DATE October 3, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sarah Silverman on the new season of "The Sarah
Silverman Program" on Comedy Central
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new season of "The Sarah Silverman Program" premieres tonight on Comedy
Central. I think it's a really funny show. You might not. Silverman
intentionally takes on subjects that are sensitive, controversial or taboo,
like AIDS, religion, abortion and sexual predators. Because her character is
self-centered, oblivious and crude, the show itself might appear to be
clueless and tasteless, but to fans like me, it's really funny satire.
Silverman is also co-starring in Jeff Garland's new movie, "I Want Someone To
Eat Cheese With." She's hosted award shows on MTV and the Independent Film
Channel, and she had a performance film called "Jesus Is Magic."
Here's a scene from tonight's episode of "The Sarah Silverman Program." After
Sarah is awakened by church bells, she angrily marches down to the church and
barges into the service, where she tells the minister he shouldn't be waking
people up with church bells and that he's out of touch with what people want.
As she leaves the church, she's approached by two members of the congregation.
(Soundbite of "The Sarah Silverman Program")
Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) Hi. I just want you to know that we
agree. Pastor Crayley has lost touch with all the things that matter.
Ms. SARAH SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Thank you. See, I always bond with angry
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Oh, no. We both have husbands and
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Oh. Were you styled by angry lesbians?
Actor #1: (In character) No.
Actor #2: (In character) We're community activists.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) I'm sorry. I'm never up to date with what
you're calling yourselves. Community activists it is.
Actor #2: (In character) Would you like to join us and some of our friends?
We're just going to talk. There's going to be coffee and lemon bars.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) All right. Now you're coming on to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Luckily I'm a sicko for lemon bars, so sign
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Later in the episode, Sarah goes to their meeting where, as usual, she
doesn't get what it's all about.
(Begin soundbite from "The Sarah Silverman Program")
Actor #1: (In character) As Sarah knows, one of our biggest challenges is
getting Pastor Crayley to change his thinking on the issues.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) I know! It's like the guy's obsessed with
his fricking bells. I don't think it's very Christlike to wake someone up
first thing in the morning going, `Bong!' Not Christlike. It's like, Christ!
Unidentified Actor #3: (In character) That is a really valid concern, Sarah,
and we agree with you wholeheartedly, but what we're focusing on primarily is
saving the lives of babies, whatever it takes. Babies are being killed all
the time, even as we speak.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) I know. Poor Africa. I mean, it's like
they took every bad thing that can possibly happen and put it in one
continent. Drought, disease, safari.
Actor #3: (In character) No, Sarah. Babies are being killed right here in
America. Right here in Valley Village.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) What?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a scene from the Sarah Silverman show.
Sarah Silverman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: I was doing a Q and A the other day, and somebody had remembered the
first interview that you and I did, and they said they really liked it, and I
said, `Well, you got to watch her new show. It's really funny.' Then I
started trying to describe it, and I started saying things like, `Well, the
first episode of the new season, it's really funny. It's all about abortion.
And then in the second episode, she's accused of having a kind of sexual
relationship with her dog,' and I could see people in the audience just
cringing. And I thought, Sarah, you must have a better way of explaining it
than I did. Why don't you...
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I...
GROSS: ...tell us your version of what your show is about.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I wish I did have a better way of explaining it. Maybe I
would say that it's a show about a woman who is an arrogant ignorant.
GROSS: Yeah, perfect.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Who goes through life very earnestly, but is kind of an
GROSS: Yeah, I think that's a really accurate description. Did you always
intend, I mean, your show to be covering subjects that need to be treated
really delicately, knowing that you would treat them just the opposite?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I didn't necessarily always know that, but it makes sense
in terms of, like, that these are topics that are perfect fodder for this
character. They create really good dichotomy. Does that make sense?
GROSS: Kind of.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, maybe not, but I think that's what I mean. Just
the contrast between the sensitivity of a topic and the insensitivity of a
girl whose perception of herself is very different than the perception the
audience has of her.
GROSS: So let's hear a clip from an episode from last season called "Not
Without My Daughter," in which--it's a kiddie beauty pageant episode, and
there's this Little Miss Rainbow pageant, and you always wanted to win it.
So, even now as an adult, you're still auditioning for it, even though you're
totally much too old for it. And right before you're disqualified, you're
doing your dramatic monologue on stage, hoping to become Little Miss Rainbow.
Let's hear it.
(Begin soundbite of "The Sarah Silverman Show")
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) November 9th, 1942. Peter found some
crackers. Mama says we mustn't chew too loud or the Germans may hear. To
think we were once Germans ourselves. Well, Hitler's taken our nationality.
And he's taken our humanity. But he's not going to take our rhythm.
(Soundbite of tap dancing)
Unidentified Actor #5: (In character) Sarah, stop.
