Time Out New York
The Hot Seat
Full, uncut interview
Chevy Chase: Hello? Is this Sophie?
Sophie Harris: [Laughs] I am idiotically excited to be speaking to you
CC: Oh, I don’t think idiotically is the right word, idiotically excited! [Laughs]
As you can probably tell, I’m English and moved here three years ago—and one of the big factors in wanting to move was being brought up on National Lampoon…
Oh my! I’m afraid that’s such a big part of my life, it’s almost an embarrassment [Laughs heartily]. No, not at all.
It feels like back then you were a national hero, but even now, the applause for you on chat shows is so loving. How is that?
[Chuckles] I don’t know. Oh well they do that to anybody, could you imagine them booing? Have you ever seen a talk show where somebody boos, [In announcer voice] “Frank Angelo, ladies and gentlemen!”
I think we should encourage guerilla booing on talk shows.
[Laughs] Yeah! No, I’m obviously delighted. It’s a big thing in one’s life to get to where I luckily got to. And it changes your life, obviously. I think it’s also a need for people who perform anyway. They want that, you know? From childhood, somewhere.
When you made Lampoons, playing Mr. Dad, did you already have kids?
Uhhhh. [To his wife, Jayni] When I was making Vacation, we had Sydney already, right? [Jayni answers] Okay, she was pregnant with our first daughter on the very first Vacation. That’s right! We were in Numa, Arizona, and there was my biiiig, pregnant wife.
So you were warming up to be a dad.
That’s correct. A different kind of dad than in the movie, there.
I wondered how your kids react to you being famous and your role as this beloved actor. Do they watch your films? Do they ignore it, are they embarrassed like most people are of their dads?
I’m almost positive they’re embarrassed of their dad. No, actually, they have no big response one way or the other [Laughs]. They’re just my deenies. They’re just my daughters. They grew up with me already being famous. It’s hard to know without you asking them what it’s like, but I can tell you we live a fairly normal life. There are red-carpet type occasions etcetera, and we can get into the premieres of movies and stuff [Laughs] so that’s something they enjoy.
When I was little I used to quiz my parents endlessly about their lives before I existed. Did they ask you about making movies?
Nah. [Laughs] because I’ve been doing it since before they were born, so it’s just been a part of their lives. And they get to meet all of my friends who are performers. I mean how many kids know Paul McCartney well, you know? Well, they’ve gotten to meet him over the years. Here and at our house out in Long Island, when he was with Linda. I don’t get a lot of questions about have you ever met so and so. They have their own lives anyway, they’re busy enough. I’ve never asked them what it’s like? I just know that we’re a very close, tight family.
It seems that way. I saw an interview of you and your wife and you were talking one of the green auction schools program. It was so nice: There’s a nice couple talking about environmentally-conscious things. You two just seemed normal.
Yeah I had a needle in my back [laughs]. No, exactly, that’s right.
So you’re in LA now?
Well I’m renting a place in LA because of the show. And Janie’s here as we speak because I’m on a hiatus of a week. She likes to come out sometimes and be with me. And Caley, our second daughter, she lives in the same apartment that I’m living in. Well I’m out here because Caley now has an interest in acting. The other two, one’s still at Barnard Columbia, the other’s off with her fiancé upstate in the country. She’s taking some courses and stuff.
You have three girls. You’re in a house of ladies.
Believe me, I know. It’s a whole different genre [Laughs]. I don’t get no respect.
With your character, Pierce Hawthorne, in Community, I initially found it kind of weird seeing you as a bit of a toff, and a little bit of a nerd. It was not what I was used to seeing you in…
[Laughs] No, I am older though and I read this pilot and I’d never be in a sitcom or any of that before, but it was so funny. And I thought, “You know, I’d like to play this guy.” I had no real plans on going to television or coming back out of retirement, not that I was retired, I just wasn’t getting any scripts that were really good, I felt. And this one struck me and it’s a different kind of character. I love making people laugh anyway, so I figured I could make this guy work. It’s a very different character. If nothing else, it’s made me a better actor. All I was before was just a personality who played Clark, who played Fletch. Those were the ones I was most known for. With this one I’m playing against who I really am. The others like Fletch, Fletch is really like me.
Do you think he’s the most like you?
Yeah, and Clark as well was really, the character and how I played it was given to me by Harold Ramis, the director. He helped me with that. How to just go broad, and play it, like the happy daddy, the crazed daddy who wanted his family to have a great vacation. This Pierce Hawthorne, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen with him. He’s just a little bit nuts.
I like how his wealth allows him to indulge his fantasies.
Not only that, but he’s a bigot. He’s so prejudiced, so far behind, it’s almost like he came from the 20s or 30s. In terms of understanding racism or religion, he just kind of says what he says. It’s never appropriate, and that to me is the mark of a man I have to play [Laughs].
