Episode 301: Director Barry Sonnenfeld, ‘The Office,’ and Karen Carpenter

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mural featuring 'The Office' cast members in stock room
(C) Nathan Rupert via Flickr CC

Author Andy Greene takes us inside one of TV’s greatest comedies, ‘The Office.’ Also, director Barry Sonnenfeld on making his mark in Hollywood. And writer Karen Tongson explains why Karen Carpenter matters.

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  • Call Your Mother: Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld Looks Back With Humor In New Memoir

    “Well, it was one of the more surreal moments of my life,” said Barry Sonnenfeld. “I was at Madison Square Garden in 1970. I was a senior in high school.”

    When Sonnenfeld recently spoke with Doug Gordon of WPR’s “BETA” about his new memoir, “Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker,” the filmmaker and writer started by explaining where he got the name for the book.

    “It was the first Peace Concert in New York. Peter, Paul & Mary, the cast of ‘Hair,’ all these other people,” he said. “And at 2:20 a.m. in the morning, while Jimi Hendrix was warming up for the second time because he had left the stage in a huff earlier, came the following announcement over the Madison Square Garden PA system: ‘Barry Sonnenfeld, call your mother.’”

    Embarrassed, he went to find a phone as the arena chanted his name. When he got his mother on the line, he was expecting to hear of a family tragedy, but instead, she was upset because he was 20 minutes late arriving home.

    “So that was my mother. And therefore that’s the title of my book,” he said.

    “Well, you know, she was very depressed. You know, she spent most of her time in her bedroom with a wet towel over her face,” he said. “She told me that if I went to ‘Sleep-Away School’ — others call it college — she would commit suicide.”

    So he spent the next three years living at home and attending New York University. But for his senior year, he went away to Hampshire College.

    “I’ll get to both go away to college, and my mother commits suicide. Two birds, one stone. Win, win,” he said. “Unfortunately, my mother reneged on her threat. So she remained a living entity in my life.”

    Sonnenfeld’s darkly humorous animosity toward his mother continued well in to adulthood, coming out very publicly on David Letterman’s “The Late Show,” or on the pages of The New York Times.

    “But the worst, I think really was Newsweek … had a cover story on ‘Men in Black,’” he said. The article described Sonnenfeld walking around the movie’s set offering anyone $400,000 if they either got him kicked off the movie or killed his mother.

    Sonnenfeld remembered, “Mom called me and she said, ‘Barry, do you really wish I were dead?’”

    “And I said, ‘You know what, mom? I promise you, I would never pay anyone $400,000 to kill you,’” he continued. “And she said, ‘Thank you, Barry. I love you, too.’”

    This neurotic flair for the dramatic and love of dark humor has served Sonnenfeld well in his career as a filmmaker. He got his start in film when he met Joel Coen at a Christmas party.

    “We were the only two Jews there, and we sort of could see each other from across the room and sense the Semitic nature of our being,” he said.

    They started talking about a script Joel and his brother Ethan Coen had written for a low-budget movie called “Blood Simple.” Sonnenfeld mentioned he owned a 16-millimeter camera, and the rest was history. He became the director of photography for the Coen brothers’ directorial debut.

    Sonnenfeld continued to collaborate with the Coens as director of photography on films like “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing.”

    He also made a huge name for himself without the Coens, serving in the same capacity for huge box office hits like “Big,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Misery.”

    And that led to his directorial debut in 1991 with “The Addams Family.”

    What was most challenging about coming out from behind the camera to work with actors?

    “So for me, the biggest challenge was, would I know what to say when an actor would say, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said. “Then for me, what I learned is if you just tell actors to talk really fast, that solves everything.”

    “It’s true, the faster an actor talks, the less chance they have to act. And for me, I hate watching acting. I just like watching reality,” he continued. “So whenever I’m on the set, pretty much the only thing I’ll ever say to an actor is, ‘Let’s do it again, like twice as fast.’”

