Art Details Couple-testants Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone get tested on their memory of famous pieces of art.

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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.


Thanks, Jonathan. We've had couples on the show before, but today we have a true Hollywood power couple. Melissa McCarthy has starred in movies like "Bridesmaids" and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Her frequent collaborator and husband, Ben Falcone, is a producer, director and writer behind movies like "The Boss" and "Superintelligence." Their latest project is a change of pace; it's a documentary about the host of the long-running public television show "The Joy Of Painting." It's called "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed," and it premieres August 25 on Netflix.

Melissa, Ben - welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.


BEN FALCONE: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

MCCARTHY: Well, I'm delighted to be here. I'll one-up that.


FALCONE: We're always in competition.


FALCONE: We should start this by saying we're always in a competition.

MCCARTHY: It's fisticuffs or nothing.


EISENBERG: So you both met in 1998 while taking a comedy writing class together.


FALCONE: That's right.

MCCARTHY: Well, not really.

FALCONE: It's not? Oh, you're right. You're right.

MCCARTHY: Kind of, sort of. We kind of, sort of met 10 years earlier? - at a party in Carbondale, Ill. I went to college where he was still in high school. And once we met and figured it out, I was like, oh, my gosh. I went to college in the hometown you grew up in. And then we became fast friends. And after a few weeks, he was like, I knew who you were. I know who you were when you were there.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

MCCARTHY: And I was like, no.


MCCARTHY: Because I was super, super gothic. I was like, you would not recognize me. And he goes no, no, no. I remember. I was afraid of you. And I was like, oh, that was me. Yeah.


COULTON: Yeah, that was definitely me.

MCCARTHY: Yeah, it was - I mean, I swear, I think it's where I kind of started loving to do characters. Because I was terrible at being goth, but I loved the look of it. Because you were literally like, yeah, I've drawn my makeup two inches over on the side of the face...


MCCARTHY: ...Like, just to be like, look at how weird that is. But then I was still too chatty. So the second I opened my mouth, it was like, I blew the whole goth thing.

COULTON: (Laughter).

MCCARTHY: But I looked menacing. But then...


MCCARTHY: ...This never stopped talking.

EISENBERG: But you were very optimistic and fun.


EISENBERG: Everyone's like, you cannot be the cheeriest goth. That does not work.

FALCONE: Yeah. And then when we met at the Groundlings, we sort of became fast friends and, you know, had that - I don't know - Midwestern connection or something. And there you go.

EISENBERG: So you both have worked together on many comedy collaborations. But now a little bit of a shift; you're the producers of a Netflix documentary called "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed." And it's about the painting instructor Bob Ross' career and legacy, and it focuses on Bob Ross' son's fight to obtain the licensing rights to his dad's name and likeness. So first of all, why did you decide to make the switch and do a documentary?

FALCONE: Well, you know, I can - first of all, we love Bob Ross. I actually wanted to do a biopic. I thought, you know, I'd love to write a movie about Bob Ross. And whether I could ever someday play him or somebody else or whatever, I was just like, you know, I think that would be such an interesting script. And so I went online, as you do. Just, you know, you're like, well, OK. What is there about Bob Ross? Like, what's the basics?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, to start...


MCCARTHY: ...Even start research.

FALCONE: Just to start it. You know, like, what books can I find? How can I...

MCCARTHY: And we were like, we're not finding anything.

FALCONE: And you - it was impossible...


FALCONE: ...To find almost anything. Yeah. So all very cursory stuff that we all kind of knew, where he was in the Army, he was in Alaska, and then he went to Florida...


FALCONE: ...And then he's Bob Ross.

MCCARTHY: And that is it. And we were like, there's not many people that all ages have a fondness for him.

EISENBERG: So, you know, you mentioned that he was in the military and a few things that you learned - knew about him beforehand. But over the course of being part of this project, what was the most surprising thing you learned about Bob Ross?

FALCONE: Well, I mean, not to give...

