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Writer John Ridley

Writer John Ridley wrote the screenplay for the new film Undercover Brother, which began life as a Web site animation. The film is an action comedy replete with 1970s fashions. Ridley has also just published a novel, A Conversation with the Mann, about a black comic in the civil rights era of the early 1960s.


Other segments from the episode on June 10, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 10, 2002: Interview with John Ridley; Review of the music “Songs in the Key of Z, Vol. 1: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music.”


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

Interview: John Ridley discusses the film and Internet versions
of "Undercover Brother," and his novel

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The black action films of the '70s are affectionately satirized in the new
film "Undercover Brother." The movie also takes on some of the preconceptions
that blacks and whites have of each other today. My guest John Ridley is one
of the film's screenwriters. The screenplay was adapted from his Web-based
animation series "Undercover Brother." Ridley also has a new novel about an
African-American comic in the '60s. We'll get to that a little later.

"Undercover Brother" stars Eddie Griffin as an action hero stuck in the '70s
with his gold Cadillac, leather suit, platform shoes and huge Afro. He teams
up with a group called The Brotherhood that is fighting a white villain known
as The Man. The Man has devised a plot to prevent a popular African-American
politician from becoming president. Here's Undercover Brother making his
first appearance at The Brotherhood after learning about this political

(Excerpt from "Undercover Brother")

Mr. EDDIE GRIFFIN: So the conspiracies we believed for all these years are
really true? The NBA really instituted the three-point shot to give white
boys a chance?

Unidentified Actor #1: Absolutely.

Mr. GRIFFIN: So the entertainment industry really is out to get Spike Lee?
Is that right?

Unidentified Actor #2: Come on, man. Even Cher got an Oscar. Cher!

Mr. GRIFFIN: And O.J. really didn't do it?

Unidentified Actor #3: Let's--let's just move on, shall we?

GROSS: Later in the film, Undercover Brother disguises himself as a
thoroughly assimilated preppy black man in order to get close to one of The
Man's most sinister operatives, a sexy young white woman known as white
she-devil. He gets very close with her, intimate in fact. When he next meets
with the members of The Brotherhood, he's almost unrecognizable. He's got
short hair, round tortoise-shell glasses, a sweater tied around his shoulders,
and he's drinking a guava/mango/broccoli smoothie. The Brotherhood is trying
to figure out why he looks and sounds so strange.

(Soundbite of "Undercover Brother")

Unidentified Actor #4: Listen, white girl or no white girl, I want to know,
where the hell have you been?

Mr. GRIFFIN: Not there, because that's where people who swear go. Thank you
very much.

Unidentified Actress: You sound like a 14-year-old white chick.

Mr. GRIFFIN: I don't think so, Sister Girl.

Unidentified Actress: It's Sistah Girl, dude.

Mr. GRIFFIN: Maybe on planet Ebonics, but where I come from, we like to
pronounce our E's and our R's. Thank you very much. So maybe you guys don't
like the new me, but I don't give a gosh darn. For all I care, you can all
get the bejeebies out of here. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be going.
"Frasier's" on.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: The film and the Internet versions of "Undercover Brother" intersected
in a funny way in the movie's casting. One edition of the Web "Undercover
Brother" series is about the conspiracy that's keeping black shows off of
television. It raises the question: Why have all the really good
African-American shows, with all the great black actors, gone off the air?
And why are the current black shows really broad and stereotypical, and often
embarrassments to African-Americans? One of the shows used as an example as
an embarrassment to African-Americans is "Malcolm & Eddie." One of the
stars of that show, Eddie Griffin, is the star of the movie version of
"Undercover Brother." I asked John Ridley how it came about that Griffin got
that role.

Mr. JOHN RIDLEY (Screenwriter, "Undercover Brother"): It's weird, because
there were a lot of comedians or black comedians or comedic actors who I
thought would be really good for the part, who I thought had a real edge to
them, were really frightened about doing the material as a movie because now,
as they move from being comedians on stage to being stars, you know, they
want to be accepted by a very broad audience. And even though they were kind
of edgy and might talk about some similar issues that we had in "Undercover
Brother" on stage, they thought, or at least the feeling that they
communicated was that `Oh, I don't want to play this character. You know,
audiences might not like me' or this and that, or `The material is a little
bit too edgy,' and I was really shocked and surprised, and what I really like
about Eddie was that he wasn't afraid of the material. He wasn't afraid of
the fact that we went after race relations in America, he wasn't afraid of
being political. He wasn't afraid of doing a movie that at least attempted to
raise the bar in terms of what's going on, just in comedy in general. I mean,
today teen comedies tend to be, you know, very scatological and have a lot of,
you know, humor that deals with bodily functions, and we don't have any of
that in "Undercover Brother."

And so immediately, I really admired Eddie for wanting to go after this role,
A, because I did make a joke about his TV show and, B, because he was not
afraid of the material. And then once he got the part, he really embraced it
and he really worked hard to put together a performance and not just be a
stand-up comedian being filmed, you know, away from a stage and on a set, but
to be a true comedic actor.

