: I spoke with Seth Meyers two weeks after that sketch aired and asked him about making arrangements with the Palin campaign for her appearance.

Mr. SETH MEYERS (Comedian and Head Writer, "Saturday Night Live"): I have to say, dealing with her campaign was really easy. We sent that sketch pretty close to the form that ended up on TV to them, and they approved it on Thursday. And we added the Amy Poehler-Sarah Palin rap. That we did on Saturday. But the cold open was - they were very good with it from the beginning.

GROSS: So it is always that way, that the campaign has final approval of anything that their candidate is going to be in?

Mr. MEYERS: Yes. But to be fair, like so does every host. You know, I think it's - you know, people forget on the show that every - you know, people give you a week of their time, or you know, a campaign gives you a day of their time. You're out there, obviously they're not going to just show up and see a cue card when they're on camera. And so it's always a process with everyone who is, you know, kind enough to sacrifice their time for our show. But yeah, some campaigns are trickier to deal with than with others, but hers was very - they were very - they were game from the start, and she was a very good sport.

GROSS: Did they give you any ground rules in advance about what she might not be willing to do?

Mr. MEYERS: They did not, and we - you know, we asked because obviously, it makes it easier for us if we know there are ground rules. Again, we do know that they're running for president or in this case vice president, so we try to make sure our first draft is not so unpalatable that they'll reject it out of hand. So we start from a position of trying to be reasonable. But yeah, they were very easy to deal with. Historically, I found the Republicans are more game with sketches than Democrats.

GROSS: Really? Why do you think that is?

Mr. MEYERS: I think that Democrats are worried if they do a sketch, Republicans will use it against them, and Republicans know the Democrats won't.

GROSS: Let's get back to Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live." And once you agreed on the date and the date was almost there, what was the process like of figuring out, so now, what are we going to do with her?

Mr. MEYERS: You know, we - from the very beginning, the idea was going to be that there was going to be a backstage piece where Lorne was wishing she had agreed to do it. And then we sort of spun it out from there. Obviously, we have the benefit of being able to get someone like Alec to come by and do us a favor, and Alec was sort of a perfect...

GROSS: This is Alec Baldwin, yeah.

Mr. MEYERS: Yes, Alec Baldwin, who's the perfect person both because he's, you know, Tina's co-star and a very vocal liberal. And again, you know, I want to point out that also Alec was willing to make of fun of himself in that scene, as well, which is why it worked, I feel like, on the balance part of it.

GROSS: Let's talk about another sketch that you wrote or largely wrote, and this was a sketch about John McCain's political ads, the campaign ads. And we always hear his voice at the end of those ads, saying, I'm John McCain and I approve these ads. And of course, there's been a lot of discussion about how John McCain, who promised, you know, to run a really kind of civil, respectful campaign, has ended up having all these really negative ads.

So in this sketch, Kristen Wigg plays the consultant who's overseeing the ads, and Bill Hader does the voice of like the most, like, cynical naarrator for campaign commercials. And Darrell Hammond plays John McCain. So, here's Kristen Wigg, kicking off the sketch.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Ms. KRISTEN WIGG: (As the Consultant) You ready to go?

Mr. DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) I'm ready to go, yes. But let me stress, the goal of these ads are not only to support my campaign but also to raise the level of the integrity and the political discourse. My friends, that was my promise to America.

Ms. WIGG: (As the Consultant) Well, that's so great to hear. Let's do it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BILL HADER: (As the Narrator) Barack Obama says he wants universal health care. Is that so? Health care for the entire universe?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. HADER: (As the Narrator) Including Osama bin Laden?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. HADER: (As the Narrator) I think we'll pass. No way, no how, Nobama.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)
Mr. HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) My friends, can I ask a question?

Ms. WIGG: (As the Consultant) Of course.

Mr. HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Is this ad true?

Ms. WIGG: (As the Consultant) Well, universal has more than one meaning. We take it to mean the entire universe.

Mr. HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Works for me. I'm John McCain. I approve this message.

Mr. HADER: (As the Narrator) Great. Let's do the next one.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HADER: (As the Narrator) Barack Obama plays basketball. Charles Barkley plays basketball. Is Charles Barkley qualified to lead our economy? He gambled millions away in Las Vegas. Don't let Barack Obama gamble with our economy. No way, no how, no Charack Obarkley.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Excuse me.

