DATE November 5, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Scientist J. Craig Venter discusses his work in
the mapping of the human genome
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, J. Craig Venter, is a pioneer in the mapping of the human genome.
This year his team was the first to publish the full genome of a single
individual. The full genome means it includes the chromosomes inherited from
both the mother and the father. The person whose genome Venter's team mapped
was Venter himself. A few years ago Venter's privately-funded team raced with
a consortium led by the National Institute of Health to publish a first draft
of the human genome. At a press conference led by President Clinton in 2000,
they announced a tie.
Now Venter claims to be close to creating artificial life in the form of a
bacterium that he thinks can be used in the creation of biofuels. Earlier in
his career Venter was the first scientist to sequence the genome of a
bacterium. Venter is the founder and president of the J. Craig Venter
Institute. He's written a new book called "A Life Decoded: My Genome, My
Craig Venter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Since we're going to be talking about
your work sequencing the human genome, we should explain exactly what that
means, sequencing the human genome.
Mr. J. CRAIG VENTER: Well, it's actually a good question so--because people
use mapping, sequencing, all kinds of different terms interchangeably. First
of all, the human genome is our complete collection of genes, all our DNA
information on our chromosomes that we inherit one set of, from each of our
parents. So we actually have pairs of chromosomes. We have 22 pairs of,
they're called autosomes. And then we have the sex chromosomes. Women have
two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y. So the process of actually
sequencing the genome is determining the exact order of the four different
letters, the A, Cs, Gs and Ts that comprise--that are used to dictate the,
indicate the chemical letters of the genome. We have six billion of those in
each of our cells, of those letters. And determining the price order on the
orientation of those down our chromosomes, actually reading the genetic code,
is what we do with sequencing the human genome.
GROSS: And what does that tell us about who we are?
Mr. VENTER: Well, it, in fact, shows us everything about out evolution as a
species. When we sequence the human genome, the anticipation was by many is
that our genetic code would be totally unique and not resemble any other
species. Those that wanted the humans to be separate from all other life, I
guess, were hoping for that. Some people were hoping for 300,000 genes. A
couple of biotech companies claim they had patented 300,000 genes. It turns
out our genetic code has around 23,000 genes, not all that different from any
other mammal. And, more importantly, while we differ from each other in the 1
to 2 percent range, we differ from our closest relatives, the apes, the
chimpanzees by maybe 5 or 6 percent. And when we look at gene sequences, the
portions that actually code for proteins were only the order of perhaps 1
percent different from chimpanzees, and less than 10 percent different from
all other mammals at that level.
So it gives us hints about our evolution. We can look at what's different in
our genome vs. the chimp genome to maybe see how we developed larger brains,
the ability to speak, as examples. But it also tells us the basis of our
biology. Each one of us has a totally unique genetic code, with the exception
of identical twins. But they have other unique manifestations in terms of no
two people have the same fingerprints, even identical twins, because of random
changes as we go from one cell to a hundred trillion cells.
GROSS: What kind of genetic database would you eventually like to have, and
how would you like to use it?
Mr. VENTER: Well, our goal is, over this next decade, to see if we can get
as many as 10,000 human genomes. And just having the genetic information on
its own is not very useful. What we need along with it is all the phenotypic
information, health outcomes, psychology tests, etc., so that we can begin to
solve what those data allows us to solve. That is, what's truly nature,
what's truly nurture in the wide variety of traits and diseases. I think we
can answer some of those questions in a pretty definitive fashion. But the
interesting things is it may be slightly different, and will be slightly
different for all of us depending on which gene changes and which gene sets we
have. But I think we have a chance in the near future to answer most of these
questions that are pretty commonly asked throughout humanity.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned the question of nature or nurture. What are some
of the other questions that you feel like you could ask with this genetic
Mr. VENTER: Well, it's fairly key, as we go forward with the constant
double-digit inflation and health care costs in this country, to see if we can
go much more into a preventative medicine paradigm. If we know which diseases
we're at risk for, we can, in most cases, start to do something about them
either in terms of early diagnosis, actually changing lifestyle, as I
discussed for heart disease, and early treatment.
