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'Wire' Creator David Simon Plays Not My Job
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'Wire' Creator David Simon Plays Not My Job

'Wire' Creator David Simon Plays Not My Job

'Wire' Creator David Simon Plays Not My Job
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135450902/135451517" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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David Simon i
Scott Wintrow/Getty Images
David Simon
Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Years ago, David Simon was a police reporter in his hometown of Baltimore. He spent a year with the homicide detectives, and morphed the experience into Homicide: Life on the Streets. From there, he went on to create HBO's The Wire, one of television's most realistic crime dramas. Simon's latest series, Treme, about post-Katrina New Orleans, will soon begin its second season on HBO.

Simon's shows routinely feature murder, drug use, profanity, public corruption and explicit sex, so we're going to ask him about a time when TV refused to admit any of that existed. He'll play a game called, "Aw, gee, Mom! Ice cream! How swell!" Three questions about the most wholesome television we could find.

PETER SAGAL, Host:

And now, the game where we ask very accomplished people about trivia. It's called Not My Job. So years ago, David Simon was a police reporter in his hometown of Baltimore. He spent a year with the homicide detectives. That became a book, which became the TV series "Homicide." And from there, David created some of the best and most realistic shows ever, such as HBO's "The Wire" and the series "Treme," which is about to start its second season on HBO. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. David Simon, welcome to WAIT WAIT.

DAVID SIMON: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Great to have you.

SIMON: And don't think the MacArthur people aren't appalled.

SAGAL: Oh, I know. I'm sure they go to bed every night, tasting nothing but regret.

SIMON: They see this train wreck about to happen, believe me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: They'll take back the grant. You'll be an ex-genius. One of the things about "The Wire" and this is also true, I think, of "Treme" as well, is that you do not do a lot to help your audience understand what's going on. I remember when I first started watching "The Wire," the plot was complicated. There was language that I didn't understand. I mean, is that intentional? Are you like, you've just got to pick it up? Or are you...

SIMON: I mean, for me, and this is going to sound haughty and I don't mean it to, but for me, when everything is explained, when everything is right there on the surface, I find myself leaning back and becoming disinterested. And I think it's much more interesting to tell a story where you have people leaning towards the television screen, trying to think about it.

SAGAL: Even if they're leaning forwards and squinting and going what the hell is going on?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUKE BURBANK: I have to say, "mission accomplished," David, after I spent three solid days watching every season of "The Wire," in like a fugue state that only Charlie Sheen could rival.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BURBANK: For non-sleeping and obsessive thoughts.

SIMON: But did it make sense at the end?

BURBANK: Absolutely, it paid off.

SIMON: Oh, okay.

SAGAL: One of the things that you're known for, and one of the reasons that I think it's hard to stop watching, is this sense that anything could happen to any of your characters at any time, much like life. In fact...

SIMON: You know what?

SAGAL: What?

SIMON: We're in New Orleans, and I've just come off set to do this and I have to tell you, we're killing one of our characters.

SAGAL: You do that. And there's a moment in the third season of "The Wire" where you kill off maybe the most popular character in the show. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it. And I still am shocked. Do your actors go, yeah, you're going to hire me. How long are you hiring me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah, you know, they don't complain a lot.

SAGAL: They don't?

SIMON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I mean...

CHARLIE PIERCE: Because they don't want to...

SAGAL: They don't want to, they don't want to get on your bad side.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: The cast dynamic is wonderful. Nobody wants to stick their head up and become the squeaky wheel.

SAGAL: Yeah. Oh yeah. You're going to have a very dramatic ending. People will be shocked.

SIMON: Well, you know, the trick to making a story matter is that every now and then, somebody you care about has to go. If it's somebody that you don't care about, then it doesn't really have - the stakes aren't there. But if you do that every now and then, then the story matters to people. And there are actual stakes involved, emotional stakes.

SAGAL: So you would, like, watch "Seinfeld" for example, and say, you know somebody should really shoot George?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, I've actually said that.

