Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘comedy

You Gotta Be Schitting Me

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Shit Creek

American culture can be weird.  For example, the second season of the CBS comedy, “Schitt’s Creek” was previewed in an interview with its two top billed stars, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on CBS This Morning.  The show name was plastered on plasma TV screens all over the studio.  Yet everyone at the table, including three professional journalists, were straining to avoiding saying the title, which is a wordplay on a profanity.

Americans love to be tittilated (whoopsie).  Whether it’s going to the ballet to see who’s going to fall, watching sports waiting for the next big hit or following political debates to see who is going to have the next Lloyd Bentsen moment.  But this is a little confusing, because in this case, tittilation would be if the actual word, “shit” was being used or skirted, not a substitute for the word.

I used to live in Utah, and its residents had the same relationship with the word, “fuck”.  In my twelve years there, I saw the substitutes for “fuck” mutate from “flip” to “frick” to “fudge” – all “f” words.  It seemed that as a version got too closely associated with the real profanity, a new one replaced it and moved into the vocabulary.  I used to fantasize that someday, it would return to “fuck”.  I wonder what it is now.

The late George Carlin, a master at comedy that emphasized such wordplay, used to eat this stuff for breakfast.  Carlin, as you may remember, was named in a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case between the FCC and the Pacifica radio network that forever enshrined the seven dirty words you couldn’t say in broadcasting.  They are, for the record and in mostly alphabetical order, “cocksucker”, “cunt”, “fuck”, “motherfucker”, “piss”, “tits” and of course, “shit”.

In an HBO comedy special, Carlin himself made fun of people’s discomfort with the actual words, commenting that at one point, a man asked him to remove motherfucker from his routine.  Carlin said, “He says motherfucker is a duplication of the word fuck, technically, because fuck is the root form, motherfucker being derivative; therefore, it constitutes duplication. And I said, ‘Hey, motherfucker, how did you get my phone number, anyway?'”

He later added the word back to his routine, claiming the bit’s rhythm didn’t work without it.  Carlin made fun of each word; for example, he would say that tits should not be on the list because it sounds like a nickname for a snack (“New Nabisco Tits! …corn tits, cheese tits, tater tits!”).

Maybe, after the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Superbowl and the subsequent hiking of indecency fines by the FCC from 35-thousand dollars to more than 300-thousand dollars per violation, U.S. radio and TV networks got religion and all forms and flavors.  But it’s a little like the Simpsons episode where Bart is in the back seat yelling the word “bitch” and Homer grits his teeth because Marge says, “Homey, it is the name of a female dog.”

Hey CBS, own it.


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Wanda Sykes 2

How, as an interviewer, can you have a dream and a nightmare all rolled up into one?  When you’re about to interview somebody you really like and admire, but you’ve only got them for 15 minutes and you have an hour worth of questions.   When you face a crunch like that, it requires a re-think of what the purpose of the interview is.

As an interviewer, there several interviewing arcs you can follow.  One of them might have you starting out with personal history stuff to help establish the interviewee with the audience; where did you grow up, what did you do as a kid … stuff like that.  Then, you might talk about how they started doing what they’re known for and elaborate on some of the recognition or success they’ve had for doing it.  Then, you might mention controversies or criticism of how they’ve done it and how they felt about that criticism and how they overcame it.  And you might end with a, “So, what’s in your future?” type of question.

That’s a perfectly legitimate way to talk to somebody you don’t know.  It’s comprehensive.  It covers the bases.  But sometimes, it’s not enough.  Sometimes, the person you’re talking to is so awesome that you don’t want to be stuck asking “standard” questions.  But interviewees are used to standard questions and venturing too far outside the box can spook them.  You want them to know that you know they deserve to be seen as more than a cardboard cutout.  So what to do?

What I did was be as honest and straightfoward as I could be from the outset.  When I talked with actor and comedian Wanda Sykes, I started out by telling her that ordinary people come to her shows for her comedy, but they also listen to how she had dealt with challenges in her own life; a double mastectomy, coming out as lesbian, a mixed race marriage, betrayals she describes by Fox for the cancellation of two shows.  All of us can relate to marriage, medical issues, betrayal, social acceptance and courage.

