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Mouthing Off: The Art of Prairie Home Companion's Fred Newman

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http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/

Interviewers often fail to describe Fred Newman.

He’s been called a mimic, an actor, and a saboteur of modern communication. The collection of things he does for a living is somewhere between acting and music, spontaneous humor and carefully constructed art: As the chief sound effects man on the NPR radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, he is responsible for all the honks, whistles, drips, bubbles, typewriter clicks, dog barks, and helicopters that color the world of host Garrison Keillor’s storytelling. The magic of Newman’s performances, however, is that these sounds come not from digital files or hidden noisemaking gadgets, but straight from their creator’s mouth.

“[My mother] wants a couple of words for the bridge club, and I tell her, ‘just tell them I honk for a living,’” said Newman in an interview for Sacramento’s KXJZ Radio. He is one of the most successful living practitioners of the old American folk art called “mouth sounds,” in which the cheeks, tongue, teeth, windpipe, and fingers become a sounding board for everything from bulb horns to trumpeting elephants. Over his years on Prairie Home, his innovative ear, nose, and throat have been responsible for angry cats, cell phones, laser printers, Minnesota winter, whales, motorcycle crashes, and (my personal favorite) a California Condor being flushed down a toilet. No other NPR luminary alive can imitate the sinking of the Titanic in less than 30 seconds.

“My first ten or twelve years I was just on ‘record’” for sounds and stories, Newman remembers. He first discovered the magic of vocal storytelling growing up in rural LaGrange, Georgia, where he spent hours as a “snaggle-toothed, freckle-faced kid” of the 1960s mesmerized by stories told on the noisy porch of Jack Fling’s Cash-and-Carry Grocery.

Newman carried such gems as the saga of Knuckles the cat and the bicycle horn honk, taught to him by a blind man, through several years of Harvard Business School, a stint at Newsweek magazine, and a job as a blacksmith in Finland, before an audition for the David Letterman show landed him in his own brand of whimsical voice acting. He has also worked with Muppet master Jim Henson and recorded sound effects for shows like Nickelodeon’s Doug series and the PBS children’s reading show Between the Lions.

“It’s all about pretending,” Newman has said.  He can imagine and convey the exact thickness, age, and force behind a door creaking open with his voice. He mimes trumpet valves and violin fingerings with his hands whenever he mimics a musical instrument. For someone who must listen closely to the world in order to keep making his living—he even bikes to and from his home in Manhattan without a helmet so as not to miss any of the sounds around him—even silence has a sound. One of his favorite example stories is of a small brown rabbit popping its head out of a hole into a lush world of snowy silence that Newman creates with the breath in the back of his throat.

On the radio, this kind of imagination is doubly important—without a visual medium to flesh them out, Garrison Keillor’s characters and happenings in the fictional Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon and elsewhere exist only in the teller’s words and Newman’s evocative grunts and whistles. Since fellow soundman Tom Keith passed away in 2011, he has been running the racket alone, but has lost none of the joy in the auditory landscape he creates.

In his how-to book of the craft, Mouthsounds, Newman writes that "sound-making, like life, requires a playful, fearless spirit; you have to be willing to look and sound like a moron and act in exactly the manner teachers told you not to." Direct from the perpetual kid who once drove his teachers to early retirement with trumpet fanfares and buzzing flies, the book includes directions for over 200 mouth sounds and the facial contortions that often accompany them. Effects range from 1 to 4 in difficulty, with one challenging five (a double nose whistle that would give R2D2 a headache.) All are suggested for party tricks, acting exercises, coded communication, and, above all, for public performance. The back cover, appropriately, promises that “elevator rides will never be the same.” If you follow the master’s advice to stuff a duck and a set of bagpipes up your vocal sleeve, nothing ever will be.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

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