Most cancers are not directly genetic. Only a tiny fraction are caused by
changes that we inherit from our parents in the genetic code. Most of them
are from changes we collect in our bodies over our lifetimes, from X-rays,
from environmental toxins, etc. But if you know that you have an increased
risk genetically for, say, colon cancer, the statistics are pretty
overwhelming in terms of, if you can detect that cancer before symptoms
appear, colon cancer detected early is very treatable. It's not very
expensive to treat with surgery. And the longevity outcomes are quite
encouraging. Over 90 percent live longer than 10 years after a diagnosis.
So I view genomic information as providing power and control to individuals
over our own lives vs. just waiting for happenstance and symptoms to appear.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Craig Venter. He's a pioneer
of genetics. And in his private research he tied with the Human Genome
Project in mapping the human genome, and it's work he's continued to do. He
has a new book now, which is called "A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life."
Now, you began your genome research at the National Institute of Health, but
you left the NIH to form you own company, a nonprofit company. Why did you
want to leave the NIH to pursue genome research independently?
Mr. VENTER: Well, I think most scientists have the dream that they would
love to have their own research institute. And it was an institute, not a
company, and I was given the opportunity to have my own independent research
institute that was, in fact, funded by a group of venture capitalists that
were hoping the results that my institute produced would flow into a company
that they started to find faster cures for diseases.
But the primary reason--in fact, I envisioned staying at the NIH for a long
time. When I was there, the intramural program was probably the best place to
do research in the country because we had large budgets, we didn't have to
write grants, and we had a lot of independent direction, which was how I was
able to make early breakthroughs there. But I was also very limited in terms
of trying to expand the research. I got very excited about the notion of
sequencing the human genome, and it became very clear that was not going to
happen at the NIH, certainly not within the NIH. And so, having the
opportunity for my own independent research organization, I jumped at that
GROSS: I'm wondering what your thoughts are now about the role of private
companies and pharmaceutical companies in this brand new research. I mean,
we're facing the possibility of pharmaceutical companies patenting--well, I'm
not really sure what we're facing, but can private companies patent genes or
patent variations on genes, or are we risking the things that are an essential
part of human nature will be privately owned by pharmaceutical companies?
Mr. VENTER: Well, it's a good and it's an important question and one that
reflects a lot of the bias and misunderstanding that's out there. I mean,
yes, human genes can be patented like genes from any species. In fact, life
forms can be patented as ruled several decades ago by the Supreme Court. The
number one organization for patenting human genes is actually the US
government through the National Institutes of Health. There's very few genes
that have made their way directly into therapeutics, but some of those are
The first and perhaps the most important one for any of your listeners that
have insulin-dependent diabetes was the original cloning and then the
expression of the human insulin gene and turning it into a pharmaceutical
product by Genentech and Eli Lilly. The only way they were able to do that
was by having a patent which allowed them--not ownership of the insulin gene.
They don't own mine, they don't own yours. What they have is a legal right
for a limited period of time to commercially produce that human insulin. The
treatment for diabetes used to be dependent totally on having pig insulin,
which people developed resistance to and antibodies to, and so the human
insulin has been a lifesaver for tens of millions of people.
So that's one of the fallacies about patents. Patents are not ownership,
they're a right, a brief, limited right that the government gives in exchange
for public disclosure of all the information about the inventions. So whether
people can build on it to commercially produce what's in that patent. I think
if there were not patents on drugs and medicines, we would not have a
pharmaceutical industry, we would not have a biotech industry. The government
does not produce drugs. In most cases, it has not discovered anything that
would end up as a pharmaceutic. So it's an important part of the exchange we
make as a society with the inventors, the companies, the institutions that
make these breakthroughs so that, in fact, they will find their way into
commercial development. If there's no commercial development, we don't have
access to them as patients.
GROSS: My guest is J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in the mapping of the human
genome. His new book is called "A Life Decoded." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Craig Venter, a pioneer of human genome research, and his
new book is called "A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life." And his company tied
with the Human Genome Project in mapping the human genome. He continues to do
Clearly you are so excited at the prospect of what we can learn from
sequencing the human genome, and you're working now on new forms of bacteria
that can contribute to the production of alternate fuels. What are some of
your concerns about these new doors that we're opening and how they might be
Mr. VENTER: Well, I'm concerned about two things. I'm certainly concerned
about the public understanding of science. I view it's every scientists
responsibility to speak out about what they're doing to help the broader
public understand what is being done and why it's being done, and that doesn't
get done frequently enough.
