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"The Simpsons" Airs Its 200th Episode.

The creator of the Simpsons Matt Groening talks with TV critic David Bianculli about the series. This month, TV's longest running animated series will broadcast its 200th episode. The Simpsons were first featured during episodes of the Tracey Ullman Show. The Simpsons own prime time series premiered in 1990. Groening has a new book called "The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family."


Other segments from the episode on April 22, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 22, 1998: Interview with Matt Groening; Interview with William Stewart and Sydney Hanlon.


Date: APRIL 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042201NP.217
Head: Matt Groening
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, sitting in for Terry Gross.

This Sunday, Fox presents the 200th episode of "The Simpsons" -- the longest-running prime time animated series in TV history. Matt Groening created the cartoon characters 11 years ago, as short features for The Tracey Ullman Show, and spun them off into their own series in 1990.

Since then, there's been a TV animation renaissance that includes "Beavis and Butthead," "Ren and Stimpy," "King of the Hill," and "South Park."

FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli spoke with Matt Groening and asked him what this milestone means to him.

MATT GROENING, CREATOR OF "THE SIMPSONS": Working on a show like The Simpsons, there's no hiatus like on other TV shows. We're working year-round. It takes six months to do one episode and we're obviously doing many, many episodes at the same time. So, it's all a big cartoony blur to me, these last -- I don't know -- how many years has it been since -- the end of 1989.


GROENING: And, you know, we look up from our drawing tables and, you know, and go: oh, 200? Oh, OK. I mean, we're way beyond 200 right now. We're working on episodes for next year.

BIANCULLI: Well, most...



Wait -- what am I talking about? The 200th episode -- yeah.


GROENING: The one that's going to be on in just a little bit.


It's a good episode, by the way.


GROENING: It's a really -- it's an excellent episode. It was written by Ian Maxstone Graham (ph), directed by Jim Reardon (ph), and it's Homer -- here's -- here's a pitch: Homer as the sanitation commissioner of Springfield. I know it doesn't sound that exciting, but it is.



I'll trust you.

GROENING: It is. It's...

BIANCULLI: No -- I -- listen, the amazing thing about The Simpsons is that it's been going on for like 172 years now, and it is still consistently entertaining, week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out -- in a way that most TV series that last that long are not. You guys don't seem to slump.

GROENING: I think one of the reasons why The Simpsons has sustained its velocity is that the -- each new group of animators and writers who comes on board tries to top the previous group. And we have a bunch of really talented people who are trying to cram as many jokes and observations as can into every episode.

And one thing I'm very proud of of The Simpsons is that we don't have a laugh-track, unlike every other sitcom on TV -- although I don't think a laugh-track would work anyway in animation.

But anyway, we don't have one so we get more jokes than usual in our shows. So, I'm happy.

BIANCULLI: Now, with all of the new people coming in, that means old people are going out. It used to be in the late '70s and early '80s that MTM Productions was the place where people would go to learn TV and go out -- and of course one of -- one of your partners, Jim Brooks, was one of the co-founders there.


BIANCULLI: And I'm wondering if you can look back at the people that you have lost to other venues over the years for The Simpsons, and point out who's doing what where now.

GROENING: Well let's see. Greg Daniels went from The Simpsons to King of the Hill and co-created that with Mike Judge. And the rest have disappeared into total obscurity. Oh, yeah, wait a minute -- Conan O'Brien (ph) went on to some success.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, near total obscurity.



GROENING: Yeah, no -- it's really -- it's really fun to see Conan. And also, you know, on the Internet we get lots of fan comments, and we read them, and are thoroughly annoyed by them, thank you very much, but...


... our fans are very critical. And the -- one of the annoying nut posts is the idea that this show really hasn't been the same since Conan has been gone, and if we could only get Conan back.


So, we're trying. We're trying to get Conan back, but don't hold your breath.

BIANCULLI: What the strangest thing that you have ever read from an Internet posting -- either something that someone has caught as a joke that you never thought they would? Or just some weird take on the show that you can't believe they actually...

GROENING: Well the weirdest thing that -- the weirdest thing that ever happened on the -- as far as reading on the Internet -- was my own obituary, which I read on April Fools Day. Somebody posted that in the form of an Associated Press release, that I had died of a heart attack in Jim Brooks' office, which is thoroughly possible I suppose.


But it didn't happen. And you know, it's always fascinating. You know that scene in "Huckleberry Finn," where Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are presumed dead and all that stuff. I always was fascinated by that idea, of being able to read your own obituary. And it happened to me. And it was not as fun as I thought it was going to be.

BIANCULLI: Well, Huck got to attend his own funeral. You didn't go that far.

GROENING: Yes. No, I didn't go that far.

BIANCULLI: Another thing about Jim Brooks is that, of course, he just got Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson a couple of Oscars for "As Good As It Gets," and it seems like the Jack Nicholson character in that is not that far off from your whole "Life in Hell" cartoon series.