GROSS: When adapting "Undercover Brother" for a movie, did you change the
humor at all, thinking, `Well, it has to reach a much larger audience, so more
people have to get the jokes, so that the references in the jokes have to be

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, I didn't want to. I avoided it as much as humanly
possible. Any time you write a script, there are any number of changes that
take place on a conceptual level or because of budget or time constraints, but
for me, I felt like--and I do still feel like that in our society right now,
in terms of entertainment, there isn't a lot of entertainment that's very
pointed or very political. You know, I look at this film and, in some ways, I
think it's great that we're talking about race, that we're joking about race,
that we're saying it's not such a big deal, but you look back at, like, films,
say, like "Blazing Saddles" or television shows like "All in the Family,"
where race was always a topic, it was always joked about, it was frank and it
was satirical at the same time, and we just don't see that much anymore. And
I think in some ways, it's kind of disappointing. I think a lot of ways,
television and films, they really don't confront things that are political
issues in a humorous, insightful way. But I think a lot of times, it's better
to go at a topic with humor. It relaxes people and people can deal with it a
little bit better when it's not so serious.

GROSS: "Undercover Brother" is, in part, an homage to the black action films
of the '70s. Which were the ones that were big when you were coming of age?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, when I was coming of age, there were, I guess, two groups.
There were the really bad blaxploitation films, films like "Blacula" and
"Scream, Blacula, Scream!" I actually remember going to see "Scream, Blacula,
Scream!" with my dad because I just loved the title so much, especially--you
know, "Blacula" is such a wonderful title. It's so evocative. How can you
not enjoy that? But I also remember--and I remember especially seeing some
really quality black films like "Sounder," "Bingo Long and the Traveling

"The Man" I remember seeing, a very powerful film. My parents really wanted
me to see that. It was about the first black man to become president of the
United States of America. James Earl Jones was the star of it, and an
incredibly powerful film in terms of the issues that it dealt with. There was
a black man, and it was George Sanford Brown, who's this radical, ends up
shooting a politician in South Africa during apartheid. He escapes to the
United States and he asks James Earl Jones, the black president, for asylum,
and at the end of the film, James Earl Jones sends this black guy back to
South Africa to face his crimes. Now that's incredibly powerful for a
blaxploitation film, which is supposed to be a very strong statement about
blackness, not letting George Sanford Brown stay in the United States, but
saying, `You have to go back and face your crimes.' I thought that was an
incredible statement and a very brave one because it took a chance of perhaps
alienating its very audience, black audience, but saying, `You know what? We
have to do what's right. And no matter how much we're oppressed or people put
us down, we still have to stand up to a higher moral ground.' It was a great

GROSS: Now you grew up in a pretty middle-class suburban neighborhood.

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you enjoy all the action heroes that would be decked out in these
really wild--big hats and red suits and, you know, platform shoes and, you
know, fancy cars and...

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...selling drugs and being pimps and...

Mr. RIDLEY: You know, it's the pimp image. It's the pimps.

GROSS: ...all the stuff? Yeah.

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah. You know, my parents wouldn't let me go--I was too young
at the time, so my parents wouldn't let me go see movies like "Superfly" or
"Black Caesar" or films like that. So I wasn't really inundated with much of
the pimp image, actually. Later in life, you know, it's ironic, most of the
pimp images that I got were from mainstream television, you know, on "Starsky
and Hutch," they had Huggy Bear, and on "Baretta," they had a--I don't
remember the name of the character, but they had a pimp character. So it
actually was the mainstream media that introduced me to these images of black
culture, and they were very limited. They were saying black guys--you know,
they play pimps and they play street people and they play thugs. And I think,
you know, that--you know, later in life it became a lesson to me because a lot
of the images I had about black America having grown up in a predominantly
white suburb were what I got from television and they were very stereotypical

So I'm very careful in this day and age, when I write for television, write
for movies, to try to portray black characters in a balance as much as
possible. And it's amazing even today there are a lot of people in
Hollywood--and they're not bad people, they're not bigots or racists by any
means, but because all of us in Hollywood live in a very myopic society--go to
the same restaurants, live in the same gated communities--we have a very
narrow focus on what's going on in the rest of America, whether it's black
people or white people or young or old or thin or fat or what have you. So
I'm very careful to try to portray characters in a very broad-based fashion,
to try not just to have iconic or stereotypical images in the things that I

GROSS: Since your parents didn't want you to see "Superfly" and other movies
like that, did they become even more exciting when you did get to see them?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, you know, the problem is when I finally got to see these
movies--and some of them, you know, very much later in life, now that, you
know, DVD and video are big, and a lot of these movies are just now recently,
like "Coffee" and "Friday Foster" are just now coming out on video or on
DVD--I was actually kind of disappointed when I finally saw them because, you
know, you grow up hearing about these things and how cool "Superfly" is and
how cool all these characters are, and you finally see all these films in
their entirety and they just don't hold up in terms of their quality, in terms
of the writing and things like that, but I enjoy them because they are
just--they're such throwbacks and they're such kitsch. I mean, two of my
favorite blaxploitation films, "Black Belt Jones," with Jim Kelly, which is
really a hoot to watch--they have a big karate action fight scene at the end
in a car wash, where all these soapsuds are, and everybody's coming out of the
soapsuds, fighting each other, and I'm sure at the time, it seemed like a
really cool in scene--and then "Three the Hard Way," which is Jim Brown, Jim
Kelly and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson as these three tough black guys taking
on `the man' one more time, and they're just so much fun you cannot help but
enjoy these films.

