DATE October 4, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Harry Shearer on comedy after the September 11 terrorist
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
On the opening of last week's "Saturday Night Live," Lorne Michaels asked Rudy
Giuliani, `Is it OK to be funny?' It's a question a lot of comics have asked
themselves. Today we'll talk with several satirists about going back to work
after September 11th.
Harry Shearer doesn't pull his punches, whether his subject is politics, media
or showbiz. You can hear his satirical sketches and commentary on his
nationally broadcast public radio program "Le Show." He's a former "Saturday
Night Live" writer and cast member, and a co-creator and star of the film
"This is Spinal Tap." On the "Simpsons" he's the voice of Mr. Burns,
Smithers, Ned Flanders and other characters. Harry Shearer lives in LA, but
on September 11th he was in Australia. Here's a sketch from last week's
edition of "Le Show." As usual, Harry does the music and voices, including the
voice of Larry King.
(Soundbite of "Le Show" with Harry Shearer providing voices)
"Mr. LARRY KING": We're back. And just to remind you again, coming up on
Tuesday, the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and the great Vic Demone. Now
we've been closing our shows with a song, an inspirational moment or two. And
today we welcome back, in our Los Angeles studio, the former lead singer of
the hugely successful boy band Boys R Us, Dewey Gordon. Dewey, good to see
you again. Last time you were here you had a song about Elian Gonzalez.
"Mr. DEWEY GORDON:" That's right, Larry. "Let Elian Stay" was the tune.
"Mr. KING": Yeah. Uh-huh.
"Mr. GORDON": And while, of course, it didn't succeed in keeping young Elian
Gonzalez in this country, it sure did succeed in moving a lot of units.
"Mr. KING": Yeah. Well, you're here to sing a new song tonight, Dewey, just
being released as a single.
"Mr. GORDON": Yes, sir, Mr. King. It's called "Where's Your Flag?" You know,
I feel very strongly that, as a former member of a very successful so-called
boy band, a term, by the way, that I'm very proud of...
"Mr. KING": Yeah.
"Mr. GORDON": ...that I have an obligation not only to help out the
firefighters and the rescue workers in New York...
"Mr. KING": They're getting the proceeds of this record?
"Mr. GORDON": Better yet, Larry, they're getting a hundred thousand free copies
of the record.
"Mr. KING": Yeah.
"Mr. GORDON": But I also have an obligation, you know, to show the American
people that Dewey Gordon is a serious artist with something serious to say,
something that I hope helps to heal old divisions as well as create some new
"Mr. KING": OK. We've just got a minute left, Dewey.
"Mr. GORDON": OK. Well, I just want to say, Larry, that this song is straight
from my heart, not that every other song I've done hasn't been as well, but,
"Mr. KING": Even more from the heart.
"Mr. GORDON": That's right.
"Mr. KING": Dewey Gordon.
(Soundbite of "Where's Your Flag?")
"Mr. GORDON": (Singing) Oh, your shelves, they're stocked with goodies, but
being in the store is such a drag 'cause the red, white and blue is nowhere in
view. Hey, where's your flag? Yeah, your hotel, though so very charming, and
you know I really hate to nag, but there's going to be hissin' Old Glory is
missin'. Hey, where's your flag? Where's your flag? Doesn't sit in your
window, doesn't fly from your roof. Hmm-mm. Where's your flag? You say you
love your country, but how about your proof? Oh, it could be a banner or
poster. It could be a pin, a decal or a coaster. But before I buy tires or a
toaster, where's your flag? Where's your flag?
GROSS: That's a sketch from Harry Shearer's public radio program "Le Show."
Harry, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Many comics have felt kind of lost since
Mr. HARRY SHEARER (Host, "Le Show"): Yeah.
GROSS: ...feeling like it's inappropriate to be funny, particularly when the
whole nation is grieving, and then feeling lost that there's nothing to be
funny about right now. What was it like for you to get back to work as a
Mr. SHEARER: Well, the first show I did was from Melbourne, Australia, and
that was about the most challenging thing I've ever done. Because when you're
doing this kind of work, what's my zone of confidence is my feeling that I'm
swimming in the same medium as my audience. And now, all of a sudden, being
12,000 miles away, having seen the TV--you know, having seen Dan Rather on the
air and all of the rest--still, I wasn't in the same emotional world as my
audience. And it was the most difficult show I've done, just to try to figure
out, `How am I going to pitch this?' Pitch in a musical sense, not in a show
business sense--`How am I going to pitch this that's appropriate?'
So I basically decided to do the show. There was no prepared comedy in it,
and I basically took all the "show," quote/unquote, elements out of it and
basically just talked for an hour. It was in the middle of the night in
Melbourne, Australia, anyway, so it was basically more of like a campfire talk
with a friend than a show.
