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Bill Paxton Brings A Whole Lotta 'Love' To HBO

Bill Paxton plays Bill Henrickson, the head of a polygamous family in the HBO series Big Love. He received Golden Globe nominations for his work on the show in 2007 and 2008.


Other segments from the episode on January 29, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 29, 2009: Interview with Bill Paxton; Interview with James Bobin.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Bill Paxton Brings A Whole Lotta 'Love' To HBO


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bill Paxton, is the star of the HBO series, "Big Love." He plays Bill Henrickson, a polygamous man trying to keep up with three wives, eight children, three homes, and his small chain of home improvement stores. Henrickson grew up on a compound of people who practice polygamy and believe they're the true followers of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith. Although he broke away from the compound, he still practices polygamy, but he's trying to keep a low profile and live in a suburb of Salt Lake City.

In season three, which started a couple of weeks ago, some of the neighbors have discovered he's polygamous and that one of his wives is a daughter of the leader of the polygamist compound, the man who considers himself to be the living prophet and is facing trial for having sexual relations with underaged girls who live on the compound.

In the first episode of this season, the Henrickson family was debating whether they should go to their neighborhood block party and risk confrontations with neighbors opposed to their lifestyle. In this scene, the wives have been arguing about what to do; then Bill intercedes.

(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")

Mr. BILL PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) That's enough. We're not fighting about this. We've all become too casual - the conversation and coming and going from the houses, borrowing cars - it's a wake-up call to become more vigilant. We'll just sit out this block party and be done with it.

Ms. GINNIFER GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) But I want to go. We can't just become prisoners because of this.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Honey, this is just a tough time.

Ms. GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) What about the children?

Ms. AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Sarah Henrickson) What, do you want them to be stared at like freaks who'd be better off if they were placed in foster homes? I mean, our way of life is under attack. Don't you watch the news?

Ms. GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) But that's got nothing to do with us, and as soon as they get to know us, they'll know that's not us. And we had such a good time last year.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Margie, last year's not this year.

Ms. GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) Well, I don't care if they think that Nicky is a polygamist or we're all polygamists. The kids have been looking forward to it.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Honey, just drop it, OK? Come on, let's eat.

GROSS: Bill Paxton, welcome back to Fresh Air. Now, I have a confession...

Mr. PAXTON: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: I have a confession I have to make. When "Big Love" first started, I tuned into the first episode and I thought, this is silly, a show about polygamy, and I stopped watching it. Then in season two, I started watching it and I thought, this is a great show about the family, problems in the family, about religion, and it's problems in the family magnified by three because there's three families that your character has and three homes. And then I went back to season one and watched all of that, and now I'm watching season three, so I've become a really big fan of the show.

I'm wondering what your first impressions were when you read whatever you were given to read to see if you wanted to be in it.

Mr. PAXTON: Well, I got a call from my agent, and he mentioned that there was a pilot and it had to do with the subject of polygamy. And my initial reaction was, you know, I've played a lot of rural characters, and I consider myself kind of a regionalist in many ways, particularly in films like "Frailty" and "A Simple Plan."

But I guess my preconceived image that came to my mind was something way outside beyond the city limits on some hard-scrabble piece of land with, you know, surrounded by barbed wire and, you know, some kind of religious kind of zealotry going on, some intense patriarchal situation where the women were kind of barefooted and there are a lot of chickens walking around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAXTON: And I thought, oh, man, because I - I guess for me, I - like everyone, you know, there's kind of an image of polygamy as kind of an oppressive culture in modern times. And I - and then my agent says, well, just read it. And before I got to the last page, it was - I was on the phone to my agent, how can we make this work? It was so much more than I - than my, you know, preconception of it.

GROSS: What's your understanding of why your character, Bill Henrickson, believes in multiple marriage?

Mr. PAXTON: Oh, well, that's very easy. You see, my character believes in an elevated system that goes beyond this mortal realm. He is a Godly man who believes in the principle of plural marriage, the idea that it is his purpose in life to have as big a family, to bring into this world, into this mortal world as many souls as possible for - and it's all for the afterlife. And then, in his belief system, this life is just a shadow of the eternal life that we're all striving for. So it's kind of a funny thing because he's really created a situation for himself. He's taken on a difficult and not a comfortable life, but it's for the purpose of a higher purpose.

GROSS: Yeah, and because the family, he believes, will all be together and better serve God in the afterlife if they're large...

Mr. PAXTON: That's right.

GROSS: If there's more children and more wives. At the same time, your character does have a healthy sexual appetite and three wives to help him satisfy it, although sometimes that's really too much because he's so tired and exhausted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But how much do you think is his plural marriage about a spiritual reason to have multiple partners?

Mr. PAXTON: Well, I think it has a lot to do with it. I think, though, certainly, he is a man. He is a man of the flesh, and like any man, he has perhaps proclivities or desires that compromise his ideal, but still the ideal is there. You got to understand, these people live with a purpose. They have this purpose that it is a higher calling, and you got to also understand, it's not the easiest life. It's almost not a consummation devoutly to be wished for to have all these wives and to have everything that goes with that.

