DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIM GAFFIGAN: I do want everyone to feel comfortable. That's why I'd like to talk to you about Jesus.
GAFFIGAN: He better not. It doesn't matter if you're religious or not. Does anything make you feel more uncomfortable than some stranger going, I'd like to talk to you about Jesus?
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I'd like you not to.
You could say that to the pope. I want to talk to you about Jesus. He'd be like, easy, freak.
GAFFIGAN: I keep work at work.
GAFFIGAN: You have to admit, that was a good impression of the pope.
BIANCULLI: That's comic Jim Gaffigan recorded in 2005. Last September when Terry interviewed Jim Gaffigan, he was days away from appearing as an opening act for the pope during the pope's visit to Philadelphia. Gaffigan performed as part of the concluding public event following the papal parade, and even though he's a comedian, he was not out of place in the festivities. He's made his Catholicism a central part of his comedy. In his stand-up act and in his TV series "The Jim Gaffigan Show," which is now in its second season on TV Land. He plays a stand-up comic named Jim Gaffigan, who, like the real Jim Gaffigan, is married, has five children and is Catholic. Here's a clip from the first season. Gaffigan had tried to keep a pretty low profile about his religious beliefs until The Huffington Post prominently features him in a story headlined "Entertainers Of Faith." His always sarcastic friend, played by Michael Ian Black, discovers the article while visiting Gaffigan and his wife.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW")
IAN MICHAEL BLACK: (As Daniel) What is this picture of you holding a Bible the size of a child's coffin doing on The Huffington Post?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Let me see this.
BLACK: (As Daniel) Congratulations, you made the front page, right next to a story about Miley Cyrus' tongue.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan, reading) "Entertainers Of Faith," funnyman Jim Gaffigan isn't ashamed of his Catholicism. He's seen here leaving a New York comedy club with his Bible in hand.
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) What are they talking about?
BLACK: (As Daniel) I know. They lost me at funnyman.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, no, I've been outed as a Christian.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) What is wrong with that?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Well, I don't want people to think I believe in God.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) But you do believe in God.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Yeah, but that's my private business. Besides, the perception is that people that believe in God are stupid.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) Oh, I don't think that's true.
BLACK: (As Daniel) Your signature bit is you singing "Hot Pockets," and suddenly you're worried about people thinking you're stupid?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) No, really, this is serious business. I don't want to get involved in the culture war. Religion's iffy. Once you identify yourself as believing something, you open yourself to ridicule.
BLACK: (As Daniel) You're being completely paranoid. Just because you believe in a Jesus that looks like Chris Hemsworth doesn't mean people are going to think they're better than you. They got plenty of other reasons for that.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) Come on, Daniel. You don't believe in some sort of higher power?
BLACK: (As Daniel) You think God made man in his image?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) I'm a target now.
BLACK: (As Daniel) I know, a mighty big one, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) That's a scene from "The Jim Gaffigan Show." Jim Gaffigan, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I should mention, further into that scene you get calls from the White House inviting you to the annual Prayer Breakfast. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, wants to debate you. Joe Austin wants to take you to dinner. (Laughter) I'm sure you wrote all of that before you got the call asking you to perform with the pope in the audience for the World Meeting of Families....
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, it's...
GROSS: ...During the pope's visit Philadelphia. So in the clip that we heard, the Jim Gaffigan that you play on your TV show is very uncomfortable with being outed as a Catholic. And he's afraid that it's going to hurt his comic identity and that people will project things on him, that it's going to lead to trouble. Were you uncomfortable with audience or the press finding out that you were a practicing Catholic?
GAFFIGAN: Yeah. I mean, well, I - you know, my wife and I, we work together. And we wrote this book, "Dad Is Fat." And in the book, you know, I was encouraged constantly by my editor to be more personal and talk about more personal experiences. So we wrote about having five kids and bringing them to church. A journalist at The Washington Post wrote this article where the headline was "The New Catholic Evangelism Of Jim Gaffigan." And it was a bit terrifying. I spent most of my adult life essentially agnostic or an atheist. And I am somebody who - my path to my faith is very kind of individual, and I don't want to be lumped into the category of, you know, those Westboro Baptists. Like, my faith is very personal. It's not something that I want to project on other people. But some of my fear and anxieties surrounding it, I think, provides some good comedy for my act.