And then the next week, I just got back on. You know, my first thought was,
`George W. Bush, you know, is doing, I think, certainly compared to the
expectations of a lot his detractors, a pretty amazing job now. And he must
be sitting there thinking, "This is great, and yet Rudy Giuliani's getting so
much better press than I am."' So I wrote a sketch about that, you know, and
I thought, `There's no way around the fact that he's probably feeling that,
and that's human comedy. There's nothing wrong with that.'
I had second thoughts about one joke that I put in there. He's having a
telephone conversation with his dad. I do this series of 43 and 41 phone
conversations, much like they do. And I had George W. Bush saying, you know,
early on (mimicking George W. Bush), `You know, I've never been so determined
and so focused since the fourth time I quit drinking.' And I thought about
that joke for a minute, and I thought, `Well, that's really on the edge.' But
it made me laugh, and I thought, `Ah, he might well say that. You know, that
might well be true, and it might well be what's in his mind.' So I let it go,
and I didn't receive a single complaint about it. So I'm glad I...
GROSS: But it sounds like you're maybe sorry that you included it?
Mr. SHEARER: No. No. I'm just citing that as the most different from my
normal mode of conduct--is I actually second-guessed a joke.
GROSS: Right. I guess that is different for you.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah.
GROSS: I think a lot of comics are thinking of the president as being kind of
off limits now.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah.
GROSS: They don't want to criticize our leadership at a time when our
security is genuinely at stake.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. Well...
GROSS: What are your thoughts on that?
Mr. SHEARER: ...clearly one might be approaching this in a slightly different
manner. We've seen that the journalistic consortium, which was doing a very
painstaking recount of the Florida vote, has decided not to make its results
public at this time because they don't think it's appropriate to even open the
door to questioning the president's legitimacy at this time. So, you know,
I'm way inside those boundaries. But, you know, this is a time when the basic
role of humor and topical comedy becomes what Freud said it was, which is to
laugh at what makes us scared.
GROSS: So what are some of the things that make you scared that you've been
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you know, the idea that Jesse Jackson was going to inject
himself into this situation again, and there was some talk about Mike Wallace
wanting to go along with him. And, you know, what I've been talking about a
lot on the show is this mantra we've been hearing now: `Everything has
changed.' As a matter of fact, there's an LA radio station that uses that as
their slogan now: `Everything has changed, KFI Los Angeles.' Of course,
their call letters haven't changed, but--and so much hasn't changed. And we'd
like to believe we live in a time when everything has changed.
I said on my first broadcast back, you know, people go to the Elvis Presley
vigil at Graceland on the anniversary of his death, or they go to some
ball game that has some special significance. And when you ask them why they
go there, they always say, `Well, I wanted to be part of history.' Well, now
we know what it feels like to be part of history, and it's not the greatest
thing in the world. But in terms of everything changing, a lot hasn't changed
and a lot doesn't change because human nature doesn't change. We like to
believe that we live in a country that, I think for both political and
religious reasons, likes to believe that history comes to screeching halts.
So part of, you know, my job is just to poke fun at the things that don't
change. The Mike Wallace-Jesse Jackson conversation that I had was basically
about two ego-driven guys trying to very gently negotiate their way to figure
out how they could do this thing and not, you know, go over the line. And I
think there's a lot of that going on. So, you know--and one might find that
scary, or one might find that reassuring, but I definitely find that something
to laugh at.
GROSS: My guest is actor and satirist Harry Shearer. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor and satirist Harry Shearer. You can hear his
political satire on his nationally broadcast public radio program "Le Show"
and on his Web site, harryshearer.com.
Now I want to get back to President Bush. I mean, you have been very
comfortable satirizing President Bush in the past. Are there things that
you're not comfortable taking on now, areas in which you might still strongly
disagree with him, but you feel like, `Well, now's not the time to do a sketch
Mr. SHEARER: I don't know. Because I do the show by myself and I don't have
meetings with myself, I haven't...
GROSS: You don't have a policy yet.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, I haven't written myself a memo on this subject. It's the
sort of thing where it only will occur to me when an idea occurs to me, and
either I'll reject it out of hand because I think it's not right or I won't.
But I haven't had such an idea yet, so I don't know what it might be. I mean,
to me, the line is really a very bright line. There's nothing funny and no
humor to be found in the disaster itself, in the tragedy that affected so many
lives. That's so far off limits it's not even worth discussing.
