In October 2011, WNYC radio quietly launched a new program, available only by podcast, with the trying-too-hard title “Here’s The Thing” hosted by one our most versatile public figures, Alec Baldwin. His on-air delivery, epitomized by his introduction of the show (“You’re listening to ‘Here’s…The Thing…’) evokes the legendary DJ Allison Steele. Hot, whispery, in-your-lap intimate.
Yet, as much as he tries to instill the gravitas of Smithsonian permanence on the proceedings, his enthusiasm for his guests and their stories cannot be contained and soon enough he’s just another garrulous traveling salesman at the bar of the Sheraton after a couple of Johnny Reds on the rocks, bending your ear and sincerely wanting to know more about you. Only he’s got way better stories, knows way better people, and no doubt drinks way better booze.
In just over a year Baldwin has recorded nearly 40 shows. Not six- to 12-minute segments that might or might not come right back after this commercial break. These can run from 40 minutes to over an hour. And during that time a lot can happen.
That’s because these really aren’t interviews. As promised, they’re conversations, and as such people do talk over one another, they do interject, they do shut the other person down (as he discovered with The New York Times’ managing editor Jill Abramson; he never did complete the sentence “As my father use to say…” though not for the lack of trying).
I reserve Here’s The Thing for bike rides. They get me from Point A to Point B in a blur and I arrive at my destination entertained and enlightened. At times I catch myself giggling down the West Side Highway or just completely immersed so that by the time I’ve scaled the two steep hills beneath the George Washington Bridge I’m quite unaware of how I ever got up there in the first place.
Coasting past Lincoln Center on a recent Sunday afternoon, I listened to his conversation with Alex and Jamie Bernstein, two of Lenny’s kids, about growing up in the home of the maestro. They got into everything. Music, parenthood, sexuality. I met Leonard Bernstein briefly at the opening of a waterside restaurant in Long Island City in the early 80s. By that time his sexuality was a given, but Baldwin has an almost protective way of raising the issue with a complete absence of salaciousness, seamlessly introducing it within a broader context of the conductor’s life following his wife’s premature death. In addition to Bernstein’s career, family life, and blinding celebrity, this is just another detail of the man in full.
In Baldwin I recognize much in myself. Maybe it’s because our ages are exactly four months apart and we would have been in the same class if the 30 miles between Amityville and East New York didn’t get in the way, and that we know a lot of the same things, have a lot of the same interests. As I get older I find that fewer and fewer people get my references. I get his. In high school I studied trumpet and learned every song on Whipped Cream & Other Delights. So his conversation with Herb Alpert was especially delicious. I’m still waiting for the Burt Bacharach interview.
Over the years I’ve conducted many interviews and have listened to the recordings and wondered why I didn’t just shut up and let the other person talk. That’s Journalism 101: nature abhors a vacuum; keep quiet and your subject will fill the emptiness. Baldwin can be kind of schmucky in that way, too: a pesky kid, interjecting with personal asides, over-eager to get into the grown-ups’ conversation.
But it’s the range of his curiosity that I appreciate most. (This is reflected in one of the most polymathic careers of our time. He’s given voice to both Thomas the Tank Engine and the New York Philharmonic; he blogs for HuffPo; makes movies, does plays, did that little TV show for six seasons, and in his ample free time conducts these smoky little conversations with a diverse roster of seriously interesting people.
There’s a definite bias for Saturday Night Live; understandable since he and Christopher Walken are the only two performers with standing invitations by Lorne Michaels to host the show. Thus we hear from Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Chris Rock, Michaels and even Andrew McCarthy.
Still, Baldwin can pivot from Peter Frampton to Renee Fleming, Lewis Lapham to Kris Kardashian, Dr. Robert Lustig and Jon Robin Baitz to Dick Cavett, David Letterman, Erica Jong and Billy Joel, approaching all with equal good will and engagement. It was with Joel that Baldwin’s Irish gift of gab really sang. The program is a tour de force. Whatever you think of Joel or his music, you cannot walk away from this conversation without a tremendous appreciation for the two of them. A couple of Long Island boys riffing off of one another, sharing hilarious stories – Billy, Billy, Billy, tell them the one about… tell them about the time… – singing together like the last two guests seated around the piano in the lobby of that Sheraton, upping each other’s comic impersonations. The interview goes on for over an hour and still ends too soon.
When you spend this much time with a single subject, revelations – true, off-handed, mano-a-mano revelations – inevitably surface: Chris Rock about his dream to work with Woody Allen; economist Joseph Stiglitz’s lack of faith in the American people.
During the presidential run-up, Baldwin was obsessed with conservative politicos and commentators; couldn’t get enough of them. Enter Ed Rollins, George Will and David Brooks. I’ve written spitting mad letters to the editor about Brooks’ columns, but here, with self-effacing good humor he turns out to be someone you hate yourself for liking…well, tolerating, however begrudgingly. He’s a Psych 101 case of child rebellion. In this program – taped live at that bastion of New York liberalism, the 92nd Street Y – Brooks makes clear why so many of his columns read like apologias for positions that no thinking person could ever hold. Brooks’ parents were so far left that as a kid he could practically see Russia from his house. A fervid fiscal conservative, on social issues he tells Baldwin, he’s as liberal as they come. “I not only approve of gay marriage,” he said, “I encourage it.”
I encourage you to listen to “Here’s The Thing.”