DATE September 23, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Simon and George Pelecanos discuss their HBO
series, "The Wire"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic from the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
The HBO drama series "The Wire," which is set in Baltimore and looks at the
respective activities and hierarchies of cops and criminals, has just begun
its third season. It's gotten lots of critical acclaim. The San Francisco
Chronicle calls it `the best show on television, period.' But it doesn't
enjoy the high profile of other HBO shows, like "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet
Under." David Simon, the creator of "The Wire," may be a little disappointed
by that, but he's not surprised. Every step of the way he's designed his show
to go against normal conventions of the genre.
Simon's unflinching, realistic approach to television has attracted some
respected novelists, including George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis
Lehane, whose enthusiasm for "The Wire" has led them to write for the show.
On today's FRESH AIR we'll talk to David Simon and George Pelecanos.
David Simon was a police reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He took a leave of
absence to write a book documenting a year in the life of the city's homicide
squad. That book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," was the basis
for the brilliant NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Streets." "The Wire" is
his third series. All three have been set and filmed in Baltimore.
Crime novelist George Pelecanos is the Washington, DC, counterpart to David
Simon. His books include "The Sweet Forever" and "Hard Revolution." All 12 of
his books are set there and based on lots of firsthand research and experience
about the streets and people of DC. He joined "The Wire" early, and now he's
on staff as writer and producer.
Let's start with a scene from the third-season premiere of "The Wire," which
HBO is showing through Saturday. Stringer Bell, the second-in-command
druglord played by Idris Elba, has been to business school and returns with
some new techniques for protecting the gang's turf and profits. He holds a
sort of business seminar to explain his ideas to his skeptical followers.
(Soundbite of "The Wire")
Unidentified Man #1: How we going to stand on some corner that's not ours?
Mr. IDRIS ELBA: (As Stringer Bell) Well, we got the best product, right? So
the chances are we going to be able to bring in the competition by offering to
re-up with us from our package. Follow me? Everybody making money sharing
the real estate ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2: Well, what if they don't cop our re-up, though?
Mr. ELBA: (As Stringer Bell) Well, I'm going to worry about that when it
happen. Until then, Mr. Charles, we're going to handle this (censored) like
businessmen. Sell the (censored) and make the profit ...(unintelligible)
later for that gangster (censored).
BIANCULLI: When you were planning "The Wire" in the beginning, David, and
trying to figure out what sort of a visual style you wanted it to have, what
sort of things did you reject, what sort of things were you adamant that you
wanted it to look like?
Mr. DAVID SIMON ("The Wire"): I only had one rule, and Bob Colesberry
incorporated it into what he did. It really was his template. I guess I
should start with that template. He didn't want it to reflect the jumpiness
of sort of televised cop shows. I thought "Homicide" broke real ground
visually with what they did, with 16mm handheld and, you know, the jump cuts
and everything. And I thought "NYPD Blue," with their sort of swish pans, you
know, and rack focus and all that--what they did created a whole sort of style
for the '90s. But it was stylistic, and it served stories that were heavily
character-based. And one of the things that I wanted "The Wire" to be was a
story told in its own time.
We were very conscious of the fact that our story moves more slowly than the
average episodic drama because we're not going to pay off at the end of the
hour. We're going to pay off at the end of 12. And so we know we're starting
in a very laconic poise, and we're going to go at our own speed, and we're
going to revel in detail. And if that's the case, then the camera work has to
reflect that. So we wanted more languid movements. We wanted the background
to show great detail. You know, you can watch these episodes two and three
times, you'll pick up stuff in the background every single time. It's made
for DVD viewing because we're actually thinking on two or three levels. We're
not just rushing background by. It's not just walk-by. There's usually
something going on in the scene visually.
And, similarly, we didn't want the camera to have any advanced knowledge of
the story. Since we're asking viewers to follow the story very carefully and
to pick up facts as they go along and never to have more facts than we're
allowing, it's sort of unfair to have the camera be fishing and be finding
things that only the camera would know is there. So a lot of the pans and the
camera moves that were sort of typical of, you know, the last generation of
cop shows really wouldn't work for "The Wire." You know, when the camera
moves somewhere, it's because a character looked over there or referenced
something in dialogue. There's no unmotivated camera movement, and that's
very different from what sort of--you know, everything has become so stylized
in American television. We were really going back to sort of a very basic
BIANCULLI: From the second season, when you were down on the harbor, what
were the visual opportunities, first of all, that you got that made "The Wire"
look so distinctive last year? And how hard was that to pull off?