We've just finished a study and will be releasing it soon in conjunction with
MIT. It's been funded by the Sloan Foundation to actually look at these risks
and to look at laboratory practices for this new emerging field of synthetic
biology, which has some wonderful potential for making new biofuels, new
vaccines, new ways of doing chemical synthesis, maybe eliminating the
petro-chemical industry in the future, that give us a tremendous hope. But I
think there's a large number of technologies that do have potential for abuse
that we need to guard against.
On the same hand, let me add, that, you know, probably the biggest threat
facing us are new emerging infections. Your listeners have certainly heard of
SARS, most recently, but HIV, both which have emerged in recent history, as
our population goes from six billion to nine billion people over the next 40
or so years. If that prediction is met, we're definitely going to have new
emerging infections--some are predicted, new pandemics from flu--but we
definitely have to develop new weapons against new emerging infections that
could affect tens to hundreds of millions of people on this planet. And
that's something that we're falling way behind as a country. Government
funding and pharmaceutical company funding, has all drifted away from new
vaccines, new anti-virals and new antibiotics.
GROSS: Do you see your research as being connected to medical research now in
trying to alter genes, like to find the gene for breast cancer, in the hopes
that maybe that gene can be changed?
Mr. VENTER: Well, I think the notion of gene therapy was one of the early,
naive assumptions out of the genetic code.
Mr. VENTER: Naive in the sense that, you know, like a broken carburetor we
could just go in and repair it. We have a hundred trillion cells in our
bodies, and the only way that you can repair genes is to change the genetic
code for future generations. With rare exceptions, gene therapy just will not
But understanding risk genes--and I think we're now up to at least a half a
dozen associated with breast cancer, and I'm sure another dozen or two will be
found as we examine the genetic code more thoroughly--that these are important
information that can really help in the case of breast cancer, women a
preventative medicine paradigm. It's also an example of how inadequate
understanding of genetics has led to probably more aggressive changes than
probably were warranted. I think many physicians, not understanding what the,
quote, "breast cancer gene" was really telling them were telling women that
they had a 90 percent chance or better of having breast cancer when it's
nowhere near that. There're only tiny percentages for the general population
other than the very small number of women that have a very strong family
genetic history of breast cancer.
So I think we have to understand the entire human genome. We can't just look
at one gene. There is no such thing as a breast cancer gene any longer. And
as we understand the beauty and complexity of our genetic code, I think it
will take us in a positive direction.
GROSS: You've sequenced your own genome. When do you think the rest of us
would be able to get our genomes sequenced? Like, how far down the line do
you think that is?
Mr. VENTER: Well, that's a great question. And so we just published--my
genetic code is the first diploid genome that truly represents what an
individual human genome looks like because it has both sets of chromosomes
contributed by my parents. The cost of sequencing genomes is changing
exponentially from a multibillion dollar federal program down to $100 million
at Celera to the sequencing company that just claims to have sequenced Jim
Watson's genome. And we're waiting for the scientific publication on that,
but they claim it cost only a few million dollars. There's new technology
coming out of several companies now that we think could lower the cost right
now to maybe $300,000. So you can see it's changing very rapidly. So I
expect within two to five years it will be cost effective for us to do the
10,000 human genomes to try and understand this next level of interpreting our
genetic code, certainly within a decade.
I'm part of the X PRIZE Foundation where there's now a $10 million prize for
the scientist to develop the technology to get us to very rapid,
cost-effective sequencing of human genomes so that it will be available to
wide aspects of the world's population as we go forward. So there's certainly
opportunities with several groups now over the next year or two. I'm hoping
it will become a major part of preventative medicine and health care for all
individuals in this country within a decade.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. VENTER: Well, I enjoyed your questions and your discussion. So thank
you for having me.
GROSS: J. Craig Venter's new book is called "A Life Decoded: My Genome, My
Life." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Moses Port, David Guarascio and Sameer Gardezi talk
about "Aliens in America," a new sitcom on the CW network
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The news series "Aliens in America" is a high school geek story with a twist.
Justin Tolchock's parents want to find him a friend. So, at the suggestion of
his guidance counselor, they take in an exchange student who they are told is
coming from England. They're expecting a blond hunk, like the student
pictured in the brochure. But it's not what they find when they go to the
airport to pick him up and bring him back to their small town in Wisconsin.
(Soundbite of "Aliens in America")
Mr. ADHIR KALYAN: (As Raja) Are you the Tolchocks? I am Raja, your exchange
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. AMY PIETZ: (As Franny) Um, dear?
