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Will The Real Woody Allen Please Stand Up?

Woody Allen may have played his share of mousy intellectuals in his films, but he says that growing up, he was always "picked first for the team." On the occasion of his 40th movie, Whatever Works, Allen joins Terry Gross to talk about his inspiration and life behind the lens.

This interview was first broadcast on June 15, 2009.

21:10

Other segments from the episode on December 29, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 29, 2009: Interview with Woody Allen; Interview with Tracy Morgan.

Transcript

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Will The Real Woody Allen Please Stand Up? [REBROADCAST]

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest is Woody Allen. He has a new movie
that’s partly an old movie. Woody Allen wrote the screenplay for his new film,
"Whatever Works," in the ‘70s. The leading role was written for Zero Mostel,
but Allen put the screenplay aside after Mostel died in 1977, the year "Annie
Hall" was released.

Last year, when Woody Allen was ready to start a new film, he faced the
possibility of an actor strike. He wanted to finish shooting a new movie before
the threatened strike, but that left him no time to write a new screenplay. So
he dusted off the one he wrote years ago for Zero Mostel and cast Larry David
in the leading role.

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a former Columbia University professor who
came close to winning a Nobel Prize in quantum mechanics. He’s as misanthropic
as he is brilliant. He hates most adults, and he hates children, which is bad
news for the children who come to him for chess lessons.

In this scene, Boris is sitting in a cafe when he’s confronted by the mother of
one of his chess students.

(Soundbite of film, "Whatever Works")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) You! I have been looking for you.
I want to talk to you.

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (As Boris Yellnikoff) Go ahead.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Did you pick up a chess board full of
pieces and hit my son with it at his lesson today?

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) That idiot’s your son? Do me a favor: Don’t send that
cretin to me anymore. I can’t teach an empty-headed zombie chess.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) I will have you know that he is a very
bright child.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) In your opinion. In your opinion, which is skewed because
he’s your unfortunate issue.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) So you threw a chess board at him?

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) I didn’t throw it at him. I picked up the board and
dumped the pieces on his head as an object lesson to shake him out of his
vegetable torpor.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) You wait until my husband gets back from
Florida.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) What’s he doing in Florida without you?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) He will punch you in the nose.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) Her husband’s in Fort Lauderdale. He’s probably hanging
out with your naked co-eds on spring break. He tells her it’s a business trip.
Your son’s an imbecile. Teach him Tiddlywinks, not chess.

GROSS: One day, Boris finds a teen-aged runaway named Melodie, played by Evan
Rachel Wood, sitting in front of his Manhattan home, begging for some food. He
reluctantly takes her in, she stays, and they eventually marry, in spite of the
approximately 40-year age difference between them and in spite of the fact that
Boris thinks she’s brainless.

At the start of the film, Boris states his philosophy of life, which is: Life
is short, so take what little pleasure you can get in this chamber of horrors.
It’s a philosophy expressed in several Woody Allen movies. Here’s Woody Allen
at the beginning of "Annie Hall."

(Soundbite of film, "Annie Hall")

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (Filmmaker): (As Alvy Singer) There’s an old joke. Two elderly
women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says boy, the food at
this place is really terrible. The other one says yeah, I know, and such small
portions.

Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life, full of loneliness and misery
and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

GROSS: That basic philosophy is restated in Woody Allen’s recent film, "Vicky
Cristina Barcelona." Here’s Javier Bardem inviting two beautiful, American
tourists, Vicky and Cristina, to spend the weekend with him.

(Soundbite of film, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona")

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM (Actor): (As Juan Antonio Gonzalo) We’ll spend the weekend. I
mean, I’ll show you around the city, and we’ll eat well. We’ll drink good wine.
We’ll make love.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Who exactly is going to make
love?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) Hopefully, the three of us.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Oh, my God.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) I’ll get your bill.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Jesus, this guy. He doesn’t beat around
the bush. Look, senor, maybe in a different life.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) Why not? Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of
pain, and this is a chance for something special.

GROSS: Woody Allen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ALLEN: Hi.

GROSS: You know, it’s interesting – hi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: At least three of your films kind of start with the same premise. I’m
wondering why has this question framed several of your movies, that life is
hard, life is full of pain, but life is short, so do what you can to get some
pleasure.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, this is hardly an original thought with me. I mean, down
through the ages, all the important writers and all the important philosophers
have, in one form or another, come to the conclusion, the obvious conclusion,
that you know, life is a terrible trial and very harsh and very full of
suffering, and so whatever you can do with the stipulation that you don’t hurt
anybody without, you know, ruining a life here or there or causing any damage,
there’s nothing wrong with it.

GROSS: So when we talk about making movies, does that give you pleasure? Like
what’s the ratio of pleasure and pain in making a film?

Mr. ALLEN: Well you know, it’s a different kind of pain. See, making a movie is
a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly,
you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and
third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you
know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if
I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my
movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a
character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or
something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with
reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they
distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very
painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that
happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people
don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This
is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in
the real world of human existence.

GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies
distracts you from?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that
anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and
death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and
holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that
you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on,
why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion
that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s
just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And
if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them,
but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves
creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by
following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the
pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home
and worry.

GROSS: So we’ve talked about how your characters try to find pleasure in a life
full of pain. My impression of you is that you’re the kind of person for whom
pleasure is hard to come by, in part because you’ve said you’re a
claustrophobic, agoraphobic. "Annie Hall" was originally going to be named
"Anne Hedonia," which means an inability to experience pleasure. Is pleasure
hard to come by, even when your work can find it?

Mr. ALLEN: I do – there are a number of things that give me pleasure. But you
know, hanging over the pleasure is always the dark cloud of, you know, the
human predicament so that I can get pleasure when I’m playing with my children,
or I’m doing something with my wife or playing jazz.

I like to play music, and I do find it pleasurable, but these are transient
oases in a vast desert of unspeakable gloom, you know. But I do get pleasure
like everyone else. It’s pleasurable for me to go to a basketball game, or you
know, but always overriding it is the notion that it’s, you know, ephemeral,
very ephemeral.

GROSS: Now your new movie, "Whatever Works," was written a long time ago by you
for Zero Mostel to star in. What year did you write it?

Mr. ALLEN: I don’t remember the exact year, but it must have been the ‘70s. I
mean, I wrote it years ago, threw it in the drawer, and then I took it out
because I needed a script quickly because there was going to be, possibly going
to be, an actor strike. And so I had to – I couldn’t work on a script. I had to
have a script quickly to do a picture before that potentially imminent strike
occurred.

