Movie Business In Crisis; LeVar Burton On Reading : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders The movie industry is hurting. Most theaters in the U.S. are still shut down, and who knows when—or if—audiences will pack into theaters again. Adam B. Vary and Angelique Jackson of Variety talk about the state of the movie industry and how it's adapted, for better or worse, in this pandemic. Also, Sam talks to actor LeVar Burton about reading, why we like being read to, what he really wanted you to learn from Reading Rainbow, and the latest season of his podcast LeVar Burton Reads.

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Movie Industry Adapts, Plus LeVar Burton Reads

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Movie Industry Adapts, Plus LeVar Burton Reads

Movie Industry Adapts, Plus LeVar Burton Reads

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

So this week, I went to a drive-in theater to go see that new Christopher Nolan movie "Tenet" - you know, the one starring Denzel Washington's son. And I had some thoughts.

Also, I'm really sorry that I called Denzel Washington's son, who is one of the stars of this movie, Baby Denzel. He's not Baby Denzel. What is that man's name?

ANGELIQUE JACKSON: John David.

ADAM B VARY: John David Washington.

SANDERS: OK, kudos to you, sir. Kudos to you.

VARY: You had to ask us what his name is.

SANDERS: Baby Denzel - he should go by that. It's catchy.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

VARY: I'm sure he's thrilled - thrilled.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

AUNT BETTY, BYLINE: Hey, y'all. This is Sam's Aunt Betty. This week, how coronavirus is changing the movie industry. All right. Let's start the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. And as already mentioned, this week we are going to the movies - except, actually, right now, most of us aren't, not really. I mean, I did see "Tenet" at a drive-in, but that doesn't even really count because I left early. Anywho (ph), in this episode we're going to get into the business of movies and how that business survives a pandemic.

As we all know by now, the movie industry has been hurting. Many theaters in the U.S. are still shut down. And who knows when we will once again be able to experience the joy of a packed theater and that buttery, buttery popcorn and the ice cold soda and the laughing together and crying together. I miss it. And the movie industry itself is missing all of that, as well, because they're bringing in a lot less money.

You know, speaking of "Tenet," it was estimated that it should have earned about $50 million domestically in its first weekend of release. But, of course, that opening weekend of this summer was not normal. This year is not normal. And "Tenet" only made about $20 million at the American box office in its first weekend - less than half of what was expected.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Andrei) All I have for you is a word - tenet.

SANDERS: And still, "Tenet" had the biggest movie opening in the U.S. since March. And that might be the high point for the biz for the entire year. The summer blockbuster season - it is over, if it ever actually started. So where does that leave us, and where does that leave Hollywood? To help answer those questions, I called up two people who answer questions like that for a living - Adam B. Vary and Angelique Jackson. They are both reporters at Variety. Hi to you both. Welcome.

VARY: Hi, Sam. Thank you for having us.

JACKSON: Hi (laughter).

SANDERS: Of course.

JACKSON: It's so exciting to be here.

SANDERS: It's so exciting to have you.

JACKSON: Virtually.

SANDERS: Yes. You know, so...

The first question I asked them was what letter grade they would give the health of the movie industry in this time of coronavirus.

VARY: Well, I guess, I mean, not to split hairs, but part of what is complicated about what's going on right now is it sort of depends on what you mean by the film industry. One of the things that, I think, the industry is really confronting is, what do you mean by a movie? What is a motion picture? Is it something that you see in a theater? Is it something that is a roughly two hours in length? If it's the latter, then the movie business is - I would give it probably, like, a C minus, just because there have been several releases on streaming that have done pretty well, like "The Old Guard" and "Trolls Worlds Tour," that have...

SANDERS: "Trolls World Tour" - is "Trolls World Tour" the future of the movie industry?

VARY: Well, I mean, at the time it came out, it was - according to Universal, when it was released, it was the most successful video on demand release of all time. But you know, like, you could say that "Trolls World Tour" is the "Avengers: Endgame" of video on demand.