GROSS: Well, he has, like, three suburban homes to keep up.

Mr. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: Three houses with appliances that have to be purchased, and so many kids...

Mr. PAXTON: And the physical demands, they've got him using Viagra, and the emotional demands. I sometimes think he, in his mind, when he's in an idle moment, he pictures himself maybe on a lake fishing by himself. And he's just looking for that kind of serenity. But again, he has chosen a life that is a tough life. But also, there are the temptations that any man has, and it's obviously an easy thing to take advantage of and perhaps abuse. And he is a sexual guy, that's for sure.I think he's a real bumble...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAXTON: Let's face it, he's a bumblebee.

GROSS: So what does it take for you to be - to get into your character's mind, somebody who believes in plural marriage, who believes that Mormons kind of abandoned the true faith, which includes polygamy when they made polygamy illegal?

Mr. PAXTON: Yes. That was - been the 1890s or 18 - either 1890 or 1893 when Utah was granted statehood. Yeah, the - polygamy, the idea of polygamy was abolished. That's a theme that runs through the plot in this season. There's kind of a whole "Maltese Falcon" plot where everyone's trying to find this letter that was written back at that time that really would kind of legitimize polygamy in terms of the idea that the church maybe never really truly intended to give up celestial or plural marriage.

Personally, I don't - you know, I don't play my characters with any judgment. I don't think it's possible to play any character with judgment. You know, I rarely talk objectively about "Big Love" or the character I play because, you know, I'm hired to be a subjective character, and that's really where most of my thinking goes, into the part. So I don't have - there's not a conflict in my heart about playing this guy.

GROSS: Well, you found what's really decent about him. I mean, he's - in a lot of ways, he's just a really good, hard-working, decent family man who...

Mr. PAXTON: He certainly is.

GROSS: The majority of us would think was very delusional about plural marriage and what the afterlife and what eternity actually is. But he's, you know, underneath it all, he's a really decent man.

Mr. PAXTON: And I also believe his beliefs are as valid as anyone else's beliefs in terms of his spirituality. But he is, I think, he is trying to be a decent man.

GROSS: Right. And sometimes failing, like all of us.

Mr. PAXTON: Exactly. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Now, in between season two and season three of "Big Love," there was a lot of news coming from the world of polygamy. There was the Warren Jeffs trial...

Mr. PAXTON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And this was the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints who was tried and sentenced for marrying underaged girls. He had been on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, and now he's serving, I think, 10 years to life in prison. And last year a group of FLDS, Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Texas were raided by Texas authorities, and the children were taken away from their underage mothers.

Mr. PAXTON: Four hundred and sixty-five children, yes, that's right.

GROSS: And that's had a direct effect on the story lines this season. Those stories are being echoed in fictionalized versions of them.

Mr. PAXTON: Well, it's strange. I sometimes think that the creators of the show must have a crystal ball in their office because on both of these stories, we were kind of ahead of the curve. We had already shot stories that kind of reflected these in our shows before these events actually happened. So it's kind of art imitating life, life imitating art. It's a peculiar coincidence, I must say.

It's interesting, though. Had "Big Love" not been out there and in the public mind, I wonder, I feel like we've kind of been able to help kind of give a human face and maybe create a little more compassion to these people who had their children taken away last year. I think when we see these people and we see them in these prairie dresses and we seen them in these kind of period hairstyles, they look like they're living in another era, I think it's hard for modern Americans to kind of - to look at them with much sympathy or empathy, even, or compassion, and in a way, I think the show has put a human face on these people, and I think vice versa.

So I think it's been a bit symbiotic. I think it certainly hasn't hurt the show in terms of publicity, and perhaps it hasn't hurt their situation either, in terms of understanding, I should say.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Paxton. He stars in the HBO series, "Big Love." His movies include "One False Move," "A Simple Plan," "Twister" and "Apollo 13." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Bill Paxton, and he stars in "Big Love," the HBO series about a polygamous family. And he plays the part of Bill Henrickson, who has three wives.

Mr. PAXTON: Working on a fourth.

GROSS: Working on a fourth, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAXTON: Perhaps a fourth, if the Viagra holds out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So this season, your character is trying to start a Mormon-friendly casino across state lines. He needs to get across state lines for certain business reasons.

Mr. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: He wants to partner with an Indian tribe since the Indian tribes run casinos on their reservations.

Mr. PAXTON: American Indian, yes.

GROSS: So, I want to play another scene. In this scene, you're negotiating with the Native-American partner you're hoping to have, who's played by Robert Beltran. And he's skeptical that you're going to be a good business partner, and he's also kind of put off by the whole, you know, plural marriage idea.

Mr. PAXTON: And also the history of the religion, yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: So you're trying to convince him that you both have a lot in common. So here's the scene with my guest Bill Paxton and Robert Beltran from "Big Love."

(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) We have too much in common to let this fall apart.