So I took it out of my drawer, and I felt it was quite a good story, and
unfortunately, Zero had been unique, and it was very hard to think of anyone to
play that role, and over the years, decades, it occurred to us, Juliet Taylor
and myself, that…

GROSS: She’s your casting director.

Mr. ALLEN: Casting director, yeah – Larry David could probably do this in a
very, very funny way.

GROSS: The character that Larry David plays is a real misanthrope, and unlike
some of your other earlier characters, he’s not self-deprecating. He’s not
insecure. In fact, he thinks he’s a genius, a kind of superior being, And in
that respect, you’re almost, like, leaving out the likable part because what we
identify with in your earlier characters, and I mention the early characters
because that’s the period that you wrote the script, is that they had these
insecurities. They were self-deprecating. So I guess I’m wondering why you made
this character so condescending to other people, somebody who thinks he’s a
genius.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, this was supposed to be for Zero originally, and he was a big,
fat, blustering guy who thought that he had all the answers and thought that
everybody in life was inferior to him.

GROSS: You think Zero Mostel himself was that way?

Mr. ALLEN: No, no, not Zero himself…

GROSS: Oh, oh, okay.

Mr. ALLEN: …the character that Zero was playing. Actually, Zero was, you know,
quite the opposite of that. But you know, he was a big, blustering character
who had no patience with anybody. But of course when you look at the character,
the character is full of self-doubt and full of anxiety and can’t fend for
himself and can’t function in relationships.

He’s really no different, it’s just that his façade is, you know, if I had
written that years ago for myself, the character that I could play with my
limited range was self-deprecating, and the persona that I always felt
comfortable acting out was that kind of a intimidated, victim-style character.
But at the time, that was not the story. The story was written not for me but
for Zero, and so it was – it would be the difference between having someone
like Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields play a character and Charlie Chaplin play a
character. One is more persecuted and victim-like, and the other is – the other
two are much more insulting and condescending and superior.

GROSS: So why did you feel so at home playing the self-deprecating character
and felt like that was your comfort zone?

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, I don’t know. I just – you’re just born into it, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Born into self-deprecation?

Mr. ALLEN: You know, I’m not an actor, and I don’t have a big range. I mean, I
could not play, you know, Shakespeare. I can’t – I can – there’s certain things
I feel comfortable doing, and I just, I can’t explain why. I just do. Yes, in
life I think I am self-deprecating, and you know, frightened of everything, and
you know, it’s an area that I feel comfortable making jokes about because I’m
always joking about my personal foibles.

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen. His new movie, "Whatever Works," stars Larry
David. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Woody Allen, and his new movie is
called "Whatever Works," and it stars Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood.

In the movie, Larry David is in his 50s, and Evan Rachel Wood is still in her
teens when she shows up kind of homeless on his doorstep. And he decides, kind
of against his will, and against his better judgment, to take her in and give
her a few meals and then to let her live there, and then they get married.

So forgive me for asking this because this is a little personal, but this was
written before, like, long before you married Soon-Yi, but it means, let’s be
honest, that everyone’s going to be looking for clues in this movie about your
relationship with your wife.

Mr. ALLEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And again, let’s be honest. A lot of your fans were really kind of upset
when you married the woman who is the adoptive daughter of your long-time
lover. So I wonder if you thought about that kind of thing when you were making
the movie, that people would just be, like, looking for clues about the older-
man-younger-woman relationship and how that applies to you.

Mr. ALLEN: People do look for clues in my movies all the time…

GROSS: For who you really are.

Mr. ALLEN: …in all of my movies. They are constantly searching for clues in my
movies. And no matter how many times I’ve told them over the years that, you
know, I make these stories up, some of them I’ve made up with other writers.
I’ve worked with Doug McGrath, with Marshall Brickman, Mickey Rose, they make
up stories, you know, they make up half of the story with me. The people always
look for clues in my movies, and they think, based on my movies, that they know
me, and of course they don’t know me. And there are some things you could’ve
learned about me over the years but not much, really. You know, I was never who
anybody thought I was from when I started.

When I first started as a comic in Greenwich Village, people thought that I
was, at that time, some kind of a little beatnik and someone who, you know, was
a kind of mousy intellectual, and you know, none of these things were ever
true. You know, I never lived in the Village. I always lived in a very nice
neighborhood uptown in Manhattan.

I was never intellectual. I was never interested in intellectual things. You
know, when I explain to people I’m the guy that you see in his T-shirt with a
beer watching the baseball game at night at home on television, they find that
hard to square with the characters that I played in the movies. But in the
movies, I’m just acting.

So it doesn’t bother me, but it is something that I’ve tried to be honest about
over the years and explain to people, but they don’t feel comfortable hearing
it. They listen to it, and either they don’t believe me when I say it, or they
don’t want to believe me because it diminishes their enjoyment, or it’s
important that they have some kind of image of me that’s meaningful to them for
some reason. I don’t know why. But I’ve never been – you know, I was always a
very athletic little boy, always, you know, never a loner or a loser, always
the first one picked on any team.

GROSS: You were the first one picked on any team?

Mr. ALLEN: Always.

GROSS: See, I wouldn’t have believed that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: I know. I was always a very…

GROSS: Very counter to your image.

Mr. ALLEN: …very good athlete. I was interested even in playing professional
baseball. I was, you know, won track medals, you know. But nobody thinks of me
that way. They think of me as, you know, some kind of little bookworm - because
I have these big, black glasses, black-rimmed glasses - and they think of me as
a bookworm and give me more credit for intellect than I have. And you know, I
couldn’t make it through college. I couldn’t make it through my freshman year
of college, you know. And this was not because I was some, you know, artist or
intellectual above it. I couldn’t cut it. I mean, I wasn’t…

GROSS: You flunked out?

Mr. ALLEN: I couldn’t get the - I flunked out. I was thrown out of New York
University in my first year there…

GROSS: What did you fail?

Mr. ALLEN: …because I couldn’t get the marks.

GROSS: In what subjects?

Mr. ALLEN: I was a motion picture production major, but now I had to take
regular subjects, as well.

GROSS: Don’t tell me you failed motion picture classes.

Mr. ALLEN: English and Spanish and subjects like that. I failed those subjects.
And I didn’t do well in motion picture production, either.

