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'Schmigadoon!' star Cecily Strong and co-creator Cinco Paul embrace musical satire

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During this final week of the year, we're featuring a few of the many interviews from 2021 that we enjoyed. A TV series that I really enjoyed this year is "Schmigadoon!," a smart, funny and loving satire of musicals from the '40s and '50s. It's streaming on Apple TV+. We'll hear two interviews related to the series. Later, we'll hear from Cinco Paul, who co-created the series and wrote all the songs.

We'll start with Cecily Strong. She's been a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" since 2012. In her second season, she co-anchored "Weekend Update" with Seth Meyers and then Colin Jost. But she left the desk, preferring to do sketch comedy, which she's great at. Her characters have included Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Melania Trump and the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. This past summer, Strong published a memoir called "This Will All Be Over Soon." And now she's appearing in New York in a limited-run production of Jane Wagner's "The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe." This one-woman show was a Broadway hit in 1985 and starred Lily Tomlin as 12 characters, something Cecily Strong seems very well-suited for.

Let's start with "Schmigadoon!," which is filled with references to classic musicals, like "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "The Music Man," "The Sound Of Music" and, of course, "Brigadoon." Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key star as a couple of trying to reinvigorate their relationship by going on a hike designed for couples who need to reconnect. They get lost in the woods, cross over a bridge and suddenly find themselves on what looks like a backlot movie set of a small town in the early 20th century, a town called Schmigadoon.

The women are wearing long, colorful prairie dresses with big petticoats. The men are dressed like they're in old-fashioned barbershop quartets. The townspeople are singing and dancing as if they're in an old musical. Cecily Strong's character loves musicals and is initially charmed. Keegan-Michael Key's character hates musicals and is desperate to leave. But they both soon realize they're trapped in Schmigadoon, where life is a musical.

A leprechaun has explained to the couple - in song - that they can't leave Schmigadoon until they find true love, which means the depth of their love is about to be tested. In this scene, the couple keeps trying to escape Schmigadoon by crashing back over the bridge while bickering about their relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

CECILY STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) I don't understand. Why couldn't we cross?

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I mean...

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) What?

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Look; this whole thing is insane. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of it. But apparently, according to the leprechaun, this isn't true love.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) So you don't really love me?

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I didn't say that. Of course I love you.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Then what are you saying?

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I'm not saying anything, but apparently some cosmic verdict has been reached, and we failed. That's all.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) So you're ready to give up on us because of what a leprechaun said?

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) No. Stop. I am just trying to figure out how to get out of here and get back to reality.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) But not together.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) We already tried together.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) So what? You want to try with other people?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Oh, no - no, no, no, no, no, no. Please, no song. I'll do anything.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Guys, we're actually in the middle of something.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) You can't plow a field without hitting some stone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Every steak's bound to have some fat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) You can't eat a fish without getting some bones. And you can't have love without having a lover's spat.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Would you leave us alone for just a minute?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Seriously, please?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) First, she said something bad to get his gander.

(As characters, singing) Then he says something mean to get her back.

(As characters, singing) Then she complains that he don't understand her.

(As characters, singing) And then he gives her a snack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMACKING)

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) No - oh, no, that's not OK - unless it's consensual.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) It's just a lover's spat.

(As characters, singing) Just 'cause you feuded don't mean that you're concluded.

(As characters, singing) It's as plain, plain, plain...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Cecily Strong, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the show so much. It's brought me such pleasure at a time when I think we all need some pleasure. So how much do you love musicals?

STRONG: Well, first of all, just thank you for saying that. I think there's nothing more thrilling than hearing Terry Gross likes (laughter) your show and (laughter) enjoys it and has joy from it. I'm also - love the show and get a lot of joy from it.

I've always loved musicals. I mean, I think - it's certainly been a part of my life since I was little. You know, my grandmother would buy me musicals on VHS. And that's what I'd always rent whenever we'd go to the movie store. And then my uncle is also a Broadway producer. So I've gotten to see a lot of his shows in New York.

GROSS: And he's not just a Broadway producer. He's, like, a really big Broadway producer.