(Soundbite of tap dancing)
Actor #5: (In character) Please stop.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Sarah Silverman, did you write this monologue?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: It's basically from "The Diary of Anne Frank." But...
GROSS: Wait a minute. Anne Frank didn't say, `But Hitler couldn't take away
our rhythm.' That's not from "The Diary of Anne Frank."
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yes. Well, let's say it's inspired from "The Diary of
Anne Frank." And we used a little poetic license with it. License, because
then it goes into a, of course, a tap routine.
GROSS: Right. Why did you think that this would--what gave you the idea of
borrowing from "The Diary of Anne Frank" for this audition piece for the
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: We wanted something that was inappropriate, you know, and
did not go well with a tap routine. So...
GROSS: Well, I guess that was it.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah. That presented itself and was kind of the perfect
choice, the least tasteful choice.
GROSS: Now I want to play a clip from another episode last season, and this
episode was called "Positively Negative." And in this episode, you have the
blahs, so you think it might be AIDS. So you go to a clinic to be tested, and
while you're waiting for the results to come back, you become a very righteous
AIDS activist, inspiring others with your personal story of how you've dealt
with AIDS, even though you haven't even been diagnosed with it. So here you
are sitting around a table after you've broken the news that, you know, you
have AIDS to your sister, your sister's boyfriend and your two gay neighbors.
And your sister, who's played by your real sister, speaks first.
(Soundbite from "The Sarah Silverman Show")
Ms. LAURA SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Sarah, you can't be serious.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Can't I? AIDS is real, Laura. It doesn't
only exist in award-winning films and TV shows.
Unidentified Actor #7: (As Jake) So you're sure you're HIV positive?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) I will be at 7 when I get my results.
Actor #7: (As Jake) Oh.
Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Sarah, you really scared us.
Actor #7: (As Jake) What kind of maniac waltzes into a brunch and eclipses a
man's first birthday with the mere possibility of having AIDS?
Ms. L. SILVERMAN: Jake. I'm sure she didn't mean...
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Sh. Laura, it's OK. We all grieve in our own way.
Unidentified Actor #8: (In character) We should
Actor #7: (As Jake) For Jay's birthday party. That's a great idea.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Good.
Actor #8: (In character) Really? With dinner?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Good. Go on. Live life as if nothing ever
happened. That's what I want. But do me a favor? Learn from me. I paid the
price for my awareness so that you guys don't have to.
Unidentified Actor #9: (In character) Excuse me for eavesdropping, but I'm a
school teacher, and I've love to have an extraordinary person like you come
speak to my class some time.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) Unfortunately I don't have the luxury of
"some time." But I have now. Take me there.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: God, I love that clip. It's so funny. I love the way you mock, like,
the inspirational cliches surrounding illness, because those cliches just
really cheapen how serious illness is and how inspirational some people really
are. Like, what do you do to get in the spirit of an episode like this? Do
you watch a lot of, like, bad movies to really get into the spirit?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: A lot of it is from being raised by television and movies
very much, and I think, to me--and I'm going to say the word contrast a lot,
but it's that contrast between the cadence of what a touching speech sounds
like to the ear and its content. Those words are familiar, you know? Not the
words, but the tone, you know? In a way, we're kind of all dogs, and these
tones are familiar to us, you know, as serious or as important or as, you
know, sad. And when the words are different but the tone is the same, I think
it's funny, personally.
GROSS: No, I agree.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Now, you managed to say the word vagina in just about every episode,
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: It's kind of like the mouse in "Goodnight, Moon," vagina.
It's on every page somewhere.
GROSS: Why is that?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I don't know. I think, you know, I honestly don't
consciously try to think about, like, what's going to shake things up or cause
trouble, but I think that we're drawn towards--as a comedian, anyway, you're
kind of drawn towards what's taboo or, you know, what you're not supposed to
say. It's actually one of the safer taboo words. You know what I mean? You
can say it on TV, and it's silly and embarrassing, kind of, and exposing, and,
you know what I mean?
GROSS: Was it ever embarrassing to you to use that word on stage? Because, I
mean, I guess, you know, in some ways, one thing you have to say about "The
Vagina Monologues" is that, like, after seeing it performed on television and
seeing the ads for it in every newspaper, it's become less uncomfortable to
say a word we were all brought up to be uncomfortable about saying.
Nevertheless, when you started using that word on stage, was it awkward for
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: No, it didn't feel awkward for me. But it's funny,
because there are things I say on stage that someone may come up to me and say
to me off stage at another time, and I'm so much more prudish off stage. It's
weird. It's like I almost barely recognize that someone will say something
that I've said on stage before to me, and I'm so grossed out, you know? And I
realize it's something I've said, you know, but it's just, Terry, there's a
time and a place. You know?
