DATE March 9, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Mann discusses his new book, "The Rise of the
Vulcans," about the Bush administration's foreign policy team
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In an attempt to explain how the Bush administration is dealing with the rest
of the world, my guest, James Mann, has written a new book about the
president's foreign-policy team. The book traces the history of six of its
leading members: Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice,
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State
Richard Armitage. They all worked on foreign policy in previous Republican
administrations and, according to Mann, represent the generation that bridged
the Cold War and post-Cold War.
During the presidential campaign of 2000, Bush's foreign-policy advisers
called their team `the Vulcans,' after the Roman god of fire, the forge and
metalwork. James Mann's new book is called "Rise of the Vulcans: The History
of Bush's War Cabinet." Mann is a former correspondent for the LA Times and
is now senior writer in residence at the Center for Strategic and
What holds the people in this book together?
Mr. JAMES MANN (Author): Well, the simplest answer, of course, is that they
all sit around the table in the Bush administration's foreign-policy
deliberations. They're the six--other than the president, the six most senior
people on the Bush foreign-policy team.
Beyond that, however, I argue in the book that there are a series of
underlying attitudes and assumptions and values. One, of course, is a belief
in the overwhelming importance of military power for the United States, a
certain reluctance to engage in accommodations with other countries, a very
optimistic, expansive view of America's power and capabilities and a belief in
American values such as democracy and the idea that they should be--that other
countries should take them on.
GROSS: And these are views that you believe are behind the invasion of Iraq
Mr. MANN: Well, I think they're part of the administration's mind-set that
led to the invasion of Iraq, yes.
GROSS: Now let's talk about some of the connections between the six people
you write about in the book, especially the connections between Vice President
Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. You say that they have an
especially strong connection that dates back to the Nixon administration when
Dick Cheney was Donald Rumsfeld's administrative assistant. You describe them
as a complementary pair. In what way?
Mr. MANN: Complementary in the sense that, while they thought alike, their
personalities were so different and have been for 30 years. So Rumsfeld is
very aggressively outgoing; Cheney is quiet and discreet. Rumsfeld is openly
ambitious, sort of never meets a next job he didn't want; Cheney is, at least
on the surface, very low-keyed and unambitious. And so their personalities
sort of matched one another while their interests in policy tended to be the
GROSS: You say that Dick Cheney rose to the top by taking care of the mundane
chores that people with larger egos avoid. What are some examples of that?
Mr. MANN: Well, I use the examples in the Ford administration, in the Ford
White House. I was struck as I was researching this book and going through
the Ford archives at some of the memos that Cheney wrote as deputy White House
chief of staff. He was the assistant to Don Rumsfeld. And this is really
Cheney's start in the White House, and what he was taking care of--there are
memos about the White House plumbing, there are memos about the Christmas card
list, there are memos about `please get a headrest for Betty Ford on the
helicopter.' He really was taking care of all the little details that needed
to be taken care of--salt shakers, what was served at White House stag
dinners. And he was so efficient and reliable that, of course, he kept on
rising. I think we all know people in organizations who kind of get there a
little earlier, are quiet, little heard from, leave later and then get things
done. And that was Cheney's attribute.
Of course, from that, then once they see that he's efficient and discreet, he
takes on substantive areas. And, interestingly enough, in the Ford White
House, intelligence was one of the first.
GROSS: You say that Dick Cheney's Secret Service code name used to be "Back
Seat." When did he get that?
Mr. MANN: He got that, again, during the Ford administration when he
was--again, Don Rumsfeld was the dominant personality in that Ford White House.
He was the White House chief of staff, he was doing battle with other large
figures like Henry Kissinger. And Cheney was his assistant and he was "Back
GROSS: And that's not his nickname anymore from the Secret Service, is it?
Mr. MANN: No.
GROSS: I didn't think so.
It's interesting how you chart the rise of the six people in the Bush war
Cabinet who you profile in your new book. Some of them have changed a lot,
some of them you see consistent threads throughout their career. There's
something about Donald Rumsfeld that seems to have changed a lot during the
Nixon years. Rumsfeld was the person who was considered anti-war and almost
dangerously so. What was his position about the Vietnam War?
Mr. MANN: I was surprised. I was going through the Nixon White House
recordings, which all who listen to are always riveted with how interesting
they are. And it turned out that Don Rumsfeld, really within the Nixon White
House, was kind of pushing for a quick American withdrawal from Vietnam. He
was something of a dove, not outside, not in public, but he was the center of
what I would call a cluster of domestic-policy advisers who really thought
that the war and the continuation of the war, which had been dragging on, you
know, for the sixth year, was diverting America's resources and energy away
from domestic programs.
And Rumsfeld was involved in domestic programs then, and he and some other
domestic advisers--you know, there was George Shultz--kept pushing within the
Nixon White House to set a date or to somehow figure out how to get American
GROSS: Another thing that's hard to imagine now is that Donald Rumsfeld was
considered to be the Nixon administration's link to the young people on the
Mr. MANN: Well, that was over 30 years ago. Rumsfeld was one of the younger
and more dynamic members of the Nixon administration. Most of Nixon's other
advisers were not political figures. They weren't people who could go out on
their own around the country to sell the Nixon administration. Rumsfeld was.