STRONG: (Laughter) Yes. Thank you.

GROSS: Like, among the shows he did was terrific revivals of "Music Man," which is, of course, referenced (laughter) in "Schmigadoon!" and also a terrific revival of "How To Succeed In Business," a Sondheim tribute. So you must have had this idea early on that being in shows was something real people did. I mean, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, I thought people in movies and on Broadway were, like, from another planet. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...They didn't connect to the world I lived in. They just performed, you know?

STRONG: Yeah. I guess I knew it as a job. And I always wanted to be an actor since I was little. I think I took my first drama class when I was 3. What - my parents put me in one, I should say. It's not like I drove myself. But I was just always performing around the house. And so I think they thought that might be a good outlet for me. And I wound up never stopping. And I think my uncle probably didn't want me to be an actor as much as I did, just knowing that it was a tough life.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. When you were going to see musicals that your uncle produced...

STRONG: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Did you get to meet the actors? Did you get to go backstage?

STRONG: I did - and I mean, not always. I saw "Guys And Dolls." I saw "Once Upon A Mattress," which I absolutely loved and really wanted to do. But I certainly - I remember getting to go backstage after "Secret Garden." And actually, my dad took a bunch of pictures. I met Daisy Eagen. And my mom made a little poster for me for my room growing up that said Cecily on Broadway. And she used the playbill and a lot of those pictures. And I had that above my bed until we - I moved out - I think, till I went to college.

GROSS: So your character in "Schmigadoon!" is initially really charmed by the idea that they're, like, living in a world of a musical. And the first morning that you're there, you're having breakfast on the porch. And you're being, you know, waited on by a - you know, a very lovely, very young (laughter) waitress. And she recommends the corn puddin'. And you go like, whoa, what's that? And it's like, you don't know what corn puddin' is?

And so I want to play that scene 'cause it'll give a sense of how people just kind of break out into song around you and how you sometimes just chime right in. And so we'll hear Cecily Strong doing a little solo in part of this as Keegan-Michael Key objects (laughter) to her participation. So here's another scene from "Schmigadoon!"

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing, as characters) My guys loves corn puddin'. I got the recipe. So if he wants my puddin', he'll have to marry me. Oh, he'll have to marry me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) What?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) I think they want us to take a verse.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I'm not singing, and you're not singing.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Come on, could be fun.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) No. Do not.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) Never had corn puddin'.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Why?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) And it may be a waste. But if you've got some extree (ph)...

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Extree?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) ...I sure would like a taste.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Oh, she sure would like a taste. Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn puddin'.

Yum.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Yum. That was so weird. It was like as soon as I started singing, I knew what to say.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) That's fantastic. Can we please go now?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) What? Why?

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Are you serious? The entire town and you just spent the last five minutes singing about corn pudding.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Did somebody say corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, chanting) Corn, Corn...

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) That's it. We're leaving.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) OK. Well, that one's on you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, chanting) Corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin'.

GROSS: That was another scene from "Schmigadoon!," which stars my guest, Cecily Strong, and Keegan-Michael Key. God, this whole musical is so much fun. It's such a contrast for me seeing the joy in "Schmigadoon!" - 'cause everyone in it seems to be enjoying being in it so much and I was enjoying watching it so much - and the contrast between that and the depression and anxiety you describe in your memoir. Which - a lot of your memoir is about living through the pandemic, like, the first almost year of the pandemic. And you shot "Schmigadoon!" during the pandemic. What was it like for you to go from this heightened sense of anxiety and depression to flying to - was it Vancouver...

STRONG: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To shoot and be in these, like, exuberant, like, joyful production scenes?

STRONG: I said no, actually, at first to going to Vancouver and shooting because I was - I really was afraid. You know, and then it took a while to really understand - here's all of the things we're going to put in place. Here's all the safety measures - until I finally felt safe. And then it was just such a gift. You know, really, we talk about escapism, and I had real-life escapism where I flew into this beautiful, magical land of Vancouver, where there's, like, water and mountains and big trees. It was gorgeous.