    Then he joked, “When I’m directing two actors, the thing I say to them is after a take, I’ll come up to them and I’ll say, ‘One of you is very good.’ And then I walk away, and they don’t know which one I’m talking about. But boy, both of them try to do better.”

    Sonnenfeld tells a story in his book about a moment on the set of “The Addams Family.”

    “This is one of the worst moments of my life, and it was a hideous thing that I did and I admit that,” he said.

    There’s a scene where Morticia, played by Anjelica Huston, gets a job as a pre-K teacher and is reading the story of “Hansel and Gretel” to the class. She tells it from the witch’s perspective, and when the witch is pushed into the oven, Morticia asks the class, “Now boys and girls, what do you think that feels like?”

    “And so I roll the cameras, and I say to the kids, ‘Look sad, look amazed, look scared, look worried.’ Cut. We’ve got it. I’m out of here,” he recalled.

    But his producer tracked him down and disagreed. He wanted the kids to cry. So Sonnenfeld went back in and asked the camera operators to start rolling, and then he addressed the group of 4-year-olds.

    “You guys did a great job, he said. “The only thing you need to do now is get your measles shot and then you can go.”

    One child suggested he was just kidding, but Sonnefeld doubled down.

    “And I did such a good job selling it that this adorable, curly haired, blond kid starts to cry. And when he starts to cry, all the other kids, because he was their leader, start to cry,” he continued.

    “And I’ve got all these great panning shots going from kid to kid, crying because I was so horrible,” he remembered.

    Sonnenfeld has gone on to direct many films, including three installments in the “Men in Black” series and “Get Shorty.”

    Could the next step in his career be for his own memoir to be optioned for the screen?

    “Warner Brothers Television and Rob Reiner, who’s a friend of mine, are in negotiation to option my book,” he said.

    “Unfortunately, because he’s dead, we can’t have Vincent Gardenia playing my mother,” joked Sonnenfeld. “But we’ll find an overweight, squat, hairy man to come in and play Mom.”

  • Author Explains Why Karen Carpenter Still Matters After All These Years

    Karen Tongson grew up in a musical home; both her parents were professional musicians in the Philippines, a country where The Carpenters were arguably more popular than in their native United States. The Carpenters were such a big part of her life that she wrote “Why Karen Carpenter Matters,” a book that is part biography and part memoir.

    Tongson told WPR’s “BETA” about her introduction to the music of Karen and Richard Carpenter.

    “My parents were listening to the music, and I was born in 1973 at the height of The Carpenters’ fame, really when they were breaking out, making gold records, platinum singles, etc.,” Tongson said. “So I feel like I never knew a time that The Carpenters were not a part of my sonic landscape.”

    It’s no coincidence that Tongson’s first name is Karen.

    “My mom named me after Karen, in part because her own voice was often compared to Karen Carpenter’s because she, too, had a low alto voice,” Tongson explained. “And so in some strange way, it was almost like naming me after her but mediated through this famous figure. So it wasn’t quite a direct link just to her name, but to something that said something about my mom.”

    Since The Carpenters’ music was so ubiquitous on Filipino radio and on television, Tongson assumed that their music would be just as enduring in the Southern California soundscapes of the 1980s. But Tongson discovered that was not the case when she immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s.

    “When I realized I was wrong, part of what happened is I realized how profoundly The Carpenters to me sounded like the Philippines and not the United States. How it reminded me of home, of my family, of my earliest days, hearing everyone sing their music,” she said. “So it was a connection to that past in the Philippines and less so, a kind of gateway to the America that The Carpenters always sang about.”

    The Carpenters’ first hit, a song called “Goodbye to Love,” was written by Richard Carpenter and his lyricist John Bettis and released in 1972. Tongson said it’s one of the duo’s most innovative and original songs.

    “Listening to it many decades after something called the ‘power ballad’ has basically become a standard sound in popular music, it doesn’t sound that remarkable. But if you think back to 1972 and think back to the sound The Carpenters were associated with, which was a certain kind of mainstream balladry, middle-of-the-road balladry, and part of what made it so innovative was that it was really one of the first hit singles to include a sawtooth guitar solo (fuzz solo performed by lead guitarist Tony Peluso), basically shredding up the middle of a song that’s otherwise quite placid and gentle.”

