Monthly Archives: August 2016

Where Did TV’s Villains Go? Monsters, Anti-Heroes And Alexis Colby Carrington


Old-school villains like Dynasty‘s Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan (Joan Collins) could always be counted upon to bring some melo- with the drama.

Bob D’Amico/ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images


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Bob D’Amico/ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Old-school villains like Dynasty‘s Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan (Joan Collins) could always be counted upon to bring some melo- with the drama.

Bob D’Amico/ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

This summer, NPR has been thinking about villains in popular culture. Critic Bob Mondello explored what makes a great screen villain tick. NPR Books’ Petra Mayer looked at how and why so many of literature’s greatest villains get away with it. Today, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Glen Weldon looks at how portrayals of villainy on television continue to evolve.

The New Golden Age of Television in which we find ourselves is marked by a few spots of tarnish. There’s a sameness of tone (i.e. grim) and skin color (i.e. white), a tendency to confuse violence (i.e. brutally assaulted women) for plot, and a mystifying reluctance to let villains be villains.

A quick definition of terms: I’m talking about true villains, here. Not bad guys — those gun-toting heavies who show up every week to supply a given episode with its necessary conflict. Bad guys say things like “Get in the car,” and “You gotta smart mouth,” and “The boss wants them taken care of.” They’re interchangeable, predictable, boring.

And let’s take monsters off the table while we’re at it. Television has always loved its monsters, on shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, True Blood, Teen Wolf, Grimm, Supernatural, and Sleepy Hollow.

It was the old David Lynch/Mark Frost series Twin Peaks, which will return next year following a 26-year hiatus, that featured easily the single-most terrifying monster in TV history: Killer Bob.

Who, it turned out, was actually a sort of murderous … forest … spirit?

… In stone-washed denim.

Look, it was the 90s.

Like all the werewolves and vampires and ghosts that haunt TV shows today, Bob was a fairy-tale boogeyman, a metaphor, a larger-than-life symbol of pure evil. Not a villain.

Because the thing about villains is: they are entirely human, outfitted with understandably human motivations.

What’s more, they have a plan. That’s what truly separates them from generic bad guys and monsters: TV’s best villains play the long game. Episode after episode, season after season, they plot and scheme and wait, tenting their fingers.

And not only do they have a plan, they’re only too happy to share it with anyone in earshot.

Take Alexis Colby – technically Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan – of the 80s nighttime soap, Dynasty, played, with scenery-chomping relish, by Joan Collins:

The past is OVER and nothing can change it, but let me tell you something, Krystle. The future is going to be VERY different, because in a very short time, this faultless family is going to be hearing from me, including you! And you ESPECIALLY are going to CRINGE at what you hear! Krystle Jennings Carrington! The oh, so sterling once, and maybe FUTURE, secretary!

TV used to be lousy with villains like Alexis. Villains who sat at the very center of the spider web, patiently spinning plans within plans.

But then, something happened.

Tony Soprano happened. And Vic Mackey. And Walter White. And Don Draper. And Francis Underwood. And Nancy Botwin. And Jax Teller. And …

Anti-heroes happened; the bad guys became our good guys. We started building shows around ruthless mobsters, drug kingpins, womanizing cads. They do lots of villainous things — Tony Soprano murdered his own nephew, for pity’s sake — but now they’re the characters with whom we’re meant to identify. So to be sure to keep our sympathies, writers are careful to show these anti-heroes forever struggling with their actions.

But villains — true villains — don’t struggle with the evil that they do. They bask in it. Here’s Alexis again:

If I ever hear of another time when she has breathed a WORD about Fallon’s paternity, I will personally attach tiny hand grenades to each of the wheels on her roller skates, watch her do one of her ever-loving pirouettes, and APPLAUD as she EXPLODES into a thousand smithereens!

Trust me, you can hear it in her voice: Evil is her bubble bath, and she’s luxuriating in it, up to her neck.

Granted, the many anti-hero shows we have today are a lot more nuanced and wise about the human condition than a show like Dynasty ever was. Of course they are. But they’re also a lot less fun.

That’s because we intellectually empathize with an anti-hero … but we love a hiss-worthy villain.

That’s key to understanding why The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are two of TV’s most watched programs right now. Again, not because of their monsters — the zombies and fire-breathing dragons — those are gimmicks.