And then to be on those sets that were also gorgeous and then to be with this amazing group of people - and we are able to do musicals in a time when Broadway is shuttered, and that's so depressing to walk next to. You know, there were a lot of tears on-set - happy tears - just so much love and so much joy and such - we were all just so honored to be there, and it felt like we got to share this magical thing. And, you know, everybody that was there was supposed to be there. It kind of felt like that a little bit. And I think a lot of that, you can feel it when you watch the show, and I think that's probably why I enjoy rewatching it so much is just taking myself back there.

GROSS: Had you been vaccinated when you shot the series?

STRONG: No. No - 'cause I - I mean, we shot in - last fall. So that wasn't even - I didn't even know we'd get to be vaccinated. So we just were relying on testing.

GROSS: We're listening to my interview with Cecily Strong, who stars in "Schmigadoon!," the Apple TV+ series which is a loving satire of classic musicals from the '40s and '50s. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "SHAKE 'EM UP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cecily Strong, a star of the series "Schmigadoon!," which is a loving satire of classic musicals from the '40s and '50s that's streaming on Apple TV+. Strong has been a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" since 2012. She co-anchored "Weekend Update" with Seth Meyers and then Colin Jost but stepped down, preferring to do sketch comedy. She's created some great characters for the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about your work on "Saturday Night Live." I think my favorite character that you've been doing lately is Judge Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host. You just really got her down (laughter). Was it your idea to do her, or did someone say, oh, you should do her?

STRONG: No. It actually - I think it was probably Bryan Tucker, who I write with. And I wound up writing a lot of my "Update" characters with him or sort of those - anybody that's a real - you know, I write Marjorie Taylor Greene with him, and we did Sidney Powell together this year, too. We were in his office, and he was like, have you seen this lady? And he was showing me clips of her, like, doing man-on-the-street interviews. But she kept going, what? And it would, like, end in some crazy, like, exclamation.

And we just thought it was so funny, and it was a fun way to play her. And we wrote a sketch, actually, that didn't make it onto the show. It went to dress and not to air - and then kind of like, well, I don't know that we'll ever get to do that again. I - you know, it's hard. You have to do people that everybody knows. Otherwise, it's hard to get an impression on the show. Luckily for us, but maybe - who knows for the greater world - someone else can judge luckily or not, but she became more popular and more of a household name. So we did her on "Update."

And, actually, I flew out of the chair the first time because, you know, I hadn't done much physical comedy on the show at all. So I really was like, come on, everybody. I need to get - I have to practice this fall. I was so, like, mad that no one was letting me have my rehearsal - 'cause "Update," you only get to rehearse on Saturday, really.

GROSS: So let's hear a clip of you doing Jeanine Pirro. This was performed after Pirro made anti-Muslim remarks about Representative Ilhan Omar. So here you are on "Weekend Update" as Judge Jeanine Pirro.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

COLIN JOST: (As himself) Fox News personality Judge Jeanine Pirro returned to television tonight after being suspended two weeks for controversial comments about a Muslim congresswoman. Here to explain is Jeanine Pirro.

(APPLAUSE)

STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) I'm Judge Jeanine Pirro, and it's up to you to decide just what my whole deal is.

(LAUGHTER)

JOST: (As himself) That's great. So you're back on Fox.

STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) That's right. This Mueller report completely exonerated the president, and therefore everybody on the Trump train - woo, woo (ph). So somebody at Fox News said my name into a bathroom mirror three times, and here I am.

(LAUGHTER)

STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) And Colin, I just want to take this opportunity to say hi to my super fans out there. Mean, horny men lying on in-home hospital beds and white prison gangs who control the remote on Saturdays, thank you for watching.

(LAUGHTER)

JOST: (As himself) You don't have to shout, you know. I can hear you.

STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) Can't do it, pal. Mama's got one volume, and it's three chardonnays deep at a crowded party.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Cecily Strong as Judge Jeanine Pirro. That's just so funny. What did you do to try to capture her voice?

STRONG: You know, we definitely loved the exclamations, you know, saving those for the - what? And then just being loud and overenunciating and trying to have a stern look. You know, she's always got a very gravely serious affectation.

