Skip to main content

'SNL's' Darrell Hammond Reveals Cutting, Abuse

In 14 years on Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond did many impressions, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore. But few of his cast members knew that Hammond struggled with drugs, alcohol and self-cutting as a result of systematic childhood abuse.


Other segments from the episode on November 7, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 7, 2011: Interview with Darrell Hammond; Interview with Kate Ascher.


November 7, 2011

Guests: Darrell Hammond and Kate Ascher

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You might not recognize Darrell Hammond if you ran into him on the street because he's more familiar in character, as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John McCain, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump and Sean Connery. Those are just some of the characters Darrell Hammond was famous for on "Saturday Night Live," where he was a cast member for 14 seasons, which set a record for longevity.

He's written a new memoir that really threw me. It's called "God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F-ed," and in the first page, he describes being sent to a psychiatric and rehab facility after getting drunk and trying to cut his arm off with a kitchen knife.

As the book goes on, he describes being the victim of his mother's emotional and physical abuse and suffering mental health problems. As you can imagine, some of this conversation may be upsetting for some listeners to hear. In a couple of minutes, we'll hear what happened backstage just before this sketch, when Hammond did his now-famous impression of Al Gore in his first debate with George Bush. He's talking about the Bush tax cut plan.


DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Al Gore) My plan, Jim, is different. Rather than squander the surplus on a risky tax cut for the wealthy, I would put it in what I call a lockbox.

GROSS: Darrell Hammond, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, reading your book, I kept thinking to myself, you know, I've seen you so many times on TV. I had like no idea that you were going through such agony and that you were having, you know, the mental health problems that you were having and the alcohol and drug problems that you were having. Why did you decide to let us know about all of this?

HAMMOND: Well, I think I've been fascinated for as long as I've been alive, and that's a few years now, about relationships between perpetrator and victim and the contract between perpetrator and victim, the agreement between perpetrator and victim in which the victim agrees to remain silent because he's in fear.

And so I wanted to write about it. Maybe I didn't write well about it, but I wrote about it, and that's what's in this book.

GROSS: When you refer to yourself as the victim, do you mean victim of your mother?

HAMMOND: Yes, partially.

GROSS: Do you want to explain the way that she physically hurt you?

HAMMOND: Well, it's in the books. There was I guess systematic - I don't know if it's systematic, hammer, electrical outlet, knife.

GROSS: That's pretty horrible.

HAMMOND: It wasn't too good. You know, I've been in treatment since I was 19, and I'm 56. So that's a couple of bucks and a long time.

GROSS: Yet you write: When I was five, I was overwhelmed with the sense that I was surrounded by evil. When the sun started to go down in the late afternoon, I was filled with foreboding, and everything was scary: the walls, the furniture, the rug. The very air was scary. Do you think that's because you were afraid to be in your own home, you were afraid of your mother?

HAMMOND: I think that it's because I wasn't liked at all.

GROSS: By your parents?

HAMMOND: On any level. And sure, I mean, even as a child, I mean, they say children are intelligent, and on some level they sense things. I mean, certainly I knew that when nighttime came, things could happen there. I think I would like to point out that I put in what I remember, and I don't remember a lot.

I've received a mix of treatment over the years. I think that it was very helpful, and this is, you know, my story and what I remember about it, and I hope readers got something out of it.

GROSS: I think the story I found most surprising in your book is the night that you were preparing to do a Bush-Gore presidential debate with Will Ferrell as Bush, and this is like a really famous sketch that you did because it's where Will Ferrell first does strategery, and where you first do lockbox with Gore talking about it, he wanted Social Security safe in a lockbox.

So meanwhile before the sketch, you're backstage in the dressing room, preparing to go on. The floor turns red. You forget what Gore's voice sounds like. You forget what Gore even looks like. Could you describe what you were experiencing?

HAMMOND: I don't know if I can describe it any better than that. I mean, I was disoriented and frightened, and I was feeling every single thing that happened to me, you know, when I was in the kitchen once with my mother. And I'm not a doctor, so I can't describe what flashbacks are as well as, perhaps, they can, but it is like you're living it again.

So if you make a small cut, it creates a new and more manageable crisis that currently has you lying on the...

GROSS: Let me stop there. You're talking about cutting yourself with a razor.


GROSS: So I interrupted you. You're saying it does what?

HAMMOND: Well, it creates a smaller, more manageable crisis than the one that has you gripping the carpet.