GROSS: Well, there is, and the stage is a place for--I mean, I know what
you're saying. Because you can say things on stage and do things on stage you
wouldn't want done in real life.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: You know, I'm thinking how much easier it is probably to be Jerry
Seinfeld when he meets fans in the street than when you do.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: Because what you do is just so topsy-turvy and so, like, potentially
tasteless sounding, though I think it's, like, great satire of movie cliches
and people behaving inappropriately. But do people behave inappropriately
with you, kind of misinterpreting what your show is about?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, well, it's a real mixed bag. I have, you know,
people that come up to me that I just think, `Wow, I'm so lucky.' You know,
like my boyfriend Jimmy had a show called "The Man Show," and for a long time
his fans, you know, he'd walk through a mall or something and get, `Where are
the juggies? Where are the'--you know, I mean, you know, and people--but in a
way, I get the same kind of thing where people aren't getting the irony or
they like my stuff in a literal way that's ugly, you know?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Instead of, like, gleaning the kind of absolute power of
what I mean, which is usually the opposite of what I say, you know.
GROSS: Right, exactly, exactly.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Not to deconstruct too much, but I can't really
deconstruct more than that.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Silverman. "The Sarah Silverman Program" starts its
new season tonight on Comedy Central. We'll talk more after a break. This is
GROSS: My guest is comic and actor Sarah Silverman. The new season of "The
Sarah Silverman Program" starts tonight on Comedy Central.
Now, your sister Laura plays your sister on the show. Did you always act
together as kids?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: No. I was the youngest, and I was lucky to be the
youngest and kind of be very free and less watched and able to do whatever I
wanted, and Laura was the other version of people that become actors. I think
she's very introverted and quiet, and she would, you know, have me perform,
you know, but it would kind of suppress her own desire to perform. And it
wasn't until later in life, whereas I was two when I knew I wanted to be a
comedian, you know, and an actor, but she kind of let herself--she was always
an artist. She's somebody who is cursed with being brilliant at everything
she tries. Any instrument she picked up, she could draw any picture, she
could write poems that would knock you to the ground. And I feel sorry for
her because I think a lot of the things she's able to do come so easy for her
that it doesn't feel like she's doing anything. Do you know what I mean?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: And that acting was the only thing that was maybe
challenging for her, and she, of course, is also great at. But, for me, it
was always one thing, you know? I have so many friends that, they still don't
know what they want in life, and I realize how lucky I am just to always have
wanted to be a comedian and an actress and do this stuff, this funny stuff.
GROSS: Most of the episodes end with your character in bed. And before she
goes to sleep, she reflects on the day and what she's learned, her lessons
learned. And she talks to her dog Doug about, you know, what's happened to
her that day. So I want to play an example of that, and this at the end of an
episode in which you've tried and failed to become a lesbian. And you're
talking to your dog Doug about it.
(Begin soundbite of "The Sarah Silverman Program")
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) I don't know where to start with this one,
Doug. I mean, I failed at heterosexuality, I failed at homosexuality.
(Soundbite of dog whining)
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) I guess I just have to stop thinking that
the right person's just going to come along, you know? I have to be the right
person. I have to come along. I'm a me-mosexual. Yeah. Anyway, good night,
(Soundbite of kiss)
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: (As Herself) I hope you die in your sleep tonight. Nah,
I'm just kidding. But if it had to be one of us, I hope it's you.
(Soundbite of click)
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a scene from "The Sarah Silverman Program."
Sarah, how did you come up with the idea of talking to your little dog Doug at
the end of each show?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Well, when we first conceived of the show, we thought it
would be one full day that starts when I wake up and ends when I go to sleep,
and most of the episodes are that, but we decided not to, like, marry
ourselves to that. Because we didn't want to sacrifice a good story or
something to some rule, you know, of the show that didn't make it better or
worse or anything. It was just kind of a convention that we thought was
interesting. So we do almost always end with going to bed with Doug and
figuring out what we learned and, of course, what I learned is never very
morally valuable. And it just seemed like a good way to kind of bookend the
show and to make it all one complete piece. And, you know, we use my real
GROSS: Oh, I was wondering about that. Really?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah, that's my dog, and his name is actually Duck,
D-U-C-K, but in the show, it's Doug, which was just a complete whim that I
just thought it was funny that we all had our own names but, you know, Duck is
Doug to protect his anonymity. Made me giggle, but now I'm constantly
explaining, and people who have known Duck forever, it's like, `Is it Duck or
Doug?' And then I have to be like, `No, I--well, all right.'
But because it's just my dog, he's not some specially trained dog or anything,
we try to make it pretty easy for him. So the good nights are perfect. He
just lies in bed like he does with me anyway at night, and we shoot him for a
second while I talk to him and go, `Hey, puppy, look over here,' you know, and
have some good cutaways.
The second episode this season, actually, he's got the A story, so it was a
really fun episode, but I don't think I would want him that heavy in a show
again. Because I really felt like a real scummy show biz mom or something,
like, you know, `Just get through this, and I'll give you a treat.' You know?