GROSS: There's times on Update when Colin Jost has been laughing, like, so hard because you're so funny. And is it hard for you to keep a straight face when he's having trouble keeping a straight face?

STRONG: I almost enjoy it more to see when someone's laughing. Then I kind of want to, like, go further. And you know, there is still an element of, like, you're playing with your friends. And it is - it still feels a bit like controlled chaos, on "Update" especially, where it feels kind of fresh, and we're not exactly sure what's going to happen. And so it makes me want to, like, poke harder. If I think that he's laughing at something, I'll want to hit that harder.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about another character that you've done, and that's the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. Is that an idea that you originated?

STRONG: Yes. It was my first year talking with Colin. You know, we were getting ready for one of those - I think they were two "Update" specials because it was an election year. And he was trying to help me find things. I was a new cast member. And I was talking about something else, and then I sort of made fun of myself, like, yeah, because, you know, that's - well, that's an important thing for society to hear or something. And then in making fun of myself, we sort of just kept playing with that, and that led into the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party.

GROSS: And who did you think of as being the girl?

STRONG: Well, it was sort of a mix of, like, I'm making fun of myself, and then I'm thinking about people I'd seen on Facebook. And then I remembered, like, hearing my straight male friends talk about interactions that they'd had, like, with some girl that seems normal, and then it's like, oh, she just said something crazy, and how do I get out of this conversation?

GROSS: Let's hear you as the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. And this is from the February 20, 2017, edition of "Saturday Night Live." We'll first hear the voice of Michael Che on "Weekend Update."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MICHAEL CHE: (As himself) With the election only two weeks away, both candidates are trying to get a final message out there to their supporters. Here with her final thoughts on this election is the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party) Wow. Hello, Michael Che. Thanks for finally letting a woman on late-night TV.

(LAUGHTER)

CHE: (As himself) So I assume you're not happy with the election.

STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party) Here's a thought, Michael - maybe try being woke for a change, OK? 'Cause "Kevin Can Wait," but Syrian referees can't, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party) And newsflash, Michael - 40% of children are just their legs. And I'm - that's according to doctors, Michael Che.

CHE: (As himself) Yeah, OK. Can you just please tell us about the candidates?

STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation with at a Party) Please do not man-terrupt (ph) me when I'm wo-making (ph) a point, Michael. This election is a misgrace (ph), OK? This is a colostomy, Michael Che.

(LAUGHTER)

STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation with at a Party) And I'm sorry - if I could play devil's advocate for just a second, I think we all know the real reason Julian Assange is in jail, and that's 'cause she's a woman.

(LAUGHTER)

STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation with at a Party) Do you even know what women have to do when we go vote, Michael? We have to show our IUD. I'm sorry. That's outrighteous (ph). That's called a bubble standard.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's really funny. Talk about the process of writing that.

STRONG: That's usually just Colin and I. And we both enjoy malapropisms, I think, as much as each other, so it's a lot of that. Like, what word - what is, like, a word that's in the social lexicon of the moment that this girl would hear and say wrong? Just like the idea, you know, that it's like, you can have so much passion and feelings about these things that you don't really understand and haven't given much thought to and using them to sort of put down other people.

GROSS: I love the way mansplaining becomes like, don't man-terrupt me (laughter).

STRONG: Right.

GROSS: That makes no sense at all (laughter).

STRONG: No. She's taken all these concepts and just turned them into something confusing and wrong that she's very passionate about.

GROSS: My interview with Cecily Strong was recorded in August. She's a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and stars in the series "Schmigadoon!," a satire of classic musicals from the '40s and '50s that's streaming on Apple TV+. We'll hear from the co-creator of "Schmigadoon!" Cinco Paul, who also wrote all the songs, after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD RODGERS' "'OKLAHOMA!' MAIN TITLE"

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In watching "Schmigadoon!," I had to wonder who is able to produce such a great series that is both a tribute to and a satire of musicals of the 1940s and early '50s like "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "The Sound Of Music," "The Music Man" and, of course, "Brigadoon." So a few weeks after talking to Cecily Strong about starring in the series, I spoke with Cinco Paul, who wrote all the songs. He co-created and co-wrote the series with Ken Daurio. They also wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets" and the Dr. Seuss adaptations "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax."