GROSS: So, like, the physical pain distracts you from the mental agony?

HAMMOND: I think so. I think that might be a fair assessment of it, yeah.

GROSS: So you take out a razor and start cutting your...

HAMMOND: I don't start. It's just a little (makes noise), just enough to, you know, draw red and create a crisis that's manageable, you know.

GROSS: So are you concerned at that moment, what if I bleed onstage?

HAMMOND: No, I mean...

GROSS: In the practical realm.

HAMMOND: No, at that point, I've been doing that since I was 19 years old. So I'm pretty good at managing it.

GROSS: So that you don't really show blood?

HAMMOND: Not through my clothes. I mean, it's easily bandaged.

GROSS: Got it. OK. So did that help? Did it help you pull it together before going onstage?

HAMMOND: It did, and then the genius writer, Jim Downey(ph), did the line-readings for me and the Gore in which we had discussed, which was sort of an amalgam of the two or three different presentations I'd seen of him. I found that he spoke differently on three different occasions, and we were confounded about that and about - you know, for about a year.

And so we tried to find some amalgam of those three. So people say well, that sounds exactly like him. Well, it doesn't sound like him at all. It seems to, but that's not him. It's an amalgam that I worked out in Greenwich Village in front of the audiences at The Comedy Cellar, which they finally began to respond to.

GROSS: So let me back up a second. So did Jim Downey, who's doing the line readings for you, did he know what was going on with you?

HAMMOND: No, no.

GROSS: Did anybody know?

HAMMOND: No, I mean, there were only really a couple of instances where people did know. I mean, most of the time, it was really manageable. But if you at, you know, a pint of Remy to the occasion, then sometimes it gets a little messy.

GROSS: So you go onstage, and you do the sketch.

HAMMOND: Yes, he says - I forget what he says, what Chris Parnell, who was playing Jim Lehrer, says. And then Downey is standing right in front of me. We've been doing these line readings for about 90 minutes, 60 minutes, and I say Jim, and I start, you know. And once I pulled that trigger, I was able to do it.

I mean, it wasn't nearly as much pressure as I've been under in my life. It wasn't nearly as much.

GROSS: So did you enjoy it once you were out there?

HAMMOND: It was exhilarating because when I did - I think the line was something like - I was about 15 seconds, 10 seconds into the line, and there was a smattering of applause in the crowd and some laughter, I think, just a little bit of laughter. And I had a sense that wow, yeah, we worked on this for a year, here it is, and they're responding, and it was exactly what I wanted to happen.

GROSS: So you know, you had been in the dressing room, like, flashing back to your mother abusing you, really upset. You cut yourself to kind of get yourself out of your mental crisis, into, like, the physical world and into the moment. You go onstage, you do the Bush-Gore thing with Will Ferrell. That week, you end up in rehab, right?
I was in - no, I didn't go to rehab that week. I had been in the psych ward at one of New York's hospitals that week, though.

GROSS: And again, do the people on the show know that?

HAMMOND: I don't know how much they knew. I know that some did. I know that the power brokers did. I know they were extremely helpful to me. I know they made considered decisions over whether or not I was going to be able to put the ball over the fence, whether it was jeopardizing my health or actually helping me to have this giant project to pour my life into.

And so that was a delicate balance for them and not one that they deserved to have to go through, but I thought they were very brave about it.

GROSS: It sounds like they were very generous to you.

HAMMOND: Extremely.

GROSS: So you're most famous for doing Clinton on "Saturday Night Live." How did you go about studying Bill Clinton?

HAMMOND: Well, the first time I looked at him, something occurred to me that seemed impossible to me, and yet I've learned a great deal from it since then, in studying other people. And that is that people have people they admire. People, stand-up comics, are influenced by their heroes, Baseball players by their heroes. You know, we have a style that we developed that on some level is a tribute to the people we admired.

I didn't know anything about him, and I thought was this guy into Kennedy or something? I don't why I thought that. I was like - was he - why am I feeling Kennedy? I'm feeling Kennedy. And I - it was an instinctual thing. I mean, it's not like what I do is an exact science, and I'm frequently wrong. I hasten to add that.

But finally I couldn't get a handle on it. I mean, I couldn't get a handle on it at all. So I thought I had an audio recording somewhere of JFK's inaugural address. I printed it out by hand. I rehearsed it with a Southern accent, and then I put in this little crackle in my voice that I'd heard him do. And voila, I felt like I had him.

