Here's The Thing with Alec Baldwin
Summary: From WNYC Studios, award-winning actor Alec Baldwin takes listeners into the lives of artists, policy makers and performers. Alec sidesteps the predictable by going inside the dressing rooms, apartments, and offices of people we want to understand better: Ira Glass, Lena Dunham, David Brooks, Roz Chast, Chris Rock and others. Hear what happens when an inveterate guest becomes a host. WNYC Studios is a listener-supported producer of other leading podcasts including Radiolab, Snap Judgment, On the Media, Death, Sex & Money, Nancy and many others. © WNYC Studios
Billy Joel has sold more records than The Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna—though the “rock star thing” is something he can “take off.” Joel started playing piano when he was about four or five years old, but he admits that he doesn't remember how to read sheet music anymore. He says it’d be like reading Chinese. That doesn't stop the third best-selling solo artist of all time in the U.S. from plunking out a few tunes with Alec. WNYC is the producer of other leading podcasts, including Radiolab, Snap Judgment, On the Media and Death, Sex & Money.
Few musicians can compete with the encyclopedic musical knowledge that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson possesses—which is great news if you got to be a student of his at NYU. When not teaching music history, the 45-year-old drummer is directing the Grammy-Award winning group The Roots—a hip hop collective that rose from “everyone’s favorite underground secret” in the late 90s to Jimmy Fallon’s house band on The Tonight Show. Whether drumming, DJ’ing, or writing a book on food, Questlove is universally beloved. “The coolest man on late night,” according to the Rolling Stone. But there is one thing this genius of music can’t do: accept that he is one. He talks to Here’s the Thing host Alec Baldwin about a three year exile in London, Jimmy Fallon wooing the Roots, and how meditation saved his life. WNYC is the producer of other leading podcasts, including Radiolab, Snap Judgment, On the Media and Death, Sex & Money.
By the time Emilio Estevez was 23, he'd starred in The Outsiders, Repo Man, The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo’s Fire. As the son of Martin Sheen, he was Hollywood royalty, and as a member of the "brat pack" group of early-80s stars, he was a hot commodity. But he started turning down big roles to become the youngest person ever to write, direct, and star in a major motion picture. Estevez tells Alec that his script for that movie was "terrible," -- but it was risky, ambitious movie-making at a time when he didn't have to take risks. Estevez occasionally returned to "just acting" after that, for beloved performances in Men at Work, The Mighty Ducks, and more -- but his heart beats for his writer/director projects like 2006’s RFK masterpiece Bobby, nominated for a Best Film Golden Globe. His latest is The Public, about a fictional occupation of the Cincinnati Public Library by the city's homeless. Alec plays the police negotiator. The two actors discuss their collaboration -- plus growing up a Sheen, Francis Ford Coppola's brutal audition process, and whether actors should participate in the fan culture surrounding cult films like The Breakfast Club.
Debra Kletter's job is to be food-guru to some of the world's most discerning palates. Once one of New York theater's most respected lighting designers, Kletter found herself in the early 1990s disillusioned by budget-cuts and shaken by the loss of a generation of colleagues to HIV. So she pursued her second calling, far from the first: figuring out where you should eat dinner. After all, as she tells Alec, "reading menus was always my happy place." Now, years into her new business (which she conducts through her website, www.eatquestnyc.com), Kletter can tell you the best injera in Harlem or the oldest-school trattoria in Rome. But her real genius is an ability to match that encyclopedic knowledge with the needs -- and personalities -- of individual clients. One of those clients is Alec Baldwin, and you can tell from their teasing that the two go way back: all the way, in fact, to the stage of Prelude to a Kiss in 1989, which Debra lit, and where the two became friends.
Roger Daltrey put The Who together while working in a sheet-metal factory. The band took many forms before settling into the guitar-smashing, mic-swinging amalgam of testosterone and sensitivity that changed the world. But even before The Who began moving toward rock-stardom, Daltrey had walked a difficult path. Born into a working-class family, he spent his infancy evacuated from Nazi-bombed London, crammed into one room of a Scottish farmhouse with his mother and many others. He returned to a shellshocked father and real privation. But he tells Alec that the environment was "rich" with love and opportunity, and eventually he found himself in a grammar school with songwriter Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle. The rest is Rock history -- a history Daltrey helped define. He recounts it with humor and pride on this episode of Here's the Thing, and in his new memoir, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, out now.
