Monthly Archives: December 2016

Reading The Game: ‘The Last Of Us’


The Last of Us is as much about the bonds between Joel and his surrogate daughter Ellie as it is about their post-fungal-apocalypse world.

Sony/Naughty Dog


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Sony/Naughty Dog

The Last of Us is as much about the bonds between Joel and his surrogate daughter Ellie as it is about their post-fungal-apocalypse world.

Sony/Naughty Dog

For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we’ve been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we’re running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective.

I played the game through the first time in something like a perfect state of awe and terror. Enraptured is, I think, the word that best describes it. Carried away completely into this ruined, beautiful world and the story of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. Normally such a completionist — so obsessed with exploring every hide and hollow in these imaginary worlds I throw myself into — in this instance I simply rolled with the narrative. Ran when running was proper. Slogged through dark and rain and snow and sunshine. Stood my bloody ground when left with no other options.

Joel came to love Ellie, his surrogate daughter, and Ellie came to love Joel, the only father she’d ever known. And I (a father, with a daughter roughly Ellie’s age, with Ellie’s four-letter vocabulary and Ellie’s strange, discordant humor) loved Ellie, too. So when I reached the endgame and was presented with a terrible choice (no spoilers … yet), I drew my guns and slaughtered my way to the end credits, alight with fury and sure knowledge that I’d made the only choice I could.

Second run: The beats are all the same, the story a known thing. Joel and Ellie fight zombies and soldiers and bandits and madmen. They lose friends and see sunrises and, this time, I play with an awful wisdom. Cassandra’s curse. I know how this story ends and I have made up my mind that, this time, I will make the other choice. The right one (morally, mathematically, humanistically), and so I walk with ghosts the whole way, right up to the end, and then …

And then I make the exact same choice again. I can’t make the other. It hurts too much. Because that is how good the storytelling is in The Last Of Us. It makes you care so deeply for a smart-ass bunch of pixels in the shape of a teenage girl that you will damn the whole world twice just for her.

(OK, so now we’re gonna get spoilery. Fair warning.)

The Last Of Us is a zombie story. It is incredibly derivative, borrows liberally from a hundred different books and movies, is structurally simplistic, trope-heavy, melodramatic, viscerally violent, and despite all this (or, arguably, because of all this) tells one of the most moving, affecting and satisfying stories you’ll find anywhere. At its heart, it is the story of Joel — a broken and hard-hearted thief and smuggler living 20 years deep into a zombie apocalypse. He and his partner, Tess, are forced into a job that requires them to smuggle a young girl out of the Boston quarantine zone and deliver her to an army of revolutionaries because, of course, this girl is The One — the only person ever to be immune to the spore/virus that turns infected people into gross, murderous mushroom zombies. That young girl is Ellie. And, unsurprisingly, the job does not exactly go as planned.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s fine because it is familiar. The story-story is a stock frame — tested and dependable. It is a road trip story in the same way that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, or Mad Max: Fury Road. Go from point A to point B, survive the journey, get there whole. And there’s nothing at all wrong with a simple narrative architecture when it is being used to support complex character arcs, as it is here. The Last Of Us is a simple road trip story underneath, existing in service to the complex and rich redemption story on top.

All the stakes and ruination are laid out in the first 10 minutes, in a prologue so powerful that it’ll break your heart even if you don’t have one. Joel loses his daughter on the night the world ends, his little girl dying in his arms, under the gun of a panicked soldier trying to hold back the infected. When Ellie floats into his life two decades later, the jaded gamer in you says, Oh, so here’s where he learns to love again. … And you’re right.

But then you watch it happen — in tiny moments like when Ellie, blowing off caution, walks a rickety plank between two buildings and Joel glances briefly down at the watch he wears, a gift from his daughter that he’s been wearing for 20 years — and you participate in it happening (protecting her, defending her, eventually becoming her for an extended chunk of the game in a brilliant bit of perspective switching), and it all just clicks. This is a love story — one of the best parent-and-child narratives ever told.

Which is when that ending comes and you are presented with the ultimate parental nightmare scenario: Will you sacrifice the life of your child to save the world? Not a stranger, a friend or even a spouse, but your own daughter (which is what Ellie is now — Joel’s daughter, blood or no). Because in Ellie lives the cure to the mushroom zombie plague. But in order to create it, she has to die.

I started a third playthrough before writing this piece. I am walking slow, taking my time, listening to Ellie read from her joke book, watching her swarmed by fireflies on the outskirts of Boston and admiring the natural beauty and deep environmental storytelling of the game. Nature has reclaimed most of this abandoned world, giving us an unusual apocalypse run riot with wildflowers. And while I have not made it to the end yet, I know it’s coming. I know the choice I’m going to have to make.

And I know exactly what I’m going to do.

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.

50 Wonderful Things From 2016


Emma Thompson, seen here at the premiere of Bridget Jones’s Baby, is just one of the many people who did something wonderful in 2016.

Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images


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Emma Thompson, seen here at the premiere of Bridget Jones’s Baby, is just one of the many people who did something wonderful in 2016.

Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

It’s that time of year again, when I atone for my failure to make top 10 lists by simply offering a collection of 50 of the many wonderful things I read, watched, or heard in 2016. (Here’s last year’s list, for reference.)

Standard caveats: I don’t watch everything! I am behind on many things. That’s just the way the world is. So if something you loved isn’t here, it is not a rebuke.

And: these are cultural — mostly pop-cultural — things. These are not the best things in the world. Like yours, my actual list of wonderful things from the year, if I wrote it in a journal instead of for work, would be a list of people and moments spent with them, of days when it was unexpectedly sunny and of the times when things suddenly felt better. But whatever journey you’re on at any given moment, you can always use more good things. So here we go.

1. The willfully — gleefully — stupid jokes of Angie Tribeca, the TBS comedy starring Rashida Jones that reminded me of Airplane! in a wonderful way that very few things do. Vive le prosthetic tongue!

2. The moment in Captain America: Civil War when a bunch of characters sit around and discuss, with seriousness, a moral dilemma. For a surprisingly long time! Searching conversations in which multiple basically good characters have very different things to say and are allowed to say them and mean them are not all that common in summer blockbusters, and this one was welcome.

3. Leslie Odom, Jr. telling the story of how he watched Shonda Rhimes yell at Art Garfunkel. It’s what late-night talk shows are for, and it made me instantly envious of everyone who got to see it in person.

4. All of John Mulaney’s comedy special, available on Netflix, called The Comeback Kid — and from a strictly shallow perspective, John Mulaney’s tremendous blue suit. Sue me, I’m a lady who likes a great … suit.

5. Mike Birbiglia’s sensitive, funny, sad, honest film Don’t Think Twice, which has more affection for and understanding of a certain kind of comedy person than perhaps any piece of fiction that’s ever been written about them. It’s got a killer cast including Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, and Birbiglia himself, and it got some of the best reviews of the year — deservedly so. (And an R rating, by the way, which is dumb as rocks and completely unnecessary. You’d be much, much better with your teenager seeing this film than some PG-13 slaughterfest with abundant death but invisible blood. Boo, ratings.)

6. The finale of the most recent season of the beloved series The Great British Bake-Off. As I’ve written at length, it’s a thoughtful and uplifting franchise — really! — and the most recent finale (which we Americans did indeed get in 2016) was as richly satisfying as a good slice of cake.

7. The most recent season of HBO’s Veep. I don’t want to spoil it, but while the show has always been sharp and hilarious, its unexpected and byzantine plotting (in both the plotting-a-show sense and the plotting-a-coup sense) got utterly bazoo but somehow remained believable within the world the writers and performers have built.

8. Anna Kendrick and Stephen Colbert singing “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful.” This is also what late-night talk shows are for.

9. Christian Siriano, fashion provocateur — in the best way. Siriano has grown from a bit of a pain in the behind when he won Project Runway to a very interesting designer and a fascinating guy to listen to. He got a lot of attention for dressing Leslie Jones for the Ghostbusters premiere, but he wound up dressing eight women for the Emmy Awards, and they represented quite a mix of sizes, races and ages. They all looked very different, and they all looked right. Siriano believes in his own vision and always has, but he also seems to believe that the purpose of women’s fashion is to serve women, not that the purpose of women is to serve women’s fashion. Good on you, CS.

10. Speaking of Ghostbusters, Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann was one of the weirdest, greatest characters of this year and most other years, and her work on Saturday Night Live as Hillary Clinton was surprising and touching. SNL is often plagued by its institutional standing and a certain cultural (not political) conservatism, and the fact that some of what McKinnon did as Clinton was so weird as comedy — even if you didn’t think it always worked — is one of the most encouraging signs that the show remains alive.