GROENING: Well, I don't know -- I don't know about that. You know, one of the great things about Jim is his enthusiasm for -- for acting and for the -- for the -- going for real emotions. I mean, back in the beginning of the show, one of the things that he made sure that we kept alive was the idea that you would forget you were watching a cartoon at certain points; that we'd go for moments of real emotion.

And I think actually, if there's any secret to the longevity of The Simpsons, it's to the extent that we've been able to follow that idea, which is to make the cartoons real. And you know, we have great actors on the show who, despite the silly lines we give them and the grotesque way they're drawn, are able to bring these characters to life.

We've tried using people who do cartoon voices from time to time on The Simpsons, and they're great at what they do, but the kind of emotional reality that we're going for is something that we haven't been able to capture, except with the seven or eight people who provide regular voices on our cast.

And we -- and there was actually some controversy about that, too, because they were holding out for a lot more money. And you know, Fox considered hiring other actors to replace them, which of course would have been disastrous.

BIANCULLI: Well, I would think that -- that just given your history, that you would side so readily with the vocal actor series cast regulars getting raises, that you would be not on the side of management, but on the side of labor in that one. How did that -- was that true? Or what happened there?

GROENING: Well, my attitude is The Simpsons actors deserve to be as rich and unhappy as anyone in Hollywood. And...


So you know...

BIANCULLI: That's a pretty high bar.

GROENING: Yeah, of course -- I mean, you know, the -- look, my whole reason for doing anything creatively is to have fun. And it -- when this problem was first brought up and Fox was stubborn about not going for these hefty raises and all this stuff, I said: "hey, look, if it's no fun, let's just not do it anymore." And they -- they thought I was insane.


As long as there's money to be made, I think the show will go on.

BIANCULLI: One thing I'm wondering about -- since they do realize the value of the show at Fox, there has been no official Simpsons spin-off. And I know for a long time you wanted one and weren't sure in what direction you would take it in terms of either television or film. Where does that stand now? Or is there an entire new series that is -- that is coming from you fairly soon?

GROENING: Well, part of the problem with The Simpsons is that there is so much money that -- that's going around and around in this project that anything that involves signing new contracts makes the actual negotiations difficult or impossible. I did try to do a Simpsons spin-off -- Krusty the Clown.

It was originally conceived as a live-action spin-off starring Dan Castlanetta (ph), who does the voice of Krusty as well as Homer. And I thought that would be an amusing conceit -- that is, the idea that you would do a live-action spin-off of a cartoon.

But -- I actually sat in a big room with a bunch of people and we talked about this, and everybody took very, very greedy positions. And I said: "hey, look, if you guys all take the second-greediest position, we can do this thing. We can do it. It'll be fun. And you'll still make lots and lots of money. But let's do it."

But they wouldn't take the second-greediest position. Everybody wanted all the money, and you can't do it that way. So, that's why there has never been a Simpsons spin-off or why there's never been a Simpsons movie. I'd love to do it. I'd love to do a movie. But it ain't going to happen. There's too much money-grubbing involved.

That's why I had to go on and do my own TV show -- my new one. I'm working on a new animated series where we're all going to work for free, and it's going to be fun. No, no...


No, it's gonna -- you know, we're starting over; starting fresh. And you know, it's going to be fun.

BIANCULLI: But you're starting fresh and you're going to write the contract so that you retain rights this time?

GROENING: You know, I'm -- no. What I -- you can't do it. It's Hollywood. It's crazy here. But what I do, is I try to have more fun. I mean, that's the reason. This new show, which is very similar in sensibility of The Simpsons -- it'll be fast-paced. The characters will have big eyeballs and they'll have no chins, and their skin's not going to be yellow. It's not a spin-off. It's a brand-new show. Don't sue me.

So anyway it's -- where was I?

BIANCULLI: What the show is going to be -- new show.

GROENING: Oh, yes -- so it's going to be -- it's going to take place in the future. It's kind of a science fiction thing. What we have done to the American family with The Simpsons, we're going to try to do to science fiction and the future with this new show. It's called "Futurama." It'll be on Fox next year.

BOGAEV: That's Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, speaking with FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli.

The 200th episode of The Simpsons will air this Sunday on the Fox Network. We'll be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our interview with cartoonist Matt Groening. He's talking with TV critic David Bianculli.

BIANCULLI: Tell me more about how Jim Brooks and you hooked up in the first place? What was it that you think that he saw in you that made it a good pairing?

GROENING: Well, Jim was working with a producer named Polly Platt (ph), who liked my cartoon strip "Life in Hell," which was running in the Los Angeles Reader at the time -- a local weekly paper. And, she showed him my stuff.