GROSS: Was this because you were busy writing jokes for other people and not
studying, or…

Mr. ALLEN: No, no, I wasn’t too busy. I wasn’t too busy. I was uninterested. I
mean, I – you know, I played ball. I was, as I say, I was athletic. I played
cards. I liked to – I wasn’t interested in erudition and education. Those were
not things that – I was not brought up to be interested in that, and I wasn’t
interested. You know, I didn’t see it in my home. And so I just – this is long-
winded - but just to say that people have, you know, constantly looking for
clues to me in my work and seizing on things that are quite, quite
unrepresentative of who I really am.

GROSS: Woody Allen will be back in the second half of the show. His new movie,
"Whatever Works," stars Larry David. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Woody Allen. His new film,
"Whatever Works," stars Larry David in a role Allen originally wrote for Zero
Mostel. Allen wrote the screenplay in the 70s. Back in the 70s, when Woody
Allen starred in several of his films, you couldn't help but wonder how closely
the screenplays resembled autobiography.

Can you describe the neighborhood you grew up in? A lot of people imagine you
growing up under the rollercoaster in Coney Island...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...like your character in "Annie Hall."

Mr. ALLEN: Right. Right. People think that. They, no I grew up in a very nice
section of Brooklyn called Flatbush. And when I grew up there it was a lovely,
you know it was a lovely section. I mean there were, there was ball field, and
playgrounds. There were many, many, many movie houses within you know walking
distance of no matter where you were dropped you’d be within walking distance
of a couple of movie houses. And the school that I went to was, you know, quite
a nice school. And you know, the blocks were tree-lined, and safe, and you
could go out and play ball all day long in the streets, and schoolyards, and it
was a very nice neighborhood. It was you know I was not deprived, and I didn't
grow up poor. You know...

GROSS: What was your parent's relationship like? And what did you make, what
did it make you think marriage was like?

Mr. ALLEN: Marriage for my parents was kind of like what it was in all the
other neighboring houses and friends houses. It was a long truce is what it
was. The, all the parents in the neighborhood, the men and women, they loved
each other. There were people who were from the Depression, and so money was a
big factor because nobody had any real money and everybody had to work. But
usually what would happen is the men and the women would, the guys would work
all day and they'd come home, and then on the weekends the guys would take
Bridge chairs out and play cards at a table and the women would keep with the
women.

There was no sense that a guy was coming home on the weekend so he could take
his wife and, you know, leave the son with the babysitter or the daughter with
a babysitter and check into a hotel and have a romantic weekend or do something
romantic. There wasn't that. The guys would be you know watching the ballgame
or - not watching so much, listening on the radio to the ballgames together.
They'd be playing Poker, or Gin Rummy, or Pinochle together. And that's how it
was even when there was a dinner or something, uncles and relatives would get
together, and as soon as the dinner was over the guys would be in the other
room around the card table and the women would be talking in their room about -
you know and you didn't get a sense, you didn’t come away with the sense of
romantic passion. There wasn't much interpersonal charm to it.

GROSS: I know that your movies aren't your life. But there's a scene in "Annie
Hall" that I - it's just like so funny and I feel like I know these people.
It's the dinner scene where you're at dinner with Diane Keeton, Annie Hall's
family and it’s a much more kind of formal, you know quiet polite, everybody
eating slowly kind of setting. And you compare that in your mind with the
family dinners you were used to or people like shoveling down the food and
hollering at each other and everybody's aggravated and talking about who has
diabetes. Was dinner like that at home?

Mr. ALLEN: Dinner was not really like that at home. No, because you know I ate
by myself at you know 5:30, and my mother ate at 6:30 after she had made dinner
for my sister and myself, and my father got home at a quarter to nine, and he
would have a - so no, that stuff was made up and exaggerated for comic
purposes.

GROSS: How come you ate alone?

Mr. ALLEN: I ate alone because I liked to eat alone, because I like, you know,
I liked the solitude. I liked to, you know, eat and read a comic book or
something and...

GROSS: Your parents let you do that without accusing you of being antisocial
and turning your back on the family?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: They were so happy that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: ...that I wanted to eat alone, you know… No, because my, we always
lived with aunts and uncles and things. And my mother would have a better time
eating with her sister. Or, if my father got home in time and she was waiting
for him, with him. But you know, what am I going to talk about with my mother?
I was 10 years old or nine or 11 and out in the streets all day playing
stickball and you know we had nothing to talk about.

GROSS: Now you started in comedy by writing jokes and you were writing for an
older generation. Were you writing jokes that you couldn't imagine telling
yourself, but that you were writing for the comics who would be telling them?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. I couldn't imagine being in front of an audience. I wanted to
be a writer and I wanted to be again, alone in my room, not bothered by
anybody, not in front of an audience. And so I never saw myself performing.

GROSS: What was the pay like? Did they pay you per joke or per joke that they
used?

Mr. ALLEN: You know, the pay was a lot. I mean at the time you know when you
think that my father and mother both had to work their whole life. My father
drove a cab, and was a bartender, was a bookmaker, and was a, he ran poolroom.
My mother always worked for the flower market. And they had to combine their
salaries. And I started working - and you know, their combined salaries would
be you know maybe less than a hundred dollars a week combined. And I started
working and the, immediately I was making close to two hundred a week, just as
- I mean I was 17 years old and I was making that. And before long I was making
fifteen hundred dollars a week. And in those days, I mean this was the early
50s...

GROSS: That's a lot of money.

Mr. ALLEN: ...you know, the 50s, and it was more than my parents, put together,
would make in ages. So the show business salaries I always felt were way out of
whack with reality. Now, I haven't made a big protest over that over the years
you'll notice...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: ... but I always did feel that they were, you know, when you see
what a school teacher gets and what a some terrible comedian gets or some awful
singer gets, you know it's shocking.

GROSS: Did you say your father worked in a poolroom and he was a bookmaker?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. He, my father had a lot of jobs. He was always scuffling to
make a living. He sold jewelry, he was a waiter, he was a bartender, he was a
cab driver, he ran a poolroom, he was a bookmaker for a while...

GROSS: You must've met a lot of colorful characters through him, unless you
were not welcome in that world.

Mr. ALLEN: I was young to have met the colorful characters. But he was always
bringing home stolen merchandise, and you know, that was fenced to him for no
money at all. So he'd always be coming home with you know a fur coat for my
mother, or a typewriter, or a tape recorder, or this, you know, and picked this
up for two dollars and this up for 20 dollars. And you know, there was a lot of
that over the years, a lot of stuff bought, I remember that, you know, fence
junk.