No, I think it’s because they both feature old-fashioned villains: men and women with elaborate plans, who are fun to watch.

For two seasons on The Walking Dead, a character called The Governor proved himself a unimaginably nasty villain to the show’s main characters, and when it returns in October, look for a character called Negan to fill that slot, in a particularly brutal fashion.

And of all the many characters on Game of Thrones, it’s only Cersei Lannister, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, who positively revels in the kind scheming, self-satisfied, unapologetic villainy TV used to do so well:

The only way to keep the small folk loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy. Remember that, if you ever hope to become queen.

See? That’s more like it. I perhaps don’t need to point out that as she says all that, she swirls and guzzles a huge goblet of red wine.

Alexis would be proud.

‘The Nix’ Is A Vicious, Sprawling Satire With A Very Human Heart


After 10 pages of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, I flipped to the dust jacket. I wanted to see what the author looked like because I was thinking to myself, Jesus, this guy is gonna be famous. I wanna see what he looks like.

At 50 pages in I smiled when my train was delayed — a few extra minutes to read about Samuel Andresen-Anderson, the assistant English professor and gone-nowhere writer who’d failed to live up to a tiny bit of early promise. At around 100 pages, Samuel is in 6th grade — lonely, panicky, a crier at the least little thing — and I know I’m going to miss anything like a reasonable bedtime. At 200, it is stories of Samuel’s mother that keeps me turning pages: A teenager in 1968, driven, tightly wound. It is the sketched background of the woman who will abandon Samuel at 11 years old and wreck him in all the million ways that such a thing will wreck a delicate boy; the woman who will float back into his life years later on cable television — briefly notorious for throwing a handful of rocks at a conservative republican presidential candidate in a Chicago park.

I fall in love too quickly and too easily. Particularly with books. I am a sucker for anyone with a typewriter and a hot hand with the language. Tell me a story and I am your best friend, your perfect ear, for as long as you can sustain it. The problem? So few can really sustain it. My sluttish history with books is littered with those that I loved and then abandoned when the going got rough — novels dog-eared and loose in the bindings up to page 150 or so, then dropped the minute the passion cooled.

The Nix is 620 pages long. My last dog-ear is on page 613. It’s nothing important. Just a funny story told by one character to another about the Northern Lights and the burden of expectation. It is lovely in precisely the same way that a thousand of Hill’s other paragraphs are lovely — these looping, run-on, wildly digressive pages which, somehow, in their absolute refusal to cling together and act like a book, make the perfect book for our distracted age.

Hill’s novel is the story of Samuel. Of the boy who became him and the man that he is in 2011, in an Occupy Wall Street America, where he is obsessed with an online videogame called World Of Elfscape and failing at pretty much everything else. But when his vanished mother suddenly reappears on every TV screen in America — this forgotten ’60s hippie radical now emerging as a viral sensation with a handful of gravel and no good explanation — he is given a chance to write a book about her. A hatchet-job in which he, the abandoned son, is contractually obligated to savage his own mother in lurid, tell-all fashion.

It’s a job he takes, of course. Because he’s furious. And desperate. And haunted by this woman who left him and his father one day and never came back. He wants answers. This book, he thinks, might be a way to get them.

But haunted is the operative word here. Because The Nix is about a lot of things — about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

The book’s namesake, the Nix itself — in Hill’s telling of it — is a Norwegian house spirit. A ghost that finds a person, comes to them in a moment and follows them for life. It is representative of that one instant when life slips sideways and never recovers. A many-faced ghost, equally comfortable being the damaged friend that young Samuel couldn’t save, the girl he loved beyond all reason, the mother who left him, the career that escaped him. It is a perfect organizing motif for a book about the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies, and secrets held too close and for too long.

It broke my heart, this book. Time after time. It made me laugh just as often. I loved it on the first page as powerfully as I did on the last, and I think I was right, right from the start. Because Nathan Hill?

He’s gonna be famous. This is just the start.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

‘Curioddity’ Needs More Curiosity, More Oddity


On the second page of Curioddity — the debut novel by Eisner-winning comic-book writer Paul Jenkins — the book’s protagonist Wil Morgan wakes up and looks in the mirror. Thankfully he doesn’t do the expected thing, which is describe his appearance for the benefit of the reader. Instead, Jenkins writes, “Not a good time to make eye contact with his reflection, he decided, and he hastily backed away.” It’s a tiny scene, but it’s telling. By and large, Curioddity tries to subvert — or at least smirk at — a whole host of fictional clichés and tropes. It does so in a framework that’s strictly conventional: a science-and-magic-infused urban fantasy. But its self-deprecating humor and quirky charm quickly wear thin.