11. Titus Burgess on WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money. The discussion he had with host Anna Sale is one of the most candid, peaceful, wise conversations I can remember from any corner of public radio, and I recommend it to everyone, always.

12. “Grandma’s Teenage Diaries,” an entry by David Rees in the New York Times Magazine‘s “Letter Of Recommendation” feature. Rees discovered some of his grandmother’s early writings, and the way he describes them is warm and lovely, but more than anything, it sheds light on the way so many of us think of our older relatives as having always been calm and settled, when in fact, they often led wild, adventurous, exciting lives all their own that we simply never saw.

13. Kristin Chirico’s BuzzFeed piece about visiting the bridal salon where Say Yes To The Dress is filmed. It doesn’t go the way she expects, and I won’t spoil it more than that. Chirico is one of my favorite writers for all sorts of reasons, and her willingness to be surprised by her own experiences is one of the big ones.

14. The Indigo Girls story in Dave Holmes’ memoir Party Of One. I enjoyed this book so much that the second time I read it, I lost all track of time and got my first bad sunburn in years. True story! Runner-up: Dave’s tweetstorm about phone scammers.

15. The anniversary celebration of All Songs Considered where I saw Glen Hansard break a guitar string with the force of his Glen-ness, which he does kind of a lot.

16. The frustrating and enlightening “Object Anyway” episode of the podcast More Perfect. Officially about jury selection, it winds up being about the complex ways people think about race and crime. It’s great radio, and very educational, and constantly compelling. Bonus: I also love the episode “The Imperfect Plaintiffs.”

17. “I got this.” The U.S. women’s gymnastics team cleaned up at the Rio Olympics, but perhaps nothing thrilled me more than Laurie Hernandez, just before her beam routine, being caught on camera saying to herself, “I got this.”

18. Take My Wife, Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher’s comedy series on the still-small Seeso network. It would have been a terrific show about a complex couple even if it weren’t the regrettably rare depiction of lesbians who, as one episode points out, don’t die immediately when they have sex.

19. W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades Of America, the bracing and funny travelogue series about race and culture that seems even more needed now, as it prepares for a second season on CNN, than it did when it first aired.

20. The coming-of-age musical Sing Street, which seems to be about a kid who starts a band, but which also turns out to be about the bonds of friendship, the perils of romance and especially the crucial role of siblinghood for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t quite know how to bloom in quite the place where they were first planted.

21. The year Sterling K. Brown had on both FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and NBC’s This Is Us. Both are shows with large casts, and no one in either group was more critical or better than he was. It’s really rare for the same actor to do such good work on both a prestige cable miniseries and a traditional broadcast drama, and Brown more than pulled it off. Absolutely my dramatic acting MVP of 2016.

22. Samantha Bee’s acceptance of the award for Outstanding Achievement In News And Information from the Television Critics Association for her TBS show Full Frontal. She spoke about the show and how grateful she was, then added, “Now I’ll take your questions on how I achieve work-life balance.” Like much of what she did through the year, the line was direct, funny, and cutting. So maybe don’t always ask women about work-life balance, because it appears that they do notice.

23. Michelle Obama’s Carpool Karaoke segment with James Corden, which took a bit that was (and is) rapidly reaching overexposure and immediately made it surprising and joyful, particularly when you include the cameo appearance in the back seat.

24. Sunny Pawar in the drama Lion. Dev Patel is terrific as the adult Saroo, but before he can play a man who looks for his biological family, Pawar has to hold up a good part of the film as a very little boy who loses contact with his. In a pretty good year for kid acting, Pawar was one of my favorite discoveries.

25. “Unbreakable.” Not everything worked in the revival of Gilmore Girls, but the performance by Sutton Foster of an original song by Jeanine Tesori and show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was an unexpected surprise that broke the format but did its job with great force. I was surprised to learn it was written for this, because it’s the kind of song you instantly feel like you’ve heard before, not in the sense of cliche but in the sense of warm familiarity.

26. The ending — perhaps too neat, but come on, that’s kind of the format — of the long-running Downton Abbey. It didn’t precisely scratch my every itch (I don’t personally believe Downton ever quite recovered from the loss of Dan Stevens), but did give me some of the things I wanted most, and did deliver a solid dose of Matthew Goode, perhaps the most Downton man who took quite that long to be on Downton.

27. Weiner, hoo boy. There is much, especially in retrospect, that is cringe-inducing about this documentary, which chronicles Anthony Weiner’s failed 2013 run for Mayor of New York City two years after he resigned from Congress following a sexting scandal. If you see this movie with, say, five friends, I can almost guarantee you that you will have a series of conversations about it in which the running theme is, “I just do not get it.” There is one sequence that involves Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, just … pacing, that may be the most interesting thing I saw in a documentary all year.

28. Minnie Driver’s funny, singular performance as the mother to three kids including a special needs son on ABC’s Speechless, a show that has avoided about eight different potential pitfalls to become one of the best broadcast comedies on TV. Driver has needed and deserved a role just like this for years, at least as far back as her hilarious guest spots on Will & Grace, and it was a delight to see her find it. (Bonus: the rest of the cast is just as strong; it’s a really solid group and the show is a fine addition to ABC’s strong family comedy lineup.)

29. “Hello?” I’m convinced that no one who really knows and likes PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, the hosts of Gimlet’s Reply All podcast, would think it was a good idea for them to take phone calls from anyone and everyone for 48 hours straight. And it was not a good idea. It was a terrible idea, and their bizarre apparent fantasy of going without sleep (??) for days (???) while talking to strangers (????) on tape (?????!) quickly fell apart, as it should have. But what ultimately came of it was a nearly two-hour episode that contains, particularly as it progresses, moments of real grace and surprise.

30. Nothing I saw this year was more unexpectedly weird than watching the real Grandmaster Flash try to explain his art to a bunch of television critics during a preview of Netflix’s The Get Down (in which Grandmaster Flash is a character) at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. We were overmatched by what amounted to Grandmaster Flash’s TED talk, and I’m not afraid to say so. Meanwhile, The Get Down was a little bit all over the place, but the central performance from Justice Smith was a real pleasure. The show has half of its first season yet to come, and for Smith, at least, I’ll watch it.

31. Ryan Gosling leaning on a lamppost in La La Land. It pushed a button that’s been deeply programmed inside me since I saw Singin’ In The Rain, and I found it utterly delightful. The movie isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was my entire pot thereof.

32. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. One of the real travesties of this year was that this music mockumentary from the Lonely Island somehow slipped past people. Already, it’s got a reputation as a film much better than its box-office flopsitude would suggest, and I firmly believe that as years pass, those of us who truly appreciated it will be vindicated. Please see it just for the terrible/wonderful songs and the celebrity cameos.

33. The second season of Catastrophe, starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan — with Carrie Fisher. It started with a time jump that was clever and wise and instantly moved the story to a more interesting phase of their relationship to explore than you would have seen had the second season picked up right where the first left off. That kind of experimentation is always welcome in episodic comedy, where it’s so easy to box yourself into a corner with such matters as … new babies.

34. Little’s bath. While there are a lot of things about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to celebrate, I’ll just choose an early sequence in which Little (Alex R. Hibbert) carefully heats a pot of water on the stove. It’s a beautiful little peek at his routine — at his independence, resilience and loneliness, all of which will recur through what we see of his life, all at once.

35. The youngest tier of performers in Stranger Things — Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, and Gaten Matarazzo. They were asked, in essence, to embody archetypes from a period they never lived through: the Steven Spielberg/Stephen King ’80s, when kids roamed on bikes and discovered oddities with their best friends. Nevertheless, they all came through like champs, and while the show had trouble delivering on all of its promises (as supernatural stories often do), the friendships sustained it throughout.

36. Sailor dances. I am overlapping as little as possible with Glen Weldon’s Pop Culture Advent Calendar (which offers 25 more good things from this year), but I, too, would be remiss if I didn’t mention Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” number from Hail, Caesar! For musical aficionados, the callbacks to sailor movies, tap numbers and even Rodgers and Hammerstein (the song is a near-lift in places from “There Is Nothing Like A Dame”) are a special treat, and Tatum can dance on my screen any time, for as long as he likes. I’m still not sure that guy has been used to the absolute height of his powers. I fear what could happen (to me) when he is.

37. Issa and Molly. There are lots of shows about friends, but not that many good shows about friends. Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO was many wonderful things at once (I could easily have chosen the early sequence in which Issa talks to herself in the mirror, which has been rightly praised by many before me), but I treasured nothing about it more than I did the portrayal of Issa and her best friend, Molly. Their bond is their primary emotional entanglement in many ways, and therefore it’s the relationship that often has the highest stakes.