GROSS: Now, you point out that Clinton - that most people have like four or five hand gestures that they use, whereas Clinton had about 37. So did you catalog his different hand gestures?

HAMMOND: I tried to, but then, you know, I realized at that point no one's going to know that. No one's going to remember all - they're not going to care about - here's this fascinating man, you know, no one will respond to that. So I thought at that point, and this is very early in my career at SNL, I thought to myself: I think I'm going to just pick two or three that I find interesting.

Then I'm going to take them down to Greenwich Village and put them up onstage and see what they respond to. So one night I was onstage there, and I bit my lower lip, and I held up my thumb like, you know, to give the - I don't know what that sign is where you, like, give the thumbs-up sign at the same time, and people went wild.

They thought that was him, and I thought, again, this is what people are responding to, but I never saw him do them both at the same time. I brought it out there, they responded to it in the village, I showed it to Lorne, he said: That's it. That's what we want.

I mean, because we were starting out as accurately as we could get, but then we were italicizing, too. I mean, are you familiar with the artist Hirschfeld?

GROSS: The caricaturist.


GROSS: Who had all his famous caricatures in the New York Times.

HAMMOND: Yes, I used to put those pictures in my office and try to absorb them and think about them, like what was that man doing because that's what I want to do. I mean, Bob Hope's nose wasn't that long, was it?


HAMMOND: I mean really? You know, I mean, you know what I mean? Judy Garland's nose didn't pug that much, did it? Well, we don't know what that means, but we respond to it. Like wow, yeah, that's them. That's really them. So you know, Lorne's formula was always start with the accurate thing and then italicize.

And then it makes it glorious. It shows all the person's colors, and the people respond to it better than a simple print.

GROSS: My guest is Darrell Hammond. He's written a new memoir. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Darrell Hammond. He's written a new memoir about his years on "Saturday Night Live" and the mental health problems he's experienced through his life.

Now you did John McCain. I think it was like your last season on "Saturday Night Live," and so you did McCain opposite Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, when like everybody was watching. But you didn't want to do McCain.

HAMMOND: No, I did not after...

GROSS: Would you explain why?

HAMMOND: Well, you know, my father and I had never been close on any level for, you know, 40-something years. He was in a hospice, and we got a call on a Saturday. I was doing a show that night with Obama, future President Obama. And I called, and I said: Look, I will skip tonight's show, and I'll come straight down there.

And he said: I think that in case this guy's the president, you should have this honor of being onstage with him. I said OK. So he took himself off his morphine because he was afraid the morphine would stop his liver or his heart or something because, you know, by then he'd had his ear cut off and really savage pain.

So he takes himself off the morphine. I fly to Florida the following morning with my pal Eddie(ph), who was ex-NYPD and who my father I think truly loved, and we get there to the hospice, and, you know, there's a few hours left to his life, you know.

And we get there, we walk in the room, and he had arrayed his war medals on his chest. And it was as if to say, you know, I guess I wasn't such a great dad, you know. And I took that as an apology. Sorry.

GROSS: You're saying that he was saying to you maybe I wasn't such a great dad, but I was a really good soldier?

HAMMOND: He was saying it took my life, it took my heart, it took my soul. I went there, I became a warrior, I killed people, and I had a hard time, you know, adjusting to society after that.

GROSS: So getting back to McCain, you didn't want to portray McCain because...?

HAMMOND: Well, we had a - we had a military funeral. There were soldiers. They played "Taps." There was a folded flag. And it was, I think, the single most - yeah, just give me a second.

GROSS: Sure, however much time you want.

HAMMOND: It was the single most important thing that had ever happened to me in my whole life, the single most.

GROSS: The funeral?

HAMMOND: Yes, because I realized, you know, I had seen him through the years, grappling with these visions of what he called verifiable evil. I mean, maybe not biblical but not of this earth, when he looked into the eyes of one particular Nazi officer who - sorry, he took his gun, you know, which...

GROSS: Your father took the Nazi's gun or his own gun?

HAMMOND: His gun, the Nazi's gun, and brought it home. And I guess I was about 12, and he was sitting in the living room, just hammered, you know, on gin, and staring out, as he was wont to do, into his tomato garden, through the glass doors. I need to take a tranquilizer before I do these interviews.


HAMMOND: And I was like what in the world, why would you have a German Luger? I mean, it wasn't loaded. There was never - there was never any idea that it was going to be shot at anybody or anything. I was just wow, that's a real gun. And he said - he said it was particularly humiliating to have your gun taken from you if you were an officer.