We started with the opening song from "Schmigadoon!" A married couple, played by Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, have gotten lost in the woods and emerged to find themselves in a small town called Schmigadoon. The town looks like a stage or movie set from the early 20th century. The couple is totally disoriented and dumbstruck when the townspeople break into song. See if you can recognize what inspired this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Schmigadoon, where the Sun shines bright from July to June and the air's as sweet as a macaroon, Schmigadoon - Schmigadoon, where it's warm and safe as a new cocoon and our hearts all glow like a harvest moon, Schmigadoon - Schmigadoon, where the men are men and the cows are cows and the farmers smile as we push their plows. And the trees are tall, and we call it Schmigadoon. Our schoolmarm is Emma Tate. She helps our kids to punctuate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, singing) Still unmarried at 28.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) In Schmigadoon. Farmer McDonough craved a son.

GROSS: Cinco Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for creating this series.

CINCO PAUL: Oh, thank you for having me.

GROSS: How did you come up with the idea of a musical about people trapped in a musical set in the early 20th century?

PAUL: Well, it's kind of crazy. I had the idea for this almost 25 years ago, and it was while I was watching the movie "An American Werewolf In London," of all things, one of my favorite movies. And it opens with, you know, two friends hiking through the wilderness, and they're hiking over the countryside. And I suddenly thought, wow, the opening to this is very much like the opening to "Brigadoon." And then I thought, what if these two modern guys, instead of stumbling on a town that has a werewolf, stumbled on a town that was in a musical?

And that was the germ of the idea. But I didn't really know what to do with it, so it was one of those that I just filed away. But what really cracked it for me was, oh, instead of two friends, it should be a couple. So it is more of a romantic comedy, and it can be more about, what does love mean? What's true love really mean? I think that's why, for 25 years, nothing happened with it because it was - it needed that addition to really crack it.

GROSS: So the Cecily Strong character loves musicals. The Keegan-Michael Key character hates musicals. Why did you want him to hate musicals?

PAUL: Well, I thought it was really important. I mean, first of all, it's really funny to have someone who hates musicals be stuck in a musical but also for him to be the eyes and ears of the people unlike me, who don't love musicals. And in many ways, that was Ken. And in many ways, it's my wife. You know, that...

GROSS: Oh, boy. You're trapped.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: I'll tell you. We - Ken and I, you know, played music all the time when we were writing. And whenever a musical theater song would somehow pop up in my mix, he would say, skip.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: He was not a fan. He's become a little more of a fan. And, you know, I wouldn't say my wife hates musicals. But she does not, you know, embrace them in the way that I do. So it was really important for the show to have that perspective.

GROSS: One of the things in some musicals is - the love affairs in some musicals, I think, would be considered pretty age-inappropriate now, like, for example, "The Sound Of Music," where, like, she's a young nun who's just left the convent. And she ends up, you know, falling in love with this kind of mean-spirited older man who, of course, becomes a much better human being as soon as he falls in love with her, this kind of, like, magical transformation. In "South Pacific," there's a younger woman who ends up falling in love with an older man. I think you have a shout-out to that.

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: And so is that one of the things you wanted to play with - also the idea that, like, love can totally transform a person into - you know, a kind of stern, rigid person into a much more loving, lovely person?

PAUL: You know, when we were early on conceiving of the show and the journeys that our characters would take, I really wanted Cecily's character Melissa to be involved in what I think are the two big tropes in these old musicals. One is the bad boy, you know, which is the Billy Bigelow character. And then one is the older sort of father figure love interest, you know, that you see in "King And I" and "Sound Of Music" and "South Pacific." Like, clearly it was a thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it is - there is something weird about these old men, you know, sort of creating works of art in which there are these May-December romances.

And so we played with that in two ways. Also, Keegan has, you know, this young farm girl pursuing him, played by Dove Cameron. And immediately he's concerned about the age difference, especially because the actresses, you know, who play these roles were never actually teenagers. And so we play with that trope as well.