Mr. SIMON: First of all, we knew we needed the corporation of the Port
Authority in Maryland, and they were very gracious about hosting us. But it
was something that Bob seized on right away. We had talked about the idea of
doing something that captured the working-class struggle that was going on
with unionized workers in Baltimore. And we talked about, early on, the GM
plant, Beth Steel, which was going bankrupt at the time. But there's
something about those cranes. They're so beautiful and Gothic. And just
looking at them, standing over the harbor, they imply work. They imply the
power of the city-state. They're like cathedrals. They're like steeples in
the center of the town. And when they're idle, it seems to be an editorial
comment. And when they're working, it seems to be an editorial comment.
And so it was wonderful to frame it around the port. I don't think anyone
spent any time on a port doing any storytelling since maybe "On The
Waterfront." And if you have the opportunity to watch that movie again, that
movie crackles. And that, of course, was a time of bulk cargo, so you didn't
even have all the equipment. There was just something about it that spoke to
work and lost opportunities and a way of being that was dying. And it's dying
in the neighborhood where I live. I mean, you know, more and more yuppies,
more and more $300,000 homes, but the old Polish stevedore families are moving
Mr. GEORGE PELECANOS ("The Wire"): There's also the sense last year that we
were making a visual record of the city that was going away. And, in fact, a
lot of the places that we filmed and the things that you see in that season,
they're going already.
BIANCULLI: This is the third season of "The Wire" now. Can you delineate the
differences between seasons one and two and just overall themes and what
you're trying to do this year with the show?
Mr. SIMON: OK. Season one began a theme that, I think, will continue
throughout the run of the show, which is the nature of institutions in modern
culture and how individuals are affected by the institutions that they serve
or are supposed to serve them. There was also an argument being made about
the efficacy of the drug war in the first season. The second season expanded
our facsimile of a post-industrial city of our make-believe Baltimore to
include the port and what's become of the working class and, basically, the
death of work in a country that no longer makes anything, no longer
manufactures anything or uses a port to ship it out and what's happened to
those unions and those workers and those Americans.
This next season we've returned to the theme of the drug war to do something
very different, which is to examine the nature of reform. And we've expanded
the city once again to include a political element. We wanted to look at the
idea of what reform is and what it isn't and who might genuinely be a reformer
and who might not and what the possibilities are for a culture that, I think,
is actually increasingly disenfranchised when it comes to democracy. So
there's a political element there. There's also a subtheme working, which is
there's a drug war that, I think, people will find a certain amount of
metaphor for what's happening in Iraq if they follow it carefully. So there's
sort of two things going on at once.
And I guess to give away a little bit more than that, there is--you know,
we're asking a question about: What would happen if one commander in one
precinct in one American city decided to surrender in the drug war? What
might actually happen?
BIANCULLI: Let me ask you a question not of you two as writers but you two as
producers. If you care so much about telling a realistic story, how hard is
it to cast realistically and then to film realistically?
Mr. SIMON: Well, we tend to like a lot of faces that you don't see on TV.
You know, I remember the first season of "Homicide," Tom said with some great
pride--and I think it was a little bit insulting to our actors--he said with
great pride that he thought he had the ugliest show on network television.
Mr. SIMON: And by standards, he was probably correct, although there are a
lot of very attractive people in that cast. I don't necessarily think our
show is ugly or not or--I think our show genuinely reflects a variety of
people, which is what you find on the streets of Baltimore. And I'm very
conscious of that. You know, if at some point everybody starts looking
rigorously beautiful, it throws me out of my belief that I'm actually writing
about a real place.
I have problems looking at those dailies. You know, I don't want anybody to
look torn down completely, but part of what made "The Corner" credible is not
just that we took some very attractive people, like, you know, Khandi
Alexander or Sean Nelson, and tore them down a little bit, especially, you
know, Khandi, to get those performances. But we surrounded them with a lot of
people that we cast in Baltimore, you know. And we'll go into a neighborhood
and we'll be shooting, and the SAG extras will show up and they'll look a
little bit too, you know, extralike; they'll look like SAG extras. And so
we'll send the ADs around to grab up people who are watching the filming, who
look much more credible because--You know what?--they live in Baltimore. They
actually live on those streets. And some of them actually, upon given the
opportunity, turn out to be pretty good actors.
So it's not to say that this isn't being done by professionals because it is.
I mean, we're--you know, the vast majority of our major roles are cast in the
usual fashion. But we're very conscious that we're trying to represent a
place that is real and idiosyncratic. And so I think we look for
idiosyncratic looks and performances. That's something that matters to us.
BIANCULLI: David Simon and George Pelecanos, writers and producers of the HBO
crime series "The Wire." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to our conversation with David Simon, creator of
"The Wire," and writer-producer George Pelecanos.