SAGAL: Yeah, maybe for good reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Before we leave the topic of "The Wire," I got to say, our single favorite moment, because these characters almost never leave Baltimore, but there's one moment where two of the drug dealers drive to Philadelphia. And you indicate how incredibly weird and strange Philadelphia is to these guys by they turn on their car radio and they hear, of all things, "A Prairie Home Companion."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Right.

SAGAL: And these from like inner city Baltimore are going what the hell is this? What do they - what do these people like here? This is terrible.

SIMON: That actually happened when I was researching "The Corner." I had a 15-year-old drug dealer in my car from West Baltimore. And I was taking him to meet the editor of the book in New York, because I wanted - you know, he's 15- years-old, he's letting me follow him around. I want him to know it's going to be a real book one day, two or three years from now. So I want him to see the publishing house. I want him to know there's no trick here.

SAGAL: Right.

SIMON: And I want him to be sort of fully informed. So we're on the Delaware Turnpike and, of course, whatever we were listening to 92-Q, you know the hip hop station from Baltimore starts to fade, and in comes an NPR affiliate in Philly. And he's listening to "Prairie Home Companion" and he's looking at me like what is wrong with the rest of the country?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Do you think you could do like a gritty realistic show full of violence and passion about public radio?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I surely think it would be a challenge.

SAGAL: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I got to ask you, MacArthur Genius Grant, how does it feel to be a genius?

SIMON: How does it feel? Well ask me after I miss, you know, all three of these next questions.

SAGAL: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But I have everything to lose on this one, as you know.

SAGAL: No, no, no, you see I was talking...

PIERCE: The person you're playing for has everything to lose, David.

SAGAL: I was talking to David earlier and David's wife, a very talented writer named Laura Lippman was on the show some years ago and did really well, got all three right. And for some reason, David, you think of this as like an obstacle?

SIMON: It just defines a lose/lose situation for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And I'm like, well this is great, because if you win that's great, and if you lose, you're like, "Oh Laura, you're so much smarter than I am. Isn't that wonderful?" And she'll be like, that's great. Yes, I am.

SIMON: Yeah, that's played well, as if you're a professional married person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I still treasure my amateur status at this.

SAGAL: All right. Well, David Simon, we've asked you here to play a game we're calling?

CARL KASELL, Host:

Aw, gee, mom, ice cream. How swell.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So, David Simon, your TV shows routinely feature murder, drug use, profanity, public corruption, explicit sex, and we figure we'd ask you about a time when TV refused to admit any of that existed. Answer three questions about nice, wholesome TV of the olden days, or rather answer two of them. We'll ask you three. And you'll win a prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is official genius David Simon playing for?

KASELL: David is playing for Nancy Rosen of Bozeman, Montana.

SAGAL: All right, you ready?

SIMON: Uh-huh.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SIMON: So this is TV between the years of '83 and '86, right?

SAGAL: Exactly, pretty much the mid 80s.

PIERCE: It's all questions about "Alf."

SAGAL: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Actually, our first question is about "Leave it to Beaver," pretty much the epitome of 1950s wholesome TV. One episode was actually held up for a week by CBS censors. They demanded cuts. What was the shocking content they objected to? A: Mrs. Cleaver kissing Mr. Cleaver on the mouth. B: a full on full frontal shot of a toilet. Or C: a shot of Beaver, a young man, wearing his tightie whitie underwear.

SIMON: Nothing involving Eddie Haskell.

SAGAL: Nothing involving Eddie Haskell in this particular case.

SIMON: Shocking.

SAGAL: Yes.

SIMON: I would have though Eddie would have brought them to their knees.

SAGAL: Sure.

SIMON: I'm going to go with the toilet.

SAGAL: You're right, sir, it's the toilet.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: This is somewhat famous in TV history. The episode as shot featured photographs of the whole toilet and the censors said no, no, no, you can't do that. So they re-shot it so they just showed the toilet tank. And that was the first time any part of a toilet had ever been shown on American television, right then.

