TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Boy, was I surprised when I found out that two people who I've interviewed, Mike White, who wrote the movie, "School of Rock," and his father, Mel White, a Christian gay activist, were contestants on the reality show "The Amazing Race."
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Amazing Race")
Unidentified Man: Southern California, 0700 hours. The dawn of a new adventure.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: From this western coast of America, 11 teams will embark on a race around the world for $1 million.
GROSS: So at each destination in this race around the world, the teams are required to perform physical feats ranging from paragliding to building a stone wall.
The travel itself is an endurance test and a test of wits. So after Mike and Mel White were eliminated, we invited them to talk about their adventures and about their father-son relationship.
As we'll hear later, when Mike was growing up, Mel attempted to overcome his homosexual feelings, trying every therapy available, and he also ghost wrote book by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham.
Now Mel is a retired minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, which has a large gay congregation, and he's the co-founder of the gay activist group Soulforce.
Mike White wrote the film "Chuck & Buck," "Orange County," "School of Rock" and wrote and director "Year of the Dog." He was also a writer on the TV series "Freaks and Geeks."
Mel White, Mike White, welcome to FRESH AIR. I still can't believe you did "The Amazing Race."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I mean, I have to say, of the reality shows, this one's kind of like -if the Myth of Sisyphus was made into a reality show, this would be it, because you have to do these back-breaking things like carrying a traditional cheese rack up a slippery hill and then carrying 200 pounds of cheese wheels down the slippery hill.
I know like on the first thing, the cheese-wheel thing, Mel White, you said you had like a groin muscle injury. So what kind of injuries did you both sustain doing this?
Mr. MIKE WHITE (Writer): (Unintelligible) more than that, dad. Tell them. I mean he injured himself on the starting line.
Mr. MEL WHITE (Minister): You know, they lined us up and said, ready, get set, go, and I did what a young person does. I took a big stride and I heard it pop. And so I limped all the rest of the way to our packs, got in the car, knew something was wrong and really discovered how wrong it was on Cheese Hill.
GROSS: Gosh, I would've just given up, honestly.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Oh, you can't give up…
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Well, there's so much. You have no idea. You have to fill out so much paperwork, and there's so much of a build-up to actually leaving that by the time you're on the race, you don't want to go because it would be the ultimate anti-climax.
So we were going to do everything we could just to stay in it as long as we could.
GROSS: What kind of paperwork do you have to fill out? I'm thinking, like, there must be so many - go ahead.
Mr. MEL WHITE: No, they tested us psychologically and physically, and I flunked the MMPI.
GROSS: Oh, that's the personality index test?
Mr. MEL WHITE: Right, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and the psychiatrist came in, and Michael was trying to stifle laughter, and she said you are the highest on the paranoia scale we've ever had.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, boy, you have reason to score high on the paranoia scale. I mean, you have to travel with bodyguards sometimes because you go to Christian churches, to fundamentalist churches and universities, and try to convince them that they should accept homosexuality as a normal part of life and stop working against it. So you have reason to be paranoid.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Well, that's why when the psychiatrist started going through the questions, and I started answering them, I knew that that test was not for an activist.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Really. Well, in some ways reality shows are designed to bring out the worst in people because you have to be brutally competitive, incredibly aggressive, and honest in the cruelest sense. Like people are often encouraged to really say what they're feeling and not put any kind of politeness around it, which ends up sounding just like cruelty.
So did you ever feel like you risked falling into that kind of behavior?
Mr. MEL WHITE: Michael said from the beginning, dad, we're going to do this for fun, and I don't want you to go aggro on me. I had to look it up. Aggravated. Don't get aggravated. And now and then he'd have to remind me that we're in it for the fun of it. But we never came close to having a fight. It was just too much fun to fight.
GROSS: One of the things that surprised me, watching you, Mike, was that like in movies - the first time I saw you in a film was in your movie "Chuck & Buck," in which you're this kind of obsessive, like, nerdy, backwards character who's never really emotionally grown up.
And you know, the characters that you play are usually not exactly known for their, like, strength and physical prowess. But like, you know, you take off your shirt in this. You've got real muscles. Like, you are really physically fit, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEL WHITE: I told you, Michael.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Thank you, dad. I never thought I'd get a compliment on my musculature from Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's right, and as your father just pointed out, you had to like run in your underwear for one piece, for one of parts of the series.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: I think…
GROSS: With heavy boots on, I might add.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: I don't know what to say. I'm just blushing. I have no comment. I have no thought.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Well, go ahead and blush.