Mr. SCOTT PATTERSON: (As Gary) Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry, son, there might be
some confusion. The boy we ordered was supposed to come in from London.
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) That is me. I started in Pakistan and then I flew in
Mr. PATTERSON: (As Gary) Oh.
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) You are such good people to open your home to me. And
I thank and praise Allah for bringing you into my life. Thank you, Allah, for
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: The Tolchocks and everyone they know have no frame of reference for
Raja except stereotypes of Muslims. My guests David Guarascio and Moses Port
created the show and write for it. It's on the CW network Mondays. Also with
us is writer Sameer Gardezi who grew up in Southern California and is of
Pakistani descent. Of course, none of them can write now because of the
strike by the Writers Guild. We recorded this before the strike.
Moses Port, David Guarascio, Sameer Asad Gardezi, welcome all of you to FRESH
What inspired the idea for the series of a Pakistani exchange student who
comes to the small town in Wisconsin and moves in with a family who's had
absolutely no exposure to probably anybody from another culture?
Mr. DAVID GUARASCIO: I think it began--Moses and I were just trying to think
of an idea for a new TV show. It's sort of what we get paid to do. And we
were sharing our own sort of nightmarish high school experiences with each
other, all these embarrassing stories, and wondering if there is a fresh take
on a high school show about teenage life, a fresh, honest take that could
be--because it's sort of one of those areas that you see tried quite a bit in
TV and in film. And I think at the same time we were talking a lot about what
was going on in the world in American culture, geopolitically, the war in
Iraq, and I think sort of it was in that stew where we sort of came up with
the idea of this Muslim character, this Pakistani Muslim character coming to
this small town.
GROSS: And what are some of the things that you figured that a kid who's
considered a real geek in high school would have in common with the Pakistani
Mr. MOSES PORT: I think we liked the idea that he felt like an outsider, he
felt disconnected and alone and he's on a drive to try and somehow find his
way to fit in. And on the outside, at least, the exchange student embodies
all those things. But I think what's nice about their dynamic and
relationship is that the character of Raja is so--he's so self-actualized,
he's so spiritual and he has such a sense of himself that he is really a
lifeline to the student Justin.
Mr. GUARASCIO: Really at the heart of it, that's what the show is about.
It's about feeling alienated from wherever you are coming from. It's just
something that seems to be an aspect of life in these United States these
days, that people often feel--and maybe people feel this at every time in
history and in every culture--but it's very easy to feel disconnected from the
world, regardless of what your background is. And somehow in acknowledging
that feeling of isolation and alienation, perhaps you can actually bridge the
gap between you and other people.
GROSS: Now, Sameer, you are of Pakistani descent, like one of the main
characters in the story. At what point did you enter the picture in the
creation of "Aliens in America"?
Mr. SAMEER GARDEZI: Well, actually I was in the mix later on. But I was
hunting down the script way before the fact that, you know, such a subject,
this topic, interested me so much. And I thought that I could be a big part
of it and I joined the staff in mid-June.
GROSS: What do you think you told them that convinced them to hire you?
Mr. GARDEZI: Call it a great insurance package. No, ultimately I kind of
told them that, you know, not only am I familiar with the Pakistani culture,
but also the Pakistani-American culture. And, you know, that is an
intersection that exists between Justin and Raja in the sense that, you know,
you have these two teenagers and, you know, even though they come from two
different parts of the world, you know, they are dealing with high school
problems which are paramount and I think exist in all different types of
cultures and different countries.
GROSS: Sameer, do you identify with either of the two characters in the show?
Mr. GARDEZI: Yeah, completely. I think that, as David and Moses were
saying, you know, just those little things that happen in high school if
you're not exactly part of the popular group, those things are very evident to
me and not that far removed from my life, too. I still happen to be a nerd
and not a brilliant television producer like David and Moses so I can't laugh
at everyone yet.
And also, you know, I think that almost verbatim in the pilot I've dealt with
similar situations that Raja did. For instance, you know, in the classroom,
you know, getting questions in this odd manner as to I was specifically
connected with the terrorist attacks even though I had nothing to do with it.
And, you know, the simple religious conflicts that exist, too: having to pray
five times a day, how does that interfere with someone else's life, you know,
how do other people perceive it. So all those things in combination, I think,
that are very true to that point.