He was just like, `I want to go home.'
GROSS: Your dog is so cute at the end of the show. He almost like puts his
head on your leg, and it's just adorable, and you're telling him all this
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: It just kills me.
GROSS: All this ridiculous stuff.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Something about his face that looks like he's hearing
what you're saying and yet is simultaneously kind of dead inside, which I find
compelling and sad.
GROSS: One of the things you've been doing lately is hosting award shows.
You hosted, like, the Video Music Awards on MTV or VH1, I forget which one
it's one, you hosted the Independent Spirit Awards, the independent film
awards on the Independent Film Channel, and you're really hysterical.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: You know, you're hilarious when you do the award shows, but you
sometimes say things that really get you into trouble, like on the music video
awards, you said something about Paris Hilton, and she was in the audience,
and the camera had a close-up on her face as you were talking about her. She
was quite pained.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: Did you know that the camera was going to be on her?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I didn't. But I'll tell you, I don't think that Paris
was upset by my joke. I think what was upsetting, which made my heart sink
for her personally was, when I set up the joke and said, you know, `Paris
Hilton is going to jail in two days,' the crowd cheered for a minute, you
know, like it was just a solid minute of cheering, and I felt bad for her at
that point because I was looking right down at her, and there's a 50-year-old,
you know, cameraman in her face, and my heart sank for her. Because I just
thought, `Wow, this is her example of adults, these are her role models.' But
I went on with the joke because it's a joke, you know? And I was there to be
funny and to talk about all the topics and all the things that were going on
in pop culture and the MTV world.
And with the VMAs, with the Britney stuff, I did a couple jokes about Britney
because I followed Britney. I was put on immediately after her, and then I
went on and did a whole bunch of jokes. And they were completely overshadowed
by the entree into the monologue, which were, you know, `How about that, there
was Britney Spears,' you know, and a couple jokes about that. I don't think
that I said anything different than any late night talk show host has before
and after that. But I just--I was first, you know, and I kind of got
scapegoated. Surprise, surprise. The Jew is the scapegoat. God forbid she
rehearse or whatever, not stay out till 7 AM. But I'm the bad guy.
GROSS: Sarah Silverman will be back in the second half of our show. "The
Sarah Silverman Program" starts its second season tonight on Comedy Central.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is comic and actress Sarah Silverman. Her Comedy Central show "The
Sarah Silverman Program" starts its second season tonight on Comedy Central.
Let's get back to our interview.
One of the things you're up to now, you're in Jeff Garland's new movie, "I
Want Someone To Eat Cheese With."
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: And he was recently on the show, and one of the things he talked about
is how, earlier in his career he had like a panic attacks, even like on stage.
And I know I've read that you had panic attacks when you were young, and it
just seems so counterintuitive that someone who would have panic attacks would
want to put themself in a situation where they'd be in the public eye.
Because where are you more likely to have a panic attack than when everybody's
watching you? So, you know, it seems like quite a paradox. Can you talk a
little bit about, you know, being anxious as a kid and yet wanting to be, you
know, on stage and in the public eye?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: I don't really understand it myself, but, you know, it's
definitely true for me. You know, when I was 13, 14, 15, 16, and then when I
was--again when I was 22, I had severe panic attacks. And, you know, when I
was young, I didn't know what it was and neither did my parents. I mean, it
wasn't something that was common knowledge. And I learned later that, you
know, panic attacks are--after the first time you have a panic attack, every
subsequent panic attack comes from that fear of getting one again. You know?
But in terms of why that would drive someone to perform, I don't--I have no
GROSS: Did you ever find out...
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: If you find out tell me.
GROSS: ...did you ever have one onstage?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: No. No, not really. I've been booed off stage and
cried, you know. But...
GROSS: What made you cry?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Just people screaming and, you know, all the worst.
There's something called a prom show when you're in stand-up, where, during
prom season, kids--you do shows like at 1 AM, 2 AM, 4 AM, you know, for these
prom kids and they're ruthless. Like, you know, all the worst parts of high
school that, you know, so many stand-ups go through is re-visited while you're
standing onstage and they're saying, you know, `Next!' and `you suck!' and the
(Soundbite of whistling and crashing)
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: That's always awful to hear...(unintelligible).
GROSS: I guess people are so intent on showing off for each other in the
audience and they're probably really drunk.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Yeah. And I probably sucked. Who knows? But it's, you
GROSS: You're one of the people who have managed to kind of create a career
on your own terms, you know, by doing like stand-up and then doing your own
very unusual movie and having your own really eccentric TV show. Because it's
not like other people were writing roles that would have suited you or not
that they were giving them to you.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: No. Yeah, no. I've been really lucky. I mean, the
ability to write and to generate and to kind of be the creator of what you do,
you know, is such a benefit, you know. If I were just a straight actress I'd
be screwed, you know. Because, you know, I've been in movies, and I pretty
much am cast as the bitchy girlfriend before the guy finds out what love can
be or the, you know, the sassy or bitchy or whatever--or roommate-y friend.