But, you know, as with--and this is a trivial comparison, but it serves to
make the point--when one was making a great deal of fun of the circus that
surrounded the O.J. Simpson trial, there was nothing funny about the crime
that started the whole thing off. That was horrific and terrible, and nothing
funny could be done about it. But as the thing wound on and we learned more
about these characters and their very human foibles, to put it mildly, there
was a great deal of fun to be had with that.
And I feel the same way about this. You know, I go back to, you know, my
experience with being on the air during the Gulf War, which is the closest
analogue to this in many ways. And, you know, when people's lives are on the
line, I wasn't making fun of the strategic decisions and the troop movements
and the battle orders that were being given because that's serious stuff, and
that's, you know, national security and you don't make fun of that, especially
at that moment.
But, you know, the Pentagon's eagerness to release the videotape showing, you
know, how smart the bombs were already smelled to me like show business at the
time, and it, of course, turned out to be, in the same way that, you know, in
the wake of this, it was obvious to me that banning curbside check-in was show
business. It wasn't security, and I called it that. You know, there's a
certain amount of security that we have in this country that really is show
business; that, basically, they are just to make people feel good, but it
serves no other function. And so, you know, there's something amusing to me
about pointing out that even in the most serious circumstances, a lot of what
we are presented with is just more show business, like we don't have enough of
GROSS: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said something about having
to be careful what we say.
Mr. SHEARER: And what we do. `Watch what you say, watch what you do.' This
was his response to the Bill Maher incident, and he prefaced quite candidly,
I thought, by saying he hadn't seen the transcript of Bill Maher's remarks
yet. So without the proper amount of information at hand, Ari Fleischer felt
no compunction about going ahead and saying, `The message is watch what you
say, watch what you do,' which I think is a little more disturbing than
anything out of Bill Maher's mouth.
GROSS: What did Bill Maher say?
Mr. SHEARER: Bill Maher had Dinesh D'Souza on his show, and Dinesh D'Souza
said, you know, something to the effect of--and I don't have--I'm like Ari
Fleisher. I don't have the transcript here, but I've read it. Dinesh D'Souza
said something on the lines of, you know, `It's a mistake to call these
terrorists cowards.' And Bill Maher picked up on that and said, `Yeah. You
know, cowardly is dropping cruise missiles from 2,000 feet up,' which is a
point that was made, I think, days before by Susan Sontag in The New Yorker.
But The New Yorker doesn't depend on Sears for ads, and a shock jock in Texas
raised a ruckus: `Can you believe this guy said American soldiers are
cowards?' And pretty soon we saw, as they were always asking us to, the
softer side of Sears.
GROSS: Did you ever wish that you could almost be like Bob Hope and feel like
you were really, like, through your comedy, boosting the morale of the United
States by entertaining the troops? Do you know what I mean? Just feeling
like--I'm sure Bob Hope was always able to feel that his comedy was really
helping serve the war effort; that he was doing something really tangible.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. Well, it also kept him away from home. You know, I must
say, Terry, I've gotten--and it's only because you ask me that question will I
indulge in this kind of self-serving response. But I've been really pretty
moved by the e-mail response that I've gotten since the shows have followed in
the wake of the attacks, because there's been an emotional quality to the
response. They've all been positive, but there's been an emotional quality to
the response that says that some availability of a voice that's not in
lockstep with the major mainstream media's sense of what's appropriate at the
moment, which includes Dan Rather going on "David Letterman" and crying as he
recites the third stanza of "America the Beautiful" and saying, in response to
David Letterman's question, `Well, what's going on here?'--Dan's full response
was, `They hate us.'
You know, somebody who pokes a few holes at that, I think, I don't want to
make, you know, exaggerated claims for it, but people say that it serves some
value to them. And, you know, if it's still on Armed Forces Radio, maybe it
serves some value for our men and women in uniform.
GROSS: Harry, what media have you been watching?
Mr. SHEARER: All the cable news outlets, BBC news, both radio and television,
the three major networks, NPR, reading some of the British papers, the
Australian papers. You know, one thing that's really been interesting this
period of time--and this will take some old-timers back, but if you're like me,
your e-mail `in' box has almost been like a teach-in. There have been a
remarkable number of e-mail dispatches that I've gotten from people who have
been in the Army in Afghanistan during the time that we were helping Osama bin
Laden during his Freedom Fighter phase. Remember that? And people who are
expert in chemical and biological--you know, there has been an amazing amount
of information flowing, along with the Nostradamus predictions and all of the
rest of the hoaxes.
Mr. SHEARER: So I've been, you know, sort of immersing myself in that.
GROSS: Any impressions you want to share about what else it's like to be in
Hollywood now? I know you're about to tape the "Bob Patterson" show, the new
Jason Alexander comedy.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah.
