An interview with Jason Alexander

Jason Alexander is known to TV audiences around the world, of course, as George Costanza on Seinfeld, a role which garnered him six Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations, an American Television Award and two American Comedy Awards. He's also appeared in numerous films like Pretty Woman, in TV commercials, and in Broadway musicals where he won a Tony for his role in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. He also starred alongside Martin Short in the acclaimed L.A. production of The Producers. More recently, he's been directing things like Sam Shepard's God of Hell as well as his own newly-adapted rendition of Damn Yankees for the Los Angeles Reprise Theater Company, where he serves as Artistic Director. Jason is also a spokesman for OneVoice, an organization committed to promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Through his interest in giving back to the community, I had the good fortune of interviewing him after he spoke at a gala fund raising event for a charity I'm involved with. (You may recall our recent effort to eradicate hunger here in Los Angeles.) He was, as he always is, blunt and hilarious. Please feel free to drop a comment at the end of the interview telling us your all-time favorite Jason Alexander moment.

DI: You're a man of many talents: actor, stand-up comedian, musical theater star, magician, poker player. Which do you enjoy the most?

JA: You left out: writer, director, martial artist and sex symbol. Now here's my favorite "“ father.

DI: You've worked with some of the greats of stage and screen (big and small). From Jerry Robbins to Jerry Seinfeld, from Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Julia Roberts. Who's been the most influential?

JA: Best director I've ever had "“ Joe Mantello (Love, Valor, Compassion); Best teacher "“Larry Moss. The word genius gets thrown around a lot. I've only met two in my line of work "“Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. They think like no other people I know. I understand more from knowing them. I am a better person because of what they have given the world.

DI: The name on your birth certificate is Jay Scott Greenspan. Okay: we get Jason from Jay S but what about Alexander? Where'd that come from?

JA: Alexander the Great, clearly. Okay, I lied. I thought I would be Jason Scott, but when I went to register in the union with that name, it was taken with every possible spelling "“ including Jaisin Skot. Feeling badly about not using my family name, I made a snap decision to take my dad's first name as my last one for the stage. Hence "“ Jason Alexander.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JA: Mahatma Gandhi. First, he was always fasting so I doubt it would be a big bill if I had to pick up the check. Second, I want to know how so much wisdom, courage and strength could reside in a single soul. If the Mahatma couldn't make it, I'd take Ben Kingsley for an hour "“ but he's not dead.

seinfeld-cast-getty-5203121DI: What's your favorite beverage?

JA: Diet Coke. Never been a better beverage on the planet. They shouldn't touch it "“ don't mess with it. It's perfect. I'm not losing weight, but I don't blame the soda.

DI: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

JA: I wanted to be a magician. I worked at it very studiously. A few years ago, I started performing at the Magic Castle. I won an award given by fellow magicians. It meant almost as much as an Oscar. I assume"¦ I don't actually have an Oscar.

DI: Who's your idol?

JA: I don't believe in idols. Isn't that the first commandment? But one of my heroes is TJ Leyden "“ a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead who has risked his life teaching young people the subversive, destructive power of hate and the redemptive and miraculous power of decency, education, responsibility and love. I have done the foreword for his book Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope and I consider him a good friend. I also adore men like Daniel Lubetsky of the OneVoice organization who has dedicated his life to empowering moderate populations to take control of their own journeys to peace. He is a constant inspiration.

DI: Do you miss the days when you could hold an album jacket in your hands and page through the liner notes or are MP3s just as good?

JA: I don't get nutty over packaging "“ only over content.

DI: What's one of your favorite novels?

JA: I adore Richard Bach's Illusions "“ The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I read it every year on my birthday. It is a remarkable way to look at life. I've been trying to turn it into a stage musical for years. I must imagine it done sometime. (Read the book, you'll understand.)

DI: What's your favorite junk food?

JA: Double Stuf Oreos. Fantastic with Diet Coke.

DI: Dodgers or Angels? (Or should we ask: Yankees or Mets?)

JA: Honestly? I could care less. My uncle, Jack Simon, directed the Met, Knick and Ranger games while I was growing up. The Mets are in my blood. George worked for the Yankees, but Jason cheered for the Mets.

DI: Who's your favorite Saturday Night Live player of all time?

JA: That's hard because there have been so many great players and so diverse a range of comedy. But I have to say that I consistently laughed out loud over and over watching Billy Crystal. I thought he was brilliant. And when I hosted, Adam Sandler broke me up, live on the air.