GROSS: Well Mel, I'm wondering what it was like for you. I mean, like you are 68. You're probably among the oldest contestants that they've had on, and to go through this kind of incredibly physical experience, it's strenuous for the most physically fit person, for the youngest, most physically fit person. Were there parts where you thought, like, maybe this wasn't the smartest idea?
Mr. MEL WHITE: No, I'm waiting for you to say something about my musculature.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You look very fit.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: You did great, dad. You did great.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah, I got a muscle somewhere. I just haven't seen it lately.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEL WHITE: I never felt really to the place we would give up, but when were considering being eliminated on that last run, I had to remind Michael to look sad.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So what was it like to watch yourselves do all the, you know, physical feats that you had to do - paragliding and…
Mr. MEL WHITE: Terrible, terrible, terrible. I didn't know my wrinkles had wrinklettes flopping in the breeze. I mean, I look as old as, you know, as Satan. God, I was so depressed after I saw the first one. I'm not that old. There's some way they fixed that up on the camera - they've got wrinkle-adder or something.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Yeah, and I'm not that pale.
Mr. MEL WHITE: And you're not that pale, that's right. Not that muscular either.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Oh, dad. But no, I mean, I would get stressed before every episode just, you know, because you don't know what they're going to - you see it the same time America sees it. So I'm not used to that, and you know, you just, you know, you become self-conscious.
You know, it's like that part of it was not the appeal for me, as much as I guess I've chosen an exhibitionist line of work, and to go on a reality show you've got to be some sort of exhibitionist to want to do it.
But that part of it is really not the pleasure. The pleasures were actually the doing of it, and then the unfolding of the show was kind of met with a little bit of dread for me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Mike White and Mel White, and they were just father-son contestants on the reality show, "The Amazing Race."
And they both have really interesting backgrounds. Mike is a screenwriter and director. He wrote the screenplays for "School of Rock," "Orange County," "The Good Girl," "Chuck & Buck," and he wrote and directed "Year of the Dog." He's also appeared in a bunch of things, including a starring role in "Chuck & Buck."
Mel White is a gay activist, co-founder of the gay rights group Soulforce. He's a minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, which ministers to lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people.
But before he came out, he was, you know, a Christian evangelical who was very close to a lot of the leadership, and he ghost wrote books for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham.
Now, I have interviewed you both separately but never together. So there's so much I want to talk to you both about, about being, you know, a family.
Mel White, let me start with a question for you. Now, you were closeted when you wrote the books for Falwell, Robertson and Graham, and you know, earlier in your life you had tried therapies to overcome your homosexuality, including shock treatment and exorcism.
Just to give us a sense of what you had to go through before just accepting the fact that you were gay, what was the exorcism like?
Mr. MEL WHITE: There was a Protestant charismatic group that just put their hands on me and prayed and prayed and prayed until I about went to sleep, hoping that the demon of homosexuality would be exorcised.
But I went to a Catholic monastery that was known for its exorcisms, and when the abbot said what demon do you want to have exorcised, I said homosexuality, and after a long pause he said we can't help you here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEL WHITE: I've always been grateful for that kind of honesty.
GROSS: What was that supposed to mean, do you think, from their point of view?
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah, it just meant that without gays there wouldn't be a Catholic church, I mean carrying those bishops, priests, and they know that gay men have served the church faithfully and with integrity for centuries, and I think they don't want to toss out that demon because that demon works for the church.
GROSS: Maybe that's what they meant. Maybe they just meant that it just hasn't, exorcisms haven't worked in this area.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. Anyway, it was really interesting to go through this. The first problem for me was not recognizing there was such a thing as gay or homosexual. For me, I was brought up thinking that that's both a sickness and a sin, a sickness that needs to be cured and sin that needs to be forgiven.
So I said to Lila, right at the beginning of our relationship…
GROSS: This is your wife?
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. I said, you know, I'm struggling with same-sex attraction. And she simply said, well, what do you want to do about it? And I said, I want to be married. I want to have children. I want to have grandkids. You know, I don't want to eat quiche, you know, the whole thing of what it means to be a man these days. And she said, well then, let's work on it.
And so for the next 20 years, literally, we went to counselor after counselor, spent probably at least $100,000 on Christian counselors who said if you'll just take more showers, colder showers, if you'll just pray more, if you'll just learn more Bible verses, that that will take it away, and of course that proved to be folly.
GROSS: Including shock therapy.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah, that was interesting. It wasn't the serious kind of shock therapy that they take you into a room, and - they fixed all these electrodes onto me and then showed me pictures of men and women, and when I saw a picture of a woman, I could turn off the power myself, and when I saw a picture of a man that was attractive to me, I had to turn up the power.