Mr. ROBERT BELTRAN: (As Jerry Flute) What do you think we have in common, Bill?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson): Your people were forced onto reservations. In a way, my people were too. We're both trying to improve the lot of those we love and maintain a sacred life in the midst of a culture that's forgotten what's holy. It's an unlikely partnership, yours and mine. We both have a shared history together that needs mending. Let's mend and prosper at the same time. Look, I'm not Vegas. I'm not glitzy. I'm just a regular guy trying to support my family.

GROSS: That was a scene from "Big Love" with my guest Bill Paxton and Robert Beltran. I think that's a very interesting scene because it says so much about how the character of Bill Henrickson sees himself and also what a smooth talker he is.

Mr. PAXTON: He's also - Bill is a risk taker, you've got to remember that.

GROSS: Right, that's right.

Mr. PAXTON: He's, you know, whereas - see, Barbara's gotten - she's accepted the life of plural marriage, I think, and she certainly is a believer in it, but she doesn't want to stick her tentacle out and get it chopped off. My partner Don, my business partner, he's a very conservative polygamist who wants to kind of keep, you know, kind of live a very quiet life. Bill is pushing the envelope. He's trying to get out into society with this stuff, but he's also doing it, again, for the purpose of, you know, trying to create a security, a financial security for his family and a safety net.

He's worried that Henrickson Home Plus, because it has a very public face and he's part of the face of that company with his name on it, it could go at any time. You know, we see how the Henricksons are constantly under threat of exposure. He goes to Jerry, this American Indian. He says, hey, we're a lot alike, like you just played in the scene, and there's a lot of truth in that. He's a good talker, but he's a good salesman. And that's a part of the character I love playing. I come from a long line of salesmen.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. PAXTON: My dad was a drummer. He worked for his father. My dad started selling hardwood flooring for his dad when he was 16 years old in the Midwest out of Kansas City. I grew up in Fort Worth because there was a branch of the Frank Paxton Lumber Company there that my dad worked for his whole life, and I really like the idea of - I feel like I was the son of three who was kind of raised to go into the family business. There are hardwood wholesalers in the Midwest. So there's a part of me that is finally getting to kind of carry out a role that I was really kind of groomed for as a boy. So Bill Henrickson of Henrickson Home Plus.

GROSS: Home Plus is a home improvement store, kind of a Big Box store that you founded...

Mr. PAXTON: Yeah, like Home Depot, absolutely.

GROSS: So are there principles of selling that you learned from your family that you are now applying as Bill Henrickson on "Big Love?"

Mr. PAXTON: I think yes. Absolutely. Well, look, I've been an actor most of my life, my adult life, and you certainly have to know how to sell yourself to get on in this profession. So I think it's just stuff I learned. But it's not a phony thing. It's - you know, my dad sold a good product. These hardwoods were used to make everything from musical instruments to beautiful furniture and every use in between.

So you know, he had an integrity about the product he was selling, and he was just good at it. He was a people person, and I certainly picked that up from him. He genuinely likes to meet people and go out. He's a social animal, and certainly, I think these are the key traits that I just have from growing up. And you know, he's the man from whom all others I kind of judged myself and others from. I'm very close to my father, and I think I even spoke about him in my last interview with you.

GROSS: You did, actually.

Mr. PAXTON: And he's just one of those guys who is - and I'm very much like that, and I think that is really the key thing that has helped me in my portrayal on "Big Love."

GROSS: What's the typical shooting day or shooting week like for you on "Big Love"? When do you get the script? How much rehearsal do you get before you actually shoot?

Mr. PAXTON: My typical day on "Big Love" is Monday mornings I get there - oh, I usually have about a 6 or 6:30 a.m. call, which means I leave my house about 5 or 5:30. Takes me about an hour to drive, and sometimes that's the last I see of my house until Friday night around midnight or one o'clock in the morning on Saturday.

I live a kind of monastic existence. I usually stay at a hotel. We shoot out in a little town called Santa Clarita, that's where our stages are, and then we'll go out on the road to locations around there. But gosh, from Monday on, I work a lot on the show. I'm in every day. I rarely have a day off. We shoot about 12 days per episode.

GROSS: Wow, that's a lot.

Mr. PAXTON: So every night I have five or six pages I have to learn. And so for me, I don't know if my memory is starting to fail me, but I have to really get it down cold the night before.

GROSS: That's a lot to memorize, several pages every night. How do you do it? What's your technique for remembering lines?

Mr. PAXTON: Well, my technique is kind of like the errant school boy who has to stay after school and write "I will not talk in class" on the blackboard. I write it over and over again. I find, you know, I understand the character I'm playing, but this dialogue is very well-written. It's very crisp. I feel like they've elevated the language in some ways. Bill prides himself on being articulate, so you want to get these things down.

I feel like the writing is so good, and again, the better I have it down, the more I can really let it go and really roll with it. You've got to remember, a lot of the actors who are coming in in the supporting roles, they might work two or three days an episode. These are fresh horses who are coming in, and they're ready to hit the racetrack, and you want to - it's not a competition, but you want to be able to really get these scenes smokin'.