GROSS: Some musicals have really corny scenes in them, and the kind of scene that always bores me is the picnic scene where it's like, this was a real nice clambake. I'm really glad we came. It's like, can we skip that (laughter)? Can we skip that and get to the good stuff? And, you know, even, like, operas have, like, songs like that, where there's, you know, like, a festival or, you know, a picnic or something. And, like, those are usually boring, too, and I never really understand the function that they serve. And you kind of have a song parodying that called "Corn Puddin'."

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: And so the reason why they're singing about corn pudding is it's their first morning in town. And they're sitting on the porch and about to have breakfast, and they're asked if they want some corn pudding. And they don't even know what corn pudding is. And then the town just starts singing about how great corn pudding is. So I'd like you to talk a little bit about what you think of those moments in musicals where you have to sing about food or a picnic or a clambake.

PAUL: Yeah. I mean, "Corn Puddin'" came out of - initially, I was thinking, you know, what is the song that is most going to annoy Keegan's character?

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: What would be the worst possible song to subject him to, you know? And it's just, oh, a song just about food. And "Corn Puddin'" suddenly came to me as just a - it's kind of the perfect representation of these sort of songs like the - it's "A Real Nice Clambake." Like, who cares? Like, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: The songs really should move the story forward in some way. And I think that the worst example is "Shipoopi" from "Music Man," which is - it brings everything to a grinding halt, and then this Marcellus character is just singing this nonsense song that has nothing to do with anything. And so that's what "Corn Puddin'" is. It's an ode to those songs.

But the fun thing is that, ironically, in our show, it does move the story forward because this stupid song gets Keegan to say, OK, we're leaving (laughter). We're not going to spend another minute in this town.

GROSS: And the waitress delivering the corn pudding is the younger woman who's pursuing him.

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: Why don't we hear "Corn Puddin'"? And we'll also hear the Cecily Strong character kind of join in in a verse, much to the Keegan-Michael Key character's annoyance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) My guy loves corn puddin'. I got the recipe. So if he wants my puddin', he'll have to marry me. Oh, he'll have to marry me. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) I think they want us to take a verse.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I'm not singing, and you're not singing.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Come on. Could be fun.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) No. Do not.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) Never had corn puddin'.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Why?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) And it may be a waste. But if you've got some extry (ph)...

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Extry.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing)... I sure would like a taste.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Oh, she sure would like a taste. Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn puddin'. Yum.

GROSS: (Laughter) The music is kind of like a hoedown.

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: And it just reminded me, too, that when I was in school, we had to learn some of that kind of dancing - you know, like, square dancing.

PAUL: Yeah, that was part of the curriculum somehow.

GROSS: Yeah. It's like, why are we learning this? We live in Brooklyn. Like, what are you thinking?

PAUL: (Laughter) I guess it was more appropriate for me growing up in Phoenix. I wonder if - is square dancing still taught in some schools? I feel like when my kids were little, they were still teaching square dancing. There must be a lobby somewhere that is making sure that that's still taught in schools.

GROSS: (Laughter) I like that idea, the square dancing lobby.

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: OK, let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cinco Paul, and he co-created, co-wrote and then wrote all the songs for the satirical musical series "Schmigadoon!", which is now streaming on Apple TV+. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-created, co-wrote and wrote all the songs for the series "Schmigadoon!", a loving satire of classic musicals from the 1940s and early '50s, like "Oklahoma!", "Carousel," "The Music Man," "The Sound Of Music," "South Pacific" and "Brigadoon." He also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," and "Horton Hears A Who."

I want to get to another song. We all know that so many performers on Broadway historically have been gay, and it's only in recent years that they've been able to be out. And it's only recently that are - there are actually musicals about gay people who are out of the closet. So you have a few really funny references to, like, closeted gay people in musicals. One of the really funny songs - the mayor, who's played by Alan Cumming, is secretly gay, and it's a secret he's never disclosed to anybody. And he sings a song that kind of is a "Secret Love" kind of song (laughter) but...

PAUL: Yes, where he inadvertently reveals to Cecily's character that he's gay.