GROSS: My guest is John Ridley. He co-wrote the screenplay for the new film
"Undercover Brother." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, John Ridley, co-wrote the screenplay for the new film
"Undercover Brother." It's based on an animated Web-based series that he
created. It satirizes black action films of the '70s and racial stereotypes
of today.

I think that you were, when you went to high school, one of the few
African-American students in the school.

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you have a sense of how the white students saw you as an
African-American, if you were typed as being any particular way, as being, you
know, like more hip or more...

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah, one way or the other.

GROSS: ...more one way or another, yeah, exactly.

Mr. RIDLEY: No, you know, the weird thing is, because I grew up in a small
community, I never really had any problems with how I was perceived as a black
person vs. the rest of the white kids. I got along very well with everybody.
Everyone treated me very well. A lot of people in the neighborhood--most of
the people, they knew our parents. I had two sisters that were also in school
with me. They knew that my father was a doctor; my mother was a teacher.

And because I lived in an environment where people really knew each other,
people didn't come at us with presuppositions or stereotypes about how we
should act or how anyone in my family should act. And I think that was sort
of the weird thing about growing up in a small town in Wisconsin; it was a
place where you might think there'd be a lot of bigotry, but there wasn't much
at all.

When I went to New York in the '80s--it was the time of, you know, Bernie
Goetz and Howard Beach--that's when I really got hit with a lot of racism, and
it was put very much in my face about how black people and white people really
thought about each other. And it was very strange, in a city that you would
think would be exceptionally cosmopolitan, was actually the reverse because
people don't really know each other very well, and they don't talk to each
other as much as perhaps they think they do. And therefore, they do carry
around a lot of baggage, as opposed to where I grew up, where people just knew
me as John Ridley and that was it.

GROSS: How did it change your behavior to know that people around you might
be suspicious of you merely because you were African-American? You know, when
you came from a place where you could be unself-conscious and...

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, it was...

GROSS: Well, unself-conscious about race, anyways. I'm sure there were
other--plenty of things you were self-conscious about.

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah, when you're a teen-ager in high school, there are plenty of
things to be self-conscious about.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly, exactly.

Mr. RIDLEY: Race was not one of them. It was very strange because, you know,
you would hear things about being black in America, about, you know, walking
into a store and having employees follow you around to make sure that you
weren't stealing things, or that when you try to hail a cab, a lot of
cabdrivers wouldn't stop for you. You hear these things, you think of them as
being stereotypical concepts in and of themselves about how people are
treated, and you don't think much about it.

And then I went to New York and I would find these things happening to me.
I'd find that if I went into a store, for example--I remember going into a
store once with another friend of mine who's a black guy, really big, tall
black guy, and he was buying, I think, some jewelry for his mom for her
birthday. And we went in the store, and one of the employees--it was a fairly
small kind of storefront jewelry store right off the street, and one of the
employees locked the door behind us and stood by the door so that we couldn't,
you know, grab some jewelry and go running out of the store. And it was very
weird. My friend pointed that out to me; he said, `Did you see what they did
when we were in there?'

And it was an education for me, because I'd heard about things like this and
you think, `Well, maybe they're isolated incidents, or we as black people
sometimes blow them out of proportion.' And I'm not saying, you know,
sometimes maybe we do, but it does happen far more often than I think a lot of
people would really believe themselves if it didn't happen to them.

GROSS: Now getting back to "Undercover Brother," because of the whole like
dual-identity, undercover nature of this and because it started off as a
cartoon, an animation on the Internet, I'm wondering if you were a big fan of
comic books when you were growing up.

Mr. RIDLEY: Oh, huge, huge fan of comic books. The first thing I can
remember reading as a kid--and not even reading, because I was so young I
couldn't read at the time--but they were comic books. My parents used to give
them to me. And just the visual images and the color and the fanciful nature
of comic books was such an indelible image in my mind as a child, I just loved
them. And even to this day, I still go to the comic book stores every
Wednesday. Wednesday is the day when new comics come out. And I grab them up
and I read them. I don't have as much time to read them as I used to, but I
still collect them and, you know, just have them around. So when I have a
free minute, I can just go through them. It's such a great world, it's such
an incredible world and just a fantastic world where anything can happen. And
even now, especially more so, comic books are aimed towards adults; the
writing is much more sophisticated, along with the art, and they're just a
great, fun, energetic read.