Wil Morgan — the missing “l” in his name seems to hint at something missing from his life — is a private investigator specializing in divorce and insurance cases. Accordingly, his life is a dull one. Jenkins makes sure you know how dull it is, over and over, throughout the book. Wil is withdrawn and socially awkward. His imagination, which his rocket-scientist mother did everything to cultivate in him, has withered. He shuffles through life like the underdog he is, breaking into tears and spending most of his time gauging his own ineffectuality as a person. But he goes about all that in a funny kind of way — with sad-sack asides and dry, deadpan laughs — and that helps keep Curioddity moving long enough to get to something juicier: the introduction of a strange man named Mr. Dinsdale, who enters Wil’s office one day and begins to show him the magical things that lurk behind the veil of his humdrum reality.

Before long, Wil is searching for a maguffin called the Levity box, a scientifically fantastical device that Dinsdale desperately needs to retrieve. Dinsdale is the curator of the Museum of Curioddity, which exists only if you know how to “un-look” for it. He, of course, teaches Wil how to un-look, and an adventure ensues, one in which ninja-bots, an evil mastermind, and a century-old electric bill (really) must be overcome. Along the way, Wil meets the lady of his dreams, the “groovy”-spouting Lucy, even if she is the epitome of the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a vibrant and exciting young woman who seems only to exist in order to give our glum, dull hero a reason to snap out of his self-obsessed moping.

Once it finally picks up steam, Curioddity is a serviceable urban-fantasy romp. What holds it back is Jenkins’ constant need to undermine his own framework. It’s one thing to nimbly avoid the rote, describe-yourself-in-the-mirror scene early on; it’s another to incessantly bring up every trope imaginable just to deflate it. At one point, the characters discuss how the villains in movies always spring back to life just when you think they’re dead — even as they anticipate the same thing happening to them. And in a scene thinks it’s much cleverer than it actually is, Wil observes that another character “had a voice like two breadfruits falling off the back of a rhinoceros.” He then proceeds to tediously examine his overuse of horrible simile — which is Jenkins’ way of poking fun at his own overuse of horrible similes. But it doesn’t excuse it.

Jenkins winks broadly at his readers, but all that winking ends up blinding the story. It’s a tale of regaining innocence and imagination, but he smothers it in snickering self-consciousness, even as he hits you over the head with sentimentality. The glib platitude “Your eyes only see what your mind lets you believe” is repeated far too often. Hollow, facile parodies of everything from Starbucks to Siri abound. And while it’s clear Curioddity wishes it were a Douglas Adams book — complete with a Zaphod Beeblebrox homage in the form of a conjoined-twin character from another dimension — it’s neither as curious nor as odd as its title would imply.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

‘The Nix’ Is A Vicious, Sprawling Satire With A Very Human Heart


After 10 pages of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, I flipped to the dust jacket. I wanted to see what the author looked like because I was thinking to myself, Jesus, this guy is gonna be famous. I wanna see what he looks like.

At 50 pages in I smiled when my train was delayed — a few extra minutes to read about Samuel Andresen-Anderson, the assistant English professor and gone-nowhere writer who’d failed to live up to a tiny bit of early promise. At around 100 pages, Samuel is in 6th grade — lonely, panicky, a crier at the least little thing — and I know I’m going to miss anything like a reasonable bedtime. At 200, it is stories of Samuel’s mother that keeps me turning pages: A teenager in 1968, driven, tightly wound. It is the sketched background of the woman who will abandon Samuel at 11 years old and wreck him in all the million ways that such a thing will wreck a delicate boy; the woman who will float back into his life years later on cable television — briefly notorious for throwing a handful of rocks at a conservative republican presidential candidate in a Chicago park.

I fall in love too quickly and too easily. Particularly with books. I am a sucker for anyone with a typewriter and a hot hand with the language. Tell me a story and I am your best friend, your perfect ear, for as long as you can sustain it. The problem? So few can really sustain it. My sluttish history with books is littered with those that I loved and then abandoned when the going got rough — novels dog-eared and loose in the bindings up to page 150 or so, then dropped the minute the passion cooled.

