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Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, authors of the new book, Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live (Little Brown and Company). The book is a history of the late-night comedy mainstay, which first aired in 1975. Shales and Miller interviewed the shows' producers, writers, cast members and guest hosts, including Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Al Franken, Will Farrell, Tom Hanks and many more. Tom Shales is the Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic of The Washington Post and a movie critic for NPR's Morning Edition. His books include On the Air! and Legends. James Andrew Miller is the author of Running in Place. He has written for The New York Times, Life and Newsweek.


Other segments from the episode on October 8, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 8, 2002: Interview with Daniel Yergin; Interview with Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller discuss the
topic of their new book, "Live from New York"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Actress #1: (As Monica Lewinsky) Here, let me say hi to Saddam.

Unidentified Actor #1: (As President Clinton) OK. Hold on a second.

Saddam, are you still there?

Unidentified Actor #2: (As Saddam Hussein) Who was that? One of your Jewish

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Clinton) No. Well, yes. So...

Unidentified Actress #1: (As Lewinsky) Hey, Saddam.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As Hussein) Monica, you never call me anymore!
Monica, oh, thanks for the beret. I love it! I love it!

GROSS: Everyone is fair game for satire on "Saturday Night Live." The show,
which began as a late-night experiment in 1975, is now a TV institution. My
guests, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, have written a new book called
"Live from New York: An Uncensored History of `Saturday Night Live," as told
by its stars, writers and guests. Shales won a Pulitzer Prize for his TV
criticism in The Washington Post. He's also reviewed movies for NPR's
"Morning Edition." Miller has written for TV and movies and is the author of
a book about the Senate.

Miller and Shales both think the funniest cast was the original one: Dan
Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine
Newman and Gilda Radner. Here's some of their work.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Actress #2: Yes?

Unidentified Actor #3: Mrs. Owlsburg?

Unidentified Actress #2: Who?

Unidentified Actor #3: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Actress #2: Who is it?

Unidentified Actor #3: Flowers.

Unidentified Actress #2: Flowers for whom?

Unidentified Actor #3: Plumber, ma'am.

Unidentified Actress #2: I don't need a plumber. You're that clever shark,
aren't you?

Unidentified Actor #3: Candygram.

Unidentified Actress #3: I just think that--well, you should from now on try
to do your best, OK?

Unidentified Actor #4: Oh, yes, and I'm very, very sorry. And I promise from
now on I will do my best.

Unidentified Actress #3: See that you do.

Unidentified Actor #4: Bitch!

Unidentified Actor #5: (Singing) I'm gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the
whities I see. I'm gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the whities I see.
When I kill all the whities I see, that whitie won't bother me. Gonna get me
a shotgun and kill all the whities I see. Then I'll get a white woman who's
wearing a navy blue sweater.

Unidentified Actor #6: Thank you. Thank you.

Unidentified Actor #5: (Singing) Then I'll get a white woman who's wearing a
navy blue sweater.

Unidentified Actor #6: Thank you.

Unidentified Actor #7: Eggs. Couple of eggs.

Unidentified Actor #8: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Actor #7: Eggs. Couple of eggs. And over lightly with sausage.
Coffee, coffee?

Unidentified Actor #8: No, no, no, no. No eggs. Cheeseburger.

Unidentified Actor #7: When do you stop serving breakfast?

Unidentified Actor #8: Now. No breakfast.

Unidentified Actor #7: No breakfast?

Unidentified Actor #8: Nope.

Unidentified Actor #7: All right, I just want a couple of eggs.

Unidentified Actor #8: No breakfast. Cheeseburger, huh?

Unidentified Actor #7: Pick that up. I don't want a cheeseburger.

Unidentified Actor #8: Come on, come on, come on, don't give me that. Come
on. Let's go. Let's go. We got to have turnover. You want a cheeseburger?
Come on, everybody get a cheeseburger. You want cheese on it? You want
cheese on it?