SANDERS: Wow. That says a lot about us.

VARY: That says a lot about where we're at.

JACKSON: It does.

VARY: If you're asking about where the theatrical business is, though, I don't know about you, Angelique, but I would have to give it, like, a D-minus to an F. I just think that there's...

SANDERS: Wow.

VARY: ...There's nothing there. You know, after "Tenet" didn't do well. Warner Brothers moved "Wonder Woman: 1984" from an October release date to Christmas. I have zero confidence that that movie is actually going to open.

SANDERS: Yeah, because they'll push it back again.

VARY: Yeah, I don't think it's going to open on Christmas.

SANDERS: All right. Angelique, your grade?

JACKSON: Yeah, I would agree. I would - I feel like a D-minus to an F does make sense for theatrical because all of the factors are just so unclear at the moment. Like Adam, I don't necessarily believe we're going to see "Wonder Woman" at Christmas. Do I wish that we could? You know, normally that's our kind of second big release schedule after the summer, is those holiday movies when everyone's at home, so everybody's going to movies. I don't know that we're going to, you know, actually be in a place to go out and do something like that.

SANDERS: Totally. Which makes me sad because, like, I love the post-Thanksgiving dinner, post-Christmas dinner movie. One of my favorite and moviegoing experiences of the last several years was going with my Aunt Betty after Thanksgiving one year to see "Widows." It was the perfect day.

JACKSON: Yes.

VARY: "Widows."

JACKSON: Me and my mom did that. It was the best.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

VARY: Love "Widows."

JACKSON: We were the only people in the theater.

SANDERS: Yes.

VARY: Love "Widows."

JACKSON: This is my tribe, my fellow "Widows" lovers. Can we just spend the rest of the time talking about how "Widows" just got snubbed by everyone?

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

JACKSON: And what is wrong with the world?

VARY: Yes.

SANDERS: That movie is so good. We're going to come back to that for sure.

VARY: "Widows" hive, "Widows" hive.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Yes, a "Widows" hive. So I want to have you both help me understand what the breakdown is right now for new movies or 2020 releases. From what I'm seeing, there are, like, three big options; your movie goes to the theater on a lot fewer screens, your movie goes straight to online - video on-demand, streaming, whatever - or your movie is pushed back to later this year or next. What's the breakdown amongst those three from what you see right now?

JACKSON: So like Adam already mentioned, you see films like "Wonder Woman" which have continued to push. Now it's at Christmas. But then you see Universal pushing a film like "Candyman" immediately to 2021. We have, you know, recent reporting that it's possible that "Soul," which is supposed to be a huge Pixar release for Disney, coming in November 20, could end up on Disney+ like "Mulan" did. It's very much this whole experience of we're not sure because the movie that's opening opposite "Soul," "No Time To Die," the Bond film, is still expected to hit theaters. But for the last Bond, for Daniel Craig's last outing, we're really going to end up with, like, a "Tenet"-level release where it makes just a small fraction of what it's supposed come out as. I don't know if exhibitors and theater owners are really going to be going for that come late November.

VARY: I mean, the umbrella overarching all of those three options that you mentioned, Sam, is international distribution. You know, the COVID response in the United States has been, you know, a garbage fire on top of a larger garbage fire on top of the state of California on fire. Other countries handled it maybe, one could say, better. And because of that, they're starting to be able to release movies into movie theaters on a more significant scale.

So, for example, "Tenet" has made $200 million globally, including its grosses in the U.S., which is still not nearly what Warner Brothers would want for that movie, but it's certainly a much healthier gross than what its domestic grosses might look like. As far as your ratio goes, I think right now what you're going to see more and more and more is either movies being pushed later into 2021 or movies going straight to VOD.

SANDERS: Yeah. Question for you both. You know, we're all talking about how this new normal may just end up being normal for much longer than we think. When it comes to movies, do the changes that we see happening right now - will they actually maybe be long-term? Like, if viewers are getting used to video on demand, why ever release movies first in theaters ever again?