The Nix is 620 pages long. My last dog-ear is on page 613. It’s nothing important. Just a funny story told by one character to another about the Northern Lights and the burden of expectation. It is lovely in precisely the same way that a thousand of Hill’s other paragraphs are lovely — these looping, run-on, wildly digressive pages which, somehow, in their absolute refusal to cling together and act like a book, make the perfect book for our distracted age.

Hill’s novel is the story of Samuel. Of the boy who became him and the man that he is in 2011, in an Occupy Wall Street America, where he is obsessed with an online videogame called World Of Elfscape and failing at pretty much everything else. But when his vanished mother suddenly reappears on every TV screen in America — this forgotten ’60s hippie radical now emerging as a viral sensation with a handful of gravel and no good explanation — he is given a chance to write a book about her. A hatchet-job in which he, the abandoned son, is contractually obligated to savage his own mother in lurid, tell-all fashion.

It’s a job he takes, of course. Because he’s furious. And desperate. And haunted by this woman who left him and his father one day and never came back. He wants answers. This book, he thinks, might be a way to get them.

But haunted is the operative word here. Because The Nix is about a lot of things — about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

The book’s namesake, the Nix itself — in Hill’s telling of it — is a Norwegian house spirit. A ghost that finds a person, comes to them in a moment and follows them for life. It is representative of that one instant when life slips sideways and never recovers. A many-faced ghost, equally comfortable being the damaged friend that young Samuel couldn’t save, the girl he loved beyond all reason, the mother who left him, the career that escaped him. It is a perfect organizing motif for a book about the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies, and secrets held too close and for too long.

It broke my heart, this book. Time after time. It made me laugh just as often. I loved it on the first page as powerfully as I did on the last, and I think I was right, right from the start. Because Nathan Hill?

He’s gonna be famous. This is just the start.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

‘Curioddity’ Needs More Curiosity, More Oddity


On the second page of Curioddity — the debut novel by Eisner-winning comic-book writer Paul Jenkins — the book’s protagonist Wil Morgan wakes up and looks in the mirror. Thankfully he doesn’t do the expected thing, which is describe his appearance for the benefit of the reader. Instead, Jenkins writes, “Not a good time to make eye contact with his reflection, he decided, and he hastily backed away.” It’s a tiny scene, but it’s telling. By and large, Curioddity tries to subvert — or at least smirk at — a whole host of fictional clichés and tropes. It does so in a framework that’s strictly conventional: a science-and-magic-infused urban fantasy. But its self-deprecating humor and quirky charm quickly wear thin.

Wil Morgan — the missing “l” in his name seems to hint at something missing from his life — is a private investigator specializing in divorce and insurance cases. Accordingly, his life is a dull one. Jenkins makes sure you know how dull it is, over and over, throughout the book. Wil is withdrawn and socially awkward. His imagination, which his rocket-scientist mother did everything to cultivate in him, has withered. He shuffles through life like the underdog he is, breaking into tears and spending most of his time gauging his own ineffectuality as a person. But he goes about all that in a funny kind of way — with sad-sack asides and dry, deadpan laughs — and that helps keep Curioddity moving long enough to get to something juicier: the introduction of a strange man named Mr. Dinsdale, who enters Wil’s office one day and begins to show him the magical things that lurk behind the veil of his humdrum reality.

Before long, Wil is searching for a maguffin called the Levity box, a scientifically fantastical device that Dinsdale desperately needs to retrieve. Dinsdale is the curator of the Museum of Curioddity, which exists only if you know how to “un-look” for it. He, of course, teaches Wil how to un-look, and an adventure ensues, one in which ninja-bots, an evil mastermind, and a century-old electric bill (really) must be overcome. Along the way, Wil meets the lady of his dreams, the “groovy”-spouting Lucy, even if she is the epitome of the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a vibrant and exciting young woman who seems only to exist in order to give our glum, dull hero a reason to snap out of his self-obsessed moping.