GROSS: Well, let me play the scene that you just referred to in which--this
is, I think, probably like your first day of class and the teacher is kind of
trying to discuss difference with the students and goes about it in an
absolutely horrible way. So here's the scene from "Aliens in America."
(Soundbite of "Aliens in America")
Unidentified Actress #1: (As teacher) Class, today I'm going to put aside our
lesson because we have a special guest. For one year we will be in the
presence of a real live Pakistani who practices Muslimism. That means we have
the opportunity to learn about his culture and he about ours. So let's be in
Raja, you are so different from us. How does that feel?
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) I am not sure I understand.
Actress #1: (As teacher) Mm-hmm. Think about it.
How does everyone else feel about Raja and his differences? Yes, Stephanie.
Unidentified Actress #2: (As Stephanie) Well, I guess I feel angry, because
his people blew up the buildings in New York.
Actress #1: (As teacher) Oh, that's good.
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) But that is not true.
Actress #1: (As teacher) OK, Raja, in America, you have to wait until you're
called on, and I'd appreciate a raised hand.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a scene from "Aliens in America." And my guests are the two
creators and executive producers of the show, Moses Port and David Guarascio,
and Sameer Asad Gardezi who's one of the staff writers.
So Sameer, when you were in high school and people assumed that you were
somehow--that is what you're saying--connected to the world of terrorism...
Mr. GARDEZI: Yeah.
GROSS: ...did people also think that you practiced Muslimism? Is that
like--who came up with that on the show?
Mr. GUARASCIO: That was something Moses and I inserted in the script. And
that whole scene, from the pilot, was just this kind of thing, once we wrote
it, we knew, if they don't want to shot it exactly the way we just wrote it,
we don't want to do the show. And there's like a few times as a TV
writer/producer you can feel like you've written something you can absolutely
stand behind and insist that it's done that way. But that scene was one of
GROSS: My guests are Moses Port and David Guarascio, the co-creators of
"Aliens in America," and Sameer Gardezi, one of the writers. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guests are Moses Port and David Guarascio, the co-creators of
"Aliens in America," about a high school nerd, Justin Tolchock, and the
Pakistani exchange student, Raja, living with the Tolchock family. Also with
us is Sameer Gardezi, one of the show's writers. Gardezi is the youngest of
the three. He's of Pakistani descent.
My guess is that before September 11th, most of the students in your high
school didn't know anything about Pakistan and wouldn't even know which ways
to stereotype you if they wanted to. Do you know what I mean? Like, they
probably had like no idea what Pakistan was.
Mr. GARDEZI: Yeah. I think that I naturally got lumped into this
often-found conflation where India is the same thing as Iraq, and Iraq is the
same thing as Morocco. So there was this uneasy conflation that happens so I
think that, you know, I would get the stereotype of Apu from "The Simpsons"
all the way from, you know, "Aladdin." So it was disparate stereotypes.
Mr. PORT: Those were the days, when we could just group wholesale prejudices
into one group while...
GROSS: One group of cartoon characters.
Mr. PORT: Yes. Exactly.
GROSS: I would like to...
Mr. GARDEZI: We were kids at that time.
GROSS: Right, of course. Yes. What I'd like to do is go around the room and
ask each of you to tell a story from your high school years that figured in
some way or another into the script for "Aliens in America."
Mr. PORT: Well, one thing that I know that--I mean, I grew up in a small
town in Pennsylvania. And I was one of three Jewish kids in a class of 900.
And I do remember being in music class and being in it around holiday time and
we'd all sing Christmas carols and then the teacher would say, `OK, now we're
going to sing a Hanukkah song,' and they would have the three Jewish kids
stand up and sing it in isolation. As if--obviously they weren't meaning to
be discriminatory, but it was obviously so awkward, and there's that
feeling--that's part of the outsiderness that we were trying to imbue in the
GROSS: Moses, I had no idea you were Jewish. Just kidding.
David, how about a story from your life?
Mr. GUARASCIO: For me, I think probably what maybe comes through in the show
the most is, I grew up in New York on Long Island and I moved in the middle of
my junior year to a small town in Michigan. And I just went from being a very
sort of comfortable, secure place in sort of the community that I grew up in
and I--I mean, to my mind I might as well have been moving to Pakistan because
Michigan seemed so different to me from what I was used to in New York. It
was just sort of a less--in truth, it was sort of a less cosmopolitan sort of
atmosphere even in high school. And I went from sort of really fitting in
from one place to not fitting in at all in the other place.