Something else I did was ask her if there was anything she wanted to make sure she mentioned.  Normally, interviewers don’t do that, and guests probably don’t expect it because interviewers are expected to know what to ask and interviewees are expected to follow along.  But again, interviewees aren’t one-dimensional and maybe they don’t spontaneously talk about what’s important to them because interviewers don’t give them the option.  That can be a tricky one.  The point was to let Ms. Sykes know that the conversation is about her and it’s conceivable that there are things deep in her heart that she might want to mention that my research didn’t uncover.  So I offered.

That also meant that in the course of the conversation, unnecessary questions got thrown out.  Questions that, in retrospect, I could see were fluff questions.  It’s not that they weren’t good questions, but for the time I had, they weren’t deep enough, personal enough and wouldn’t touch people fast enough. That’s why, if you’re an interviewer, it is absolutely your responsibility to do your research in advance.  That gives you time to sift through your questions and cull the herd depending on how much time you really have, not how much time you think you’ll have. And it gives you a chance to figure out which questions will really matter to people.  Because the thing that matters to a listener is “How much are they like me”?

It’s OK to follow a flexible template when interviewing.  But sometimes, even that has to be thrown out.

You can hear the conversation here and here.

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January 11, 2014 at 03:13

Our Next Guest …

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steel door

Sometimes, an interview reminds me of that scene from Top Gun where the jets are chasing each other through desert canyons. That was the one today between Janeane Garofalo and Jian Gomeshi.

Garofalo is a balls-to-the-wall stand up comedian with a long and impressive list of experience, from Seinfield to SNL. And she is a feminist and political activist with a passion for the free speech progressivism of Air America to the in-your-face activism of Code Pink. I walked by the radio and was caught by was seemed to be a building interview malestrom, so I dropped what I was doing to listen.

I came in on how she was adamantly refusing to let Jian praise or glorify her or her work. The impression I got was she felt it would seem pretentious and undeserved. I’ve talked to several artists, Squarepusher among them, who also want people to not focus so much on them but on what they are saying. I would guess that kind of self policing helps keep them humble and focused.

Jian stayed in there with her and was willing to take punches as well throw a few. And, it seemed for a minute like a mutual respect was building between them to where she started to see him as worthy of her because maybe she thought he “got” her. I don’t know if that meant he agreed to let her define the terms with which he would interact with her, or if it was simply because he knows she is professionally tough and doesn’t do weak. But whenever he pushed as is his style, she pushed back and harder.

Somewhere in the middle, she tries to throw him off by talking about how she breathes and how it sounds like asthma, and by saying she’s catching his HPV sounding breathing from him after he admits that he does, in fact, have asthma. At that point, the color of the conversation seemed to be getting a little dark, sliding a little downhill. But Ms. Garafalo seems to be not one for nuance. In 1991, she married a writer for the Ben Stiller show thinking it was a joke. She only realized it wasn’t when she tried to really marry somebody else. The fake marriage was dissolved in 2012.

When the conversation turns to peers like Sean Penn, she dismisses Jian Gomeshi’s assertion that Sean Penn worries about feeling respected as compared to her, a woman. She says she has always been fighting for her respect, at which point, she shouts him down from his rolling interactive style by telling him that although it’s his show, and she doesn’t want to step on his toes, she will (and does) because she feels he isn’t letting her finish her point. And when he makes a comment about lipstick and appearances, she reprimands him on his style sense of her like a grandmother reprimands a grandchild, saying,”Jian, Jian!”

At one point, he wants to play a clip of her standup and she protests, but weakly, saying replayed standup isn’t funny. He disagrees and, like a listener should, I waited for the seque to the clip. But in the meantime, he tells her that on stage, she is as much of an open book as she is being in the interview. She responds in what sounds to him like a condescending tone. He calls her on it and that’s when the interview turns. It seems to me that Jian has had enough, and an overly long stretch of dead air from him told me he was employing the interviewer silence. You can hear her try to recover the insult, but suddenly, the interview is over. He didn’t play the clip and he didn’t say his signature “Such a pleasure to have you here.” The next thing I hear is a utilitarian outro of the interview followed by his system cue for the network break. I don’t hear her voice again. It was very uncharacteristic of Q and speaks to how, yes, sometimes interviewers want it to be over.