Rumsfeld was unique in the sense that he'd run for elective office; he'd been
a member of Congress for about six years. And Nixon always saw him as the guy
he wanted out selling the administration.
GROSS: What are President George W. Bush's connections? What were his
connections, when he was choosing his Cabinet, to Dick Cheney and Donald
Mr. MANN: Very interesting. Bush's father, George Bush Sr., Bush 41, as he's
sometimes called, was something of a political rival of Rumsfeld that dated
back to the 1970s. Each, I think, saw themselves as a possible moderate
Republican candidate for president. And beyond that, the senior Bush thought
that Rumsfeld had undercut him in an effort to become the vice presidential
nominee in 1976. So there's a longtime rivalry between Rumsfeld and Bush Sr.,
although I was told in interviews for the book that it kind of passed by 2001.
After the 2000 election, as George W. Bush, Bush 43, as he's known, began to
put together his foreign-policy team. The original idea, the original
thinking was that Don Rumsfeld would be appointed director of the CIA, and
other candidates were being considered for secretary of Defense. Senator
Coats at the time was the leading candidate.
And then within the Bush team, the inner circle, two things happened: One,
there was a concern about getting an extremely strong, knowledgeable secretary
of Defense, an experienced secretary of Defense to counterweight the influence
of Colin Powell within the administration. Secondly, from a different
direction, the current president's father, George Bush Sr., was concerned that
there not be a change in the position of CIA director at the beginning of a
new administration. He thought that that would make it seem like it was a
political appointment and he didn't believe it should be.
GROSS: What were the connections to President George W. Bush and now-Vice
President Dick Cheney before the presidential campaign? Were those
connections largely through the president's father, George Bush Sr.?
Mr. MANN: Yes, they were. I'm sure that the current president saw Cheney as
part of the older generation, associated with his father and with his father's
GROSS: My guest is James Mann. His new book is called "Rise of the Vulcans:
The History of Bush's War Cabinet." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Mann. He's the author of
the new book "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet."
One of the questions that a lot of people have been asking is: Was regime
change in Iraq on the Bush administration agenda before September 11th? Was
September 11th a kind of convenient explanation or excuse to do something that
the Bush administration war Cabinet wanted to do anyways? From your
investigation into the lives and the politics of the people in the war
Cabinet, what are your observations on that?
Mr. MANN: Good question. From what I've seen, one has to draw a distinction
between regime change and serious military planning. Regime change in Iraq
was the policy of this current administration from the time it took office and
also, however, of the Clinton administration in its last couple of years.
They were formally for a policy regime change starting in, I belive it was
The Bush administration took office, certainly also believed in regime change,
but there's a difference between a policy of regime change or a desire to
change regime and serious military planning for an invasion. And at least
from what I've seen, the serious military planning was not at the beginning of
this Bush administration. It was after September 11th. It sort of--the end
of 2001, early 2002 and in that year leading up to the war. If you remember
right, from about the time Bush took office until September 11th, there was
some selective attention given to Iraq. But the dominant American Bush
administration policy, which didn't work and which was controversial, had to
do with sanctions, what were called smart sanctions. Again, the serious
military planning is not in the early months of this administration.
GROSS: After September 11th, Vice President Cheney went to an undisclosed
location for his safety, and you say that this goes back to a strategy from
the Reagan administration, a highly classified program. Describe what that
Mr. MANN: It was run by a secret unit called the National Program Office.
The Reagan administration was concerned about keeping the American government
and, obviously, including the American military, running during or after a
nuclear war. And what they decided was this, that they would send out--if
nuclear war was imminent, they would send out three teams, large teams, 60, 70
people, around the country, different locations. Each team would be trained
essentially to govern the United States after a nuclear war. And each team
had kind of a chief of staff to run the team. One of the chiefs of staff was
Dick Cheney, who was then in Congress, and a second team was headed by Don
Rumsfeld, who was then a business executive in Chicago. But, of course, both
of these men had had, you know, real-life experience as White House chiefs of
This wasn't some paper exercise. I mean, you know, once or twice a year,
these teams would be secretly sent out in the middle of the night from Andrews
Air Force Base to some abandoned school yard. I think they spent two or three
days eating MREs, meals ready to eat, the early versions. The Reagan
administration, without telling the country, was really practicing for what
might happen and how the country would be run in nuclear war.
The program itself was phased out during the Clinton years. The Cold War
ended. But some of the ideas, some of the approaches of that program carry
over after September 11th. So Cheney goes off to undisclosed locations, teams
of federal officials are sent out immediately after September 11th to live and
practice getting ready to run the country in other locations outside of
GROSS: How did you learn about this secret plan?