GROSS: Let's play an example of that in your TV show, "The Jim Gaffigan Show," on TV Land. Further into the episode that we heard an excerpt of earlier, after the article about you is written in The Huffington Post, after you're profiled as one of the entertainers of faith, you get a call to meet with a corporate executive who has an offer to make you. So here you are with the corporate executive.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW")
JON BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Mr. Gaffigan.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, hi.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Kevin Ferguson, I'm an executive at Cane Corp.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, great. Yeah.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Ever heard of it?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, no.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) We operate a chain of restaurants called Pizza House.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Make your house a Pizza House.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) That's us. We're looking for a new spokesperson.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's very flattering, but I'm already doing this water campaign. So I don't want to do too many commercials.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Water campaign, that sounds fun.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Yeah.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Two days in Florida with us, seven figures.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) I could go to the airport right now if you want (laughter).
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Our CEO loves you.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, yeah? He likes my comedy?
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Well, he hasn't seen your comedy, but he likes that you work clean and that you have five kids. Jim, you'd be the perfect person to represent our company and reflect our American values, like pro-community.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's me.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Pro-family.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's me.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) The repudiation of homosexuality.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's - that's not me.
GROSS: (Laughter) So that's probably a pretty good example of what you're afraid of...
GROSS: That people will associate you with values that you don't share.
GAFFIGAN: Yeah. You know, I grew up in a Catholic family in the Midwest. And I knew people of different faiths and people that were atheists and people that were agnostic. And it really never came up, but I think that in present-day America, they're - you know, and I touched on it in the initial clip - is that we are in the middle of this culture war. And there's a quote in this episode where I say, I just want to talk about avocados. And some of it is - I do just want to do jokes. I don't want to be a divisive figure. I don't want to pick a team. I want to make people laugh and hopefully bring some - be humorous about the human experience, you know, whether they're people of any stripes of life.
GROSS: So, you know, in the TV show, like, your wife is especially religious, and you're, like, not much of a churchgoer. The first time you go, the priest is surprised because he didn't even realize your wife still had a husband (laughter)...
GROSS: ...Because he hadn't seen you before. Are you a churchgoer?
GAFFIGAN: I am. I would say I'm - in the show, I'm a cultural Catholic, which is what I was. And I would say that now I'm somebody who goes to church. I mean, I should clarify, I - you know, some of my anxiety is, like - I am a horrible person. I need...
GROSS: (Laughter) What does that mean?
GAFFIGAN: You know, I need the concept of mercy for me to have some semblance of self-admiration. So in real life, I'm probably somebody who is more devout. That's not to say that I'm a well-informed Catholic. You know, I'm still in idiot, you know? Like, I know that Colbert could quote Thomas Aquinas and all this, but I'm somebody who - you know, because it's a necessity for me on a personal basis. I need it because I'm a lunatic.
GROSS: When you say you're a horrible person and a lunatic, what do you mean?
GAFFIGAN: I mean that I'm somebody that - you know, I think stand-up comedy is this - it's this kind of indulgence and narcissism. And you're on stage and because stand-up comedy is one of the few meritocracies in the entertainment industry, there's some kind of - at least for me, there's some kind of idea of control. And my faith kind of keeps me in touch with the idea that I'm not in control of things. And when I'm in touch with the idea that there is a higher power and that there is, you know, other factors at work, it - it kind of quells my narcissism. And a lot of the teachings really kind of keep me grounded. But, you know, the reason I say I'm a horrible person is I don't want myself to be presented as somebody who's a great Catholic. You know, it's, you know - the idea of being a practicing Catholic, it's - for me, it's like - I need a lot of practice, you know what I mean? So...
GAFFIGAN: ...I don't - so I do get nervous. So even being presented as, you know, somebody who will be performing at this event, there's a little bit of concern or an expectation that I'm going to get a call and they're going to say look, we did some research. You know, you really shouldn't be performing. But, you know, if you want to pick up garbage after the show, maybe we could have you do that, so...
GROSS: When you were growing up, did you grow up with the concept of mercy?
GAFFIGAN: I don't think so. I think I grew up with the idea that God was a punishing being, constructed around rules. And so he was, you know, this father figure that, you know, I was in trouble with, you know, constantly. And so it was not something that - you know, I lived across from a Catholic church for 15 years that I never went into. And then I got married to my wife and - you know, and now we're going in there every other day baptizing a kid. So it's...
