BETA Pledge: Amber Ruffin, Larry Norman And Alexandre Philippe

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Amber Ruffin
Comedian Amber Ruffin Photo courtesy of NBC

In this pledge-week edition of the show, we revisit interviews with comedy writer Amber Ruffin, Christian musician Larry Norman, and documentary filmmaker Alexandre Philippe.

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  • Amber Ruffin Is A Late Night Pioneer

    In 2014, after a failed audition for “Saturday Night Live,” Amber Ruffin received a call from former “SNL” alum, Seth Meyers. She thought it was a condolence call about not making the cast. Turns out, it was a job offer.

    “He called so quickly after (the audition) that I thought he was calling to say ‘I’m sorry you didn’t get ‘SNL.”’ So I kept saying ‘he didn’t have to call, man,’ but he was trying to offer me a job,” Ruffin told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Meyers was taking over as host of “Late Night” and brought Ruffin on as a writer. When she accepted the position, Ruffin made history. She became the first black writer for a network late night show. This notoriety is something Ruffin is a bit surprised and somewhat saddened by.

    “It never occurred to me that I would ever be a first anything,” Ruffin said. “You forget how recent all of our nation’s atrocities are until there’s the next person who’s the first black anything.”

    Asked if this designation adds any pressure for her to succeed, Ruffin says “absolutely not.”

    “It would if this job wasn’t to act a fool,” she said. “So, there is no real wrong way you could do it.”

    In addition to writing, Ruffin quickly became a popular performer for the show, headlining several viral sketches – including the wildly popular recurring bit, “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.”

    Developed by her co-writer, Jenny Hagel, the sketch flanks Ruffin and Hagel around host Meyers and lets them deliver the punch lines to jokes that ride the edge on issues of gender, race and sexuality. It is a clever and self-aware way to address the concept of a white host riffing on socially-charged topics.

    Ruffin figured the bit would die in the show’s Thursday pitch meeting. When it didn’t, she was convinced that it would be a one-time bit. Ruffin and Hagel have now performed the segment nearly 20 times in her estimate. Ruffin credits the atmosphere Meyers and the producers have created at the show; the boundaries they are willing to push continue to shock her.

    “It’s two-fold. I cannot believe people are down for the amount of silliness that I’m putting on display, and I cannot believe that they will let us talk about such touchy, important, scary issues.”

    Ruffin has a theory as to why this brand of comedy is making headway in the current political climate.

    “None of this should be okay, but because we are all being continually gaslit in this country, you have to have a release,” she said. “Because we are all so amped up over these very scary things, it means that our comedians can go even further and say even crazier things. It’s kind of like what we need.”

    Ruffin isn’t afraid to tone shift either. In a poignant and honest sketch on a recent show, Ruffin addressed the pure exhaustion she runs into as a woman of color in the United States with “Amber’s Late Night Safe Space.”

    “It was a piece where I told Seth how frustrated I was with the world and how I needed a safe space to be in where people wouldn’t ask me about how I felt about dying black children and people touching my hair and where I could just have a second,” she said.

    Meyers has been on record saying that Ruffin could and should make another piece of history and host her own late night talk show. Ruffin jokes that she may be too busy for that. She has just completed a pair of musicals — a rewrite of “The Wiz” for the Muny in St. Louis and “Bigfoot, The Musical” in Las Vegas – and continues to pitch an endless stream of TV show ideas to her parent network, NBC.

    “I pitched them ‘Going Dutch’ – a show about me and my Dutch husband and how crazy he is,” Ruffin said. “The year before that I pitched them a show about a black family who was famous in the eighties, like a sibling singing group and they passed on that. This year I’ll pitch them something that is even less likely for them to make.”

    But don’t be surprised if one of Ruffin’s out-there ideas eventually gets the green light, she has the pioneering spirit and talent to make it happen.

  • Larry Norman Was The Godfather Of Christian Rock

    Musician Larry Norman has rubbed elbows with music royalty. Literally.

    On a fateful elevator ride at Capitol Records in 1968, Norman bumped into Sir Paul McCartney. The former Beatle chatted Norman up and said he enjoyed his music. In a potentially apocryphal story, McCartney was later quoted as saying Norman could’ve been a major artist of the ’70s if he’d just stopped singing about Jesus. True or not, that sentiment was the crux of what made Norman’s life and career so fascinating.

    Norman had the respect of his musical peers, but baffled them with his persistence in channeling his talents toward Christian themes. On the flip side, religious leaders considered rock ‘n’ roll the tool of the devil and deemed Norman a heretic.

    “He was sort of a pioneering cultural figure at a time in which there was really no space to stand in the place he wanted to stand,” author Gregory Thornbury told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Using Norman’s personal archives, Thornbury explores this contradiction in his new biography on the singer, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.”

    Norman may not have become the artist McCartney predicted, but his musical contributions stand alongside other epochal artists like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. He also inspired other iconic artists like Bono, Black Francis of the Pixies and Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses.

    Norman never stopped exploring the reflection of spirituality in his music even as the movement he helped launch — Christian Rock — warped from his early and earnest guidance.

    “He felt like the church was spending 90 percent of its time talking about things that someone who is not a person of faith would never even care about,” Thornbury said.