Mr. MANN: In reporting this book for two years, I talked to as many people
as I could. `What do you know about these people?' And in asking about
Cheney and Rumsfeld, I first began to get hints from a couple of people.
There was one person who said, `Well, I first got to know them in a classified
program that I can't tell you about.' And, you know, later on, a couple
people who participated in the program provided a few more details and I began
to piece it together.
GROSS: What's something that really surprised you that you learned during
your research for your book about the Bush war Cabinet? Something that we
haven't touched on?
Mr. MANN: You know, one of the things that surprised me is to go through the
1990s and see how this team gradually developed its views. You know, the
general perception, conventional wisdom is the first Bush administration left
office in 1992 and then eight years later, the same group of people come
together again. And, you know, they're supposed to start off where they left
off, but they don't.
If you go through that period from 1992 and '3 to 2000, what you find is that
the center of gravity in the Republican Party shifts dramatically in a more
conservative direction, that many of the positions that George W. Bush took
in the 2000 campaign were not new to him. They were positions very similar to
what Bob Dole laid out in 1996: support of missile defense, a tough line on
North Korea and China and so on. It was the party as a whole that shifted.
Donald Rumsfeld had been out of public life, you know, as far as people saw,
from the '70s until 2001. What I found in going through the 1990s was that
most--and the important word is most--of the members of the Vulcans had really
been gradually working together, sharing ideas, talking about policy through
the 1990s in a bunch of forums. There were a bunch of different places where
Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld were sitting
down, talking about ideas, talking about policy.
The other part of that is Colin Powell was not at the table, that the Bush
campaign of 2000 saw Colin Powell as important politically. He spoke at the
convention in 2000, he was out there, but he wasn't part of these internal
deliberations. There was one study group on missile defense. Most people
were at it; Colin Powell wasn't. There was a congressional study group on
foreign policy. Most of these other people were at it; Colin Powell wasn't.
So, you see, the divisions that we now see with this team in office were there
in the 1990s, just no one saw them.
GROSS: You know, some people will read your book and think, `Aha! I see a
pattern here. These people were all--the people in the war Cabinet have been
allied with each other for years. They had certain things on their agenda for
years like the military presence in the Gulf. Therefore,' some people will
say, `it must be some kind of, like, heavy agenda that brings these people
together again in the Bush administration, almost to the point of a
conspiracy.' You know some people will read that into your book. What would
you say to those who do?
Mr. MANN: No, I don't think it's a conspiracy. You know, I'm interested in
history, and history--a lot of things happen by chance, a lot of things just
happen. I don't think this is, you know, a group of people sitting down
together and deciding on a, you know, conspiracy or a plot many years before.
There are disagreements among these people. I've seen sometimes people talk
about the neo-conservatives plotting things that happened when this team took
office. Of course, what that leaves out is that, in the 2000 campaign, the
neo-conservatives didn't even support George Bush. They were supporting his
Republican opponent, John McCain.
This is a group of people who served together in several different
administrations. They got to know one another. Because Republicans won six
out of the previous nine presidential elections, I think it is, they had worked
together. Sometimes they were friends, sometimes they weren't. Cheney and
Powell had a history going back to the first Bush administration that was, on
the one hand, collegial and, on the other hand, under the surface, there was a
good degree of tension. So, no, I don't see it as some unified conspiracy.
GROSS: James Mann is the author of the new book "Rise of the Vulcans: The
History of Bush's War Cabinet." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, must-squirm TV. We meet Robert Weide, an executive
producer and director of the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The show
stars Larry David, who was the co-creator of "Seinfeld."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Robert Weide discusses the show "Curb Your Enthusiasm"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After co-creating and writing the phenomenally popular series "Seinfeld,"
Larry David moved from behind the scenes to star in his own HBO series, "Curb
Your Enthusiasm." He plays himself, though for the sake of everyone he knows
I can only hope that in real life he's not nearly as neurotic, self-absorbed
and misanthropic as he is in the series. But his flaws are what make the show
so funny, and as critic Ken Tucker says, quote, "You will feel guilty for
laughing so hard, which is I suspect precisely the reaction David wants,"
My guest Robert Weide is an executive producer and director of the series.
Weide has also made documentaries about his comic heroes, including Lenny
Bruce, Mort Sahl and the Marx brothers. That documentary background came in
especially handy for the pilot of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which was a mock
documentary about Larry David preparing for an HBO special.
Before we meet Weide, here's a scene from a recent of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Larry David is speaking with his agent, played by Jeff Garlin.
(Soundbite of "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. JEFF GARLIN: Hey, what's going on with your gal down the hall there?
She's, yeah, crying and...
Mr. LARRY DAVID: I've had a lot of problems with her. You know, first of
all, her boyfriend broke up with her.
Mr. GARLIN: Yeah?
Mr. DAVID: And, frankly, I'd like to do the same.
Mr. GARLIN: Why don't you fire her?
Mr. DAVID: I can't.
Mr. GARLIN: Why?