And every day at lunch was sort of a challenge as to how to handle my time
because I didn't have anyone to sort of eat with for that second semester of
my junior year. So I'd find corners throughout the school just to feed myself
and hopefully seem inconspicuous and not look like the kid who absolutely
doesn't have any friends.
Mr. PORT: To be fair, I've eaten lunch with him, and it's actually better
that he does it alone.
GROSS: Sameer, how about a story from your life that figured in in one way or
another into a storyline for "Aliens in America."
Mr. GARDEZI: I don't have that exact `fish out of water' experience. As
much as I make fun of my high school, it was a very diverse campus. It was in
Anaheim. It was called Esperanza High School. And I'd say a very memorable
experience and, I mean, it happens yearly, it's just whenever I have to fast
for Ramadan and it's during those lunch periods where I really have to figure
out what I'm supposed to do with my time. And, you know, kids can be cruel.
I remember the main thing was, you know, trying to see whether people can get
me to eat. And it would always be kind of so painstaking just sitting there
with your friends and trying to socialize while they're chowing down. And
then always the same question, `Hey, Sameer, you know, why aren't you eating?'
Or, you know, `Sameer, you know, do you want some of this. Oh, I'm sorry I
forgot.' Mine turned out not to be as funny as everybody else's did.
Mr. GUARASCIO: In fairness to your high school friends, I feel like in the
writer's room we've sort of taunted you with the popsicles and pistachio nuts
while you were fasting as well. So we really haven't grown up at all. That's
sort of what we're learning from this.
GROSS: Since we're talking about high school experiences that became the
basis of storylines in "Aliens in America," I thought I'd bring up a couple of
the storylines and see if any of you have a personal connection with these.
Let's start with the mother intervening in totally inappropriate, embarrassing
ways when you are singled out for derision in high school. You know, like
people are mocking you so the mother comes in to complain to the guidance
counselor. Did that happen to any of you?
Mr. GUARASCIO: Moses?
Mr. PORT: My mom will be listening to this. I know my mother was quick to
show up at school, but I'm not sure it was always--sometimes it wasn't even in
defense of us, it was just out of interest and being connected to what was
going on in our lives.
GROSS: A little embarrassing, though, huh?
Mr. PORT: Yeah.
Mr. GUARASCIO: I think you could also--that partly comes from is, I have two
kids, Moses has three kids and we're very aware of our own impulse to keep the
strings attached as much as we possibly can. I have two daughters, 10 and
seven, and although they're not as old as Justin is, I already feel--whenever
I sort of feel them growing up and sort of moving on their own, my impulse is
to get closer, which is not always the healthiest thing. And I think so in
addition to sort of mining our own beloved mothers' maternal influence, we're
also sort of acknowledging some of our own impulses.
Mr. PORT: As a parent, when you see your kid suffer, I mean, there's nothing
more pain--I mean, you again, there's nothing more painful. But obviously you
want to act. You're desperate to act. And Justin is a kid who struggles
quite a bit, so Franny may be overbearing but it's coming from a
place--there's a lot of ammunition as to why she's overbearing.
GROSS: There's one episode in which there's a club called "Rocket Science"
that doesn't really exist, but Justin has made it up with some friends for
various reasons as just a way to kind of get away. And Raja ends up covering
for him and acting like it really exists in order to save Justin. Anyone want
to claim that one, of telling a lie in order to protect a friend?
Mr. PORT: I think Raja's doing that not to protect his friend, he was pulled
into the lie and he has trouble--he's at odds with maintaining a lie. And for
his own self preservation he feels that if he could turn it into something
truthful then he wouldn't--the club could actually build a rocket instead of
just wasting time and using it as a ruse to fool Justin's parents, then he
wouldn't be doing something wrong. So it's actually for a little more selfish
reasons that Raja does it.
Mr. GUARASCIO: You know, I will say what's probably to fill up that one, I
think Raja's so unique in his--the construction of the character, that he's
actually acting in a way that most high school kids wouldn't. Most high
school kids sort of lie fairly comfortably. And he's a character who just
doesn't. And that was just a real important aspect of the show when we--when
Moses and I were developing and creating it, that Raja had this sort of moral
center in a family where no one else really did. And, of course, in that
episode it sort of--it backfires on him quite a bit.