There's something that you put in your book--well, in "The Wire: Truth Be
Told" book, in your introduction, a story that I hadn't heard about the
audition tape by Dominic West, who plays McNulty.
Mr. SIMON: Oh, that was beautiful. We had trouble casting McNulty. We had a
lot of trouble casting him. It was--I mean, we were all over the map. `Do we
want to'--we wanted a guy who had a little bit of the rogue in him, but we
also wanted to have a guy who was--you know, he could play scenes
without--there was a lot that the character was not going to be able to
explain. He was going to have to play his cards close to the vest. He's got
to be a manipulative character. And at the same time--I mean, there was
just--it was--nobody was reading right for it.
And this tape comes over the transom from England. Dominic had put himself on
tape. He had his girlfriend hold the camera. As he worked on his accent and
as she tried to avoid her accent while reading him the lines, they were
basically cracking each other up. So we had to basically have her head out of
the room, and so there was nobody to read lines to him. He didn't have a
casting office. He didn't have a casting--if you can imagine this, it
was--McNulty reads a line, stares into the void, waits for, you know, the
appropriate amount of time for the line to come back to him, reacting to the
line you don't hear and then says his next line. So we watched the tape for
about 25 seconds, and then Colesberry and I fell on the floor laughing. And
then Clark Johnson, who was directing the pilot, came in, and he joined us on
the floor. And it was like, `What is this guy doing?' you know.
But, you know, after we stopped laughing, we took a look at what he was doing
and even reacting to lines that weren't there. And we realized, `This guy's a
BIANCULLI: Yeah. If he can do that, imagine...
Mr. SIMON: Yeah. `If he can pull this off, you know, God knows what he can
do in a room with another actor.'
Mr. SIMON: And so we had him come over from England. I guess within a couple
days we were reading him in New York under better circumstances.
BIANCULLI: George, if I can ask you a question about television that you were
watching in this genre--and I'll throw the same question to David
afterwards--it seems like you're both so clear on what you want "The Wire" to
be but, also, so clear on what you want it not to be. Can you talk about some
of the programs that are on television now or have been on recently in the
police or police procedural genre?
Mr. PELECANOS: I wouldn't name shows specifically. I mean, I'm definitely
not going to name "The District" on CBS. That's one show I'm not going to
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PELECANOS: I think it's the general idea of--you know, it seems like
every time you see, for example, you know, drug dealers in a cop show, they're
bad through and through, and they're in the show to elevate the cops, to make
the cops, you know, pure and so on. And it's just this notion of good and
evil and the quest for, you know, `I'm going to get that guy, even if I have
to throw my badge on my desk, Sarge.' You know, that kind of thing. There
have been some very good cop shows that were kind of, you know, milestones:
"Hill Street Blues, the early "NYPD Blue." I think these are fantastic shows.
But you gotta go back further.
When I was a kid, I used to watch a show like "The Twilight Zone," and you
knew right away when you were watching it that there was something going on
there in the writing. You know, you had no idea what--you know, how a TV show
worked, how it got up on screen. And I remember looking at--always waiting
for the credits to see who wrote the episode because it was real writers. It
was people that--you know, Serling came out of "Playhouse 90." You had people
like Richard Matheson writing. And I never understood why television didn't
go after novelists and playwrights to write these shows because we haven't been
trained in a certain way. We just try to, for the most part--I can't speak
for everybody, but we're just trying to, you know, leave something behind
that's worthwhile. And that's where this all about came. It's like, well, I
was really into the fact that David wanted to try this experiment because it's
something that I really wondered why it hadn't been done before.
BIANCULLI: George, just to follow up on "The District," because you are
famous for your Washington, DC, novels.
Mr. PELECANOS: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: So here's a series that's set in that district. So you're telling
me that when you watched it, you found something that may have bothered you in
terms of its verisimilitude?
Mr. PELECANOS: The idea that, you know, the District of Columbia needs a
"Great White Hope" to come in and clean up the city and take it away from, you
know, all those Negroes that are ruining everything there, you know, I mean,
it goes back to "Birth of a Nation," basically. And for them to make a show
like that in these--you know, at this point in our history is just--it's
BIANCULLI: And, David, your opinion of today's crime television?