KYRIE O: Wow.

SIMON: I am stunned.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Next question, the early, live sitcom, "Mary Kay and Johnny," now pretty much forgotten.

SIMON: What?

SAGAL: "Mary Kay and Johnny."

SIMON: "Mary Kay and Johnny"?

SAGAL: "Mary Kay and Johnny" was the name of the show. It was a live show. They did this sitcom live and they didn't keep any tapes of it, so it's gone. But it made history during its run how? A: it was the first sitcom to show a married couple sharing a bed. B: one night, one of the actors showed up drunk and performed the whole show that way, creating a challenge for the others. Or C: one night, one of the actors swore onscreen, saying "damn" and was fired before the episode was over.

SIMON: Okay, getting rid of a drunk, I'm passing on that one because I just think, you know, it happened many times before.

SAGAL: Sure. Yeah, pretty much since the beginning of entertainment.

SIMON: I'm going to go with "damn."

SAGAL: You're going to go with "damn." Live TV, he said "damn," instantly fired? No, it was actually the bed. It was the first sitcom to show a married couple sharing a bed. And what was weird was this was actually in the late 1940s, prior, of course, to the famous depiction of Dezi and Lucy sleeping in their twin beds. That was, of course, because in 1952, sex was made illegal.

SIMON: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: That's what threw me is thinking of Dezi and Lucy.

SAGAL: I know, it's confusing, but there you go. Now, here you go...

SIMON: By the way, somewhere Laura Lippman is a very happy lady right now.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: This is your wife, who got three right when she was on the show some years ago.

CONNOR: Yeah, some genius, pal.

SAGAL: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: See, you didn't have to worry. This is great though, it's very exciting. So "Father Knows Best," we all know, another classic sitcom of the 50s. And like many other TV shows, it began on the radio. But the radio version was different, how? Was it on the radio that A: Father occasionally gave terrible advice, belying the show's title? B: every episode included Father delivering a speech about the pleasures of smoking? Or C: on the radio, Father would routinely insult his children?

SIMON: Wow. TV is way more complicated than I thought it was.

SAGAL: I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: You were doing your simple dramas about people trying to make a living...

SIMON: I know, I know.

SAGAL: And now look.

SIMON: You know, simple morality tales. You know what, back then on radio they were such advertisers.

SAGAL: Right.

SIMON: That I think buried in there is some sort of advertising weirdness in which he was advocating the pleasures of smoking. I'm going with that one.

SAGAL: Okay, that's possible. Let me ask you a question before we reveal this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And it's a serious question. We have discussed the fact that your wife, Laura Lippman, the writer, was on the show some years ago. She got all three right. Would it be better for you to equal that performance, just in terms of your personal life, or not do as well? What would be the better outcome?

SIMON: No, actually now that I can't get all three correct.

SAGAL: Yes.

SIMON: It would be better if I'm a complete farce.

SAGAL: Right.

SIMON: And I can give her all the room to be the edumacated intelligent one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I understand.

SIMON: Yeah.

SAGAL: Okay, you're wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: It's not the smoking. It was that on the radio, Father would occasionally insult the children. He would, every now and then, call them things like "you stupid children." It was more edgy on the radio. Carl, how did David Simon do on our quiz?

KASELL: He had one correct answer, Peter, and that is not enough to win for Nancy Rosen.

SIMON: Oh, I'm sorry.

PIERCE: How sad is it that Nancy Rosen loses in David and his wife's domestic working it out?

SAGAL: It's sad.

PIERCE: It's always Nancy in Montana who suffers.

SAGAL: David Simon is the creator of "The Wire" and "Treme," two of the greatest TV programs you will ever see. The second season of "Treme" premiers April 24th on HBO. David Simon, thank you so much for being with us.

SIMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Bye-bye, sir.

SIMON: Bye-bye.

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