Roommate-y, I guess, if that's a--well, that's not really an adjective.
But, you know, I had a realization after this last season of my show, and I
don't know how long my show will last or if it's, you know, not long for this
world or whatever, but this is what I love to do. I love--I'd still like to
be in a movie, sure. But I don't have that need anymore. I would much rather
be in my show that I love or do stand-up than play the friend. I just, I have
no use for it anymore. It doesn't do anything for me spiritually or
careerwise. You know, I got a script sent to me from one of my agents and it
said, you know, on the cover letter, like, `So and so is set to play the role
of Rebecca. Please look at the part of Suze.' And I just laughed because I
just thought, `I don't want to be Suze anymore. I just have no desire to play
Suze.' You know what I mean? Like the quintessential friend that is written
in lieu of good writing, you know? The part is solely to be the exposition of
the main girl character, you know, and I just--a good writer will write that
in the actions and the dialogue of the main character. But to have a best
friend part solely to be the exposition of the main character, it just doesn't
do anything for me. It's killing my soul. I don't want to be Suze anymore.
GROSS: How do the--your sister is your co-star in "The Sarah Silverman
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But how does your extended family feel about it? Because your
character is so inappropriate all the time. And are they on wavelength to
kind of get it, or do you have friends or family who are kind of embarrassed
about the whole thing?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: No, they love it, and they're completely supportive. And
it's funny, because I know I'm talking about how this--I'm talking about this
character I play like she's this completely different entity. And I know that
she's probably a lot more--I'm probably a lot more like her than I'd want to
admit to myself. But I have to somehow, because...
It's funny, I don't know if I told you this last time I was here, but there's
a book called "Drama of the Gifted Child" by Alice Walker--or Alice Miller
rather, Alice Miller, sorry. And I was reading this book that Laura had given
me, my sister, and I'm like, this is unbelievable, you know, it's all about
me, and, you know, and I related to it so much. And I was talking about it to
my other sister, Jody, and her friend Kathleen, and I said, `Oh, this book is
amazing. Have you read "Drama of the Gifted Child?"' And Kathleen said, `Oh,
by Alice Miller?' And I said, `Yes, yes.' And she said, `You know, it's a
funny story that Alice Miller originally titled that book "Drama of the
Narcissistic Child." But she knew that no one who needed to read it would buy
GROSS: That's really funny.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: And, yeah, that was very funny. And a little bit
GROSS: Sarah Silverman, thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Thank you. Oh, my gosh, did we do it?
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Whew! That was fun.
GROSS: Yes, it was.
Ms. S. SILVERMAN: Definitely.
GROSS: Sarah Silverman. "The Sarah Silverman Program" starts its second
season tonight on Comedy Central.
Coming up, Tom Parker Bowles, the British food critic and son of Camilla
Parker Bowles, talks about his "Year of Eating Dangerously." This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Tom Parker Bowles talks about his new book "The Year
of Eating Dangerously" and his year of world travel in researching
for the book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Tom Parker Bowles, is a food critic for the British publications
"The Mail on Sunday" and "Tatler." He's also the son of Camilla Parker Bowles,
Prince Charles's wife. He spent a year traveling the world in search of
culinary extremes ranging from ultra-hot hot sauce to revolting insects. His
new book is called "The Year of Eating Dangerously."
Tom Parker Bowles, welcome to FRESH AIR. What was the premise of your
dangerous eating tour?
Mr. TOM PARKER BOWLES: I think it was a chance, first of all, for me, you
know, a greedy person, to travel around the world and eat to find out all
these different food cultures and look within those food cultures at things
that we see as more extreme, perhaps, but within that culture is not at all
extreme in any way. So I just wanted to sort of be objective about the
strange foods. You know, one man's mead's another man's poison, as the cliche
goes. But really to get in there, to strip away all those preconceptions of
insects and dogs and the rest of it and, you know, try and see it for what it
GROSS: As you point out in your book, all food is potentially dangerous.
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Yeah. I mean, that was another premises that, you know,
you can see civilization and the sort of growth of man and the rest of it as,
you know, a sort of battle against food--you know, fire, refrigeration,
preservation--all these things are man's way of trying to control food that
obviously rots and does become poisonous. So at the very basic level, all
food is dangerous if it goes off. It sounds trite to say that. But, you
know, this is the thing about all manner of danger in food rather than just,
you know, weird, icky bugs and stuff.
GROSS: Well, speaking of weird, icky bugs, let's talk about some. One of the
more revolting foods that you ate was silkworm pupae?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Pupae, exactly.