He said he looked into this man's eyes, the man looked at him with such joy and triumph of evil that he didn't say - he didn't say then I killed him. I mean, it's quite obvious that he killed him. I'd heard him talk about people that he killed. And it was like why now? Why are you looking at it?

He said: I took his gun - I'm stone-cold sober, and I'm sitting here feeling this. This is crazy. He said: I wanted him to see in my eyes my response to what I saw I his eyes when I took his gun. He would say: Look, these aren't normal people. These - they're not going through a phase. This is luscious evil, joy, triumph. They weren't normal people, you know.

Now having said that, here's a guy who's afraid to go to church. He killed a lot of guys.

GROSS: Is that what you mean when you say in your book, that you think that the war, like, ruined him?

HAMMOND: Well, to the extent that he couldn't really function that well, except as a warrior. That's what he became. My experience is you become a warrior, it's pretty tough to convert. You know, it's tough to look into the eyes of an SS officer on Friday and pump gas in Mississippi on Monday. It's not easy. I mean...

GROSS: I'm thinking about you being a boy in your house and on the one hand your mother sticking your fingers into electric sockets and coming after you with a knife and, you know, making you think that maybe you were evil or that she was evil or that there was evil dwelling in the house. You were afraid to be home.

And at the same time, your father's talking to you about this, like, evil Nazi who he had to kill, and he still has the gun, and he has, like, evidence of that man in your house. So I could see how you'd grow up being...

HAMMOND: Do you understand how he was haunted by it?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

HAMMOND: He was haunted every night of his life by what he saw...

GROSS: But I think I also hear how you were haunted by him being haunted.


GROSS: So just to finish where we got into this from, you didn't want to do John McCain because you didn't want to mock someone who'd been a prisoner of war and had come...


GROSS: Yeah.

HAMMOND: Yes, his - it was my - I mean, look it, if you're injured, it changes the way you move. If you're injured, it changes the way you talk. I didn't want to lampoon someone, you know, who had given his life.

GROSS: Someone who had been through that ordeal.


GROSS: Darrell Hammond will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F-ed." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Darrell Hammond. He was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" for 14 seasons and was the show's chief impressionist. He did Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John McCain, Dick Cheney, Sean Connery and more. His new memoir about "Saturday Night Live" and the mental health problems he's dealt with through his life. It's called "God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F-ed." In the first part of our interview he talked about the physical and emotional abuse he remembers being inflicted on him at home when he was growing up.

You know, what really troubled me reading your book?


GROSS: You know, you're talking about like how your mother like physically abused you...


GROSS: ...and otherwise didn't pay a whole attention to you.


GROSS: And that, you know, your father was so obsessed with like what happened during the war. And you felt that that broke him. And like you're having all this trouble. Like you're at home. You're cutting yourself. You're having serious psychological problems. And it sounds from your memoir - unless he left this part out - that they didn't really try to help you. They didn't even try to understand what you were going through.

HAMMOND: No. They never did. They were happy to accept - as I am happy to accept - a sanitized version of reality. If I can get a sanitized version of reality, I'll take it, you know. So I go to this doctor in Sebastian, Florida. The guy interviews me and he doesn't know what the hell he's dealing with. Him, he doesn't know. I mean how can he in one hour? So he says to my mother - I mean, he says, he's a schizophrenic and he's a manic depressive. And she - I can remember, I saw her face. She said, oh. Like she thought she was about getting ready to get busted. And instead she like, really? Is that right? Yeah. Well, what can we do about that? And the doctor says, we'll just give him these pills, that's what. And then we'll lock him up here for a while and that'll be just fine. So they were happy to accept that as that's what happened.

Now my father doesn't know what happened at all. I mean really, he's in his own world. And so years later, when I began trauma therapy, I called her on the phone and I said, I'm being treated for the symptoms that prisoners of war happened, Mom, but all I did was grow up in your house. Can you talk to me about that? There was a pause and then in a sort of that husky-throaty thing she got in when she was about ready to menace, she said, don't ever call us again. Click. Like that. And that I didn't talk to them until their deathbed.

GROSS: Did you always remember these things about your mother?


GROSS: Or did they come out in...