GAFFIGAN: It's - you know, it's an amazing journey, you know? You know, it's interesting because I was watching this thing last night. I think CNN had a thing on it, and it may me realize that, you know, for, like, the past 20 years, there has been this belief among the Catholic community - and this - I'm no expert, this is my opinion - that cafeteria Catholics are wrong. It's - you either - you know, follow all the rules or you're not really Catholic. And I think what Pope Francis is saying is that nobody's perfect, you know? And so someone like Joe Biden, you know, where - you know, when he was running for president, people were - there were some bishops that were like don't let him have the Eucharist. And Pope Francis is saying that's not the point of this, you know? So...
GROSS: So you grew up in a Catholic family. You became an agnostic at about what age?
GAFFIGAN: I would say in my mid-20s...
GROSS: So it...
GROSS: You stayed with the church pretty long by agnostic standards.
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I mean - well, you know - I mean, that's - you know, the - you know, there's - that's why I think they're called cultural Catholics. It's - you know, I mean, I - you know, I was still rooting for Notre Dame, you know? It's like there's the cultural Catholic experience. I mean, I went to a Catholic University and, you know, there's something about being a Catholic-American. You know, St. Patrick's Day is - you know, I'm Irish-Catholic. You know, there's alcoholism in my family. It's like I've got to be Catholic, right? And so I think when I started doing stand-up, that's when I really tried to question everything in my belief system, you know, which is - I think a pretty important part of being a comedian is really questioning things. And so that's when I really kind of steered away from it, but, you know, came back and, you know, still as uninformed as I was in high school. But I think, you know, faith is something that's - it's hard to articulate. It's - there's - it's not based on logic. It's a leap, so that's where I am.
GROSS: So comedy took you away from faith. What brought you back to it?
GAFFIGAN: I wouldn't say that comedy brought me away from it. I think that my idea of faith was another obligation in my life. You know, I was raised in a family where my father was the first one to go to college. You sought security. You didn't question - kind of like, you would go to college. You would wear a tie to work. You would, you know, you would work for 40 years. And then you would play golf for three years, and then you would die. That was how I was raised. And so I think when my mother died, it was such a - you know, a shock to the logic that I had been raised with. You know, I wasn't going to church. I never went to church when I was in college, either.
But I would say my return to my faith is - you know, it's a very personal thing. But I think it was - you know, I reached a point in my life where I didn't really like who I was. And, you know, I had the all these things that I wanted. I was married to an amazing woman. I had children, and yet there was frustration. You know, it's kind of hard to articulate, but, like, this notion of mercy, forgiveness, was very appealing for me. It was very profound. And it had a deep impact, and I think it still does.
BIANCULLI: Jim Gaffigan speaking to Terry Gross last September. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's conversation with comedian Jim Gaffigan, whose sitcom on TV Land is now in its second season. When Terry spoke with him last September, he was about to be one of the performers opening for the pope during the pope's visit to Philadelphia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Lots of your comedy is about being a father with now five kids. Did you ever think you'd have as many kids? I know you lived alone for, like, 13 years, didn't you?
GAFFIGAN: Yeah. I mean, it's - you know, I love stand-up comedians. I really do. And, you know, we're - even when you hear about a comedian getting married, among comedians, we're always kind of like, what are they doing? (Laughter) And so the idea of having a large family, you know, I definitely had a romantic notion of it. But I didn't think that it's something that would happen. I didn't think I would be in the position, emotionally or financially, to be able to do that. But, you know, I've been lucky. But, you know, there's also - you know, I do get a lot - you know, my children have made me a better man, which is - in the end, that's probably more important than, you know, two more comedy specials or being in better shape. So I don't know. I mean, I know it sounds like I'm saying what I'm supposed to say. But I - you know, it's really kind of my experience.
GROSS: So what was it like for you when you got to New York and had to establish a comic identity? I don't know if being a Catholic was an issue for you then, that you felt like you needed to - I'm not sure whether you were in your, you know, agnostic phase or like...
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I was...
GROSS: ...I'm-not-going-to-really-let-them-know-I'm-Catholic phase. So how did you find who you were on stage in New York?