Unidentified Actor #7: I don't want a cheeseburger. It's too early for a

Unidentified Actor #8: Too early for cheeseburger? Look, cheeseburger,
cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger...

Unidentified Actor #7: Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.

GROSS: The impression I get from your book is that of all the performers on
"Saturday Night Live," particularly the ones from the early years, that Chevy
Chase was the least popular and that--I mean, he particularly didn't get along
with John Belushi. So what was it that made Chevy Chase so unanimously

Mr. JAMES ANDREW MILLER (Co-author, "Live from New York"): Well, in John's
case, though, it was a reversal of roles because in the "National Lampoon"
stage show, John was the star and dominant. And, indeed, he's electrifying in
person. And Chevy was a supporting player, more or less. But when you switch
it around to television, Chevy was a far more telegenic performer, and if
Marshall McLuhan was right, that it's a cool medium, then it makes sense that
Chevy, who's a much cooler personality, would come through much better on TV,
whereas Belushi was a very hot, explosive personality, you know, might not.

It took a lot of exposure to John Belushi before people got used to him, and,
in fact, he would have to lampoon his own kind of explosiveness when he would
do those hilarious commentaries on the news, twirling himself around into a
fury, and then he'd sort of fly into the air and disappear behind the desk.
But, you know, if there was animosity between John and Chevy, it's not all
Chevy's fault. But Chevy does have a naturally kind of abrasive, irritating
personality. Would you say irritating or just...

Mr. TOM SHALES (Co-author, "Live from New York"): Yes, I think in the first
season, particularly because he broke out as a star and they didn't, you know,
you had the jealousy factor right away. And then, you know, by Chevy's own
admission, he did have a hard time dealing with stardom, including some
difficulties with drugs, and I think that that manifested itself in rather
mean ways towards people.

Mr. MILLER: He has a knack--Chevy has this strange knack for saying the first
thing that pops into his head, no matter how mean it is, and I've seen
him--you know, we had many more examples of this than we even put in the book,
and I guess Chevy's feeling that we picked on him, but we didn't. We just
reported what people said.

I mean, I've been in a room with him when someone brought in some iced tea for
him and accidentally spilled a little on the rug, and Chevy just became just
virulently abusive to this kid. It was just one of the aides--you know,
whatever they call them, production assistant--and the kid was trembling. And
I thought, `Well, why does Chevy, a big star, have to yell at this kid and
make him miserable?' Something is wrong with his personality. And whatever
his great--whatever his talents are, and they're immense, he has this thing to
overcome, and he's rubbed a million people the wrong way.

GROSS: You write a little bit about some of the conflicts and tensions in the
early days of "Saturday Night Live" between the male and the female
performers. Laraine Newman says, `The boys got away with a lot. They were
bad, and we were good. We were punctual; they were late. We were clean; they
were dirty. We were prepared, and they weren't.' Then a couple of people
talk about how John Belushi wouldn't be in sketches written by women.

Mr. MILLER: In fact, one of the things that Lorne used to do was he used to
either use a male writer's name or just keep a female writer's name off the
sketch if he wanted John to do it. John had some very peculiar ideas, first
of all, about television. His wife, Judy Belushi, told us about the fact that
their television at home was covered with spit, because he would love to spit
at the TV. He really had to be convinced to do "Saturday Night Live" by a lot
of people because he thought television was an inferior art. Couple that with
the fact that he was not misogynistic, but he really felt like--as Rosie
Schuster said to me, who was one of the writers on "Saturday Night Live," it
was--he didn't really believe that women could be funny, and so he had a hard
time with the idea of a woman writing a sketch for him.

GROSS: What impact do you think John Belushi's death from an overdose had on
the people who started "Saturday Night Live" with him?