38. Michael Shannon in Loving, the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), whose Supreme Court case established that it was unconstitutional for states to ban interracial marriage. The leads in the film are absolutely divine, and Nick Kroll does good and unexpected work as their attorney. But I was also a sucker for a brief appearance by Shannon as Grey Villet, the Life photographer who took the most well-known portraits of the Lovings while their case was pending. (Take a look at the real photos, if you never have.)

39. As if it’s not enough that Mamoudou Athie played Grandmaster Flash in The Get Down, he was also a very dreamy romantic lead in a little movie called Jean Of The Joneses, from writer-director Stella Meghie, which follows a young woman (Taylour Paige) with a sprawling matriarchal Brooklyn family. It premiered on TV One in October, and while I don’t think you can stream it right now, it’ll show up, and it will be well worth seeking out.

40. HBO’s documentary Suited, about a Brooklyn custom suiting shop that caters to transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming customers. It’s about identity and fashion and compassion, and it was one of this year’s best.

41. Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America. As good as the FX drama series of the Simpson trial was, I think Edelman’s documentary was even better — more stirring, more focused on the social aspects of the case, more searching. It makes the point over and over that what’s most beneficial isn’t to know more about the court case itself, but to understand the many ways in which the case, both as a series of events and as a cultural phenomenon, was created by the country where it happened.

42. Josh Gondelman’s comedy album Physical Whisper includes a track called “Kiss Me Neck,” and in it, you’ll find one of the reasons Josh (who’s a pal and a writer for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) is the kind of comedian he is: it’s long and involved, and then … the punch line doesn’t come from him. It’s somebody else’s laugh, and telling the story comes from a place of generosity. That would make it unusual in a lot of people’s repertoire, but it fits right in on this record.

43. I am low-key obsessed with the musical The Last Five Years, and I had no worse FOMO this year than what I experienced when I missed Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry performing it at Town Hall in New York. Fortunately, there’s video evidence. This kind of one-off theater experience, which is sort of a relative of the production of Company a couple of years ago with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert, is something I could stand to see a lot more of, hopefully when I’m not traveling.

44. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode “9 Days,” in which both Jake (Andy Samberg) and Holt (Andre Braugher) got the mumps — and were quarantined together, and named their goiters — was goofy and perfect. Brooklyn is a show I’m crazy about, but never more than when they lock up Jake and Holt and just make them bump into each other in a variety of ways.

45. Emma Thompson being really just about perfect. Much of Bridget Jones’s Baby was just a nostalgia tour for Bridget-likers — and there’s nothing wrong with that, really. But Emma Thompson shows up in a few scenes as Bridget’s OB/GYN, and she is so funny that it makes the entire film a great bargain, just for that. (“My husband said it was like watching his favorite pub burn down.” A line delivery so good I bark-laughed in my living room.)

46. This fall’s fresh Emmy winners: Rami Malek for Mr. Robot, Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black, and Louie Anderson in Baskets, Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown for The People v. O.J. Simpson, among others, gave hope to those who would like to see the Emmys get a little more … well, creative in recognizing talent. Sometimes it feels like it’s all the same faces every year, and this year, it wasn’t. The rare awards show where the winners themselves were fairly frequently exciting to see.

47. All the moments in which, even while grieving, we shared thoughts about artists who died this year. While no one can feel happy, really, about losses like Prince and David Bowie and George Michael and Carrie Fisher, there is a way in which sadness frees up vulnerable thoughts, and I’m not sure we’ve ever had a better year for memorial essays and other reminders to appreciate the artists you love as loudly and unreservedly as you can. To wit: I could easily have made one of the items on this list my firm belief that nobody wrote better more consistently this year in more different ways than Rembert Browne; here’s his remembrance of Phife Dawg, and here he is on George Michael’s “Freedom ’90.”

48. Inside the NPR family, one of my favorite podcast episodes of the year was Code Switch’s “Audie And The Not-So-Magic School Bus.” Just listen. (Bonus in this category: My Pop Culture Happy Hour co-conspirator and dear friend Glen Weldon’s great, great book The Caped Crusade: Batman And The Rise Of Nerd Culture. Pro tip — consider the audiobook.)

49. This was my year of Hamilton, as it was for many people. Not only did that mean I had the chance to see the show, but it meant I got to watch the #shotsoutthegrammy phenomenon on Snapchat, and I got to watch a digital puppeteer for PBS’s Splash & Bubbles make a fish lip sync “My Shot,” and it meant I got to hear Code Switch’s Gene Demby talk to George Washington himself, Chris Jackson. (By the way: I don’t love everything on the Hamilton mixtape, but I do love Dessa singing “Congratulations.”) Big year.

50. I don’t think it would be fair not to acknowledge that all the wonderful things there are often coexist with tremendous sadness and disappointment and fear. In that spirit, I want to close the list with Gregory Porter’s Tiny Desk Concert, which he played at NPR just after we learned that NPR photographer David Gilkey and journalist and interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna had died in Afghanistan. There had been so much crying that day that half the eyes in the building were still swollen. Porter came to us by chance, but it was just as if he’d been sent for this purpose. The concert was sorely needed and incredibly healing. And yes, it was wonderful.

‘Lost Journalism’ Revisits The Golden Age Of Ring Lardner


How big was the writer Ring Lardner? He helped create what’s still called The Golden Age of Sportswriters, the ones who wrote about The Babe, The Ironman, Dempsey, DiMaggio, and Joe Louis. And he went on to write short stories, novels, songs, and plays. He was an inspiration to Ernest Hemingway, who read his columns growing up outside Chicago, and later a favored writer of Maxwell Perkins and confidant of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But a lot of the early journalism that made Lardner one of the most influential writers of the early 20th century disappeared over the years. His columns appeared in the South Bend Times, then the Chicago Tribune, in an old technology called newspapers.

Columnist Ron Rapoport, who won the Ring Lardner Award for excellence in sports journalism this year, has unearthed and collected some of those columns for a new book: The Lost Journalism Of Ring Lardner. He tells NPR’s Scott Simon that, in a way, every sportswriter today can trace their lineage back to Lardner. “I heard the other day somebody say that he invented the column,” Rapoport says. “Not necessarily the sports column … his syndicated column ran in 150 papers, reached 8 million readers, and made him the single best read columnist of any stripe in the country.”

Interview Highlights

On Lardner’s subject matter

What’s interesting is that once he … started writing these weekly columns, he left sports pretty much behind. He wrote about World War I, Prohibition, politics, his travels, his family, the craft of journalism. These were all for newspapers, as you point out, and they’re the kind of thing that fascinated readers back then, but you don’t see in papers or even online today, I don’t think.

On his poetry

He just wrote so much about himself and his family, and his travels — he was always writing poems about his children, he wrote poems about when each of the boys were born. His wife insisted they name Ring Jr. after himself, so he writes, “When you are christened Ringworm, by humorists and wits/When people pun about you, till they drive you into fits/When funny folks say ‘Ring, ring off!’ until they make you ill/Remember that your poor old dad tried hard to name you Bill.”

On F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that writing abour sports wasn’t up to Lardner’s gifts

Fitzgerald was ten years younger, and he greatly admired Ring. But you’re right — he thought he wasn’t stretching himself, was too content to stay within the confines of his short stories and his journalism. And Edmund Wilson, the great critic of the era, he agreed — comparing Ring to Mark Twain and wondering when he was going to write his Huckleberry Finn. But here’s my view: You can’t judge a writer by what he doesn’t write. Lardner wrote what he wanted to write. And that’s what he stayed with.

Brooklyn Police And The People They Serve Improvise ‘Understanding’ On Stage


Starting in October, seven police officers and seven civilians got together once a week to get to know one another and do improvisational exercises. At the end of the 10-week journey they starred in To Protect, Serve, and Understand, a free show at the Brooklyn Music School. Above, Officer Desmond John, left, and Kathie Horejsi.

Amanda Hinkle


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Amanda Hinkle

Starting in October, seven police officers and seven civilians got together once a week to get to know one another and do improvisational exercises. At the end of the 10-week journey they starred in To Protect, Serve, and Understand, a free show at the Brooklyn Music School. Above, Officer Desmond John, left, and Kathie Horejsi.

Amanda Hinkle

A theater company in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently decided to do a social experiment: Put seven cops and seven civilians in a rehearsal room once a week to really get to know one another. Then, after 10 weeks, ask them to put on a show.

The group first met on a recent fall evening in a rehearsal space at the top of a creaky flight of stairs at the Brooklyn Music School. Gathered around a big dinner table, everyone was in street clothes. After some awkward conversation over corn chowder, Terry Greiss, one of the founders of the Irondale Ensemble theater company, spoke to the group.

“Whatever happens in this room is going to reflect your concerns, your senses of humor, your quirkiness, your talents …” he said. “This is a safe space.”