Ms. WIGG: (As the Consultant) Yes?

Mr. HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Are those facts accurate?

Ms. WIGG: (As the Consultant) Yes, the senator does play basketball. Charles Barkley also plays. Charles Barkley lost money in Vegas.

Mr. HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Oh, I can't argue fact. I'm John McCain. I approve this message.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. WIGG: (As the Consultant) You're doing great, Senator.

GROSS: Seth Meyers, can you talk about generating the idea for that sketch?

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah. I wanted to do a sketch about, like, as you said, I think John McCain made a big point of keeping the discourse high and the integrity of his campaign high. And particularly, it was the ad about the sex education bill that they were running that seemed so lascivious that I think put that idea in our heads.

GROSS: The one that made it seem like Barack Obama was behind a bill in Illinois that taught sex education to kindergarten kids.

Mr. MEYERS: Yes. And it was an ad that you saw John McCain asked about a lot, and he sort of stood behind it still. And also, you know, when McCain sort of was using people that had worked on the 2000 campaign - Bush's 2000 campaign, that, you know, it was hard not to sort of stay away from that.
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GROSS: Now there was another sketch in which - and this was a "Weekend Update" sketch in which Sarah Palin is at the "Weekend Update" desk with you and Amy Poehler. And she says, you know, I'm not going to do that sketch that you wrote for me. I'm not going to do that rap because I think it would be bad for the campaign. And so instead, Amy Poehler does it. Had you actually written that rap expecting Governor Palin to do it, or was part of the joke the whole time that you would write it and she would say, I can't do it, and then Amy Poehler would be the one to do it?

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah. That was always the idea was that she would say no. We were doing - we do a "Weekend Update" joke read on Friday night, and it was around ten o'clock at night, and for some reason, Amy started free styling - free-style rapping as if she was Sarah Palin, and we sort of instantly - we were like, we should write it hardcore rap, and the joke should be that she won't do it and then you'll do it. We, at that time, did not think it would ever be on television. But Lorne had asked us to come up with something to use her - to use Sarah Palin on "Weekend Update," and we were having a hard time trying to come up with what we would do. So we came up with that idea, and then Amy wrote that Friday night, and I'm going to say, it's one of the greatest performance moments in the history of "Saturday Night Live."

GROSS: One of the things that's really funny about it - I mean, it's like you're sitting next to the real Governor Palin...

Mr. MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: As this really funny rap about her is being done by Amy Poehler. And as Amy Poehler is rapping, there's like a moose that comes out and gets shot down gangster-style...

Mr. MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: And you know, her backup rappers are two, like, Eskimos in, like, Eskimo garb. You know, Todd Palin - you know, persona Todd Palin comes out and starts rapping too. And it's just like really funny, and I mean, the joke is, in part, on Sarah Palin, and she's sitting next to you. How awkward was that?

Mr. MEYERS: It was more surreal than awkward, I have to say. Like the whole - again, especially since we started writing it on Friday night, you know, so the first time it was on its feet was Saturday afternoon. You know, every time we did it, Sarah Palin was with us. And again, she never seemed to have any doubt about it and thought it was all in good fun. And it was in good fun, you know. I mean, it was a heightened reality of things that are true about her. And also, we sort of sold it to her as the joke here is that you have really good judgment because this would be a bad thing for you to do. The initial version had a few lines that we had to take out because there were a little too hardcore. Each one of them, I would say, they were absolutely right to ask us to take out.

GROSS: Can you give us an example?

Mr. MEYERS: I'm trying to think. I probably shouldn't. Yeah, I can - I mean, well, like - I think there was a line when I'm in Alaska - it's drill, baby, drill - that might have had a more sexual connotation in an earlier version.

GROSS: Uh huh. OK. All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYERS: And they - again, like I say, they showed excellent judgment.