He liked it and they tried -- actually tried to get me to put my cartoons in as background props in a movie that he was doing. And that didn't work out, and then The Tracey Ullman Show came along, and they asked me if I wanted to try my hand at animation. And that was the beginning of it.

BIANCULLI: Where did you think it was going to lead? How long did you think that would last?

GROENING: Well, they called me up and they -- and they said they had -- were doing this new comedy-variety show and they wanted to have little animated cartoons as part of the show, and suggested that I animate my Life in Hell characters, which I thought was a great idea.

I found out that I would give up ownership of whatever it is that I put up. And so I created The Simpsons in their stead, 'cause I -- you know, Life in Hell, with my Rabbitz (ph) and Akbar and Jeff -- that's a regular gig and I was doing just fine with that. And I didn't know if this animation thing was going to pan out at all.

And I decided not to sacrifice my own characters. So, I made up these other characters who I didn't really care about -- The Simpsons.


And they were, you know, in the back of my mind, I really wanted to, you know, do this thing as a TV series. I thought it should be a TV series. And so, it was inspired by both memories of my own family and in the family sitcoms that I was glued to when I was a kid -- "Leave It To Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet" in particular, were really important to me as a kid.

You know, Ozzie and Harriet -- everyone thinks, "oh, Ozzie and Harriet" -- it's like this sort of symbol for blandness. And it -- it was kind of -- kind of corny and bland, but it was also really surreal. And I'm telling you, watch those -- watch those re-runs. They used to run them on the Disney Channel. I don't know where they are now. But they're fantastic, really -- the good ones, the early ones -- not when -- when they got -- when Ricky and Dave got married, it wasn't as good.


But in the early -- when they were kids -- when they -- you know, when they were still going through adolescence, it was really a cool show.

BIANCULLI: One major element of The Simpsons that you are cashing in on lately with CD releases is...

GROENING: Cashing in? Simpsons? How can you even put those two words in the same sentence...

BIANCULLI: I don't know. I don't know. But...


BIANCULLI: ... that was not a disparaging "cashing-in" because I listen to the CDs all the time. I...

GROENING: A "cashing-in" in Hollywood -- that's -- you know, that's like -- that's the biggest superlative there is.

BIANCULLI: Well, what -- how involved are you in the music, with Danny Elfman -- with everybody who does the music? I don't know how some of the episodes that are very heavy on music even get thought up in the first place? How do you know that everybody can do it when you're going to do a musical version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" for example?

GROENING: Well, but we have talented actors who will, you know, throw themselves into this stuff. Alf Claussen (ph), who does the music for the show, is fantastic. He is able to come up with amazing solutions to the problems that are thrown at him. And the -- we're doing a second CD of stuff from the show and, you know, I'm just amazed that we didn't run out of material from the first CD, but we've got -- the show is jam-packed with music.

You know, it's -- The Simpsons is one of the few shows that's actually fully orchestrated these days. I thought back at the very beginning of the show that we needed an orchestra, 'cause the animation was going to be so crude and wobbly that anything we could do to anchor the animation in some kind of solidity that you could at least hear would be a real help.

And now, I like it just because I think, you know, I'm tired of synthesizers, which is what you hear on most other shows. I like that orchestral sound.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Tell me a little bit about -- about Matt Groening at home, when you're not at The Simpsons. How do you and your kids react to TV now? What life do you have when you're not working?

GROENING: Well I have two sons aged nine and six, and they're huge fans of the show, and we have tapes of The Simpsons. And when I get up in the morning and come down to breakfast, they're usually watching the show. And I -- you know, I'm not in the best of mood before I've had my coffee, and so I -- I tell them to shut it off. And they now think that I hate The Simpsons...


... because I don't want to hear it before I -- you know, wake up in the morning. I don't like to be woken up to the sound of Bart.


Also another thing is, you know, and I -- this is another -- this is a -- I'll take this opportunity to apologize to America. You know, there was a lot of complaints about Bart and what a brat he was and a bad example for kids. And I thought: "aw, come on. Grow up. Stop acting like Homer Simpson and your kids won't act like Bart Simpson."

But the fact is, now that I have these kids, and they're quoting the show back to me -- it is really annoying. I mean, we've done the...


... we did on The Simpsons -- we did, you know, "are we there yet? are we there yet? are we there yet?" in the car. My kids still -- years later -- they still think that's funny.

BIANCULLI: What were some of the things that warped you early as a teenager? I know that Bullwinkle had to be -- Rocky and Bullwinkle had to be a big influence.

GROENING: Yeah, I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle. I've said this before -- Jay Ward and Bill Scott who did that were my heroes. 'Cause here was bad animation. I mean, let's face it: Rocky and Bullwinkle was pretty flimsy looking.

But it had great writing and it had great voices and it had great music. And I thought, if you could get something like that on the air again, it'd be really fun to do. And that was -- that was one of my goals in life and, you know.