Mr. MILLER: One effect it had upon them was they all stopped doing drugs, at
least for a few minutes, and some of them even stopped smoking pot, I think,
which, you know, pot around the "Saturday Night Live" offices on the 17th
floor was like Coca-Cola around a normal office. I remember Lorne showing me
through once, and we opened the door to Tom Davis and Al Franken's office, and
this cloud of smoke rolled out like, you know, fog over San Francisco Bay. It
was marijuana smoke. And so after John's death, I think, though, they
suddenly became aware that there could be dire consequences to all this
recreational drug use.

Mr. SHALES: Although it should be pointed out that, as Carrie Fisher says,
the very first question that a lot of them asked was, `What was he doing?'
Because they were worried about, you know, he was doing something that they
were doing. It turned out that they weren't free-basing heroin, so their
first initial reaction was `Well, that' OK 'cause we're not doing that.'

Mr. MILLER: Right. Well, their first reaction was they were sad that John
was dead.

Mr. SHALES: Right.

Mr. MILLER: Let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Their second reaction
was `Oh, thank God I wasn't doing the drug that he was doing.'

GROSS: One thing that seems consistent through the years on "Saturday Night
Live" is that there's always one or two people who are telling you about how
they'd go home at night and just cry because it was so frustrating. Either
nothing was being written for them or what they were writing wasn't getting,
or they felt that things were too competitive and they weren't looking good.
Can you talk about that a little bit?

Mr. SHALES: Well, Lorne has always operated a competitive ship, and actually
The Washington Post, where I work, is much the same. Lorne and Ben Bradlee,
as a matter of fact, have a lot of similarities. I never thought of that
before. But the competitiveness is built into it, and people who can't take
it do sort of fall by the wayside.

Mr. MILLER: It is not a nurturing environment. If you are a person that
craves feedback, you're at the wrong place.

Mr. SHALES: And Lorne is notorious for withholding praise. Whether he does
this as part of a strategy, whether it's just part of his natural sort of
shyness and standoffishness, I don't know. But he is not the easiest person
in the world to work for. On the other hand, he can be very caring and
attentive to people and their problems, and this has endeared him to many of
those who work there now and many of those who work there in the past. And
even people he's fired, in the book, say nice things about him. You know,
`Sure, he fired me, but I still admire him.' I find that quite amazing. I
find Lorne quite amazing.

Mr. MILLER: One of my favorite things that Conan O'Brien said was that when
he was a writer on the show, he would be walking down the hall and Lorne would
pass him and just look at him and say, `Still with the show, Conan?' You
know, it's that kind of environment.

GROSS: My guests are Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, authors of the new
book "Live from New York: An Uncensored History of `Saturday Night Live.'"
We'll talk more after a brief break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the history of "Saturday Night Live" with Tom
Shales and James Andrew Miller, authors of a new oral history of the show
called "Live from New York."

"Saturday Night Live" has always been famous for political sketches and for
political impressions, you know, impressions of presidents and first ladies
and congressmen, senators. And I think that became particularly true during
the Bush-Gore presidential race. "Saturday Night Live" became very famous for
the impressions in that. I'm wondering if you've got any insights about what
was happening politically behind the scenes in that era and whether there was
a lot of political agreement or disagreement on the part of the writers and
the performers about how Bush and Gore should be portrayed. Can you talk
about that a little, what happened behind the scenes politically?

Mr. SHALES: I think it's never been a question of orthodoxies. I think that
one of the things that turns the writers and Lorne on about these political
creatures is their behavior and the kind of image that we have of them. So
when Al Gore kind of starts huffing and puffing, going like this, when W. was
talking during the debate--(huffs)--you know, he kept on doing that during the
first debate.

Mr. MILLER: Sighing.

Mr. SHALES: Sighing. They went to town on that, and they went to town so
much that the Gore campaign wound up showing that to Gore, you know, the
weekend after the sketch had appeared to show him that he shouldn't sigh so
much in the next debate. Those are the kind of things that turn them on. I
think that they get the kind of--they tap into the Zeitgeist by, really, kind
of coming up with what American people really think about the president or the
candidate. And then they go to town with that. You know, when Will Ferrell
was doing W. in the 2000 election, I mean, Ralph Nader himself told us it was
something you just had to watch because it was another way of understanding
these people. And the writers and the performers really got off on that.