GROSS: My guest is Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and "Weekend Update" co-anchor. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded in October with Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and co-anchor of "Weekend Update." Let's hear you on "Weekend Update," and this has to do with the financial meltdown. Here we go.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update")

(Soundbite of audience applause)

Mr. SETH MEYERS (Co-Anchor): On Thursday, your grandfather finally admitted that he screwed up the economy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYERS: While speaking before Congress on Thursday, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said he was shocked his ideas led to the current economic crisis and said, I still do not understand exactly how it happened. Well, let me see if I can give it a shot. Banks bundled mortgages that had been given to people that wouldn't even qualify for jury duty and then sold those along with credit default swaps, which are basically insurance the seller provides to the buyer in case the entity loses value. However, unlike regular insurance, these swaps weren't regulated, so they failed to meet any standards of responsible business. Then, when everything collapsed, it spread like an infection because when people are making money, they don't ask how, they just say, yay. But again, you're the expert.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

GROSS: That was excellent. I have to say, I thought that was a wonderful one-paragraph description of what happened...

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you.

GROSS: To the economy. So did you consult economists before writing that?

Mr. MEYERS: I would have to give my thanks to Steve Kroft in "60 Minutes" because they did a piece on it about three weeks ago. And then I was very happy to see this Sunday they did a followup piece to it, so I felt like I had gotten there a day early.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYERS: I'm talking about it in this cycle. But that was the piece that I sort of saw that explained it to me, and so I will give credit where credit's due.

GROSS: So, what's the process like of writing for "Weekend Update"? Like, how much time do you have to follow the news and what are your main new sources?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I sort of spend my first half of the week focusing on the rest of the show as sort of the head writer of the rest of the show. And we have three incredibly talented "Weekend Update" writers - Doug, Alex and Jessica, who do all the joke writing. And then the rest of the staff will write jokes, as well, sort of later in the week, and I will write some jokes, as well. Like, I wrote that Greenspan joke, but I think that may have been the only joke that I had written this past Saturday.

But we get together on Friday night, and we read a bunch of jokes, and it's almost 800 jokes, and we cut that down to about 100 that we like. And then Doug, who produces it, cuts it down to about 30, and you know, it ends up being around, you know, 18 to 20 jokes come Saturday night.

GROSS: Do you feel different doing "Weekend Update" than you've - when you were a cast member or doing impressions of people - you know, Ryan Seacrest, John Kerry?

Mr. MEYERS: Oh, absolutely. Here's the thing about me, and I hate to let this secret out. I have very little range as a performer, so for me to sit behind a desk and tell jokes, that is way closer to sort of what I was doing before I was on "Saturday Night Live," and I feel a lot more comfortable doing that. So - and I, also, as a writer - you know, when I started on the show, you know, one of the jobs as a cast member is you sort of write for yourself. And you know, I enjoyed that a great deal, but becoming head writer and getting to write for everybody else is way more liberating.

GROSS: Now during the primary campaign, there was a sketch of one of the debates between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that made it seem like the media was really kind of pampering and catering to Obama. And Hillary kind of referred to that sketch in complaining that the press was in favor of Obama and treating him differently than her. What was the reaction to her comment about that behind the scenes at "Saturday Night Live"?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, we were all watching the debate, and it was, like, the craziest place to get a shoutout was during a debate you were watching so that you could write a sketch about it, you know, after it was over.

GROSS: Right. I see your point.

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah, it was a very - for us, it was this real, like, snake-eating-its-tail moment. And then, you know - again, as I was pointing earlier, like, people - when you say something on the show that people have been saying to their friends and families, sort of something, for instance, like, I don't feel like she's being treated fairly. When we say it, they just assume that we're 100 percent in support of them, when in fact, you know, there were things in that sketch that were critical of Hillary Clinton, as well, but you know, they picked out the part they wanted to hear and were huge fans of it.

GROSS: Is there any political disagreements between the writers on "Saturday Night Live"? Are there Democrats and Republicans on the staff or do you basically agree politically and what the political point of view should be of sketches?

Mr. MEYERS: There are both - there are disagreements. I mean, I'll be honest with you. There are more Democrats than Republicans, but certainly with Hillary and Barack, it was a more even split.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. MEYERS: So that was a really interesting time on the show. But as much as people would sort of make their points, in the end - and I should say this about sort of everything we've been talking about today - like, if it's not funny, it will never end up on the show, and when you try too hard to make a point, that's when it tends to get a little less funny. So as long as you made the argument that like, look, I think this is pulled from reality, it's working, we're going to have to do it. And more often than not, that works with people whether they agree with the politics of it or not.

GROSS: What is the job of the head writer?