GROSS: So when you're writing lines over and over to get them embedded in your memory, are you handwriting it or writing it on computer?

Mr. PAXTON: Oh, handwriting it. It would take me forever hunting and pecking there.

GROSS: So, one last question. Do you actually watch "Big Love" Sunday nights when it comes on?

Mr. PAXTON: I do. I don't watch it ahead of time. I also - I'm also kind of one of these guys who - you know, we see little snippets when we go in to do our ADR or what's know as Additional Dialogue Replacement or dubbing, but it's always on a horrible projection system, and I try not to really look at it. I like to wait until it's polished up and see a complete thing(ph). Also, there's something fun about watching it knowing that it's going out across the airwaves at the same time, and there's a catharsis that I've always enjoyed about that.

And I guess that is because I grew up watching "Bonanza" every Sunday night with the rest of the country, or watching Ed Sullivan. I still am kind of a boomer that kind of relates to TV that way. I don't use a TiVo. I don't record, pre-record things. Yeah, I think it's kind of fun.

So I'm looking forward to the third episode this weekend, and I know it's going to be a good one. Ellen Burstyn's coming back into the fold as Jeanne Tripplehorn's mother, and there's going to be a lot of fireworks.

GROSS: Bill Paxton, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. PAXTON: Thank you, Terry. My pleasure.

GROSS: Bill Paxton stars in the HBO series, "Big Love." The third episode of season three will be shown this Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Funny Folk: 'Conchords' Co-Creator James Bobin


I'm Terry Gross. My guest James Bobin is the co-creator, co-writer and director of the HBO series,"Flight of the Conchords," a comedy about a band of the same name. Bobin helped the Conchords, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, build a TV show around their catchy song parodies like this one.

(Soundbite of song from "Flight of the Conchords")

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS: (Singing) Girl. Tonight we're going to make love. You know how I know? Because it's Wednesday. And Wednesday night is the night that we usually make love. Monday night is my night to cook. Tuesday night we go and visit your mother. But Wednesday, we make sweet, weekly love. It's when everything is just right. There's nothing good on TV. You haven't had your after-work social sports team practice, so you're not too tired. Oh, boy. It's all on. You lean in and whisper something sexy in my ear, like, I might go to bed now, I've got work in the morning. I know what you're trying to say, girl. You're trying to say, oh, yeah. It's business time. It's business time. It's business, it's business time. I know what you're trying to say. You're trying to say it's time for business and business time. Oohh. It's business, it's business time. Ohhhh.

GROSS: That's a song from last season's "Flight of the Conchords." The second season started a couple of weeks ago. The series still centers around the adventures of two awkward musicians who came to New York from their native New Zealand to try and make it in the music business. The show draws on the real experiences of Clement and McKenzie and incorporates their songs, which parody soul, pop and hip-hop.

The duo, Flight of the Conchords, started performing as a comedy act in the '90s. James Bobin was brought on by HBO to help them turn their act into a series. Bobin had previously helped Sasha Baron Cohen create the characters of Ali G, Borat and Bruno for "Da Ali G Show." At the beginning of this season of "Flight of the Conchords," Bret and Jermaine are even more down on their luck. Their manager, Murray, is managing an act that's made it big, the Crazy Dogs. Bret and Jermaine are tired of being ignored by Murray, so during a meeting with Murray, they decide to end their relationship with him. Murray is played by Rhys Darby.

(Soundbite of TV show "Flight of the Conchords")

Mr. BRET MCKENZIE: (As Bret) Dear Murray, we want to fire you as our manager.

Mr. RHYS DARBY: (As Murray) What?

Mr. JERMAINE CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) What?

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) What's your reasoning, Bret?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) You spend all of your time on the Crazy Dogs and you don't really spend any time on us.

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) Before you came to me, you were poor and you had no gigs. Now look at you.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) We're poor and we've got no gigs.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) We're slightly poorer.

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) Really?

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Yeah, Bret's only got one shoe.

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) Aw, Bret, is that what this is about? One shoe?

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) No, it's not about the shoe.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) I just lost my shoe.

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) It's not a problem. What size are you?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) Size nine.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) It's not about the shoe, It's about...

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) Your right foot. Yeah, hi. Murray here. I need a right foot shoe.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Murray, we're firing you. We're going to manage ourselves.

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) Fine. I understand it. OK, fine. You know what? Actually, there's another item here on the agenda I missed out. Ah yes, here it is. Item four. Stuff you!

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) You sure that's not for the Crazy Dogs?

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) Stuff you, Jermaine! And stuff you, Bret. And stuff you again, Jermaine.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Why did I get double-stuffed?

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) I don't need you guys. You're un-needed. OK? I've got the Crazy Dogs. They're making hit after hit. Doggy Bounce, number one. "Doggy Dance, number five. In the Pound, number 37. It's not going to stop. It's never going to stop. They're a hit-making machine. Look at their gold records. And just to let you know, your awards over there, they're fake. I had to make them myself! They're pencil sharpeners stuck to a couple of bits of wood to make you feel better.

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) We didn't win the Grammys?