GROSS: What...

Mr. SHALES: Sometimes they're so far ahead of the curve, it's amazing. I
remember Phil Hartman did a sketch as Bill Clinton right when Clinton was,
you know, first on the national scene, and he was jogging and he stopped into
a McDonald's and started eating everybody's hamburgers and drinking their
shakes. And one of the Secret Service men said, `Well, Mr. President, we just
won't tell the first lady that, you know, you had this shake,' and Clinton
looked at him--or Phil Hartman, in this case--and said, `Son, there's a lot of
things we won't be telling Mrs. Clinton.' And it was just--I mean, it was so
great, and it was, obviously, years and years before Lewinsky or anything like
that. But they just tap into something that, you know, sticks with the

GROSS: "Saturday Night Live" has had its ups and downs over the years. What
do you consider the worst year, the worst cast?

Mr. MILLER: I think that there was probably--in my opinion, I guess there
were two. One was the cast that started in 1980 when Jean Doumanian took over
after Lorne and the original cast had left, and that was when she was going to
build the show around Charlie Rocket, which that was...

Mr. SHALES: The rocket that never launched.

Mr. MILLER: The rocket that never launched. And then in 1985, Lorne's first
year back, he had decided to take a page from Dick Ebersol who, the year
before, had--rather than pick unknowns, he had put together like Billy Crystal
and Marty Short and Chris Guest. That was a fantastic year. But the next
year, 1985, Lorne picked a bunch of people who really weren't ready for
"Saturday Night Live," even though they had done other movies. And Michael
Hall was in that and Randy Quaid. And...

Mr. SHALES: It was a weird grab bag. And Al Franken told us one of the
problems was you couldn't do a Senate sketch, you couldn't do a political
sketch because there were nobody to play those parts. They were just--either
these untried kids, including Robert Downey Jr., who tried many things as the
years would go by, or else Randy Quaid, who stuck out like the proverbial sore
thumb. It was a weird group. I would completely agree with Jim that those
were the two worst casts. I would also say that the people...

GROSS: It's funny because Robert Downey Jr. and Randy Quaid are both really
good actors, although they didn't work on "Saturday Night Live" very well.

Mr. MILLER: Well, that's part of the legacy of "Saturday Night Live" as well
because look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is incredibly talented and kept us
laughing for 10 years on "Seinfeld." She was on "Saturday Night Live" and,
you know, really was like a Porsche going 40 miles an hour. She never, ever
really got to do anything that showed her talents. And anybody looking at her
during her time there would have thought, you know, `Well, this is somebody
who's really not going to make it.' Luckily Larry David, who created
"Seinfeld," was one of the writers at that time--and he saw something in her
that, you know, you really couldn't see from the sketches. Sometimes
"Saturday Night Live" is not the best vehicle for figuring out whether
somebody's truly talented.

Mr. SHALES: But, you know, remember Bill Murray--it took months for Bill
Murray to finally put himself over on the air. And one way he had to do it
was to sit down and talk into the camera and say, `My name is Bill Murray.
I'm not really making it on the show. I don't quite understand why.' And he
had this little dialogue with viewers, and it worked. And then suddenly his
kind of character was something new, and people began to see what was funny
about it.

And today I would say the most imitated performer in the history of "Saturday
Night Live"--and I may be wrong--is Bill Murray. You can still see on ESPN
and commercials, on other sitcoms, there's always a guy trying to be that kind
of hip, disconnected, irreverent, supercool guy that Bill Murray played way
back when. I think he was the prototype. I think he invented a new comic
character, and it's become just part of American folklore.

GROSS: One of the more bizarre moments on "Saturday Night Live" was a few
years ago when the singer Sinead O'Connor, after doing a song, held up a photo
of the pope--or a picture of the pope and then tore it to shreds in front of
the camera, something I understand was not rehearsed. What was that about?
What happened behind the scenes afterwards?