Is it a relief to not have to play someone handsome and lovable?
Oh yeah, and it makes it easier to put weight on. Now Jayni’s gonna go nuts if I put any more on. We’re starting a program of taking it off now. Plus I have one-third of the hair I had before if that much, and it’s all grey, and I’m older. I certainly wasn’t looking for some young, handsome guy’s part. I’m just happy to play this strange fellow.
I love the strange grouping of it all and the fact that you’re with Donald Glover. Do you get on together, is it fun?
Donald and I do. We all do. I think Joel’s [McHale] wonderful, a good friend, and he’s improving all the time. He puts great effort into his work. The three girls [Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Alison Brie] do their parts very well. Particularly Donald and I laugh a lot. He and Danny Pudi are always sort of seen as friends together and I’m kind of the outsider in the group. As far as an ensemble cast, we’re all friendly, and I can make Donald laugh anytime. I can make anybody laugh [Chuckles]. I’m almost given the liberty, just because I play Pierce, to say and do anything.
Have you ever ad-libbed and gone too far?
No, not on the show. You know, there’s a lot of time between takes. Donald loves to improvise and play around.
The show has this gentle sense of humor that strikes me as almost a bit old-fashioned but in the way that Caddyshack is just funny.
I’d like it to be funnier.
Do you think there’s a difference between humor today compared to twenty years ago?
Of course. It’s always going to depend on—another use of the word humor—the humor of the people: that is to say the perspective and changes and of course, the social mores and taboos which do change over a period of time. It’s almost like when I think about the Sixties and through the early Seventies, those were drug years, those were pot-smoking years. And so much of the humor that we did back then was done on pot, for people who smoked pot [Laughs] when I think about it. It was just another generation at that time. Okay, now that’s cleaned up. It’s quite amazing to see how there was pot and coke, and all of that went by, and now for instance if I go into the show, when I go in in the mornings, the big drug of choice is a bottle of fresh water. [Laughs] Just keep hydrated and healthy. This is the way the world is. It changes, and it learns from itself, and that’s going to obviously change perspectives and the way humor, which is perspective, is received, and etcetera.
I think some of your biggest successes, have been those small things, like the European Vacation scene with everybody irritating each other on the train.
Isn’t that funny, I just saw that scene on television the other night. And I loved it. I remember it so vividly, that ashtray next to me. And I had nothing really to do, to bother anybody. Bev [Beverly D’Angelo] was doing a newspaper, making a lot of newspaper sounds. I don’t know what my son [Antony Michael Hall] was doing.
He was listening to the walkman.
Yeah and he was singing! I think my daughter [Dana Barron] was chewing gum loudly. I just remember at the time I knew I was gonna pull something out of the hat. And there was this ashtray right next to us [Laughs] It’s so funny, it really made me laugh to see that [scene]. You don’t need a lot of words to get something going.
When I read in an interview that you said it was a terrible movie, a little piece of my heart broke.
Well, it wasn’t my favorite of the Vacations, but I have to admit, having seen that scene the other night, that part was good. And I also liked Eric Idle very much, it was almost Eric’s idea, that every Brit is so polite, no matter what you do. You can run them over, break their leg: [In a British accent] “No, it’s alright! It’s just a scratch!” He was very funny in that, and we’ve been good friends forever, since then.
You must get asked this all the time, but do you still watch SNL?
Yeah, occasionally. I think this cast has been there for some time, and I think it’s a great cast. At least as good as any cast that we ever had.
Well I don’t know. The first cast, of course, was my great love. And I left but they stayed and Bill Murray [came]… But that first year was the breakout for me. I was hired as a head writer, not as an actor. And so it was a big year for me because it was the first time I became known and whatnot. I’ve watched it on occasion over the last 35 years, or whatever it’s been. You know, I’ve seen very bad periods that I’m very critical of. Sometimes, back then, even then, one out of three shows were good, in my opinion, and Lorne’s too. We had one good one every three weeks. It’s sort of been a tradition: one out of three is a good one. And I invented a little thing called Weekend Update, that’s become a show itself. It’s hilarious that it’s become so huge. But that came out of liking political satire and writing about what’s going on politically.