Mr. DAVID: Because she knows everything about me. She knows my dietary
habits. She knows about all my web of lies and bull (censored) and deceit.
She knows more about me than Cheryl does.
Mr. GARLIN: You can't fire her.
Mr. DAVID: She'll destroy me.
Mr. GARLIN: You're trapped.
Mr. DAVID: I'm trapped for life, but she has no--she doesn't want to do
anything else with her life. This is it.
Mr. GARLIN: Oh, dear God, you're trapped.
Mr. DAVID: You know what else she knows? She knows about this thing.
Mr. GARLIN: Oh, man, it came. Wow, "College Girls Gone Wild." Look at that.
You know what, we can go to my house and watch it.
Mr. DAVID: Oh, yeah, we'll have like an "Auto Focus" party.
Mr. GARLIN: "Auto Focus" party.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GARLIN: I've got the big-screen. We can watch it.
Mr. DAVID: What character are you going to be?
Mr. GARLIN: I'm Bob Crane.
Mr. DAVID: You're Bob Crane.
Mr. GARLIN: I'm Bob. You can be the freakish guy.
Mr. DAVID: I'll be Willem Dafoe.
Mr. GARLIN: Willem Dafoe. He's a freak.
GROSS: Is there a kind of great Larry David moment from one of the episodes
that's based on something that happened in real life to him, preferably
something that happened when you were there?
Mr. ROBERT WEIDE ("Curb Your Enthusiasm"): Oh, yeah, lots of those. I mean,
when you start to spend time with Larry, especially now with the show--and
I'm certain this happened during the "Seinfeld" years, too--is you do get in
situations with him and you realize, `Oh, boy, this is going to wind up on TV
at some point.' And Larry does have a little book, in fact we featured it on
one of the episodes in the first season, this little notebook that he carries
with him. It's a pocket-sized book. And you see Larry take out the notebook
and he makes a note, and that's something that will become a story line down
There have been so many things I've experienced with him. I remember my wife
and I a couple years ago were taking a walk in the neighborhood and a woman
came up to us, an older woman, and just started to talk. And she was
complaining about back pain, and we asked her, you know, what happened to her
back. And she talked about having house guests at her house, and somebody
left the toilet seat up. And she had literally fell into the toilet and
injured her back and it had been a problem now for several months. And I had
told that to Larry and he just thought that was great. And I saw him write it
down in the book, and that became a story this year. So, yeah, anything is
fair game, and most of the stories are at least based on a nut of something
autobiographical, something that's actually taken place.
GROSS: Now you mentioned the thing about leaving the toilet seat up and
falling into the toilet. In this episode, the comic Shelley Berman plays the
Larry David's father, and they're actually having a talk with each other about
the importance of leaving the seat down for Larry David because he sits.
Mr. WEIDE: Right.
GROSS: He sits when he urinates. Let me...
Mr. WEIDE: One of the few men who will admit to it, I guess.
GROSS: Yes. And let's play the scene in which he admits to it and explains
(Soundbite of "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. DAVID: Hey, Pop.
Mr. SHELLEY BERMAN: Hm?
Mr. DAVID: Do me a favor, OK? Next time you use the bathroom, make sure you
keep the seat down.
Mr. BERMAN: What are you, pussy whipped?
Mr. DAVID: It's not really about her, it's about me. I pee sitting down.
Mr. BERMAN: How long you been doing that?
Mr. DAVID: Well, it started because I was getting up to go at night sometimes
and I didn't feel like putting the light on. So I would sit down and then I
figured--you know, I got very comfortable with it. I like--you know...
Mr. BERMAN: Comfortable with it? A man doesn't do that. A man stands up to
pee. What are you...
Mr. DAVID: I like to sit down, and I don't want to wind up in the toilet
because you're keeping the seat up. Keep the seat down.
Mr. BERMAN: No, you stand like a person. I'm very upset with this. This is
Mr. DAVID: You know what Winston Churchill said? Why stand when you can sit?
Have you ever heard that expression?
Mr. BERMAN: No, I never heard that expression.
Mr. DAVID: Yeah.
Mr. BERMAN: But I don't think he meant in the toilet.
GROSS: That's a scene from an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the Larry
David show. And my guest Robert Weide is an executive producer and director
of the show.
Was it your idea to cast the comic Shelley Berman as Larry David's father?
Mr. WEIDE: Well, it wasn't my idea, per se, although all of us on the
show--Larry David, myself, Jeff Garlin, Larry Charles--we're all big fans of
that era of stand-up comedy. And that was the stuff we grew up on, watching
on "The Tonight Show" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." So a lot of these comics
who aren't working that much these days to us are big heroes. And so Shelley,
just like any number of actors, came in and auditioned for that part. We were
so thrilled to have him by because we're big fans of his. And he just was so
funny in the audition.
And I guess it's no secret now with our show, but Shelley--generally when he
works, he--well, he has hair. Let's put it that way. You know, he wears a
piece. I think I can say that. And so he did the audition with his hairpiece
on, and so Larry went running out to him down the hallway afterwards saying,
`Shelley, Shelley, you were great, you were great. We love you. We love you.
