Other segments from the episode on November 15, 2002
DATE November 15, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Stan Lee talks about his career and the creation of
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite from "Spider-Man")
Unidentified Man: With great power comes great responsibility.
Mr. TOBEY MAGUIRE (As Peter Parker): This is my gift.
Unidentified Woman: Wow.
Mr. MAGUIRE: It is my curse.
Unidentified Woman: Who are you?
Mr. MAGUIRE: Who am I? I'm Spider-Man.
BOGAEV: That's Tobey Maguire from the film "Spider-Man," which is now out on
video. It's based on the Marvel comic book character co-created by my guest,
Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko. Starting in the 1940s, Lee served as head
writer, editorial and art director, publisher and chairman of Marvel Comics.
He's now chairman emeritus of the company and is currently suing Marvel over a
percentage of the profits from the Spider-Man franchise and the film, which he
executive produced. Throughout his career in comics, Lee's superheroes were
distinguished by their psychological complexity. They were burdened with
self-doubt and existential angst. They include The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Dr.
Strange and The Incredible Hulk. Stanley's memoir, "Excelsior: The Amazing
Life of Stan Lee," is out in paperback. When we spoke this summer, I asked
Stan Lee about the original of Spider-Man, whether he first thought of
creating a superhero who could crawl up walls or one that was a geeky teen.
Mr. STAN LEE: Well, I think the geek part came first. I decided I wanted
somebody who every one of the readers could identify with because I think
every teen-ager thinks of himself or herself as somewhat geekish at some time
or other. Most teen-agers are somewhat insecure and shy and inhibited and
introverted. So I figured a hero like that would be very empathetic to the
BOGAEV: So how did the spider element come in?
Mr. LEE: Well, with every new superhero, you have to have a new superpower
because, as I'm sure you're aware, the superpower is what makes them
superheroes, rather than regular heroes. And we, of course, specialized in
superheroes. I had already done a book called The Fantastic Four, and in that
book, I had a girl who was invisible, a man who could stretch any part of his
body, a fellow who could burst into flame and fly, and somebody who was one of
the strongest people on Earth at the time. And I was figuring, or I was
trying to figure, `What other power can I give somebody?' And I saw a fly
crawling on a wall. Now I've said this so often, it might even be true. I
can't even remember anymore, but I saw this fly crawling on a wall and I said,
`Gee, wouldn't it be something if a hero could stick to walls and move on them
like an insect?' And that's how it happened. And lo, a legend was born.
BOGAEV: But why wasn't he Insect-Man or ...(unintelligible)?
Mr. LEE: As a matter of fact, he almost was because, having decided that was
the superpower I wanted to give him, I next had to come up with a name. So I
began to think--Insect-Man, Mosquito-Man, Gnat-Man. I mean, anything I could
think of. None of them sounded right. I finally got to Spider-Man, and
somehow it sounded dramatic, it sounded mysterious. So that was the name I
BOGAEV: Now why do superheroes all wear these spandex costumes? The question
of the ages.
Mr. LEE: That is a very interesting question. Remember I mentioned before
Spider-Man, I had done a book called The Fantastic Four? Well, that was the
first of the so-called Marvel Universe characters. And I wanted The Fantastic
Four to be as different from other books as Spider-Man was. So one of the
things I decided was I would give none of those characters costumes because I
always felt if I suddenly developed a superpower, I don't think the first
thing I would do would be run to a costume store and say, `Quick, give me a
mask and some spandex.' So I just gave them regular clothes, and I published
the issue. And we started to get a tremendous amount of fan mail, and most of
the letters said something of this nature: `Stan, we love the book. The
Fantastic Four is great, and, oh, man, are we excited about it. But if you
don't give them costumes, we'll never buy another issue.'
Now I don't know the reason for that. I have wracked my brain. I have tried
to research it. I don't know why, but it just seems that the people who like
superheroes like to see their superheroes in costumes.
BOGAEV: Well, let's talk about the "Spider-Man" movie. There are a lot of
poses directly out of the comic strip in the movie that re-create Spider-Man,
for instance, hanging upside-down with his knees out. That's a classic
silhouette for Spider-Man.
Mr. LEE: Yeah.