Mr. MEYERS: The best way to describe it is you're sort of the - all the writers are surgeons, and you're the emergency room doctor. It's constantly - it's just triage. The thing that most needs attention, you sort of have to drop everything and sort of give a hand to. But most of the stuff on our show - you know, unlike other sort of shows - be them, you know, other comedy shows or dramas - we don't have like a staff meeting where we lay out what everybody's going to go work on. Tuesday night sort of everybody goes off on their own. They write what they think is funny. We have a lot of different talented people with a lot of different tastes. And so because of that, our show doesn't really have a consistent tone, which I think is one of the great things about our show.

Some people, I think, don't like that because they'll see, like, a couple of things they like and a couple of things they hate. I've always thought the best "SNL" is three things you love and one thing you hate. So as head writer, you know, you just sort of - I've run a rewrite table with all the writers where we sit around and pitch jokes based on what's already written. But each writer sort of gets to usher their piece through from, you know, the beginning stages to the final - you know, when it airs. Each individual writer casts their piece. They talk to set design, they talk to wardrobe.

The most fun is between dress and air. If Lorne sort of needs a minute out of a piece, as a head writer, you sort of get to go sit down with the writer and try to find how you're going to take a minute out of something. It's when it moves the fastest it's when it's the most fun.

GROSS: You're in the position of having to tell people no, also, to tell a writer, uh-uh, this isn't going to make the final cut.

Mr. MEYERS: I'm so glad that that's actually not true because it really is the greatest process where between dress and air, everything's on a note card, and when Lorne calls the meeting between dress and air, you walk in and it's like finding out if you made the high school play or not. Your note card is either on the air side or on the cut side. So I actually very rarely have to give bad news. I'm just in the room when I see people's faces register the bad news.

GROSS: Do you remember the very first time you heard Don Pardo say your name?

Mr. MEYERS: I do. It was the craziest thing ever.

GROSS: I should say, Don Pardo is the announcer on "Saturday Night Live." Go ahead.

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah, well, I started - my first show was the first show after 9/11, so...

GROSS: That was your first show.

Mr. MEYERS: That was my first show, which was a crazy time to be starting on the show, and I - the only sketch I was in, I played a fish's head, a floating fish's head, which means I had to wear a green leotard because I was in front of a green screen, and my face had to be painted green. So I was in green leotard with my face painted green wearing a bathrobe standing next to a bunch of police officers and firemen. The first time I heard Don Pardo say my name - and I realized that with everything that was happening in the world, it was the most insignificant part of the night, but it was, for me, incredible.

GROSS: Seth Meyers, it's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you.

GROSS: Seth Meyers is "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and the co- anchor of "Weekend Update." Our interview was recorded in October. We'll hear from Tina Fey in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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Tina Fey's Gubernatorial Turn

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're featuring interviews with three of the people who helped make this a great year for political satire. And I'm not talking about the politicians, I'm talking about thesatirists.

Earlier in the show, we heard from "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and "Weekend Update" co-anchor Seth Meyers. He wrote most of the Sarah Palin's sketches featuring Tina Fey as Palin. Fey was the head writer of the show and "Weekend Update" co-anchor before leaving to start her sitcom, "30 Rock." I spoke with Tina Fey in November, just before the election. A few weeks before that, Sarah Palin had been a guest on "Saturday Night Live," and she very briefly shared the stage with Tina Fey. That edition opened with Fey as Palin at the podium for her first press conference.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Ms. TINA FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) First off, I just want to say how excited I am to be in front of both the liberal elite media, as well as the liberal regular media.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) I am looking forward to a portion of your questions, so let's get started! Yes, you?

Unidentified Man: Yeah, what were your thoughts on Senator McCain's debate performance Wednesday?

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) You know, I just thought he was great because the American people are angry, and John McCain is angry too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) And you can tell he's angry by the way he sighs and grits his teeth, and he's always going, like, grrr(ph).

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) You know, and then Barack Obama, well, if he's angry, I certainly can't tell. His words are smooth when he's talking. It's like an angel whispering in your ear.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) He makes John McCain sound like a garbage truck unloading trash at a landfill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: So to answer your question, yes, I think John McCain did great. You, guy.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. At a rally in North Carolina this week, you said that you like to visit the quote pro-America parts of the country. Are there parts of America that you consider un-American?