GROSS: Just what's the atmosphere like now?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you know, on the surface, it seems pretty normal. We did
a "Simpsons" yesterday, and it had the--basically, usual vibe to it. You
know, there's a lot of sort of joking with a bit of fear underneath the
surface about this security tighten-up that's going on at these studios. I
think it's done to reassure people, but I think, paradoxically, it brings fear
more into that place than it might otherwise be.
You know, there's just this ambient fear level that's going around. I don't
know if you know this story, but last week in Los Angeles, there was an
evacuation of a subway station because a couple of policemen went, `What's
that smell?'--which, apparently, we don't know the answer to that question
yet, but it apparently was some cleaning solvent or something. But that's the
kind of mass hysteria that we're teetering on the brink of, and I dare say
that no matter how sophisticated a terrorist apparatus is, they don't know
that we have a subway in Los Angeles. So, you know, it would be so far down
So, you know, I think part of the job of humor, at this point, is to try to
defuse this potential for that kind of behavior, you know, because, you know,
mainstream journalism, I think, did a really good job in the first week or
two--pretty good job in the first week or two after the attacks. But now
they're reverting--you know, they're reminding us that what they were doing
before the attacks, the business they were in, was the, `10 things in your
kitchen that could kill you. Details at 5.' That's the business they were
in, and they're still in that business. They just have, you know, meatier
stuff to play with. So, you know, to me, it's important to kind of make
people laugh at some of this, because otherwise they're going to freak out.
GROSS: Well, Harry, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SHEARER: Thanks, Terry. My pleasure.
GROSS: Harry Shearer's political satire can be heard on his public radio
program "Le Show" and on his Web site, harryshearer.com. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Will Ferrell of "Saturday Night Live" on rethinking his
impersonation of President Bush. Also, highlights of the last two editions of
the satirical newspaper The Onion. We talk with editor Robert Siegel and
writer Todd Hanson. And David Bianculli reviews last night's special episode
of "The West Wing" about tensions in the White House after September 11th.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Will Ferrell on changing his comedy sketches after the
September 11th terrorist attacks
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Last week, on the season's first new edition of "Saturday Night Live,"
producer Lorne Michaels asked Rudy Giuliani if it's OK to be funny. After a
somber opening, the cast returned to humorous sketches, but the sketches
avoided the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. And Will Ferrell did not
do his impersonation of President Bush. He says he plans to do a Bush sketch
this weekend. We called Will Ferrell earlier today.
Will, lots of the jokes, when you do Bush, have been about him not being very
Mr. WILL FERRELL ("Saturday Night Live"): Right.
GROSS: ...and very kind of frat boy. Are you going to think that's
appropriate or inappropriate now?
Mr. FERRELL: Well, I mean, so much of our approach is, in a way, taking what
the perception is and then turning it back around and, you know, regurgitating
it to the audience. And, obviously, we don't think that is so much the
perception anymore, so it'll probably be changed somewhat. I know the piece
this week actually is more of a take-charge Bush and kind of playing more off
of that. So, I mean, at least initially, that might be the new angle.
GROSS: Has September 11th made you think differently about satire than you
ever thought before, about what the function of it is, what the bounds of
Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, it really has. Last night was our read-through night,
where we read through all the sketches that have been written, and there's the
first cut, if you will, of what's going to be done. And usually a group of us
go out and grab a bite to eat, and we ran into one of the writers on "Conan
O'Brien" because they're in the same building, and we kind of just had this
shared discussion of checking in with each other, like, `How are you guys
doing?'--and back and forth. And there was--pretty much, the topic of
conversation was how slowly kind of getting back to work, trying to kind of
get back into the swing of things, and at times feeling like you're getting it
back; like you're feeling like you're being able to come up with funny stuff,
and yet, at least at this point, it's still kind of flavored with this thing
of sitting at your computer saying to yourself, `Is this, ultimately, really
that funny? Is anything still that funny?' And that's been the hardest thing
to kind of fight through.
GROSS: Now you're in the new movie "Zoolander," which is a spy comedy.
Mr. FERRELL: Right.
GROSS: It's set in New York, and there are skyline scenes. And the World
Trade Center has been, I guess, digitally erased from the scenes.
Mr. FERRELL: Right.
GROSS: I assume it's digitally.
Mr. FERRELL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: How do you feel about that? Do you think that was the right choice to
take it out?
Mr. FERRELL: You know, I went and saw it last Sunday with an audience here in
Manhattan, and I noticed those skyline shots, and Ben Stiller had, in fact,
told me that he had to go back and kind of lift those out. And, you know, at
first my reaction was like, `Oh, of course. That's the right thing to do.'