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) No, you didn't.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) I thought we won best New Zealand artist?

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) There's no such category, Jermaine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: James Bobin, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. BOBIN: Thanks very much.

GROSS: So that was from the first episode of this season of "Flight of the Conchords." So, Murray's success, we should point out, is very short-lived.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, of course, of course. Yes, the Crazy Dogs come to a sticky end.

GROSS: So, I love "Flight of the Conchords." You met Bret and Jermaine at the Edinburgh Festival back in 2000. And I think then you were asked eventually by HBO to start a series with them.

Mr. BOBIN: That's right.

GROSS: What were your - what was the initial process like of working out what the show would actually be?

Mr. BOBIN: Well, I actually first saw Bret and Jermaine at the Edinburgh Festival in a small cave. Edinburgh is a city which in August every year hosts literally thousands of comedy shows, and so every venue which could possibly be a venue - from pub back rooms to cellars - become venues. And I heard of this band from New Zealand. I went up in week two - it's a four-week festival. And by the time I arrived in week two, there was quite a lot of people talking about these two guys from New Zealand who sang comedy songs.

When I got there, the room was absolutely jam-packed. You know, it seats about 50 with about 100 people in there. And these two sort of vaguely nervous, bumbling guys stumbled onto stage. And there was something immediately quite charming because you felt, I don't know, sympathy, empathy with them in their situation. They didn't seem that confident in their performance.

But then they proceeded to do the best - one of the best comedy hours I've ever seen whereby they not only had sort of 10 to 12 brilliant songs, but the banter in between the songs was fantastic. I mean, hilarious. And the key for me was that I wanted to make the live show quite an important part of the TV show. So, in a very direct translation, you take their live songs and create music videos of those and take the banter between Bret and Jermaine onstage and create a narrative from that banter.

But it was very clear from a very early stage that we all shared a similar idea of what the show could be. And we sort of all just sat around and imaged how that might be and were all a bit nervous about the fact that musicals often don't work. And I very clearly remember going down, when we were sort of developing the idea, going to the Museum of Television History in Beverly Hills and calling up all existing copies of Steve Bochco's show, "Cop Rock." And the three of us sat there around this monitor watching this show, which I think is either the most-ahead-of-its-time show ever, or I just can't ever imagine how ever it came to pass. But it was really quite an interesting watch in terms of how we - how people approach music in TV.

GROSS: One of the great things about "Flight of the Conchords" is that there's all these sort of wonderful parodies of rock videos.

Mr. BOBIN: Sure.

GROSS: And in episode two of this season when the band is really completely broke, their electricity has been turned off, Bret's had to hoc his guitar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: Yes.

GROSS: So they decide that Jermaine is going to become a prostitute and Bret will be his pimp.

Mr. BOBIN: Naturally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: Of course, what else are you going to do in that situation?

GROSS: And of course, they completely misinterpret, like, how prostitution works. And there's...

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, they have a very innocent idea of what prostitution actually is.

GROSS: Yeah, why don't you explain?

Mr. BOBIN: Largely divined from the film, "Pretty Woman."

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BOBIN: All the way around.

GROSS: So here's that scene you're talking about in which Jermaine is trying to convince Bret that they can become prostitutes.

(Soundbite of TV show "Flight of the Conchords")

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Bret, you know how you told me you were good at sex? Are you?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) That was just because you asked me in front of Sally.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Right, yeah. OK. Well, you were lying, then?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) No, I was exaggerating a little bit. No...

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Well...

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) Exaggerating.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Maybe Mel's right. Maybe we could be prostitutes. Prostitution is a quick way of making money. It is not degrading. It is not degrading. Have you seen "Pretty Woman"?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) No.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Well, it's the story about a prostitute called Richard Gere who gets to go out with a pretty woman, Julia Roberts, who pays him a lot of money. You think Julia Roberts is a pretty woman?

Mr. MCKENZIE: (As Bret) Yes.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As Jermaine) Well, imagine getting to have sex with women similar to Julia Roberts and getting paid for it.

GROSS: That's a scene from episode two of this season's "Flight of the Conchords." My guest, James Bobin, directed that episode. He's a writer and director on the series and also co-created it.

So there's a great scene in which Bret is singing what is really a parody of the Sting song, "Roxanne."

Mr. BOBIN: Yes.

GROSS: And in "Roxanne," the lyric is, Roxanne, you don't have to put on your red light. And in (laughing) - in this, it's like, Jermaine, you don't have to be a prostitute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I thought, let's...

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, you spotted it. Well done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, so let's...

Mr. BOBIN: Well...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. BOBIN: It was an idea that Jermaine had a while ago. He liked - I think it's one of those songs which for us was a funny idea in the first place that anyone would ever sing a song about someone being a prostitute. The idea that you could somehow stop them from being a prostitute by singing to them was to us an hilarious idea. And Jermaine had that idea a while ago.

There's actually a song called "Maxine," which is by a New Zealand artist, which is - literally was released probably two years after the Police song, "Roxanne" and is remarkably similar in many ways. And that was also an inspiration to us in terms of the idea that you could actually somehow solve prostitution by singing about it.