GROSS: Because she has gaydar and no one in the town does (laughter).

PAUL: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: But the mayor's wife sings a song that's called "He's A Queer One, That Man O' Mine." She has no clue that he's gay, but she knows that, you know, he's different from the other men. And usually in those songs, that's like, he's wonderful. He's so different from other men. But in this one, it's kind of like, hmm, he's so different than other men.

I want you to talk about writing this because this is an example of a song that I don't think closely adheres to another song. It's a kind of - there's references to other songs in it, including "You're A Queer One, Julie Jordan" from - that's from "Carousel," right?

PAUL: That's from "Carousel," yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So - but talk about writing this and what you wanted to do with it.

PAUL: Yeah. I mean, to me, there is a trope in these musicals often. There's a song called "Something Wonderful" from "King And I" and another song from "Carousel" called "What's The Use Of Wond'rin?" And I guess there's also "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man Of Mine" (ph) - you know, these women who sing songs where, you know, he has maybe these flaws, but I still love him, you know? And so I wanted to play with that.

But this is a song where she has no clue that her husband is gay. And so - but everything that is evidence that he's gay, she sees as a really positive quality. Like, he doesn't look at other women.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: You know, he's amazing, and he's so tender, and he loves cooking. And, you know, she talks about, like, other men are really harsh and - but he's gentle, you know, like a lacy valentine. And for her, it's all these really positive qualities. But also, really, in many ways, the mayor's story is at the heart of the show 'cause he is one of these characters that, back in the day, could only be queer coded, you know, and - but because we have modern characters in "Schmigadoon!" now and Cecily's character really likes to get involved in people's lives, she helps push him to, you know, proclaim to the whole town who he really is. And Alan does such an amazing job with this character and really gives him depth and heart in a way that elevates it even beyond, you know, what I'd hoped he'd bring.

GROSS: Yeah, he's great in it. So this starts - this clip will start with Cecily Strong speaking, and I should say that the mayor's last name is Menlove.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Another little clue. OK, so here's "He's A Queer One," and this is Ann Harada singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Mrs. Menlove, forgive me for asking, but how much do you really know about your husband?

ANN HARADA: (As Florence Menlove) That's a good question. He's a hard man to know, it seems - different. (Singing) Some men like to fight and curse. They smoke and drink and yell, leave you flat, or, even worse, they stay and make life hell. But my man is gentle, as soft and sentimental as any lace adorned a valentine. He's a queer one, that man o' mine.

STRONG: (As Melissa) Oh, honey.

HARADA: (As Florence, singing) Some men stumble home at dark, want dinner and dessert. Other men have eyes that spark at every passing skirt. But my man loves cooking. I've never caught him looking at other gals more young, petite or fine. He's a queer one, that man o' mine.

STRONG: (As Melissa) This was literally me in high school.

HARADA: (As Florence, singing) Show me any other man more tender or expressive. I only wish that nightly he were slightly more aggressive.

STRONG: (As Melissa) There it is.

HARADA: (As Florence, singing) Sometimes it may seem like he is too good to be true, like there's a man that I can't see just aching to break through. I wish I could free him so I could finally see him the way he truly is and let him shine. He's a queer one, that man o' mine.

GROSS: That's music from "Schmigadoon!" - the loving satire of '40s and early 1950s musicals. And my guest, Cinco Paul, co-created the series, co-wrote it and wrote all the songs. Oh, that's really - it's a funny song, but it's also - it's a lovely song. It's a nice melody.

PAUL: Yeah, I mean, that was the intention. I never wanted the songs to be too jokey, if that makes sense. You know, I really wanted them - like, oh, that could genuinely have been a song sung in an undiscovered Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And then it ends in a very - you know, Ann does an amazing job with the song, and it ends in a really sweet spot - right? - where she sort of wishes he could be who he really is. She suspects that he's not being his true self. She doesn't know what that actually means, but she really wishes the best for him and loves him.

GROSS: We're listening to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-wrote, co-created and wrote all the songs for the satire of musicals called "Schmigadoon!" The series is streaming on Apple TV+. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-created, co-wrote and wrote all the songs for the series "Schmigadoon!" He also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax." How were you first exposed to musicals? Like, where did you grow up? Did you see music theatre? Was this all through movies?