BIANCULLI: It's a -- one of the animated rules that I remember you mentioning is that The Simpsons will never cross their eyes. And I don't know if that goes for the other characters in the show as well, but it's just one thing that you just didn't want to have your characters do.

GROENING: Oh yeah, stylistically there's a few rules on The Simpsons. That's one of them -- that they don't go cross-eyed for gag effect. Like if you clonk them on the head, they don't go cross-eyed and stars don't go above their heads and little birds fly around or anything like that.

Generally when The Simpsons fall off the cliff, the unrealistic thing is that they survive, but the realistic thing is that they're, you know, battered and bloody. You know, so I think -- I think we're one of the first cartoons to actually show blood, you know.

I think even in the Tom and Jerry cartoons and some of the other very violent cat and mouse cartoons, there was no blood. But there's blood on The Simpsons.

BIANCULLI: And certainly on Itchy and Scratchy.

GROENING: And you know, I'm proud of that, too.


GROENING: Because -- I don't know why.


BIANCULLI: Well what are some -- what are some of the other rules that you decided on at the very beginning when you were first doing The Simpsons...

GROENING: Well, as far as eyeballs go, basically the characters look straight ahead or they go slightly wall-eyed to convey alienation. They don't -- they don't -- they don't go -- they don't have that one eye up and one -- one pupil up, one pupil down look -- you know? -- for craziness, too.

What are some of the other rules? Just as far as sound effects -- no "boings" -- no "boyoyoying" -- you know, when they get hit. All the sound effects are relatively realistic. I mean, you know, when Homer falls over and, you know, cracks his back against a fire hydrant, it's a celery crunch, but it could be a spine. It's not a "boing." You know, it's not a Three Stooges sound effect.

BIANCULLI: But with sound effects, is it true that you originally provided the sound effect -- that you did the sucking for Maggie on the pacifier?

GROENING: Well, on the pacifier -- yeah. Well, I -- yes, I did.

BIANCULLI: And do they -- have you now turned that -- that duty over to a pacifier specialist?

GROENING: You know, though, I think through the miracle of modern technology, as far as I know, it's still the same suck. It's -- they only had to do it once, and then they just keep repeating it. You know...


... that's how it goes.


GROENING: That's just my tongue against my lower lip.

BIANCULLI: What do you have about keeping Bart especially at that exact age in school?

GROENING: You know, one of the great things about animation is that your actors don't get old and decrepit. You know? They don't -- they don't rob stores. They don't -- you know, they don't have tragic rehab stories. You know, anything like that -- they're just -- they just stay the way you draw them. And I think it's one of the fun things we have with The Simpsons is that Bart has turned 10 so many times.

And you know, we've talked about aging them. When this actor's strike happened on the show, there was one suggestion from a Fox executive to -- "why don't you just age the characters? And then have different voices? That's a solution." We thought that was not such a good idea.

BIANCULLI: That's scary.

BOGAEV: Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, talking with FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli. We'll hear more from Matt Groening in the second half of our show.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Let's go back now to our interview with cartoonist Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. He's speaking with TV critic David Bianculli. David asked him how The Simpsons are like other American families.

GROENING: I think one of the things about The Simpsons is it really is about the anxiety and consternation of living with people who drive you out of your mind. There -- because it's animation and because it's a comedy, we do a lot of fore-shortening, a lot of slight exaggeration. I call it "rubber-band reality." That is, it's real and then we stretch it out for a moment, and then it snaps back to reality.

But it is about the things that drive you crazy. I mean, how do you live with people you love and you want to kill? I think that's -- that's the underlying theme of The Simpsons. And in the midst of all that, it's a celebration of that idea. That is, at the end of the day, it's not a -- you know, a Becket play. It's a cartoon.

BIANCULLI: How do you think The Simpsons stacks up against more three-dimensional sitcoms? And in particular, the characters of the mothers, the fathers, and the kids?

GROENING: Well you know, I -- I don't want to compare what we do to other TV shows in live action, because I think, when I look at those shows, I go: "God, how do they do that? How can you write scenes that take place in the same room, you know, week after week after week?"

You know, characters just have to come in and out of doors in order to, you know, to move things around. I mean, on The Simpsons, we have -- we can go anywhere we want to. We can go into the character's fantasy worlds. We can show the TV shows that they enjoy. We can go into outer space and under water and all kinds of stuff.

We have 40 or 50 characters in a single episode. And I think that it's certainly spoiled me. When I tried to do that Krusty the Clown spin-off that I was talking about earlier, part of the problem of doing a live-action version of it is when I had written a scene in which this beaver was gnawing away at the foundation of Krusty's house, the Fox said: "do you realize how much it's going to cost to get a beaver? We can't get, you know, a trained beaver to gnaw on the wood, you know?" A stuffed beaver was even going to cost a lot -- and forget about a robotic beaver.