So, from a very early point we thought it was quite a funny idea. And then, of course, it sort of fitted into our narrative, that - we liked the idea that Bret and Jermaine are poor because that's what happens when you first move to a foreign country. You are poor. And you don't see very much of that on television, so it was quite important for us to sort of let that part of the story play.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the song?

(Soundbite of TV show "Flight of the Conchords")

FLIGHT OF THE CONCORDS: (Singing) It's a cold night underneath the streetlight. There's a man whose pants are too tight. Oh, no. His pants are too tight. My pants are too tight. He stands there, an empty stare. Trying to make enough money for his cab fare home. He'll have to walk home tonight. Don't have enough for the ride. The streets are cool, he tries to act cool. He goes to work with only his one tool. You can put away your tool. Jermaine. You don't have to be a prostitute. No, no, no, no, no, you can say no to being a man hore, a male gigolo. You don't have to be a prostitute. No, no, no, no, no. You can say no to being a night-looker, boy hooker, red boy, go ho ho home...

GROSS: So that's Bret McKenzie singing to Jemaine Clement "You Don't Have to Be a Prostitute" from episode two of this season's HBO series, "Flight of the Conchords." My guest James Bobin is one of the writers and directors of the series, and he directed this episode.

It must be so much fun to direct parodies of rock videos. Have you found yourself going back to a lot of classic rock videos to get...

Mr. BOBIN: All the time.

GROSS: Little details that you could pay homage to?

Mr. BOBIN: All the time. We try not to directly parody them or spoof them too much because I think - I generally believe there is a great grammar of music videos - these are videos that have been around for such a long time, every since the Bohemian Rhapsody in the 1970s - that I think certain ways videos were shot instantly mean that you recognize that there is cues that directors and DP's used at that time.

For example, if you showed an '80s video, it's all about back light and ground fog and, you know, it's that sort of stuff. So I think there is a grammar to music videos that people will recognize if you shoot them that way. They'll say, oh, that's like an '80s video, that's a '90s video. And I use a lot of that sort of thing.

GROSS: Right, right. So, you go back and you study these videos and get inspiration. So you just spend a lot of time looking for videos...

Mr. BOBIN: Yeah...

GROSS: And just getting ideas?

Mr. BOBIN: We - when we're supposed to be writing the shows, which is for quite a long time. We spend quite - far too much of our time on YouTube watching old videos because they are so inspirational and so fantastic, both music and for visuals. Because of course, I think they were the great hey-day videos like in the '80s when the budgets were enormous, and so they went completely over the top, and they are, as a consequence, hilarious to watch just on their own. I mean, we just - they are a gift to us because they're so fantastic.

And also, they're - I've always loved music. My father was a DJ at Radio Oxford in the '60s. I always remember when I was about 10, he gave me a huge box of 45s of '60s and '70s music, so I know far, far too much about music that was made before I was born. But from - from an early age I always loved music, and I think music videos became very much almost half the - you know, music videos were an integral part of music in the '80s and '90s. And not so much these days, sadly, but I think in those days it was a really important aspect of the single release was the video. The video was very important selling tool...

GROSS: Which...

Mr. BOBIN: And so they spend a lot of money.

GROSS: Which were the videos that meant the most to you when you were actually watching them for real as opposed to watching them after?

Mr. BOBIN: Well, several of the ones I haven't really - we never really used. I remember there was a very good video for True Faith by New Order in the '80s. It was a great video, I think directed by a French director, which is a fantastic dance routine with guys wearing - sort of slapping each other and sort of falling over. And I think the guy subsequently went on to choreograph the Olympics. So obviously, a very good, a very influential French director. Lots of Grace Journs videos from the early '80s, which is spectacularly brilliant. Really clever stuff, very clever in terms of their artistic work.

And this year, I've been watching a lot of Kate Bush and Bonnie Tyler videos because Bonnie Tyler - there is a video for "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which I love because I think it's the most nonsensical video of all time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: I recommend watching that. It literally makes no sense at all. It's set in a boys' school, and I think she's supposed to be playing a teacher of some sort, but there's a sort of weird demon angel child following her around, and there are ninjas in it, and it's just completely over the top. But I love that. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: That's making an appearance later in the series. I'm sure everyone will spot it. It's very easy to spot.

GROSS: Well, I can't wait. And the song is so over the top and operatic and everything.

Mr. BOBIN: It's ridiculous. Fantastic. Meatloaf, Jim Steinman, bombastic pop. I love it.

GROSS: Bombastic, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what was in that box of 45s that your father gave you?

Mr. BOBIN: My goodness, just extraordinary stuff. Obviously, lots of Beatles stuff. But even bazaar things. I mean, just weird late sixties, a lot of early seventies stuff. A lot of T-Rex. I remember having a T-Rex single - double. I think "Get It On" was the A side. And obscure bands like Atomic Rooster and Canned Heat, which obviously, Heat were fantastic. And so I think as a seven-year-old, I had a very strange taste in music. When my friends were listening to Adam and the Ants and Wham, I was listening to Canned Heat and sort of straight, you know, rocksy music.