That was the beginning of To Protect, Serve, and Understand, which grew out of nationwide tensions between police and communities of color. Using theater improv games, the goal is to get people who normally don’t speak to one another — except in moments of extreme duress — to listen and understand.

Greiss and his associates led the 14 civilians and cops through improvisational exercises designed to break down defenses and work together.

It was only after two hours that Greiss had the participants sit down and talk about what he called “the elephant in the room” — distrust and anger between cops and the communities they serve.

“We’re all human beings,” says Wendell Dias of the Brooklyn’s 73rd precinct. “We all have feelings, we all have emotions. We all have something we want to share, we want to communicate to someone else.”

TS Hawkins, a Black Lives Matter activist and poet, replies: “It’s easy, sometimes, I think, to sit and say we’re all human beings, we all bleed red. But when you have a badge and I don’t, that automatically means that your life is better than mine.”

This is the sort of work the Irondale Ensemble does, in schools, prisons and shelters. Greiss came up with the idea for this workshop, after watching the video of Eric Garner’s fatal, 2014 encounter with police officers in Staten Island.

“I kept seeing people not talking to each other, not looking at each other and the tragedy that evolved because of that,” Greiss says. “So, in my anger about this, I wrote a letter to the police commissioner and I said: This is what we do and I think you need it.

Two days later, he got a call from police headquarters and the program started. Participants are recruited from flyers at precincts, e-mails and word-of-mouth. The group was mostly self-selecting — though some cops admitted their sergeants suggested they audition. Greiss and his colleagues put together a diverse group; black, white, brown, young, old.

“We wanted people who had strong opinions about what was going on in the world today,” Greiss says.

I showed up several times over the course of the workshop. Each time, I played games with the group and joined them for dinner. When I returned five weeks later, it was right after the election, and two things were clear: The group had bonded in many ways, becoming something of a theater company, and those strong opinions had become the center of the dinner table conversation — issues like institutional racism and patriarchy.

Officer Aliea Persaud patrols in the neighborhood. She says she found this workshop, at times, to be painful.

“I’m not gonna lie: There were, like, two classes back-to-back where we all just kind of looked at each other and we were like, What are we doing here?” says Persaud. “Like, I didn’t come here to get attacked. You know? I didn’t come here for people to tell me that, you know, I’m a killer, I’m a this, I’m a that. Like, we didn’t sign up for that. But, I think as two or three classes go on, I think we’re now getting back to the general idea of why we’re here; to have fun, to understand, to figure each other out, figure things out. And do it while eating and laughing!”

Every rehearsal and performance begins with a dinner. “Sitting down and having a hamburger together or eating macaroni and cheese together goes a long way to developing relationships … ” says Terry Greiss. “I was insistent that we start with a meal — and not with a meal from a restaurant … it had to be a meal that was cooked by somebody who you could say thank you to at the end.”

Amanda Hinkle


hide caption

toggle caption

Amanda Hinkle

That was the dynamic — moments of tension, followed by moments of genuine togetherness. As the December performances approached, the participants were given an assignment, to really walk in each other’s shoes. The cops had to do a one-on-one interview with a civilian and the civilians had to interview a cop. And then, they had to create a short monologue, based on it.

Retired principal Cynthia Grayman-Pond interviewed Officer Chris Peguero of Brownsville’s 73rd precinct — the precinct where her school was. Grayman-Pond knows many officers — she’s even in a relationship with one — but she also has a 28 year-old son.

“That’s the other flip side,” she says. “He’s a young black man, and that’s the tension.” She says, like many black parents, she’s had “the talk” with her son about how to engage with the police.

Still, she can see both sides, so in her interview, she was able to draw Peguero out. He told her a story he hadn’t told before, about a painful domestic call he and his partner answered. Two weeks later, Grayman-Pond became Officer Peguero on stage — telling the story of that disturbing call in front of an audience of 150 people, including cops and civilians.

The final show had its moments of humor, but some of the strongest moments came when the participants played themselves. In one scene, the participants respond to the question: “What are you afraid of?”

Serrina Goodman answers: “I’m afraid that a overzealous cop will take out one of my boys.”

Officer Persaud replies: “I’m afraid of my children growing up motherless.”

After the performance, there was lots of hugging and kissing, but activist and poet TS Hawkins insists this is not a Kumbaya moment.

“Yes, we’re up here talking the talk and hopefully all the people on the stage too are walking the walk,” she says. “But it’s also for the people who are watching, that they’re also taking the conversations that they’ve heard here and bringing it to their dinner tables.”

Officer Desmond John of the 88th precinct says this workshop has changed the way he walks the walk on his beat.

“It’s helping me to just be more cognizant of people and their emotions and their body language and their feelings,” he says. “You know, you don’t have to agree with everything that someone says or does, but just to understand them on a basic level and to respect them.”

The Irondale Ensemble and the NYPD plan to do a new workshop this spring. And they hope to bring To Protect, Serve and Understand to other cities as well.

‘Lost Journalism’ Revisits The Golden Age Of Ring Lardner


How big was the writer Ring Lardner? He helped create what’s still called The Golden Age of Sportswriters, the ones who wrote about The Babe, The Ironman, Dempsey, DiMaggio, and Joe Louis. And he went on to write short stories, novels, songs, and plays. He was an inspiration to Ernest Hemingway, who read his columns growing up outside Chicago, and later a favored writer of Maxwell Perkins and confidant of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But a lot of the early journalism that made Lardner one of the most influential writers of the early 20th century disappeared over the years. His columns appeared in the South Bend Times, then the Chicago Tribune, in an old technology called newspapers.

Columnist Ron Rapoport, who won the Ring Lardner Award for excellence in sports journalism this year, has unearthed and collected some of those columns for a new book: The Lost Journalism Of Ring Lardner. He tells NPR’s Scott Simon that, in a way, every sportswriter today can trace their lineage back to Lardner. “I heard the other day somebody say that he invented the column,” Rapoport says. “Not necessarily the sports column … his syndicated column ran in 150 papers, reached 8 million readers, and made him the single best read columnist of any stripe in the country.”

Interview Highlights

On Lardner’s subject matter

What’s interesting is that once he … started writing these weekly columns, he left sports pretty much behind. He wrote about World War I, Prohibition, politics, his travels, his family, the craft of journalism. These were all for newspapers, as you point out, and they’re the kind of thing that fascinated readers back then, but you don’t see in papers or even online today, I don’t think.

On his poetry

He just wrote so much about himself and his family, and his travels — he was always writing poems about his children, he wrote poems about when each of the boys were born. His wife insisted they name Ring Jr. after himself, so he writes, “When you are christened Ringworm, by humorists and wits/When people pun about you, till they drive you into fits/When funny folks say ‘Ring, ring off!’ until they make you ill/Remember that your poor old dad tried hard to name you Bill.”

On F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that writing abour sports wasn’t up to Lardner’s gifts

Fitzgerald was ten years younger, and he greatly admired Ring. But you’re right — he thought he wasn’t stretching himself, was too content to stay within the confines of his short stories and his journalism. And Edmund Wilson, the great critic of the era, he agreed — comparing Ring to Mark Twain and wondering when he was going to write his Huckleberry Finn. But here’s my view: You can’t judge a writer by what he doesn’t write. Lardner wrote what he wanted to write. And that’s what he stayed with.

Brooklyn Police And The People They Serve Improvise ‘Understanding’ On Stage


Starting in October, seven police officers and seven civilians got together once a week to get to know one another and do improvisational exercises. At the end of the 10-week journey they starred in To Protect, Serve, and Understand, a free show at the Brooklyn Music School. Above, Officer Desmond John, left, and Kathie Horejsi.

Amanda Hinkle


hide caption

toggle caption

Amanda Hinkle

Starting in October, seven police officers and seven civilians got together once a week to get to know one another and do improvisational exercises. At the end of the 10-week journey they starred in To Protect, Serve, and Understand, a free show at the Brooklyn Music School. Above, Officer Desmond John, left, and Kathie Horejsi.

Amanda Hinkle

A theater company in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently decided to do a social experiment: Put seven cops and seven civilians in a rehearsal room once a week to really get to know one another. Then, after 10 weeks, ask them to put on a show.

The group first met on a recent fall evening in a rehearsal space at the top of a creaky flight of stairs at the Brooklyn Music School. Gathered around a big dinner table, everyone was in street clothes. After some awkward conversation over corn chowder, Terry Greiss, one of the founders of the Irondale Ensemble theater company, spoke to the group.

“Whatever happens in this room is going to reflect your concerns, your senses of humor, your quirkiness, your talents …” he said. “This is a safe space.”