In the late 70s, Ben Cohen was a rootless pottery teacher, laid off when his school closed down. Jerry Greenfield was a diligent pre-med, realizing he was never going to get into med school. They'd formed a deep friendship years earlier, as the two chubby kids in their middle-school gym class. Their joint reaction to their separate crises was to open a small ice cream shop in Burlington, Vermont. That decision would change the face of the industry, and give America a model for a new set of corporate values. At the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington -- just a couple miles from the site where Cohen and Greenfield set up shop in 1978 -- Alec talks to Ben and Jerry in front of a crowd that idolizes their hometown heroes, and the energy is infectious. From their Long Island childhood to the tensions surrounding Ben & Jerry's acquisition by Dutch conglomerate Unilever in 2000, the conversation is open, honest, and brimming with the deep bond these two men continue to feel, 40 years after they first put their names together on a sign in Vermont. Thanks to Vermont Public Radio for making it possible.
As a staff-writer at the New Yorker, Susan Orlean has embedded with fertility shamans in Bhutan and profiled a dog (a boxer named Biff). Her book The Orchid Thief inspired one of the most successful art-house movies of the past 20 years. Her latest deep dive is the burning of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. It is, to this day, the most damaging library-fire in U.S. history, but it's almost unknown outside of Southern California because national attention was focused on the Chernobyl meltdown. As with all Orlean's books, the nominal subject is a vehicle to tell human stories: those of the man arrested for the arson, of the cops who investigate, the librarians whose lives were changed, and the preservationists who insisted on rebuilding. It's a topic close to Alec's heart. He and Orlean discuss with warmth and enthusiasm the critical role libraries played in their respective childhoods (Alec is the son of a schoolteacher, after all), and their shared commitment today to the universal ideals of the public library.
Maggie Gyllenhaal's in a good place right now, at least as far as work and family go. Her latest starring role is as a troubled teacher named Lisa Spinelli in The Kindergarten Teacher. It's an unsettling portrayal of, as Gyllenhaal tells Alec, the "f***ing dire" consequences of "starving a vibrant woman's mind." In the film, Lisa's mind-starvation manifests in an unhealthy, exploitative relationship with a kindergartner. It's not an easy thing to watch, and Gyllenhaal tells Alec, "I almost didn't do the movie because I thought, 'no movie is worth disturbing a child, even for a few minutes.'" But her concerns were addressed, she said yes, and the result is a performance Gyllenhaal feels really good about. In fact, she says she feels better and better about each role she takes on these days. It's from this career high that she and Alec talk about The Deuce, her college years, her alternate career in skating, and the happy joining of lives, careers, and vowels in her marriage to Peter Sarsgaard.
Steve Higgins has two jobs. At 4:30 every day, 4 days a week, Steve announces The Tonight Show, sticks around to play Jimmy Fallon’s straight man, and then runs back upstairs at 30 Rock to keep working on that week’s Saturday Night Live. At SNL, he's in charge of the writers' room and, alongside Lorne Michaels, makes all the big decisions about the shape of the show, and the cast. It’s a heady life for a kid who started a sketch comedy troupe with his brothers in Des Moines after high school. Alec and Steve are real friends, and their conversation shows it, going deep into Higgins' origins as a comic, and into the inner life of Saturday Night Live.
After his parents divorced, 10-year-old Flynn McGarry wanted to feel useful, and maybe to reassert some control over his environment, too. So he started cooking for his mom, Meg. A passion was born. Meg began homeschooling him, allowed him to turn his bedroom into a high-end kitchen, and hosted Flynn's pop-up restaurants at their suburban California home. Massive publicity followed, and, this being the internet age, cruel online backlash. Soon, documentary filmmaker Cameron Yates got interested, and embedded with Flynn as he rose and rose over six years, to the threshold of realizing his most lofty culinary dreams -- at age 19. Cameron and Flynn joined Alec for a live event at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and the three talk candidly about life under the microscope, about the mixed blessings of precocity, and, most importantly, about the complicated relationship between Flynn and a mother who sees herself as having given up dreams of success as a filmmaker and writer to nurture her family. Cameron's film, Chef Flynn, will be in theaters November 9.
Ron Delsener is a working-class kid from Queens who rode his charm and his hustle all the way to the top of the music industry. He basically created the genre of the massive outdoor concert with his epic series of free Concerts in the Park. He landed everyone: Pavarotti, Streisand, even post-breakup Simon and Garfunkel. And Delsener is still firing on all cylinders: James Bay and Hozier are among the artists he maintains relationships with today. In his wonderfully profane and discursive conversation with Alec, Delsener delivers a full dose of the old-school Queens personality that the New York Times says "radiates like a lighthouse beacon." Delsener's rockstar stories are great, his accent is great, and you'll leave the interview finally understanding what a concert promoter actually does. (Hint: it's so lucrative because it’s so high-risk.)