Once it finally picks up steam, Curioddity is a serviceable urban-fantasy romp. What holds it back is Jenkins’ constant need to undermine his own framework. It’s one thing to nimbly avoid the rote, describe-yourself-in-the-mirror scene early on; it’s another to incessantly bring up every trope imaginable just to deflate it. At one point, the characters discuss how the villains in movies always spring back to life just when you think they’re dead — even as they anticipate the same thing happening to them. And in a scene thinks it’s much cleverer than it actually is, Wil observes that another character “had a voice like two breadfruits falling off the back of a rhinoceros.” He then proceeds to tediously examine his overuse of horrible simile — which is Jenkins’ way of poking fun at his own overuse of horrible similes. But it doesn’t excuse it.

Jenkins winks broadly at his readers, but all that winking ends up blinding the story. It’s a tale of regaining innocence and imagination, but he smothers it in snickering self-consciousness, even as he hits you over the head with sentimentality. The glib platitude “Your eyes only see what your mind lets you believe” is repeated far too often. Hollow, facile parodies of everything from Starbucks to Siri abound. And while it’s clear Curioddity wishes it were a Douglas Adams book — complete with a Zaphod Beeblebrox homage in the form of a conjoined-twin character from another dimension — it’s neither as curious nor as odd as its title would imply.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Can A Canadian Prime Minister Be An Action Hero? Marvel Comics Thinks So


The cover of Marvel’s Civil War II features Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a boxing ring.

Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel


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Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel

The cover of Marvel’s Civil War II features Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a boxing ring.

Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel

Justin Trudeau has had a number of careers: schoolteacher, snowboard instructor, and since last year, prime minister of Canada. Now he’s an action hero. A new issue of Civil War II from Marvel Comics, being released Aug. 31, has Trudeau facing evil-doers in the halls of Canada’s Parliament — and in the boxing ring.

The front cover shows Trudeau sitting in the corner of a boxing ring, elbows resting on the ropes. He’s wearing boxing shorts, a tank top emblazoned with a large maple leaf and a smile that’s a bit difficult to read.

“I was going for a little bit of, I guess, a little bit of attitude, a little bit of smugness, like you don’t know if he’s already been boxing for a little bit and he’s going back in, or he’s just starting out and gearing himself up,” says Ramon Perez, the cartoonist behind the depictions of Trudeau.

The Toronto-based Perez says his original drafts showed Trudeau bare-chested, but Marvel thought this might be a little too risque.

“And then about two weeks or three weeks ago, Justin’s popping up in media topless, here and there, camping with his family and stuff like that,” says Perez, laughing. “And I’m like, there you go, we could have had him topless.”

The image of the 44-year-old Trudeau is one of two covers Marvel Comics is using for its latest edition. The company will often produce a regular issue and one with a variant cover, which is usually in greater demand by collectors. The story line remains the same.

The issue with Trudeau on the cover — the variant — features a Canadian superhero squad called Alpha Flight, with members who have access to information about crimes in the future. The main cover only shows members of the Alpha Flight squad.

A page from a new issue of Marvel’s Civil War II features Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel


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Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel

A page from a new issue of Marvel’s Civil War II features Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel

Comic book author Chip Zdarsky, also based in Toronto, wrote the action story. He’s the one who came up with the idea to feature Trudeau, who he thinks is a bit of an action man in real life.

“It kind of just made sense, like this opportunity to have a Canadian-driven story at a time when Trudeau just keeps making headlines as Canada’s cool prime minister,” he says.

Zdarsky says he wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing with Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, who was seen as more business-like.

“That would have been a little trickier. His only superpower, as far as I know, is awkwardly playing Beatles medleys on piano,” Zdarsky says.

When Zdarsky approached Trudeau’s office to get the okay, the response was it couldn’t approve using Trudeau in the comic, but wouldn’t stand in the way, either.

Marvel Comics, based in New York, has only featured two world leaders before now — Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin’s late father and Canada’s former prime minister, back in 1979, and President Obama in 2009. Marvel Comics editor Will Moss says he’s sure this edition with the younger Trudeau will do well.

The superhero squad seeks advice and guidance from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel


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Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel

The superhero squad seeks advice and guidance from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Artwork by Ramón Pérez/Courtesy of Marvel

“I think he’s somebody that a lot of Americans are aware of and I know several women here in our office are big fans of Justin Trudeau,” he says.

Moss says the story focuses on a character named Ulysses who can see into the future crimes before they happen. The Alpha Flight team is divided over whether to use that information to arrest people for crimes they haven’t yet committed. Moss says they turn to Trudeau for guidance.