GROSS: You know, both Spider-Man and Undercover Brother have, like, dual
identities, secret identities. What appealed to you about the idea of a
secret identity?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, I think, you know, there's something great about the idea
of having a secret life, an other life. You know, I think all of us have our
secret lives. There are things that we do at home, things that we do in
private that we don't let other people know about. And there's something very
exciting about that, even on the small scale, about doing things outside of
the group consciousness of how we act and how we are perceived outside vs.
how we really feel about ourselves and what we do in private.

So you know, I don't think it's an accident that, you know, from the very
beginning, people like Superman, heroes like Superman or even The Shadow,
have these secret identities. And the early innovators in comic books were
really tapped into this idea of the Everyman walking around being treated one
way but--You know what?--if we could just go into a phone booth and strip off
our outer clothing and take off, say, our glasses, which are sort of this
great icon for the thing that makes us normal--you know, we can't even see
very well--but we take those glasses off, we take off our sort of dull
clothing, and we are these superpeople. That's one level of it. And just the
idea of having a secret from other people is such a fun and fantastic idea.
And I think all of us sort of gravitate towards that concept.

GROSS: It's funny, though; for some people, I think the secret identity is
the opposite of the superhero identity; that in public, you seem strong and OK
and aware of things and interesting, and in private, you're falling apart and
you feel weak. Don't you think that that's the secret identity for a lot of

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, you know, I think it's what the true self is. There's a
thing called the Batman-Superman dilemma, and this is something usually only
people who are really into comic books really know about. Superman is always
Superman, but he has to disguise himself as Clark Kent.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. RIDLEY: So he's always truly Superman, whereas Batman is actually always
Bruce Wayne. He's not a hero until he puts on his Superman--or I'm sorry, his
Batman outfit. And so it's a question of which is which?

GROSS: Which is the real identity and--right.

Mr. RIDLEY: Which is the real identity? Which is the false identity? And I
think that's a question--you know, if somebody is really strong in public and
they break down in private, which are they, truly? Are they always that
strong person, but they happen to break down occasionally in private? Or is
it someone who's really weak and who's really small on the inside, but when
they go out in public, they have to put on this front of being, `I am a strong
person. I am in control. Have no fear; I'm here to save the day'? And so
that's a question that each individual has to ask themselves: `What am I
really? Am I a weak person presenting myself as a strong person, or am I a
strong person but occasionally I have to break down in private?' That's for
other people to decide on their own.

GROSS: And which is Undercover Brother?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, you know what...

GROSS: What's his real nature and what's his assumed nature?

Mr. RIDLEY: You know, that's an absolutely--that's a great question. I
hadn't really thought about it, but as I look at what Undercover Brother is
and what Undercover is all about--and certainly there's an arc in the
film--what Undercover Brother really says is that you just have to be true to
yourself. There is a line in the movie where actually Sistah Girl, she says
to Undercover Brother, `You know, I don't care about--I don't judge people on
how they dress or what music they listen to. What I really care about is
somebody being true to themselves. So if you're going to act this way or that
way, that's fine, but just make sure you're doing it for your own reasons.'
And I think Undercover Brother--he is, more than anything, just a guy who's
into his own funky self. And as long as he stays true to his own funky self,
then everything is fine.

GROSS: John Ridley. He co-wrote the screenplay for the new film "Undercover
Brother." It's based on his Web-based animated series of the same name, which
you can find at We'll talk about his new novel in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)")

PARLIAMENT: (Singing) You've got a real type of thing going down, gettin'
down. There's a whole lot of rhythm going 'round. You've got a real type of
thing going down, gettin' down. There's a whole lot of rhythm going 'round.
Ow, we want the funk. Give up the funk. Ow, we need the funk. We gotta have
that funk. Ow, we want the funk. Give up the funk. Ow, we need the funk.
We gotta have that funk. La, la, la, la, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo,
owww! La, la, la, la, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, owww! You've got a
real type of thing going down, gettin' down. There's a whole lot of rhythm
going 'round. You've got a real type of thing going down, gettin' down.
There's a whole lot of rhythm going 'round. Ow, we want the funk. Give up
the funk. Ow, we need the funk. We gotta have that funk. Ow, we want the
funk. Give up the funk. Ow, we need the funk. We gotta have that funk. La,
la, la, la, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, owww! La, la, la, la, doo,
doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, owww!

(Funding credits)

GROSS: Coming up, John Ridley talks about his new novel "A Conversation with
the Mann." It's about an African-American comic in the '60s who becomes the
opening act for the Rat Pack. And music critic Milo Miles reviews a new
compilation of outsider music.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with screenwriter and
novelist John Ridley. His movies include "Undercover Brother" and "Three
Kings." He's been a producer of the TV series "Third Watch," and wrote for
the sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

Ridley started his career as a stand-up comic. Now he has a new novel about
an African-American comic trying to make it in the '60s during the civil
rights movement. He opens for the Rat Pack in Vegas, and becomes the first
black comic on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The comic is named Jackie Mann, and
the novel is called "A Conversation with the Mann."