And then I wondered, as I watched it, what would have been the reaction from
the audience had those buildings been left in. Would it have been, you know,
an audible gasp, or would it have been more of an homage to those, you know,
GROSS: Are you performing at the Carnegie Hall comedy benefit Monday, and if
so, what are you going to do?
Mr. FERRELL: Yes, I am. And I'm still trying to think of that. Jerry
Seinfeld was nice enough to call me to ask me to be, like, the emcee of the
evening, and he pretty much, you know, prefaced it by saying, `You can be
funny or you don't have to be,' or whatever. So you know what? I'm kind of
just leaving that up to the last minute in terms of what I'm going to do or
say. You know, I'm not a stand-up comic, so I don't usually get up there and
do the, `Hey, how's everyone doing?' type of shtick. So I'll probably think
of a few things that I'll try; otherwise, it's probably not my job so much to
be hilarious as it is to just kind of greet people and say hello and get the
show going, you know.
GROSS: Any chance you'll do it in persona as President Bush?
Mr. FERRELL: No--well, I was trying to think if there was any Bush material I
could do, but probably not. I may try to sing at some point as Robert Goulet.
GROSS: Oh, that's always good.
Mr. FERRELL: So that's always good.
GROSS: That's always a good thing.
Mr. FERRELL: You can always go to that.
Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.
GROSS: What song do you think would be appropriate?
Mr. FERRELL: "What Kind of Fool Am I," I don't know. That would be nice
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FERRELL: Gosh, thank you.
GROSS: And good luck this weekend on "Saturday Night Live."
Mr. FERRELL: OK.
GROSS: And good luck Monday.
Mr. FERRELL: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Will Ferrell is a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," and he
co-stars in the new movie "Zoolander."
Coming up, the editor in chief and head writer of the satirical newspaper The
Onion. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Robert Siegel and Todd Hansen on articles appearing
in The Onion
TERRY GROSS, host:
The satirical newspaper The Onion has put out two editions dealing with life
after September 11th. Headlines have included: `US Urges bin Laden To Form
Nation It Can Attack,' `American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie'
and `President Urges Calm, Restraint Among Nation's Ballad Singers.' The
Onion is published online at theonion.com. It's also sold at newsstands.
Their pre-September 11th work is collected in a new book called "Dispatches
from the Tenth Circle." I spoke with editor in chief Robert Siegel and head
writer Todd Hansen. Here's Siegel reading a News In Brief item that he wrote.
Mr. ROBERT SIEGEL (Editor In Chief, The Onion): The headline is: `Bush Sr.
Apologizes To Son For Funding bin Laden in '80s.' Midland, Texas: `Former
President George Bush issued an apology to his son Monday for advocating the
CIA's mid-'80s funding of Osama bin Laden, who at the time was resisting the
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Quote, "I'm sorry, son," Bush told President
George W. Bush. "We thought it was a good idea at the time because he was
part of a group fighting communism in Central Asia. We called them, quote,
`Freedom Fighters' back then. I know it sounds weird. You sort of had to be
there." Bush is still deliberating over whether to tell his son about the
whole supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran thing.'
GROSS: What was it like for you at The Onion to get your bearings after the
attack and to figure out how you wanted to respond as a publication?
Mr. TODD HANSEN (Head Writer, The Onion): Well, to be honest, it was almost
impossible to do that. We made the decision immediately that we weren't going
to go ahead and publish an issue that week. None of us, as comedy writers,
had anything funny to say. I think many comedy writers have had the same
response. Then in discussing what we should do when we came back the
following week, there were many, many hours of discussion that went into
deciding what to do. And I think when it started, we were all sort of
agreeing--not agreeing, but assuming that we would do material that was not
related to the news; that was not topical and that would be just something
that wouldn't touch on it. I think most people have had that same reaction.
That seems to be what most of the other comedy sources have done.
However, even though that was our initial assumption, we then realized that
the more we talked about it, it became more and more obvious that we wanted to
make some sort of response because it seemed like any other material would be
kind of irrelevant. So by the time we were done with those discussions, we
had arrived at the conclusion that we would do something to respond to the
events of September 11th. So it was a scary situation to be in, but it seemed
like it was the only thing we could do.
GROSS: One of the targets of your satire in The Onion is the hijackers'
beliefs. And I'd like you, Robert, to read: `Hijackers Surprised To Find
Selves In Hell.'
Mr. SIEGEL: OK. `The hijackers who carried out the September 11th attacks on
the World Trade Center and Pentagon expressed confusion and surprise Monday to
find themselves in the lowest plain of Nar, Islam's hell. Quote, "I was
promised I would spend eternity in paradise, being fed honeyed cakes by 67
virgins in a tree-lined garden if only I would fly the airplane into one of
the twin towers," said Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines
Flight 11, between attempts to vomit up the wasps, hornets and live coals
infesting his stomach. "But instead I'm being fed the boiling feces of
traders by malicious, laughing Ifrit. Is this to be my reward for destroying
the enemies of my faith?'