BIANCULLI: Besides...

GROENING: So you know, if it's a cartoon, you can draw that beaver.

BIANCULLI: And Matt, to resort to the old "beaver-eating-the-house" in the pilot...


GROENING: Well you know, it was -- the premise was that Krusty moved to Hollywood and became a big self-hating talk-show host.


GROENING: And he lived in a house on stilts and he -- and throughout the entire series, he was going to hear this gnawing sound and not quite know what it was.


But we, the audience, would know that it was a beaver.

BIANCULLI: Well, tell me in terms of -- since you watched so much TV as a kid, and I did as well...

GROENING: You state it like an accusation.


BIANCULLI: No, I'm actually...

GROENING: OK, here's the deal. You watched TV the way I did -- and I really felt guilty about all the TV that I watched, and I -- jeez, oh my God, it's the one life I have to live and I'm just -- just think of the commercials I've wasted, you know, watching -- all this life. Oh, God. And the only way I can make this pay off is I actually do a TV show. Then, it's all research. Then, I've justified it. So, this is my pathetic attempt to make up for all that wasted time.

BIANCULLI: And so the reason for making a second one, now that you've justified the lifetime with the first?

GROENING: Oh, the second one is -- is -- really, and this is true -- it's an attempt to do the first one right. It's an attempt to have fun this time. Not that The Simpsons hasn't been fun, but it's been a mix. And I've learned a lot over the course of the last 11 years since I've been working with these characters. And this time, I'm -- I know what to expect. I know -- you know, I know how to do it. And I'm going to have a lot more fun.

BIANCULLI: Do you have any sense watching your kids right now that they're getting the same seditious enjoyment out of mass media, or even alternative media, that you did when you were a kid?

GROENING: Well, I tried to -- this is -- maybe this is going to sound -- it's going to sound worse than it is, but I tried to use my kids as a little experiment. What I tried to do is see what happens if you don't hold back on what the kids are able to look at.

I mean, I don't let them watch really scary horror movies or things like that. But they get to watch videos. They get to play video games. They have their computer and their CD-ROMS and their musical instruments and comic books and magazines and monster books and all the rest of that stuff.

And I just pretty much don't put a limit on the kinds of stuff they can look at or view or play with. And as a result, or not as a result, but in my particular experiment, I've got kids who read like crazy and -- and play video games like crazy, too, and watch tapes of The Simpsons.

So so far, it's worked out really well because they -- they're interested in everything. And you know, I had to sneak around a little bit, and maybe the reason why it was so fun for me was because this -- a lot of this stuff was a little bit taboo. And -- but with them, they -- they take it for granted.

You know, I say: "you know, when I was a kid, we didn't have CD-ROMS." Also, you know, there's a lot of good stuff from the olden days that I -- that I force on my kids. I turned them on to "Little Lulu" comics from the 1950s, for instance. I mean, really good comics. And at first, they were...

BIANCULLI: That stuff scared me.

GROENING: Little Lulu?



GROENING: What's your problem?

BIANCULLI: I don't know why. Well, that's for another show. Listen, I want to thank you for being on this one.

GROENING: Oh, no. I'm not letting you go. OK, go ahead.




BIANCULLI: No, I just have to say, we actually are out of time and I wanted to say thanks for being here.

GROENING: Thanks. Say hi to Terry.

BIANCULLI: I sure will.

BOGAEV: Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, spoke with FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli. The Simpsons airs its 200th episode this Sunday.

Coming up, fighting teenage violence on the streets of Boston.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Matt Groening
High: The creator of The Simpsons Matt Groening talks with TV critic David Bianculli about the series. This month, TV's longest running animated series will broadcast its 200th episode. The Simpsons were first featured during episodes of the Tracey Ullman Show. The Simpsons own prime time series premiered in 1990. Groening has a new book called "The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family."
Spec: Media; Television; The Simpsons
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Matt Groening
Date: APRIL 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042202NP.217
Head: Operation Night Light
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: There's a series running now on PBS called "In Search of Law and Order" which examines different approaches to combating juvenile crime. One city highlighted in the series is Boston, which in 1990 saw a record-setting 152 murders due to gang drug turf wars.

In response, community members and law enforcement in Boston started a new collaborative approach to fighting juvenile crime. They brought in the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They set up a mentoring program called "The Street Workers," and they got out the word that they wouldn't hesitate to slam repeat offenders with long federal prison terms.

Since then, the murder rate in Boston among teenagers has dropped 65 percent, and Boston has been held up as a model for other cities fighting youth violence.

My guests are probation officer Bill Stewart and Judge Sydney Hanlon, presiding justice in Dorchester District Court in Boston. We'll hear from Judge Hanlon a little later in the interview.