BOGAEV: And also swinging through the streets of New York with his arms
Mr. LEE: Steve Ditko, the artist, did such a wonderful job of those shots in
the beginning that he did of Spider-Man swinging and clinging to walls and
hanging upside-down. Most people who've read those early books still remember
BOGAEV: Yeah. What do you think that the movie got right in terms of the
Mr. LEE: Oh, I think the movie got virtually everything right. It got the
essence of Peter Parker, the shy young man who suddenly comes into his own
once he gets the superpower. It got his ambivalence, his feeling that somehow
this superpower he had gotten is as much a curse as a blessing. The only
thing--there was one little thing about the movie that I felt could have been
better. I never cared for the mask that the Green Goblin had. I think that
Willem Dafoe is such a fine actor, I would have loved to have seen his face
when he was the Green Goblin. I would have loved to have seen his
expressions. Somehow, the mask, which was solid and unchanging, to me wasn't
as dramatic as actually seeing his face would have been. But that is a small
complaint, and I thought everything else was absolutely wonderful.
BOGAEV: Now we have to get into the controversy that fans found troubling,
that Spider-Man's web powers in the movie were made organic. It was something
that grew from his genetically altered spider bite, as opposed to something
that, as you had written into the strip, something that he created as a
burgeoning young scientist.
Mr. LEE: Yeah. How about that? They dared tamper with my creation. Well,
let me tell you, if I had done the movie, I would have tried to keep it that
he created this little web shooter himself. I remember when Jim Cameron
thought that he would do the "Spider-Man" movie a few years ago, he did an
outline, a treatment for the movie, a very detailed one that was more than 50
pages. And he sent it to me, and it was a wonderful story. But I noticed
that he, too, made the web shooting organic. And I said to him, `Gee, why
don't you keep it the way it was in the book?' And he said, `Well, I think it
would be hard to make an audience believe that some kid could just create
something like that himself.' And then we talked about other things, and I
went home and I thought about it, and I thought the way I would have done it
would be in the beginning to show that Peter had always been--he was a science
scholarship student. I mean, that was a given. He was a very bright student
and he was winning a scholarship in science.
Now the one thing he was always trying to do--if he ever went for a doctorate,
this would be his doctorate thesis--he was trying to find something that could
be shot out of a tube and stick to walls and, you know, whatever. This web
was the thing he was trying to work on, but he never could get it right.
However, once he was stung by that radio--or bitten by that radioactive
spider, suddenly he knew how to do it. It not only increased his strength and
gave him spider power, but the bite and the radioactivity, whatever, made him
aware of how he could create that web shooter. Now that's the way I would
have done it.
But after I thought about it a lot and after I saw the movie, I'm inclined to
think that maybe Jim Cameron and Sam Raimi, who did such a wonderful job
directing the movie, maybe they were right. Maybe somehow it's more dramatic
to see him just do it the way he did, organically, and it also saved them a
lot of time because it would have taken quite a few extra minutes of screen
time to show it the way I had just mentioned. So it may upset the fans, and
I'm sorry it does, and I love them for their loyalty, but it really doesn't
BOGAEV: Now you grew up in New York during the Depression.
Mr. LEE: Mm-hmm.
BOGAEV: So how hard-hit was your family?
Mr. LEE: Oh, we were very hard--well, my dad was just not a lucky man when it
came to finance or to getting jobs. Unfortunately, most of my memories of
him, he was unemployed and he spent most of his time reading the want ads. He
had been a dress cutter, and I guess there were just no jobs for dress cutters
in those days. And I always felt tremendous pity for him because it must be a
terrible feeling to be a man and just not be bringing in the money that's
needed for your family.
BOGAEV: Did you feel that you had to rush through school to start work to
help out the family? I know a lot of Depression kids felt that.
Mr. LEE: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I worked while I was going to school. I
had a lot of part-time jobs, yeah.
BOGAEV: So how did you get your start in comics?
Mr. LEE: Accidently. I heard there was a job open in a publishing company
and I thought, `Well, maybe they publish books or magazines or'--I didn't know
that they published comics. I didn't know that that's where the job opening
was, in the comic book department of this little company. And I took the job
as an assistant. I did a little proofreading. I helped erase the pages once
they were inked. And I ran errands and did some copy reading. And after a
while, they let me do a little writing, and then they let me do a little more
writing. And that was really how it started.
BOGAEV: And this was Timely.
Mr. LEE: Yeah, it was called Timely Comics at the time.
BOGAEV: Now radio was really big. Were you a radio fan?
Mr. LEE: Oh, yeah. I loved radio.
BOGAEV: It's interesting, because the wonderful thing about your writing was
that it was so snappy. It seemed to speak to me of radio. And you loved
lots of slogans and alliteration, the Green Goblin...
Mr. LEE: Oh, yeah.
BOGAEV: ...and Doc Oc, and Dr. Doom. And I remember some incantation--What
was it Dr. Doom used to say? `By the hoary hosts of...'
Mr. LEE: No, that was Dr. Strange.
BOGAEV: Oh, I get the doctors confused.