So it was I handling all of those choices, and of course I wanted desperately to not have this feeling anymore. So I put my hair stand on end for a couple times there.
GROSS: My guests are Christian gay activist Mel White and his son, screenwriter, director and actor Mike White. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are father and son, Mel and Mike White. They were a team on the CBS reality series "The Amazing Race" and were eliminated two Sundays ago.
Mike wrote the movies "School of Rock," "Chuck & Buck," and "Year of the Dog." His father, Mel, is a Christian gay activist. Before coming out, he ghost-wrote books for several famous Christian leaders.
Mike, I assume this is when you were growing up that your father was ghost-writing books for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham. Were they held up as ideals to you, people to be emulated and followed?
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Not really. You know, I grew up going to a secular private school. I did not go to religious schools growing up and had a lot of friends that were outside of the church and outside of that, and my parents, while my dad, you know, came from a very evangelical background, didn't - that was not the vibe around my house.
I mean, we had a lot of theological discussions over dinner, and those were real and influenced me, but at the same time it was never - it didn't have that kind of sort of fire-and-brimstone vibe over at our house.
It was - my dad was, you know, and my mom are both kind of open-minded and inclusive, and so some of the more kind of darker aspects to kind of that world I don't think were really present in our household.
GROSS: Mel White, how come you sent Mike to a secular school and not a Christian school?
Mr. MEL WHITE: One thing, it's kind of hard to me to clear up something, but my agent was Swifty Lazar, and he sold me to Simon Schuster to write these guys' biographies.
And so many people picture me sitting at their table, creating all of their anti-gay policies and so forth, whereas I just flew in, stayed time with them, recorded these interviews and then wrote these biographies.
So I would take home a lot of disgust. I mean, when you get up close to Jerry Falwell, you can't help but like him, but you can't help but be disgusted by some of the things he's saying, and I think the kids heard a lot of my reaction to these guys that would not set them up as models at all.
GROSS: You know, but it's interesting. Even when you came out and really were openly angry with and critical about the leaders, the Christian Evangelical leaders, you retained your faith and you became a minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, which is, you know, basically a gay church.
So you never lost your faith, even though your life was no longer compatible with the faith the way…
Mr. MEL WHITE: You know, I…
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. MEL WHITE: I distinguish between spirituality and religion, and I really gave up on religion and can hardly go to any of their churches or watch any of their programs.
Fortunately, I go to First Christian in Lynchburg that's totally accepting. We had our first lesbian wedding there last week. So yeah, I was really afraid that my kids would become like I was in terms of feeling aught about religion.
But at the same time, it was my faith that got me through this. They taught me about a Jesus who loves anybody all the time, and I really believed in that and that guy had a smiling face to me most of the time.
And so I don't know how I would have made it through all this struggle without thinking he, God - she - still believes in me and still has work for me to do and is forgiving me even when I screw up.
So I think my feelings about Jesus and God were the most important feelings that I had to help me survive those days.
GROSS: So you said you gave up on organized religion, but you're kind of back in the game. I mean, you're a minister now. You have a church, it's just a different kind.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. I'm not pastoring now. I'm retired, and I work full-time with Soulforce, trying to help churches overcome their misinformation.
Religion-based oppression is the problem for gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It's religion that keeps homophobia alive, and so I'm still angry.
It's very hard for me to participate in Soulforce actions now because we are committed to nonviolence, and there are moments that I would really - I get so angry that there's not a nonviolent streak in me at that moment.
So I have to watch it. I'm really angry. I've received over 100,000 letters, Terry, after "Stranger at the Gate."
GROSS: This is your…
Mr. MEL WHITE: They're stored in huge crates. Yeah, they're stored in huge crates, and invariably these young people are asking me how can you be sure that God loves you if you're gay? You know, the question that the church should've answered a long time ago, the church has not answered. The church has said God doesn't love you as you are.
And so you cannot know how many people I've seen suffer, how many kids I've buried who have killed themselves, how many kids I've visited in hospitals who've tried to kill themselves, and it's all because the church has gotten this all wrong.
And so, yeah, my anger is bubbling just below the surface right now.
GROSS: Mike, can I ask you, when your father came out and, you know, made peace with the fact that he was gay and then even became a gay activist, did that have like a liberating effect on you to see like your father freed from the suffering that he experienced for so many years?
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Definitely I've felt that he was happier once he was able to be open and honest with everyone in his life about who he was, and at the same time, you know, like you were just were listening to him, he's - you know, he's still in the fight, you know, and he's not hiding anymore, but I think that he's committed to helping others that were in the same position that he was in, which is admirable.