JACKSON: Well, I mean, first, let's just say that's Christopher Nolan's worst nightmare.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: So don't say it too loud. He might hear you.

SANDERS: If he's a listener, I'm happy either way.

JACKSON: (Laughter) It's really hard to say because a lot of these movies really do need a theatrical release to make up these massive budgets that they have already gone into production with. So a lot of these movies in this 2020, 2021, even some 2022 space - if they don't come out in theaters, even, you know, paying, $30 for the rental or for buying them isn't going to come anywhere close to what they really need.

So I mean, I think there are going to be some changes that do stay down the road because I think there have definitely been a lot of the smaller production companies and distributors that have found some success getting these movies, you know, especially as audiences get more used to watching things at home. Where as, you would, like, you know, turn on your cable and see a couple of these, like, you know, Direct TV-only releases, and you're like, I don't really know how to pay for that, buy that, whatever, you know, now we have become a lot more attuned to using things that way. You know, our grandparents are now getting on Instagram to watch "Verzuz," which is not a movie, but, you know...

VARY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: But it is cinematic. It is cinematic.

JACKSON: It is. And you can just see the way that something like that that started as, like, an Instagram thing, with all of the issues that that would have with people, you know, using their Wi-Fi in the middle of hurricanes - Nelly...

SANDERS: Yeah (laughter).

JACKSON: But we see them evolving into something that is much more finely produced and cinematic there. That's, I think, just an indicator of the way that we maybe are moving more towards that digital space for more of these releases.

SANDERS: So the movie theater owners are kind of just going to end up in dire straits maybe.

VARY: I mean, they are - there's no ending up. They're there. They're in dire straits. This situation is really the worst nightmare for movie theaters. You know, the trend lines were already not looking great for movie exhibition. Like, it really hit its heights in the '90s. That's when movie theaters were really at their peak of power and prestige and revenue. And ever since then...

SANDERS: And I would argue, that's when all of culture was at its peak.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I miss that. Like, I...

VARY: Well, Sam, you're just revealing your age there. But ever since then, even though revenues have gone up, the actual tickets sold, the trend lines have been flat to negative. And so, you know, just fewer people have been going to see movies for the last 20 years, really. But this has been that sort of, like, massive inflection point that could radically change people's habits.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, we're in a time where it seems as if everyone in this industry is suffering. Everyone's kind of a loser right now. But are there any winners in this 2020 pandemic movie industry economy? Like, I was thinking this morning, well, is this maybe a good time for indie films? They already never thought that they would make that much money. They're already relatively cheaper to make. Is this, like, the time for smaller movies to shine?

JACKSON: Uh...

VARY: Uh...

SANDERS: OK (laughter).

JACKSON: Kind of. I mean, honestly, probably the biggest winner right now is Netflix.

VARY: Yes.

SANDERS: Yeah.

JACKSON: Netflix - across movies and television, it is the easiest thing for people to point to as what they've been doing while they're in quarantine. They have been spending their time, you know, watching these big releases. And, honestly, a lot of them have been really big directors, really big projects, really big stars - everything from "The Old Guard," like Adam mentioned before, to also Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods." They are coming with really, really strong content, a lot of it that was intended to be in theaters. So it's just kind of keeping the ball rolling for them in this, you know, domination that was kind of weird in the past years because, obviously, you know, last year, they had a ton of films that were more in, you know, awards consideration with, like, "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story." And they still have more of those kind of coming down the pipeline, but they've really kind of been owning this pandemic space, especially when it comes to films.

SANDERS: Yeah.

VARY: Yeah.

SANDERS: Also, "The Old Guard" was so good. I loved that movie.

VARY: So good.

JACKSON: So good.

VARY: So good. So good.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I want to tell you - so I didn't want to share my "Tenet" story too early on because I didn't want to tank the conversation. But full disclosure, y'all, I went to go see "Tenet" this week - last night, actually - at a drive-in theater.