GAFFIGAN: Well, you know, it's - you know, I always had this romantic notion of living in New York. I didn't know - I just felt like, you know, everyone could be different and weird and whatever they are in New York, where I felt like in the Midwest, as much as I love the Midwest, I felt that I was, you know, I was a little bit different. And so when I started stand-up - and this is in the '90s - there was definitely - you know, people hadn't watched decades of Comedy Central, where, you know, people are really much more educated on stand-up comedy. It used to be much more of a form combat. You know, heckling was much more common. And I - you know, I couldn't get stage time, and so I would go out to Pip's in Sheepshead Bay.
GROSS: Oh, gosh, I grew up in Sheepshead Bay.
GAFFIGAN: Right. And so...
GROSS: My parents used to go to Pip's. I never went there.
GAFFIGAN: Right, and so, you know, and that's where Andrew Dice Clay kind of - you know, obviously...
GROSS: Woody Allen, I think, started there.
GAFFIGAN: Oh, yeah, and so - Richard Lewis - you know, so many greats. And - but, like, at that time, Pip's was very much this rough-and-tumble kind of, you know, Brooklyn Italian kind of - or Andrew Dice Clay kind of working-class thing. And so I came across - I remember that's where I had this realization. To these people, I just looked like John Tesh.
GAFFIGAN: You know, to this audience. And so, you know, look, I always - I left the Midwest thinking I didn't fit in. But when I got to New York, I realized how truly Midwestern I was. And so, you know, I grew up 45 minutes outside of Chicago. But there was - some of it was this perception of the Midwest that I realized in this multicultural city that - and I don't think it's as true as it was - but everyone was kind of like, what, are you Jewish? Are you Italian? What are you? You know, are you black? Are you da-da-da? Are you Puerto Rican? And so I ended up - my ethnic identity was Midwestern, was white bread. And so it informed a lot of my stand-up.
GROSS: Part of your thing is that you work clean. You're a clean comic. You don't use four-letter words and stuff. I guess you don't talk about sex explicitly in your performances.
GROSS: That probably has something to do with being invited for pope weekend in Philadelphia to perform for the World Meeting of Families, with possibly the pope in the audience. But did you always work that way or was that a conscious decision after not working that way?
GAFFIGAN: Well, I was - you know, I was never really that dirty. I definitely had some curse words here and there. And as I mention, you know, I curse in everyday life, as my kids will repeatedly tell me. But, you know, I had some jokes that were dirty. And some of it is when I started making appearances on Conan and Letterman back in the late '90s, I think. You had to remove the curse words, or you couldn't do some of the more explicit jokes. And I realized, in removing or rewriting these jokes, that often the jokes weren't done or that I was using, for me, the curse words as kind of a crutch. So then I just started writing - if I knew - you know, every other month, I wasn't going to write a joke that I wouldn't be able to do on Conan. But again, most of my material is - you know, it doesn't necessarily involve a lot of editing. So even the show with - you know, for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, I don't have to worry about some of the material being inappropriate. I mean, I do have some Catholic stuff that is done from the perspective of an ignorant Catholic. But other than that, topic-wise, there's nothing really filthy.
GROSS: Well, listen, I wish you really good luck this weekend.
GAFFIGAN: Thanks so much.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
GAFFIGAN: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Jim Gaffigan speaking to Terry Gross last September. Days before he opened for the pope during the pontiff's visit to Philadelphia last fall. "The Jim Gaffigan Show" is now in its second season on TV Land.
After a short break, we'll have an appreciation of Elie Wiesel who died last weekend at age 87. Film critic David Edelstein will review the new movie "Life Animated," and I'll review the upcoming HBO Series "The Night Of." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. In 2014, journalist Ron Suskind published a very personal book, titled "Life, Animated," about his autistic son and the amazing way his son responded to Disney's animated characters. That book and that story is the basis of a new documentary also called "Life, Animated." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I have some reservations about the documentary "Life, Animated," but they can't undermine how moved I was watching its subject, Owen Suskind, who has autism, figure out how to navigate the world using Disney cartoons as a reference point. Here's the scenario laid out by the movie, which is directed by Roger Ross Williams from a book by journalist Ron Suskind. When Owen, Suskind and his wife Cornelia's second son, was born, he seemed, quote, "normal" until age 3, when, as Suskind puts it, he vanished. His motor skills deteriorated. He lost what language he'd attained. Autism was diagnosed. Says Suskind, someone kidnapped our son.