And at the same time it's definitely taken a toll on him. It's not - you know, like you said at the beginning of the interview, you know, he failed his psychological tests, and they were questioning whether to let him go on "The Amazing Race," and when you think about the people that go on these reality shows, like the fact that, you know, that my dad was on the border of whether they felt like it was appropriate for him to come, it's clear that, like, you know, always being in the front lines of this, you know, fight has had a huge impact on his psyche.
And I think that, you know, one of the great, unexpected fallouts of being on the race is that so - he's getting so much feedback now for being - you know, for people seeing him as this, you know, compassionate and kind, funny guy that he is, and proud father that he also is.
And I think, you know, it's one of the first times in his life that I can recall where he isn't a divisive figure. Everybody just likes him, and they - you know, he comes off sweet, and I think that's going to be a healing thing for him in a funny, unexpected way.
GROSS: Mike, you said that your father's like still in the fight, and I'm wondering, like, do you feel in the fight at all? You've described yourself in publications - I've read that you are gay. I've read that you are bisexual. I'm not really sure how you describe yourself. But either way, there would be reason to become an activist if you were so inclined.
But it sounds like you don't see yourself as being in the fight per se.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Well, I think that in the world that I live - you know, I inhabit, my chosen profession, there's ways that you - through representation and the kinds of stories you tell that you, you know, try to make your own sense of what, you know, this is meaningful and this might effect change in some way and people's perceptions.
And for me, that's where I've put my energy, is certainly from a professional point of view. And at the same time, no, I'm not - I don't consider myself an activist in the way that my dad is. But you know, life is long. Who knows what's in store?
GROSS: And you're not a churchgoer, right?
Mr. MIKE WHITE: No, I'm not a churchgoer.
GROSS: Mike and Mel White will be back in the second half the show. You may have seen them together on the CBS reality series "The Amazing Race." They were eliminated two Sundays ago. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mike White and his father Mel White. You may have seen them work as a team on the CBS reality series "The Amazing Race." They were eliminated two Sundays ago. Mike White wrote the movies "School of Rock," "Chuck and Buck," "Orange County," and "Year of the Dog," and he wrote for the TV series "Freaks and Geeks." His father Mel is a Christian gay activist and co-founder of Soulforce. Before he came out, when he was married and trying to overcome his homosexual feelings, he ghost wrote books for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham.
Mel White, several of the evangelical leaders who you knew or have worked with have passed on: Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy…
Mr. MEL WHITE: Francis Schaffer.
GROSS: Francis Schaffer, yeah Tammy Faye Bakker. So as the old leadership has left or is leaving the stage, there's new leadership coming up - probably most famous Rick Warren. Do you see the new leadership changing things in terms of the evangelical community's leadership's position on homosexuality?
Mr. MEL WHITE: No I don't. These new megachurch leaders, they have a kind of patina of cordiality. They love you but then they want you to change. So they're not like Jerry. You always knew who Jerry was, like a rattlesnake. But these guys are without rattles, but they're still snakes.
GROSS: Now Richard Cizik, who was the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, he was fired from that position after saying on our show that he supported civil unions.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah.
GROSS: And I'm wondering, you know - I figured you were following that story. I wonder what your observations about that was?
Mr. MEL WHITE: That - you know he was a very able guy. And he was fired because he said what he said, which I think supports what I'm saying, that basically the old guard dead has left a new guard in its place. And homosexuality is the only issue they can't deal with. The pastors say the people aren't ready. The people say the pastor isn't ready. Nobody is ready and so kids by the millions keep falling through the holes. So yeah, I don't have any respect for most of the megachurch leaders in terms of the stand they've taken.
They'll work with people with AIDS in Namibia but they won't let people with AIDS into their congregation. I mean - or work with those who have AIDS in their congregation. So yeah, I'm very pessimistic - paranoid.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now my understanding is that you moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, in part to be close to Jerry Falwell and to protest his church and to always try to goad him into changing and recognizing homosexuality as something that wasn't evil and that didn't need to be changed and to just accept it. When he died, what was your reaction to his death? I mean, you were almost like a duo in that sense, like you'd been through so many sparring matches together.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. Gary and I - my partner Gary Nixon and I moved into a little apartment right across the street from his church and then we would invite people into our house after church and have cookies and so forth. Then we would go into the church and when he'd talk about gay people we'd stand up and protest. He got so used to us standing up in protest we became part of the liturgy. So you know, it wasn't much of a protest but we found in Lynchburg -which is, you know, a southern city - we found a kind of acceptance opening up little by little by little. And we are so pleased with what's happening in the churches of Lynchburg and the people of Lynchburg.