Mr. LEE: We had a number of doctors. Dr. Strange was a magician. I called
him the master of the mystic arts.
BOGAEV: That's right.
Mr. LEE: And obviously, he would cast spells and he would do magical things.
Well, I couldn't have him say `abracadabra' when he wanted to do something. I
felt I had to create little expressions for him, little incantations that he
could utter. So I'd have him say things like, `By the hoary hosts of
Hogith(ph), let so-and-such happen,' or, `By the crimson rings of
Sitirak(ph),' or--I just made up any silly thing that sounded the way I
thought it should sound. Funny thing about it was in later years, I did a lot
of college lecturing. And very often people in the audience, during the
questions and answer period, would say, `Stan, we've been making a study of
the incantations of Dr. Strange, and my friends and I have come to the
conclusion that you were very heavily influenced by the ancient Druid
writings, or by'--and, you know, they would mention something very obscure
that I had never heard of. But it's funny how people will always read more
into what you write than you ever put in there.
BOGAEV: Stanley's memoir of his career with Marvel Comics is "Excelsior: The
Amazing Life of Stan Lee." "Spider-Man," the film, is now out on video.
We'll hear more of my conversation with Stan Lee after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Let's continue our interview with Stan Lee, who co-created the Marvel
comic book superheroes Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men and The
What people most remember about The Fantastic Four, I think, is that they were
so dysfunctional. It was kind of like a bickering, dysfunctional superhero
Mr. LEE: Well, you're absolutely right. And again, I think that's one of
the reasons that they were popular, because just like Spider-Man's Peter
Parker being the kind of teen-ager that the readers could identify with, I
think for the first time, The Fantastic Four was a group that readers could
identify with. They were not dissimilar to their own families. And, see, I
didn't have a girl, for example, who had no idea that the hero was really
a--that the man she loved was really a superhero. She knew who he was. In
fact, she was engaged to him and she was part of the team, and there was a...
BOGAEV: This is Sue Storm, you're talking about...
Mr. LEE: Sue Storm, the...
BOGAEV: ...one of The Fantastic Four.
Mr. LEE: That's right.
BOGAEV: She was Mr. Fantastic's girlfriend, The Invisible Girl.
Mr. LEE: Exactly. Mr. Fantastic, as he modestly called himself. It was
his girlfriend. And then...
BOGAEV: I mean, it really was a soap opera, right?
Mr. LEE: It was. It was. But you see, to me, every story should be done
like a soap opera because that's what people like. If you don't have the
characters' personal problems, if you don't have people who are having
difficulty relating to other people, if you don't have characters with
problems that seem unsolvable and you wonder, `How will they ever get out of
this?' then what have you got? You've just got a series of incidents and you
don't care about those, because if you don't care about the characters, you
can't care about the story.
BOGAEV: Now The Fantastic Four was a big hit, and somewhere in this stretch
of the '60s, you put out a series called Sergeant Fury and His Howling
Mr. LEE: Yeah.
BOGAEV: Very different from The Fantastic Four, and I believe that that
series started because of a bet? What was that all about?
Mr. LEE: Well, what happened was we had been doing very well. We now had
what we called the Marvel Universe. So one day, again, I was talking to my
publisher, who's a great guy, but we often didn't agree on things, and he
said, `Stan, what is it that's making these books sell so well?' You know,
immodestly, I wanted to say, `It's because I'm writing most of them,' but I
didn't. But he said, `I think it's the titles. I think they are great
titles.' I said, `That has nothing to do with it. It's the style of the
writing,' and I mentioned what we just said. Even though they're superhero
stories, I'm trying to treat them like soap operas, where the characters'
personal lives are important. He didn't see it that--he said, `No, I don't
think that's it. I think it's the titles.' So I said, `OK. You know what
I'm going to show you, what I'm going to do for you? I'll make you a bet.
I'm going to put out a book with the worst title I can think of, and I'm going
to put it out in a field, in a genre that nobody is interested in,' and at
that time, nobody wanted war stories. I mean, people were sick of them, they
were sick of war. I said, `I'm going to do a war book,' and I thought and I
thought, and I came up with the title Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos,
which is much too long a title and nobody...
BOGAEV: Well, it doesn't alliterate.
Mr. LEE: That's right, it wasn't...
BOGAEV: That's another problem.