The young Owen is seen in videos as well as original animated scenes by the French visual effects company Mac Guff, but much of "Life, Animated" follows the Suskind family today. Owen is 23. And in the process of graduating from a special school in Cape Cod, he'll be moving into his own apartment in an assisted-living facility. He has a girlfriend. He's still watching Disney cartoons. He even runs a Disney cartoon club, which he says makes him popular with other students.
The movie jumps back and forth between Owen now and as a little boy when his parents were showing him those cartoons just to keep him calm. One day, he came to his parents saying words they could barely understand, which turned out to be just your voice. It's a phrase from "The Little Mermaid," whose heroine is told she'll have to surrender something. Just your voice. Over and over, he says those words. And a doctor tells the Suskinds, it might be echolalia, that is, mere repetition. Or, it might be, says Suskind, a sign that, quote, "he's still in there."
Ron's account - illustrated with Mac Guff's animation - of approaching his son with the puppet of Iago is stunning. Suskind also does a pretty great imitation of Gilbert Gottfried.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LIFE, ANIMATED")
RON SUSKIND: So I go up to his room. I see Owen on the bed flipping through a Disney book. And I see - sort of over to my left, I see Iago, the puppet. Now, Iago is the evil sidekick to the villain, Jafar, from "Aladdin." Now, I know Owen loves this puppet.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALADDIN")
GILBERT GOTTFRIED: (As Iago) Jafar, Jafar. Get a grip.
SUSKIND: I grab the puppet. I pull it up to my elbow. And I begin to crawl across the rug as quietly as I can. And Owen turns to the puppet like he's bumping into an old friend. I say to him, (imitating Iago voice) Owen, Owen. How does it feel to be you?
OWEN SUSKIND: And I said, not good 'cause I don't have any friends.
SUSKIND: Now I'm under the bedspread, and I just bite down hard, you know? I just say to myself, stay in character.
(Imitating Iago voice) And I said, OK, OK. Owen? When did you and I become such good friends?
And he said, when I watched "Aladdin," you made me laugh.
And then we talk, Owen and Iago, for a minute - minute and a half. It's the first conversation we've ever had.
EDELSTEIN: There's no way of knowing if or when Owen would have found his voice without Disney, no way of exploring that road not taken. But watching "Life, Animated," I could extrapolate some things. As I watched Owen pace, hands behind his back, showing anxiety and self-consciousness as he tried to learn social cues, I thought, maybe it helps that he can identify with a character in a movie. Maybe this is how someone with autism can learn empathy.
But the most marvelous part of "Life, Animated" is when Owen conceives of his own animated film based on his feeling that he'll never be a hero - someone capable of making strong choices and leading - but only a sidekick to a hero. He writes and sketches "Land Of The Lost Sidekicks," which director Roger Ross Williams actually turned into a film. What we see of that film is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. As a feat of imagination, it's heroic.
Owen's story is hardly settled in "Life, Animated." His brother is being interviewed when a call comes in that Owen's girlfriend has broken up with him. That makes sense to me - Owen does seem a bit clutch-y in his scenes with her. Now he's bereft, uncomprehending. That's the sad part of the movie. As his father suggests, when he worries that Owen needs to learn to fail and fail again and keep moving on, you can't learn everything in life from a Disney cartoon.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, we remember Elie Wiesel, who died last weekend at age 87, by replaying part of an interview Terry conducted with him in 1988. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and lifelong witness who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, died last weekend in Manhattan. He was 87 years old. Wiesel was born in what was then Romania and was 15 when he and his family were sent from Hungary to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Poland in 1944.
He was later moved to another camp, Buchenwald, from which he was liberated in 1945. Among his family, only two of his sisters survived the war. Wiesel became one of the first survivors to devote his life to bearing witness to the Holocaust.
His memoir on the subject, "Night," was published in English in 1960. And he wrote and spoke about social injustice ever since. Terry spoke with him in 1988 when his novel "Twilight" was published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Why have you made it your life work to bear witness?
ELIE WIESEL: What else could one do, having gone through certain events? I believe a human being - if he or she wants to remain human, then he or she must do something with what we have seen, endured, witnessed.
GROSS: You know, I think that it's almost a human instinct to let time dim memories of horror and tragedy. Have you fought that, in a way? Have you tried to keep those memories alive so that you can continue to communicate about them?