After watching an early copy of the forthcoming documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway, Alec became fascinated by the film's quietly hilarious hero, Steve Young. As part of his job as a writer for the David Letterman Show, Steve had to scour secondhand stores for kooky music Dave would play on-air. That's how he first came across recordings of industrial musicals, a genre of theater largely unknown to anyone who didn't attend a sales conference in the 60s or 70s. An "industrial" was a fully staged production commissioned by a large company and performed solely for its salesmen, executives, or distributors. Some starred top-flight Broadway talent and were written by legendary teams like Chicago's Kander and Ebb (Go Fly a Kite for GE, 1966) or Fiddler on the Roof's Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Ford-i-fy Your Future, 1959). But many performers and composers made their living primarily doing industrials. Steve Young has dedicated his post-Letterman life to preserving what recordings remain, and to shining light and love on the artists behind these ephemeral creations. Alec and Steve dive into songs like "My Bathroom," and into the psychology of someone who would dedicate his life to saving them from obscurity. Plus they talk Letterman, and Young's own path from blue-collar New England, to Harvard, to the top of the comedy-writing heap.
This affectionate, funny conversation was recorded in front of a live audience at the Tribeca Film Festival, and garnered articles in the Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, BET, and beyond. The headlines were varied: some reporters focused on Spike's 2 a.m. call from Brando, others the big reveal that De Niro turned down Do the Right Thing. Still others were captivated by the audience-inclusive Black Panther lovefest. Come for all that, but stay for Alec's one-man reenactment of a fight with his parents, and Alec and Spike's deep, passionate conversation about On the Waterfront. Regardless of which part you love most, BET got it right: "The iconic director held nothing back."
Having followed a steep path from his working-class immigrant family in Massachusetts to the pinnacle of American photography, Pete Souza ended up working for both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama -- the only Chief White House photographer to have documented two presidencies. "The odds of someone getting two calls to work at the White House are pretty slim," he tells Alec with true humility, saying both stints were "accidental." That's hard to believe: Souza's unique ability to capture the moment without sacrificing composition won him plaudits for his work on daily papers well before he joined Reagan in 1983. But even though he's an old-school news photographer, he has a decidedly new-school following, thanks to the millions around the world who followed @obamawhitehouse on Instagram, and who now follow Souza himself. As Souza found his post-White House footing as a social media star, his Instagram turned into the catharsis bruised Blue America didn't know it needed. When the travel ban was announced, Souza posted Obama with a smiling Muslim schoolgirl. And the day before this episode of Here's the Thing went live, when Trump made nice to Putin in Helsinki, Souza posted Obama sternly towering over his Russian counterpart. The Obama images, as he tells Alec, "appeal to people because of what we have now." It's an appeal he hopes to capitalize on in his new book of Trump-Obama juxtapositions, Shade. Special for Alec and WNYC, Souza gathered his favorite Obama photos that didn't make it into his book Obama, an Intimate Portrait. You can find them below if you're reading this on the web; if not, go to www.heresthething.org. President Barack Obama plays with his niece Savita during the family's vacation on Martha's Vineyard in August, 2012 (Pete Souza, the White House) Sasha Obama leans over her father as Malia touches his head ca. 2009 (Pete Souza, the White House) Daniel Day-Lewis at the White House: 'Lincoln' Star reads the Gettysburg Address with Obama in November 2012 (Pete Souza, the White House) President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Norman Manley International Airport prior to departure from Kingston, Jamaica en route to Panama City, Panama in April 2015 (Pete Souza, the White House) Obama crawls around in the Oval Office with Communications Director Jen Psaki’s daughter, Vivi, in April 2016 (Pete Souza, the White House) Obama looks on as comedian Will Ferrell reads "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" to first-term cabinet-members. (Pete Souza, the White House)
The vast ambition of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's PBS documentary The Vietnam War has precedents, but most of them are other Burns and Novick documentaries. The two directors' collaborations -- including 1994's Baseball and 2007's The War, about WW2 -- use their titles as entry-points to the full scope of American history. Novick refers to Vietnam as "the childhood trauma that America never dealt with," and Burns blames our inability to overcome the war on a failure of empathy. "When Americans talk about Vietnam," he says, "we just talk about ourselves. [We] need to triangulate with all the other perspectives, and not just 'the enemy.' It’s finding out what the civilians felt, the Vietcong felt, but then also our allies and the civilians and the protesters all the way out to deserters and draft-dodgers. And if you do that, then the political dialectic loses its force, because you realize that more than one truth could obtain at any given moment." This drive to create a common, American, sense of purpose and identity motivates Burns's work -- a theme that runs through this lively exploration of the two artists' pasts and creative processes.