Mr. LEE: ...alliterative, and nobody knew what a howling commando was. ' So
we did it and luckily, sure enough, it sold, and he grudgingly admitted maybe
I had a point there. But I've got to mention one other thing. It was also a
book that had the first ethnic group of heroes. In Sergeant Fury's platoon,
we had a Jewish soldier named Izzy Cohen, we had a black soldier, an Italian
soldier, a Scandinavian soldier. We even had a gay soldier. And this was in
the middle 1960s, and I think it took a little courage to do it then, and
everybody said to me, `Oh, the book won't sell in the South, it won't sell in
the East, it won't sell in the West.' It sold all over, proving that people
are really more broad-minded and smarter than anybody gives them credit for.
BOGAEV: So tell me about this gay character. What was the story with him?
Mr. LEE: The gay character? Oh, well, he was just one of the members of the
platoon. His name was Percy Pinkerton. He was English, and his weapon--he
carried an umbrella. I mean, he also carried a gun, but he would use the
umbrella also to confuse people. And, I mean, I didn't play up the gay part,
but somehow, you could assume he was gay in reading the stories. But he was
brave and nice and friendly and everybody liked him, and he was one of the
platoon, one of the guys.
BOGAEV: A lot of kids who grew up in the Depression felt very insecure
financially and chose very stable careers. Did you ever feel that this just
is not the career for a grown-up and just not stable and financially secure
enough for you?
Mr. LEE: Well, I think for the first 20 years, I felt this is definitely not
the career for a grown-up, and very, very often I wanted to leave, to quit,
but I would get a raise or I'd work with a new artist and get interested in
what we were doing or something would happen to make me decide to stay a
little longer. But my biggest regret was during those early years, nobody had
any respect for what I was doing. Nobody cared about a fellow who wrote comic
books. I mean, it just was the bottom of the cultural totem pole.
BOGAEV: Did it make you nervous, though, and maybe accounts for the real
drive that you seem to have had? I mean, you had a huge creative drive.
Mr. LEE: Yeah. Well, you know what really made me that way perhaps? It was
my father. I used to just wish that that poor man could find a job, and I was
stupid. That's why I'm not a businessman. Instead of me wanting to maybe
create comics for myself and form my own company, which I could have done, all
I wanted was a steady job. To me, it seemed as if having a good job, a steady
job, is the greatest success a person could attain, only because my father
never had one. And I think that's another reason that kept me at Marvel, or
at what was then Timely so long, because, `I felt at least I've got a job,'
you know, and I really should have left and tried to start a little something
of my own, but, well, I didn't know.
BOGAEV: Stan Lee, I want to thank you so much for talking with me today.
Mr. LEE: That's it? I'm just getting started.
BOGAEV: Stan Lee's memoir is "Excelsior." "Spider-Man," the movie, is now
out on video. I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Spider-Man" theme)
Mr. STEVEN TYLER: (Singing) Spider-Man, does whatever the spider can. Spins
a web, sweet surprise. Catches thieves just like flies. Look out, here come
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Coming up, seduction in the animal world. We talk with scientist
Olivia Judson about her guide book to the biology of sex. Judson writes in
the persona of Dr. Tatiana, a sex columnist for creatures as varied as the
African elephant and slime mold.
Also, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Curb Your Enthusiasm," starring Larry
David on HBO.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Olivia Judson discusses the evolutionary biology of sex
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. But very few of us know
exactly how they do it, and that's where my guest, Olivia Judson, enters the
picture. She's a biologist and journalist who specializes in the evolutionary
biology of sex. Her articles have appeared in Science, Nature, The Economist
and other publications. Judson says that we don't know the most basic things
about this most basic of functions. Think about it, humans would say sex is
copulation, but frogs and most fish would say it's the squirting of eggs and
sperm during spawning. Then again, scorpions might tell you that sex is
packets of sperm deposited on the ground for the female to sit on so they'll
explode in her reproductive tract.
To address the varied and colorful conflicts that arise in the process of
reproducing, Olivia Judson has invented a helpful persona in her guide book to
the evolutionary biology of sex, "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation."
Ms. OLIVIA JUDSON (Author, "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation"):
(Reading) `"Dear Dr. Tatiana, I'm a queen bee and I'm worried. All my lovers
leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal? Perplexed
in Cloverhill." For your lovers, this is the way the world ends, with a bang,
not a whimper. When a male honey bee reaches his climax, he explodes, his
genitals ripped from his body with a loud snap. I can see why you find it
unnerving. Why does it happen? Alas, your majesty, your lovers explode on
purpose. By leaving their genitals inside you, they block you up. In doing
so, each male hopes you will not be able to mate with another. In other
words, his mutilated member is intended as the honey bee version of a chastity
BOGAEV: Olivia Judson, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. JUDSON: Thank you.
BOGAEV: The queen bee's question really plunges one into the battle between
the sexes right at the beginning of the book. Well, it's really a battle on
Ms. JUDSON: Yes.