    “For those of us who listen to Heart and Journey and everybody else, basically from the 80s, we’re trained to hear that as something that’s always existed. But that’s one of the first songs, if not the first song, to create that contrast and to provide that power ballad sound we all love,” Tongson said.

    Tongson said that so much of The Carpenters’ music is about singing along and singing together.

    “The Philippines has a really deep and profound public singing culture. They just became standards because they were songs we could sing along to. Karen’s alto voice wasn’t too high. And even those of us who didn’t have good voices could manage to match pitch and share the sentiment,” Tongson said.

    “I think that Karen Carpenter just stood out as somebody who didn’t quite fit in,” Tongson said. “And I think that a lot of her music sang of unrequited love. A lot of her music focused on not being sure there would be anybody there to love you. And I think that that’s the kind of sentiment and feeling that a lot of young LGBT people have, that as a person who has all this love to give and the capacity to love, there is a fear that you’ll never find and anyone, at least back then.”

    “I think that it might be different now, but that you might never find anyone who would love you back,” she continued. “I think that she gave voice to that in many respects, a torch song singer and that torchiness. And it’s kind of long association with LGBT cultures is one of the reasons I find Karen Carpenter has such resonance in LGBT communities.

    Tongson said she believes Karen Carpenter carved out a place in the music world for female vocalists and that you can see her legacy in some of the women singers who came after her.

    “We can see that they’re also misfits in their own way. I’m thinking of people who’ve spoken openly about emulating Karen Carpenter, like k.d. lang. And so I do think that (Carpenter) has a much broader, richer afterlife. I think that in her time, she is very much kind of perceived to exist within a very hermetically-sealed world and environment and a kind of wholesome one,” she said. “And I think that since she passed and since people learn more about her suffering in various ways that we come to understand she had a much more complex, a richer, sadder and sometimes also different life than we anticipated.”

  • 15 Years Later: NBC's 'The Office' Still Delivers

    In spring 2018, Rolling Stone contributor Andy Greene set out to write a piece on the smash hit NBC sitcom, “The Office.” He decided to put together an oral history of the infamous Season 4 Dinner Party episode where boorish Branch manager, Michael Scott, invites (or better put, tricks) his employees to attend the titular dinner party at his condo.

    While he was interviewing all of the key players from the series for the article on this episode (pointed to by many as one of the best of the series), Greene realized there was enough there for a book on the whole show. So now, he has compiled the complete oral history of “The Office” in his book, “The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s.”

    The subtitle to the book is a bold claim. However, Greene told WPR’s “BETA” it’s not really a reach once you parse it all down. He said in 2005 the networks were clogged with “Friends” retreads and that the American version of the office launched a whole new style of sitcom.

    “‘Friends’ was so popular, but it inspired all of these really boring paint-by-numbers shows about beautiful young people who were living in giant apartments all in New York City. It felt so unmoored in reality. It felt so fake that when ‘The Office’ came — as goofy as the show was — it was a slice of real life in a way,” Greene said.

    “The Office” would forgo a multi-camera, laugh track standard sitcom format and went on to popularize the documentary style — notably echoed in future sitcoms “Parks and Recreation” and the ABC phenom, “Modern Family.”

    It was just a great and different way to present a show that was inspired by reality shows that were popping up at the time, and it was even filmed by the same camera team that did ‘Survivor,’” said Greene. “Just taking that language of the reality show where you see a scene with sort of a shaky camera and then you see a talking head interview where they’re talking about the inner dialogue of that moment was such a unique way to present a sitcom that people were fascinated by.”

    That conceit and a bulk of the first season of the United States “Office” was parroted from the British original created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant for the BBC.

    TV executive Ben Silverman was in London on business and was flipping through the channels when he caught of glimpse of the show. Initially confused believing the show to be a real documentary, he immediately recognized its genius and sought to meet with Gervais.