That was the beginning of To Protect, Serve, and Understand, which grew out of nationwide tensions between police and communities of color. Using theater improv games, the goal is to get people who normally don’t speak to one another — except in moments of extreme duress — to listen and understand.

Greiss and his associates led the 14 civilians and cops through improvisational exercises designed to break down defenses and work together.

It was only after two hours that Greiss had the participants sit down and talk about what he called “the elephant in the room” — distrust and anger between cops and the communities they serve.

“We’re all human beings,” says Wendell Dias of the Brooklyn’s 73rd precinct. “We all have feelings, we all have emotions. We all have something we want to share, we want to communicate to someone else.”

TS Hawkins, a Black Lives Matter activist and poet, replies: “It’s easy, sometimes, I think, to sit and say we’re all human beings, we all bleed red. But when you have a badge and I don’t, that automatically means that your life is better than mine.”

This is the sort of work the Irondale Ensemble does, in schools, prisons and shelters. Greiss came up with the idea for this workshop, after watching the video of Eric Garner’s fatal, 2014 encounter with police officers in Staten Island.

“I kept seeing people not talking to each other, not looking at each other and the tragedy that evolved because of that,” Greiss says. “So, in my anger about this, I wrote a letter to the police commissioner and I said: This is what we do and I think you need it.

Two days later, he got a call from police headquarters and the program started. Participants are recruited from flyers at precincts, e-mails and word-of-mouth. The group was mostly self-selecting — though some cops admitted their sergeants suggested they audition. Greiss and his colleagues put together a diverse group; black, white, brown, young, old.

“We wanted people who had strong opinions about what was going on in the world today,” Greiss says.

I showed up several times over the course of the workshop. Each time, I played games with the group and joined them for dinner. When I returned five weeks later, it was right after the election, and two things were clear: The group had bonded in many ways, becoming something of a theater company, and those strong opinions had become the center of the dinner table conversation — issues like institutional racism and patriarchy.

Officer Aliea Persaud patrols in the neighborhood. She says she found this workshop, at times, to be painful.

“I’m not gonna lie: There were, like, two classes back-to-back where we all just kind of looked at each other and we were like, What are we doing here?” says Persaud. “Like, I didn’t come here to get attacked. You know? I didn’t come here for people to tell me that, you know, I’m a killer, I’m a this, I’m a that. Like, we didn’t sign up for that. But, I think as two or three classes go on, I think we’re now getting back to the general idea of why we’re here; to have fun, to understand, to figure each other out, figure things out. And do it while eating and laughing!”

Every rehearsal and performance begins with a dinner. “Sitting down and having a hamburger together or eating macaroni and cheese together goes a long way to developing relationships … ” says Terry Greiss. “I was insistent that we start with a meal — and not with a meal from a restaurant … it had to be a meal that was cooked by somebody who you could say thank you to at the end.”

Amanda Hinkle


hide caption

toggle caption

Amanda Hinkle

That was the dynamic — moments of tension, followed by moments of genuine togetherness. As the December performances approached, the participants were given an assignment, to really walk in each other’s shoes. The cops had to do a one-on-one interview with a civilian and the civilians had to interview a cop. And then, they had to create a short monologue, based on it.

Retired principal Cynthia Grayman-Pond interviewed Officer Chris Peguero of Brownsville’s 73rd precinct — the precinct where her school was. Grayman-Pond knows many officers — she’s even in a relationship with one — but she also has a 28 year-old son.

“That’s the other flip side,” she says. “He’s a young black man, and that’s the tension.” She says, like many black parents, she’s had “the talk” with her son about how to engage with the police.

Still, she can see both sides, so in her interview, she was able to draw Peguero out. He told her a story he hadn’t told before, about a painful domestic call he and his partner answered. Two weeks later, Grayman-Pond became Officer Peguero on stage — telling the story of that disturbing call in front of an audience of 150 people, including cops and civilians.

The final show had its moments of humor, but some of the strongest moments came when the participants played themselves. In one scene, the participants respond to the question: “What are you afraid of?”

Serrina Goodman answers: “I’m afraid that a overzealous cop will take out one of my boys.”

Officer Persaud replies: “I’m afraid of my children growing up motherless.”

After the performance, there was lots of hugging and kissing, but activist and poet TS Hawkins insists this is not a Kumbaya moment.

“Yes, we’re up here talking the talk and hopefully all the people on the stage too are walking the walk,” she says. “But it’s also for the people who are watching, that they’re also taking the conversations that they’ve heard here and bringing it to their dinner tables.”

Officer Desmond John of the 88th precinct says this workshop has changed the way he walks the walk on his beat.

“It’s helping me to just be more cognizant of people and their emotions and their body language and their feelings,” he says. “You know, you don’t have to agree with everything that someone says or does, but just to understand them on a basic level and to respect them.”

The Irondale Ensemble and the NYPD plan to do a new workshop this spring. And they hope to bring To Protect, Serve and Understand to other cities as well.

Simon & Schuster Will Publish Book By Breitbart Editor, Despite Criticism


Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative columnist and Internet personality, confirmed that he has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, saying on his Facebook page: “They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off. Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened.”

Drew Angerer/Getty Images


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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative columnist and Internet personality, confirmed that he has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, saying on his Facebook page: “They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off. Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened.”

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The AP reported Friday that Simon & Schuster planned to move forward with publication of a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, in spite of harsh criticism. The forthcoming book, called Dangerous, is said to be about free speech.

Yiannopoulos, who writes for Breitbart News, became widely known over the summer after he was permanently banned from Twitter for “participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals.”

As NPR reported at the time, Yiannopoulos had launched a campaign against Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, calling on other users to help him harass her on Twitter. (Editor’s note: The linked site contains offensive material.)

“People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” Twitter said in a statement emailed to NPR. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

Several Simon & Schuster authors expressed their outrage on Twitter at the news that they would be sharing a publisher with Yiannopoulos.

In a post on his Facebook page, Yiannopolous wrote:

“They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off. Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened. Every line of attack the forces of political correctness try on me fails pathetically. I’m more powerful, more influential, and more fabulous than ever before and this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream. Social justice warriors should be scared — very scared.”

In a statement to the AP, Simon & Schuster said Friday that it does not condone discrimination or hate speech and that readers should “withhold judgment until they have had a chance to read the actual contents of the book.”

The book, which is available for preorder, had climbed to No. 1 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list as of Friday.

‘Late Show’ Host Says He Has Finally Found His Post-‘Colbert Report’ Voice




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We’re continuing our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year with Stephen Colbert. Last year, he took over CBS’s “The Late Show” after David Letterman retired. When I spoke with Colbert last month, we talked about why he ended “The Colbert Report” two years ago and decided it was time to drop his persona as a conservative blowhard. We also discussed what it’s been like to create his version of “The Late Show” and discover who he is on stage out of persona and do political comedy out of persona.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your new show – not so new. But it’s the first time I’ve spoken to you (laughter) since you’ve been…

STEPHEN COLBERT: Cool.

GROSS: …Doing “Late Night.”

COLBERT: Thanks for having me back. I’m really happy to talk to you.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, I’m thrilled. So for “The Colbert Report,” you had to follow Fox News really closely ’cause your character was based in part on Bill O’Reilly, and…

COLBERT: Though, I didn’t actually watch Bill for most of the series. I got it in my head.

GROSS: Right.

COLBERT: And then I only watched him on basic stories. I – at a certain point, I couldn’t actually sip that cup anymore.

GROSS: But you still had to watch Fox in general, didn’t you?

COLBERT: Yeah, yeah. We raked through it to see what the take on the right was, yeah.

GROSS: Right. So I’m thinking you might be taking a special interest in the Roger Ailes sex scandal that led to his having to leave Fox News.

COLBERT: If by special interest, you mean rolling my eyes back in ecstasy in an overstuffed chair…

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: If that’s what you mean by special interest, then yeah. I have a special interest in that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: What I can’t believe is that happened during the end of the first week – that happened the end of the first week of the Republican convention, when we had already talked to Jon Stewart about coming on as being a surprise guest that night. And I couldn’t believe I got to share that moment with Jon at my desk of Roger Ailes’s comeuppance or come-down-ance (ph) or however you want to describe that. It was a perfect consummation devoutly to be wished that the two of us should be together as his flaming meteor, you know, hit the surface of the barren planet that will be the rest of his career.

GROSS: So now that you’re not doing “The Colbert Report” character, are you watching any more or less of Fox News?

COLBERT: I almost never – I never watch Fox News, nor do I ever mention them on air. You’ll notice that I have not said the words Fox News. I think I maybe said it once in 250 shows.

GROSS: So why is that?