Back then it was on Jimmy Carter and me taking Ford out. So I do see it and sometimes make comparisons. It occurred to me that when we first did it, we were doing it, at least for my liking and one of the reasons I was the first guy hired, to kind of expose television for what it is. That’s why there were many of those commercial parodies, I had already written them for the Smothers Brothers but they wouldn’t use them. But we were late at night, and we could do just about anything without NBC being worried at that time on Saturday night about losing anybody because of commercial parodies. But the whole concept of television was to sell, and it still is and always will be. But, to expose that the right way and make people laugh about it was my job, I felt at the time. I think Lorne felt the same way in many ways. He’s a curious guy because he’s got a great sense of humor and he can write and edit, and although he’s Canadian, I think he sees the same thing in television as I did. In any case, that was the impetus for being there and I always felt that after that was done and handled, well, I never stayed around a job more than a year anyway. That in all likelihood it would become simply a sketch show and people would do more stuff about what they could do, what impressions or whatever they did, if they were impersonators, etcetera, whatever they could do, so I had less interest, really, after the first year. But I have to tell you, it was an awful lot of fun.
You must have been really young then. I feel like when that kind of craziness hits you then, it must be hard to experience it or enjoy it?
Oh, I wasn’t so young, I was 32. I had been writing for 12 years for other television shows and that’s why I was hired.
[Off the record discussion about modern SNL members]
To me, I come from a different and a harder kind of comedy. When I say harder, I don’t mean harder to do. I did Lampoon and before that underground television in NY in the 60s. Now I’m older and it was pretty tough stuff we were doing back then. Some stuff I can’t even mention. It’s just a different look at it, I guess.
Let me ask you about your musicianship. You have perfect pitch, correct?
So if I asked you to sing an E, you could just sing it?
Well, first of all you’d have to understand that I can’t sing [Guffaws] Otherwise, yeah I think that could happen if you asked.
But you’re not gonna try it out now?
You wanna hear one?
Alright, I’ll test it out.
How are you gonna test that out? Oh you mean play it back? Perfect pitch is a funny thing. There’s a lot of people with relative pitch, which means if you hear a note you can go from, you know, an E to a B, a fifth up or a fourth down. Perfect pitch comes from, I think from just playing so long. And it’s also a genetic thing, I think.
Did one of your folks have perfect pitch?
Ah no. [Laughs] But somewhere in the background my mother was a great pianist. Very good ear. My father was very musical. Maybe it’s something you get from playing all the time. At the same time I don’t make a habit of trying to be a professional, I just love the piano.
What do you play at time when you’re at home for pleasure?
[Laughs] No, no. I wonder if Paul does that when he’s home, just the bass. No I don’t think so. Piano.
Can I ask you about being in Steely Dan…
Yeah, I was the drummer for a while and we went to college together where we sort of started that group. Me, Donald Fagen, and Walter Becker. We were pretty bad, we were sort of a jazz-rock group.
I feel like when I see documentaries of them they’re such perfectionists. I can’t imagine you enduring being perfected?
No, no, no! I told them to get a better drummer [Laughs]. But Donald told me recently that I was a very good drummer. That was very nice of him. I said, “Come on man, look at the guys you ended up with.” But the thing was that I really liked keyboards and he was playing keyboards and I thought I was better at that. I didn’t think we were gonna get into a famous situation and I was not there when they really exploded. I was I think on one of their demos. When Steely Dan became famous, which by the way, I think I was already famous then for other stuff by then [Giggles] But in any case, I was long gone.
But you’re still in touch with them?
Yes, it’s strange. We had dinner oh, about half a year ago. First of all he [Fagen] lives up in Woodstock and he’s married to my oldest friend from Woodstock, Libby Titus, a girl who I used to play in the sandbox with, so we’re talkin’ back in the 40s and 50s. And they happen to be living in a house that I lived in for a while. It’s about an hour and a half or two from where Jayni and I live with our kids, further north. So there’s that connection and Donald’s quite funny. We had dinner with some friends a few months ago at a funny restaurant in New York. And enjoyed it. And I mean Libby’s nuts and talks forever, and Donald never says anything. At least I remember him in college, he was the guy dressed in black, who’d just sort of roam, you’d see him in the dark and say “Come on, let’s go jam.” But he’s actually very funny and a sweet guy. Not a big social guy. Just what you’d think.
The good observers so rarely are, though. Good writers can be oddly sociopathic… not Fagen, though, but—
Well, I wouldn’t put it past him! [Laughs]
Paul Simon’s a good mate of yours. When did you meet each other?
The first year of SNL. I knew his brother earlier than that. He just became a great friend of Lorne’s and mine. He’d be in the office with us late into the night while we were working out what sketches would be what and on when, what was funny or what wasn’t, he just fit right in. He’s such an intelligent guy and he enjoyed the humor. We were just very good friends, like a triumvirate of sorts. I think that he still sees a lot of Lorne, I don’t see as much of Lorne any more. In fact, I think he’s angry at me.
I don’t know, I’ll have to try and figure it out over the next few years. I can’t quiet figure out what I did [Laughs] He’s got enough to work with. I know he and Paul live in the same building and share the same gym. So, I don’t see much of Paul anymore. But I sure think highly of him. I think he’s one of our greatest writers and musicians. It’s funny, the two Paul’s are our best music friends and I can’t think of two better.