So for me, yeah, we missed when Jerry died - what one regret I had is that he didn't have a chance to apologize for all the lies and the half truths and the hyperboles he had used against us. But I had to say there's a lot of people who will miss him because he was a good pastor. And he, you know, he was a good provost and his university is going strong and his church is going strong today.
GROSS: Mike White, I have some questions for you. You're one of our many guests who has worked on "Freaks and Geeks," the now cult status, short-lived TV series set in high school. Now because you got started on "Freaks and Geeks" early in your career you met Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, Jason Siegel. And a while ago in New York Magazine you had an interesting comment about "Knocked Up," which stars Seth Rogen and was directed by Judd Apatow.
And can I just quote that and get your reaction to this? You write: To me, I definitely stand in the corner of wanting to give voice to the people who are bullied and not the bully and here's where comedy is catharsis for people who are picked on. There's a strain in "Knocked Up" where you sort of feel like something's changed a little bit. My sense of it is that because these guys are idiosyncratic-looking, their perception is that they're still the underdogs. But there's something about the spirit of this thing that comes under the guise of comedy where it's weird, at some point it starts feeling like comedy of the bullies rather than the bullied.
And do you think that's a strain that's classically run through - a lot of teen and young adult films and maybe even more so now that…
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Yeah, I mean to me - and I got into some, you know - there were a lot of like follow-up conversations with Judd and those guys after that article ran. And you know, I really respect Judd and lot of those movies are funny to me but I also, you know, what I was trying to say was that, you know, you feel like, you know, some of it is about the comedy of people whose, you know, their scope of interest really ends in their, like, pleasure palace of, you know, video games and, you know, genre movies and, you know. It's like - so if some of it you feel like it's like - I don't know, I guess I still feel a version of what I said but I - but that's not, you know, obviously there's a lot of - more to it than that and there's a lot more that I like about those movies and stuff. But, yeah I don't know. I don't want to get into trouble.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEL WHITE: It sounds like you're backing off, Mike.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: I've just - you know it's like - you know I - for me it was like, it was definitely bad for him for me to say something negative about a friend's movie, you know, a week before it came out. And that had I been the - on the receiving end of that I would have been - I would have been as irritated as I'm sure Judd was. But I - you know, to me it was more trying to talk about the strain of, you know, the, kind of, trend of comedy of late, which is you know, where, you know, you feel like only certain kinds of characters populate those movies. And not part of it I think is, you know, something worth talking about, you know. And it's not a judgment necessarily as just something to observe.
And I think that, you know, it's one thing when the characters like in "Freaks and Geeks" are 12 years old and they're, you know, being bullied on the playground but when the characters are now in their 20's and 30's and the psychology of it is still sort of in that same kind of - I don't know. It's the same kind of identities that you, you just wonder, you know, at what point do you get over, you know, being rejected by the hot girl when you were in junior high and now it's time to, you know, to look beyond the sort of, the, you know, that kind of romantic storyline I guess. I don't know it's, it's hard to explain.
But it's, you know, it's an interesting thing that those movies are really resonating right now with America and they're funny, which is obviously the reason why they're successful. But I feel like there's someone else smarter than me should do a sort of, you know, an inquiry into what the catharsis is for the viewer to see these movies about these particular characters.
GROSS: After having been on "The Amazing Race" do you feel like you have a deeper understanding of why reality shows are so popular?
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Oh, I've always loved reality shows, I mean certain ones. And I think that, you know, just being on "The Amazing Race" has made me even more of a believer that real life lessons can be derived from reality shows - that there's some real truths to some of the lessons learned on reality shows. And I think that's part of why people tune in. It's not just for the humiliation or the ridiculousness or just, you know, people embarrassing themselves. It's that there's actual things that are sustaining and interesting and that people that then kind of apply to their own personalities or their own lives.
Mr. MEL WHITE: I went thinking that most people go to reality shows like people go to attend racetracks because they like to see the wrecks. And I thought that if you're not nasty, you're not going to be popular on a reality show. And yet the kind of feedback we're getting and that CBS is getting about Mike and me -that we were having such a good time and it was such a relief from all the fighting. So I'm kind of changed about that. I think maybe you could be very popular on a reality show by just being nice.
GROSS: Well, thanks, thanks to both of you so much for talking about your lives and your experiences on "The Amazing Race." It was really fun to watch you both on that - fun and surprising to see you there. So, good luck with the work that you do and thank you so much for talking together with us. Thank you.
Mr. MIKE WHITE: Thanks, Terry.
Mr. MEL WHITE: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Mike White wrote the movies "School of Rock," "Orange County," "Chuck & Buck" and "Year of the Dog." His father Mel White co-founded Soulforce, whose goal is freedom from religious and political oppression for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
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