GROSS: Were you supposed to keep that a secret, that it was fenced?

Mr. ALLEN: It was never expressed that way. It was, you know, it was that he
came home with a bargain and...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ALLEN: ...you know that - and you say my god, where did you get that you
know electric typewriter for a dollar and quarter?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: It's brand new.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And you know, but you never knew that. And my father was an
inveterate numbers player. There was not a day in his life that he didn’t play
the numbers. And whenever he won, you know, it was money for everybody. I mean
he just spread it around, you know, like Jackie Gleeson and "The Honeymooners."
I mean he just, everybody, you know it was such a pleasure if he came home and
had hit his number. You know, my sister and I and my mother all knew we were
going to be rewarded with an extravagant bonus.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen. His new movie, "Whatever Works," stars Larry
David. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen and his new movie is called "Whatever Works,"
and it stars Larry David. Several of your characters have had, to one degree or
another, a dose of hypochondria. And I'm thinking like, you’ve definitely
reached the age where people get real symptoms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And you know, as you get older, as we all know, there are certain
insults to the body. And I guess I'm wondering what it’s like for you to deal
with the body's aging process?

Mr. ALLEN: Well first off, let me say, you know you get insults to your body
all the time. I mean...

GROSS: True.

Mr. ALLEN: ... you're always walking on the abyss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And I was never a hypochondriac. I never have imagined that I get a
sickness or a disease. My problem was being an alarmist. That is, if I get
chapped lips I think it's you know brain cancer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: You know, so...

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. ALLEN: ...it's that I immediately go to the worst permutation possible. And
as I've gotten older, I so far, haven't really gotten any terrible problems
that I know of. I want to qualify that. So I haven't really experienced much
breakdown. I've lost some hearing and I have a hearing aide that I use. I don't
have to use it all the time because I haven't lost that much, but I'm much more
fun to be with if I have it on. But I haven't started to seriously breakdown
yet, and I'm hoping that it either never happens to me, that science always
keeps one step ahead of me, or that I just die in my sleep one evening, and
then that I never experience some terrible breakdown of my body.

GROSS: Now just one more question. And again, this is kind of personal, but
it's really more about your movies I think. After you married Soon-Yi, I think
a lot of people went back and re-watched "Manhattan" or thought about
"Manhattan" because it’s the story of an older man and a younger woman -
middle-aged man and a teenager. And the ending of that movie was always
ambiguous to me. I can never really tell whether you thought that the character
you played, when he finally after telling the Mariel Hemingway character to
leave and go on a trip to Europe to study, and that, you know, she'd be better
off doing that and leaving him. And then at the end he kind of begs her to
stay. Like, was he doing in your mind the right thing? I mean like what did you
think of that character, the part you played?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: I had no idea. You know Marshall Brickman and I wrote that together
and we tried to figure out some kind of ending for the picture. We would've
been happy to write any ending on a picture that would've worked - that they
stayed together, that they didn't stay together, that you couldn't tell. To me
it didn't matter. I mean I had no - I had no special feelings about that. We
were looking at the beginning of the movie for some rich areas to get comic
scenes in. And one of the areas that we - we came up with a few. And one of the
areas was the older guy and the younger girl. And, but that had no relation to
my life at the time and it was nothing there that was any particular interest
to me or to him. It was just a good laugh gimmick and a good romantic gimmick,
so I really don't know, you know, what happens at the end. I mean I remember
the ending, but I don’t you know I never knew and we never cared. We knew we
could end it that way and have a effective dramatic punch to the audience, and
we moved on.

GROSS: When people love somebody's art they become very interested in the
artist and that leads them to be interested in the artist's personal life or
what they can find out about it. And it’s like some of your fans felt just
upset, and in some ways even betrayed maybe, because of your marriage to Soon-
Yi. And they started reevaluating well, do see his films differently now? Do
you think it's fair or wrong to have, to evaluate an artist's work by what, by
decisions they’ve made or what you think of decisions they’ve made in their
personal life or do you think that that's...

Mr. ALLEN: I think you can evaluate an artist any way you choose to. You're
free to evaluate an artist in any way that you want to based on anything that
makes you happy.

GROSS: And do you care what people think of your personal life? Or is that just
irrelevant to you?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, you know, if I say I don’t care, it sounds so cold and
callous. But let me put it this way. How could you go through life, you know,
taking direction from the outside world? I mean, what kind of life would you
have, you know, if you were – if you made your decisions based on, you know,
the outside world and not what your inner dictates told you? You would have a
very inauthentic life.

GROSS: So you told us you didn’t eat with your family. Do you eat - when you
were growing up, that you ate alone because you liked to be alone with your
comic book at dinner…

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah.

GROSS: …and your parents preferred the company of adults. Do you eat with your
children now?

Mr. ALLEN: I eat with the children, yeah. But, you know, because they like our
company, you know, and, you know, the generations are different. I’m much
closer to my children than my parents were to me. You know, I’m more of a
friend to my children. My wife is more of a friend to my children than my
parents were. You know, when I grew up, the parents were much removed in the
hierarchy of, you know, the social ladder, the family ladder. And so, you know,
my parents were one thing and I was something else, and we had nothing in
common to talk about.

But, you know, my kids and I and my wife, you know, talk about the same
subjects. And, you know, we’re all friends. So, it’s a different tenor to the
relationship. But that’s something that has evolved in general over the years.
Younger parents are, you know, are different with their children than the older
generation parents of now. I’m an older parent, but I’m still a parent in a
younger generation than the generation that I grew up in, obviously. So, you
know, which - I do eat with my children. And we like it.

GROSS: One more question. Of all the movies that you’ve seen, what movie have
you seen the most times?

Mr. ALLEN: What movie have I seen the most times?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ALLEN: I guess I’ve seen - I have to name three movies that I’ve seen many,
many, many times. I’ve seen "The Seventh Seal" many, many times. I’ve seen "The
Bicycle Thief," many, many, many times. And I’ve seen "Shane," many, many, many
times, because those are three of my favorites. Now I have other favorites that
I like equally, but I haven’t seen them quite as much as I’ve seen these.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ALLEN: Okay. Thank you.

GROSS: Woody Allen’s new movie, "Whatever Works" stars Larry David. Here’s
Woody Allen in a scene toward the end of his 1979 movie, "Manhattan" in which
he played a comedy writer. He’s alone in his apartment lying on the couch,
dictating notes into a cassette machine.