HAMMOND: I remember reciting a Little Orphan Annie poem about the Little Orphan Annie being butchered, I remembered that. I remember the floor being red and me bleeding in a vague sense, not a lot about it. I remember I thought it was my fault. Remember my hands slammed in the door - again, my fault. And also electric socket, I – my fault. All I fault. Isn't it? I mean can you imagine the desperation of a child who chooses to believe that he did this to himself just so he doesn't have to consider the idea that his mother did it or his parents did it. Because, you know Terry, I'll tell you something. I hope this - I don't know anything about you, but I think it's completely barbaric to shake hands with and seek help from the person who caused your injury. That will make you sick. That's my idea. And I'm not a doctor, OK? If a doctor comes in here and goes, you know, you're completely wrong, I'll go yeah, you're right. I'm a nut.


HAMMOND: I've had 40...

GROSS: You don't have any questions about these memories? Like you're confident that your mother did this, that it's not like...


GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HAMMOND: That's a little bit that I remember, yes.

GROSS: So let me say something that I think you got from your mother that was positive, maybe the only thing, but let's talk about this thing.


GROSS: And that is that she really liked do impressions of people in the neighborhood.


GROSS: And a way, maybe the only way, that you had to connect with her was doing impressions too, which is how you started doing impressions. Yes.


GROSS: So who were those early people were you did impressions of?


HAMMOND: We did in those days we were doing Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield in record they had of "A Christmas Carol" in which they played most of the characters. So we went to those words. I mean I think I put some of that in the book. After that, as I started get up around the age of 10, I could do a little Popeye scat singing, you know, I knew vowels and consonants then and...


HAMMOND: You know, when he would say...


HAMMOND: You know, I worked that out in my head. You know, I mean I didn't have a lot to do, you know, so I wrote that out in my head. Well, that, I don't want to say delighted to her or charmed her or changed our relationship. I can tell you that on a given day it changed her state. When she got that faraway look in her eyes, when her southern accent fell, when her voice grew husky, I knew what was happening then, so let's do "A Christmas Carol," mom. Or let's play, she used to play Tchaikovsky's "Sixth Symphony," you know, wonderful piece and we would sometimes play that. I couldn't play the whole thing. She could play the whole thing. I could just play like the first 60 seconds of it. Well, all of a sudden the afternoon is over and everything is fine.

I could remember she – I guess she was doing someone from the neighborhood, I just remember doing that voice when she left the room. I was like wow; I think I can do that.

GROSS: How did you start getting serious about your ability to do impressions and think OK, I can make this real part of my life?

HAMMOND: I was 27. I had done five or six plays - I forget - in New York City and I got tired of the life. It was too hard. Being a waiter, I mean and then doing a play at night, really, really hard. So I thought well, I - I'm not fit for anything else. What do I like? So then I thought well, I like talking like other people. That's fun. So I moved to Florida, one thing led to another, up, up, up, I'm in the radio station midnight to six punching buttons three times in hour and I have six hours a night to practice in a recording studio. And I start trying to improve myself. A year later I got a job at a radio station doing character voices and then it sort of took off.

GROSS: Did it help you to be able to listen back to yourself by recording yourself?

HAMMOND: It did, but I never do that now.

GROSS: Why not?

HAMMOND: I just, it's disturbing to me because I noticed it be like if you were a violin player and you listen to a recording of yourself than you kind of hit the note. I mean I don't feel like any of them. I don't, I very seldom think any of them are any good. I know it's a trick, you know, it's a vocal trick I'm doing and I never thought they were any good, most of them.

GROSS: Well, apparently you're the only one who thought that.


HAMMOND: Well, thank you.

GROSS: So, in your book you describe how like you go to your audition for Lorne Michaels and for Marci what's her name?


GROSS: Marci Klein like first discovered you at a club...


GROSS: ...and thought let's give him an audition. And you're already taking lithium...


GROSS: ...for the problems that you're having. And...

HAMMOND: Right. You can see that bloat in my first White House Correspondents dinner. Yes.

GROSS: From the lithium?


GROSS: Mm-hmm. And so like when you get the job, you got the job, did you feel like oh I'm hiding something from them by not telling them that I'm having these problems, I'm on lithium.

HAMMOND: You know, if you look back in the book I sat down on the chair and Lorne Michaels, whose eyes don't miss things too often, I would imagine, looked at me in the eyes for a second and knew that he had seen a creature like me before, OK? He looked at me a look of recognition and he said, are you OK? Are you all right? I mean why would he say that? I mean I'm sure he didn't say that to everyone that auditioned for him. He knew exactly what he was seeing. He'd seen it before. And I think that when I - somewhere when I was doing Ted Koppel and German, or Phil Donahue in Spanish, I forget, I saw him - another look of recognition and it was pleasing to him. And I did well enough that he called me back to give me another hard workout, which I did a second audition. So I was very honored.