Mr. SIMON: You know, if I had to--this is going to sound a little bit
pompous, but if I had to write a police procedural, I would just put my head
on a railroad track and wait for the train. Police procedure to me, having
covered it for years, it's basically what's in the toolbox, you know, to make
something seem real and to tell a story that is credible. It's not the be all
and end all. It's not what I care to write about. It's not what I think
matters to society or the culture as a whole. In truth, you know, how crimes
get solved is cops go out on the street and they talk to other people. That's
how crimes get solved. You know, the science of it is grandly overstated,
particularly in urban areas that don't have money, to create exacting police
It's not--you know, the finer points of law don't enter into the vast majority
of criminal prosecutions in this country. It is an assembly line. And what
I'm much more interested in than a crime story is the story of the city; is
what's happened to American cities at the millennium; is what's been--you
know, "The Wire's" about what's been left behind in America. It's not about
good guys or bad guys. It's not--I mean, we want it to be subversive to the
extent that you think you're watching a show about whether they're going to
catch the bad guy or not. By the time you get halfway through a season, you
start realizing the idea of a bad guy has less meaning than you thought it
did. And whether or not they catch him is not the point. The point is that
the system's dysfunctional.
And we're really making an argument. It's a really angry show about a policy
that I think has gone awry. And I'm somebody very sympathetic to good police
work, having written "Homicide." But the drug war has gone hideously awry.
It's become a war against the underclass in this country, and it doesn't work
on a practical level in places like Baltimore. So we're sort of interested in
having a political dialogue in this and a social and economic dialogue. And
that matters more to me whether or not they, you know, pluck the right fiber
from the carpet, and, you know, the detective gets to call the bad guy into
the room, you know, and bust him. I got no love for that. And so I sort
of--you know, anybody who's going to approach it as a crime story purely
probably shouldn't be writing for "The Wire," you know. I'm really sort of
hunting people who are using the genre of crime to say larger things.
BIANCULLI: All right. Well, David Simon, George Pelecanos, thanks for the
great television, thanks for the great conversation, thanks for being on FRESH
Mr. PELECANOS: Thank you.
Mr. SIMON: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: David Simon and George Pelecanos, writer-producers of HBO's "The
Wire." The third season started this week. The first season will be out on
DVD, finally, on October 12th.
Coming up, the music of Stephen Foster. I'm David Bianculli, and this is
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) If you walk through the garden, you'd better
watch your back. Well, I beg your pardon. Walk the straight and narrow
track. If you walk with Jesus, he'll save your soul. You gotta keep the
devil down in the hole. All the angels sing about Jesus' mighty sword, and
they'll shield you with their wings, keep you close to the Lord. Don't pay
heed to temptation for his hands are so cold. You gotta keep the devil way
down in the hole.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Way down in the hole. Way down in the hole. Way
down in the hole. Way down in the whole.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Coming up, Texas Hold 'Em and Omaha High-Low. We meet poker pro
Phil Gordon. He's the host of "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on Bravo. Also, the
music of Stephen Foster. A new album features contemporary musicians playing
songs written in the 19th century. And John Powers comments on the increasing
importance of political blogs.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New CD "Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.
In the last 15 years, venerated American songwriters from Woody Guthrie to
Cole Porter have been given makeovers by contemporary rock, pop, jazz and folk
performers. Now it's Stephen Foster's turn, with the collection "Beautiful
Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster." The CD includes songs written between
1848 and 1862 and performed by such varied musicians as John Prine, Mavis
Staples, Roger McGuinn and Yo-Yo Ma. Music critic Milo Miles has a review.
(Soundbite of "Camptown Races")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) The Camptown ladies sing this song, doo-dah,
doo-dah. The Camptown racetrack's five miles long, oh, de-doo-dah-day. The
long-tailed filly and the big black horse, doo-dah, doo-dah, they fly on the
track and they both cut across, oh, de-doo-dah-day. Going to run all night,
going to run all day. I bet my money on the bobtailed nag. Somebody bet on
the bay. I come down with my...
MILO MILES reporting:
When I was in grade school more than 40 years ago, Stephen Foster was the
really old-time American songwriter we learned about. Modern vernacular music
was unknown to us. Today it's nearly the reverse, though people invariably
pick up some Foster tunes: "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna," "Beautiful
Dreamer," maybe "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)" and usually "Jeanie with
the Light Brown Hair," though that didn't become popular until the 1940s,
nearly 80 years after Foster's death.
The switch in Foster's fortune is easily explained. Too many of his songs
were associated with blackface and minstrel singing. His flair for evoking
African-American intonation and language helped make him the most famous
songwriter in America before the Civil War. By the civil rights era, it was
(Soundbite of "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)")
Unidentified Man: Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away, that's where
my heart is turning ever. That's where the old folks stay. All up and down
this whole creation, sadly I roam, still longin' for the old plantation and
for the old folks at home.