WIESEL: Naturally. I mean, naturally, the human being wants to forget pain. In this case, all those - or most of those - who went through the experience during the war - they want to remember more - more and more. It's never enough because we feel that we have to tell the story. And no one can tell the story fully.
GROSS: How often do you find yourself thinking about your experiences in the camps?
WIESEL: Well, I rarely speak about myself. Since you ask, of course, I think about it every day.
GROSS: Are there certain things that will bring up those memories?
WIESEL: Yes. When I see a child who is hungry, I see a person who is humiliated. When I see what is happening all over the world today - the violence - the stupid, arrogant, grotesque violence that is dominating humankind. I cannot not remember that there were other times, of course. I never compare.
GROSS: You once described Auschwitz as the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a meaning with a capital M in history. Do you feel that, nevertheless, you've been really spending your life trying to find some meaning of the Holocaust - some larger meaning that could tell us about man or about God?
WIESEL: Terry, all the questions I had remain open. I really don't believe that I found any answer to any one of the questions I had. I don't know the meaning. I don't know why it happened. I don't know how it happened. I still don't know anything, really.
I'm trying to tell a story. And even the story cannot be told. And therefore, it cannot be communicated. And therefore, people - deep down, I know - won't receive the testimony we are giving. But I know that people do not understand.
GROSS: Well, in fact, I think when you started talking about the Holocaust, you found it very difficult to find people who would listen.
WIESEL: Oh, nobody wanted to listen. My first book, "Night," which appeared in France in '58 - we couldn't find a publisher for it. Finally, we found a very small publisher, a marvelous man, Arthur Wang, who, I think, gave us $50 in advance. And maybe 3,000 copies were printed. I don't think they were sold. Nobody read. People didn't want to listen.
GROSS: I think when you were in the camps, you saw some religious people stop praying and saw people who had not been observant turn to God. You had been very observant and very immersed in the religious texts when you were young before you were deported to the concentration camps. How did your experiences in your survival in the camps change your own experience of religion?
WIESEL: Well, the change, to the extent that it occurred, did not occur there. It's afterwards that the problems became urgent. Inside that universe, we continued praying. We continued believing. We continued affirming. We needed that link with our past. It's only after the war that I began asking questions.
GROSS: Have you gone back to the religious texts that you were reading when you were young?
WIESEL: I never stopped reading or studying. Even inside that universe, I studied. I had a teacher there whose name I never knew and whose face I hardly saw. But he was a teacher, head of a Talmudic school in Galicia. And we worked together. And we studied together. I know it's incredible.
GROSS: This is in the camps?
WIESEL: Inside - in Auschwitz. So we studied. We kept on studying from morning to evening. And after the war, the first thing I wanted was a book - was a Talmudic treatise. I never stopped studying. That probably saved me.
GROSS: After the war, you were supposed to be repatriated and sent back to your home. But you didn't want to go there. Why didn't you want to return?
WIESEL: Because there was no one waiting for me there, unlike the non-Jews, maybe, who were also deported. They could go back to their families, to their home, to their peoples. We had nowhere to go. I knew that my father died. I was there.
I was convinced that my little sister, my mother also perished. I had two older sisters. I didn't know that they survived. So why go back? And therefore, I was together with 400 other young boys, waiting for any country to open its case for us.
Our ideal, really, would have been to go to Palestine. But the British didn't allow us to go to Palestine. De Gaulle heard about our plight. And he invited us to France, so we came to Paris. And therefore, really, I feel very close to French culture and to the French humanism, which occasionally one finds, even in the highest places. And therefore, all of my books have been written in French, including "Twilight."
GROSS: Did you know when you got out of the camps that you wanted to write?
WIESEL: Oh, I knew that I was going to write before I entered the camps. I come from a tradition - from the Jewish tradition, which believes in words, in language, in communication. And already at the age of 12 or 13, I was writing. Of course, it wasn't good. It meant nothing.
But I tried to write. I even found the manuscript when I went back to my hometown. It's not good, but I tried. Afterwards, I knew I would have to bear witness. Everyone who was there is a witness. And everyone who was there is a true witness.
Others who are trying to speak about the subject occasionally are false witnesses. And I felt that I had to be a true witness. And therefore, I decided to wait for 10 years - not to speak about it, not to use language related to these experiences until I knew that the words were true words.