GROSS: Explain what they are?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Well, obviously they're unhatched silkworms before--so
they look like a sort of a creature out of those "Alien" movies. And the
funny thing about it is that they're sold on the streets of Korea as
children's snacks. The children love them, eat them like candy. So I thought
the children can eat them, you know, I can eat them. So I went to go to order
them, and they looked pretty repellent, and they're quite leathery to start
with, and then actually they sort of burst like in your mouth and this
horrible sort of fetid taste comes out. And it was really genuinely--in the
whole year of eating all these sort of weird and wonderful foods, it was one
of the only genuinely disgusting things I actually ate. You know, even
stripping away the fat--`this is a bug'--the taste for me was repellent. But
again, like I say, for the children it was entirely normal like M&Ms or, you
know, Snickers or something.
GROSS: It was like a street food snack?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Of course, it was a street food. And they'd grown up
with it. So growing up with something, they saw it as entirely normal. It
was only me who was making the silly faces. I mean, it's a taste of, as I say
in the book, like sort of freshly-dug graves. Now, this isn't something that
I lick a lot, freshly-dug graves. But it sort of brought to mind that sort of
slight decay and slight fetidness of the cemetery. It was pretty foul.
GROSS: Not to gang up on Korea, where you had the silkworm pupae, but also in
Korea, you wanted to investigate dog as food. And this is something that you
found very upsetting, because you love dogs. But how much is dog part of
Korean cuisine? From what I've been reading, it sounds like it's basically an
illegal food, it's not regulated.
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: It's certainly not illegal. It's certainly very much
legal. Occasionally when the Olympics or the World Cup happens, the
authorities sort of sweep it under the carpet for a bit, you know, to increase
their world image or improve their world image, and then it comes back to
normal again. And what my problem was, I didn't have a problem with dog,
fundamentally. Dog, you know, I love them, I've grown up with them and I
would never eat it as part of my diet, but I was annoyed by the way the West,
and especially British tabloids start screaming at cultures they don't
understand saying, `Oh, you barbarians, you eat dogs.' Well, when we're quite
happy to eat...(unintelligible)...farm pigs and chickens that are brought up
in horrible conditions just for cheap meat. You know, I think it's
hypocritical to start talking about other cultures.
Dog, of course, is more of a...(unintelligible)...thing in Korea. It's not
eaten every day by everyone. It's very expensive, and it's eaten mainly be
men and mainly by sort of older men. It's supposed to make you virile and
more potent, and it's an aphrodisiac. If you will strip everything away, a
dog is the same as a cow as the rest of it. But my problem with the dog was
not so much that it was a dog, although I did have idiotic problems with that,
but it was the way, you know, I found out they were raised. They're raised in
the most horrible, inhumane conditions. The organic movement has not hit the
dog farming world of Korea yet.
GROSS: So what dog dish did you end up eating, and how did you feel about it
while you were eating it?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: The dish I had was called bosintang, which is a
traditional soup. And it was quite difficult for a Westerner to find dog in
Korea, purely because it's not advertised. My Korean reading is obviously
absolutely appalling. I can't read the characters. And I asked the hotel
concierge, who weren't at all impressed, you know. And they were younger.
The younger generation don't do it so much. They see it as barbaric and cruel
and the rest of it, but in the end I found something on the Internet. Tiny
little room off this main street, you know, the size of a sort of a small
kitchen. And the lady sort of met me wearing a pair of dog slippers, which I
wasn't sure whether to take as a joke or something entirely serious.
I ordered the soup, and it arrived and it was, you know, it was absolutely
fine. It was a big bowl of soup that was, you know, a stock, lots of chiles,
lots of garlic, and lots of sort of--the meat was quite grainy, a little bit
gamey, but nothing too bad at all. I started eating it, thought, you know,
this is easy. And then at a certain moment the wind changed--or the air
conditioning changed, anyway--and this smell came, and it was like that smell
of when you take your dogs out for a walk out in the rain and you come back
and they're wet or damp. It was like this kind of wet, damp dog and after
that, my sense of mentality took over there. I took one more mouthful and
legged it, I'm afraid.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Parker Bowles, and his new book is called "The Year of
Eating Dangerously." And it's about traveling around the world for a year,
eating extreme food.
The food that you ate in England was elvers, baby eels. What's extreme or
dangerous about baby eels?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Yeah. Yeah. Baby eels, or elvers, they used to--what
they do is--well, the eel is the most fascinating creature. You know, it's
born--no one's ever seen them reproduce or give birth somewhere in the
Sargasso Sea, which is a weird sort of moving sea, you know, down by Bermuda.
Anyway, they float across in the form of mycelium, which is some sort of
leaf-like log. They float for two years across the Atlantic until they hit
brackish water by the coast, turn into tiny little wiggling matchsticks, baby
eels, and swim up the coast, swim up rivers in Britain, especially the Severn.