We want you to do the show. I just want to ask you one thing.' And Shelley
said, `You want to know if I'll work without the piece.' And that, in fact,
was it. And he won Larry's...
GROSS: How did he know that?
Mr. WEIDE: He could feel it. He told us later he knew coming in we were
going to ask him if he would work without his hair. And he agreed to do it
because we though Larry's father should be bald. And so I told Shelley, you
know, `What you can do is instead of admitting now that you've worn a piece
all this time, just tell people you shave your head for the show.' So I don't
know if he's using that, but I thought that was an easy way out.
GROSS: Do you keep a notebook of obnoxious moments that you could contribute
to the show?
Mr. WEIDE: I'm not quite that organized but, yes, I do bring Larry ideas, as
do other people on the show. And Larry Charles is another producer on the
show, and Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry's manager, Jeff Greene, and Cheryl.
We've all tossed in stories which have wound up on the air. There's--actually
a few years ago a friend of mine passed away and it was all very sad. But the
friends got together that night of the funeral. And, you know, my friend
lived alone and he wasn't married. And there was talk about, you know, his
family would eventually be going through his apartment and gathering things.
And one of us said, `Gee, should we go in there first and sort of make a run
and see if there's anything that, you know, maybe he wouldn't want his family
And so after a little bit of drinking, we all decided that we should sort of
have an understanding that we do that with each other. And if anybody, you
know, went prematurely, the others would go into, you know, their home and
apartment and start to look to see if there's, you know, any magazines or
anything lying about. And so I brought that to Larry, and that wound up being
a story in season one, I guess it was, the "Porno Gil" episode, where Jeff is
in the hospital, he's about to have some emergency bypass and asks Larry to go
to his house, tells him where the secret stash of pornography is and asks
Larry to gather it up so his wife doesn't find it if, God forbid, something
happens on the operating table.
But Larry's brilliance again was weaving that into a story that he already had
about this ex-porno star. And when Larry goes into the house and finds this
stash, he finds a tape that, you know, this friend that he just had dinner
with appears in and puts it on. And then Jeff's parents walk in. And so he
can take these ideas and just find a way to fashion them into something way
beyond anything you could imagine would ever be that funny.
GROSS: Well, let's hear a scene from the "Porno Gil" episode. And this is
from "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the Larry David show.
(Soundbite of "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. GARLIN: This key right here.
Mr. DAVID: Mysterious.
Mr. GARLIN: Very mysterious. This key right here, my front door. I need you
to go into my house, OK? Go up to my bedroom. To the left of the TV, there's
a cabinet by the bookcase there. Open it up. Move the linens--there's linens
in there. Move them to the side, push on the back door, and it'll open up.
Inside there I have like my porn collection. There are like seven, eight porn
tapes, a couple of magazines, all right? I need you to get them out of there.
You've got to get it out of there because if something happens to me...
Mr. DAVID: Oh, you're thinking like the anesthesia or something goes wrong...
Mr. GARLIN: ...something--anything goes wrong--she's not a big porn person.
Mr. DAVID: So in case you die, you don't want your wife to discover your
Mr. GARLIN: She doesn't understand that. I'm not embarrassed about it or
Mr. DAVID: I'm just ...(unintelligible).
Mr. GARLIN: That's your own deal.
Mr. DAVID: Yeah, OK.
Mr. GARLIN: That's your own deal, Repression Jones.
Mr. DAVID: I--well, what about--is there an alarm code or anything like that?
Mr. GARLIN: Easy, 9988.
Mr. DAVID: I better write that down.
Mr. GARLIN: In there should be a pen and a piece of paper.
(Soundbite of drawer opening and closing)
Mr. DAVID: 9988. OK.
Mr. GARLIN: I can't believe you have to write it down.
Mr. DAVID: What am I going to do with these things?
Mr. GARLIN: Keep it in your trunk.
Mr. DAVID: What if I get in an accident on the way home? What about that and
Mr. GARLIN: And the porn goes flying everywhere?
Mr. DAVID: ...strewn all over the car, all over my bleeding body?
Mr. GARLIN: Yeah. You'll be fine.
Mr. DAVID: The alarm code; I'm worried about this, too.
Mr. GARLIN: No, nothing's going to happen.
Mr. DAVID: I'm no good with stuff like that.
Mr. GARLIN: 9988.
Mr. DAVID: It's too technical for me.
Mr. GARLIN: 9988.
Mr. DAVID: The alarm's going to go off, there'll be a SWAT team descending on
me. This whole thing just has disaster written all over it.
Mr. GARLIN: You'll be fine. Trust me.
Mr. DAVID: And your wife better not show up.
Mr. GARLIN: Yeah, I guarantee she's not going to be there. She'll be here.
I appreciate it.
Mr. DAVID: Good luck.
Mr. GARLIN: You're a great pal. You're a great pal. I appreciate it.