“It’s natural they would want to seek counsel from the leader of their country,” he says. “They seek his counsel and then he blows off some steam with Iron Man in the boxing ring.”

The creators won’t give away any more of the story line. They just hope Trudeau gets a chance to pick up the latest Marvel Comic. As for Trudeau himself, he’s maintaining a heroically discreet silence about his superpowers.

In This 2005 Interview, Gene Wilder Explains How He Learned To Get Laughs


Actor Gene Wilder, who entertained audiences with his performances in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, The Producers and Blazing Saddles, died Monday. He was 83 years old.

Art Selby & Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images


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Art Selby & Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Actor Gene Wilder, who entertained audiences with his performances in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, The Producers and Blazing Saddles, died Monday. He was 83 years old.

Art Selby & Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

When Gene Wilder was 8 years old, his mother had a heart attack — and he took it upon himself to try to cheer her up. “It was the first time I ever tried consciously to make someone else laugh,” Wilder said. “And when I was successful, after peeing in her pants, she’d say, ‘Oh, Jerry, now look what you’ve made me do.’ “

Wilder — who was born Jerome Silberman — went on to become a comic actor whose film credits included Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and The Producers and Blazing Saddles. He died Monday of complications related to Alzheimer’s.

In a 2005 interview with Fresh Air, Wilder said that those moments with his mother sustained him throughout his career. “When your mother gives you confidence about anything that you do, you carry that confidence with you,” he told Terry Gross. “She made me believe that I could make someone laugh.”

Though Wilder was known for his comedic roles, he also had a serious side. He described his marriage to comedian Gilda Radner as an “odyssey” that was “wonderful, funny, tortuous, painful and sad.” Radner, his third wife, died from ovarian cancer in 1989. He remarried in 1991.

Wilder faced his own cancer diagnosis in 2000 — but he wasn’t afraid, and was in remission when he spoke with Gross in 2005. “I’ve had a very good life and a very good career,” he said. “I have no regrets.

Today, we’ll listen back to Wilder’s 2005 Fresh Air interview. Click the play link above to hear the conversation, or read some highlights below.

Interview Highlights

On meeting Mel Brooks, with whom he would later work on The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein

I was miscast in that production [of Mother Courage and Her Children] … but it was with Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend at the time was Mel Brooks, and that made my — I can’t say my day, it made my life, in a way.

I met Mel backstage in Anne’s dressing room. He was wearing one of those pea coats, pea jackets that were made famous by the Merchant Marines, and I admired it and he said, “You know, they used to call this a urine jacket, but it didn’t sell.”

I laughed and he laughed and after we saw each other several times he said, “Would you like to come to Fire Island and spend the weekend with Anne and me? I’d like to read the first 30 pages of this movie I’m writing called Springtime for Hitler.”

I said, “I’d like that very much,” and I went there one June weekend and he read me the first 30 pages of what was later called The Producers.

On auditioning for Zero Mostel, who played Max Bialystock in The Producers

Mel said, “I love you, but Zero doesn’t know you, and he has the right of approval of whoever is going to play Leo Bloom, so come to the office and you’ll do a reading with him.”

So I went to the office on a Thursday or Friday morning and knocked on the door and Mel opened it and I saw Zero Mostel in the background and he said, “Come on in, come on in. Gene, this is Z; Z, this is Gene.”

And I put out my hand to shake hands with him, and he took my hand [and] he pulled me up to his face, and he gave me a kiss on the lips. And all my nervousness went out the window.

I think he must’ve done it on purpose, because he understood actors and how I would naturally be a little nervous doing this, and I gave a very good reading, and then I got the part.

On what he learned from Mostel

You say the character [of Leo Bloom] was meek and insecure, and you could’ve been describing me as well. I was a very shy person in those days, and working with Zero, who was bigger than life, helped me grow. Zero was a strong influence on me.

We didn’t go out to lunch, we always stayed in the studio … and we’d have lunch together, a sandwich and a cup of soup, and he would talk to me about the days of the blacklisting and everything he went through, and they ruined his life for a while. …

He wasn’t afraid of authority in any form, and that’s the part that influenced me the most. He would tell anyone anything, not to be impolite, but he’d show that he wasn’t at all afraid of however much money that person [had] or whatever title they had in a company. It didn’t scare him. Mel was very much the same way.