VARY: How did that go?

JACKSON: So jealous.

SANDERS: Let me tell you. So I am in San Antonio. I had to drive to New Braunfels, Texas to go to the Stars & Stripes Drive-In Theatre. I had my barbecue in my little Prius. And it was immediately depressing. The lot was, like, less than half full, so it just looked sad. And then the previews start up, and they're giving these dates of release for all these movies. And it's just like, that ain't going to come out. Those aren't going to come out. That's not going to happen. And then the movie starts. And like everyone kind of says about "Tenet," it's really pretty but kind of confusing. So I lost the tension pretty early on in the film, and then I just ended up watching the family three cars over because they were so cute, and the kids were, like, running around. And then it started to rain.

VARY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: So I left early. That was my "Tenet" story (laughter) - 2020.

JACKSON: I went from being...

VARY: A gripping film. A gripping film.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: I went from being so jealous to, like, immediately equally depressed.

SANDERS: Yeah.

VARY: That's so sad.

SANDERS: Yeah. Also, when it's time to go back to the movies, will we have lost all decorum? Like, are we just going to walk in without pants on and, like, our cellphones on full volume? Like, we're going to, like, become movie savages by the end of this thing.

VARY: I think you can just cut out movies, and that sounds about right to me.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JACKSON: Yeah.

SANDERS: On that note, it's time for a break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Coming up, LeVar Burton. Yes, LeVar Burton. He talks about his podcast, the one where...

VARY: What?

SANDERS: ...He reads stories to you. And he also tells us why reading, now more than ever, is fundamental.

I think I tossed wrong. Hold on. OK. Jinae, help me out. Did I do that toss too early or too late?

JACKSON: We're opening for LeVar Burton? (Laughter).

SANDERS: Y'all are opening for LeVar Burton.

VARY: I had no idea.

SANDERS: Y'all are opening for LeVar Burton.

All right. Coming up, my two amazing panelists play my favorite game, Who Said That. And then, we'll hear from LeVar Burton - seriously. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm your host, Sam Sanders, joined this week by two guests, both journalists from Variety magazine, Adam B. Vary and Angelique Jackson. Are y'all ready to play a game?

VARY: As ready as I'll ever be.

JACKSON: Cautiously optimistic.

SANDERS: (Laughter) I love the trepidation that my guests always have around this game. It's the simplest, funnest, cutest game. It's called Who Said That.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA")

KANDI BURRUSS: Who had been saying that?

PORSHA WILLIAMS: Who said that?

KENYA MOORE: Who said that?

SANDERS: All right. This game is quite simple. I share a quote from the week of news. You've either got to guess who said it or guess the story that I'm talking about. There are no buzzers. Just yell out the answers. And keep in mind - the winner gets nothing. None of this matters.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: All right. Here is the first quote. Tell me who said it. Vibe check - yas (ph) queens like ourselves - we want to go to bars. We want to drink, hook up, do our TikToks. I get it. I'm not going to preach to you like some celebrity. Bleh (ph). This is a convo where I talk, and you shut up and wear your mask.

VARY: Paul Rudd.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORY TUNE)

SANDERS: Yes. Paul Rudd (laughter). Can you...

JACKSON: Nailed it.

SANDERS: Yes. Adam, can you tell this Paul Rudd story? It is hard to explain it for people who aren't well-versed in Internet.

VARY: So, basically, what Paul Rudd did was a PSA about the importance of wearing a mask aimed at millennials and Gen Zers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RUDD: So Cuomes (ph) asked me - he's, like, Paul, you've got to help. What are you - like, 26? And I didn't correct him. So, fam, let's real talk. Masks - they're totally beast. So slide that in your DMs and Twitch it.

VARY: Fully embracing all of the supposed millennial, Gen Z slang that has come from the Internet, first of all by pretending he's their age, which he actually can.

SANDERS: Yeah, because he's Gen X, right?