    Norman’s seminal album “Only Visiting This Planet” was classified as a masterpiece. Sonically, it was on par with any album of the era — being produced at George Martin’s AIR Studios. Norman’s lyricism on the LP set about challenging the mainstream church leaders and their seemingly hypocritical support of the Vietnam War. It also served as a harsh commentary to the culture at large with reflections on institutional racism and the “buffoonery of American politics.”

    While Norman’s work was challenging to some, it spoke to others. He became a reassuring voice to faithful youth who struggled with the convictions of abstaining in the free love culture.

    “There’s this gorgeous song called ‘Pardon Me’ with these beautiful string arrangements that are about sort of the conflicted feelings a young person of faith might have about their first, you know, sexual encounters and is it okay to abstain,” said Thornbury.

    This approach widened the gap Norman was straddling with the album going in directions rock didn’t want to go and talking about things the church wasn’t willing to. Norman proudly defied the attacks on his music by faith leaders, pushing back at his concerts.

    “He was very satirical about it and you know humor is the best way to defuse an enemy,” said Thornbury.

    Norman’s later work would pivot from overtly speaking about Jesus to being more personal and Thornbury believes this led to his staying power.

    “What he discovered is if he wrote about what he knew, which was his own struggles, it connected with his audience,” said Thornbury. “He could draw people into his own narrative and they felt like he was talking about the same stuff they were going through.”

    Norman passed away in 2008 and, according to Thornbury, likely would be disgusted by today’s American evangelicalism and its misguided priorities.

    “If he would sort of look at the Gospel-Industrial complex, I think Larry would say these people that are cozying up to power are lambs being led to slaughter,” Thornbury said. “So, I think he’d be hot and bothered if he were around today.”

    And that’s why Norman’s legacy remains of a man apart.

    “He really was an artist,” Thornbury said. “He sat by his own fence post and whistled his own tune and made people pay attention.”

    All photos in the above slideshow are courtesy of the Norman Estate

  • Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe Says Hitchcock’s Famous Shower Scene Turns Us All Into Psychos

    Imagine going to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” when the movie was originally released in 1960.

    You settle into your seat and watch a real estate secretary named Marion Crane (portrayed by Janet Leigh) steal $40,000 from her boss and take a trip to reunite with her debt-ridden boyfriend Sam Loomis so they can start a new life together.

    On the way, she spends a night at the Bates Motel. She eats a sandwich in the parlor with the motel’s owner, Norman Bates. Marion returns to her room and has a change of heart about keeping the money. She resolves to go back to Phoenix the next day to return the money to her boss.

    But before she turns in for the night, she decides to take a shower, and is viciously stabbed to death in the process.

    That’s the moment cinema history changes forever.

    Since when is such a violent murder shown in such a fast-paced, kaleidoscopic and kinetic way, accompanied by stabbing, shrieking violins that echo the protagonist’s screams? And since when is the main character of a movie killed off only 47 minutes into a film that runs 109 minutes?

    Hitchcock broke all the rules in “Psycho” and made film history in the process.

    Alexandre O. Philippe is the director of the documentary, “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene.” The title is a reference to the fact that the shower scene required 78 different camera setups and consists of 52 cuts.

    “It was a new sort of cinematic language,” Philippe told WPR’s “BETA.” “But if you look at the murder itself, you have a number of shots that are from the point of view of the victim. So you’re literally being assaulted. You have a number of shots where you’re the murderer, you’re assaulting Janet Leigh or Marli Renfro (Leigh’s body double) … There are moments where you are the voyeur, moments where you are the spectator, moments where you are literally sort of a removed, almost the eye of God.”

    Zeroing in on the camera angles, Philippe mentions a low-angle shot looking up at a silhouette of Norman’s mother.

    “What is this? Is this Hitchcock inserting himself into the narrative?” he asked. “What he’s doing in 45 seconds, he literally splits your personality. He turns you into all of these different people at the same time. He turns you into the psycho.”

    Composer Bernard Herrmann had to talk Hitchcock into adding music to the shower scene. As Philippe explained, “When (editor George) Tomasini actually screened the shower scene for the first time for Hitchcock without music, it just didn’t work. (Hitchcock) wasn’t happy and at that point, he was actually so disappointed, he was strongly considering cutting the film down to an hour and making it part of his TV show, ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents,’ which would have been a tragedy.”

    Without Herrmann’s powers of persuasion, “Psycho” would not have had the major influence that it has had on cinema. It inspired the slasher film genre and three sequels have been produced.

    In 1998, Gus Van Sant made his own cover version of the film which was basically a shot-for-shot remake that starred Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. More recently, A&E aired the TV series, “Bates Motel,” a contemporary prequel to what is now considered one of the greatest films of all time.

    “I haven’t reached the bottom of it,” Philippe said. “I don’t think you can reach the bottom of that shower scene. I think every time you watch it, there’s something new. There are new reflections, there are new ideas, there are new things that I want to explore. So I’m not done with it. And certainly not done with Hitchcock for, hopefully, the rest of my life.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Amber Ruffin Guest
  • Alexandre O. Philippe Guest
  • Gregory Thornbury Guest

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