Episode 303: Eric Andre, Chuck Wendig, Ottessa Moshfegh, “Young Frankenstein”

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Eric Andre on stage in New Orleans
Courtesy of Netflix

Comedian Eric Andre on his debut Netflix special, “Legalize Everything.” Also, Chuck Wendig on his dystopian novel, “Wanderers,” in the wake of a pandemic. Ottessa Moshfegh talks about her latest novel, “Death in Her Hands.” And we revisit Mel Brooks’ horror comedy, “Young Frankenstein.”

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  • Author Chuck Wendig's Novel Bears Similarities To Coronavirus Pandemic

    Chuck Wendig’s latest novel “Wanderers,” opens with a young woman named Shana waking up to discover that her little sister Nessie looks like she’s sleepwalking up the driveway. Shana is unable to wake her from her trance. One by one, other sleepwalkers emerge from their houses to join Nessie.

    Shana becomes a “shepherd,” following Nessie to protect her on her trance-like journey. But the sleepwalking sickness is just the beginning, as terror and violence grip the nation.

    Wendig says the book has two main story lines: one about the people who protect the flock; and one about what the sleepwalkers’ purpose is.

    “Wanderers” came out in July 2019, a mere five months before the World Health Organization first learned of a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan — which would later be attributed to the new coronavirus.

    Bearing an eerie resemblance to current events, WPR’s “BETA” asked Wendig if he ever thought his novel could predict a COVID-19-like pandemic?

    “Not maybe to the exact beats we’re experiencing right now,” Wendig said. “We act like a pandemic is an unusual thing. But a pandemic-level disease or at least a capable pandemic disease usually pops up once a decade or so. Usually there’s just something we either get ahead of, or it turns out to be not quite as bad as we worry they could be. But, you know, between the flu of 1918 or SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and swine flu, you know, we see this a lot. This one just happens to have gotten its teeth in for a variety of perfect storm-type reasons.”

    But Wendig did share a few examples of reality mirroring his imagination.

    “The first was that in the book, there’s an artificial intelligence called ‘Black Swan’ that predicts the coming of the pandemic before humans see it. And in our reality, I read an article that was about how there is an algorithm called ‘BlueDot’ that had predicted it, which seemed a little on the nose,” he said.

    “Wanderers” also opens with a prophetic comment in the form of a comet that passes close enough to the Earth that it can be seen by the naked eye.

    “And in reality, now, there’s a comet called Comet Swan, which is appearing. And so just like with Black Swan and BlueDot and Comet Swan, it’s a little much,” Wendig said.

    Over the course of “Wanderers,” Wendig explores the spread of the pandemic and the frightening ways in which America’s social fabric unravels under the strain — one of the more frightening aspects of the story.

    “The social unraveling is scary because a pandemic is neutral.” Wendig said. “A disease doesn’t hate us. It just does what it does. But, you know, other people, when things like the norms and the social contract begins to break down, that’s a scarier point. And I will note that I don’t think that’s really happened in reality. It does certainly kind of happen in the book.”

    “Wanderers” has been compared to Stephen King’s “The Stand,” which was originally published in 1978. Wendig acknowledges the influence of King’s novel; at one point, even his character Nessie says “the world was dying like it’s ‘The Stand.’”

    “To not acknowledge that would be a huge lie,” Wendig said. “I read ‘The Stand’ very early and it’s one of those things that dug its heels in. And so I have it with me. ‘The Stand’ exists in the world of ‘Wanderers.’ And it’s a book that the characters are aware of.”

    King has said he’s still apologizing all these years later when people a mask come up to him and say they feel like they’re living in a Stephen King story.

    It’s a phenomenon that Wendig has started to experience as well.

    “I get emails and tweets and comments every day about how this is some ‘Wanderers’-level business,” he said. “A new piece of news will drop and people will quote-tweet me or tweet at me about it, like ‘Hey, look at this. This is from a book we all know.’”

  • Legalize Everything: Eric Andre Pushes Boundaries In New Standup Special

    Eric Andre wants to push your buttons with his comedy.

    “I feel like the majority of my jokes are about race, race politics, life, death, poverty, racism, existentialism and the problems with organized religion and Calvinism,” he said.

    When he recently spoke with Doug Gordon of WPR’s “BETA“, the conversation ricocheted from one thing to the next with the same frenetic energy as in his new Netflix comedy special, “Legalize Everything.”

    In the special, he talks about smoking marijuana with his mom for the first time. He thought it went OK.

    “She couldn’t really inhale it. She kept, like, choking,” he said. “So I gave her a little weed fortune cookie that I got from the farmer’s market.”

    They sat down to play Scrabble, and she complained of a dry mouth; asking if that was part of the appeal.

    “She’s like, ‘I want my wine. I don’t like this,’” he said.

    In his special, Andre says all drugs and sex work should be decriminalized, but he also admits some things need to stay illegal.

    I don’t think we should legalize murder. I mean, murder, rape, burglary. Those things can remain illegal,” he said.

    “I think we shouldn’t have guns with, like, double banana clips that you can just press the trigger once and one hundred bullets can spray out because you don’t need that for hunting,” he continued.