VARY: Yeah, he's in his 50s. This man...

JACKSON: Um, he's gen everything.

VARY: This man is in his 50s.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

VARY: He's eternal.

JACKSON: He's gen everything. He is - he has clearly been cryogenically frozen.

VARY: Yes.

SANDERS: He's our pop culture Highlander.

VARY: Yeah. Yeah.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I also - it just makes me question who this video is for. Like, Paul Rudd is not a millennial. And he's dabbling in, actually, some Gen Z stereotypes to make this video. Like, at one point, he calls Billie Eilish. But I really don't think that Gen Z is looking to Paul Rudd for guidance. Is this really just for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to tell himself that he's cool?

JACKSON: I mean, I don't know. Paul Rudd always has, like, a resurgence because every time someone watches "Clueless" again...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JACKSON: ...And then sees him in real time, they're, like, I'm sorry. How did he manage to age backwards? So...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JACKSON: They just had their big anniversary just a few weeks ago. So I don't know. Maybe Gen Z - maybe the TikTok gen is actually feeling Paul Rudd.

SANDERS: OK.

VARY: Sam coming with the Paul Rudd-Andrew Cuomo double shade.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Hey, listen - listen...

VARY: ...To use some Gen Z slang there.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Who got that one? Adam, you got that one. OK. You got one point. Next quote - for this one, just tell me what I'm talking about, what big story from the week. As far as we can tell, only life can make phosphine. There was a big story about life and phosphine found outside of Earth. Where was this found?

JACKSON: Outside of Earth - I - is this...

SANDERS: It's a planet.

VARY: Mars?

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

SANDERS: Keep going.

JACKSON: Jupiter?

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

SANDERS: Keep going.

JACKSON: Pluto's not a planet anymore, right? (Laughter).

SANDERS: Pluto's not a planet. I mean, in my heart, it always is. But not Pluto.

JACKSON: Always.

SANDERS: Keep going. It starts with a V, ends in -enus (ph).

JACKSON: Venus.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORY TUNE)

SANDERS: Yes (laughter).

JACKSON: Yay, we did it. Thank you...

SANDERS: You got it.

JACKSON: ...For all of your help (laughter).

SANDERS: You're welcome. You're welcome.

So that quote comes from Clara Sousa-Silva. She's an astrophysicist at Harvard University, and she was one of the authors of this recent set of papers that talked about the discovery of a chemical in Venus' atmosphere that might indicate signs of life in Venus. The chemical was phosphine. And The New York Times says that phosphine is found in our intestines, in the feces of badgers and penguins and in some deep-sea worms. It's also poisonous. But seeing that makes smart science folks say that there could be life on Venus, which begs my next question - if there were, would y'all go?

JACKSON: I mean, we might have to, so, I mean...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JACKSON: ...Might as well give it a shot.

VARY: Well, first - I mean, not to be crude, Sam, but first of all, Venus is enormously hot. And second of all, basically what you just laid out there is that the atmosphere of Venus is basically a bunch of flatulence, like...

JACKSON: (Laughter).

VARY: ...Swirling around...

SANDERS: Yeah.

VARY: ...If I have that right.

SANDERS: Yeah.

VARY: So I'll take a pass.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Last quote. You guys are definitely going to get this one. It's been all over the place.

JACKSON: Gotcha.

SANDERS: The quote is, look - it was a very interesting weekend full of lessons learned. You know, things...

JACKSON: Chris Evans.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORY TUNE)

SANDERS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: You're a little too enthusiastic on that one (laughter).

JACKSON: It was an interesting weekend. I think that's the only way to describe it. When you log on, and you see it trending, and you're, like, what is this about?

SANDERS: Yeah. Tell us what it's about.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Unpack the story for us, Angelique.