Mr. DAVID: Try not to die.
Mr. GARLIN: Try not to die? Thank you.
GROSS: A scene from "Curb Your Enthusiasm." We'll talk more about the series
with executive producer and director Robert Weide after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Robert Weide, an executive producer and director of the
HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," starring Larry David as himself.
Now the show is part scripted, part improvised. How does it work? The story
line is scripted but the actual dialogue is improvised?
Mr. WEIDE: We go in with--it's actually grown over the years. The first
season the average story outline was maybe five pages. Now they've expanded a
bit. Larry writes a little more detail. They're up to seven, sometimes as
many as eight pages. But we go in knowing absolutely what the story is going
to be and basically what has to take place in each scene. But there is
virtually no written dialogue for the actors. The actors are brought on to
the set generally having no idea what they're going to do and my standard joke
has become that they're given information on a need to know basis. It's like
working for the CIA.
And when I'm directing, I will just give the actors what information their
character would know in this scene and give them a general sense of direction
about what's going to take place in the scene. But they make it up as they
go, and we cast from a pool of talented improvisational actors, primarily here
in LA, and we just let them go. So we know basically what has to happen in
each scene, we know what marks to hit. But we love the spontaneity of people
making it up as they go. And we'll just shoot each scene as many times as we
have to until we know we've got something to work with. And then we continue
to hone it in the editing room.
GROSS: What are some of the different requirements for you as a director
when you're working with improvisation compared to working with something
Mr. WEIDE: Well, it becomes a little harder to sort of block the shots for
camera. We sort of take a documentary approach in that anything can happen so
let's just make sure that we catch it on camera. And we do shoot with two
cameras. And my instructions for the crew is to always have a camera on Larry
because so much of the comedy has to do with his reactions. And you just want
the scene covered because things will spontaneously happen. Actors will say
things, that if you don't catch it on camera the first time, then you'd have
to go back and re-create it and lose the spontaneity.
So basically the first take will be some sort of general master shot that will
catch as much of the action as possible with the camera on Larry. And then we
do the scene several times, the actors are given notes. We continue to hone
it, and then it's just a matter about getting the right coverage for cameras
so that we can cut it together in the editing room. We wind up with a lot of
footage, and we spend much more time in the editing room than we actually do
on the set. The shows take on an average five to seven days to shoot, but
we're in the editing room easily for three weeks on each episode.
GROSS: How did you start working with Larry David?
Mr. WEIDE: Larry and I have known each other for more than 20 years now, and
we met initially--I was heading up development for the production management
team of Rollins and Joffe, who produce all of Woody Allen's movies and have
been with him from the beginning. And, oh, they've managed every great
comedian from Robin Williams to Billy Crystal to Robert Klein and Martin
Short, and on and on. But I was their development person about 20 years ago,
a little more, and so one of my duties was to read scripts that came in for
non-Woody Allen projects.
And a script came on my desk called "Prognosis Negative," and I read it. It
was one of the funniest scripts I'd ever read. And I said to the guys, `Well,
we have to bring in this writer, Larry David. This is such a funny script.'
And we all did know Larry because Larry at that time had appeared on a show
called "Fridays," which was a late-night variety/comedy show. So we brought
Larry in for these meetings.
Now the story of "Prognosis Negative" was typical Larry David. It was about a
fellow much like Larry--this was, again, you know, years ago, so it would have
been the younger Larry--who was single, who was dating and just could never
make a commitment to a woman. And he'd go through one relationship after
another because he couldn't commit. And then finally he finds out that a
woman that he dated a few years ago who was nice, he quite liked her, finds
out that she's terminally ill and that she doesn't know it. That's the
beautiful thing. He finds out accidentally from a doctor. And so he thinks,
`Well, this is the perfect relationship, because I can go out with her and I
can commit to her, and what's she got, six months? In six months, it will be
over.' So that was sort of the basis of the story.
So Larry would come in for these meetings with myself and the executives
there, and the executives would say, `Larry, we love the script, it's very,
very funny. But, boy, this character, you know, he's not very sympathetic.
Do you think there's anything you can do to make him a little more
sympathetic, a little more likable?' And Larry would think about it and then
say, `No. No, I don't think so. No, not at all.' So it was more important
to him to sort of stick to his guns about that character rather than make an
easy sale to get the film made and to change it. So I just thought, `Well, I
like this guy. I like his way of thinking.'
So we started to hang out. I'd go to the clubs with him, the comedy clubs.
He was doing stand-up in those days. And so many nights, I'd be with him in
the clubs and he'd be on stage performing. And some nights he'd do rather
well, but there were nights when he would just bomb terribly. And I would
just be in the back of the room laughing because I thought the material was
brilliant and the audiences did not know what to make of him. And they would
just stare up at him like carp in a pond. And I remember thinking, `Boy, if
the country ever caught up to this guy's sense of humor, there will be chaos
in the streets.'
GROSS: What was his stand-up act like?