John Ridley, tell us a little bit about the character--a little bit more about
the character of Jackie Mann.

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, Jackie Mann is a guy who's really in search of self. He
lives during the--he's born in the 1930s during the Depression, and has his
rise to what prominence he has in the middle 1950s. And Jackie is a guy who
doesn't want to be treated as most black people are treated at that time. And
he gets in his head that, you know, black people who are celebrities, who are
athletes are much more accepted by white society. He sees them on television,
he sees them at sporting events, he sees white people around them and then
near them, as he likes to put it, `within touching distance of each other,'
which is sort of the highest level of acceptance in his mind for black

And so he sets out on this journey. He says, at the very beginning of this
book, `I just want to be famous. I want to be famous so that I can be
accepted.' But his quest for frame ends up chipping away at himself, at what
he is, at how he thinks about himself, at how he's perceived by people who are
close to him, his friends and his family. And the question becomes: What's
more important: to be accepted by the community at large, but have no
self-esteem, or is it better to feel good about yourself, to believe in
yourself, but have to live a life of struggle because other people look down
on the choices that you make in life? And that's Jackie's quest.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to do a reading from the early part of the book,
and this is when the comic, Jackie Mann, is talking about the early days of
Vegas when he's performing there.

Mr. RIDLEY: (Reading) `It was 1959, and the only difference between Las
Vegas, Nevada, and Birmingham, Alabama, was that down South they posted signs
telling a black man where he couldn't go and what he couldn't do. "White's
only. Coloreds not allowed." In Vegas, you had to figure that out on your
own. You figured it out quick style. Stay off the strip. Stay in the
Westside. Stay the hell away from their casinos. It didn't matter how well
you did in the showroom. It didn't matter how much the audience laughed or
clapped or how many bows you took. Out there, it was still 1959, and out
there blacks weren't welcome. Not to stay overnight, not to eat, not to

`More than anything in the world, I wanted to gamble. Not for the jazz of
laying a bet, or the sake of waging money. What I wanted was to stand at a
table with all those people, suited men, ladies in their best dresses, living
high and living fast and living cocktail society. I wanted to see them do a
Red Sea part as I made my way to the roulette table and listen to all their
star-struck bits. "Great job tonight, Jackie." "Heck of a show, Jackie.
Don't know when I cracked up as much." "Would you mind saying hello to the
Mrs., Jackie? She's such a big fan of yours. It would mean so much." I
wanted them to fawn and gush and throw me their love, same as they threw at me
when I was performing, when I was standing three feet above them. I wanted
them to accept me. Accept me? They couldn't even see me.

`I got paid nearly a grand a week. I got pulled back on stage to do more time
by the biggest stars alive. I got standings O's. And when it was over, I got
sent out the back door. You know what went out the back door? Trash went out
the back. Stinking garbage and rotting food and black comics got sent
straight to the alley, never mind how well they'd just done in the showroom.'

GROSS: That's John Ridley, reading from his new novel "A Conversation with
the Mann," about a fictional stand-up comic named Jackie Mann.

You must have heard great stories about the early days of Vegas, and
particularly interesting what it was like for African-American comics then
when the place was still pretty segregated.

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah. It was amazing, because in Vegas during its early days, it
became such a mecca for live stage entertainment. I mean, everybody went
there from the biggest acts to the wildest acts, like Louis Prima. Even Noel
Coward did an amazing run at The Desert Inn.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIDLEY: I mean, he was this very genteel, very sophisticated playwright
who just, I mean, did incredible box office there. So everybody played there.
And certainly, the biggest black stars--Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey was there,
Harry Belafonte, but they could not stay in the casinos. There was a part of
town called Westside. It was just a very rundown part of Vegas where all the
black entertainers had to go and stay at a boarding house that was really kind
of a rundown boarding down. And not only was it rundown, but the woman who
ran it actually charged the black entertainers more than they would have had
to pay if they could have stayed on the strip. So you even had black people
back then taking advantage of the segregation.

But there was one story--I think it was Nat King Cole, who went out--was
actually allowed to stay in a casino at one point, but was not allowed to
fraternize with a lot of the white patrons there. And one day he just said,
`You know, the heck with it. I'm going swimming in the swimming pool.' He
jumped in the swimming pool. You know, in his mind he said, `You know, I'm
integrating the pool. I don't care what anybody says.' And after that, the
white patrons--they complained and they had to drain the entire pool. Took
all the water out of the pool, after Nat King Cole went in it, and filled it
up again with water because the whites who were staying at the casinos back at
this time did not want to go into a pool--did not want to share the water with
a black man.

GROSS: Who'd you hear the story from?