Mr. MILLER: Well, the first thing that happened was Dave Wilson, who was the
director, made sure that they didn't push the applause sign. So there was
dead silence in Studio 8H. It was a terrifying moment for a lot of people
there because it was so unexpected. She had not told anyone, not even Lorne.
I mean, no one expected it. And she had just done the dress rehearsal about
an hour before, and, you know, everything was fine. And then she said between
dress and air that she was going to show something at the end of her song, and
so she wanted the director to be aware of that so they would get the close-up.

Mr. SHALES: I think she specified a picture of a hungry child or something.

Mr. MILLER: Right.

Mr. SHALES: And even had one at dress rehearsal. They had a picture of a
hungry child.

Mr. MILLER: But no one knew what she was going to do. So the immediate
reaction was just, you know, nobody could believe it happened. The great
thing about Lorne, though: Afterwards, instead of being really ticked, he
said, `Well, that was awfully courageous of her.' And he just--somehow he
saw, you know, her gumption and...

Mr. SHALES: He admired the gesture, but he did not admire being tricked or
being lied to.

Mr. MILLER: Right.

Mr. SHALES: That made him mad. And they had set it up so methodically where
they said, `Now can you just have one camera on her? You know, don't have any
other cameras to switch to.' So they were trapped with one shot of Sinead
O'Connor. The only thing they could have gone to would have been a reaction
shot of the audience, which would have been worse, I suppose, at that point
when she tore up the picture. So Lorne may have admired the gesture in a
philosophical way, but they were just furious that she would lie to them and
trick them. And I don't think she's ever been invited back.


Mr. SHALES: In fact, her career didn't exactly skyrocket after that.

GROSS: My guests are Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, authors of the new
book "Live from New York: An Uncensored History of `Saturday Night Live.'"
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the history of "Saturday Night Live" with Tom
Shales and James Andrew Miller, authors of a new oral history of the show
called "Live from New York."

I bet one of the things you asked a lot of people from "Saturday Night Live"
was to share their nightmare moments, the moment that was just like the worst
moment of their career on "Saturday Night Live." Can you tell us about a
couple of the nightmare moments?

Mr. MILLER: Actually a lot of the nightmare moments on the show wind up
happening behind the scenes. I think that when you get to the sketch stage of
the show and you're live at 11:30, things are pretty well nailed down.

Mr. SHALES: Lorne doesn't like ad-libbing, and he doesn't like breaking up
over a sketch. And he thinks it looks phony. And so when that happens, I
think he sometimes chastises people. But on the other hand, sometimes it's so
good-natured and inescapable--you know, Brendan Fraser was on and his wig fell
off and drooped down over his head, and somehow they all got the giggles and
the audience began to laugh. The audience likes being there when something
goes wrong because they think they're privy to this secret information, which,
of course, is going out to 14 million homes.

But, anyway, it seems like something--you know, these days if you watch
"Saturday Night Live" live, you may see the show that way that time only. It
may never again be repeated in that form because if something does go wrong,
Lorne now has the option--they tape every dress rehearsal. So he has the
option of pulling the sketch out of dress rehearsal and plopping it into the
space where it was in the live show. He can re-edit shows for when they're
rerun later. And so "Saturday Night Live" is still an event in the sense that
this could be the only time the show is performed exactly that way, complete
with those mistakes.

I remember once they did--this sound so trivial, and it is--but they did a
sketch with that horrible Tom Green, who brought his own writers and nobody
liked him. But, anyway, they had a little baby pig in this sketch, and the
pig squealed and squealed and squealed and seemed so unhappy and miserable.
And I was at home and I was furious, thinking, you know, it's not funny to
torture any animal, even a pig. And Lorne had an angry letter from some girl,
a little girl in the audience, posted outside his office for weeks after that.
Well, anyway, that was never seen again because they simply threw that out and
picked up the same sketch from the dress rehearsal where the pig was not in
distress and plopped that into the space where it had been. Does that make

GROSS: Yeah. Did they ever rerun the show with Sinead O'Connor? And what
did they do with that?