Mr. WEIDE: Well, it was unlike anything else I had seen. First of all, Larry
would come out on stage, and there was no, `Good evening. How are you,'
anything like that. Actually looked a little bit like a deer caught in the
headlights behind that microphone. And this is one night I remember--this was
sort of typical of what he would do. He would come out on stage, and the
first thing he'd say was, `Every morning I wake up and thank God that I wasn't
born a wealthy, Spanish landowner because...'
GROSS: (Laughs) What?
Mr. WEIDE: ...which is, you know, a typical opening for a comedy monologue,
`because if I were, I would never know whether to address the help using the
two form(ph) or the usted form. And you'd say, "If I use the usted form, I
don't want them to feel I'm being condescending. Yet if I use the two form, I
don't want them to feel so familiar that they can just come into my kitchen
and help themselves to anything in my refrigerator."' And that would be the
kind of thing that would just knock me on the floor because, to me, that was a
very sort of Robert Benchleyesque sort of concept, something that harkened
back to the days of Benchley and Pearlman(ph) and those great wits. But the
audience was--you know, usually it was 1:30 in the morning, and they were sort
of drunk, and they wanted, you know, the obvious sex jokes. And I'm telling
you, I would be hysterical, but people would be throwing things at him.
People would be shouting to him to get off the stage.
And Larry has a very combative personality, so he was no shrinking violet. He
would start shouting back at the audience. And then there would be the people
in the audience who were ready to jump up there and punch him and then other
people who'd be shouting at them to, you know, `Let him talk, let him talk.'
And this melee would break out in the audience, the pro-Larry faction and the
anti-Larry action. And I saw that happen on more than one night.
GROSS: Now you mentioned "Prognosis Negative," the screenplay that he wrote
that you had looked at while you were working for Rollins and Joffe. And
that's a running gag on "Seinfeld." There's a movie called "Prognosis
Mr. WEIDE: Right.
GROSS: ...that's playing at the theaters. So I didn't realize that that
Mr. WEIDE: Yeah, that was an `in' joke for the, you know, 12 people who knew
about the script. But what was amazing about Larry was this sense of humor
which seemed to be so unmarketable in a way, which seemed to be so distinct
and so offbeat, and anything but mainstream, anything but made for television
was turned into this show, magically, that became, really, the most successful
comedy series in the history of television. And those of us who knew Larry
and knew his sense of humor just watched the show and sat there shaking our
heads saying, `He did it. He found a way to do it.' And I think a lot of
that had to do with Larry's very unique, wonderful comic sensibility being
meshed with Seinfeld, who is, himself, just a very acceptable, likeable,
palatable person. And I think it was that mix. And this analogy has been
made a hundred times, sort of the Lennon-McCartney thing, which both Larry and
Jerry can't stand to hear, but I think there is something to that. I think
the two of them coming together just worked beautifully.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Weide. He's an executive producer and director of
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Robert Weide, an executive producer and director of the
HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" starring Larry David as himself.
Since you've directed so many documentaries about comics, I'm wondering where
you think Larry David fits into modern comedy...
Mr. WEIDE: Well, it's...
GROSS: ...because he's kind of like an insult comic, but it's not like he's
Don Rickles or something. I mean, he insults--it's more like obnoxious than
insulting, though he insults people all around, but they're people in his real
world since this is a sitcom.
Mr. WEIDE: Right. Well, what is interesting is as schooled as I was in the
great comedians, both of the silent era and, you know, the golden age, '30s,
Larry is familiar with very little of that. You know, he's never seen a
complete Marx brothers movie or a W.C. Fields movie, and this is the stuff I
grew up on. And Larry and I a couple of years ago went to a Harold Lloyd
film. It was the first time he had seen Harold Lloyd and maybe the first time
he had seen an entire silent feature. And afterwards we walked out of that
theater, and his jaw was gaping. He just said, `My God, that was so funny. I
didn't know that silent films were so funny.' And I said, `Yeah, they can
be.' I don't know if you've, you know, been exposed to them before, but that
really was his first exposure.
And he really grew up--the only real influences that I've known him to cite
have been Abbott and Costello and, really, from the TV years more than from
their films and Phil Silvers and Bilko and all of that. But that's what's
interesting is that he is that intuitive. He doesn't give a second thought
to, really, his comic persona in any sort of historical sense. And I'm always
thinking about that, and it even informs the way sometimes I'll direct or
stage things or what I'll contribute to stories, whatever. If Larry is doing
battle with a little kid, well, that can be uncomfortable unless that little
kid has really done something to deserve Larry's wrath. And that was sort of
W.C. Fields' thing--is that he could go after Baby LeRoy but only after Baby
LeRoy dumped Fields', you know, pocket watch into, you know, the molasses and
was acting like a real brat.
And sometimes with Larry and Jeff, I'll stage things in the way that Laurel
and Hardy would do it, where if they're facing Jeff's wife, Susie, who's
screaming at them, Larry will sort of hide behind Jeff's girth, which is a
very kind of Laurel & Hardy move. So I'm always thinking about those things
and thinking about Larry's place, you know, in sort of that chronology of
great comedians, but he doesn't give it a second thought.