GROSS: Robert, what was the editing process for that? Maybe you could tell
us who came up with it. And, you know, when it passed your desk, were you
comfortable with it right away? Was there any considerations you had before
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, the idea was mine, so I was comfortable with it. I looked
at it as one of the rare opportunities in this whole thing to actually take a
traditional, nasty Onion-style shot at someone, and I didn't expect that we'd
be flooded--I didn't think our switchboards would be flooded by people
outraged that we were...
Mr. HANSEN: Showing disrespect to the hijackers.
Mr. SIEGEL: ...fictionally torturing the hijackers. It seemed like a great
opportunity to do our more traditional--one of the types of humor we do, but
the type of humor that we felt we could not do in this issue. So I felt
pretty good about it, and I felt like it was--you know, I wanted a broad range
of things in this issue, of styles of humor and broad range of subjects, to
try to capture the whole thing. And there were a lot of very sentimental
articles in the issue, and this was one where it was sort of meant to be a
crowd-pleaser in that it was, you know, the kind of thing that people could
sort of--cheer is the wrong word, but, you know...
Mr. HANSEN: It was a cathartic moment, I think, for us to just deal with the
GROSS: Robert, another piece I'd like to ask you to read--and this one is
headlined: `Dinty Moore Breaks Long Silence On Terrorism With Full-Page Ad.'
I think this is one you came up with.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah.
GROSS: Tell us about the inspiration for it and then maybe read the piece for
Mr. SIEGEL: The inspiration is pretty simple. It's just, even still, every
day since the attacks, you've seen full-page ads in USA Today and The New York
Times from every single company in America, you know, expressing their
sympathy and support for the victims of this tragedy and speaking out against
terrorism, condemning the attacks. And, in some cases, we're not really--I
mean, are we, as a nation, really wondering how, you know, a particular
company really feels about these attacks? I would assume that everyone feels
sympathy and support for the victims and condemns terrorism.
`Dinty Moore Breaks Long Silence On Terrorism With Full-Page Ad'; New York:
`Nearly two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon,
the makers of Dinty Moore beef stew finally weighed in on the tragedy Monday
with a full-page ad in USA Today. Quote, "We at Dinty Moore extend our
deepest sympathies to all who have been affected by the terrible events of
September 11th, 2001," read the ad, which pictured a can of Dinty Moore beef
stew at the bottom of the page. "The entire Dinty Moore family is outraged by
this heinous crime and stand firmly behind our leaders." Dinty Moore joins
Kanoki Heating & Cooling(ph) and Tri-State Jacuzzi(ph) in condemning
You know, and it's sort of along the same lines as, you know, Rosie O'Donnell
donating a million dollars and then, you know, sending out a big press release
announcing that she has donated a million dollars. I mean, if you want to
donate a million dollars, donate a million dollars, but, you know, you don't
need to take credit for it and show the world how good--you know, what a good
person you are. So it just feels like they take advantage, to some extent.
Mr. HANSON: But I also think that part of the humor in the piece that Rob
just read is not so much attacking the hypocrisy of Dinty Moore or the
fictionalized version of Dinty Moore in that story as it is...
Mr. SIEGEL: And we have nothing against Dinty Moore specifically.
Mr. HANSON: Yeah--as it is also just reflecting the sense of helplessness
that everybody feels...
Mr. SIEGEL: Help--yeah.
Mr. HANSON: ...you know, because you don't know what to do. So you take out
an ad and, like, `We, the makers of Dinty Moore beef stew, condemn terrorism.'
It's like, well, it's kind of a futile gesture, but I think everyone can
relate to it. It's not necessarily an unsympathetic thing either because...
Mr. SIEGEL: No.
Mr. HANSON: ...I think everyone can relate to that feeling of like, `Well, I
don't know what to do,' you know.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. Robert, I'm wondering about some of
the ideas that you rejected because you thought that the tone was wrong or it
was inappropriate in some way, that you found it offensive in some way or just
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, we rejected a lot. The headlines that really would have
been wrong headed and truly offensive, we didn't even come up with. I think
we all--before we started brainstorming our ideas, we talked about what our
basic take on this should be, and we all really agreed that we should, to some
extent, sacrifice jokes for the bigger picture, the larger message. So there
weren't even, really, that many jokes pitched that were just way, way off base
in terms of offensiveness or target. There were a lot that sort of towed the
line; that just to be absolutely sure, we would cut. I don't know. Todd, do
you think I should give examples or just...