DI: You were born in Newark, N.J. Many other notables hail from Newark, including Brian De Palma, Allen Ginsberg, Whitney Houston, Jerry Lewis, Shaquille O'Neal, Philip Roth, and Paul Simon. Is there something in the water there?

JA: I don't remember much about Newark, but I can assure you the dominant beverage is not water.

Picture 3DI: Did you have a bar mitzvah? If so, what do you remember most?

JA: I was bar mitzvahed in a conservative"“leaning to Orthodox temple. I had a mega bar mitzvah. A three-hour service that was about 2.5 hours of me. I remember we couldn't have a band at the reception, so I sang with my friend, Brian Clark. And boy, did we make money!

DI: You've done lots of TV commercials for different types of products. Which is your favorite?

JA: I did a spot for Western Union that ran on and off for eight years. It will put my kid through college. I'd consider that a personal favorite.

DI: What memento did you take with you from the Seinfeld set?

JA: I've got lots of George clothes. I've got the George glasses. And I've got two final scripts signed by EVERYBODY! I'm not a big collector. Mostly, I have nine years of great memories and more laughs than I know what to do with.

DI: When you hear someone call out the name George, do you ever think they're talking to you?

JA: I used to. But after I turned around all smug-like a few times to discover they were calling someone named George, I learned my lesson.

DI: Any guilty pleasure television on your TiVO?

JA: Nothing that's total crap. It's hard to make me laugh out loud. Family Guy does it every time. They're genius.

DI: Anything you wish we'd have asked?

JA: When will they remake Fiddler on the Roof with me? I don't know, but my mom is 88 "“ they better hurry.

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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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NBC Universal
12 Wild Facts About The Jerry Springer Show
NBC Universal
NBC Universal

Trash TV will never be the same: NBC Universal just announced that after more than a quarter-century on the air, The Jerry Springer Show has been canceled. Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati, has taped more than 4000 episodes over the course of 27 seasons, and featured more than 35,000 guests. Because the format allowed for crass topics and guests who weren’t afraid to throw chairs at each other, in the late 1990s the show’s ratings topped Oprah Winfrey’s. Over the years, guests have accused the producers of staging and encouraging the fights for ratings. Still, it’s been popular enough to remain on the air since September 30, 1991. Here are 12 final thoughts about the controversial talk show.

1. THE FIRST SEASON TAPED IN CINCINNATI.

Before he stepped in front of the cameras, Springer’s main gig was in politics. He (unsuccessfully) ran for Congress in 1970, but was elected to Cincinnati’s city council a year later. In 1977, he served as the city’s mayor for one year and made a run for governor in 1982, but was derailed by a sex scandal.

In September 1991, Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT needed to replace The Phil Donahue Show, so they tapped Springer to host his own politically-focused daytime talk show, The Jerry Springer Show. At the same time, he was also appearing as a nighttime co-anchor on WLWT. In 1992, Springer moved The Jerry Springer Show to Chicago; he flew back and forth between Cincy and Chicago every day so that he could continue hosting his nightly broadcast. But in 1993 he resigned from Channel 5, after the ratings slid

2. TWO ANCHORS QUIT BECAUSE SPRINGER APPEARED ON THEIR NEWS SHOW.

In 1997, Springer began a temporary job on Chicago’s WMAQ as a news commentator. Anchor Carol Marin, who had worked at the station for 19 years, refused to share airtime with Springer and quit the show. “I am sorry she found it necessary this week to use me as the stepping stone to martyrdom,” Springer said at the time. In solidarity with Marin’s decision, co-anchor Ron Magers departed a few weeks later. Dozens of people from religious and women’s organizations protested the station’s nighttime addition as well.

The heat ended up being too much for the station; in May 1998, it dropped the Springer Show, though a Fox affiliate quickly snatched it up. To cover costs, they had to air the show not once, but twice a day.

3. SECURITY DIRECTOR STEVE WILKOS THOUGHT HIS JOB WAS A “ONE-TIME GIG.”

The show hired Steve Wilkos, a former Chicago cop and marine, for a 1994 KKK-themed episode. “The pay was good and I figured it was a one-time gig,” Wilkos told Mediaweek. “But I ended up doing another show, and another, and before I knew it, I was hired as the full-time director of security. So, I left my career as a cop to give this a shot.”

Eventually, Wilkos gave advice on a “Steve to the Rescue” segment, and started subbing for Springer when the host went off to appear on Dancing with the Stars. That led to Wilkos getting his own show, The Steve Wilkos Show, in 2007.

4. THE SHOW WAS TARGETED BY THE GOVERNMENT.

In 1998, at the peak of the show’s popularity, education secretary William Bennett and Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman spoke at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention and implored broadcasters to remove the program from their schedules. “Drop it, or if you won’t drop it, urge the producers to clean up the show,” Lieberman pleaded.