JACKSON: Sure. I mean, I'm the one who jumped up and down a little too excitedly.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JACKSON: That quote came from this amazing, exclusive live interview with Tamron Hall on her daytime talk show with Captain America himself. After a little not-safe-for-work and I-don't-know-if-really-safe-for-this-podcast incident...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JACKSON: ...Where he shared to his Insta story a totally innocent, innocuous video of his family, who we all love, on social media. You know, I think they were playing, like, Heads Up. Unfortunately, he doesn't understand that, like, you have to trim those videos, or else everybody can see your camera roll. And there were some things on there, a couple of posts.

SANDERS: No, there was a thing on there.

JACKSON: Well, (laughter) there were two things, but...

VARY: There were two things on there.

JACKSON: ...One that's more important than the other. And he essentially went on Tamron Hall and, more or less, confirmed that the rumors are true...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JACKSON: ...And that he posted an interesting shot. Yeah.

SANDERS: A picture of his stuff.

VARY: Of his manhood.

JACKSON: Exactly.

VARY: We saw Captain America's manhood. Let's not beat around the...

JACKSON: Exactly.

VARY: ...The bush here.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: So it was really interesting to see how this all happened. So most of the Internet was like, oh, poor guy. That's OK. Whereas whenever pictures of a famous woman get leaked, she's, like, attacked. It was really interesting to see the just double standard. And I'm not mad at Chris.

JACKSON: No.

VARY: No.

SANDERS: But it was interesting.

JACKSON: But that was actually, really, the biggest and most interesting part of all of this. But, you know, I remember just a few years ago when the horrifying hack happened, and all of these female actors and entertainers were targeted and largely, you know, lambasted and ridiculed. And I believe it was maybe Kat Dennings that tweeted something along the lines of, like, really interesting, huh, how, you know, all of social media is being so supportive. I hope you guys remember this next time it happens to a woman. And I really hope so. I hope that this is not so much an indication of the double standard with men, but maybe an indication of how far we've come in the last few years.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I should be keeping score, but I forgot. Which one of y'all won?

VARY: Angelique won.

SANDERS: OK.

JACKSON: No, we tied. Well, I can't give myself credit. You literally said Venus.

(LAUGHTER)

VARY: No, I didn't say Venus at all. I...

SANDERS: I said, starts with V, ends with -enus.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: So we tied.

SANDERS: You can take the...

JACKSON: We each got one.

VARY: I'm trying to give you the win here, Angelique. Take it.

SANDERS: Yeah, we're trying to help you out. Take the win.

JACKSON: All right, all right. Thank you. Thank you.

VARY: You're the one - he said starts with V, ends with -enus, and I still didn't say Venus.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: OK, sure. I will accept. Thank you. This is my acceptance speech. I will be back anytime to defend my craft.

VARY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to Adam B. Vary and Angelique Jackson. They both write for Variety magazine. Listeners, coming up, my chat with LeVar Burton - yes, LeVar Burton, for real this time. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. So I like to read books. I was that kid growing up who got in trouble for staying up past his bedtime to read. You know, but since the pandemic hit, I can't really do it. I am stressed, and I cannot focus enough to read anything that I don't have to read for work. But hearing someone read - that's a different story. I can do that. And this week, I talked to somebody who knows a thing or two about the power of hearing a story read out loud.

LeVar Burton, hello, it is an honor to talk with you. How are you?

LEVAR BURTON: Sam Sanders, I am well, sir. I am well - as well as I can be, you know...

SANDERS: That is LeVar Burton - the LeVar Burton - actor, writer and our national person of books. Like a bunch of millennials, I grew up watching him on the kids show "Reading Rainbow," the show all about reading. And I feel like LaVar has been reading to me my whole life. And I like it. It's comforting. LeVar Burton knows I am not the only person who feels this way, which is why there is another way, right now, that you can have LeVar Burton read to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LEVAR BURTON READS")

BURTON: Hi, I'm LeVar Burton, and this is "LeVar Burton Reads."

SANDERS: That's from his podcast called "LeVar Burton Reads." The show is in its seventh season now. And it's nice. I like it. The premise of the show is beautifully simple. He reads short stories from all over the world for you to enjoy whenever you want.