PAUL: I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., so I didn't see a lot of shows live, but my mom really loved musicals, and she had cast recordings for - I specifically remember "Camelot" - you know, loving as a pretty young kid and listening to that. I was a weird kid, you know, singing "I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight" in my room, memorizing the lyrics. But I remember, you know, "Camelot" and "South Pacific" and "Guys And Dolls" and hearing those a lot. And so that's really - that's when my love affair with musicals began. But also, I remember singing "Singin' In The Rain" for the first time as a kid and Donald O'Connor doing "Make 'Em Laugh," and I thought that was the greatest thing I'd ever seen in my life. It was so funny, and I just loved it.

So that's really where it began when I was a kid. And then I think a real key moment was - I think I was 14 and was asked to play piano for my high school's musical. And it was "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." And that really changed everything because then suddenly that became my tribe, you know, the theater kids. And they embraced me. And, you know, I desperately wanted to be on stage, but probably because I didn't really belong there, they kept saying, no, but, Cinco, we need you on the piano. Please continue playing piano for us. But that's really where it deepened into something different. It became my community, you know.

GROSS: What are some of the movies and some of the cartoons that you grew up with?

PAUL: The first cartoon I saw that really impacted me, I think, was "The Jungle Book." I loved that movie so much, and the songs in that are so good. And then I have to say the Marx Brothers have played a huge role in my life. I'm sure that's why I ended up writing movies. I saw my first Marx Brothers movie when I was 10 on TV, and I fell in love with the Marx Brothers and became obsessed. And that really led to my love of movies and reading about movies and then starting to make my own with our family's Super 8 camera, which we've gotten for home movies, you know, on vacation. And suddenly, I used it just to make movies with all the neighborhood kids.

GROSS: You love movies, and you and your writing partner, Ken Daurio, have a podcast. Is this still going on, your podcast?

PAUL: Yeah, it's called "Make Him Watch It," and we make each other watch a movie we've never seen before.

GROSS: Then you have a couple episodes where you share your opinions of films of the '80s and films of the '90s. But I want to play the theme song from this because I think it's you and Ken actually singing the song.

PAUL: It is. I wrote the song.

GROSS: Oh, you wrote the song? And so in the spirit of turning your life into a musical, I just want to play the opening theme from your podcast, "Make Him Watch It."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MAKE HIM WATCH IT")

CINCO PAUL AND KEN DAURIO: (Singing) Make him watch it. Make him watch it.

PAUL: (Singing) There's lots of movies Ken hasn't seen.

KEN DAURIO: (Singing) Some Cinco hasn't seen, too.

PAUL: (Singing) So now that there's COVID-19...

PAUL AND DAURIO: (Singing) Here's what we're going to do. We're going to make him watch it for a podcast. We can't wait to make him watch it - with Cinco and Ken.

GROSS: I really love that. It's so, like, vaudeville era.

PAUL: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: How were you introduced to music of that period?

PAUL: I mean, it probably came from my love of the Marx Brothers, you know. And, you know, their - a lot of their movies were kind of musicals. You know, "The Coconauts," "Animal Crackers," "Horse Feathers" has a lot of songs in it. So I think that led to my love of these 1920s songs, you know, the Tin Pan Alley stuff. And from the - I was a weird little kid, Terry, I have to say. To be a 10 or 11-year-old kid obsessed with that sort of music was very odd, but I just - I loved it from an early age.

GROSS: Well, listen. Congratulations on "Schmigadoon!" Please do a Season 2. And it's been great to talk with you.

PAUL: From your mouth to God's ears. Terry, I have to say it is so meaningful to me that you like the show and that you responded to it like this. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Cinco Paul wrote all the songs for the satirical musical series "Schmigadoon!" which he also co-created and co-wrote. It's streaming on Apple TV+. Our interview was recorded in August. If you're looking for things to listen to over the holiday weekend, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews, including the ones we featured this week with Fran Lebowitz and Kieran Culkin.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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