MILES: So how does one celebrate Foster in modern times? First of all,
minstrel music was only part of what he wrote. In fact, he was less than
comfortable with his plantation tunes, more because they were lowbrow than
because of their racial implications. The "Beautiful Dreamer" collection
deftly highlights Foster's persistent themes of death and loneliness and
features outstanding obscurities like the drunkard's lament, "Comrades Fill No
Glass for Me." And Mavis Staples delivers a radiant version of Foster's
landmark social realism, "Hard Times Come Again No More."
(Soundbite of "Hard Times Come Again No More")
Ms. MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its
many tears while we all sup sorrow with the poor. There's a song that will
linger forever in our ears. Oh, hard times, come again no more. 'Tis the
MILES: Especially in the wider context of Foster's work, the minstrel songs
escaped the taint of history. With all hint of nostalgia or discomfort
stripped away, John Prine's "My Old Kentucky Home" becomes a valuable piece of
history. And the one creaky ethnic-humor tune, "Don't Bet Money on the
Shanghai," gets a properly ironic reading from BR5-49.
For those who want to learn more about the songwriter, his times and his
legacy, Ken Emerson's liner notes here are a good start. But I also must
recognize Emerson's sparkling biography, "Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the
Rise of American Popular Culture." Emerson is expert at helping you scrape
away the crust of what he calls `incessant repetition and parody' to hear
Foster as freshly as possible. Against the odds, Raul Malo works the same
transformation on the title track of "Beautiful Dreamer."
(Soundbite of "Beautiful Dreamer")
Mr. RAUL MALO: (Singing) Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me. Starlight and
dewdrops are waiting for thee. Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
lulled by the moonlight, have all passed away. Beautiful...
MILES: Foster's life was crumbling into alcoholic rubble when he wrote
"Beautiful Dreamer," less than two years before he died, almost broke, at 37.
Malo's reading underscores the desperation under the corny trapping. He lets
you detect the siren call of death and disillusion wrapped in the starlight
and dewdrop fantasy. There are shadows in Foster's American Dream. It's a
good time to re-explore them.
BIANCULLI: Milo Miles reviewed "Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen
Foster" on American Roots Publishing.
(Soundbite of "My Old Kentucky Home")
Mr. JOHN PRINE: (Singing) Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.
'Tis summer; the old folks are gay. Well, the corn top's ripe and the
meadow's in the bloom while the birds make music all the day. Weep no more,
my lady. Oh, weep no more today. We sing one song for my old Kentucky home,
for my old Kentucky home far away.
BIANCULLI: That's John Prine singing "My Old Kentucky Home."
Coming up, playing poker like a pro. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Phil Gordon discusses the show "Celebrity Poker
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
My next guest, Phil Gordon, could be considered a lucky man. He got into the
high-tech software industry at the right time and got out of it before the
high-tech crash. After retiring at age 25, he traveled the world then somehow
ended up at a poker table. This is where skill as much as luck takes over.
Gordon took fourth place in the 2001 World Series of Poker and has won more
than a million dollars in competitions since then. His good fortune at
getting in at the right time has extended to television, which started
televising poker in a more accessible way at about the same time Gordon
started winning seriously.
He's the expert poker analyst for the Bravo cable series "Celebrity Poker
Showdown," which he now co-hosts with comedian Dave Foley. His original
co-host was Kevin Pollak. Gordon remarks on the odds and the odd players as
celebrities such as Martin Sheen, Jeff Gordon and Ben Affleck play No-Limit
Texas Hold'em for charity. Let's hear some of the show. Phil Gordon and Dave
Foley watch as Mena Suvari, Rosario Dawson, Wanda Sykes and football player
Jerome Bettis play a hand.
(Soundbite of "Celebrity Poker Showdown")
ROBERT: Mena folds.
Mr. PHIL GORDON (Co-host, "Celebrity Poker Showdown"): All right. This would
be a very good time for Jerome to make a move. I'd like to see him go all in,
no matter what he has here. Here he goes, all in.
Mr. DAVE FOLEY (Co-host, "Celebrity Poker Showdown"): All in.
Mr. GORDON: All right. He really didn't have a choice.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
Mr. FOLEY: This could save his testicular integrity. Wanda's got a 2, 3
ROBERT: Jerome raises to 1,400, all in.
Unidentified Man: Reraise. Reraise.
Ms. WANDA SYKES: I'm gonna let you stick around a little while.
ROBERT: Wanda folds. Jerome wins.
Mr. GORDON: She lays it down and lets him take the pot.
Ms. SYKES: Come on, man. I knocked a brother out, they'd take away my NAACP
card right there.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
Ms. SYKES: It's like black-on-black crime, man. I can't do that.
BIANCULLI: I asked Phil Gordon which celebrities surprised him by actually
being good poker players.