And throughout it all, I was thinking, “My God, this is the edited version”. I can only imagine that Jian and his staff had gone through the time and effort to get Ms. Garofalo, had fit her into his production and broadcast schedule, and wasn’t going to omit the interview just because it was rocky. For sure, it let us all have a chance to experience her the way he did since what we heard was his edit.

It’s an example of how sometimes, someone known for stream of consciousness can be clueless and someone known for engaging can slam down a steel door – full stop. “Our next guest …

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September 21, 2013 at 05:29

Words: Use versus Meaning

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George Carlin

This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about language.

I love George Carlin, and I speak of him in the present tense because what he contributed to our culture is timeless.  What he did was get people thinking about the use of language and the meanings behind the words, the syntax, the grammar, the intonations, the pacing, the inflection.  In the taxonomy of human and interaction, he was a jester.  And on my list of societal influencers, he was the celebrity.  A celebrity jester.  In fact, he was a jester’s jester.

For those of you that don’t know, I love the concept of the jester, because the jester is the only one with the stones to speak truth to power.  The revolutionary wears the opposite mask; the dramatic/tragic one.  And most often, the revolutionary gets killed or crushed.  But the jester, (perfect set up for American Pie, but I’ll let it go …), the jester speaks truth to power through humor, and he/she manages to be so funny, like pee your pants funny, while so piercing, like uranium artillery shell piercing, that power can’t decide whether to send them to the gallows or buy them a drink.

I was reading an article where someone used the word “neutralized” to describe how the police would deal with shooters in public shootings and I started thinking about it.  Such a sanitary word for blowing somebody’s brains out.  Reminds me of that Star Trek episode where these two societies have been fighting a war w/computers for centuries.  Instead of a messy battlefield, random people are selected to report to death chambers like people would go to a subway platform and wait for a train.  This way, the war stays neat and clean and sanitized and so, there isn’t much motivation to end it.  But Kirk destroys the computers and now, both sides are terrified that the other side might launch real missiles and bring real Armageddon.  Now, they have an excuse to end the fake war to avoid starting a real one.

Neutralized.  I can imagine George Carlin asking, “How come the police have never ‘positivized’ anyone?  We might all agree that at one point or another, we’ve felt ‘negativized’ by them, but you never hear that either.  But neutralized made the phrase book.  Are we talking about psychological affects, or charges of subatomic particles, or what?”  I mean, as long as our society keeps using neat and clean words to describe horrible, sloppy, murderous acts of savagery and disembowelment against our principles and our humanity and each other, we’ll continue to putter along thinking everything is fine.

The jester knew different.

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April 9, 2013 at 00:05

The Music Man and the Funny Man

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Well, I decided I didn’t want to let my social media go fallow.  So, in addition to working on this website and making my social media links really easy to use, I decided to use Tweepi to help me manage my Twitter account.  It’s pretty nice.  And about the website, I just finished a video that I realized yesterday is sort of a commercial about what the site does.  It’s about six minutes, and I may cut it up into smaller pieces and put it in other places.  But the feature length version stays on the site.

And the interview with Walt Parazaider is almost done.  I’ve loved Chicago and listening to these songs is terrific.  And, I’ve been asked to interview a comedian, which should be interesting.  Will he feel like he has to be on?  Or will he just talk outside of his stage persona.  I think comedians are the toughest of all performers.  It seems to me that everybody else goes onstage and does what they do; almost following a script, blocking, a score, whatever.  But comedians, they’re constantly shifting gears to ride rise and fall with the mood of the audience.  And it could be a mood that lifts and carries them, or snarls at them and tries to eat them alive.

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September 7, 2012 at 06:58