Mr. RIDLEY: It was documented in a couple of books I read about the Rat Pack,
because when Frank Sinatra started performing at the casinos, he it or not,
Frank Sinatra was incredibly intolerant of racists. He could not stand racism
and bigotry, even though this is an Italian guy who hung out with a lot of the
mob, who are notorious for looking down on black people. Frank could not
stand racism whatsoever. I mean, he started staying at the casinos, started
doing the Rat Pack shows with Sammy Davis Jr. He insisted, `Sammy can stay in
the casinos with me. He's going to be treated just like any other performer.'
Frank Sinatra, in his day, was the biggest entertainer in show business, and
Frank (technical difficulties) a lot of black entertainers who were good
friends with Frank Sinatra started being treated just like a lot of the white
entertainers. And believe it or not, Frank Sinatra's credited with breaking
down a lot of the racial barriers in Las Vegas.

GROSS: It must have been interesting for you to write about this era when
comics were aspiring to, you know, play these big nightclubs, like The
Copa, and, you know, there were clubs in the East Coast and the West Coast and
Florida that were these big, glamorous places. I mean, now if you're a comic,
you're likely to spend years on the comedy club circuit. But, you know, there
was a sense of glamour then. Are you sorry at all that you missed that, or do
you not feel like you would have fit into that kind of glamour scene anyways?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, it's very weird because I certainly miss--I feel like I
missed out on something because you read about these places, you hear stories
about it. You hear other entertainers talk about this age where, you know,
men and women--they actually got dressed up. They went out. It was a big
night for them. It wasn't just, `Oh, I'm going to put on blue jeans and a
sweater and go to a club,' or something. It was a big night, you know, for
parents--for adults to get away from their kids for awhile, to have a really
good meal, to have a couple of cocktails and sit back and either listen to a
huge comic, a very famous comic, or someone like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin,
or to see Martin and Lewis on stage.

And we look back--or certainly, I look back on that time as being a wonderful
time. But at the same time, you know, certainly if I was a black guy back
then, you know, I couldn't get into these clubs. I wouldn't be seated at
these clubs. There was no way I could go in and see this entertainment no
matter how badly I wanted to.

GROSS: Now Jackie Mann is a comic who's, through most of the book, moderately
successful--or, you know, pretty successful really, but he's still mostly an
opening act. He hasn't found his voice during most of the book. He's funny,
but he's funny in a way that all the other comics are funny. And I hope I'm
not giving away too much here, that it's not until he really finds his voice
as an African-American, being different from the other white comics, that he
really establishes who he is as an artist. How did you imagine his material
during both parts of the book?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, one of the things I really wanted to talk about with Jackie
Mann--and I wanted to make this a very all-encompassing story about a time and
a place, not just about race relations, but the changes that were going on in
America and the changes that were going on in entertainment. And there was a
divide in that period of time between the majority of comics who'd come out of
the vaudeville era who were just telling very generic jokes about, you know,
mother-in-laws or their wives or things like that, and the birth of a new kind
of comic who was a social commentator, someone who was talking about what was
really going on in the world, people like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl; people
who had a particular point of view.

And for Jackie, it's about making a choice between being just a very
know-nothing, say-nothing comic; a guy who's funny, a guy who has a
personality, who can get over it because he's telling the audiences exactly
what they want to hear, or taking another path and saying things that are very
sharp, very pointed that only a guy like Jackie Mann--a guy who grew up black
in America, a guy who grew up in Harlem, a guy who grew up being slightly
oppressed or, actually, very oppressed in his day and age who has a particular
point of view--saying things that nobody else is saying and having a voice,
but rising above the din, rising about the sort of dull noise that's out there
and really taking a stand in terms of how he thinks and how he feels.

But is that going to hinder his growth as a comedian? Because a lot of people
may be turned off by what he's saying, people in power, guys like Ed Sullivan.
It's a really difficult choice, but that's part of the struggle that Jackie
goes through of what he is and what he stands for and what he's going to say.

GROSS: My guest is John Ridley. He has a new novel called "A Conversation
with the Mann." He also wrote the screenplay for the new film "Undercover

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Keep It Comin' Love")

K.C.: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, John Ridley, co-wrote the screenplay for the new action
comedy "Undercover Brother." He also has a new novel called "A Conversation
with the Mann." It's the story of an African-American comic trying to make it
in the '60s.

Your new novel is about what this comic faces as an African-American in show
business. You were a stand-up comic in the early part of your career before
you became a writer.

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you think that the issues for you are any different as a black
comic than the issues for your counterparts who were white?

Mr. RIDLEY: No, in some ways I don't think they were. I think there was
still a difference between comics who had a particular point of view, who were
very pointed, who were social commentaries, and the comedians who were just
commentating on very generalistic things. Sort of..

GROSS: Airplane food.

Mr. RIDLEY: Airplane food, you know, TV commercials. What we used to call
them were the `Have you ever noticed?' comics, because they would always start
a joke, `Have you ever noticed on TV commercials people are always saying this
kind of thing?'

