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'Law & Order' Moves Back To Wednesdays
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'Law & Order' Moves Back To Wednesdays

Pop Culture

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is Fresh Air. This is David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. "Law & Order," one of the longest-running series on TV, returned to TV this week on NBC, back to the timeslot where it first premiered in 1990. Our next guest today is Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order" and all of its various franchises, including the still-running "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Earlier in his career, Wolf worked as a writer and/or producer on such shows as "Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice" and "New York Undercover." Terry spoke with Dick Wolf in 2003, but before we get to the interview, here's a sample clip taken from Season Five of the original "Law & Order." The stars that season were Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth. They'd just come upon a man who had collapsed in a lobby of a posh Manhattan hotel of what they presumed at first were natural causes.

(Soundbite of TV show "Law & Order")

Unidentified Man: I thought he was drunk. You get all kinds wandering in here at this hour of the morning.

Mr. JERRY ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Maybe this one wandered in from your bar.

Unidentified Man: No, the bar is over there. He was coming in from upstairs. Detective, how much longer is this going to take? Our guests are quite sensitive to this kind of thing.

Mr. CHRIS NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) Yes, especially this guest. In his pocket, no ID, no wallet.

Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Any way to find out what room this belongs to?

Unidentified Man: No, they're untraceable. It's a security precaution.

Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) I'm sure he appreciated it.

Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Hey, next time there's a heart attack at three in the morning, why don't you call it in to the 20?

Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) I don't know why we got here.

Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Before he keeled over, did you notice if he was holding his left arm?

Unidentified Man: I don't know. He just looked drunk.

Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Was he slurring his words?

Unidentified Man: No, he was trying to speak.

Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Could be a stroke.

Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) Yeah, how about a stroke of lead? Look at that.

Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Geez. Blink once and you'd miss it. Must be a small caliber. There's no exit wound. Maybe a .22.

Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) That would do it. Ping-pongs off his vitals. All the bleedings are internal.

Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Great. I liked him better when he had a heart attack.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 22, 2003)

TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the things that's pretty consistent in the writing, stylistically and content-wise, is that you don't out find out much about the private lives of the detectives or the prosecutors. It's really driven by the story. Why did you make that decision?

Mr. DICK WOLF (Writer/Producer, "Law & Order"): The wonderful thing about procedurals is that it does away with the necessity for soap opera. In other words, when you're not dealing with the personal lives of the characters, you can concentrate on the story, you can tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end. And it's quite efficient in terms of dealing with complicated issues, dealing with moral issues, that we've been saying the same thing for years, that the first half is a murder mystery and the second half is a moral mystery. So, it's, how do you keep those elements unpolluted by the sex lives of the characters or going home with them? They're workplace shows, and I think that there is a fascination of just watching people at work without those sideline destructions of their personal lives.

GROSS: And another thing these shows have in common, you've tried to do away with the establishing shots. You say you don't really want to spend a lot of time with the characters, kind of, getting from one scene to another, getting in and out of rooms. What are some of those things that you wanted to kind of streamline or just take out all together and just keep the action going?

Mr. WOLF: You've annotated several of them already, but I think that one of the realities is that there is enough information in the other side of the show to make a completely satisfying hour of cop show or a completely satisfying hour of legal show. The fact that you have to give what in many cases is twice as much information in the same 43, 20, 43 minutes that you have in a character-driven show, to tell this much story, you don't have time to go home with the characters. I mean, the pace of the show, the average hour show has about 26 scenes per episode. "Law & Order" usually has between 40 and 42. So, that's a huge differential in terms of the pacing and in terms of the way things are structured on the shows.

GROSS: One of the things you have to do every week is cast a dead body. Actors like to come in and show you their stuff. How do you audition to be dead?

Mr. WOLF: It's a very, very complex process because everybody wants to be the dead body. It's the only thing that I'm constantly getting requests to be from people. You know, can I be the dead body? And it's highly sought after because you can't be cut out. So, it's a great gig for actors.

GROSS: Yeah, but you don't get to emote or anything.

Mr. WOLF: No. But then nobody can comment on your bad acting, neither.

GROSS: "Law & Order," one of the things it's known for is that a lot of the shows are the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines type of shows where they're based on actual news stories.

Mr. WOLF: No. They're not based on them. We steal the headline, but not the body copy.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. I mean, if you actually have knowledge of any of the cases as they unroll, that's that case, it never is. The headline, the top-of-mind awareness, is what we're after, and then the reality is most real-life murders take a very predictable road to fruition, that most murders are solved within the first 48 hours, and most people are convicted. That does not give you the twist and turns that make for an entertaining hour of television.

GROSS: Now, I know you worked in advertising before you started working in television. You worked doing advertising mostly for Proctor & Gamble products like Crest and Scope. Would we know any of the campaigns you did for Crest or Scope? Did you write any of the jingles or slogans?

Mr. WOLF: Oh, sure. "Scope fights bad breath without giving you medicine breath." That's one of the undying lines.

GROSS: Oh, medicine breath, that was yours.

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. And one my favorites was, "You can't beat Crest for fighting cavities," which is a wonderfully neutral statement that it's a parity statement as opposed to a competitive advantage, that there can be 400 other toothpastes that are as good, but nothing's better than Crest. And that lasted a long time.

GROSS: No one can sue you over that one.

Mr. WOLF: Nobody. Yes, sir, you can use whatever toothpaste you want, but none of them are any better. And then National Airlines, which was probably the most controversial campaign that I was ever involved with, and I'm sure you're too young to remember the outrage...