    “He realized it was fake, and he couldn’t stop laughing,” Greene said. “It was so clever. He called Ricky up. They met at a Starbucks, and he bought the rights to the show.”

    Gervais was fascinated by awkwardness and embarrassment. He and Merchant used silence to great clumsy, comedic effect in their series. That’s tougher to do in a network sitcom format where you only have 20 some minutes per episode.

    Numerous networks passed on the rights to adapt “The Office” for American television until NBC — led by former “Simpsons” writer and “King Of The Hill” showrunner, Greg Daniels — rose to the challenge.

    “‘King of the Hill,’ it’s so different than most cartoon shows. It’s just a regular family in the middle of Texas. They’re very working class,” Greene said. “In the show, it felt so realistic? And that same vibe was brought to ‘The Office’ by Greg Daniels.”

    So, in spring 2005, the iconic Dunder Mifflin Paper Company and it’s collection of quirky personalities fronted by inept boss Michael Scott, was introduced to American audiences. The rollout wasn’t as smooth as NBC hoped. Greene argues the decision to recreate the British pilot shot for shot was regrettable.

    “It forced Steve Carell to do a sort of impersonation of Ricky Gervais. And the Gervais character, which was named David Brent, was really aggressive, really cruel, and he had no redeeming qualities,” said Greene. “Test audiences and the actual audiences, they hated it. It just didn’t work and the critics just tore it to bits.”

    The six-episode first season was uneven, but displayed enough promise to narrowly avoid cancellation by NBC. Ironically, the strongest entry in that first batch was the only one that wasn’t a carbon copy of a UK episode. It was an episode called “Diversity Day.”

    “That was groundbreaking. That was the first time that they did their own thing, which was actually very early, and they tackled race in a very head-on way and it was really bold. And if you watch it now, it’s kind of shocking,” Greene said. “It was sort of the first sign that the show was going to go in its own direction.”

    Daniels and the other writers also made a fortuitous decision that saved the show. The image of Michael Scott was still too negative for viewers. Luckily between seasons, Carell broke big with the hit comedy film, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and gave the writers just the tone to aim for when writing for Michael.

    “They saw Steve Carell play a character who was very lonely, very sad, and just living as a sort of desperate life,” Greene said. “But he infused the character with so much warmth that you love the guy, that you felt bad for him, that you really felt this person’s pain. And they brought a lot of those characteristics into the retooled Michael Scott in the second season.”

    From there, the show skyrocketed along with Carell’s career. For six more seasons, the show found a sweet spot at the intersection of sincerity and hilarity. Scott’s antics were grounded in his unquenchable desire to be loved by his work family.

    As Season 7 began, Carell and NBC couldn’t reach an agreement on a new working contract, and he left the show near the end of the season. An epochal moment for both the staff and cast, the creators were saddled with a decision to end the show or move forward. The creative team put together two final seasons of the show with mixed results.

    “I was told by a writer in that era that they realized later that (Michael) was a load-bearing character,” said Greene. “If you take out that supporting wall, the entire thing just fell down. But I would argue that even before he left, the show was showing some rust that by the seventh season they’d lost a bunch of the best writers and Greg Daniels left to the run ‘Parks and Rec.’ So if you watched Season 7, it’s full of duds, but the tone changed. It was more sitcom. It was not as funny. It was showing its age.”

    Even bookended by shaky seasons, it’s tough to question “The Office’s” legacy. Fifteen years after it began, it’s still one of the top streamed shows on Netflix and finding new audiences in upcoming generations. Everyone is going to work in an office at some point, so the show has a very relatable universe. Greene argues it’s one of the top sitcoms of all time.

    “I think it’s up there with ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘Cheers’ and ‘Seinfeld’ as sort of a timeless show that’ll be funny now and even in 50 years.”

    That’s what Greene said.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Brad Kolberg Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Barry Sonnenfeld Guest
  • Karen Tongson Guest
  • Andy Greene Guest

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