GROSS: So earlier we were talking about how cutting, cutting yourself with a razor or a knife got you out of your emotional pain, out of your head and...

HAMMOND: Well, I think it made me manageable. It got me off the floor. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Does working do that to you? Does like studying voices, doing impressions get you out of what's happening in your head also?

HAMMOND: So does reading books, taking walks, watching baseball. I love baseball. I just decided to let the larger issues of life go to the Einstein's and the Billy Graham's. I failed at so much stuff. I love baseball, again, and that's what I do.

GROSS: So, you know, we talked about some horrible things in your life. You know, emotional pain, drug problems, cutting yourself. We are you now?

HAMMOND: Well, I was on seven meds when I was on "Saturday Night Live." I'm on one. You know, Wellbutrin, which is, I think, some of the healthiest people I know take Wellbutrin.

GROSS: It's a very commonly used antidepressant.

HAMMOND: Yeah. I mean that's just on general principle. The point is that due to this, the great doctors I met and some of the spiritual laws that I find miraculous and groups. Look, I've been at it a long time. I don't have flashbacks anymore. I don't have nightmares anymore. I don't cut. And I feel good most of the time. I mean I really have a, I have a nice thing going. It just took a long time to get here, you know?

GROSS: Well, I wish you well. I wish you could health and...

HAMMOND: And the same to you.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

GROSS: Darrell Hammond's new memoir is called God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F-ed." You can read an excerpt on our website,

Coming up, the anatomy of skyscrapers. This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, host: Skyscrapers are no longer rare and there to longer an American phenomenon, but there's still remarkable. As if just staying up weren't amazing enough, as my guest Kate Ascher writes, these giant buildings function as vertical cities, providing infrastructure and services to thousands of people at enormous heights. Her new book "The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper," explains everything from how skyscrapers are built to what happens after a toilet on a high floor is flushed. Her previous book, the works, was about the infrastructure that supports daily life in New York City. She is on the faculty of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and is a consulting engineer running the Urban Planning section at Happold Consulting.

Kate Ascher, welcome to FRESH AIR. Love the book. Have to tell you, it made me a little nervous because like hearing is when you are in a skyscraper, especially if you're on a higher floor, you don't even want to think about how it's designed and how it manages to stay up without collapsing and how the plumbing works. You just want to have faith, faith that it all stays up, that it all works.


GROSS: And reading your book and actually reading about the design, you think like oh my god, how did they do that. So I'm not even sure what my question is for this, but I guess you know both. You know how it works and you also have faith it's going to stay up.

KATE ASCHER: I do. But I was like you, not totally comfortable on high floors of skyscrapers, except I would occasionally hear them moving and worry about that movement. And I guess part of the motivation to do the book was actually to figure out what was going on there and whether that was supposed to be the case or not.

GROSS: Well, while were on the subject you talk about how there's two kinds of weight impacting on a skyscraper. One is the weight of one floor on top of the other on top of the other on top of the other. You say that's the easy part. The really hard part is all the wind forces that push on the skyscraper from different ends. Why is the wind pressure so difficult an engineering problem?

ASCHER: Well, it's an interesting question that you asked because the gravity loads, which one assumes are the heaviest weights upon the building. As a building gets taller don't multiply nearly as fast as what are called the lateral loads, or the wind loads, as you know, and that's really a function of just the size of the height as you move up because there are wind currents that when we're down below we just don't even noticed. And that building, as it rises, interrupts those loads and they push harder and harder. The larger the building, the greater the wind flows. You can moderate them in some ways by shaping your building to take advantage of those flows better or worse but they're still going to be there.

GROSS: So skyscrapers are built to sway back and forth with the wind. Why does swaying help?

ASCHER: If a building were able to move at the top than serious structural elements might be damaged because of the wind pressure, so most skyscrapers will be designed to move at the top. And some, particularly in earthquake zones, will actually be designed to be able to move a little bit on their foundations as well, so they don't take as much pressure as they would do if they were absolutely firm and static.

GROSS: Say on the hundredth story of a skyscraper, how much sway is there?

ASCHER: It's not a precise formula in terms of the amount of sway in a building. But there is a maximum and it's about one 500th of the building's height is the maximum permitted to sway. The minute you get more of that it's not that the building is going to crack or fall over, it's that people who are actually in the building themselves as tenants or residents will start feeling a little bit queasy.