GROSS: Try me.

Mr. WOLF: Try me? Fly me. I'm Cheryl, fly me. Remember National Airlines?

GROSS: Well, that was - "Fly me" was yours?

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. That's a long time ago. That's over 30 years ago now.

GROSS: That was controversial for feminist reasons.

Mr. WOLF: Yes, it was. That was the beginning of...

GROSS: It sounded like a sexual innuendo.

Mr. WOLF: Well, it was.

GROSS: So much of advertising was then. I mean, a lot of advertising still is, but it was more innuendo than overt.

Mr. WOLF: It was very, very direct innuendo, because they had a very specific goal in mind, that National Airlines had by far the highest percentage of business travelers in the early '70s going to Florida, and the reason was the stewardesses. That was the age of miniskirts that were so short that the stewardesses were not allowed to bend over in the cabin. They had to do a semi-curtsy when they were serving people. And National really wanted a campaign directed at business men about the stewardesses. So, it may have lacked some subtlety, but it did get talked about.

BIANCULLI: Dick Wolf speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf. The long-running crime series returned this week to the NBC lineup.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 22, 2003)

GROSS: Have you become, I don't know if there's a word for this, somebody who hangs out at crimes scenes?

Mr. WOLF: No, I don't. That's a level of buffdom (ph) - I've spent an inordinate amount of time with cops, but not really at that many crime scenes in the last 15 or 18 years. I used to go to them a lot when I was starting out writing this stuff.

GROSS: How would you go? Did you have a police band radio?

Mr. WOLF: No. I had a couple of homicide cops in L.A., and one of the aims was to see one of every kind of crime or one of every kind of murder, that it was an open call, if there was a shooting, stabbing, robbing, something that was a little unique. Stan Lighter (ph) has partnered with Karl and we'd go out and see it. And I think the strangest crime scene I ever went to was on Super Bowl Sunday about 15 years ago, and I got a call from Stanley to meet him in Bell, which is one of the worst sections of L.A. And I walked in and it was this apartment that was kind of a motel complex, and there were three uniformed cops sitting on the sofa in this apartment watching the Super Bowl and I said, God, this doesn't look like a crime scene.'\ And then I walked two feet further in, and there was a body inside the closet upside down, wrapped up in telephone cord with his eyes open watching the game along with the cops. It was these three cops sitting there, absolutely no interest in this body two feet away from them, but they were into the game.

GROSS: I'm sure you've seen a lot of crime in movies and television and read a lot of books with crime. Were there some things that just really astonished you about how real murder looks?

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. It's a lot bloodier than we show it on television. I mean, one of the things that, probably, unfortunately most people would tell you that have gone to a crime scene is it's surprising how much blood there is in a human body. That's much worse than we've ever shown on the show.

GROSS: And when you actually saw these real murders, was there anything that surprised about the faces, the expressions on the victims' faces?

Mr. WOLF: Well, the guy in the closet looked quite surprised. But he was upside down, so I don't know what lividity (ph) had to do with it, but I would say that if there was one expression that wasn't pain, it was kind of like, what happened? Surprise. I don't think people usually expect to get shot. It's also one of the things that most cops will tell you that the most common thing is never ask to be shot, because a lot of drunken altercations and a lot of street confrontations, somebody pulls a gun and somebody else says, oh, yeah, you're so tough, go ahead and shoot. And homicide cops will tell you the number of people, the number of killers that they've arrested that said, well, he told me to shoot him.

GROSS: That's really interesting, because in a lot of crime movies and TV shows, somebody who is kind of tough and challenging and, sometimes, the hero himself or herself will say, yeah, go ahead and shoot me. And then the person gets really weak - and because the hero is wise enough to know that the person doesn't have the courage to do it.

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. One homicide detective told me it is the single most common line in homicides, go ahead and shoot.

GROSS: That's really, really interesting. And that makes me think, too, about the kind of wise-guy language that a lot of people use in TV shows and in movies, smart-aleck stuff or somebody's got a gun on you and you're quipping. Bad idea in real life?

Mr. WOLF: Not a smart thing to do. The best solution if you ever have a gun pointed at you? Give them whatever they ask for immediately.

GROSS: Including some respect.

Mr. WOLF: I'd be polite.

GROSS: Right. How does this affect the dialogue that you write and the dialogue that you edit for "Law & Order"?

Mr. WOLF: Well, you see, it's not really much of a problem, because by the time the show starts, they are already dead.

GROSS: Yeah, but there's still other - cops, the detectives are hunting for the killer, and they sometimes get in tough situations and friends of the victims sometimes get in tough situations.

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. I think it's much more -I mean, the hallmark of - and Jerry is the one who said this - that "Law & Order is kind of like...

GROSS: Jerry Orbach?

Mr. WOLF: Jerry Orbach - is kind of like a Catholic high Mass, that it's a rite that the audience knows what's going to happen, not in terms of the storytelling, but that there is a rhythm to the show. And I'd say one of the rhythms that is now part and parcel of it is Jerry's kind of mordantly acerbic comment at the end of the teaser which has become part of the, you know, just sort of the "Law & Order" mantra. There is a setup line, and then Jerry gets to get the last line in the teaser, which invariably is kind of either acerbic, sarcastic or insightful comment about the stupidity of murder.

GROSS: We're out of time regretfully. I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WOLF: My pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Dick Wolf, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. "Law & Order" returned this week to the NBC lineup. Coming up, a salute to critic and author John Leonard, our show's first book critic who died this week. This is Fresh Air.

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