Mr. GORDON: Probably the most surprising celebrity would be Mimi Rogers.
Mimi came on the show, and we were in the dressing room, and I get about two
hours, two and a half hours with the players before the show actually begins,
to answer their questions, to practice, to make sure that they understand the
mechanics of the game. And really, you know, to play a little practice
tournament, we sit down and I play some hands along with them. I play some
hands against them. And Mimi, who is an extremely intelligent woman, asked
probably the most detailed and insightful questions about poker that I'd ever
heard. And she caused me to think about the game in some different ways.
Since then, she's gone on to actually finish in the money at a World Poker
Tour event; she came in 26th place at a tournament in San Jose, California, in
March. And she has been playing quite a bit and really improving her game.
Mr. GORDON: But she was most surprising.
BIANCULLI: Has anybody else from the show that you know gone on to do that
well in a real tournament?
Mr. GORDON: Well, I mean, the best example is Ben Affleck, and I get a lot
of questions about Ben. Ben is a world-class poker player. He may not have
been a year ago, but he has taken lessons from some of the best poker players
in the world: Howard Lederer; a good friend of mine, Chris Ferguson; Annie
Duke. He and Annie Duke are very, very good friends. And he's taken the game
extremely seriously. About two months ago, he entered a $10,000 buy-in
tournament in Commerce Casino here in Los Angeles, and he won $360,000. He
is--Ben Affleck is the California state poker champion right now. So he is
not a person that you want to sit across the poker table from if you're
expecting to win money.
BIANCULLI: I enjoy the show not only for the poker, but for the humor,
because there's usually a couple of comics that are sprinkled among the table,
and then there's everything from country music stars to NASCAR drivers, people
that you wouldn't expect to naturally be funny but that are really funny in
this situation and use it as a weapon.
Mr. GORDON: Right, yeah.
BIANCULLI: So watching it from your analyst booth, who's really good at using
his or her own personality in a poker context?
Mr. GORDON: I think there are two that come to mind. David Cross has played
on our show twice; he's actually advanced the championship round in both of
his appearances on the show; one of the funniest guys in the world, and you
never know what's going to come out of his mouth. And I think people sitting
at the table there are just kind of waiting in anticipation for him to go
crazy at the table, and they might play a suboptimal game because of that.
The other one that really comes to mind is Wanda Sykes, and Wanda was at the
same table in, I think, our funniest show to date with Jerome Bettis. He's a
running back for the Steelers. And also Travis Tritt was at that table, a
country music star. And they were just so funny. I don't know. They--I
mean, such great chemistry at that table. Travis Tritt, you know, gave it
back to him, and poor Jerome Bettis--boy, I would not have wanted to be him in
that Pittsburgh Steeler locker room for opening--you know, for spring
training, because, you know, Wanda Sykes bluffed him out of a couple of really
big pots and--yeah, wow.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, that's the thing. You know...
Mr. GORDON: What a great game, though. That was so much fun for us.
BIANCULLI: I didn't think about that. When you're a celebrity player on
that, you don't know until you get home and see the tape what everybody else
Mr. GORDON: Right.
BIANCULLI: ...about how you were suckered out.
Mr. GORDON: That's right.
BIANCULLI: Well, for the FRESH AIR audience, if there are people who haven't
seen the show and haven't played poker, explain as concisely as you can
exactly what game it is everybody's playing, why that's the game that's being
played and what makes it so dramatic as you play it.
Mr. GORDON: Sure. The game that's played on nearly every poker broadcast,
including "Celebrity Poker Showdown," is No-Limit Texas Hold'em. This is a
poker game where each player at the table is dealt two cards face down, and
then there's a round of betting, and then there are three community cards
turned face up in the middle of the table, followed by another round of
betting; another card face up in the middle of the table--that's called the
turn card; another round of betting, and then the final community card in the
middle. So five cards in the middle, two cards in your hand. You make your
best five-card hand from any combination therein. So you can use two from
your hand and three from the board. You can use one from your hand, four from
the board or all five cards on the board if need be.
We call it no-limit--so that's Texas Hold'em. The no-limit comes from the
fact that at any point in the betting, you can bet as many chips as you have
in front of you. And that triggers the key phrase that's penetrated the
lexicon of America, `I'm all in,' which means you're betting all of your chips
in front of you.
And the reason that we play that game is because in 1979, the very first World
Series of Poker that happened in Las Vegas at Binion's Horseshoe Casino,
that's the game that they played. It's considered the most skillful game in
poker right now. And the tradition of having the World Series of Poker be
No-Limit Texas Hold'em, I think, has carried over. All the big events on the
World Poker Tour are no-limit. "Celebrity Poker Showdown's" no-limit. And
the World Series of Poker is still no-limit.