Mr. HANSON: Well, it's hard to do that.
Mr. SIEGEL: The Quadragon? I don't know.
Mr. HANSON: Yeah. Well, all right, I'll say one that almost got on was--the
intent behind the joke was, again, to be something to reflect the way everyone
felt so helpless, and the headline was: `America Stronger Than Ever, Say
Quadragon Officials.' And...
GROSS: Oh, gosh. Right.
Mr. SIEGEL: Instead of the Pentagon...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mr. HANSON: Yeah, instead of the Pentagon, it was--and we thought it was
funny and sad, but then as soon as we had actually written it up on the board
to select, you know, we're like, `No, we cannot use that because people are
going to think we're having a laugh at the expense of the people in the
Pentagon,' which we would never, ever want to do and would never even think
of, you know.
Mr. SIEGEL: It just does more harm than good. So...
Mr. HANSON: And then we realized, you know, `Even though that's not what we
mean by the joke, we don't know if other people take it that way.' And even
still, you know, there are some people who have taken the jokes that we did do
the wrong way. I mean, just because since it's satire, no one ever knows how
sarcastic you're being or what you're being sarcastic about. So it's a very
GROSS: You have a new book called "Dispatches from the Tenth Circle: The
Best of The Onion." And this is the second collection of pieces from The
Onion, and there's one piece in this book, at least one piece that I noticed,
that certainly relates to terrorism, and I'm curious how you feel about it
now. The headline is: `Terrorist Extremely Annoyed By Delayed Flight.' The
dateline is Chicago: `His flight from O'Hare to La Guardia delayed more than
six hours, Hamas militant and would-be suicide bomber Nidal Hanani vowed
Friday never again to fly United Airlines. Quote, "I do not have time for
this," said Hanani, seated at a Burger King in concourse C, a plastic
explosives-filled duffel bag at his feet. "My jihad against the West was
supposed to be carried out shortly after takeoff at 8:35 this morning. It is
now 2:50 PM. How much longer must I sit around this airport like an idiot
before God's will is done?"'
How do you feel about that one now?
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, it's something we definitely would not have run in a
post-September 11th issue, but I don't feel the need to apologize for it,
seeing as it was written two years ago.
Mr. HANSON: I mean, the question of appropriateness in satire always comes
down to what the target of the satire is. In that case, the target of the
satire is, I think...
GROSS: The airlines.
Mr. HANSON: Well, no--is all of the articles...
Mr. SIEGEL: Air traveler.
Mr. HANSON: ...about business travelers and how terribly inconvenienced they
Mr. HANSON: And it's contrasting the sort of trite and mundane frustrations
of, `Ahh, I've been sitting in an airport for three hours,' with, you know,
the life and death, you know, horribleness of a suicide bomber. And, I mean,
it's not even really about terrorism as much as it's about just people
complaining, business travelers complaining about airport inconvenience.
GROSS: I wonder if you have any observations you want to share about how
other comics and satirists who you've been paying attention to are dealing
Mr. HANSON: Well, I think it's pretty obvious that when the White House
press secretary says that Bill Maher should watch what he says, that there's a
pretty blatant irony there in that, you know, they're saying, `This is a time
when freedom is under attack and under threat. You know, there's a threat to
our freedoms, so, therefore, at this time, you know, watch what you say.'
Mr. SIEGEL: Let's tear up the Constitution.
Mr. HANSON: I mean, we live in a free country, and if we want to defend our
free country against those who hate our free country, then we should remember
that Bill Maher has a right to say whatever he wants.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
Mr. SIEGEL: Thank you very much.
Mr. HANSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Robert Siegel is the editor in chief of the satirical newspaper The
Onion. Todd Hansen is the head writer. The Onion is published online at
theonion.com. A new "Best of The Onion" book has been published called
"Dispatches from the Tenth Circle."
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on last night's special episode of "The
West Wing." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Episode of "The West Wing" dealing with terrorism
TERRY GROSS, host:
Last night NBC's "The West Wing" presented a special episode written and
produced with unusual speed in reaction to last month's terrorist attacks. TV
critic David Bianculli has this review.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Singer: There's something happening here. What it is ain't
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
Last night's episode of "The West Wing" ended with that classic '60s protest
song by Buffalo Springfield. It was an appropriate choice, and not only
because of the confusion, anger and warning in the lyrics. Stephen Stills
wrote that song and recorded it with his band only a few weeks after clashes
between youngsters and the Los Angeles Police Department erupted into riots in
1966. It was a case of an artist feeling so deeply about what was happening
around him that he wanted, maybe needed, to react instantly in the language
and medium he knew best.