COLBERT: I don’t care. I am not a media critic. I engaged in media criticism with the old show. But I’m a comedian. And, really, the reason to watch Fox News is to do media criticism. And I actually think that there is a – I’m interested in talking about a broader scope of things than getting sucked into the whirlpool of what particular emotional gratification is being expressed on Fox News or MSNBC. The pure polarization that is a hit of heroin to those who take pleasure from political strife has no more appeal to me. I’d rather talk about the story itself and what is happening than what people are saying about the story.

GROSS: OK. So I want to play another clip from “The Late Show.” This is from October 28. And this was after Megyn Kelly and Newt Gingrich had the big dust-up on her show ’cause he accused her of being fascinated with sex and not caring about public policy after she had asked about allegations of Donald Trump’s sexual predatory behavior. And she responded by saying that she’s fascinated by the protection of women. So, again, this is about him accusing her of not caring about public policy. And here’s what you had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT”)

COLBERT: Well, the thing is Megyn “Kelly File” isn’t talking about fun-time, bedroom whoopie-making. She’s talking about assault. Oh, wait, unless Newt doesn’t know the difference. Maybe no one gave him the talk. Hold on. Let’s do this.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Newt, sweetheart…

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: …You’re growing up so fast.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: In fact, you’re 73.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Your body’s changing. You’ve…

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: …Probably noticed some strange new hair growing on your earlobes.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: It’s perfectly natural. You’re old enough to finally learn about the birds and the bees and the consent.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: You see, when a man has special feelings for a woman, he wants to give her a special hug. He asks her a special question – you up?

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: But grabbing a lady because you’re a TV star is not sex. It’s assault. And fun fact – assault is a matter of public policy ’cause it’s illegal even if you use Tic Tacs.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I hope that clears things up, buddy. I would explain to you what sex is, but then I’d have to picture you doing it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That’s Stephen Colbert. That’s really, like, hilarious. Can you take us a little bit through the process of coming up with that sketch?

COLBERT: In the morning pitch meeting, someone said, did you hear what Newt did last night? And I said, no, what was it? And they told me the – they told me what he did. And I went, oh, my gosh, what an interesting emotional moment for him and for her. You saw Megyn Kelly in the video. You see Megyn Kelly sort of really throw up her armor and go, all right, well, this is how you’re going to behave. It turned from what could’ve been an interview with ease to one where she was deeply armored and shot a barb at him about – I’ll let you deal with your – I’ll let you go so you can deal with your anger issues. And it became an emotional moment rather than an informational moment.

And I really – that was very interesting to me. And we want, more than anything else, then to talk about everything that just happened as quickly as we can, to leave no meat on the chicken for the next day, which is different than the way we used to do our show because it used to be that I was always skiing in Jon Stewart’s wake. And I knew that he was going to pick the chicken, as we would say, or eat every berry on the bush of that day’s news.

And we had a hunter-gatherer relationship. Jon would do all the gathering, which is every nut, every berry that’s growing that day. And we would do the hunting. We would talk about a single subject maybe for a week. Or we would think about one idea that we might do three or four days from now or maybe two weeks from now as we developed the idea and how my character might put himself in that news story.

Now it’s how fast can you talk about everything that happened in the news or in popular culture in the last 24 hours? And it’s much faster than we used to work. It’s – you know, the joke I’ve made is that we went from go-kart to NASCAR, with all the, you know, advertising stickers on the side of our car, too.

GROSS: Does CBS ever ask you to be even-handed in your comedy? Or is it understood that comedy, particularly satirical comedy, is not about being even-handed?

COLBERT: I have not gotten a shred of editorial guidance from them.

GROSS: Which I’m sure you’re very happy about.

COLBERT: Absolutely. It was one of the things I was most nervous about going over to a network – that there would be a thumb on the scale. I mean, the only thumb on the scale is, you know, can you not mention that car company? Could you mention this car company because they don’t sponsor us? And – but it’s much like it was over on cable because if the car company or the phone company or whatever it is is in the news, they’re hands-off. It’s actually surprisingly little interference.

GROSS: Glad to hear that.

COLBERT: Yeah, me too.

GROSS: We have to take a short break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. So we’re going to take a short break. We will be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Stephen Colbert. He ended his satirical news show, “The Colbert Report,” in December of 2014 and dropped his persona as a conservative blowhard. In September of 2015, he started hosting “The Late Show” on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COLBERT: (Laughter).

GROSS: So, Stephen, what made you realize it was time to end “The Report?”

COLBERT: I didn’t really want to model the behavior of punditry anymore because I thought it was, A, limiting on a certain level – that I wanted to be able to do more than that character. And I also didn’t – I guess the word would be I didn’t respect my model anymore. And I…

GROSS: Wait, wait. What do you mean by that?

COLBERT: Well, you know, people always said it was Bill. But it’s punditry in general, the sense of certainty regardless of the facts that was embodied in the idea of truthiness. That was the thesis statement for the entire show – that how you feel is more important than what the facts are and that the truth that you feel is correct is more important than anything that the facts could support, which is – which we expressed in a very concise way on the show. We embodied it satirically. Though, it’s not really a new idea. And as you can see, it’s been amplified in interesting ways since we went off the air. But I didn’t just want to play the game anymore.

That was – that was a single thesis statement we tried to remind ourselves of every day. I would – when in doubt, I would just sort of recite those mantras to myself about – what is truthiness? And I’m looking out for you. And because I’m looking out for you, I’m also looking over your shoulder because I’ve got your back. And I have a special relationship with the audience that is – and it’s only us. We’re the only ones who get it. And if you agree with me, I love you. And please love you because I agree with you.

And all those emotional ideas – I’d have to remind myself every day to stay in character. And I’d remind myself of them right before I went on stage every night because I thought, well, you’ve come this far, why blow it now?

And toward the end of the show, I started to think that my love of that game was diminishing to the point that I might actually blow the entire – I might actually drop the entire China set one day because I just couldn’t take playing that character anymore.

GROSS: Like accidentally drop it?

COLBERT: Yeah, I guess so. You know, I began to feel like I was stumbling downhill with an armful of bottles and that I couldn’t actually keep up the discipline ’cause it took discipline to remind myself every day to – no, be the character. Don’t be yourself. And I began to wonder, well, what would it be like to be me?

And so I decided a couple years before the show ended that I was going to end the show – about two years. I said, OK, this will be the last round of shows that I’ll do. And I remember looking at the – before anybody knew, I remember looking at the calendar and saying, what’s our last day in 2014? They’d go, oh, it’s the 18. It’s Thursday the 18. I said, OK, great. And I circled it on the calendar. And I knew – OK, that’s the last day I’m doing it – last time I’m doing this show.

And I – and it was not because I didn’t like it anymore. I still liked it, but I just felt like, I’m not sure if I can actually keep this up without hurting someone.

GROSS: Hurting someone?

COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: What do you mean?

COLBERT: I don’t know. It’s a feeling. I thought maybe I would make some big mistake with the character because he says – he would say terrible things. And I got away with some of the terrible things he would say or do because it was all filtered through his mask. But if I didn’t maintain the mask, it would just be me being terrible. And that’s – and he would say hateful things or hurtful things.

And I thought, well, if I don’t play this tightly, if I don’t hit the bell just right all the time – not that it was a perfect performance. But what I mean is if I didn’t maintain this discipline – and I felt my discipline slipping – if I didn’t maintain that discipline that I would simply slide into being like the thing that I was mocking.

GROSS: At what point did you know that you would be hosting “The Late Show?” Like, you’d made the decision to stop “The Colbert Report” before you knew, right?

COLBERT: It fell out of the sky. It was absolutely no part of my plans when I decided to end “The Colbert Report.” That happened literally years later. It was a complete surprise to me. It hadn’t been an ambition of mine. And I’d just been an enormous fan of Dave. And so I had great respect for what he had built. But it – when they called and said, OK, how about you, I was shocked.

GROSS: So in that period when you knew you were ending “The Colbert Report,” and you didn’t know what you were going to do next…

COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: …What were you thinking about your future?

COLBERT: Oh, I don’t know. Go be an actor, I guess.

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

COLBERT: Yeah ’cause I’m an actor. And that’s how I started. And that’s what I was doing for 10 years. I was acting.

GROSS: Right. Right. But – so when you were offered “Late Night,” did you think, but I really wanted to act? I don’t know if I want to be doing this.

COLBERT: Well, yeah. I mean, you have to give that some thought. But I also knew that if someone wants to hire me or if I can get my own production company together or create my own project, you can act any time you want. You’ll – this opportunity will never come again. And I love a live audience. And I love the grind of every day. And I love the people I work with. And it gave me all the things that I loved.