“We’re here for three reasons,” Bennett added. “The first is to remind broadcasters of the high standards they once had; the second is to remind people in the business how low much of it has sunk, and also to remind people of the enormous influence and responsibility they wield.”

“The kind of perversity and violence on that show every day has to have a bad effect on the people and children who watch it,” Lieberman said. “Springer is not a network show. You make the decision to carry it. It’s not worth it … If you can’t do that, at least put it on late at night so that fewer kids are watching.”

5. SPRINGER STARRED IN HIS OWN MOVIE.

At the apex of his popularity, Springer played a talk show host named Jerry Farrelly in the 1998 box office and critical bomb Ringmaster. The movie, like Springer's talk show, involved love triangles and cheating. It did win Springer an award, though: a Razzie for Worst New Star.

6. RELIGIOUS LEADERS FORCED THE SHOW TO TONE DOWN ITS VIOLENCE.

Under pressure from Chicago religious leaders, executives from The Jerry Springer Show promised to reduce the violence, though the fights are what helped it topple Oprah in the daytime talk show ratings. “We don’t want to take away from the show—we just think that Jerry will be able to do this show a different way,” Greg Meidel, the chief executive of then-distributor Studio USA, told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “It will still be confrontational, it will still be unpredictable, you will still sense the conflict. You will still see yelling and screaming. But we’re not going to show anyone getting hit.”

A spokeswoman for the religious Community Renewal Society felt it was a “partial victory,” but she also called for the cursing and poor treatment of women to be toned down.

7. AUSTIN POWERS PARODIED SPRINGER.

In the opening of 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Scott Evil (Seth Green) appears on The Jerry Springer Show—Springer cameos as himself—and confronts his father, Dr. Evil, who plots to take over the world. In typical Springer Show fashion, a fight breaks out and a lot of cursing spews from the guests’ mouths.

8. ONE FEATURED LOVE TRIANGLE ENDED IN A MURDER.

In 2000, during an episode called “Secret Mistresses Confronted,” a husband, his new wife, and his ex-wife appeared on the show and got into a tiff. The newlyweds accused the ex, Nancy Campbell-Panitz, of stalking them. But hours after the episode aired, a friend of Campbell-Panitz discovered her dead, beaten body inside her home. Eventually, Campbell-Panitz's ex-husband and his new wife turned themselves in. In 2002 the case went to trial and the court found the ex-husband, Ralf Panitz, guilty of second-degree murder. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.

9. SPRINGER ELIMINATED THE WORD “TRANNY.”

The Jerry Springer Show was one of the first talk shows to focus on transgender issues, but he regularly referred to his guests as “trannies,” like in a 2014 episode named “Trannies Twerk it Out.” The LGBT community felt it was time to phase out that word, and Springer immediately obliged. “I didn’t know it was offensive to them and I’m not interested in offending people, so obviously I’ll just change the term,” he told The Huffington Post. “There’s no argument there.”

10. THE SHOW PRODUCED A CONTROVERSIAL EPISODE ON BESTIALITY.

A 1998 episode entitled “I Married a Horse” featured a British man who married his horse. Cameras went overseas to film the man and his “wife.” A disclaimer opened the segment: “Sexual contact with animals is illegal in this country and most of the Western world. This is the first film to examine a subject which many find deeply disturbing.” Some stations found the episode so disturbing that they refused to air it, opting instead to broadcast a rerun of “Past Guests Do Battle.”

11. IT WAS TURNED INTO AN OPERA (WHICH ALSO CREATED CONTROVERSY).

A musical version of the show, Jerry Springer: The Opera, debuted in London in April of 2003 and toured the UK in 2006. The production drew ire from the Christian community, because it included actors playing God, Satan, and Jesus, and the actors uttered about 8000 obscenities. When the BBC decided to air a performance in 2005, 45,000 angry viewers contacted the station about the show’s content. But, that didn’t prevent the opera from expanding to the U.S. In 2007, Las Vegas became the first American city to welcome the show. In 2008, Harvey Keitel played Springer in a two-day New York City performance.

12. SPRINGER MOVED THE SHOW TO STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT—AND RESIDENTS WEREN'T HAPPY.

In 2009, after spending 17 years in Chicago, The Jerry Springer Show moved to the east coast and besieged the idyllic town of Stamford, because Connecticut offered tax breaks and built the Stamford Media Center to create a local entertainment industry. Springer’s arrival was met with protests from the community.

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