GROSS: Have you gotten any complaints, either within the CW network or from
viewers, being either called racist or anti-American or somebody from like any
position kind of throwing stones at you because of the depictions of either
Raja or the...
Mr. PORT: The Americans on the show.
Mr. PORT: So far the response we've had, we'll start with sort of the Muslim
community has been overwhelmingly positive. You know, we did a screening here
at the Islamic Center of Southern California, where the show had a real nice
reception. We also had the opportunity to have our show screened at the
Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
GROSS: That's where all the sitcoms start.
Mr. PORT: Which is...
GROSS: They all say, `Let's have a screening at the Brookings Institution,'
Mr. GUARASCIO: Yes. It was sort of an unexpected opportunity. But it was
just real exciting to have a lot of people from the Muslim community in DC and
State Department types to come out and sort of see the show and talk about,
you know, bridging--they sort of have a, they're doing a whole series on sort
of bridge the gap between Muslim culture and American culture.
And, I mean, the one interesting thing was, there have been some people who
sort of expressed some concern about how we're depicting small town Americans.
And then actually at Brookings, a woman came up afterwards, talked to me and
Moses and said, `I really like your show, but I have a problem with the way
you're depicting cheerleaders, and I just think we're a lot--I used to be a
cheerleader and I just take it personally--we're a lot smarter and more
interesting and we're not sluts.' And we said--the cheerleader in the episode
she was talking about didn't do anything that could possibly even seem
promiscuous. So we just said, `well, maybe you're projecting a little bit
because we're not quite doing anything like that.' So the spirited cheerleader
lobby is out there and vocal.
Mr. PORT: Yes.
Mr. GUARASCIO: Don't worry. They're in D.C. and they're out there
Mr. PORT: I think the most negative feedback we've gotten was our portrayal
of Americans as being small minded, and...
GROSS: And probably particularly of like small town Americans being
particularly small minded.
Mr. GUARASCIO: Yes.
Mr. PORT: Yes. That's been...
GROSS: That's would be the criticism, right?
Mr. GUARASCIO: And then I would say it was--interestingly enough, when we
were at the mosque in Los Angeles, people--they loved it. But they did
raise--they're question was, does Raja, is he too perfect? And we brought up
before, which was--you know, and we ran through the gamut of reasons why he is
the way he is and we hope to further humanize him with, you know, flaws of the
human condition as we go forward. But you're definitely under a microscope,
much more so than any other show that we've worked on.
GROSS: Well, here's another scene from "Aliens in America." Justin and Raja
are in their English class, where none of the students have read the assigned
book, "Robinson Crusoe." So the teacher tries a different approach.
(Soundbite of "Aliens in America")
Unidentified Actor #1: (As teacher) All right, let's think about this in a
whole new way. You have a chance to start civilization over again. What
would you bring with you on a desert island? Yes.
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) A machine that makes everything.
Actor #1: (As teacher) Anyone else?
Unidentified Actor #3: (In character) "Robinson Crusoe" by Willem Dafoe.
Actor #1: (As teacher) It's Daniel Defoe. Come on, people, let's think. You
can only bring one item, what would it be and why? What's the one thing you
can't live without? Raja, from Pakistan.
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) If I could only bring one thing with me to a desert
island it would be Justin Tolchock.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Actor #4: (In character) Did he just say...
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) He's my best friend, and his friendship is the one
thing that I cannot live without.
Unidentified Actor #5: (In character, coughing) Homosexual.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: We'll talk more with the creators of "Aliens in America," Moses Port
and David Guarascio, and writer Sameer Gardezi after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guests are Moses Port and David Guarascio, the co-creators of the
CW sitcom "Aliens in America," and Sameer Gardezi, one of the writers.
Moses Port and David Guarascio, you've been working together for years. You
worked together on "Mad About You" and then on "Just Shoot Me," and now you
created "Aliens in America" together. How did you first team up?
Mr. PORT: We met in college at the University of Pennsylvania and had a
radio show together, actually, on WQHS, Penn's radio station, that you could
only hear through the--you had to live in the dorms and have a set of--a
university phone line, essentially.
GROSS: Oh, it's nice to have a big audience.
Mr. PORT: Yes. Believe me. We had a show that ran from midnight to 2:00 AM
on Sunday. And it was really just mostly existentialist radio theater because
we tried to get people to call in just to sort of confirm that anyone was
hearing what we were saying. And in a season's worth of shows we got one
phone call. So we had one woman call in and then we found ourselves
desperately trying to get her to call back in. We were stalking our fan.