Have you ever had a nice family do with both of them there?
No! [To wife] Jayni, have we ever had a dinner or something with both Pauls? Oh yeah we used to every Sunday. I forget these things.
If you ever have mates like that, do you ever have the urge to say, “Would you play me that?” or is that tacky?
No, I wouldn’t, by the way. But it’s funny, with Paul Simon, who has a house in Montauk, whenever I’d see him at his home, he’d always has a guitar in his hands. It doesn’t mean he’s playing, he’s just picking at it and thinking. It’s not that easy with a piano, obviously. For him, and he’s a terrific guitarist, it’s part of his life. It’s like another limb. Paul McCartney, he’s not like that, I mean he doesn’t always have a guitar on him. But at any given point, he can play the piano or play just about anything. He’s a good drummer, he’s just remarkable. The most musical guy I’ve ever known. A naturally musical fellow.
What do you, in terms of Paul carrying around a guitar. What do you carry around with you?
Nothing, I can’t carry around a piano. You mean do I have a teddy bear like that? [Laughs]
You don’t carry around a notebook or anything to pour your creative juices?
Well, piano is something I always return to. I get these periods when I won’t touch the piano for weeks at a time.
Do you have a nice piano at home?
Quite a few. Here at this apartment we have an upright, but I’m about to change that into a small baby grand. At home I have a couple of pianos, a couple of grands.
Are you upstate New York?
Yeah, we’re up in Bedford.
Do you ever miss the craziness of New York City?
Yes I do, but I grew up in Woodstock as a child but as soon as I got to 2nd grade it was New York. And I know New York very well.
I read the list of oddjobs you had done in NY when you were young. It was like a snapshot of New York. Cab driver, bike delivery guy…
Yeah all that stuff, you get to know it so well. There’s no place like it, particularly for the intellectual vibrancy as well as walking and seeing every possible kind of person. It’s a little different living quietly in the county, to say the least. At the same time, when you’re there, you can’t wait for the weekend to get away quietly to the country.
I know you’re kind of politically interested and involved and there’s many depressing things going on at the moment. What makes you feel optimistic about the state of the world?
Well, I’m not by nature an optimist, on one hand. My humor tends toward the cynical. It’s tough because, there was an interesting op-ed in the NY Times, about no matter what we do—and my wife is most prominently involved with the environment and all areas, including greening schools and childhood obesity. But right from the beginning, since I’ve known her, the proper way to live and to lower your own carbon footprint, as they say. This article was kind of cynical in some ways, saying no matter how much you do that, global warming is still here and that we’ve done enough damage. No matter how much each of us does, it won’t touch the damage we’ve already done for the next hundred years or whatever. Who knows, it’s hard to know. Am I optimistic? I’m optimistic that people have learned a great deal of what’s good for the earth, what’s good for their kids. I think, I hope that we don’t become so overpopulated in this world that it just becomes a megalopolis and that there isn’t the beauty of the country somewhere. Having grown up in the country, and my wife too, that’s the real world. And it’s dwindling. You talk about optimism. It’s hard for me to say I’m optimistic, so much as I’m optimistic about what we’re learning and people paying more attention to that. On one hand, on the other hand I’m sort of resigned to things that will probably come of all this long after I’m gone.
What puts a smile on your face in the morning?
Oh! I do [Laughs]. Jayni’s always up a little earlier than I am and I go into the bathroom where she’s getting prepared for the day and I start clowning around, and I think that’s when we laugh the most. I don’t know why, fresh mind, you know? Maybe we’ll have the morning news or something on the TV and just start going on it. But, listen. In being, a quote, “cynic,” in fact, it just means I care less about many things and mostly care to make people laugh and care to laugh. It’s just a part of me. My father was extremely funny, he was the funniest guy I ever knew. At the same time he was an intellectual and a writer for the Republican Harper’s and Commonweal, and a publisher all his life. But he was extremely funny and very taken with the broadness of the Marx brothers. And I love Chaplin and physical comedy of that nature. It’s just part of us. When you say what makes me smile in the morning, well, seeing Jayni, and then cutting up, you know, the kids. There’s plenty to smile about.
You’ve gotta have some levity or you’re buggered aren’t you? Especially these days…
Yeah. If you don’t, you’re missing out [Laughs].
I just want to say thank you so, so much, for taking the time to talk today
Absolutely Sophie, I’m glad you’re in this country
Oh thank you! This has really made my day/week/year, so thank you!
Well congratulations for doing what you’re doing and have a good day—and get rid of that silly accent. Hahahaha!
I’m working on it. Have a lovely rest of your day
And you too.