And that was not a hard decision once I looked at – that I could leave the thing that I didn’t want to do anymore and still keep all the aspects of it that gave me deep satisfaction every day. I mean, this – the release, the privilege it is to do a show about what just happened in the last 24 hours or the last hour or the last half hour, given the speed of the news cycle right now, in front of a live studio audience, which just feels so happy to be there, with people that you love working with who are all pulling on the same rope is a drug.

And as hard as it is, I get that great release at the end of the day to being in front of the audience. And to know that I can continue that with my friends was the greatest draw. And I also couldn’t think of anything after “The Colbert Report” that would seem like a promotion other than taking over for Dave. And so I said, what a fool I would be to – not to accept this incredible opportunity because I can act until the day I die if I want to. But I can only do this now.

GROSS: When you started doing “The Late Show” as opposed to “The Colbert Report,” and you were able to drop the “Colbert Report” persona, did you know what your authentic voice was going to be? – you know, what your voice as, like, the actual Stephen Colbert was going to be? Because you still have to have, like, a bit of a persona as an entertainer onstage.

COLBERT: I don’t think so. I knew that it would be a little bit of a public discovery. You know, what’s the – it’s somebody else’s joke, but life is like learning to play the violin in public. You don’t know what you’re doing until you do it. And I knew that there’d be a learning curve that had to happen in public, on air. I would say that what I didn’t anticipate was how much I would overcorrect for not doing the character.

GROSS: What do you mean?

COLBERT: I think – well, because I was not talking about politics. I wasn’t doing a monologue on the day’s events when we first started. I mean, I would still talk about what was happening, but it wasn’t highly focused. It wasn’t – it did not have intention. And I wasn’t speaking all that honestly because I was attempting to do something different than I had done before. And the overcorrect, I would say, is that not realizing that through the character, I was actually speaking very honestly, and you were hearing my voice a lot of the time. You know, there’s a…

GROSS: I felt that way as a viewer.

COLBERT: Yeah. There’s a confessional aspect to wearing a mask – you know, the same reason why it’s easier to confess behind a screen to a priest than face-to-face. And so by – the character was a 10-year confession, perhaps of, you know, indulging ego and appetite through the person of this character. Then you go on stage as yourself, and you’re responsible for everything you say.

And there’s a natural – I think there’s a natural inclination to pull your punch because you have to be responsible for what you’re saying. You cannot hide behind the mask. And also – that if you talk about politics all the time – well, isn’t that what that other guy did? Why would I – or we talk about the news all the time. Well, isn’t that what – then how am I changing in any way?

And it took me – oh, gosh, I would say it took me almost half a year to realize that those two aren’t mutually exclusive, that you can have a highly opinionated, highly topical show as yourself and not essentially fall back into the basket of “The Colbert Report.”

And now I have no qualms about being sharp and satirical and highly opinionated and saying whatever’s on my mind as quickly as I can and not worrying about that – I’m playing the same game. I know I’m not playing the same game. But it took me a little while to realize that the character was not in danger of re-emerging.

GROSS: Yeah, I was really glad when you added more political satire at the top of the show.

COLBERT: Yeah, me too. It’s much more enjoyable, and the audience enjoys it. And it’s more honest, actually, because it’s what I consume all day.

GROSS: We’re listening back to the interview I recorded last month with Stephen Colbert, the host of “The Late Show” on CBS. After we take a short break, he’ll talk more about figuring out who he was on stage after dropping his persona from “The Colbert Report.” And, as we end the year that marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, will review a CD that celebrates Shakespeare in words and music. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded last month with Stephen Colbert. He ended his late-night, satirical news show, “The Colbert Report,” in December 2014. In September 2015, he started hosting “The Late Show” on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I want to play another clip from your show. And this was pretty recently. This was from October 25. And as background, a few weeks after you started hosting “The Late Show,” you interviewed Joe Biden. And on your show, you asked him if he was going to run. And he explained that he wasn’t going to run for president because, when you run, you have to give it 110 percent. And with his son Beau having recently died, he just didn’t have it in him to give that. So that’s background for this clip. This clip is about finding out that you were mentioned in WikiLeaks. So here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT”)

COLBERT: Today, we at “The Late Show” found out we’re a WikiLeak.

(CHEERING)

COLBERT: Yep. Yeah, I’m happy about it, too.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: As you know, WikiLeaks has been releasing emails from the Clinton campaign because they’re committed to transparency or however you say transparency in Russian.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: (Imitating Russian accent) Transpareshnik (ph). Transpareshnik.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Well, Julian Assange just pinched out another Wiki dump.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: And it included a Clinton campaign email from last year when I had Vice President Joe Biden on my show. Team Clinton was very suspicious that Biden was going to make a major announcement. One Clinton staffer wrote, my prediction – Biden announces his run on Stephen Colbert’s show. I don’t think he’d take him unless he was making news. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: You got me there. You got me there. Why would I talk to the vice president of the United States unless he was making news?

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Otherwise, you’re just stuck in a boring conversation with Joe Biden.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That’s Stephen Colbert from October 25 on “The Late Show.”

So when I heard that – and I thought it was really funny – I was thinking that if this had happened during “The Colbert Report,” your character would have just loved it because the whole world is about him. Like, everything that happens in the world has to be about him. That’s the way he interprets it. So, like, hey, even WikiLeaks is about him. How great is that? But doing this as yourself, you had to have a different take on it.

COLBERT: Yeah. Well, I mean, I like when the news is about me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: I mean, that’s part of what the confession of the character was.

GROSS: Right.

COLBERT: I mean, that’s – I was able to piggyback my ego on that old guy and pretend it wasn’t me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: You know, but I was waiting – I’ve been waiting, like, sure, we’re going to show up in the WikiLeaks – right? – because we’d had on, you know, Mrs. Clinton, I think, twice already. We’d had Joe Biden on. We had the first lady on. We’d, you know – I mean, we had Tim Kaine on, on some very small level, I know, John Podesta. And I’m like, I’ve got to show up in these.

And, yeah, the old show – he would’ve just been demanding to be in WikiLeaks. He wouldn’t have waited until he was in it. He would have said, come on, some – these can’t be real. They can’t be a real leak, or else I’d be all through them. I’m a huge player here. Something – something doesn’t smell right. And – but when this came up, I actually said, like, let’s keep our eyes open for if we appear in this because I think, at some point, we’re going to pop up.

And I was absolutely thrilled.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: I just don’t demand it of the news, but I’m still just as happy. You know, I like feeling important. I showed up in – Russian hackers found my name and gave it to Julian Assange, and then it became news. What could be better than that?

GROSS: So you’re doing comedy now not behind the anchor desk, though sometimes you’re doing a monologue behind the anchor desk. But you’re often doing it…

COLBERT: Yes, I sit down there. If it requires graphics and if it requires a sustained argument, I do it behind the desk.

GROSS: But, sometimes, you’re doing it standing up. And…

COLBERT: Yeah. Most of the time.

GROSS: So what have you had to learn in terms of, like, you know, walking out and standing in front of the microphone, figuring out what to do with your hands (laughter)?

COLBERT: That was easy. That part was really fast. But to enjoy taking my time with it – that’s the thing. And seeing the smiles and the people in the front row unlocked the door for me and allowed me to really enjoy it. You’ve got to sincerely enjoy what you’re doing, or else the audience, I think, can sniff it. And it took me a few months to really enjoy standing there.

And, as you can see, when the show first started, we did like three-minute opening monologues. Now we do 10-minute opening monologues because I don’t want it to end. I want to stay there on stage with them.

GROSS: It seems to me one of the hard parts of doing an opening monologue is what to do when the audience is laughing.

COLBERT: What to do when the audience is laughing?

GROSS: Yeah, like…

COLBERT: Oh, my gosh…

GROSS: …Do you say something? Do you repeat the punch line? Do you just keep your hands in your pockets? Do you…

COLBERT: Hide your erection.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Yeah. What do you do? What do I do while the audience is laughing? That is the hardest part of the job.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: What will I do while the audience is laughing? It’s such a challenge. You know, how was the show last night? It was so hard. Why? The audience laughed so much, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Oh.

GROSS: (Laughter) No, but really, you’ve got to do something…

COLBERT: What do you do?

GROSS: You do have to do something.

COLBERT: Levitate. Nail your feet to the floor because you’ll just fly up into the rafters.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: What does he do? You lean into it like it’s a wind. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. What do you do? That’s the easiest part of the job. You smile, and you’re happy that they’re happy. That’s it. And then you’re like – you know what the biggest challenge is?

GROSS: What?

COLBERT: It’s where do you jump back in to get to the next joke?

GROSS: Right, OK.

COLBERT: Where do you – how do you ride that energy to the next joke? How then can I use what was given me to give them a better rhythm, a better joke the next time around? How can I slide down the front face of their wave to give them better energy back?