BOGAEV: ...every man and woman for himself and herself. Do you see this in
the likely evolutionary scenario of the honey bee?
Ms. JUDSON: I do. I think that the honey bee is a very good example of the
sorts of conflicts that arise. The problem is that if a female benefits from
mating with more than one male, and in most species we now know, although this
is a recent finding--in most species it seems clear that females do benefit a
great deal from mating with more than one male. This is a real problem for
each of her lovers, because from her point of view, she benefits--she has more
and healthier offspring. From his point of view, it's a catastrophe, because
her mating with other males means that fewer of her offspring will be his.
And in the case of the honey bee it's particularly dramatic because each male
has, in the first place, a very small chance of mating at all. The fate of
most male honey bees is to die virgins. And so those that do have, in fact,
nothing to lose by exploding. And the advantage of exploding is that by
leaving his member behind, he may be able to prevent the female from mating
again. But it's a problem for other males, because, obviously, they would
like to mate as well, and so you would expect to see that the queen does not
want to be prevented from mating again, and that other males do not want to be
prevented from mating with her. And so sure enough, the queen is able to
clean herself up, if she is inclined to, and the males also have now evolved a
structure on the tips of the phallus which allows them to remove the detritus
from a previous lover.
BOGAEV: Like a scoop?
Ms. JUDSON: Yeah, kind of. It's very common. A lot of males have this
BOGAEV: This gets us into promiscuity among males and females in the animal
world. And the cliche of human sexuality is that men are promiscuous and
women are chaste. How does that play itself out in other species?
Ms. JUDSON: I think that's complete nonsense. It used to be thought that
that was generally true throughout the animal kingdom; that males were
philanderers and females were very virtuous and would resist mating and, you
know, after they'd mated once, particularly in species that store sperm, they
would have enough sperm for their whole lives and that would be that, they
would not be interested in sex anymore. But females are, in general, however,
much, much more promiscuous than they need to be if fertilizing their eggs
were the only aim. And that discovery was not made until the 1980s, and then
it wasn't even realized.
So it was realized in the 1980s that females were more promiscuous than people
thought. And then it was realized that, in fact, promiscuous females benefit
from promiscuity and benefit from their behavior. In other words, promiscuous
females tend to have more and healthier offspring in pretty much every species
that I could find data for.
BOGAEV: And what's the correlation there? Why would that be so?
Ms. JUDSON: Well, there's a large industry now. In the last even three or
four years, this has been something that scientists have started looking at
because it's been impossible to avoid anymore; this horrible truth that
females gain from promiscuity. And I think that there are a number of
possible reasons. There is no single explanation, but there are all sorts of
possible reasons varying from the idea that females are trying to get higher
quality mates, that they meet one guy and they have sex with him just to make
sure their eggs are fertilized, and then they meet a better guy, so they have
sex with him, too. That's one idea.
Another idea is that having sex with different males allows them to have more
help. There are some very obvious cases where this is true. In the
Bronze-Winged Jecana, which is a water bird that lives in India, the females
run a harem where each female will try to have several males to herself, and
the males do all of the work of sitting on eggs and feeding the chicks and
building the nests, and the female just sort of, you know, has a grand old
BOGAEV: In other species, do females only mate with males bearing gifts, like
the proverbial box of chocolates?
Ms. JUDSON: It's very common. It's not always necessary, but it's very
common, particularly in insects. And it can be extraordinarily expensive for
the male to produce gifts. Males, in most species, obviously, can't just go
down the street and buy whatever they think is appropriate. They have evolved
to produce gifts of various sorts.
For example, they may hunt and bring the female something that they've caught
to show that they're good at hunting, or just, you know, to please her. They
may secrete something to give her. For example, in many butterflies the male
will secrete a large gift. And these can be very expensive. In the
green-veined butterfly, it's 15 percent of his body weight, and basically a
male can only do this once. Each subsequent gift will be smaller. And
females prefer males with large gifts, so in this species virgins have an
BOGAEV: Olivia Judson's book is "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation."
We'll hear more after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back now with evolutionary biologist and journalist Olivia Judson.
One of my favorite letters is from an iguana in your book. And it goes like
this, `"Dear Dr. Tatiana, I'm a marine iguana, and I'm appalled by the
behavior of young iguanas today. I keep encountering groups of youths
masturbating at me. It's revolting. I'm sure they didn't dare act this way
in Darwin's time. How can I make them stop? Disgusted in the Galapagos."'
Now I suppose masturbating serves some purpose, at least as far as iguanas go.
What would that be?