MCCARTHY: I know. I don't want to give anything away.

FALCONE: ...Too much away.


FALCONE: ...Because it should be fun for the...

MCCARTHY: It's tricky.

EISENBERG: Well, I'll tell you one silly surprise for me. That amazing - his hair was permed (laughter).

MCCARTHY: I know. I have to say, I was like, oh, my God.


MCCARTHY: Like, I had a reaction to that specifically. And I think everybody who's watched it is like, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait, that's a perm? I'm like, I know.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) I know. That's fantastic. And I do remember, you know, like, my brother-in-law telling me that he used to perm his hair, you know? And I was like, what. But anyways, that, I think...

MCCARTHY: I've been trying to get him to perm his hair...

EISENBERG: ...Something so silly (laughter).

MCCARTHY: ...For, like, literally 20 years.

FALCONE: That's probably where the biopic idea came from.

MCCARTHY: Because I was like, you can play him, and we will perm your hair.

COULTON: (Laughter).

MCCARTHY: And he's like - every movie he does, I'm like, what if we permed your hair?

FALCONE: What if we permed...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

FALCONE: In fact, there was a movie - "Identity Thief." I literally went into the trailer, and somehow Melissa and her great hair...


FALCONE: Linda Flowers - they literally were like - they can - they were like, let's do it. And they come in, and I had a full perm for, like, as much of it as my hair could do. And then the director came in, and he was like, so why do we have a perm? Is that a...


MCCARTHY: And I was like, honey - I was like, you're working against me. This is a dream 15 years in the making at that point.

FALCONE: So it just - it turned out very curly.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

FALCONE: But the perm dream hasn't come alive yet.


EISENBERG: OK, Melissa and Ben. Are you ready to play some games?



MCCARTHY: Yes, we are.


EISENBERG: OK. Fantastic. So since you made a Bob Ross documentary, we decided to test your memory of other famous works of art. So you're going to take turns answering questions, and these are all multiple choice.



EISENBERG: All right, Melissa, this first one is for you.


EISENBERG: What is the enigmatic woman in the Mona Lisa sitting in front of? Is it A, a plain wall, B, a landscape, or C, a man telling her to smile?

MCCARTHY: No, he was off camera.


MCCARTHY: A blank wall.

EISENBERG: OK, I'm sorry, that is incorrect.

COULTON: (Laughter).

FALCONE: Landscape.

EISENBERG: So it is a landscape. However, just to be fair, historians do not agree whether this landscape is a real place in Italy or just a made-up place. So it is a unsatisfying landscape, which to, maybe - the expert eye, like yourself, would just see as a plain wall.

MCCARTHY: That's what I meant.


COULTON: I knew it was a landscape, but I also recognized that it was not a real place in Italy. So I just...

EISENBERG: That's right. That's right.

MCCARTHY: But I don't acknowledge it as a real landscape...


MCCARTHY: ...So by that, thusly, I mean a blank wall.


EISENBERG: That's right.

COULTON: All right, Ben. The painting "Whistler's Mother" depicts the artist's mother sitting in profile beside a wall. What is on that wall; A, a framed picture, B, a window, C, a novelty clock that says it's wine o'clock?


MCCARTHY: I need that on a sweatshirt. That's my favorite.

FALCONE: If only that severe woman was looking at...


COULTON: She does look like she needs a glass of wine.

FALCONE: Oh, God, I want to guess wine o'clock.


FALCONE: So it's a window or a - oh, God. She's standing - she's sitting there. I'm going to say a framed picture.

COULTON: Yeah, you're correct. It is a framed picture. That's right.

EISENBERG: All right. Melissa, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" depicts customers at a restaurant counter late at night. What are they drinking? Is it A, milkshakes; B, coffee; or C, locally brewed IPAs?


EISENBERG: Yes, exactly. They are drinking coffee. And it's my favorite kind of coffee - night coffee.


COULTON: Mmm, night coffee. That tells the whole story right there if you're drinking coffee in the...