It’s like, how can I make this a reciprocal relationship? How can I make this good – this moment feel as good for them as it’s feeling for me right now? What can I give back to them? And because comedy is about rhythm, it’s, like, where you jump in on their laughter is really maybe the only decision you’re making. And if you’re really feeling it, it’s not a decision at all. So there’s nothing to worry about while the audience’s is laughing. That’s just…

GROSS: So you have to wait for the right amount of decay of laughter before you come back in?

COLBERT: Exactly. And if this wasn’t radio, I would graph it for you.

GROSS: (Laughter) You probably would (laughter). So you used to come in and make the nightly stage entrance doing a kick dance with your band leader Jon Batiste. It was very manic.

COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: And you’ve taken…

COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: …That down a notch. And you’re not doing the kick dance anymore.

COLBERT: Nope.

GROSS: Can you talk about changing that?

COLBERT: Yeah. When the show first started, I thought, well, it’s a giant space. It’s a Broadway stage. What kind of energy – what level of energy do I need to fill this space that is then sort of captured by the camera? And – because I used to very much do a show that was for the camera that the audience got to witness. I feel like now I’m doing a show for the room that the cameras witness. And that’s…

GROSS: That’s a really big difference.

COLBERT: Yeah. And you really feel it when you’re doing it. And I – my first choice was, well, err on the side of energy. And then at a certain point I realized, well, that actually doesn’t translate over the camera. And the audience is just – I’m – and the audience is just as energetic whether I do that or not. And so I started eliminating things. And I said, what’s left? What’s left is you walking on the stage and doing jokes. And then – and so it was just erring on the side of giving the audience more, giving more energy, knowing I had enough energy for that room ’cause it’s a Broadway stage. It’s a big house.

And it’s even bigger than when Dave was there because the room had been choked down, I think, a long time, maybe even in Ed Sullivan’s days. They had choked the whole room down with huge sound sails and baffles. And you couldn’t even tell you were in a theater. It was all so choked down. We’ve opened it up. It’s a restored 1927 theater now. And it’s an amazing space to be in. And you feel a great need to fill it.

But what you learn eventually – and this is something I knew sort of intellectually but I’d forgotten instinctually – is that you actually don’t need high energy to fill a large space. You need your own sense of presence and focus. You know, you can bend an entire room by bending a paperclip if you’ve got the focus of the room. And to accept that the audience – you know, that you are their focus, you don’t need to do high kicks. You just need to be there, present for them. And then you’ve filled the entire room.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert, the host of “The Late Show” on CBS. We’ll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Stephen Colbert. When he ended his satirical news show, “The Colbert Report,” he dropped his persona as a conservative blowhard. He’s hosted “The Late Show” on CBS since September 2015, taking over David Letterman’s spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Is it a relief for you to be doing interviews as yourself as opposed to in character, trying to – having to try to figure out what your character’s take on that person would be?

COLBERT: They’re very different. It’s not a relief. I enjoy knowing something about their subject. I’ll tell you that. You know, I can have Neil Tyson on and know something about…

GROSS: Right, because your character was always ignorant.

COLBERT: …Interplanetary exploration.

GROSS: Yeah.

COLBERT: No, my character was a straw man for whatever – for whoever was on. I was a mass of ignorances – and for you to knock down, should you choose to. I used to be alarmed that people would not knock them down. Like, someone would come on and they would call into question the ascendancy of whatever particular figure of their religious right. And I would say, well, you know, all the founding fathers were fundamentalist Christians. And then they wouldn’t correct me. And I’d go, oh, good Lord.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: What’s going to happen now? Now I’ve miseducated America again. I won. I don’t want to win.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: You know, I didn’t always want to win. But my character always wanted to win. The biggest difference is that I’m not there to win against my guest. And, you know, I am not – I’m letting them talk for more than seven seconds at a time. Where I was – I was living by the old Joe Scarborough rule on the old show, which is if your guest talks for more than seven seconds at a time, you’ve lost control of your show. And I don’t do that anymore. I’m so happy to hear the stories that they have to tell.

Now, the danger there when I first started the show is that then you bring – you have to bring some opinion to the table, you know? Again, it was like a matter of overcorrection when the show first started. I guess I’ll have no punch because everybody was so afraid of – so many people wouldn’t come on the old show because the legend of that character, that he was going to stick a knife in your ribs and then slap the handle for the audience’s amusement, was not really true. And so I overcorrected when we first started, going, like, I’m not going to have any opinion. I’m just going to let them talk. Or I’m just going to – I’m going to pull every punch.

And there’s a great release. There’s a great gift of exhaustion that comes on you from doing a show like this over and over and over again that you actually lose all those second thoughts. And then you’re allowed to sort of be yourself with your guests, finally. And again, about six months into the show, I went, OK. I don’t have any – I don’t have any energy left to overthink this. I just have to do what instinctually feels good to me. And every aspect of the show got better and got easier and became more like me because I didn’t have time to think about – I didn’t have the energy to think about it anymore.

I’ll tell you who actually gave me kind of a hint about that – is that – one of my dear friends is Steve Higgins, who’s Fallon’s announcer and sort of sidekick. And I’ve known him for many years, and he’s a lovely guy. And he said, so how’s the schedule going? I said, oh, we’re going to start doing two on Thursdays. And he goes, oh, thank God. You’re going to love it. I said, why? It’s going to kill me, right? And he goes, no. That second show you do on Thursday is how you should do the show every week because you’ll be too tired to worry about whether you’re making the right choice. And he’s absolutely right.

GROSS: I want to ask you a question about Pope Francis.

COLBERT: Frankie.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: Papa Francs, yeah.

GROSS: So what are your impressions of him so far? And what impact does that have on you, as a Catholic, to have a new pope or specifically to have Pope Francis? It’s not like you’re – you know, you’re meeting him or talking with him. But he is the head of the church.

COLBERT: I’m a Catholic unironically. What I like about Pope Francis is that is – the message, for the most part – much is made of his very inclusive message. And there are aspects to his papacy that I’m sure are conservative in ways that his surprised American flock don’t pay much attention to. But this is the church that I imagined as a child. And this is the church that I was raised in.

The highly politicized Catholic Church of John Paul the II – how it was brought into the fold of the Republican coalition of the Reagan years always upset me because I think the church is larger than any political moment. And I’ve always enjoyed its century-long view of things.

I like that Francis has put the focus on the poor and humility of saying, who am I to judge the love of a gay couple? Those two things alone are very hopeful that the church has a message that will resonate with the coming generations as the world slowly changes its opinion of certain social stories.

GROSS: So one more question – I have taken up a lot of your…

COLBERT: Whatever you want.

GROSS: …Time this morning.

COLBERT: Whatever you want. No, I really – (laughter).

GROSS: No, no, that’s part of my question. That’s part of my question.

COLBERT: OK, yeah.

GROSS: We’re recording this in the morning. You have a lot of work to do before your show airs. So…

COLBERT: It’s 11:21 recording time…

GROSS: Yes.

COLBERT: …Where I am.

GROSS: So what do you have to do to compensate for the fact that you were generous enough to give us this interview?

COLBERT: Breathe deeply…

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: …And trust my staff. And I am capable of both. And then I’m ready for whatever the fresh wave of stress is because you’ve got to kind of like the stress, too. I don’t know how to attach a positive feeling to stress and pressure, but there is one. There’s a bullet-proof feeling that comes over you. And that’s – it’s really a pleasant one. And you kind of have to like that.

But to do one of these jobs, you’ve got to kind of learn to love the flaming toboggan ride of it. You’ve got to like it because everybody else is in the toboggan with you. You’re doing it together. That’s the joy. Everybody’s doing it together.

At the end of it when – hey, we survived. Pretty good show. Let’s do it again tomorrow. And that’s – that’s it. It’s the movement forward because it never stops. You’ve got to love the downhill hurdle. There’s no finish line. You’ve got to just love missing all those trees that you could’ve hit today.

GROSS: Stephen, I absolutely love talking with you. I’m so glad you came back to our show. And I’m so glad you’re back on TV (laughter).

COLBERT: It is a pleasure talking to you, Terry, because when I found out I’d be talking to you again, I thought, oh, I’m talking to Terry. Maybe the show means something.

GROSS: (Laughter) I love the show. I’m so glad you’re doing it.

COLBERT: (Laughter) Thanks.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert hosts “The Late Show” on CBS. Our interview was recorded last month. Our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year concludes Monday with comic Jeff Ross, who’s famous for his role roasting celebrities on Comedy Central. After we take a short break, we’ll mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with Lloyd Schwartz’s review of a recording celebrating Shakespeare in words and music. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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