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) Oh, you know, that was just my lame attempt at a joke. But yes, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, California.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) But also, too - you have states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida, which could be real, real anti-American or real, real pro-American. It's up to them.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) And now, I'd like to entertain everybody with some fancy pageant walking.

GROSS: Tina Fey, welcome back to Fresh Air, and congratulations on all the work you've been doing. When Sarah Palin came on the national stage, it was as if Americans around the country simultaneously said, Tina Fey! She looks like Tina Fey. So what do you do to become her physically and then we'll talk about what you do to be her verbally.

Ms. FEY: Well, physically, I wear a wig, obviously, that's modeled after her hair. We do - at my request, we glue my ears back because my ears stick out pretty significantly and hers do not. And we overdraw my lip line because she has fuller lips and she has the - I don't know if there's a term for this, but the pointy part on your upper lip, the sort of dull baby part of her lips are much further apart than mine. These all things we've noticed in the makeup chair as we try to make me look like her. I try to stick my jaw out because she has a stronger jaw than I do, and I have a smaller mouth in general so I try to make my mouth a little wider.

GROSS: Now, how did you go about studying her voice so that you could get it and her vocal mannerisms?

Ms. FEY: I watched her a lot on YouTube. I watched the convention speech and I watched - obviously, the Katie Couric interview the week that we did that. Because I'm not an impressionist, I started to try to work from the accent backwards because she does have a distinctive accent, and dialect work and stuff - dialect work was something that I was kind of good at in my college acting days. We used to have a dialects course. So I started working backwards from that and really just trying to match, you know, instead of words like deal, she says, dill. And bel-lat(ph), like sort of for bailout, she has a what we call and eeh-eh(ph) substitution. See, my theater degree is really paying off. And she has those kind of Minnesota O's and really hard R's.

And when she's being sort of sassy, when she's, you know, taking a shot at someone, her voice tends to get higher, the example being, you know, I guess being a mayor is kind of like being a community organizer. She gets pretty pleased with herself up there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: And then I also tried to think about - this is actually - I hope that somehow my college acting teachers hear this because they will be proud that I tried to think it through this much. But I did also tried to think of - people speak differently when they're doing public speaking. And so there's a little bit, hopefully, a little a bit of a difference between the one where I'm supposedly kind of giving a speech and then the one where I'm talking to Amy as Katie Couric because people kind of...

GROSS: Can you demonstrate how you hear the difference?

Ms. FEY: Well, there's a kind of a speech cadence of like, you know, John McCain and I are going to the White House - like there's a different cadence that people use when they're on the stump than when they're just speaking to another person.

GROSS: And speaking to another person, you'd sound like?

Ms. FEY: In that Katie Couric one, she was just - she was way more intimate, and she was - you know, we've got to - yeah. Just she was really more chatty but - as compared to the one that is the debate one. I felt like she kind of had the spirit of a very well-prepared high school debate captain. You know, she was confident in her answers and the ones that she had practiced.

(Soundbite of laugther)

Ms. FEY: There was a - she was confident, but it was because she had studied for the test.

GROSS: Since you mentioned the vice-presidential debate sketch on "Saturday Nigh Live," we've put together a collection of excerpts of you from that vice-presidential "Saturday Night Live" debate. So why don't we hear that? So this is my guest, Tina Fey, as Sarah Palin with Queen Latifah as the moderator, Gwen Ifill.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Ms. TINA FEY (As Governor Sarah Palin): You know, John McCain and I, we're a couple of mavericks, and gosh darn it, we're going to take that maverick energy right to Washington and we're going to use it to fix this financial crisis and everything else that's plaguing this great country of ours.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

QUEEN LATIFAH (As Gwen Ifill): How you will solve the financial crisis being a maverick?

Ms. FEY (As Governor Sarah Palin): You know, we're going to take every aspect of the crisis and look at it, and then we're going to ask ourselves, what would a maverick do in this situation? And then you know, we'll do that.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

QUEEN LATIFAH (As Gwen Ifill): Senator Palin, address your position on global warming and whether or not you think it's man-made or not.