On getting the idea for Young Frankenstein

At the time, I didn’t know why, but I know now that when I was a little boy, I was scared to death of the Frankenstein films … and in all these years later, I wanted it to come out with a happy ending, and I think it was my fear of the Frankenstein movies when I was 8 and 9 and 10 years old that made me want to write that story.

Remembering Gene Wilder

On working with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak

I met him for the first time in Calgary, in Canada. A very quiet, modest meeting. We gave each other a hug, he said how much he admired me, I said how much I admired him, and we started working the next morning, and we hit it off really well, and he taught me how to improvise on camera.

On his relationship with Gilda Radner

I met her on the first night of filming … Hanky Panky that Sidney Poitier was directing. And it’s funny, I was in costume and makeup — my tuxedo and makeup because I’d done a few shots before she arrived, and she told me later that she cried all the way in, in the car, because she knew that she was going to fall in love with me and want to get married.

I said, “Now, Gilda … this is an exaggeration.”

She said, “No, no. It’s true. I was unhappy — I was married, I was unhappy and I knew I was going to fall in love with you.”

I asked her that maybe a year or two later … she said, “Yes, it’s true. I did feel that way.”

Jollof Rice: West Africans Dish It Up With A Hefty Serving Of Smack Talk


Jollof rice is the celebration dish of West Africa. At its basic, it includes rice, tomatoes, onions and chili peppers. But there are a zillion variations, depending on your country of origin, and the friendly rivalry can get intense over which version reigns supreme.

Matthew Mead/AP


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Matthew Mead/AP

Jollof rice is the celebration dish of West Africa. At its basic, it includes rice, tomatoes, onions and chili peppers. But there are a zillion variations, depending on your country of origin, and the friendly rivalry can get intense over which version reigns supreme.

Matthew Mead/AP

A holiday celebrating a dish beloved of many West Africans, World Jollof Day, was marked last week.

Jollof is a celebration dish. You eat it at parties, naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals — you name it, you will see the familiar and comforting pot of steaming jollof rice.

But jollof is also war – of the deliciously friendly variety.

I come from Ghana, am based in Senegal and travel on reporting assignments all over West Africa. Almost every one of us from the region has grown up with fluffy, red-orange jollof rice, I suspect, as part of our diet. It is a universal favorite — the signature regional dish, with zillions of variations regarding its preparation, depending on your country of origin. And the rivalry is intense about whose country’s jollof rice is best and why. It’s a never-ending dispute – and mainly good-natured, though heartfelt.

As my dear friend Ronke Onadeko, who’s Nigerian, recently put it, “This jollof matter is sensitive and personal.”

So, let’s start with the basics. Rice, tomatoes, onions and chili peppers are the essential ingredients that no one disputes. (I don’t think!) Then it becomes whatever inspires you. Some jollof versions have meat – lamb, goat, beef and, yes, even corned beef. Vegetables are another option. Peas, peppers, carrots.

Prawns and shrimp can also be added. And one especially famous dish — the original and the inspiration for jollof, many say — is made with fish. There’s even a debate about whether to use fragrant or perfumed rice, like Basmati, or not.

From a linguistic perspective, the Senegalese and Gambians have a strong claim to jollof – or joloff or Djoloff – which was probably most likely called Wolof at its origin.

Sound familiar? Yes, Wolof is the lingua franca of Senegal, which is also spoken across the border in Gambia. But the dish is not called jollof by the Senegalese or the Gambians!

Jollof rice likely originated in Senegal. But Senegal’s as-good-as-national dish is thiebou dieun, a mix of rice, fish and vegetables that — except for red rice — bears little resemblance to what the rest of West Africa calls jollof. This tempting-looking plate of thiebou dieun royal was prepared by my Senegalese friend Adja Ba.

Courtesy of Adja Ba


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Courtesy of Adja Ba

Jollof rice likely originated in Senegal. But Senegal’s as-good-as-national dish is thiebou dieun, a mix of rice, fish and vegetables that — except for red rice — bears little resemblance to what the rest of West Africa calls jollof. This tempting-looking plate of thiebou dieun royal was prepared by my Senegalese friend Adja Ba.