BIANCULLI: "Celebrity Poker Showdown" is Bravo's most popular show except for
"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," unless you've lapped then recently.
Mr. GORDON: We've lapped them.
BIANCULLI: You have lapped them? You are it?
Mr. GORDON: It is official.
BIANCULLI: OK. All right.
Mr. GORDON: Yes.
BIANCULLI: Well, congratulations. I wouldn't have bet against that one. How
did you get involved? 'Cause you--I mean, you didn't win the tournament in
2001; you came in fourth, and yet the guys who came--the men and women who
came in third, second and first aren't the co-host of this thing.
Mr. GORDON: Yeah. Well, fortunately, the guy that came in first only speaks
Spanish, so (laughs)--he's Carlos Mortensen; he's from Madrid, Spain. And we
cater to an English-speaking audience, mostly, so I had that going for me.
About--well, right after my performance in the World Series of Poker, the
World Poker Tour started that next year. I got very fortunate and won the
third event on the World Poker Tour, which, you know, kind of backed up my
previous results. About that same time, I was invited to a double-date
weekend in San Francisco, and the girl that I was dating, her best friend was
BIANCULLI: Oh, I thought this was some poker game I didn't know about.
Mr. GORDON: No.
BIANCULLI: OK. All right.
Mr. GORDON: No, no, no.
Mr. GORDON: Well, her best friend was dating Hank Azaria, and Hank Azaria,
as you know from "The Simpsons" and "Birdcage" and such, has a home game every
Sunday night at his house in Hollywood. And Matthew Perry plays and Michael
Vartan from "Alias" plays and Josh Malina from "The West Wing"--he plays Will
Bailey on "The West Wing"; he's also on "Sports Night" and a couple of other
BIANCULLI: So the Josh Malina that is one of the executive producers on your
show is the same Josh Malina who's on "The West Wing" now.
Mr. GORDON: Absolutely.
Mr. GORDON: Absolutely, the same guy, one of the nicest guys in the world,
by the way.
BIANCULLI: And it explains why so many "West Wing" players have been on, you
Mr. GORDON: There you go. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: ...your program. OK.
Mr. GORDON: So over the course of this weekend, you know, Hank said, you
know, `We've been--my friends Josh and Andy Newman'--another executive
producer--`have been tossing around this idea. I think you'd be perfect to
host it. Can I get you in touch with them?' I was like, `Oh, sure, you know,
no problem.' And you know, Josh took me to breakfast about a week later and
pitched the show, and my first reaction was, `Well, how much do I have to pay
to be the host of the show?' And they said, `No, no. That's not how it works
in TV. You know, we're actually going to pay you.' I said, `Well, all the
better.' So, you know, about nine months later, they had sold the show to
Bravo, and October of last year we were filming our very first episodes, and
there I was sitting behind a desk with my co-host, Kevin Pollak, and talking
about poker to a national audience. It was really kind of a crazy thing to
BIANCULLI: Now you took a big risk because, I mean, in college you were
studying computer science, right?
Mr. GORDON: Yes.
BIANCULLI: You were going to be a software engineer. What did you want to
Mr. GORDON: I was a software engineer.
BIANCULLI: OK. So what did you want to be--how did you envision yourself at
the age you are now, when it was 10 years ago? What did you think you'd be
Mr. GORDON: I probably would have thought I would still be in computer
software. But I got very, very lucky. I moved to California in 1991, and
Northern California, Silicon Valley area, just at the right time. I got
involved with a start-up company. I was the first employee for a high-tech
start-up company called Netsys Technologies. And, you know, over the course
of three and a half years, we built our business and built some software, very
esoteric software that was only useful for probably a hundred or 250 companies
in the world, but it was useful enough that Cisco Systems decided to buy us
And at age 26, I could retire, and I did so for a couple of years. I left
Silicon Valley, I left my job and I set off on a backpacking journey around
the world by myself. I visited 50 countries on six continents, just with a
backpack and hanging out, staying in youth hostels and seeing the world in a
very unique way. Only when I got done with that trip and moved back to the
United States did I really take up poker full-time as a profession, and I did
that mostly because it was the most fun thing that I could think to do.
BIANCULLI: Bill Maher, on his program a couple weeks ago--I don't know if you
heard his new rule regarding televised poker, but...
Mr. GORDON: No.
BIANCULLI: ...he said that basically anyone who watches card games on TV
either needs a life or needs a drinking problem.
Mr. GORDON: (Laughs)
BIANCULLI: And I wondered what your response was to that.