What I love about what you're doing with this - it's like you are reading this, but you take us into these worlds. You're doing multiple voices. There's some scoring in there. It's really immersive. Did you start out wanting it to be that immersive, or...

BURTON: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: ...Did that develop over time?

BURTON: No, that was from Episode 1. I mean, that was always a part of it. Really, you know, I grew up in a military family. I'm an Army brat, so we spent part of my childhood overseas. And the Armed Forces Radio Network at that time - we're talking the mid-'60s, early to mid-'60s - they had a lot of theater of the mind programming on. I really wanted to give my audience that kind of an experience where you can really disappear. You can just disappear into story for a half hour or so and then go back to whatever it was you were doing before.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I love the voice work you're doing in these readings. You know, you're doing some different voicing for different characters in these stories. What was the hardest voice to pull off so far or hardest voicing?

BURTON: Wow. There was a dragon in...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

BURTON: ...A story this season. That wasn't as easy as I thought it would be to pull off. But we got there in the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LEVAR BURTON READS")

BURTON: (As character) I am not hungry for animal flesh. I crave rarer meat.

SANDERS: What are you hearing from listeners? Are there certain themes or topics or stories that they really, really respond to in this podcast?

BURTON: Well, one of the interesting things for me is that there are - a lot of the listeners grew up on "Reading Rainbow," so...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...I'm still maintaining that relationship with them around literature. And that's kind of cool to me. So I...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...Really love it when I hear that they enjoy still being in a relationship with me around literature and the written word.

SANDERS: We trust you.

BURTON: I - for me, that's pretty cool.

SANDERS: We trust you. I mean, it is...

BURTON: Yeah, but I always told you not to take my word for it, Sam (laughter).

SANDERS: You literally did. You literally did (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "READING RAINBOW")

BURTON: You don't have to take my word for it.

You know, we live in an era of alternate facts and...

SANDERS: Yes, we do.

BURTON: ...We are all having a difficult time discerning what truth is because there's so much misinformation out there. And it seems that people are all right with that. And I'm not. I'm just not. And so...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...My response to all of this is just to really double down, I guess...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...On...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...The things that I know to be true and that which I genuinely believe in. And I believe in the power of word. I believe in the power of story and its ability to give us context for our lives.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, and just speaking to that - you know, story being a comfort - I think I realize listening to your show how much I enjoy just having someone read to me. I think for a lot of us, after our childhood, no one really reads to us anymore. And it was - there was such a comforting feeling - me, at 36 years old, having LeVar Burton read to me. Is there something about this weird moment and this strange year that is bringing adults back into the comfort of being read to?

BURTON: Yeah. And it's not surprising to me. I have believed for a long time that one of the reasons why we are so comfortable with that dynamic of being read to is because of our early association with it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: And when we were sitting in the lap of our parents or, you know, an older sibling or a relative, that sense of being loved - right...

SANDERS: And held.

BURTON: ...And held and being filled up - right? - with something good - that lives inside of us. And when we have the opportunity to experience that again, especially during times like these when there's so much uncertainty, I'm not - I'm glad that people are gravitating towards storytelling as a way to calm the nervous system and be a coping mechanism because I think story does, in fact, have healing properties. Stories...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...Do heal.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, in this moment - and I'm sure you probably get this question a lot from folks because they know that you know books - but in this moment of crazy uncertainty, is there a certain book or a certain world of story that you think folks can go to in this time to be a little bit comforted? You know, like, not to ask you, what is a perfect book for 2020, but a little bit, kind of, maybe, yeah.

BURTON: Wow. What is a perfect book for 2020? Well, it all depends upon your taste, and that's the thing about...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...Literature. There's something...

SANDERS: Yeah.

BURTON: ...For everybody, right?