    He said he’s even willing to run for president to make it happen.

    “I mean, I could put a GoFundMe together, buy my own island and then start a country on my own island. But I wouldn’t have any constituents,” he conceded.

    Andre also tears down the recently canceled television show “COPS” in his special. First, for glorifying police brutality, systemic racism and bigotry, and then for choosing reggae as its soundtrack.

    “It’s just a montage of police brutality footage and state power and you’re playing the most relaxing, vacation-inducing music,” he said with a laugh.

    Pranks are also a big part of Andre’s humor, and in his special, he collects an audience member’s phone and texts their mother using the device’s predictive typing feature.

    “It’s like the auto-fill function … when it tries to guess your next word in the sentence,” he explained. “It’s like the game Mad Libs that you played as a kid. The phone is a random word generator.”

    He started by pranking his own mom on stage, but she caught on after experiencing a couple nonsensical exchanges with her son. So, Andre moved on to the audience for fresh material.

    “It creates the perfect mom confusion,” he said. “It’s also very relatable and it’s G-rated. It’s not harsh. You can’t go too harsh with the moms or the audience kind of turns on you. You don’t want to be mean to the moms.”

    Pranks are also center stage on “The Eric Andre Show,” the comedian’s series on Adult Swim, which Andre describes as a mix of all his influences.

    “You know, ‘Space Ghost,’ ‘Tom Green Show,’ ‘Ali G Show,’ ‘Chappelle’s Show,’ Jiminy Glick — Martin Short’s show,” he said.

    Andre puts his celebrity guests in very uncomfortable situations on the show, and he said they’re never in on the joke.

    “It’s a hundred percent ambush. I can’t help what they watch before they come in, but we tell their publicist next to nothing. We just get them a date and a time to show up,” he explained.

    “And they’re just blindsided by everything,” he continued. “And we purposely try not to book guests that would watch Adult Swim or watch the show.”

    The chill Ed McMahon to Andre’s unhinged Johnny Carson is comedian Hannibal Buress. They met around 2006 while performing at open mics in New York City.

    Andre thinks Burress brings balance to the show.

    “It was just love at first sight. I think he’s just so funny, and he’s like completely opposite in energy,” he said. “And we just have a great odd couple dynamic.”

    Andre recently had a movie release delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. “Bad Trip” is a hidden-camera prank comedy that follows two best friends; played by Andre and Lil Rel Howery, on a cross-country road trip.

    Netflix has purchased the rights to the film and plans to release it digitally later this year.

    As for Andre’s other career goals, they’re ambitious.

    “I want to do more hidden camera stuff, tour ‘The Eric Andre Show’ live,” he said. “I want to help some comedian friends produce their own shows. And I want to escape my country because it is completely disintegrating.”

    So does that mean he’s not going to run for president after all?

    “I think my first day in office, I would abandon the country, probably just leave,” he admitted. “I’d move to Tahiti.”

  • Milwaukee's Patrick McGilligan Takes Us Behind The Scenes Of 'Young Frankenstein'

    Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy horror movie “Young Frankenstein” was actually the brainchild of Milwaukee-born movie star Gene Wilder.

    “Gene wrote most of that script, and he’d write it after sitting around and talking with Mel for a long time,” Milwaukee’s Patrick McGilligan told WPR’s “BETA.” McGilligan is the author of “Funny Man: Mel Brooks.”

    “And then Gene would go away and do most of the writing, and then Mel would read it, and he would critique it and he would change it,” McGilligan explained.

    This back-and-forth collaboration between Wilder and Brooks is how the “Young Frankenstein” screenplay evolved. As a result, McGilligan said that it is Wilder’s showcase as an actor. And unlike many of his movies, Brooks does not appear in “Young Frankenstein.”

    “Mel is not in the film because Gene said, ‘Mel, I don’t want you to be in the film because you’ll break the fourth wall. You’ll wink at the audience. And I really want to present this as a serious comedy about young Frankenstein,’” McGilligan said.

    “Consequently, I think it’s Mel’s best-directed film because he was focusing on the performances and on the scenes,” McGilligan said. “And it’s very, very smoothly and beautifully directed, very beautifully designed. The performances are just perfect. And you might miss Mel because Mel could be very funny on the screen. Nonetheless, it makes it his strongest film as a director.”

    While filming Brooks’ previous film, “Blazing Saddles,” Wilder had been very impressed by Madeline Kahn, so he suggested she play Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Inga. But Kahn wanted to play the part of Frederick Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth — paving the way for Teri Garr to play Inga.

    Cloris Leachman was known primarily for portraying Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” before she signed on to play the part of Frau Blucher, the housekeeper of the Frankenstein family’s estate in Transylvania. “She ‘wasn’t really famous as that kind of over-the-top comedian that she becomes in Mel Brooks’ films,’” McGilligan said.

    “Mel is not really known as a great director of actors. Because they’re playing in various ways in his films, cartoon characters, but he’s very, very good at getting types or performers who are really going to go off on the script and really take the script a notch higher.”

    Wilder and Brooks had a lot of disagreements about the script — and Brooks had a certain way of approaching arguments, McGilligan said.