(Soundbite of movie, "Manhattan")

Mr. ALLEN: (As Isaac Davis) An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan
who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for
themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying
problems about the universe. It’s - well, it has to be optimistic. All right,
why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain
things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. Like what? Okay. For me, oh, I would
say – what - Groucho Marx, to name one thing, and Willie Mays and the second
movement of the "Jupiter Symphony" and Louis Armstrong, recording of "Potato
Head Blues," Swedish movies, naturally, "Sentimental Education" by Flaubert,
Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pairs by Cezanne, the
crabs at Sam Woo’s - Tracy’s face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Coming up: Maureen Corrigan investigates what people were reading during
the Depression, and considers how that compares of what books a popular during
this economic crisis. This is FRESH AIR.
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Tracy Morgan On Becoming 'The New Black' [REBROADCAST]

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of television program)

Mr. TRACY MORGAN (Actor): Tina Fey and I had an agreement that if Barack Obama
won, I would speak for the show from now on.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MORGAN: Welcome to post-racial America. I’m the face of post-racial
America. Deal with it, Cate Blanchett.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest, Tracy Morgan, accepted the Golden Globe on behalf of "30 Rock"
this year in a typically unpredictable way. He’s earned his reputation as a
wildcard, and so has the character he plays on "30 Rock," Tracy Jordan. The
character was created for Morgan by Tina Fey, the creator and star of "30
Rock." She worked with Morgan on "Saturday Night Live," where he spent seven
years. On "30 Rock," Morgan plays the star of an NBC sketch comedy series who’s
always getting into trouble, saying and doing the wrong thing, clueless about
why it’s wrong. Tina Fey plays the head writer.

Part of what has given Tracy Morgan his reputation as a wildcard is his
behavior in interviews. On a couple of local morning TV shows, he took off his
shirt to show off his rounded belly. He exposes his belly on the cover of his
new memoir, too. Between the covers, Morgan exposes himself in a new way,
telling a story of growing up in what he describes as Ghetto, USA. The book is
called "I Am the New Black."

Let’s start with a clip from this season’s opener of "30 Rock." The head of the
network, played by Alec Baldwin, has made it clear that in this economic hard
time, the show has to reconnect with the real America, and he’s told Tracy that
he’s lost touch with his roots and need to reconnect with the common man. Back
in the dressing room, Tracy talks about this with the two members of his
entourage, Dot Com and Grizz.

(Soundbite of television program, "30 Rock")

Mr. MORGAN: (As Tracy Jordan) I blame you and Dot Com. You two have built a
protective shell around me like a hermit crab or mermaid booby, and now I’ve
lost touch with the common man.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. MORGAN: Who’s that?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Raleigh(ph)) This is Raleigh, the custodian.
You said you wanted an ordinary person to reconnect with.

Mr. MORGAN: (As Jordan) Oh hey, guy, come on in. So Raleigh, where you from?

Unidentified Man #1: (As Raleigh) Brooklyn.

Mr. MORGAN: (As Jordan) Right on, my brother. My dear friend Moby opened up a
tea house in Park Slope. Does he know you? Hey Raleigh, you ever lose your
remote control?

Unidentified Man #1: (As Raleigh) Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: (As Jordan) And do you wife start getting all made because the roof
won’t close, and the bed that’s in the shape of your face is getting rained on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: (As Jordan) I like you, Raleigh. Can I feel the rough skin on your
hands?

GROSS: That’s Tracy Morgan in a scene from the season premiere of "30 Rock."
Tracy Morgan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Does that scene connect with anything from
your life, that sense of having lost touch with your roots?

Mr. MORGAN: Absolutely not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: Absolutely not. It still rains on me when – Tracy Jordan and Tracy
Morgan are two different entities, okay? Tracy Morgan is not a part of Tracy
Jordan’s life. Tracy Jordan is a part of Tracy Morgan’s life. But that’s
television, and that’s a figment of someone’s imagination. You know, life
smacks Tracy Morgan in the face, and I don’t mean to talk in third party, but
no, it doesn’t stop raining when I come outside, no, absolutely not. I’m very
in touch.

GROSS: You’ve worked closely with Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live" and on "30
Rock." How did you start working together as – did you work together as a
collaborative team on "Saturday Night Live" before "30 Rock"?

Mr. MORGAN: No, on "Saturday Night Live", I never really wrote. You know, I
would just – I would let the writers cast me into the show. So my strength -
and I put all my energies into performance. I just couldn’t deal with the
rejection, you know, getting your sketches cut, and it was hard for me. So I
said you know what? I’m going to focus all my energies on performance. I’ll let
them cast me in stuff, and when they cast me in stuff, I’ll be the funniest
thing in it.

GROSS: Why did you decide to do that, to focus just on performance. Were you…?

Mr. MORGAN: Because it was a performance-driven show at the time. You had, me,
Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, those were performance – it was a performance-
driven cast. The writing was great, but it was really performance driven.

GROSS: It sounds from your memoir that it was a really frustrating time for you
when you were on "Saturday Night Live".

Mr. MORGAN: At times, but that’s for anybody. You know, being that I said it,
it just – everybody’s has – it’s really been blown out of proportion at that.

You know, there’s ups and downs of any job. If you worked at the post office,
there’s ups and downs. You have your good days, and you have your bad days. If
you’re a housewife, you have your good days, and you have your bad days. I
wasn’t miserable then. "Saturday Night Live" was the joy of my life. I didn’t
get along with everybody there, but who does? There’s sibling rivalries in all
of that, but people take things and blow them out of proportion.

I wrote this book, and there’s 198 pages, and then certain media want to take
the things that are said about certain cast members and turn it into "The Jerry
Springer Show."

GROSS: Okay, let’s talk about growing up.

Mr. MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: So you grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. Describe the
neighborhood.

Mr. MORGAN: Well, it was rough. It was Bed-Stuy, do or die. You know, it was
rough. It was deprivation, it was poverty, it was Ghetto, USA. It was what it
was, but there was love. There was a lot of love, you know, but then crack came
along, and guns came along, and you know, it became an epidemic in America.

GROSS: Your father fought in Vietnam, and you say he fought for, like, four or
five tours, and he came home addicted to heroin, and that kind of split up the
family because your mother didn’t want you around him when he was using.

Mr. MORGAN: Of course not.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MORGAN: Of course not. My mother gave – my mother loved my father. My
mother tried to help my father, but when you’re addicted to heroin, that’s a
very powerful addiction, and most people never survive it. And like many other
young men that went over and served in Vietnam, a lot of them came back
junkies.