GROSS: My guest is James Bobin, the co-creator, co-writer and director of the HBO series, "Flight Of The Conchords." More after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest James Bobin co-created "Da Ali G Show" and is now the co-creator, co-writer and director of the HBO comedy series, "Flight Of The Conchords" about two clueless musicians trying to make it in New York.

So in "Flight Of The Conchords," Rhys Darby plays the Conchords' agent, Murray, who works at the New Zealand consulate.

Mr. BOBIN: He does. He...

GROSS: But he really wants to be a - like a rock star manager although his only clients are the Conchords. In episode one of this season, after the Conchords fire Murray as their manager, he gets to sing a very operatic song called "Rejected." And it seems like it's a parody of an Andrew Lloyd Webber song from a show that I stayed away from. I have no idea if it's a direct parody of a particular song or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBIN: No, it's not really a direct parody. It is certainly Andrew Lloyd Webberesque. I just - last year we sang the song called "Leggy Blonde," which I thought was a highlight for me of the last season. And this year, I wanted to start the show with a surprise. So it rejected - it sort of came out that idea whereby there'd be a song straight away, and it wouldn't be sung by Bret and Jemaine.

And the style of it was partly just because the melodrama of the situation. We loved the idea that Rhys would take the firing of - being fired very personally and see it as a great tragedy. And I thought one of the great purveyors of this sort of melodrama these days is Andrew Webber and Tim Rice. And so, that was sort of the inspiration behind that one. And then it was just a question of finding words that ended in "ed."

GROSS: I don't think it there's one word in the dictionary that rhymes with rejected that you haven't used in this song.
. .TEXT:
Mr. BOBIN: No, it's pretty much the entire - yes, exactly. Yes.

GROSS: Why don't we hear some of it? So, this is the character of Murray, who's played by Rhys Darby, singing "Rejected" in "Flight Of The Conchords."

(Soundbite of TV show "Flight of the Concords")

Mr. DARBY: (As Murray) (Singing) Rejected, thrown away, affected.
I don't know what to say
Rejected, cast out to the sea
Disconnected, they didn't want me.

Rejected, like a baby in the snow,
Rejected, like a cloud without a storm.
I objected, pretended I was unaffected,
But still ended up rejected...

GROSS: That's Rhys Darby as Murray the manager in "Flight Of The Conchords" singing "Rejected." My guest James Bobin is the co-creator of the show. He wrote the episode that this is from and is also a director on the series.

Is that Rhys Darby's real voice? Does he have that operatic a voice?

Mr. BOBIN: (Laughing) I'd rather not say, to be honest. No, no, it's not Rhys's voice.

GROSS: I would take that as a no.

Mr. BOBIN: No, it's a no. It's a no. Rhys has quite a pretty good voice, but not that good. That is one of the leading tenors in New York who supplied the voice there. But yes, it's not his real voice.

GROSS: In "Flight Of The Conchords," Kristen Schaal plays Mel, who's the fan base. She's like the only fan of the band, and she's kind of wacky. She's really fun in it. You know, in the series, "Mad Men," she initially played like somebody who was one of the phone operators at the advertising agency, and then she just kind of disappeared from the series. And she was on the "Daily Show" for at least a couple of episodes.

Mr. BOBIN: Yes.

GROSS: Were you in on casting her for the series?

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, very much. Yes. No, I chose her because we're aware of her work from Aspen, the Comedy Festival over in Aspen. We were big fans. Actually, I - I actually cast her from a tape. I never met her. I watched the tape of her doing her show in Aspen, and it was just a brilliant start. She came out and said, hello, I'm a sexy librarian. And I thought, this is exactly the sort of person I wanted Mel to be, is the sexy librarian. I just liked the idea of her being - and also the character, I didn't want the character to be too two-dimensional in the sense that a lot of bands have quite odd fans who are almost obsessive in their following.

I wanted to have a grounding, and that's why I gave her a husband and a job. And the husband is very indulgent in her obsession with the Conchords, and I found that an interesting idea because in the same way that Murray's got a job and he's doing something else, therefore it's kind of a real character. Mel is helped by the fact that she has a real life outside of the Conchords. And the Conchords are kind of like a strange sort of part of her life which isn't really referenced to the rest of her life.

But anyway, Kristen is a fantastic stand-up. Most of the people on the show are stand-up comedians. And that was something I was really keen to do because I love the idea of them being able to improvise because that always helps to the freshness of the show.

GROSS: My guest is James Bobin, the co-creator, co-writer and director of the HBO series, "Flight Of The Conchords." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bobin, and he co-created, co-writes and directs the series, "The Flight Of The Conchords" on HBO. The second season started a couple of weeks ago. James Bobin also co-created "Da Ali G Show," the Sacha Baron Cohen series.

And you worked on that in England and in the United States. Being in on it right from the beginning, can you talk a little bit about what the original concept was for the show?