    “Sometimes he might set up an argument just so that he could win it. For example, he decided that he didn’t want to have the monster sing an Irving Berlin song. Gene put it in there because he knew Mel would like it. Mel didn’t like it. And Mel screamed at him: ‘If I put this in, everybody’s going to accuse me of repeating myself.’ They really would have very screaming arguments. And then at the end, Mel would say, ‘OK, it’s in. And Gene would say, ‘Why now do you say it’s in?’ And Mel said, ‘You convinced me by your intransigence.’”

    Wilder and Brooks never worked together on another film. When Brooks decided he wanted to make a musical based on “Young Frankenstein,” he was able to do so because the contracts gave him more rights as the producer of the movie than Wilder had when he sold the story rights to Brooks. So it was announced as a Brooks musical.

    “Wilder was very uncomfortable with that,” McGilligan said. “First of all, he didn’t think it could be a musical or should be a musical. And he worried that it was going to change and he didn’t want to be involved. And they really had a very awkward moment in their friendship after which Wilder decided that he wasn’t going to stop Mel because there was no stopping Mel. So the best thing to do would be to shrug your shoulders and accept it and let Mel go out and do what he wanted with the musical, which is exactly what happened.”

  • Author Ottessa Moshfegh Opens Up Her 'Mindspace' In 'Death In Her Hands'

    Author Ottessa Moshfegh’s acclaimed 2018 novel — “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” — became oddly prescient earlier this year. It was a compelling story about a woman who intentionally isolates from society by essentially hibernating in her NYC apartment.

    In the wake of an unprecedented period where many New Yorkers and citizens across the globe alike entered into an involuntary quarantine, Moshfegh’s work is strongly resonating.

    Now, she releases her follow-up, “Death in Her Hands” which once again features a protagonist physically distancing herself.

    Moshfegh tells WPR’s “BETA” that it’s simply her approach to finding her literary voice and that it’s coincidence, not clairvoyance, that her work reflects a national mood.

    “Even though I had times of being very social, especially when I lived in New York,” she says, “I’ve always felt alone, and that is how I perceive things, through the filter of my own consciousness.”

    Moshfegh also notes that most of her work including her stellar short-story collection, “Homesick For Another Planet” has come through the scope of introspective and isolated characters.

    “I’ve been more interested in interior vocalization of thought and storytelling in that way,” Moshfegh said. “I have written books almost exclusively in the first person. So my narratives read like monologues sometimes and that kind of oral writing really lends itself well to freedom.”

    The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino summarized Moshfegh’s ability to capture dismay in a piece reviewing “My Year Of Rest and Relaxation” tweeting, “No one is better than Ottessa Moshfegh on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.”

    But Moshfegh disagrees with Tolentino.

    “I don’t think that I’m only writing about feeling terrible. I think I’m writing about many, many things. And I think that feeling terrible as I dramatize it or novelize it in my projects is something that people are drawn to because it’s interesting to watch a person suffer,” said Moshfegh. “I’ve heard that quotation before, and although I understand that it is enormously flattering, I don’t want to be remembered just for that.”

    Moshfegh wrote “Death in Her Hands” in between “Homesick” and “My Year” and says that the process for it was pretty unique from her previous and subsequent projects.

    “The process of me writing this book was different from any other book that I’d written. What I did was I sat down and said, ‘I need to write a novel right now,’” she explained. “I wrote 1,000 words a day with zero plan and made a deal with myself that I would never read what I had written on any previous day. And I would keep to this 1,000-word minimum until I had reached the end of a novel and I had no idea what novel that was going to be.”

    The story focuses on a recently widowed septuagenarian, Vesta Gul, who moves to a remote former Girl Scout camp and lives a quiet life with her dog, Walter. One morning on their walk, Vesta finds a handwritten note about a murdered girl named Magda. That kicks off a journey that begins with curiosity and ends with obsessive dissolution.

    “To me, it’s a meditation on the imagination. I mean, that’s what mystery is. That’s how you solve a mystery. In your mind. You go inward, you look for clues, you follow the breadcrumbs. And that’s also kind of how we live life and it doesn’t always come to a very clear ending,” Moshfegh said.

    Moshfegh’s writing process of blocking out her previous day’s output helped to get her into the necessary place to write for Vesta and to give her an authentic sense of amnesia.

    “We feel her grip on tactile reality somehow dissolve into the water of her fictional mindspace and it sounds so weird, but it’s just this kind of thing that happens in the writing,” said Moshfegh.

    As Vesta becomes more and more unreliable as a narrator, the growing danger of Vesta’s investigation becomes palpable.

    “If you’re a more poetical reader I think there’s potential for a kind of metaphysicality that’s going on in the evocation of these last couple of pages for Vesta, where we think maybe she is ascending outside of her body into her mindspace, like maybe this is her death. And if it is, it’s kind of beautiful.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Brad Kolberg Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Doug Gordon Interviewer
  • Chuck Wendig Guest
  • Eric Andre Guest
  • Patrick McGilligan Guest
  • Ottessa Moshfegh Guest

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