GROSS: Now you describe the Comcast Center, a pretty new skyscraper in Philadelphia, has the largest tuned liquid damper to do what?

ASCHER: The dampers on top of buildings help counteract the sway. So if you imagine that the wind is pushing a skyscraper in one direction, a damper, whether it's water or made of some other material, will try to push the building the other way to try to counteract the sway that's coming from the wind.

GROSS: I'm trying to picture how it would do that.

ASCHER: Well, if you think about a tank of water, because the liquid dampers are really tanks of water, or pool on top of the building, as the wind comes from one direction it will push the will, building in that direction but the water, of course, will go to the other side. So that the weight of water moving to the other side almost like a wave will counteract the wind pressure and help the building stay in one place, as it were.

GROSS: One of the great, like, architectural paradoxes of our time is that the skyscrapers that have like all glass sides and it looks like just window after window, the windows don't open.


GROSS: So they don't really function in that way as windows. So if you're in this, you know, like huge skyscraper of 100 stories, or more, how do you get air to circulate through the building and keep that air fresh and not just re-circulate, like, horrible air with lots of bacteria and germs and other terrible things?

ASCHER: Right. You can imagine if you didn't circulate the air, you'd have people getting sick - very, very quickly. There are huge mechanical floors on these skyscrapers that really do nothing but change out air and water. And that air is continuously being changed out and exhausted into the environment. So air is taken in, cleaned, conditioned, cooled, heated, and then exhausted into the building. There are some new buildings now that are actually exhausting cleaner air than the air they take in. But it's a constant process and it happens around the clock.

GROSS: So let me ask a question that I think everybody really wants to know. When you're on the 100th floor of a building and you flush the toilet, what exactly happens after that?

ASCHER: It's not that different than a house. The water from the toilet goes down a series of pipes and eventually will end up in some kind of septic system, usually a municipal sewer. But it's the same system that operates in many homes that are plugged into city sewer systems. It's just a longer way for the waste to travel.

GROSS: Well, if waste travels like 100 stories, isn't like – doesn't it start to travel at incredible speed? Wouldn't it speed up the greater distance it's falling down?

ASCHER: It does. There are very sophisticated bends in the pipes and air that's let in to slow the water as it's moving through. And you don't want to hear it as it's moving through the building so you need to make sure that it's soundproofed as well. And these mechanical...

GROSS: I hadn't even thought of that.

ASCHER: Right. Well, you've probably heard of radiators banging. That's water moving through the pipes in buildings for heat. And so you can have the same issue that's water moving out of a building, so you really want to make sure of that. There are some buildings that actually reuse what's called gray water or dirty water, and that's increasingly being seen in what are called green buildings to minimize water usage.

Not for drinking but for other functions within a building. But typically in most skyscrapers that drainage goes right into a city system.

GROSS: You write that there are safety features in other countries that are better than ours and that our skyscrapers have fewer safety regulations, or more lenient safety regulations that they have to comply with.

Give us a sense of what's being done in some other countries safety-wise that we're not doing.

ASCHER: Well, there's different materials in different places, for a start, but there are also escape floors that - they're also called floors of refuge in many of the Asian buildings and they're places where people are asked to go in a fire or other kind of emergency as opposed to coming all the way out of the building. They're asked to assemble at the refuge floors and then there are sometimes express elevators that will take them from those floors.

Or they're asked to stay there until the emergency has passed and so you have separate air systems for those buildings so that the people can theoretically survive in an emergency instead of trying to get all the way out of a very tall building. Because, as we know from the Trade Center experience, it can take hours for a really tall skyscraper to empty itself of its people.

GROSS: And so compare that to what we typically have in American skyscrapers.

ASCHER: Well, American skyscrapers, there are building codes that, you know, explain how many stairways you need to have and the width of stairways and the lighting of stairways. There are also procedures for evacuating them, and people do fire and emergency drills all the time. But at the moment, when there is a fire or another emergency in a skyscraper, the typical reaction is not to use the elevators; it's simply to assemble and to have an orderly move-out based on whoever is controlling that evacuation.

Not everybody needs to evacuate but certainly the floors above a fire are usually asked to evacuate. Different cities have different procedures, but typically elevators are not used in a fire situation to evacuate people whereas they are – there are separate sets of elevators that may be used to do that in Europe and in parts of Asia.

GROSS: So what is currently the tallest building in the world?