Courtesy of Adja Ba

However, it stands to reason that the original Wolof/jollof rice came from Senegambia! The delicious, as-good-as national dish of Senegal is thiebou dieun. It’s a mix of rice, herb-spiked fish with roof (spicy stuffing) and assorted vegetables — aubergine, egg plant, whole carrots, turnips, cabbage and sides including baobab leaf and tamarind sauce. Don’t forget the all-important hoogn (rice crust), served separately. Thiebou dieun royal includes extras — fish balls, shrimp or prawns — and bears very little resemblance to what has come to be known as jollof rice elsewhere in West Africa. That’s mostly prepared with meat, not fish,or simply with vegetables.

The similarity with the Senegalese dish is that thiebou dieun is “red” (tomato-tinged orange) rice – at least in one manifestation of the flavorful Senegalese staple. But there is also thiebou wekh (wekh means “white” in Wolof, which is the color of the rice in that dish).

So the Senegalese, who clearly know where jollof rice must have originated, are barely getting involved in this debate – which pits mainly Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Ghanaians against each other. Gambians aren’t talking much, either. They don’t need to.

“How can imitation be better than the original?” says my good friend Maimouna Jallow, who is from Gambia. “Do you buy Giorgio Armani or Julio Amani? Wolof jollof all the way!!!”

Recently, friends from the region, the continent, the African diaspora and beyond engaged in our own version of the Jollof Wars online. It all started with a link to this recent article about the Jollof Wars.

A plate of Ghanaian jollof rice served with kelewele (seasoned fried plantains), fish and three different chili pepper sauces.



Jeffery A. Adjei/Flickr

“You have literally sparked off culinary fisticuffs among [West African] brothers and sisters over this jollof rice matter!” Ebun Ikenze, another friend from Nigeria, wrote, as each of us jumped into the email fray.

There have been some lyrical contributions in our war of words – some nationalistic, some revelatory and some uncompromising, but all served with a generous dollop of humor and lashings of laughter and togetherness. In many ways, jollof unites West Africa as much as it divides the region.

Amma Ogan, my Nigerian “sister,” says she learned the secrets of jollof in the 1970s from a Senegalese chef, Paolo Diouf, at the Calabash restaurant at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden.

A food vendor in Kano, Nigeria, prepares jollof rice outdoors in an iron pot. When it comes to jollof, my Nigerian friend Ronke Onadeko argues, “the taste of perfection is smoke-flavoured.”

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters


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Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

A food vendor in Kano, Nigeria, prepares jollof rice outdoors in an iron pot. When it comes to jollof, my Nigerian friend Ronke Onadeko argues, “the taste of perfection is smoke-flavoured.”

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

“I learnt from him and a few others the main difference between Senegalese jollof rice and everything else,” Amma explains over email.

“Nigerians parboil the rice, make a separate stew, then mix the two and finish cooking together.

“Senegalese jollof rice is a one-pot affair, everything cooked together slowly so that the rice is steeped in flavour and ‘moistness’ from the get go, and liberally basted with oil, including the big fat carrots that sink towards the bottom of the pot. Perhaps this is where the love for the cro cro (rice crust) at the bottom of the pot originated.”

In Amma’s opinion, “the Senegalese own it.” But the rest of us West Africans are not ready to concede defeat – yet!

Certainly not Ronke Onadeko, the Nigerian who upholds the supremacy of her country’s traditional preparation — jollof cooked outdoors in an iron pot over firewood or charcoal.

“The taste of perfection is smoke-flavoured,” Ronke says, “without the ability to taste any one ingredient, proof of the art of blending the ingredients to form unity.”

Still, Ghanaian jollof has some pretty vocal partisans. They include Sister Deborah, a Ghanaian singer who this year released an infectious anthem, “Ghana Jollof,” that minces no words:

“Ghana jollof, Ghana jollof, Ghana jollof – yummy! Nigerian jollof is just funny,” she sings.

And later: “Ghana jollof on fleek — yours isn’t.”

Those for whom jollof is a new phenomenon, we hope you’re tempted. A word of advice: Latch onto a West African friend or colleague and insist that a variety of the dishes be laid out before you. It is the approach embraced by Namibian friend Ebba Kalondo, from a “neutral” country, who recently found herself in the crossfire of our email Jollof Wars.

“I won’t lie. I’m eating my way through this,” Ebba says. “But I am with you all. Because the struggle is real.”

My Senegalese “sister” Adja Ba, said she would end this delicious email debate once and for all with a photo of the thiebou dieun royal dish she had prepared. Take a look at it above and you be the judge!