And comedy, unfortunately, when it became very explosive, when there was the
big comedy boom in the early 1980s, there was so many people who just said,
`Hey, you know what? I'm kind of funny, you know. I've been funny at office
Christmas parties. Let me try it being a comedian.' And it really diluted
the mix. And you would go to comedy clubs in strip malls--you know, I mean,
literally in malls on corners in suburbs, and they would have comedy clubs
there. And they just had people who became headliners, became the main focus
of the show, the person that most people went to pay to see, who hadn't been
comedians for a long time, who stole a lot of their jokes from, you know, what
Leno or Letterman might have been doing the night before on television, and
comedy just really got watered down.

And I think that was more of a problem during the era that I was doing comedy,
because we already had guys like, you know, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy,
and Chris Rock was out there. They're doing some very pointed comedy, but, by
and large, comedians, I think, weren't really saying anything, didn't have a
point of view. And that's what people were seeing and that's what they
started expecting was just sort of the ha-ha comedians.

GROSS: Did you find your point of view as a comic?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, ironically, I think I found my point of view as a comic,
but by the time I found it, I was already a writer and I started writing. I
was writing on television and I had started writing my first few novels. And
I found out that I could really use my voice more effectively in longer
formats. And I was more free to write, especially writing the novels. And I
became less interested in doing comedy. In some ways, I actually found the
audience getting in my way, because there were things I wanted to say that
didn't necessarily have a punch line to them; didn't necessarily have a joke
at the end. But when you're a comedian, you always have to end with a joke,
otherwise you're just a guy standing on stage ranting. And the guys who book
you in the clubs, they're not going to pay you to stand there and rant. They
want to hear jokes. So once I found my voice, I found that I has outgrown
stand-up comedy, in an essence.

GROSS: What would you say race relations are like now in Hollywood for movies
and TV?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, I think in terms of myself, someone who's working behind
the camera, somebody who develops stories and projects for the studios, I
think race relations are great. I had a terrific development season this
year. I was working on three different pilots for two different networks.
Both those shows featured a lot of minority talent in front of the camera. In
fact, we're very heavily populated with Asian-American talent, which you don't
see a lot of. I had no problems with the studio, with the networks, in terms
of development, in terms of how I put the show together, what the story lines
were like, in terms of the casting.

I think people in Hollywood are incredibly open-minded in terms of race. And
I think we're myopic in terms of how we look at the world completely. You
know, we think everything--all the actors need to be young and beautiful. And
if you're 35 on television shows now--the elder statespersons on shows tend to
be, like, 35-year-olds. You know, that's our version of being full-on adults.

But I think in terms of the real power structure, when you look at the entire
media corporations that really do run the show, I think they still have very
narrow focus in terms of what they want to sell to the world.

GROSS: This must be an interesting time to be writing for television. I'm
thinking, in part, that there's a lot of pressure now on the networks to hire
more African-American writers so that there's more kind of truthful, accurate
storytelling in sitcoms. And there's been a lot of pressure from the black
community on TV to make sure that, that happens. So as a black writer
working, in part, in television, how's that affecting you? And is that--are
you enjoying having--you know, being black at a time when there is that
pressure for more inclusion, or does that kind of make things a little odd for
you, as well?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, I think the real problem is--yes, you're absolutely
correct. There is a lot of outside pressure to change the structure behind
the camera, to get more people of color working behind the camera. I think,
unfortunately, the people who are raising these issues are actually going
about it the wrong way, because they're attacking the networks and the studios
and, technically, the networks and studios do not hire the writing staffs that
populate the television shows. It's actually other writers. It's the people
who are called show runners, the people who are the executive producers of
television shows, the writer/producers.

It's not hard to find good writers of color or different gender or different
age groups if you look for them. There are so many writers out there. It's
sometimes hard to get scripts from people who might be good, but don't have
agents, who are not well-represented by their agents. You know, a lot of
times agents--they don't think outside of the box, either. Their job is to
get their writers shows, to get them work. And if somebody is black and they
could get on a show that--maybe on UPN, because it's a show that's targeted
towards a minority audience, they may think, `Well, let me just put this
writer on this show because I know I can get them a job, but I might not be
able to get them a job on "Frasier."' So maybe they don't send that script to
a writer who's an executive producer at "Frasier." So there is an executive
producer who may be willing to hire a black writer for a show which could be
called a white show. And the fact of the matter is in Hollywood, we do
segregate our shows. We have white shows, we have black shows, and that's the
way we talk about them. And so unless that agent gets their script to a show
runner on "Frasier," there's a black writer who may not get a job.

It's very important outside the studios, outside of the networks, these
individuals or these groups or organizations, that are picking on the networks
and studios--they have to understand that you have to go other places and
admonish other people--the writer/producers, the agents--and make sure that
they get scripts out so that diversity can grow from a more organic place.

GROSS: Well, John Ridley, I really want to thank you for talking with us.