In the mid-'80s, Stewart says some neighborhoods were like war zones. There were shootings near the courthouse in Dorchester. I asked Stewart just how brazen the gangs were and if they actually came into the courthouse itself.

WILLIAM STEWART, ASSISTANT CHIEF PROBATION OFFICER, DORCHESTER DISTRICT COURT: Well first of all, you had to know that they were a gang, and they made no bones about who they were. They would march into the courthouse, 10, 15, 20 deep, to "back" one of their friends who had been arrested. They would try to take over the courthouse. They would try to intimidate people. They would intimidate witnesses out in the hallway.

I remember a case back in 1986, there were a rash of goosedown, full-length goosedown jackets being robbed at the public transportation stations. And when one of the individuals was brought in for trial, he brought in 20 of his friends.

And I was sitting in the courtroom watching it, and the victim would not go forward with the case. And I talked to him outside after the case was dismissed for want of prosecution -- lack of prosecution -- and you know, I said, you know, we'll help you. We'll cover you. We'll protect you.

But that was wrong. We couldn't have done it. It could not have been done. It was a stupid thing to say. So they -- they took -- they tried to stake themselves out in the courthouse. They had already staked -- staked themselves out in the neighborhood. And they were beginning to root.

BOGAEV: One of the programs you helped create in Boston in response to this gang activity is called "Operation Night Light." You had -- you yourself and your other probation officers -- go out on house visits with the police to check up on kids violating probation. What was the thinking behind the pairing up? What was it supposed to accomplish?

STEWART: Well probation officers have always been out on the street, or in the schools, but we got away from working at night. When I started in the business 21 years ago, I made it a habit of driving around at night, just to check on kids in parks and places that they would hang around. We got away from that.

We became -- our role became that of service brokers. We -- an individual -- an offender would come into the courthouse and during the course of the interview, we would try to identify problems. And in that term, we would tie them up with resources to get to the bottom line, which is to get them to deviate from criminal behavior.

It wasn't an easy bond to make, because bureaucracy being what it is, we felt in the courthouse we have our problems; the police have their problems. We'll solve ours; police will solve theirs; probation will go home at 4:30 and we expected the police to enforce our terms of probation.

Nobody had ever told us, Barbara, that -- we weren't trained this way, but nobody had ever told us about some of the powers that probation officers do have. It wasn't in our training. It's nobody's fault that that happened. But we had gotten away from the fact that we can make arrests. We can do things when we have reasonable suspicion, as opposed to probable cause, that somebody's in violation of their terms of probation.

We can make an arrest. But we weren't trained that way. So, obviously we needed the police department and a partnership with the police department to put that in motion.

BOGAEV: What changed once you started going out with the police and confronting these kids in their houses, in their bedrooms, or on the streetcorner?

STEWART: Well what happened -- you know, one of my favorite stories, obviously, was the first night of the joint operation, after we'd put the plan in motion. One minute into the first ride on November 12, 1992, there was a radio call on a shooting on Nelson Street.

When we get to the scene, myself and my partner Richie Skinner (ph), along with our police partners Bobby Merner (ph) and Bobby Fratalia (ph), the co-founder -- really, the co-creators of the program -- there was a young guy in the middle of the street, Tito Blanco (ph) by name, who had a 30-30 hole in his chest. He was still alive.

Richie had him on probation. In fact, Tito had been in that day to see him. I walked around the police tape that had been set up and saw across the tape six young men that we knew -- I knew. And who by terms of probation were not supposed to be there, nor were they supposed to be out on the street that late at night. They were all supposed to be in the house at 8:00.

So I walked around the police tape and on purpose walked into a young men by the name of James. And he turned around, he looked at me, and his -- the first comment out of his mouth is: "what are you doing here?" And I said: "well, I'm out riding in the 5-0" -- which is the street slang for police car." And his comment back to me was: "that's not fair. You're not supposed to do that."

And I think that the program was built on that statement. If they didn't think it was fair, then that's what we had to do.

BOGAEV: So before this, kids out violating their curfews just wouldn't get caught. They could really get away with pretty much whatever they wanted to, as long as it wasn't, you know, overtly illegal.

STEWART: Well, on terms -- by virtue of their terms of probation, what happened back in 1990 is we changed the terms of probation in the Dorchester court because of -- there was one cataclysmic event -- that being the Kimberly Raye Harbert (ph) murder on Halloween night in 1990, when eight individuals -- eight juveniles -- dragged a young lady off a street and they beat her and raped her and stabbed her 132 times.

What we did, is we took the standard terms of probation that we use in the State of Massachusetts, which were four, and added eight terms. Once the police department in 1990 -- Boston Police Department admitted that we had a gang problem and signified or designated a gang as a group of three or more individuals involved in criminal activity, we wrote that into the terms of probation -- you can't be out after eight or nine o'clock, you can't hang on the corner of walk and don't walk street; and you can't be in a group larger than three.