Mr. SHALES: Yeah, they rerun it all right, but they put the dress rehearsal
performance in.


Mr. SHALES: So never again will you see her, except in a news program, in
news footage--never will you see in "Saturday Night Live" her tearing up a
picture of the pope.

GROSS: Tom Shales, you've been a TV critic for The Washington Post for many
years. I imagine you've written a lot about "Saturday Night Live" over the
years, some good things and some bad things. Did you actually interview
people for this book, who you'd given bad reviews to over the years who maybe
didn't really want to talk to you?

Mr. SHALES: Just Chevy. I was afraid of Chevy partly for that reason. And
Chevy and I, we go way, way back because the first season of "Saturday Night
Live," you know, skyrocketed into the public consciousness, they all came to
Washington to be part of some White House correspondents dinner--you know, we
have 800 dinners here every year--and so Lorne invited me to spend the day
with them. So I followed them around, Lorne and Chevy and John Belushi and
Dan Aykroyd. And they were wonderful. They made up bits wherever they were.
They would do improvisations just for each other. And I got to enjoy them.
And then after a few hours, I heard Chevy say to Lorne, loudly enough so that
I could hear it, `Is this guy going to be with us all the time?' about me.
And I thought, `Well, gee, how rude.' And Lorne said, you know, `Shut up,
Chevy,' or something like that.

And then years later I reviewed Chevy's first special when after he left the
show he got a deal to do specials for NBC. And he invited me to come with him
to Glen/Glen Sound in LA--I don't know why I was in LA--to mix the sound. And
he sat there being very cocky at the console, telling the engineer to, you
know, punch up the laughter, `Give us a bigger laugh here.' You know,
sweetening the laughter just as on the most corrupt kind of sit-com. You
know, `Give this a guffaw.' You know, `Make this laughter last longer.' And I
thought, `My, he sold out in a big way. He certainly has gone to over to the
enemy's side.' So I wrote a negative review of that, and of course I heard
from him then that--he said, `Boy, you guys really change your tunes, don't
you?' or something like that.

It seems like every time I'm near him, something bad happens. That's why I
was so glad when Jim interviewed him at length for the book and got such great
stuff out of him. I don't I could ever have done that interview. I
interviewed him briefly with Lorne in the room so that he couldn't hit me.
But I still get very nervous around Chevy.

GROSS: Tom Shales, as a TV critic for The Washington Post, what do you think
of "Saturday Night Live" now?

Mr. SHALES: I love it. It's an amazing phenomenon. It's a cliche, but it
reinvents itself all the time. And it has its down years, and then it bounces
back up again. And I have never been one to get hysterical or, you know, to
say that the world is ending like Chicken Little, you know, when they go
through a slump, except for the time when Jean Doumanian took over the show.
And I was proud of the lead I wrote for the--because everybody else was
writing `Saturday Night Dead,' but what I wrote was `Vile from New York, it's
Saturday night.' I did an anagram. But that was the only time I lost all
hope for the show, and even then it came back. So I think the amazing
self-rejuvenation properties of that show are very encouraging.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank
you, Tom Shales. Thank you, Jim Miller.

Mr. SHALES: Thank you.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller are the authors of the new book
"Live from New York: An Uncensored History of `Saturday Night Live.'"

(Soundbite of music)

John Belushi singing: Comin' to ya on a dusty road. Good lovin', I got a
truckload. And when you get it, you got something, so don't worry, 'cause I'm
a-comin'. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man.
Got what I got the hard way...


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

John Belushi Singing: I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. Play it, Steve! A
soul man. I'm a soul man. Listen, I was brought up on a side street. I
learned how to love before I could eat. I was educated from good stock. When
I start lovin', I just can't stop. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. I'm a
soul man. I'm a soul man.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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