Mr. PORT: It was very bizarre.
GROSS: Or your fan base, as the Conchords would say.
Mr. GUARASCIO: Yes.
Mr. PORT: Yes.
GROSS: But in some ways it's probably really good to start with nobody
listening because you can try all kinds of things without anybody throwing you
off the air because it doesn't really matter.
Mr. PORT: That was really the beauty of it. We had, you know, like any
college radio station there was--we had sort of a list of songs, and a certain
amount of airplay and a format we were supposed to follow, and we just didn't
follow any of it because even the people who ran the radio station were not
listening to what we were doing. But for us it was just a lot of fun, and we
liked sort of creating and sort of essentially making each other laugh. So
when we both moved out to Los Angeles, sort of independent of each other, we
decided to sort of give it a run at writing for TV and movies.
Mr. GUARASCIO: I will say I remember we did not show up one night for our
show on the radio and nobody commented on it, not even our bosses at the
radio. So it was a really small audience.
GROSS: So it was just two hours of dead air?
Mr. PORT: It might have been, yes.
Mr. GUARASCIO: It was.
GROSS: So when you first--was "Mad About You" the first time you actually
were working on a TV show?
Mr. PORT: We actually--the first show we really worked on was a first-run
syndicated teen comedy called "Out of The Blue" about six teenagers who lived
and worked at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. And so it was broadcast, you
know, on Saturday mornings on different stations all around the country,
GROSS: Was this is the "Saved by the Bell" era?
Mr. GUARASCIO: Exactly. It strived to be as good as "Saved by the Bell."
Mr. PORT: Not nearly as high drama as "Saved by the Bell."
Mr. GUARASCIO: It was--I can say with great confidence that we worked on the
worst show in television history. And, you know, that's no small feat because
as we know television is, you know, when you're working in low brow it's easy
to get to the bottom. And this show was ridiculously awful. And we shot it
on location at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. But Moses and I were the only
writers on the staff, so we cranked out script after script with sort of very
unprofessional actors and very low production budget. But we sort of really
learned how to work together during that time period. And it, you know, for a
first job it was actually sort of a lot of fun. And then we got our job at
"Mad About You."
Mr. GARDEZI: And that was all actually, the first killer whale to be in
television, so that's another first. They've been pioneers since the
Mr. PORT: It was supposed to be shot in Spanish and in English. It was an
all-Latino cast. And then they realized they did not have enough money to do
that, so they shot it all in English, but not all of the actors spoke English
well. So one of them was a tour guide, and he almost spoke no English. And
we were basically writing his lines phonetically.
GROSS: This is like a great career trajectory, going from a late night radio
show broadcast only in the dorm that nobody listened to to writing for what
you describe as the worst TV show in history. No place to go but up after
Mr. PORT: Exactly.
Mr. GUARASCIO: I'd like Sameer's take. Yes, we brought Shamu, the killer
whale, the first killer whale to television. Now we're doing it with the
first Muslim character in comedy. People need to know.
GROSS: So what keeps you together as writing partners?
Mr. GUARASCIO: I think just afraid to do it alone, absolutely terrified.
No. You know, Moses and I were very close friends before we started writing
together, so I think for us it's just sort of the most fun way to go about
Mr. PORT: It is like another marriage. I remember...
Mr. GUARASCIO: Here he goes.
Mr. PORT: David has referred to me as another wife. But, you know, it's a
relationship. And we--there's definitely, when you're writing together--we
write everything, we speak out every line. We're sitting there and we share a
computer. We're working off it and we're talking out the entire script, so we
hash it out and we, you know, but ultimately, at the end of the day, it's fun.
We make each other laugh and we enjoy the process.
Mr. GUARASCIO: I'm mostly divorced now, so you're my only wife. So.
GROSS: Well, good luck with "Aliens in America." And thank you all. Moses
Port, David Guarascio and Sameer Gardezi, thank you very much.
Mr. GARDEZI: Thank you.
Mr. GUARASCIO: Thank you.
Mr. PORT: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Moses Port and David Guarascio co-created the sitcom "Aliens in
America." Sameer Gardezi writes for the show. It airs Mondays on the CW
network. We recorded the interview before the Writers Guild strike.
You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.