Ms. FEY (As Governor Sarah Palin): Well, we don't know if this climate change whoozy-what's-it(ph) is man-made or if it's just a natural part of the end of days.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. FEY (As Governor Sarah Palin): But I'm not going to talk about that. I would like talk about taxes because with Barack Obama, you're going to be paying higher taxes, but not with me and my fellow maverick. We are not afraid to get marvericky in there. I'm not about to allow that, and also to the great Ronald Reagan.

QUEEN LATIFAH (As Gwen Ifill): Governor Palin, would you extend same-sex rights to the entire country?

Ms. FEY: You know, I would be afraid of where that would lead. I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers.

(Soundbite of audience laugher)

Ms. FEY: Oh, and for those Joe six-packs out there playing a drinking game at home - maverick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's so great. That's my guest, Tina Fey, as Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live." You were so fantastic in that. Now you were talking about how you got the voice for that, and you described that as the high school debate kind of sound, the practiced kind of sound?

Ms. FEY: For that one. And when she came out, she said, can I call you Joe? And she just was, you know, you could tell she was - it was just you could feel that everything that she was going to say was planned. Which is, you know, how they all are in that. But that was just something I tried to use.

GROSS: And it was this joke yours about a marriage is just a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers?

Ms. FEY: That joke, I believe, is mine also. Yeah. And I think that's probably the toughest joke we've done in any of those. You know what I mean, it's maybe the harshest joke because it's close to being about her own life which - but in some ways, it was one night. I did it, and it's one of those ones that I had a little tinge of, like, oh, did we just do that? But at the same time, this is a person who is trying to, you know, who is talking about the issue of marriage and who's allowed to get married and who's not. And it seemed to me to be an interesting connection to make.

GROSS: Well, you've got to go. I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. FEY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And congratulations on the show and your Sarah Palin impressions. Thank you again.

Ms. FEY: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Tina Fey, recorded in November just before the election. Coming up, Steven Colbert talks about his satirical coverage of the election on "The Colbert Report." This is Fresh Air.
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Stephen Colbert On 'The Greatest Gift Of All'

TERRY GROSS, host:

We're ending the year with entertaining interviews from 2008. We're featuring political satirists today. A couple of weeks after the election, I spoke with Stephen Colbert about his satirical campaign coverage on his Comedy Central program "The Colbert Report."

Let's talk a little about what it's been like for you covering the campaign and now covering the election of a new president. Let's start with how you opened your show the day after Election Day, the first day that Barack Obama was president-elect.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Colbert Report")

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host): Tonight Barack Obama has been elected president. My rage will be historic. Then, has Obama's election already change America? Yes, but don't worry, not the real America. And I sit down with civil rights pioneer Andrew Young. I'm not sure what we'll talk about now that racism is over.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. COLBERT: I didn't vote. If I wanted to stand in line for hours, I would be an audience member at my show.

(Soundbite of audience laughter and applause)

Mr. COBERT: This is The Colbert Report.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That is such a great intro. You got so much into that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: I did.

GROSS: Now, this is the probably the first time - I think it's the first that you had an interaction with a man who became president before he came president. You had Obama on your show, and I don't know if this was the only time you had him on the show, but when you did your show from Philadelphia in the spring - and this was the week that one of debates was in Philadelphia, one of the primary debates - and the last night of your week in Philadelphia, you had on - it was an incredible night. I think it was like one of your best shows ever, and it was a particularly great show for me because I was in the audience watching it.

You had on Hillary Clinton, and then we knew that Hillary was going to be on, but the surprise, surprise guests were John Edwards was there doing the word, and then...

Mr. COLBERT: The Ed Words.

GROSS: The Ed Words, oh, yeah, yes. Right. And then the huge surprise was the show ended with Barack Obama live from a remote location where he was doing a rally interacting with you. Tell us a little bit about what happened behind the scenes to make a show like that work where you had on Clinton, Edwards and Obama and a lot of secret service people...

Mr. COLBERT: A lot of secret service people.

GROSS: Involved with one show.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, we didn't know whether it was all going to come together. We had invited everybody to do this, but we didn't know if everybody was going to make it. We didn't, you know, know for certain until the middle of week whether Mrs. Clinton would be making it, and we didn't know until quite late that day whether Mr. Obama would be making it. We knew Mr. Edwards would be coming. We had written the thing, and he had approved of the script that we had done for him already.