GROSS: Why 10 years? Why not five years? Why not one year? No, seriously, what made you think that 10 years...
WIESEL: I don't know.
GROSS: ...Is what you needed to really know what it was you wanted to say and what words you wanted to say it with?
WIESEL: Well, 10 is a biblical figure, you know. And it's a good figure. Why not? I cannot tell you that I got up one morning and decided that - let's see, is it five or six or seven? It entered my mind - it has to be 10. I decided 10.
GROSS: Did you actually have an anniversary, where, like, the 10th...
GROSS: And that day, you sat down to write.
GROSS: And is that when you started to write "Night"?
WIESEL: I wrote "Night," yes. That's when I wrote "Night," on April 11, 1955, which is 10 years later.
GROSS: And looking back, do you think that this was definitely the right thing to do - to wait those 10 years? In what ways were you changed as a witness and as a writer during those 10 years?
WIESEL: Maybe I didn't change. But the words in me changed. They grew. You know, words have strange destiny, too. They grow. They get old. They die. They come back. Words can be turned into spears. They can be turned into prayers. It's a strange world that you are in. But you deal with words.
GROSS: In one of your essays, you wrote that after the war, you deliberately avoided all contact with Germans and that their presence sickened you physically. Did that change? And if so, what changed that?
WIESEL: It did. But I didn't want to go back to Germany, really. I went once - because I didn't want to judge people. I went once in the early '60s to do a piece for commentary. And I realize that every person I see in the street - I judge him or her, asking, where was he? What did he do? How old is he? Could he have been there?
And I didn't want that role. So I didn't go back. But I did go back last year in '86 - '87. And look, today, you have a young generation of Germans. And I do not believe in collective guilt.
So I have absolutely no problem with the young Germans. I even feel sorry for the young Germans because to be maybe sons or daughters of killers is different than them to be sons and daughters of the victims. And I felt sorry for them. I still do.
GROSS: You said something about bearing false witness before - that you wanted to bear witness because there were others who would bear false witness. And I wonder if you see a lot of examples of false witness around you now. And by that, I mean maybe some of the movies or novels or something that you might think don't ring true, or...
WIESEL: Well, there is too much vulgarization and commercialization and trivialization of the subject. It's much too much. It began years ago. And the wave is rather high. It goes too far. And these, I believe - although the intentions may be good - but these are statements made by false witnesses.
The Holocaust is not a cheap soap opera. The Holocaust is not a romantic novel. It is something else. Now furthermore - that there are even people who totally deny that it existed. Today, you have many, many pseudo-scholars who totally deny that Auschwitz ever existed.
So I believe that faced with the embellishment of the tragedy on one hand and the denial with the tragedy on the other, we who are still here must speak up as forcefully and gently as possible and say, look, this is not the way it was.
GROSS: The generations of survivors are getting older. The older generation of survivors is no longer with us. Are you concerned about what's going to happen after the generations of survivors pass on? Like, who will be around to actually speak the memories?
WIESEL: Oh, I'm profoundly concerned, naturally. In one of my novels, I try to describe that feeling called the last survivor - what it means to be the very last. And I would not want to be that last survivor. But on the other hand, we are leaving a legacy. We are bequeathing a certain message, a certain story.
This tragedy is the most documented tragedy in recorded history. And therefore, later on, if there will be a later on, anyone wishing to know will know where to go for knowledge.
BIANCULLI: Elie Wiesel speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate died last weekend at age 87. Coming up, as TV critic, I review the new HBO series "The Night Of." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Sunday night, HBO presents a new eight-part limited drama series called "The Night Of," based on a British series and originally intended to star James Gandolfini who died suddenly after shooting the pilot episode. It finally emerges this weekend with John Turturro taking over the role that had so intrigued Gandolfini. And the result is a miniseries that is not just a worthy remake. It's surprisingly and excitingly original.
I've seen all but the final hour of this eight-part crime drama, and it's riveting from the very first frame. For the first hour, it tells the tale of a young college student who falls into a rabbit hole of an adventurous night out and ends up at the police station suspected of murder. But from there, the story keeps widening. We get to know the veteran detective who interrogates him, the lawyers who defend him and even some of the prisoners with whom he's incarcerated while awaiting and undergoing trial.
"The Night Of" gives all of these characters and viewpoints equal weight as it shifts focus. It's like a TV show that starts out like "Law & Order" moves to the interrogation room of "Homicide: Life On The Street" then becomes an investigative character study like "Columbo" and a prison drama like "Oz" with some "Goodwife" courtroom humor and theatrics thrown in as a bonus. "The Night Of" is like four or five TV series in one, and they're all great. Another comparison perhaps would be to the recent long-form dramas of courtroom cases presented in miniseries form on ABC's "American Crime" and FX's "The People V. O.J. Simpson."
But the concept for "The Night Of" predates all those efforts. It's based on a British series called "Criminal Justice," which aired in the U.K. beginning in 2008. And, like ABC's "American Crime," presented a new case each season. The first season written by Peter Moffat was about a young British college student named Ben accused of murder. He's played by Ben Whishaw from "London Spy." And he's interrogated, in the original, by Detective Box played on "Criminal Justice" by Bill Patterson who, long ago, played the psychiatrist in "The Singing Detective."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRIMINAL JUSTICE")
BILL PATTERSON: (As Detective Box) And there's just one more thing we need from you.
OLIVER HEMBROUGH: (As Dr. Gerrard) Do we have consent?
BEN WHISHAW: (As Ben Coulter) What does that mean? Consent for what?
PATTERSON: (As Detective Box) You can say no to this if you want to.
HEMBROUGH: (As Dr. Gerrard) My name is Dr. Gerrard. I need to take a sample from inside your penis.
PATTERSON: (As Detective Box) If you say no, we'll have to get permission from my boss. And he'll say yes, of course. It'll just take a bit longer. So it's going to happen anyway. And if you refuse now it can be used against you in court. And I don't want you disadvantaged, Ben. You really can say no if you want to. Say the words for me, Ben.
WHISHAW: (As Ben Coulter) I consent.
BIANCULLI: For the American "The Night Of" remake, novelist and screenwriter Richard Price and writer-director Steve Zaillian opened the story up, slowed it down, and made some significant changes. One was re-casting the prime suspect as a Pakistani-American played by Riz Ahmed. That injects subtext to everything from his treatment in prison to his initial questioning by Detective Box played in the American version by Bill Camp.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHT OF")
BILL CAMP: (As Detective Box) We didn't formally meet out there. I'm Detective Sergeant Dennis Box. So Nazir, is that what you like to be called or...
RIZ AHMED: (As Naz) Naz.
CAMP: (As Detective Box) Naz. OK. That's easy. So, Naz, what happened tonight?
BIANCULLI: Naz is willing, even eager to tell his story, but only until he meets up with Jack Stone a lawyer who trolls the precincts looking for cases. That's the part Gandolfini played in the original pilot. But Jack barely shows up until episode two when he introduces himself to Naz and gives him some advice. We'll never know what the former star of "The Sopranos" would have done with this scene or with this character, but John Turturro is terrific.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHT OF")
AHMED: (As Naz) OK. You need to understand what happened here. All right. We were at her place. We were drinking. I don't drink, and she started giving me all kind of...
JOHN TURTURRO: (As Jack Stone) I want to tell you something, and it's the most important thing you'll ever hear in your entire life. So don't not hear it. Shut it. They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best. Now, the good news is we get to hear what their story is first before we have to tell them ours, so we keep our mouth shut until we know what they're doing.
AHMED: (As Naz) You keep saying story like I'm making it up. I want to tell you the truth.
TURTURRO: (As Jack Stone) You really, really don't. I don't want to be stuck with the truth, not until I have to be.
BIANCULLI: Other actors and character show up later and become pivotal, including Michael Kenneth Williams as a particularly imposing prisoner at Rikers Island. This makes the third indelible character Williams has played in an HBO drama, after Chalky White in "Boardwalk Empire" and Omar Little in "The Wire," quite impressive. But then everything about "The Night Of" is quite impressive. The less you know going in, the better because it's full of surprises and left turns. I haven't even given details about the murder and that's on purpose. Just know that you're in for an exciting ride and some splendid performances.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, British actor Christopher Eccleston. On the BBC drama "The A Word" he plays Maurice, the grandfather of a boy on the autism spectrum. Maurice has problems of his own interacting with the people around him. The show begins this month on the Sundance Channel. Ecclestone also played the Reverend Matt Jamison on HBO's "The Leftovers." Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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.