GROSS: I know, but…

Mr. MORGAN: That’s how heroin and all of these things took place in the ‘70s.
It was a big boom on that. It was young kids over there just trying to get
through the night.

GROSS: When you were six or seven, and you know, your father was freshly home,
and you were trying to get to know him…

Mr. MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: …did you understand what it meant to have a habit? And here’s what I’m
even thinking, you know, like…

Mr. MORGAN: I was six years old.

GROSS: I know, and kids are so afraid of needles, you know, of getting, like…

Mr. MORGAN: I was six years old.

GROSS: …vaccinations and shots, and here your father is…

Mr. MORGAN: I knew my daddy was sleepy all the time. That’s all I knew.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MORGAN: But he was my daddy.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MORGAN: Kids don’t see fault like. Kids’ minds ain’t even that developed.

GROSS: Yeah, I’m also wondering, like, you write about how your father would
have night terrors from post-traumatic stress.

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, and that would make me cry because my daddy was scared, and I
knew that, and I was a baby, but I seen it.

GROSS: Yeah, but I figure that must have been really scary to see your father
scared like that.

Mr. MORGAN: Oh, you don’t know the half. This book is just the half. People are
really shocked about some of the things and revelations that are made in this
book, but you don’t even know the half. There are people still – I know people
going through this every day, you know? I know people going through this every
day.

My childhood, yeah, sure, it wasn’t a happy ending. I lost my daddy. And at
some point, I lost my mommy emotionally, but she had five kids.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you write about how you left your mother’s home in Brooklyn
to live in your father’s home in the Bronx when you were in high school.

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah. I thought it was because I wanted to play football, and she
didn’t want to let me.

GROSS: And now what do you think?

Mr. MORGAN: But I think it was bigger than that. Now that I look back on it
now, I think that I ran because if I would’ve stayed, I might have became a
statistic like some of my other friends.

GROSS: What…

Mr. MORGAN: I might have got caught up in the streets, and I might not be
sitting here talking to you. So I did what I thought was best for me, and I
ran, and I went to my father who put me in a high school with a football team
and said run, Tray. Have fun. And by the time I really got to know him, I was
still going through anger because I was so angry. I was like any other inner-
city child with a chip on his shoulder because his daddy and his mommy wasn’t
together.

GROSS: And I should say when you went to live with your father, he wasn’t using
anymore, right?

Mr. MORGAN: No, he had stopped maybe 10 years.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. I just wanted to make that clear.

Mr. MORGAN: But it was too late. Yeah, it was too late. He wasn’t using then.
My father was - he was down like four flat tires at that time, but I was angry.
He was always in my life. My father was always there, taught me how to – took
me fishing and all these things, but it’s not like having daddy there.

GROSS: You write that when you were in high school and living with your father,
your father sent you two psychiatrists because you were so angry all the time.

Mr. MORGAN: Me, I was.

GROSS: Did you understand then what was making you angry, and is your take on
it now different?

Mr. MORGAN: No, I didn’t. I was 16, 17 years old. I just knew I was mad, and I
might have been mad at him. I might have been mad at him because when I went to
school, I was around my peers. I made – I was the life of the party. I made
them laugh and everything, but when I went home, it would just be like I was
mad because now he’s trying to tell me, and I felt like I had grew up already.
By the time I was 11 years old, I was hanging out until 4, 5 o’clock in the
morning. Now with you, now you’re telling me I have to be in by 8 o’clock, and
I have to eat three square meals, and I have to study. What? It’s too late for
that.

GROSS: Do you think you’re still angry? Because you still sound a little bit
angry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: No, I’m not angry. I’m just passionate. I don’t see myself as
angry, although other people see that. I just see myself as a short, dumpy guy
with bad feet, and I’m passionate.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: I’m a grown man now. I’m doing well off.

GROSS: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: I really don’t have anything – and my kids are fine. You know, my
ex-wife is fine.

GROSS: Good, good.

Mr. MORGAN: But when I speak, I speak passionately. I do. It’s not anger. I
mean, that little 17-year-old boy, he’s grown up. He’s a man now. And when I
was angry, when I was younger, I was in a cocoon. Now I’m a beautiful, black
butterfly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Tracy Morgan, who now stars on
"30 Rock." You probably also know him from "Saturday Night Live," and he has a
memoir now, which is called "I Am the New Black."

So I just wanted to get back to your childhood a little bit. When your father
died of AIDS when you were in high school, you dropped out of high school, and
you needed money. So you say you started selling marijuana and then eventually
started selling crack.

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: But – so I’m wondering. Did you take Al Pacino’s advice from "Scarface,"
don’t get high on your own supply?

Mr. MORGAN: No, I never did drugs. My drug of choice was beer, was liquor. As
far as narcotics, no. I would smoke weed and drink beer like any other – like
Michael Phelps do that. But I never did no narcotics - never. My father had
died from that. So I already knew better. You know, I’m a very smart person. I
was able to see that. As a child, I was able to know that I wanted a better
life.

GROSS: You say that it was helpful to you as a comic to sell crack because of
all the characters that you met. What do you mean?

Mr. MORGAN: Well, it wasn’t helpful for me to sell crack, especially to my old
community, and it still bothers me today, but it’s something that I did. It was
survival. Now I’m living. Now I don’t have to do any of that stuff. I’m a grown
man now, but when I did, I wasn’t good at it. So I had my fledging attempt at
being a drug dealer.

GROSS: So, but tell me really, like, how did you feel when you were selling
crack, knowing that you were selling a drug that destroys lives.

Mr. MORGAN: I was a kid. I had no fear. I was crazy, and when you don’t have
fear, you’re crazy. I didn’t have a healthy dose of fear. I was like, everybody
else is doing it. I never thought I could get killed, or somebody could kill
me, and then friends started dying. Friends started going to jail. I know guys
that are doing years in the hundreds. I know people that never made it out of
our childhood. My best friend, who I used to sell crack with, got murdered one
day, murdered by somebody we went to junior high school with. And that was it
for me. I started doing comedy.

GROSS: After that?

Mr. MORGAN: Right after that. Because me and him used to be cooking the drugs
up, and he would say to me, yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy. You
should take your ass to the Apollo. And I was like no, man. And then, a week
later, he was murdered. And that for me, that was like my Vietnam. And I had my
survival guilt when I started to achieve success, why I made it out and some
guys didn’t, because it’s not for everybody. I just – I do what I do so that
some – I can hire some of my friends to work with me and for me, and I could
take care of my family.