But the show was going up late, and we wanted Obama's appearance to be a surprise, partly because we didn't want to set up expectations of something that we didn't know whether it was necessarily going to get pulled off. But to the point where I said, don't even put it in the script. Like, I don't want anybody to see this in case it doesn't happen. So, like, even my stage manager's like, what's happening in the fourth act? I'm like, we'll see. We'll see what's happening. And the Obama people were ready to go 10 minutes before we were ready to get to his section of the act. The whole night was a tightrope walk.

GROSS: You know, I have to say, here you are going through this like behind-the-scenes nightmare because you don't know if the show's going to work, you don't if you have your fourth act and if Obama's going to make it or not, you don't have the satellite feed. But at the same time, you wanted to keep the audience entertained, so you came out during the one of these like long, technical delays. We're just waiting there. You came out, and you literally stood on your head to entertain us. And I thought, if that is not the highest level of show business, someone who's under this pressure, everything's on his shoulders but he's worried about keeping the audience entertained in the downtime, so he's going to stand on his head for us.

Mr. COLBERT: It's all worthless if we lose you people. We don't - you know, we're not doing it for our health. We're doing it for laughs.

GROSS: And then after standing on your head you said, ouch, that really hurt. I think I threw my back out. Did you really - because I was worrying about you.

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, yes.

GROSS: You did?

Mr. COLBERT: Because I turned - I was like jumping around, and I turned to my stage manager and I said, just catch my feet, and I did a handstand. And he held my feet. Now, the audience is going crazy, and it was really nice, but it was so loud that what my stage manager could not hear me say is, let go of my feet.

GROSS: Oh, God.

Mr. COLBERT: Let go of my feet. And I'm screaming at the top my lungs, let go of my feet! Because my arms are about to give out and I'm going to snap my neck. And finally, I hear over his headset people from the studio, from the control room going, let go of his feet, let go of his feet because they could hear me through my mic, and I really did - I really did hurt my back. It took a while to get over that little moment.

But you know, one of the most fun things about that week was, you know, I really wanted to that show to have everybody on at that final show. And you know, I don't ever want the show to be - for what everybody might think of the show - I don't ever really want it to be a hostile environment for my guests. My characters is aggressive and my character is egotistical, but I really want my guests to have a good time, you know, and to have fun.

And so, I knew that we would be honored to have, you know, those three guests on that night. And we worked very hard to find a joke and a game for John Edwards to do, and happily he came on and did it. And then we worked just as hard to say, like, what is the message that Hillary wants to get out? And the messages is of competence, handling emergencies, so we created an emergency for her to handle, which just happened to be my big rear projection screen behind me going out, and then she came in and fixed it. And we just had a lot of trouble figuring out what Obama's problem was. Like, what was the thing that he would even want to talk about on the show?

And it seemed to me - it ocurred to me around noon the day that we wanted him - and they had said they couldn't make it at this point - that his message was he was being hounded by petty political distractions like the flag pin issue, like, why don't you wear a flag pin, and that's one of the issues that had been brought up in the debate that week.

And so, we had the on-notice board, which is this board I use to put things on notice that I don't believe - you know, that I'm suspicious of. Things like, you know, the black hole at the center of the galaxy or Lutherans or grizzly bears. They're all on notice. And so I said, let's see if Barack Obama would be willing to come on the show to put petty political distractions officially on notice.

And so we quickly wrote a script in which he did that, appearing on this 25-foot-high rear projection screen right behind my head, which is what we had for the set in Philly, and at the very end of the show, I said, well, it was a great week. Thanks for having us. I only wish that Barack Obama had had a chance to stop by. And then he just appeared on the screen behind my head. And he said, so do I, Stephen. And then, you know, then we did the scene.

But the excitement of putting yourself in - I love being in situations where I feel like I'm in trouble, like I've said, such and such will happen but I don't know how to make it happen. And it reminds me of what Ernie Kovacs said, that every good idea he ever had was because it was 3:15 and he had a 3:30 production meeting. And I'd say that's one of the things that is, like, the most fun for me on the show and maybe the thing that's eventually going to kill us on the show...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Is that we love trying to do something that we probably shouldn't get away with, though, that we shouldn't be able to achieve.

GROSS: So, we're almost out of time but I want to save a moment to ask you an important question. A lot of people have paid tribute to you. There's a spider named after you. There's various animals, a plane named after you. There's an edition of Spiderman in which you're a character. So if I want to pay tribute to you on Fresh Air, what can I do?