And in the old days they used to--this used to be a huge local tradition, you
know, elver fairs used to happen and people used to come and catch all this
lovely fish, they're delicious tasting and local delicacy, very delicate with
a good texture. But over the years, due to pollution and perhaps a touch of
global warming and the filling in of their natural habitats, these elver
numbers have gone down and down and down. And, of course, there's huge demand
for eel from China and Japan.
So what's happened now is elvering has become a very, very lucrative business.
It's totally cash in hand. So, therefore, there's not too much tax. And, if
you imagine, you know, yes, almost the same sort of price per gram as gold,
these little things you have to catch, with cash bounties on their heads and
no taxman and not a lot of law going on going on down there, it can be a
pretty scary place to go. You certainly wouldn't go down there without the
right people, to the riverbank, you know, with a notepad, as a reporter,
asking stupid questions. So there's this whole underworld behind this sort of
slightly genteel veneer of southwest England, there's this sort of underworld.
I mean, I hasten to say that 95 percent is totally legal and aboveboard. It's
just, there are a few of the more extreme members of society, I think, who
come down to make a quick tax-free buck and not have
the...(unintelligible)...people start sniffing around, really.
GROSS: So it's dangerous isn't the food, it's the kind of almost black market
around the food?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Exactly. And, again, like I say, there's not a black
market around the food with the people who do it properly. The vast majority
do it legally, pay their taxes and are hard working fishermen, and the rest of
is there's just a slight sort of extreme who make it, you know, who do
sometimes resort to violence to get people off their pitch.
GROSS: So what's the taste of the baby eels like?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Well, it's a sort of--it's very delicate. It has a
slight crunch, a very delicately fishy taste. The Spanish are absolutely mad
for them. They call them angulas. And they cook them with chili and garlic,
sizzling in an earthenware pot. We traditionally, in Britain, used to cook
them--use to fry bacon, take out the bacon and then cook the elvers in the
bacon fat and maybe break an egg in it as well. So it was a great sort of
breakfast dish. But they're very delicate, slightly fishy, sweet. A real,
real delicacy which, you know, sadly, the vast majority of Britain will never
be able to eat again. You know, they used to be elver drinking/eating
competitions, and pints of elvers and all the rest of it. And now they're
more expensive than caviar and foie gras, so they all get rushed to China and
to Japan to be farmed into full size eels.
GROSS: Then you came to America for, among other things, the hot sauce.
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Yeah.
GROSS: Where does hot sauce fit into your idea of dangerous foods?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Well, this is the whole thing. I've always been a chili
freak, a chili fanatic. And, you know, obviously when you're younger, you
know, `Look at this curry I'm eating. It's so hot, it's burning my head off.'
You know, yippee, yay. As you get older you realize that the chili is one of
the great fruits of the world. You know, the variety, the versatility from
the fruity heat of the habanero to the smoky, warmth of the serrano. You
know, all these different flavors and textures, you know, in different
cuisines all over the world as well.
I thought going to the National Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque, you know, I
slightly got it wrong. I slightly thought it was going to be a whole lot of
sort of hotheads tasting all these really hot sauces, and actually it was a
very, very, highly efficient trade show with all the American chili world
there. But I did manage to find some really stupidly hot extract sauces that
no person in their right mind would eat. They're more for show. You know, if
you think that Tabasco on the Scoville heat scale is about 15,000, you'll find
sauces here that are 15 million, you know, that say 15 times hotter than
pepper spray. So these are actually far too dangerous for me to try, but I
did get a bit drunk a couple of times. I sort of tried some of the milder
ones that really, really hurt.
GROSS: Is there anything that puts the flame out?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Well, certainly not water, because it's oil based.
Capsaicin, which is the sort of active ingredient is water based. So the best
thing to do is banana or rice or yogurt, the things that sort of smother it
and get rid of it. Water just spreads it around the mouth, so definitely a
sort of a banana or rice or something like that.
GROSS: My guest is British food critic Tom Parker Bowles. His new book is
called "The Year of Living Dangerously." More after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Parker Bowles, and he
writes about food. His new book is called "The Year of Eating Dangerously."
What did you think of English food when you were growing up?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Well, the thing is, if you're an American--and I spent--I
was, you know, I've been over backwards and forwards for years and years, and
every time I speak to Americans, you know, from food lovers to food haters
they say, `Oh, gee, you know, English food. It must be so bad, so bland.' And
the problem is, a lot of Americans have sort of tried our institutional food
in the service stations, in the supermarkets, in the bad restaurants, and seen
English food as dull and stodgy and, you know, endless greasy puddings and
When actually, you know, great British food is, we've got some of the best
produce in the world, and it's just very, very good things cooked simply. A
steak, cooked rare, just perfectly, perfectly seasoned with really good chips.