Mr. RIDLEY: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: John Ridley is the author of the new novel "A Conversation with the
Mann." He also co-wrote the screenplay for the new action comedy "Undercover

Coming up, music critic Milo Miles on a new collection of outsider music.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Unconventional outsider music does not add up to much

We've come to think of outsider art as embracing the self-taught, the mentally
unstable and the religious visionary. Now there is outsider music. Music
critic Milo Miles says this cluster of unconventional sounds doesn't add up to

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: OK, Aunt Jemima, just roll me onto the stage in this trash

(Singing) I'm standing in a trash can thinking about you as the neighbor's cat
goes by. I swallowed a horse fly. Happy as I am stepping on the can.
Dressed like a robe. Blow my nose on a catalog. Drinking a Dr Pepper. I'm
standing in a trash can thinking about you

MILO MILES reporting:

It's back. Kitsch cool lives again, this time in the form of outsider music.
Outsider music is the third part of what I call the kitsch trilogy. The first
part happened nearly 10 years ago with the revival of so-called lounge or
space age bachelor pad music. Then about four years later came the fad for
swing music done by saxophone-blowing youngsters in '40s drag. Now we have
outsider music. In the recent music issue of The New York Times, an article
by Dwight Garner codified the whole phenomenon of outsider music and laid out
the best case for it I have ever seen. As Garner put it, outsider music
includes a patchwork of styles made by eccentrics, mental patients,
self-taught loners and visionary cranks. And, we might add, various amateur

The pioneering outsider music expert is Irwin Chusid, the record producer and
music historian whose "Incorrect Music Hour" has run for years on New Jersey
station WFMU. In Garner's article, Chusid says, `Being an outsider musician
is not an aspiration. As soon as you try to make outsider music, you're not.'
So outsider music does not include crazy novelty records or works by musicians
who are deliberately being primitive.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) The city's very clean you'll see. Their
people welcome you and me. It is a home away from home. It's Canada. In
Canada, in Canada folks treat you like a queen. In Canada, they never will be
mean. In Canada...

MILES: Like lounge and swing, outsider music is being presented as a new kind
of cool; a counteractive to the processed, market-tested pop mainstream. I
argue, however, that outsider music is just more kitsch that leads nowhere,
and it encourages people to confuse oddity and novelty with originality.
Outsider music can make good source material for adventurous regular
musicians, but it's not very nourishing by itself. There are so many offbeat
musicians who are not outsiders, why turn to outsider sound? I think it's out
of voyeurism and because people like to snicker at them.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Oh, the rich people want what the poor got.
And the poor people want what the rich people got. And the skinny people want
what the fat people got. And the fat people want what the skinny people got.
You can never be anybody in this world. The sharp people want...

MILES: The idea is you don't know if you're laughing at outsiders or with
them. I think a lot more laughing at, not so much laughing with. If
Chusid's definition is valid, outsider musicians do not think their work is
laughable. Often the works are merely obsessive rituals that no audience can
ever understand.

Other flawed comparisons are been made, too. Garner draws a comparison
between outsider music and the peculiar blues and hilly billy tunes Harry
Smith collected for his "Anthology of American Folk Music." But Smith's
eccentric numbers from the 1920s sound strange because they are far removed in
time and culture, not because the performers are inept or mentally unstable.
Many were amateurs, but they were plainly talented in a conventional sense.

This brings us to Daniel Johnston, the Texas performer often cited as the best
and the only semifamous outsider musician. Johnston has recorded hundreds of
his songs at home on cassettes in between stays in mental hospitals for manic
depression. He has a career of sorts, has appeared on MTV and had one of his
songs recorded by Pearl Jam. This cover version of his tune "Speeding
Motorcycle" by Mary Lou Lord was featured on an ad for Target department

(Soundbite of "Speeding Motorcycle")

Ms. MARY LOU LORD (Singer): (Singing) Speeding motorcycle of my heart.
Speeding motorcycle always changin' me. Speeding motorcycle, don't you drive
recklessly. Speeding motorcycle of my heart.

Many boys have taken you for a ride, hurt you deep inside. They never slow
down. Speeding motorcycle, let's be smart, 'cause we don't want a wreck, we
can do a lot of tricks. We don't have to break our necks to get our kicks.
Speeding motorcycle, the road is ours. And we don't...

MILES: Sounds pretty much like a charming regular song, right? In fact,
Johnston's appealing material is always his most conventional. Audiences
share his fascination, sorrows and happiness just as they would any other
performer's. That's just the point. His outsider qualities are what you have
to get passed to appreciate him. Daniel Johnston may have recorded his
material in an outsider way, but his best works show insider skills.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music critic living in Cambridge. He reviewed "Songs
in the Key of Z" on Gammon Records.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording by Judy Garland. She was born 80 years ago
today. From the soundtrack of the film "A Star Is Born," here she is singing
the "Man That Got Away."

(Soundbite of "Man That Got Away")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Doh, doh, dee, dee. Ooh, hoo, hoo. Ooh, ooh,
ooh. The night is bitter, the stars have lost their glitter. The winds grow
colder, suddenly you're older. And all because of the man that got away. No
more his eager call, the writing's on the wall. The dreams you've dreamed
have all gone astray. The man that won you has run off and undone you. That
great beginning...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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