Ms. JUDSON: Well, the iguana story is very curious. It turns out that these
marine iguanas, which live in the Galapagos, have a problem. Young males have
a problem, which is that females prefer--well, females, whether they prefer to
mate with big males or not, usually do mate with big males, because the big
males are able to push the little males off. And so you don't have much time,
if you're a young male iguana, and it turns out that a little bit of
masturbation to get yourself ready for sex decreases the length of time you
need to complete copulation before, so this prevents, or reduces the chance
that you will be interrupted. As far as I know, no other species masturbates
in order to reduce the chance of being interrupted.
BOGAEV: Now one theme of your book is the collision of the sexes, which being
so intense in so many species, sometimes generates horrific outcomes, such as
rape and cannibalism. And I do like how your first chapter in this category
starts, `Rule number one, never get eaten during foreplay.' What evolutionary
purpose does the violence in sex then among many species serve?
Ms. JUDSON: Well, cannibalism is a particularly curious example. Everybody
knows that the praying mantis has a tendency to munch on her lover, but what
everybody doesn't know is that quite often this happens even before he's had a
chance to mate. From his point of view, this is a fiasco. Obviously, if he's
dead, he cannot pass on any genes. And it's not just the praying mantis who
is guilty of this. Cannibalism of this kind has been reported in spiders,
more than 80 species. It's also been reported particularly graphically in
some predacious midges, where the female plunges her proboscis into the male's
head and her spittle turns his innards to soup. So from the male's point of
view, being cannibalized is incredibly bad news, particularly if it happens
before sex. If it happens during sex, he may still have a chance; he may be
able to fertilize some eggs. And if it happens after sex, it may also not be
too bad. It depends on his particular situation.
For example, the Australian red-back spider is the only known species where
the male actually would like to be cannibalized, and he jumps into the
female's jaws and attempts to persuade her to eat him. All the while she is
eating, he is copulating, because in spiders the male's genitalia are modified
mouth parts, and so she munches on his belly and he reaches under and fits his
mouth parts into the appropriate places on her belly. But this is very
unusual. And it turns out that the reason that he doesn't mind being
cannibalized--in fact, invites it--is that males who are being eaten are
allowed to copulate for longer, and, therefore, they fertilize a high
proportion of eggs. Males who are rejected will be rejected very quickly,
and, therefore, will not actually be able to fertilize many eggs at all. But
for most males, they do not wish to be eaten because being eaten, first of
all, precludes reproducing with a given female, and it also, obviously,
precludes reproducing again.
But from the female's point of view, it may not necessarily be that bad. At
first glance, it appears that for a female to eat a male before sex is
idiotic, but, in fact, if a female is likely to meet many males during the
course of her life, as indeed in many spiders she will do, then it doesn't
matter if she eats most of them. As long as she doesn't remain a virgin,
she's OK. And so sometimes it's not going to be too bad, and it may even
occasionally be to her advantage.
BOGAEV: Now here's a provocative quote from your book. "True monogamy is one
of the most deviant behaviors in biology." So how rare is rare?
Ms. JUDSON: It's seems to be pretty rare. I combed the literature for
examples--proven examples of monogamy, and they are very, very scarce. And I
think that the reason is that it's rarely in anybody's advantage to be
monogamous, if you are discussing monogamy truly in terms of how many
offspring you'll produce, which is how success is measured in evolutionary
terms. Monogamy is rarely advantageous for either sex, and so the conditions
under which it evolves are peculiar and unusual.
BOGAEV: There are some species, though, that do mate for life. You cite
Ms. JUDSON: The black vulture is one of my favorite examples. The black
vulture, as far as we know at the moment, it does appear to be monogamous.
They have an interesting social system. They nest in pairs and on
territories, quite large territories, but it's not simply a lack of
opportunity thing, because black vultures are dependent on carcasses and many
vultures will convene at a single carcass, and so there are certainly
opportunities for meeting other vultures and having a bit on the side. But it
turns out that the black vulture's, well, prudish. They don't like to see
sexual behavior in public. And if an inexperienced black vulture attempts to
seduce somebody in public, everybody will attack him or her, and so this
appears to reinforce the tendency for monogamous behavior.
But there are also other species that seem to be monogamous. My guess is that
many species of shrimp may turn out to be monogamous. There are certainly
quite a few that live in stable pairs, but shrimp are less studied than birds,
and so we don't know nearly so much about them.