GROSS: This season Larry David has been cast by Mel Brooks in "The Producers"
in the role of Max Bialystock, originated by Nathan Lane. How did that plot
idea get hatched?
Mr. WEIDE: Larry and I were actually in New York a few years ago, I think,
doing some publicity for--maybe it was the second season or the third season,
and we saw "The Producers" in New York, not with Nathan Lane and Matthew
Broderick but another cast that was in. And Larry, just watching these people
on stage singing and dancing, just was flabbergasted: `How do they do that?
How do they memorize all that? How do they know all the steps?' And he just
thought it was the scariest notion in the world. And then he started to
think, `Jeez, what if I were put in that situation where I had to do all
that?' And, again, that was just an idea that grew out of that moment of
seeing the show. And the season finale this year is the opening night of "The
Producers" on Broadway, and audiences can see if disaster strikes or not when
Larry takes to the boards.
GROSS: Well, Robert Weide, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WEIDE: My pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Robert Weide is an executive producer and director of the HBO series
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" starring Larry David. The season finale is this
Sunday. Here's a scene from earlier in the season. Ben Stiller and Larry
David are on their way to a rehearsal for "The Producers," and they've just
dropped off Stiller's wife at her yoga class. Larry David is still in the
(Soundbite of "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. BEN STILLER: Why don't you come up front?
Mr. LARRY DAVID: Ehh.
Mr. STILLER: Hm?
Mr. DAVID: I'm OK.
Mr. STILLER: Come on up front.
Mr. DAVID: I'm good. I'm good.
Mr. STILLER: Are you serious?
Mr. DAVID: Yeah. Why? What's the difference?
Mr. STILLER: Larry, I'm not going to drive you around like I'm your
chauffeur. Get in the (censored) front seat, all right?
Mr. DAVID: (Laughing) You're not driving me around like I'm a chauffeur.
We're two minutes from the rehearsal hall.
Mr. STILLER: You know, what kind of person asks another person to drive them
around like this? This kind of mentality's what's...
Mr. DAVID: Whoa, whoa! What kind of person is so insecure that they have to
make somebody move into the front seat, so they don't think that they're
driving somebody around?
Mr. STILLER: No, the kind of person that's so insecure that needs to be
driven around in the back seat. Subliminally...
Mr. DAVID: No, it has nothing to do with me being driven around.
Mr. STILLER: ...you're telling me that you need me to drive you around.
Mr. DAVID: Why do I have to leave my seat, go into the front seat?
Mr. STILLER: Because I asked you to sit in the front seat of my car, and it's
my car! And if I--it's my car, I make the rules, OK?
Mr. DAVID: Oh, so you're making the rules?
Mr. STILLER: Yeah. Very good, very good.
Mr. DAVID: We would already have been there already.
Mr. STILLER: Yes, very good, very good.
Mr. DAVID: Oh, yeah, very good, very good. Oh, you can't drive with somebody
in the back seat.
Mr. STILLER: Yeah. You're such a baby! You're a...
Mr. DAVID: I'm not...
Mr. STILLER: ....grown-man baby.
Mr. DAVID: Are you saying I'm a man-child?
Mr. STILLER: I'm saying you're a little baby. And I'll get--you know what,
little baby? You want a ride? We'll give little baby a ride, OK?
Mr. DAVID: You know what? Little baby wants to walk.
Mr. STILLER: No, no, no. No, no, no. Little baby...
Mr. DAVID: Little baby's going to walk.
Mr. STILLER: No, no. You know what? I should have brought my little baby
seat for my g...
Mr. DAVID: No, no, little baby's going to walk.
Mr. STILLER: No, no. Mr. David, where to now? Where to now, Mr. David?
Mr. DAVID: Oh, I didn't read the rules getting into the car.
Mr. STILLER: Here we go, driving Mr. Larry.
Mr. DAVID: Hey, take it easy, man.
Mr. STILLER: You're the baby...
GROSS: Larry David and Ben Stiller in a scene from "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with the show-stopper from "The Producers."
(Soundbite of music from "The Producers")
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) And now it's springtime for Hitler and
Germany. Deutschland is happy and gay. We're marching to a faster pace.
Look out. Here comes the master race. Springtime for Hitler and Germany.
Rhineland's a fine land once more. Springtime for Hitler and Germany. Watch
out, Europe. We're going on tour. Springtime for Hitler and Germany.
Chorus: (In unison) ...(Unintelligible) springtime.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Winter and for Poland and France.
Unidentified Man #1 and Chorus: (In unison) Springtime for Hitler and
Chorus: (In unison) Springtime, springtime, springtime, springtime,
springtime, springtime, springtime!
Unidentified Man #1: Come on, Germans, go into your dance.
Unidentified Man #2: I was born in...
(Soundbite of music and tap dancing)
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