Not too long afterward, another group in which he was a member--Crosby,
Stills, Nash and Young--did the same thing. Within three weeks of the Kent
State shootings in 1970, where four students were shot and killed by the
National Guard, that influential rock group had written and recorded an angry
song called "Ohio."
Aaron Sorkin, writer-producer of "The West Wing," had the clout and platform
at NBC to move with similar speed. He wanted to talk about terrorism, its
roots and its impact, and came up with a method to do it. But he's a
scriptwriter, not a songwriter. Instead of writing lyrics for a three-minute
song, Sorkin wrote a script for a one-hour drama series and had his characters
explain all the things Sorkin wanted to say.
A lengthy preface, delivered by the series' actors as themselves rather than
in character, explained the special show's premise. It was a stand-alone
episode, not part of the regular "West Wing" story line or time line. It
imagined a time, in our near-distant future, when security lockdowns of the
White House occurred on an almost weekly basis. Last night's show began with
one such security breech, triggered just as Bradley Whitford as Josh is about
to reluctantly address a group of bright, young, visiting high school
The lock-down confines Josh and the students in the same room. Slowly, over
the course of the hour, all the other "West Wing" characters, including Martin
Sheen as the president, wander in to calm the students and take questions on
terrorism; all the characters, that is, but John Spencer's Leo, who is
conducting an impromptu and fairly hostile interrogation of a White House
staffer who is of Middle Eastern descent. A recently arrested terrorist had
named several colleagues, one of whom went by many aliases; one of those names
was the same as that of the White House staffer, so Leo feared there was a
mole and perhaps a potential assassin deep within the White House.
Logistically, this very focused pair of plots allowed Sorkin to confine his
action almost completely to two sets and to make the points he most wanted to
make. With the interrogation scenes, where the worker turned out to be
accused unjustly, there was the smell of a witch-hunt and a warning about
prejudice. And with the student scenes, Sorkin was able to import a classroom
into the West Wing, so that all the other staffers could take turns lecturing.
But that was the problem with last night's show. It was, at bottom, close to
an hour-long lecture. Ordinarily, I'd say that's great. There are millions
of people, especially young people, for whom a dramatic summary of the issues
of terrorism would be a service as well as an hour of thought-provoking
entertainment. But anyone who watches "The West Wing" regularly is
politically aware anyway, and if a young person doesn't care much about "The
West Wing," a special episode devoted to terrorism isn't likely to be a big
So the show last night, in a very literal sense, was preaching to the
converted, and some of the preaching was very familiar, especially the parts
echoing a well-circulated letter on the Internet in which Afghanistan was
compared to Poland and the Taliban to the Nazis and Islamic extremists to the
Ku Klux Klan.
Sorkin, in the past, has admitted to using things he read on the Internet, and
that certainly looks like it happened again here. That doesn't mean the show
didn't have resonance. At the end, when Josh entertained one final question
from a student, he answered with a response that was more emotional than
(Soundbite from "The West Wing")
Unidentified Actress: Can I ask one more question?
Mr. BRADLEY WHITFORD: (As Josh) Yeah.
Unidentified Actress: Do you favor the death penalty?
Mr. WHITFORD: (As Josh) No.
Unidentified Actress: But you think we should kill these people?
Mr. WHITFORD: (As Josh) You don't have the choices in a war that you do in a
jury room, but I wish you didn't have to. I think death is too simple.
Unidentified Actor: What would you do instead?
Mr. WHITFORD: (As Josh) I'd put them in a small cell and make them watch
home movies of the birthdays and baptisms and weddings of every single person
they killed over and over every day for the rest of their lives. And then
they'd get punched in the mouth every night at bedtime by a different person
every night. There'd be a long list of volunteers. It's all right. We'll
wait. But, listen, don't worry about all this right now. We've got you
covered. Worry about school. Worry about what you're going to tell your
parents when you break curfew. You're going to meet guys. You're going to
meet girls. Not so much you, Ralph. Learn things. Be good to each other.
Read the newspapers, go to the movies, go to a party, read a book.
In the meantime, remember pluralism. You want to get these people? I mean,
you really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Keep accepting
more than one idea. It makes them absolutely crazy.
BIANCULLI: The important thing, in this case, I think, isn't that last
night's episode was one of the finest dramatic hours of "The West Wing." It
wasn't. The important thing is that Sorkin tried and had a place to do it.
Think for a minute about how few places in prime time there are that could
make room for such an attempt. Think of how few shows have any real
relevance, and think of how few shows week in and week out say anything
provocative or meaningful. So thank "The West Wing" for trying and for being
there at all.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.