BOGAEV: Can we talk about homosexuality, then? If a majority of species do
break down to male and female, what does evolutionary biology--how does it
inform us on the question of human sexuality and homosexuality among our
Ms. JUDSON: Well, it's often said, particularly among social conservatives,
for example, that homosexuality is unnatural, that it occurs only in humans
and it is some weird, deviant behavior. There are two things that I'd like to
say about that. The first is that whether it's natural or not is irrelevant
because I could find examples of all sorts of behavior that people would find
abhorrent--for example, incest is very common in many organisms, but humans
believe that close brother-sister incest is a bad idea. So whether it is
natural or not is irrelevant. However, it turns out that, in fact, homosexual
behavior is very common in the animal world--much more common than people have
thought--and the range is extraordinary.
The reason that many people assume that homosexuality cannot be something that
occurs in nature is because homosexuals, particularly in the West now,
homosexuals tend not to have children, and, therefore, any genes for
homosexuality should disappear very quickly. Well, in other organisms, we
know almost nothing about the extent to which homosexual behavior is
exclusive. Certainly many individuals engage in bisexual behavior, but I
would--for the sake of argument you can say, `Well, if the behavior is
exclusive so homosexuals never reproduce and it is fairly common so you can't
just dismiss it as a fluke, then is there any way that the genes could be
maintained in the population?' And I think that there are ways that they can
be maintained. For example, if a gene that leads to homosexuality in one sex
leads to very great reproductive success in the other, then you would expect
to see a certain proportion of individuals who are homosexual throughout their
BOGAEV: Well, one of the standard arguments against human homosexuality, at
least a biological one, runs that if it doesn't lead to reproduction, how can
it be a genetic trait? But in this case it leads to reproduction of others...
Ms. JUDSON: That's right.
BOGAEV: ...so you're lending a helping hand.
Ms. JUDSON: Not necessarily lending a helping hand. It may be that the gene
itself is just very beneficial when it is manifested in one sex. It's
certainly true that genes are expressed differently in the different sexes
very often. And in that case, you might expect to see that there are some
genes that produce homosexuality in one sex, but produce some very beneficial
trait in the other, a trait that leads to much greater reproductive success,
either very great fecundity or very good looks or--I mean, this is
speculation. We don't know for sure, but that would be one mechanism by which
genes for exclusive homosexuality could be maintained.
BOGAEV: Well, I have to say a lot of the information in the book makes human
sex quite pallid in comparison. Did you come away with your own conclusions
about deviancy or any species you particularly envy?
Ms. JUDSON: Well, it certainly broadened my horizons. I think that I would
like to be reincarnated as a number of species. I think, for example, it
would be fascinating to be a dolphin, for all sorts of reasons but
particularly because they seem to have such amazing sex drive. I think that
would be fascinating. But I think that in general--I mean, human sex may be
dull, and in many respects it is, but basically I'm pretty glad to be human.
BOGAEV: Olivia Judson, I want to thank you very much for talking with me
Ms. JUDSON: Thank you very much.
BOGAEV: Olivia Judson's book is "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation."
Coming up, a review of Larry David's series on HBO. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This weekend, the Larry David series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" concludes its
second season on HBO. TV critic David Bianculli has absolutely no complaints,
not about the show, and not even about how few episodes it presents each year.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
When "Seinfeld" was the most popular show on television and still going
strong, Larry David walked away from it. He had created the show with Jerry
Seinfeld, and was responsible for a lot of the show's tone and humor, but
thought enough was enough. Eventually Seinfeld agreed with him, and ended the
series while it was still the most popular comedy on TV. For that final
episode, David returned to write the script. Then everybody went their
separate ways. The supporting cast members of "Seinfeld," Jason Alexander,
Michael Richards, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, went on to star in their own sitcoms.
All of them flopped. Seinfeld retired his old comedy act, and just released a
new movie called "Comedian." It's a documentary showing his return to the
stand-up stage, writing and trying out new material while agonizing over every
move. It's a wonderful film. It's also familiar if you've been following the
post-"Seinfeld" career of Larry David.
What David did after "Seinfeld" was go to HBO and propose a comedy special in
which the subject would be him returning to the stand-up stage, something he
hadn't done since his days as an angry young comic on the cast of the ABC
late-night show "Fridays." Michael Richards, by the way, was on that show,
too. As always with David, his TV vehicle would have a twist. With
"Seinfeld," it was a show about doing nothing. With his special, which he
called "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it would be a combination documentary and
stand-up act. The first part, which showed David pitching the special to HBO,
planning and rehearsing it and going about his everyday life. The second part
would be the act itself.
Except that in both parts, Larry David couldn't play it straight. For the
behind-the-scenes segments he cast actors to play his manager, his wife and
the HBO executives, and improvised a loose approximation of his everyday
reality. And he liked that part of the special so much he didn't even include
the stand-up part. The whole special was a buildup to him walking out on
stage, but when he got there, the credits rolled.