BOGAEV: Since you've started the program, how have you assessed how well it's working?

STEWART: It's been tremendous, Barbara. I think, you know, one of the greatest aspects of the program and one of the ongoing benefits that we see -- all of us who go out. I mean, we started small and now in Boston on any given night or during -- in a seven day week, what started with two police officers and two probation officers, is now 50 police officers, 50 probation officers, seven nights a week, checking on curfews and checking on offenders.

Never has there been a situation where a door has been kicked in; where we've exerted pressure on the individual in their home. That's not what the program's about. And we didn't want that. We can always work with somebody. We can bring an individual into court the next day, into the office, and work with them there. There's no need to -- to enforce terms in their bedroom, in most situations.

But the ongoing benefit to the program is the response from the parents. We'll knock on a door and we'll ask to see an offender, and more often than not we get from the parent "thank God you're here. God bless you for doing this. This is wonderful. It's just what he needs."

And so, the response -- that's pretty much what the program was built -- been built on -- that response from the parents.

BOGAEV: A lot of these kids are under curfew. What are they supposed to do at home all evening?

STEWART: We've had no trouble. In fact, compliance rate with terms of probation went from 30 to 70 percent once we went out and started knocking on doors at night. It's easy to drive a kid off the street, but now the question is: where have we driven them?

In more cases -- and you know, and some of the stories -- some of the things that I've seen -- we caught a kid out one night and I asked him. I said: "you know, you're out after curfew. I do have the power of arrest for violation of probation."

And his body slumped. I said: "what's the problem?" And he didn't want to talk in front of the officer. So I took him aside, and got out of him the information that his mother's boyfriend comes over to the house and when he's over, he beats him up. He didn't want to be in the house.

So I asked him if he was hungry, and he indicated that he was. So I said: "why don't you hop in the car, we'll go down and do a Big Mac attack or something like that." And I said: "but I'll ask your mother for permission." So I went back in the house and talked to the mother -- get the mother out and get the boyfriend out.

And had a real one-way conversation with the mother about the fact that it was her son; she was putting him in a bad position. And that's her blood. Boyfriends come and go, but her son is her son forever -- basically was the tone of the conversation. And I really wouldn't look favorably -- favorably if when we came back, if the boyfriend was in the house.

So when we did in fact return after doing the Mickey D run, he was gone. That's a good thing.

BOGAEV: My guest is Bill Stewart, probation officer in Dorchester District Court in Boston. We'll talk more after the break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with probation officer Bill Stewart of Dorchester District Court in Boston. We'll be joined by Judge Sydney Hanlon later in our conversation.

Operation Night Light was just one in a series of programs that you've initiated at the Boston criminal justice system, aimed at lessening gang violence. Another one's called "Operation Cease Fire." I'd like you to tell us how the police and court officials and state and city and federal -- federal forces all worked together to get the message out that gang violence just wouldn't be tolerated.

STEWART: What happened -- because of the success of the partnership between police and probation and Night Light, the next logical step was to see if we could get more partners to the table. There was an incident where a young man came into my partner's office, Richie Skinner's office, and gave him information on a gun ring. The Boston police took that and had a gun operation -- a gun sting operation, where there was an individual taken down who was running guns from down south.

The Boston police next took the step to build a relationship with the ATF agency -- Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. So now we had three partners sitting at the table, and the program ballooned from there. Now at any given time, we've got 17 agencies sitting at a table who are all working together.

If you're bad enough, the Suffolk County District Attorney can send you to state's prison for 15 years. If you're real good -- if you're a real good offender -- if you've got a huge record and you fit the profile, then you're going to meet my friend the United States Attorney General at the end of the table.

We have a poster child, and I hate to use that word, but in fact we go out in publicize that there was a young man by the name of Freddie Cardozo (ph) who was caught with a bullet. He was also caught passing a gun to a juvenile, because the juvenile would get a lesser sentence. Freddie received five years for handing the gun to the juvenile, and 14 years and nine months for possession of a single bullet. But Freddie also had a six-page record.

So we sent the message out: individuals like that are not going to be tolerated in the neighborhood or the city.

BOGAEV: I read somewhere that you as a kid had a run-in with a kind of gang or went by the name of a gang. A kid tried -- or did stab you.

STEWART: Yeah, I did. Yeah, I was -- I'm lucky. I was 12. I was with my father, December 28, 1962 at -- he was refereeing a college hockey game -- an RPI in Troy, New York. And one of my favorite college players gave me a stick. And I took the stick the next day. I went out and skated on a pond and a group of four or five kids came up to me late in the day. They wanted the stick and I wouldn't give it to them. I never saw the knife coming.

Three weeks later, I get home -- you know, some 156 stitches. So that was my first involvement with a gang. I'm lucky. You know, I've been told that I was coded on the table and brought back. So, I'm playing with the bank's money.