Mr. BOBIN: Yeah. I'm - I remember very clearly going - I got a job on a show for the "Eleven O'clock Show," which is the sort of the U.K. version of the "Daily Show." And it was basically - it was recorded at 11 o'clock at night, hence the name, but the show is largely recorded during that day, so it was very topical news. But there were some sort of - what we call, insert - BT insert, which is basically prerecorded stuff we put into the show, and I was in charge of that department of recording stuff which was going to supplement the show.

And so I went into the first day of the job. My producer sat me down and said, I've got a tape here of some people who want to be on the show. It's an hour long, sit down and watch it and tell me what you think. And I remember sitting down and watching this tape of 40 or 50 or so people doing various sketches. And the one that completely struck me was this guy sitting in a room talking to a professor of economics, anonymous school of economics, about the English economy in terms of how it - using the analogy of a dance club.

So he was saying, if the economy is a nightclub, who's the DJ? And the economist, completely baffled by this, eventually started answering, the
DJ? Oh, that would be the Chancellor of the (inaudible). And I thought this was a brilliant idea that you could use this sort of analogy of youth culture in the world of incredibly serious world of politics or economics.

And so I said to my producer, this guy is a great character. We should definitely do this. And that guy, of course, was Sacha doing Ali G ,a very early inclination of Ali G, and from there on it was a sort of question of pushing the character forward. It was an idea of having a non - a fictional character in the real world. An English comedian called Chris Morris had pioneered this idea several years earlier in a show called, "Braeside," which was hugely influential on us.

But it was really sort of the idea of putting a fake character which
people thought was real into the real world and seeing how they reacted because we felt we couldn't really lose because in a way, when Sacha as Ali G met people who hadn't met a young person - sometimes for years - they always totally believed that he was who he said he was because this is their sort of worst fears realized of youth culture today. And so, it always sort of worked very well, I felt.

GROSS: Were you in on the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen's character, Bruno, who's a fashion reporter who goes to real fashion shows? And...

Mr. BOBIN: Yes, yes. Well, Bruno was a character that Sacha had previously done in England several years ago, and he was a sort of a feat reporter. I think the Austrian thing came from us, the idea he's from Austria because I think the Austria angle was quite interesting as being the lesser-known Germany, basically, and people over here always think he says Australia. But of course, it's Austria, and Austria has a great history of its own.

You know, Bruno came about because we wanted to do something else for the American series. In England, we did Ali G and Borat. Borat was the new character for the English sake, "Da Ali G" series, and Bruno was the third person we brought in for the American series. And it was just a chance to explore another aspect of American culture from a different perspective. And in a way, a lot of it was about trying to engage people.

Not - it wasn't - it's always interesting in terms of trying - we don't ever sort of (inaudible), but the show works on a number of levels, and I always felt that's quite interesting the way that Bruno provoked a response and often a homophobic response, which I was always, you know, pleased to show because I think it's probably one of the last few - almost in some parts, acceptable sort of phobia.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a clip of Bruno? And this is from an episode of "Da Ali G Show." And Bruno is at a fashion show talking with a fashion stylist.

(Soundbite of TV show "Da Ali G Show")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Bruno) What is the philosophy of the show?

Unidentified Actress: It's kind of like trailer trash. Trailer park trash.

BRUNO: What is this, trailer trash?

Unidentified Actress: It's kind of like, I guess, backwoods from like - just like the middle of nowhere, kind of poor, dressing what you have around.

BRUNO: So they are very primitive rubbish people?

Unidentified Actress: Kind of, yeah.

BRUNO: So tell me, do you hope that these white trash - trashing people will buy the clothes?

Unidentified Actress: I don't think they could afford it.

BRUNO: They are too poor. (Laughing) Life is not fair. We take the clothes from the homeless people and we sell them in the shop.

Unidentified Actress: Right. Jack up the price.

BRUNO: And then the homeless cannot buy them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Actress: Definitely. Definitely.

BRUNO: That is the beauty of fashion.

Unidentified Actress: Yeah.

GROSS: Are there things about the fashion world when you were working on the Bruno character - and you've probably been working on the movie, too. Have you been working on the movie?

Mr. BOBIN: I have, yes.

GROSS: So have you gone to fashion shows and found certain things absurd about the fashion world?

Mr. BOBIN: Yes. Well, I think there are huge parts of the fashion world that are completely absurd, and one of them is the idea of what they are themselves and how important it is in the world. One of our favorite jokes is the importance of fashion in the world is being more important than doctors or, you know, the idea that fashion people take themselves very seriously.

And one of our favorite jokes is always let themselves - let them tell everyone else how important they took themselves. So, it was really a question of just - it really wasn't a question of observing. I already knew that about fashion and enough - certainly enough to be able to write jokes in terms of letting them sort of talk themselves into a very untenable position. And it was just a question of Bruno lining them up, really.

GROSS: James Bobin, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. BOBIN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

GROSS: James Bobin is the co-creator, co-writer and director of the HBO comedy series, "Flight Of The Conchords." Episode three of the second season will be shown Sunday. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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