HBO and David were so happy with the result, they turned the special into a
series. Larry would play himself, Cheryl Hines would play his wife and Jeff
Garlin his manager. Real-life friends like Richard Lewis and Ted Danson would
pop in, playing usually unflattering versions of themselves. And the trick
this time was that each show would be carefully outlined, but not scripted, so
the actors could improvise their way through each scene. There were 10
episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" last year. This season, the 10th and final
one of the year arrives Sunday and will leave me hungry for more. When the
first episode of the series was shown, I called it the best sitcom since
"Seinfeld." Since then, it's only gotten better.
On "Curb," Larry David is like John Cleese's character of Basil Fawlty in
"Fawlty Towers." Everything around him seems to irritate him, or escalate
into irritating someone else. David has gotten so good at this by now that,
even with guest stars in small roles, he hits home runs with his
conversational, confrontational, spur-of-the-moment dialogue. In one recent
episode, Larry gets into trouble by losing the jacket he's supposed to be
wearing in every scene of a Martin Scorsese film. He tracks down the store
that made the jacket and finds a perfect replacement, the last one. Happy
ending? Not on this show. Larry decides to keep shopping a little more, and
checks out a sweater on sale. The salesman, played by Jason Sklar, is eager
to help, but not for very long. Here's how the scene and the sweater unfolds.
And remember, except for those broad outlines, it's being made up on the fly.
(Soundbite of "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. LARRY DAVID: Like what is this? Oh, this is an extra large. Let me see,
it might not fit.
Mr. JASON SKLAR: It's a great sweater, too.
Mr. DAVID: Ah, way too big. Is that it? You don't have any more?
Mr. SKLAR: No, it only comes in that size. I'm sorry.
Mr. DAVID: Oh, OK.
Mr. SKLAR: I'll tell you what, I'll fold that up for you, and we can get you
rung up over there.
Mr. DAVID: That's OK, I've got it.
Mr. SKLAR: No, I can take care of it.
Mr. DAVID: No problem.
Mr. SKLAR: Actually, I kind of need to take care of it. We have a very
specific way that we fold things here, so I'll take care of it, OK?
Mr. DAVID: It's not that complicated. I can do it.
Mr. SKLAR: It's not that complicated. Actually, it is kind of a little
Mr. DAVID: This is complicated?
Mr. SKLAR: Yeah, it's a little bit complicated. There's a specific way that
we need to--can you let go of the--OK, thank you. You're stretching it out
now. It's not a scoop neck, it's actually a V-neck, thank you.
Mr. DAVID: Oh, OK.
Mr. SKLAR: I've got it, OK?
Mr. DAVID: All right. Well, I'm sorry for trying to help you out, folding
your little sweater.
Mr. SKLAR: Yeah, well, you weren't helping me you. You weren't helping me
out. You were actually stretching out--you're damaging merchandise.
Mr. DAVID: Oh, OK. Yeah. Oh, boy, look what you did. Boy, you really got
Mr. SKLAR: Yeah, I did get it down, OK?
Mr. DAVID: Oh, I never could have done that. That's so hard to do.
Mr. SKLAR: You know what? Actually, I'm going to ask you to leave. I don't
need to be insulted in my own store. I'm going to ask you to leave, OK?
Thanks a lot.
Mr. DAVID: All right, I'll just take the jacket and then leave.
Mr. SKLAR: No, you know what? Actually, I don't think you're going to take
the jacket, OK? Have a nice day.
BIANCULLI: It's a great scene, and it just sounds different from most comedy
dialogue. On "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Larry David is playing with the old
"Seinfeld" sensibility. Instead of double dipping, he does a show about
double tipping, but in a way that's fresh. Doing so few shows is another way
of keeping it fresh. And if you think that's not enough, remind yourself that
when John Cleese made "Fawlty Towers" for the BBC back in the '70s, he only
made six. Then two years later, he went back and made six more, and that was
A generation later, we're still treasuring "Fawlty Towers," and a generation
from now, I suspect, we'll still be treasuring "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your
Enthusiasm." Curb my enthusiasm? Sorry, can't do it.
BOGAEV: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.
BOGAEV: Jazz pianist and composer Sir Roland Hanna died this week at the age
of 70. In 1985, The New York Times described him as being as much at home in
turn-of-the-century ragtime as he is in the works of John Coltrane. Hanna
worked with Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, and with the Fad Jones-Mel Lewis
Jazz Orchestra. He also led his own groups, and taught for years at music
schools in New York. In 1960, he played on this version of "Take the A Train"
with Charles Mingus. Roland Hanna is on the piano.
For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
(Soundbite of "Take the A Train")
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