EISENBERG: I love a night coffee.

MCCARTHY: It really does.


MCCARTHY: Or when someone orders, like, a coffee in, like, older movies and they get, like, a black coffee with a hamburger, I'm always like buh (ph).


MCCARTHY: No, no, no, no, no.

FALCONE: Yes, no cheese please and no milk in the cup. Just...

MCCARTHY: Dry as you can make it...


MCCARTHY: And bubble up that coffee. As a child, I remember being, like, oh, oh. That seems like it's not going to work out well.

FALCONE: No, that's not going to be good.



COULTON: All right. Ben, the statue of "Venus de Milo" is missing both of its arms. What else is it missing - A, its left foot; B, its right nipple; C, its third arm?


FALCONE: Is it the foot?

MCCARTHY: Oh, I want it to be the nipple.

COULTON: That's right - its left foot, yeah.

FALCONE: Thank you very much.

COULTON: Although I guess C, its third arm, is technically correct 'cause that is also hidden. But it's unclear if she had a third arm.



MCCARTHY: That's true.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And supposedly, it was - maybe all of that was kind of hacked off and stolen because experts believe the statue originally wore metal jewelry.



EISENBERG: I just can only think of, like, how many amazing pieces of art they were around that people were like - I don't know. We'll just get the stuff off this one.


COULTON: Yeah, let's just knock the jewelry off of this one.

MCCARTHY: Just knock her arms off. It's fine.


FALCONE: Don't like the eyebrows on this one.



MCCARTHY: Whatever you do, leave both nipples.

FALCONE: Leave the nipples. Take the eyebrows.

EISENBERG: All I know is I hate noses.

MCCARTHY: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: OK. Melissa, in Kehinde Wiley's official portrait of Barack Obama, where is Obama depicted - A, in the Oval Office; B, surrounded by plants; or C, kite surfing with Bruce Springsteen?

FALCONE: I wish.

MCCARTHY: I wish. I do have a video of that, though, but I can't show you.


COULTON: It was a private party.

MCCARTHY: God, I can - it's so funny. I can see his face in that painting. And I can't - isn't that weird how you block out part of it?

FALCONE: Just take a guess.

MCCARTHY: Well, then I'll just say plants.

EISENBERG: Yes, surrounded...


EISENBERG: ...By plants. Yes. And the flowers in the painting have different meanings. The chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, the jasmine references Obama's childhood home of Hawaii, and the African blue violets are for his father from Kenya.

FALCONE: Oh, wow.


FALCONE: That's lovely.

MCCARTHY: I didn't know that.

EISENBERG: It's kind of cool, right?


FALCONE: That's really nice.

COULTON: All right. Here's the last one. It's for you, Ben.


COULTON: "American Gothic" is a painting of a stern-looking man and woman standing in front of a house. What is the man holding - A, a pitchfork; B, a shovel; C, a boombox above his head playing "In Your Eyes"?

MCCARTHY: Oh. God, I wish.

FALCONE: If only he was the "Say Anything American Gothic."


FALCONE: Let's see. There's a shovel. There's a pitchfork. One of them had one thing. And the man - it's what the man's got? He's got a - I want to go with the pitchfork. Yeah, you're correct. He does have a pitchfork.

EISENBERG: Yes. And I don't know if you can remember that painting in your mind. But if you can, what do you think the relationship is between the two people? Because I always thought they were married - that was, like, husband and wife.

MCCARTHY: I always thought they were very unhappily married.

FALCONE: Me, too. I thought unhappily...

EISENBERG: That's right.

FALCONE: Is that wrong?

EISENBERG: Turns out, father and daughter.




FALCONE: Wow. (Unintelligible) Know.

EISENBERG: And the artist's model for the father was his dentist.


MCCARTHY: Those are wonderfully weird things I never thought I would know.

FALCONE: I'm just not sure I'm ever going to look at that painting the same way again...


FALCONE: ...And being like, that dude's a dentist.


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