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

BURTON: And whatever your joint is, use it as an opportunity for self-care right now...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

BURTON: ...Because if you love it, you know, you will more than likely disappear into it. And when you disappear into something, you know you are following your joy. You're following your bliss when you look up, and more time than you thought had passed while you were engaged. That's when you're really in the pocket. And so...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

BURTON: ...It doesn't really matter to me what it is. But find something that will take you out of the everyday and into an alternate world of some sort.

SANDERS: I tell you what - I didn't want to totally fan out until the end of this thing, but this truly is an honor and a treat. You have been a part of my life for most of my life. And I just - thank you for the light that you bring into the world, and I really appreciate you. And so thank you.

BURTON: I appreciate you, too, Sam. You keep doing what you do, Mr. Sanders.

SANDERS: Thanks again to LeVar Burton. You can listen to him read grown-up stories on his podcast, "LeVar Burton Reads." The new season, Season 7 - it is streaming right now wherever you get your podcasts.

AUNT BETTY: Now it's time to end the show as we always do. Every week, listeners share the best thing that happened to them all week. We encourage folks to brag, and they do. Let's hear a few of those submissions.

SHAY: Hey, Sam. This is Shay (ph). I'm up in Boston. And I want to tell you that I've been taking testosterone for nine months, and my voice has gotten low enough for me to sing some of my favorite gospel songs. (Singing) Go down, Moses...

CHRIS: Hey, Sam. This is Chris (ph) from Kentucky. And the best part of my week was getting an A on my first-ever exam in physical therapy school. I studied pretty hard for it, and so I'm feeling pretty good. Hopefully, it'll set me up for the rest of the semester.

MICHELLE: Hey, Sam. This is Michelle (ph) from Atlanta. The best thing that happened to me this week is finding out I'm pregnant with my first child at 47. Life begins at 47.

JEFF: Hey, Sam. My name is Jeff (ph), and I'm a band director in Topeka, Kan. And the best thing that happened to me this week was that for the first time in six months, I got to see and experience real live music, and it was incredible. Everybody that was there was wearing a mask, performers included, socially distanced and outdoors. And I can't begin to tell you how much I needed that.

ERIN: Hi, Sam. This is Erin (ph) in Raleigh, N.C. The best part of my week is that I voted. I've been waiting for almost four very long years to do this. And because my home state of North Carolina was the first to send out mail-in ballots, I've already been able to vote and make my voice count.

GARY: Hi, Sam. Well, the best thing that happened to me this week is that I made a new friend. At my age - I just reached 75 - you don't make new friends every day, so it's kind of special. I'm lucky to live along a road where there's a small lake, and many walkers enjoy it. And there's one guy I've seen for many years now walking regularly - about my age. And I managed the courage to say hi. And he stopped, and we chatted very enjoyably. Then we sat in my lawn chairs and chatted more. Then he left, and I had a new friend. So thanks for your show, Sam.

MICHELLE: Thank you so much for your show.

ERIN: Thanks - love your show.

CHRIS: Love the show. I'm thankful for everyone who makes it happen. Take care. Bye.

SANDERS: Wow. I think the lesson with all of these this week is that life can continue to be full of wonderful and beautiful surprises. Thanks to all the listeners you heard there. Gary (ph), congrats on that new friendship. Erin, Jeff, Michelle, Chris and Shay, so much beautiful stuff - singing and babies and voting and live music. I love it.

I got to say, the best part of my week was probably watching Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight sing and talk with each other for a few hours on their Instagram Verzuz. I watched it with my mommy, and it was just so sweet. I loved it so.

Listeners, don't forget - you can be a part of this segment yourself. Just record your own voice on your phone sharing the best part of your week. Send that audio to me at any point throughout any week. Email it to samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org.

All right. This week, the show was produced by Jinae West, Anjuli Sastry and Andrea Gutierrez. Our intern is Star McCown. Our fearless editor is Jordana Hochman. Our director of programming is Steve Nelson, and our big boss is NPR's senior VP of programming, Anya Grundmann.

Listeners, till next time, stay safe. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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