Mr. COLBERT: You already did it. On your 20th anniversary show, you ended the show with the ending that you and I did...

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. COLBERT: On the first time I was on your show, and I accidentally caught it. I had dropped my kids off at school and I was listening to the radio, the rebroadcast, and I was - I sat in the driveway. I had one of those driveway moments, and I listened to the last half of your best-of 20th anniversary show. And you got all the way to the end, and I was like, oh, I wish I had made her best-up(ph) show, and then I was the last thing on it. It was our goodbye. It was the last thing on your 20th anniversary show. And so, you've already done it. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Oh, thank you very much. Yes, it was the place of honor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, I think so.

GROSS: The final note.

Mr. COLBERT: Wherever I would have been, I would have considered the place of honor, but it happened to be the actual place of honor.

GROSS: Yeah. And I want to end with you and John Legend singing a duet...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Of the National Anthem from one of your shows in Philadelphia. And you get to sing some really deep notes as you sing harmony with him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, you can go high and you can go real low in your singing. Is this about as low as it gets as we're going to hear in this?

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah. I imagine so. I imagine so. That day I became a man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, thanks for coming on our show. It's always so great to talk with you.

Mr. COLBERT: Thanks for having me back.

GROSS: And thank you so much.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Colbert Report")

Mr. COLBERT & and Mr. JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) Oh, say can you see,
By the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched
Were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there.
O, say, does that
Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free
And the home of the brave?

GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert and John Legend. Colbert is the host and executive producer of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central. Our interview was recorded last month.

Coming up, music critic Milo Miles on the 25th anniversary of "Hearts of Space," the public radio program devoted to new age, ambient and world music. This is Fresh Air.
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The Ethereal, Ambient Sound Of 'Hearts Of Space'

TERRY GROSS, host:

The new age music show, "Hearts of Space," has just begun celebrating its 25th anniversary as a national show with a "Best of Hearts of Space" series of albums. "Hearts of Space" began as a late-night show on KPFA FM in Berkeley, California and went national a decade later. It's now heard on about 250 NPR stations. "Hearts of Space" has come far in 25 years, and critic Milo Miles explains how his attitude towards its style of music has also evolved.

(Soundbite of music)

MILO MILES: I'll admit it. When new age music first took off in the early 1980s, I regarded it as the enemy. There was a time when everything seemed to be going dewy and soft. Punk was mellowing into new wave. What had been noisy progressive rock and steely electronic experiments was being reduced to this creamy smoothness. There was no resistance, no crusading and vocals like crooning wood nymphs floating over misty valleys.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Yes, it's easy to poke fun at new age, or as Stephen Hill, who started "Hearts of Space" with the late Anna Turner likes to call it, Space Music. Whatever the name, you probably have a strong and slightly indistinct idea about the sounds I'm talking about. Many performers filed under new age resist the granola hosanna connotations. They point out that impeccably hip albums such as jazz flautist Paul Horn's "Inside" and Terry Riley's "Rainbow in Curved Air" are clearly meditated precursors of new age. The "Best of Hearts of Space" series begins with the initial broadcast, which includes performers as austere and and focused as anyone could ask. A good example is the German multi-instrumentalist, Dieter.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Master jazz critic, Martin Williams, once dismissed new age superstar pianist George Winston by declaring he could teach anyone to do what Winston did in three hours even though he did not play piano. It's a marvelous essay but a bit beside the point. Williams offers a variant of the three chords in a cloud-of-dust criticism of punk rock. Sure, anyone can do it, but not just anyone. It's what Winston does with his ultra-simple chops that attracted and held a considerable audience. I know I couldn't do that after three hours of instruction, and neither could Martin Williams.

The standout tracks on the "Best of Hearts of Space" do an end run-around analysis, like Thomas de Hartmann's composition for the sly guru Gurdjieff or Charles Lloyd's spiritual quest number, which isn't as faceless as it might have seemed back when new age was a menace to noisy music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MILES: So I recommend "Best of Hearts of Space: Program Number One - First Flight" to those mildly skeptical about the whole field. New age has not exactly become my friend, but I do respect its game.

GROSS: Mile Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed "Best of Hearts of Space: Program Number One."
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