BOGAEV: My guests are probation officer Bill Stewart and Judge Sydney Hanlon. She's the presiding justice in Dorchester District Court in Boston. Boston has been held up as a national model in the past decade for innovative programs to combat youth crime.

Judge Hanlon, I'd like to talk to you about how some of the new initiatives -- and I'm thinking of Project Night Light and the Street Workers mentoring program and Operation Cease Fire -- how all of that has, or whether all of that, has given you more discretion in setting terms for probation and in sentencing.

JUDGE SYDNEY HANLON, FIRST JUSTICE, DORCHESTER DISTRICT COURT: Absolutely. If you have some sense that the terms of your probation or the terms of your sentence are going to be enforced, then you can impose more terms. That is, it's kind of useless and counterproductive to say to somebody: "I want you to finish school."

It's a nice wish. But unless you're sure that somebody's going to be out there monitoring that; somebody's going to see whether that young person is actually in school every day -- telling him he's got to go to school without the enforcement does more harm than good, because it gives him a sense that it's just words and he's pulled one over on the system when he doesn't show up the second day after you put him on probation.

BOGAEV: Do you see a different attitude among the kids who come before you in court since Boston started these initiatives? A different respect or any respect for authority? Or maybe a higher awareness of the consequences of their actions?

HANLON: I -- I think that most of the kids do have a lot of respect for authority. I hear sometimes: "oh, he doesn't care about being committed to the Department of Youth Services," which is the correctional facility for juveniles. "He doesn't mind. He can do time standing on his head." I never saw anybody give me that attitude in the courtroom. Some of the toughest kids walk out in tears.

I think they -- for the most part, they do have respect for authority. The difference is I think they have a sense now that we'll work together, so that I can say: "I expect you to go to school every day and if you think I won't send you for not going to school, you ask around." And for the most part, I have the sense that they have and they've talked to other people, or they've seen me before and they know.

I've seen young adults who know me from when they were juveniles and they say to the lawyer: "no, no, no -- I'll take what she's offering 'cause I know she'll send me."

BOGAEV: There's a lot of scrutiny now of juvenile prisons and imprisonment -- how to treat young offenders once you send them to jail; and whether violent youths should be tried as adults and serve time with adults. Have juvenile detention facilities in Boston also changed in any way along with the changes that you've made in probation and gun control and sentencing?

HANLON: Massachusetts has been a national model for a lot of years in terms of treatment for violent offenders. The problem has been, and I think this is in the process of being remedied and has changed, has been the amount of money that's been spent on it. They have the programs. They work with young people in small groups, not more than 15 or 20, so that the youth culture doesn't take over. You don't have more kids than responsible adults, so they don't set the terms. And you don't have violence in the institution.

It's education-intensive. It's behavior modification therapy, with a really structured sense of points and what behavior's acceptable and what's not, and how to earn rewards like a radio or a visit or time at home. It's a really, really good program.

The problem in the early '90s, when there was so much violence, is there weren't enough slots. And so if you could get a kid into the slot, he'd probably get pretty good attention. But because there were few slots, kids were getting into them later and later, and the older and the more violence somebody's been involved in, the harder it is to change.

We do have now an automatic transfer to the adult system for murders. It was pretty controversial. I think they didn't give the earlier reforms a chance to work, but that's the system. That's what we've decided. And I think we're pretty much trying to put -- make a -- let it go now and put the efforts into the kids who are not convicted actually of murder.

BOGAEV: Judge Sydney Hanlon and Bill Stewart, I want to thank you very much for talking with me today on FRESH AIR.

STEWART: Thanks, Barbara.

HANLON: Thanks very much for giving us the chance to talk with you.

BOGAEV: Probation Officer Bill Stewart and Presiding Justice Sydney Hanlon, of Dorchester District Court in Boston.

Boston is featured in the new PBS series In Search of Law and Order: Reclaiming America's Kids. Part Three on Richmond, California airs this Friday nationwide.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: William Stewart; Sydney Hanlon
High: Boston Probation officer William Stewart and Judge Sydney Hanlon talk about "Operation Night Light," a program that is credited with reducing juvenile crime in South Boston. Under the program, probation officers go out with police at night looking for probation violators. Last year, President Clinton touted Boston as a national role model for what cities can achieve in reducing juvenile crime. William Stewart serves as Assistant Chief Probation officer in the Dorchester District Court in Massachusetts. In 1990, he was assigned the task of developing a proactive supervision unit designed to supervise juvenile offenders ages 17-24 which resulted in "Operation Night Light." Judge Sydney Hanlon serves as First Justice in the Dorchester District Court. Prior to serving on the bench, Hanlon was Chief of the Narcotics Division for the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.
Spec: Cities; Boston; Crime; Youth; Operation Night Light
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Operation Night Light
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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