GROSS: Okay, so…

Mr. MORGAN: I didn’t write this book to hurt anybody. I wrote – this is my
life. I’d rather tell my story than to have the E Hollywood channel do it.

GROSS: In reading your memoir, it seemed to me the most emotionally difficult
part of what you were writing was writing about leaving your mother. That when
you were in high school, you decided you didn’t want to live with her anymore,
you wanted to live with your father. And you just kind of left one day.

Mr. MORGAN: It was a terrible situation. It was a really terrible situation,
and it wasn’t my mother’s fault. Something just went off in me. I wanted better
for me. And I not only ran away, I came back a year later and got my little
brother and my little sister.

GROSS: And took them with you to your father’s house.

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, and the (unintelligible)…

GROSS: And he got custody. He got legal custody, which…

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, and that was really hard. That was the hardest day of my
life. And I heard my mother cry, and it just broke me down. And I think about
it now - I never meant to hurt my momma.

GROSS: In – you know, in the book, you describe how you – are you okay to keep
going?

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: In the book you describe how you and your mother never reconciled.

Mr. MORGAN: One day we will. Maybe one day, she’ll pick up this book.

GROSS: I figure she would.

Mr. MORGAN: Maybe she’ll read it. Maybe she’ll read it.

GROSS: Do you intend a part of it to be a way of saying to her let’s talk?

Mr. MORGAN: When you talk to someone, they can either argue with you and just
shut off and walk out of the room. When you talk to someone on the phone, they
can hang up on you. But when you write them a letter, they have to read that
letter. They just have to read that letter. Me, I forgive my mother, and I
moved on. That’s for my moving on. That’s for me. My mother has to forgive
herself. I understand, mommy. That’s all I’m saying is I understand. I
understand what the position you was in and why you did what you did. I love my
mother. My mother made sure, her stubbornness - she made sure we was going to
eat. She made sure we had Christmases. That was my mother. My father wasn’t
there for that.

GROSS: You know what’s going to be odd for people hearing this? A lot of people
say that when they see you being interviewed, that they never know, like,
what’s the real Tracy Morgan and what’s, like, part performance, and so people
are always used to seeing you being comically over the top as yourself on
television. I’m not talking about "30 Rock" or anything. I’m just talking
about, like, when you’re interviewed.

Mr. MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: And there’s that famous thing that’s all over YouTube, where you’re
interviewed by a local TV show…

Mr. MORGAN: Well, you’re the first person ever interviewed me in retrospect.

GROSS: Is that true?

Mr. MORGAN: Now you’re see the other side.

GROSS: Oh, okay.

Mr. MORGAN: Now you’re seeing the other side because you was interested.

GROSS: It just, like, completely – it’s, like, 180 degrees from the over-the-
top comic side. It’s like whoa. It’s like…

Mr. MORGAN: I love you for that, Terry. I love you for that, just caring, just
being interested. I love you just for that.

GROSS: All right.

Mr. MORGAN: You know? And I feel good. I feel good.

GROSS: Being that emotional.

Mr. MORGAN: It’s emotional. It’s emotional for me. It is, and I’ve got to be
honest with thyself. I’m funny. I still turn the funny on. The funnybuster’s
still sitting downstairs. Yeah, the funnybuster – I’ve got a whole truckload of
funny downstairs.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I just think people are going to be kind of stunned, like whoa, this is,
like, not what I was expecting. It’s like he’s got a tissue and…

Mr. MORGAN: Well, you think they’re going to say I had a meltdown on the air…

GROSS: No, no, but I…

Mr. MORGAN: People cry. People have emotion.

GROSS: No, I know. I know. I know.

Mr. MORGAN: I feel. Yeah, I feel.

GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan. His new memoir is called "I Am the New Black."
He stars on the NBC series "30 Rock." We’ll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan, the star of "30 Rock," who also spent seven
years on "Saturday Night Live." He’s written a new memoir called "I Am the New
Black." The book details Morgan’s difficult life growing up in what he calls
Ghetto, USA.

Morgan moved out of his mother’s house as a teenager to live with his father.
His father was a Vietnam veteran who started using heroin during the war and
came home an addict. That’s how he later got AIDS. Morgan was living with his
father when he was dying.

Mr. MORGAN: I came home one day and he was about 90 pounds.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. MORGAN: And he was sitting outside, and I don’t know how he found the
strength to climb down four flights of stairs. He had lost all his teeth. He
was just about on his way out, and I looked at him, I said, dad, why are you
sitting out here? And he couldn’t talk. He had lost that ability, and he just
looked at me, and he mumbled: I needed air. Take me upstairs.

And I picked him up in my arms, and I carried my father upstairs, and then as
we was going through the door, he cried. He looked at me, and I said, what’s
wrong, dad? He said: I remember when I carried you through the door when you
was a baby.

GROSS: You took care of your father at the end?

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah. I was there. I brought him food to the hospital, let him yell
at me, because I knew he was afraid. When you’re facing death, you can be
afraid. I don’t know nobody, anybody that walked to the gas chamber and was all
bold. That’s only for TV.

GROSS: What surprised you about how he faced death?

Mr. MORGAN: Huh?

GROSS: What surprised you about how he faced death?

Mr. MORGAN: He still made music.

GROSS: Oh, right. Your father was in a band, and you were his roadie for a
while.

Mr. MORGAN: Musician. He still made music.

GROSS: Oh, you know what? You know what I wanted to ask you to do?

Mr. MORGAN: I have it on an audiotape.

GROSS: Yeah, okay. I don’t know if you’d be willing to do this, but you mention
a couple of songs that he wrote.

Mr. MORGAN: "One by One"?

GROSS: Would you sing one or sing part of one?

Mr. MORGAN: (Singing) One by one, save your brother.

(Speaking) He made that. That was the hook, and then he also made another one
called "Obsession," and that was about my mother.

GROSS: How’d it go?

Mr. MORGAN: It was just "Obsession." I’m not – I don’t want to sing it because
right now, that’ll make me too emotional, but it was a song called "Obsession."
My father had remarried, but he was always obsessed with my mother, and he
wrote that, and those are the last two songs that he wrote. Then maybe three
weeks later, he passed on.

GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan. His new memoir is called "I Am the New Black."
A little later we’ll talk about his work on "Saturday Night Live." Here’s an
example of it. The guest host on this edition was Garth Brooks. At the time
he’d released an album by his rock-star alter-ego, Chris Gaines. In this
sketch, Brooks has just performed as Chris Gaines. He’s backstage, he’s taken
off his Chris Gaines moustache and wig and runs into Tracy Morgan. Tracy
doesn’t seem to understand that Garth Brooks and Chris Gaines are the same
person.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. MORGAN: Hey, what’s up? Great show so far, Garth.

Mr. GARTH BROOKS (Singer): Thanks, man. I’m sorry the pimp chat got cut.

Mr. MORGAN: Oh, don’t sweat it, man. I’ll do it next week. Man, I’m just going
to say goodnight tonight.

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, cool.

Mr. MORGAN: Hey man, I remember that concert you did in Central Park, man. It
was on HBO, man. I was clicking through the channels, and I saw it. It was
nice.

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, thanks, dude. It was fun, Don McLean, Billy Joel. It was cool.

Mr. MORGAN: Hey, why you didn’t have the O’Jays on? I mean, they legends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. Hey, maybe next time. Thanks, Tracy.

Mr. MORGAN: Hey, don’t shine me on. I’m talking about the O’Jays, baby. They
better than that guy you got this week.

Mr. BROOKS: Are you talking about Chris Gaines?

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, that lame-ass trick. He don’t show up at rehearsals all week.
Then he’s strutting around here in that crazy-ass suit. Man, who he think he
is?

Mr. BROOKS: Dude, have you heard him sing?

Mr. MORGAN: I don’t need to hear him sing to know I don’t like it. I just think
he’s bizarre. I mean, you’re a real dude. You be fixing your transmissions and
everything, man. That dude is fruit of cake(ph), man, sweet like bear meat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MORGAN: I’m telling you. If I was your road manager, man, I would drive
Chris Gaines like a hot plate, man. This is SNL, the 25th year. I mean, you
should have been with Barry White. You should(unintelligible). You get into a
fight, Barry White gonna back you up. Chris Gaines, the first time
(unintelligible) he’s gonna skate on you, man.

Mr. BROOKS: No, he’s not going to skate on me, man.

Mr. MORGAN: My man, he’s soft, man. The dude is chicken, and he fat, too.

Mr. BROOKS: What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: He’s fat. You can see his gut through that outfit, man. If you were
that big, they’d be calling you Girth Brooks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: You know what I’m saying? You’ve got this soup can with you
tonight, man. You should have booked Willie Nelson.

Mr. BROOKS: Hold it, you like Willie Nelson?

Mr. MORGAN: He smoke weed, right? That’s what I’m talking about, man.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Tracy Morgan and Garth Brooks on "Saturday Night Live." We’ll talk more
with Tracy Morgan in the second half of the show. I’m Terry Gross and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Tracy Morgan, the star of
the NBC series "30 Rock." His character was created for him by Tina Fey, who
created and stars in the show. They first worked together on "Saturday Night
Live," where Morgan spent seven years. Tracy Morgan has written a new memoir
called "I Am the New Black."

I want to get back to "Saturday Night Live," when you joined there.

Mr. MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: I'm going to quote something from the book. You say, I'm real life
ghetto and that's probably why they brought into "Saturday Night Live." But
"Saturday Night Live" wasn’t ready for that, not at first. I had my finger on
the pulse urban comedy. But when I brought my act to "Saturday Night Live,"
they just felt bad for me.

I want to play an excerpt of the sketch from "Saturday Night Live" that kind of
satirized the differences between you and other members of the staff. So this
is a sketch with Rachel Dratch and before - you’re co-hosting a talk show and
she describes it as a show inspired by actual conversations and interactions
between Rachel Dratch and Tracy Morgan. So here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

Ms. RACHEL DRATCH (Actress): (as Herself) Hello and welcome to the show. I'm
Rachel.

Mr. MORGAN: (as Himself) I'm Tracy.

Ms. DRATCH: And today, we'll be talking to a funny man and talk show host in
own right, Jon Stewart. But first, a segment called "Catching Up" where Tracy
and I catch up with what's going on in each other's lives. So Tracy, what'd you
do last night?

Mr. MORGAN: (as Tracy) Yeah, I just sit out with the home boys, you know what
I'm saying? Busting out a couple bottles of Cristal at the club, drove around
my baby blue Jaguar. Typical bad boy stuff.

Ms. DRATCH: (as Herself) Cool. Cool.

Mr. MORGAN: (as Tracy) What about you Dratch? What you did last night?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRATCH: (as Herself) I went to this Brazilian restaurant on the Upper West
Side with a couple Dartmouth friends. You should go. They have really good
flan.

Mr. MORGAN: (as Tracy) Yeah. I don’t know what that is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So that's Rachel Dratch and my guest Tracy Morgan on "Saturday Night
Live." So does that - was there like a culture gap similar to the one that we
just heard in that sketch between you and Rachel Dratch or you and other
members of the show?

Mr. MORGAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. MORGAN: Absolutely. We celebrated the differences and the places that we
came from. "Saturday Night Live" was like a university for funny. It was just
all different funnies there. And at that point, I realized that in order for me
to do it, I had to put my guards down and let the writers see my flaws - to
make fun of them. And I learned how to do it, and I - that was my process. That
became my process. Okay, what I'm doing it, may be too urban for this
mainstream audience so I let the young guys - the mainstream writers - do it.
But I'll give them the stuff.

GROSS: What do you mean you'll give them the stuff?

Mr. MORGAN: If I didn’t give you - if I didn’t give "30 Rock" writers stuff to
write about, I mean what - I'm a 40-year-old black man from the ghetto, you
know what I mean? What does a young writer know, a white writer know about
that?

GROSS: So what did you give them? So...

Mr. MORGAN: So it's all collaboration. I just started to collaborate and I
realized the gift of collaboration is more than the gift of competition.

GROSS: How did you start collaborating with Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live?"

Mr. MORGAN: Just being funny. Just being funny around her and she'll - Tina Fey
was basically the first one to go wait a minute, this dude is funny but you got
to let him be him. You can't be afraid. Yeah, he's edgy. He's from the ghetto.
But let's let him be him. And it worked.

GROSS: So what did she write for you that you thought really worked?

Mr. MORGAN: She wrote me in "The View."

GROSS: Oh. Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: She wrote me in "Judge Judy."

GROSS: As Star Jones?

Mr. MORGAN: All of these things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: Yes. Star Jones, she wrote all of that stuff.

GROSS: One of the characters you did on "Saturday Night Live" was Maya Angelou,
the poet and memoirist, and so I just want to play an excerpt of that sketch.
I

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