Fish and chips is masterful when the fish, you know, the oil's the right
temperature so the fish just steams inside that batter, you know, with golden
crispy batter and sort of moist, thick flakes within. It's not very highly
spiced in it, because it used to be 200 years ago, very highly spiced, but not
so much now. But it's just about really simple, seasonal ingredients.
And I grew up thinking that British food was absolutely fantastic. You know,
you'd be eating--your dad would catch a trout in the river, you'd eat it with
potatoes dug up in the garden 20 minutes before with peas picked from the
garden. It was all--I grew up on a farm, so it was all seasonal, local,
almost organic before these words became sort of buzz words, you know, excuses
to charge more money by the supermarkets. So I've always loved English food.
GROSS: Prince Charles, who is now your stepfather, is into the slow food
movement, and that's, you know...
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Yeah.
GROSS: It's kind of like a regional food movement where the idea is--I'll let
you describe the idea.
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Well, what slow food was about--it was started by an
absolutely visionary man called Carlo Petrini. What he was saying was, you
know, look, the joy of eating and the production of food has all become sped
up. It's all about making a fast buck. What he wanted to do was go back to
artisanal making, and this was all over the world. There are now presidiums
of the slow food movement. It's about food, you know. For example, the
difference between a Tennessee-farmed chicken that takes only a few weeks to
go from chick to slaughter, and it's pumped artificially with all sorts of
hormones and sort of antibiotics, and the rest of it is just a product.
Whereas he's going back, saying, why not choose an old fashioned breed that is
made from the area that grows slowly, that has the most fantastic meat. Or
the same with a pig. Why not use a Gloucester Old Spot, or a Lop or a
Tamworth, which are British native pigs. They do take longer, they do take
more time and money to produce, but at the end of it the animal's happier and
the person eating it at the end is happier.
So it's about food being produced, not fast-produced food and mass-produced
food, but slowly produced food like it used to be done. And also he talks
about the joy of the table, you know, the joy of a Saturday, sitting with
friends, having a...(unintelligible)...lunch. You don't have to be drunk all
the way through it. It's about sitting down and letting, you know, really
just taking a break from the sort of really, really fast pace of the modern
world. And it's a fantastic movement. It's trying to negate all this, you
know, this new movement of mass industrialization and cares more about taste
than a quick profit.
GROSS: Is this now something that you and Prince Charles have in common that
you can share?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, he's a man who, you know,
10, 15 years ago, he was talking about the advances of organic farming, of
sustainable farming, of buying locally or buying seasonally. But of course,
you know, at the time everyone was saying he was mad. Now, of course, he's
been totally, you know, justified in what he said. He was absolutely spot on
and way, way ahead of his time. He knows a huge amount about farming, about
the way food is produced, and he cares, you know, very, very deeply about the
British farmer and actually, you know, about the state of the environment
across the world. So people might sit and criticize him. But I wouldn't hear
a word against him, you know, at all.
GROSS: If you don't mind my asking--and if you do mind, just tell me--how did
it change your life when the tabloids picked up, or Andrew Morton and his book
picked up your mother and Prince Charles were having an affair, and then,
just, you know, whoo, the spotlight on your family?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Sure. I mean, people often say, you know, it must have
been hard seeing your mother and being attacked and abused and all the rest of
it, but my sister and I have, you know, we've always been
quite...(unintelligible)...about it. We've had the most privileges possible
for any children to have. We've had an entirely idyllic childhood. And, you
know, some of those you wish you could have some horror story saying how awful
it was. But my parents, to both of us, were perfect parents. So by the time
we were 18--17, 18--and this happened, sure, there were days when people were
a bit rude and the rest of it. But, you know, we could have been--this isn't
difficult. We could have been born in the slum. We could have been abused.
We could have been born in a war zone. We could have been born with no
parents. So putting everything into context, nothing was difficult and
nothing really changed at all. You just shrug it off and get on with it.
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: My parents have always been very good to both of us, and
they're still friends. That's all that mattered to me, my parents being
happy. And I suppose...(unintelligible)...happy as well. You know, people
say, `Were you affected by this?' No. We just, we had a very secure family
and good friends. So that kept us going through it.
GROSS: Prince Charles is in line to become king. If your mother becomes
queen, like, how would that affect your life?
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: I don't think it'd be any different from my life now,
actually. I'd see her a little less. But it wouldn't--you know, we have, my
sister and I are both, we're married. I've got a child, you know, coming in a
week, I touch with. My sister's pregnant. We have our own lives. You know,
we don't live around our mother. Of course it's a pleasure to go and see her
and my stepfather, as it is to go see my father and my stepmother. But we
have our own lives now. So it doesn't make much difference to our life at
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. PARKER BOWLES: Thank you very much for having me on.
GROSS: Tom Parker Bowles is the author of the new memoir "The Year of Eating
You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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