Mr. GORDON: Well, all I can tell Bill is that, you know, he obviously hasn't
played the game, because once you've played the game even once, you'll be
addicted and you'll want to play and you'll want to get better. So I hope to
see him at a table pretty soon. Maybe we'll get him to play on "Celebrity
Poker Showdown," change his mind.
BIANCULLI: Phil Gordon, thanks very much for coming on FRESH AIR.
Mr. GORDON: Thank you very much. It's really been a pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Phil Gordon. He's the expert poker analyst on the Bravo TV series
"Celebrity Cable Showdown."
Coming up, John Powers on the rise of political blogs. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Power of political blogs
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The last few weeks have been marked by the controversy surrounding documents
in the "60 Minutes" report on President George W. Bush's service in the Air
National Guard. But the enduring story, says critic at large John Powers, is
not the fact that documents by National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian
were forged, but who did the exposing.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
Earlier this week Dan Rather apologized for using bogus documents about
President Bush's National Guard Service. Some commentators treated this as
evidence of the decline of CBS, if not of all network news. Others viewed it
as an inglorious coda to the long saga of Gunga Din. The one network anchor
who's always yearned to be the conscious of America, like Walter Cronkite.
Of course, these days nobody gets to be Uncle Walter, except maybe Auntie
Oprah. We live in a fragmented culture where 10,000 media outlets bloom and
while Rathergate was humiliating for Rather, it was a glorious triumph for the
political blogs, which is short for Weblogs. It wasn't media titans who first
challenged the authenticity of the Killian documents. The first doubts came
from conservative blogs with colorful names like Free Republic and Little
Green Apples(ph). Their arguments rippled outward, forcing the big media
outlets to look again at evidence they would have otherwise ignored. The
night CBS admitted it had been duped, you could hear the high-fives echoing
through the blogosphere, and rightly so.
In the year since Matt Drudge first broke the Monica Lewinsky story, blogs
have sprouted like mushrooms in a rain forest. They've gone from being the
handiwork of bored, lonely or troubled souls, nearly all of them male, to a
new form of political expression. They are so focused, timely and linked to
real information that they make the Sunday morning pundits seem like stumps in
the petrified forest.
These days, many blogs are written by brainy, tireless, ideologically driven
people engaged in asymmetrical warfare with the established media outlets.
Lacking the resources of big news organizations, they seemingly get up each
morning bent on unearthing a biased headline, demonstrating that The New York
Times is too liberal or too right wing or tearing apart a news story that bugs
them. The best sites cast a hard-burning light on stories the official media
had ignored or mishandled. For instance, Trent Lott's fall from power was
directly due to bloggers such as Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan, and the
mainstream media know it. Today's Internet stars have huge followings among
those who make and cover the news. Bloggers like Daily Kos or InstaPundit are
vastly more powerful than they'd be if they merely wrote traditional columns
in daily papers. Like a fulcrum, what they write now moves other people's
Nowadays, I don't simply read the morning papers but check in with the blogs
to see what stories have the blogosphere humming. Of course, like most things
on the Internet, blogs range from the exhilarating to the depressing. For
every intelligent site, like Kausfiles or Atrios, there are dozens of Web
pages dedicated to the bloggeria of small-souled nitpicking and ideological
hatchet jobs, sometimes by political operatives pretending to be ordinary
citizens. Too many blogs simply blame George W. Bush or the liberals for
everything that goes wrong in America. Some shriek, `Gotcha,' at tiny factual
errors in articles written on short deadlines by people who actually have to
leave the house to do their work. You see, most bloggers are critics and
collators, not reporters. They don't so much dig up new information as pore
over the information others have dug up and then give Internet links so you
can read the things for yourself.
Because blogging is relatively new, there's still a lot of insecurity about
being taken seriously, and boringly enough, bloggers tend to boast about the
power of blogging as relentlessly as hip-hop stars praise their own sexual
prowess. But that's just a quibble. Although I myself work in print and am
far too lazy to have a blog of my own, I must say that American political
culture is far better for this explosion of lively new voices. The blog world
has changed the structure of authority in American journalism. It's subverted
the almost priestly power once claimed by the major newspapers and networks.
Just as Martha Stewart helped bring stylish design to the masses, so
cyberspace has democratized political commentary and media criticism. Now
anybody can make like George Will, Chris Matthews or Bill Moyers, and if
they're smart, funny or ideologically fervent enough, they will win readers
far more devoted to their blogs than they are to the nightly news or the daily
papers. And now and again, they may even get a famous anchorman who makes a
hundred times what they do say he's sorry in front of the whole world.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and author of the new book,
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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