ASCHER: The tallest building in the world is a mixed-use building that open in Dubai last year called the Burj Khalifa, which holds hotel, office, and residential accommodations.

GROSS: And how many stories is that?

ASCHER: It's about 140 stories, I believe. It may be 150. It's about 2,700 feet tall, so it's very, very tall.

GROSS: Have you been in it?

ASCHER: I haven't been in it. The last time I was in Dubai it was only 115 stories, but I couldn't see the top of it because it was in cloud. I'm looking forward to going back and seeing if I can make it on the observation deck elevators all the way to the top, which for somebody who doesn't like heights, this should prove quite a challenge.

GROSS: Right. So you know, you write that in Dubai they don't have, like, a sewage infrastructure to support high-rises like this one. So what do they do with the sewage?

ASCHER: A variety of buildings there, some can access a municipal system but many of them actually use trucks to take the sewage out of individual buildings and then they wait on a queue to put it into a waste water treatment plant. So it's a fairly primitive system.

GROSS: Well, these trucks can wait for hours and hours on line.

ASCHER: That's right. I'm told they can wait up to 24 hours before they get to the head of the queue. Now, there is a municipal system that is being invested in and I assume will connect all of these tall buildings in some point in the near future, but they're certainly not alone. In India many buildings are responsible for providing their own water and their own waste water removal.

So it's, it's really – we're very fortunate in this country that we assume we can plug into an urban system that can handle whatever waste the building produces. That's not the case everywhere else in the world.

GROSS: Well, it really illustrates one of the paradoxes of modern life, that we have these just incredible structures that reach, you know, that seem to reach to the sky and then in a place like Dubai you have a 24 hour long line of trucks waiting to dispose of the waste from those buildings.

ASCHER: Right. Well, you know, you have to remember that a place like Dubai really emerged in the last 50 years. It was a sleepy, you know, Bedouin town half a century ago. And what you do is when you bring in the world's, you know, most sophisticated architects and engineers, you can literally build anything, including a building of 140 or 150 stories. But designing a municipal network of sewage treatment is in some ways more complex.

It certainly requires more money and more time to make it happen, so one just seemed to jump ahead of the other.

GROSS: So there are many skyscrapers now that are mixed use skyscrapers so they combine offices, residential space, stores. So what are some of the stresses on a building like that compared to the more traditional just like office skyscraper?

ASCHER: It's a little bit harder to design those buildings because what you have is different flows of people coming in at different times of day that don't always want to run into each other. So you'll often have a premium hotel that might sit on top of an office block with a variety of retail shops down below and you don't want your hotel guests - particularly if they're being charged a pretty penny - running into your workaday folks coming in out of the office at lunchtime.

And so you really need to segregate entrances and exits. You really need to make sure that not everybody's moving in and out at the same time of day because it can also get very, very crowded. And then you'll also have residential accommodation at higher levels in some of these buildings and those folks use a different schedule entirely.

So you have different entrances and you have different elevatoring because you have different elevator systems that are going to move to serve each of those markets. So it's a very complicated design process.

GROSS: And then just technically there's a different amount of floor space that's required for office buildings and for residential space.

ASCHER: Right. And they tend to often work together. Offices tend to be bigger and need to be more open, so with less walls because you need, you know, space for conference rooms and various things which you don't have in homes. Homes, of course, you want as much window exposure as possible because people don't want to live in rooms without windows.

So they tend to have smaller footprints or floor plates. So what you'll frequently see nowadays is an office podium down below a residential tower on top with the tower being skinnier, of course, than the podium office, because you need to have those windows very close to each room. And that seems to be the most popular configuration at the moment.

GROSS: Kate Ascher, thank you so much.

ASCHER: Thank you.

GROSS: Kate Ascher is the author of the new book "The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper." You can see a slideshow of images from her book on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nrpfreshair and join us on Facebook.

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


He's edited Caro, le Carré and 'Catch-22,' but doesn't mind if you don't know his name

At 91, Robert Gottlieb is perhaps the most acclaimed book editor of his time. He started out in 1955 and has been working in publishing ever since. The list of authors he's edited include Robert Caro, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron and Michael Crichton. His daughter Lizzie Gottlieb's new film, Turn Every Page, centers on her father's decades-long editing relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro.


Sleekly sentimental, 'Living' plays like an 'Afterschool Special' for grownups

Living, is a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film Ikiru, which means "to live" in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he's spent the last 30 years of his life.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue