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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air' As A Daily NPR Program


This is FRESH AIR. Today is FRESH AIR's 30th anniversary as a daily NPR program. The show is older than I was when I started in radio. We've been around long enough to have had on Henny Youngman, who told some really old jokes.


HENNY YOUNGMAN: I take my wife everywhere, but she finds her way home. I said where do you want to go for your anniversary? She said I want to go somewhere I've never been before. I said try the kitchen.

GROSS: Now we have on comics and satirists like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Louis C.K. and Trevor Noah.


TREVOR NOAH: When there was a half-black, half-white, half-African man in the White House, he was being mocked by Donald Trump. Like, it's only fitting that now Donald Trump gets mocked by a half-black, half-white, African man when he's in the White House. So I feel like that actually worked out. I never thought of that.

GROSS: Whenever we have an anniversary, people ask me What are your favorite interviews? This is a question I always dodge. I don't think I could pick a top five or top 10. It's too overwhelming. But I can tell you what gets the most comments. It's the interviews in which something went wrong or the guest was obnoxious, like Gene Simmons.


GENE SIMMONS: If you want to welcome me with open arms, I'm afraid you're also going to have to welcome me with open legs.

GROSS: That's a really obnoxious thing to say.

SIMMONS: No, it's not...

GROSS: And people always remember when a guest walks out on me like Bill O'Reilly.


BILL O'REILLY: If you think that's fair, Terry, then you need to get in another business. I'll tell you that right now. And I'll tell your listeners if you have the courage to put this on the air. This is basically an unfair interview designed to try to trap me into saying something that Harper's can use. And you know it, and you should be ashamed of yourself. And that is the end of this interview.

GROSS: Wow. That's even more entertaining today than it was in 2003, when it was recorded. Luckily, few interviews end that way. And why should they? I mean, really, what I most often do is ask writers, musicians and filmmakers about process, how and why they do what they do. Come to think of it, that doesn't always work out well either, like when I asked the revered acting teacher Uta Hagen about her approach to acting.


UTA HAGEN: Are you an actor?

GROSS: No, I'm not.

HAGEN: Then it's none of your business. Now let me explain to you why. It may interest you...

GROSS: That actually led to an interesting conversation about whether talking about process helps deepen the audience's appreciation of a performance or merely kills the magic. So we're always grateful to the artists who are willing to come on our show, but sometimes I've been afraid that if I ask a certain question, I'll sound stupid or clueless. Like, when I asked this to Jay Z.


GROSS: You know how a lot of hip-hop artists when they're onstage they kind of like grab their crotch? (Laughter).

JAY Z: Yeah. I have a great explanation for that. A lot of times in hip hop, like in rock 'n' roll...

GROSS: I was so grateful that not only didn't Jay Z laugh at me, he had an interesting explanation. It's funny the things that stick in my mind from the past 30 years. Like, when John Waters told me that one of his favorite porn titles was "Shaving Ryan's Privates." And I remember the late spoken word artist Saykusen Dayada (ph) after his car accident and kidney transplant doing a reading in which he said...


SAYKUSEN DAYADA: I had taken it for granted that the most important part of the body was located front and center. This is what I mean about the body being a snake. It'll let you believe things like that until it's ready to tell you the truth. It ain't the heart or the lungs or the brain. The biggest, most important part of the body is the part that hurts.

GROSS: And I remember some of the totally unexpected moments like when I was in FRESH AIR's Philadelphia studio talking with Carrie Fisher who was in NPR's New York studio with her dog who started licking her hand.


CARRIE FISHER: He's just very...

GROSS: Oh, my God, I hear him licking your hand (laughter).

FISHER: Can you hear him?



FISHER: (Laughter).

GROSS: Oh, my God. That is such a loud lick.

We miss you, Carrie Fisher. We miss a lot of people who have been our guests over the years. Many of the iconic figures we've had on our show are gone now, and I'm thinking about how grateful we are that they shared their stories with us, remarkable people like Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, John Updike, Richard Pryor, James Baldwin, Joan Rivers, Maurice Sendak. The last time I spoke with Maurice Sendak in 2011, he knew he didn't have long to live, and he left us with these words.


MAURICE SENDAK: There's something I'm finding out as I'm aging that I am in love with the world. As I'd look right now as we speak together out my window, I see my trees, my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old. They're beautiful, and you see - I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are. It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books from (unintelligible) of the music. And I don't know whether I'll do another book or not. I might - it doesn't matter. I'm a happy old man, but I will cry my way all the way to the grave.

GROSS: I'm really glad we had a chance to talk.

SENDAK: I am, too.

GROSS: And I wish you all good things.

SENDAK: I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.

GROSS: His advice to live your life - I play that back in my mind a lot. Thank you for that, Maurice. What I'm also thinking about on this anniversary is how grateful I am to you for listening to our show and giving us the privilege of continuing to do FRESH AIR.

I'm grateful to our executive producer Danny Miller who has been my partner in radio and my compass dating back to when FRESH AIR was just a local program. He gets the show on the air every day and keeps us sane as we do it. And I'm grateful to our many alums including John Sheehan, who helped produce this segment and to our extraordinary staff Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Molly Seavy-Nesper, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Audrey Bentham, to our guest host Dave Davies and David Bianculli, to our critics and commentators and to Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Thanks also to our godfathers, including Bill Siemering, Mark Vogelzang and Robert Siegel and to WHYY's CEO Bill Marrazzo and our COO Kyra McGrath.

Now that I've shared a few of my memories with you, we'd love to hear what some of your favorite FRESH AIR interviews or moments are. Tell us on Twitter with the hashtag #FRESHAIR30 - FRESH AIR - three, zero - or find us on Facebook and leave a comment. So we're ready to begin our 31st year as a daily NPR program, and I'm about ready to have a drink. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.