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So What Do You Do, Faith Salie, Host, Fair Game?

Fair Game's host discusses the first time she did standup, her Harvard education, and shaving her legs on TV

By Dylan Stableford - June 20, 2007
faith_061107.jpgFaith Salie, the host of Public Radio International's Fair Game, definitely does not have a face for radio. The Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar and one-time Star Trek star took some time out of her hectic media day to answer our pointed questions.

Name: Faith Salie
Position: Actor, comedian, host/co-creator/writer/producer of Fair Game with Faith Salie from Public Radio International
Birthdate: April 14th, a.k.a "the day the Titanic sunk and Lincoln was shot."
Hometown: Born in Boston; grew up in Atlanta, GA. "But I've been living in Santa Monica, CA for the last 11 years before working in NYC. (You know the adage: 'Home is where most of your clothes are.')"
Education: Harvard University, B.A. in History and Literature of Modern France and England (1789 to the 20th century); and Oxford University, M.Phil. in Modern English Literature (1880 to 1960). "I include the time periods so you don't ask me any tough questions about before the French Revolution or after my parents hooked up."
Marital status: "My stars, that's more personal than my birthdate!"
Last book(s) read: "Oh god. I have to read so many every week. I just finished Rickle's Book by, um, Don Rickles, bad-boy chef Marco Pierre White's The Devil in the Kitchen (apparently 'bollocking' your underlings makes food taste better), and am starting Unburnable by Marie-Elena Johns (she appears gorgeous on the back cover, so the book must be good) and am loving the galleys of Jeffrey Frank's latest, Trudy Hopedale (I like to read galleys with a red pen, as if I can be helpful)."
First section of the Sunday Times: "Which Times? I object to the assumption that everyone reads the New York Times! But okay, it's Style. I love going to the wedding column to see if any same-sex couples made it in."
Favorite TV show: "I almost never get to watch TV anymore (that is not at all a point of pride; it is a sad, sad testament to how busy I am). But I can't wait for Weeds season 3 to start. Yikes, I need to get Showtime in my NY apartment."
Last 5 songs listened to on your iPod? "Sadly, I can't remember the last time I listened to my iPod. Probably girly tunes, like 'The Long Way Around' and 'Easy Silence' by the Dixie Chicks, 'Perfect Girl' by Sarah McLachlan are a few. But the last music I listened to at home was a sneak-peek recording of the cast album for Legally Blonde, created by my brilliant friends Nell Benjamin and Larry O'Keefe and Pink Martini's latest, 'Hey Eugene!'"
Most interesting media story right now: "I don't know if 'interesting' is the right word, but to me, the so-called 'honor killing' story is the most disturbing and worthy of much greater coverage. It recently happened in London and continues to happen all over the world. Women's rights issues need much more attention. It's hard for us to cover on Fair Game because there just ain't nothing remotely risible about it."
Guilty Pleasure: "On Fridays and Saturdays I read Star and Us Weekly at the gym. But I really don't feel guilty about that. I need to know how the stars beat cellulite. Let's see ... I put ice in my white wine. I always have to apologize: 'I swear, I heard a sommelier on public radio say that this is appropriate!' (I did.)"

You are a Rhodes scholar and Harvard graduate. Let me try to phrase this nicely -- what the hell are you doing on public radio??!?!
Um, I think that's a compliment, so ... thanks. What's a Rhodes scholar supposed to do? I don't have sensible hair, so I can't get elected (yet); I'm not interested in being a lawyer or running a hedge fund. Actually, Fair Game has offered me the best opportunity to use my brain, my comedy, and my curiosity all at once. When I think about it, going to Harvard, winning the Rhodes, and co-creating and hosting this public radio show are commonly linked. That is, I didn't specifically plan for any of those blessings, but when I look back at how they evolved, they seem somewhat inevitable. As far as public radio goes, all my education, acting, producing, writing, and improvisational experience logically lead me here now.

What was your first experience doing standup like?
Nerve-wracking and intoxicating. I was amazed at the laughter -- it was like a tennis game: I'd lob them a joke and they'd laugh it back. I didn't always have receptions like that, but that first time got me hooked for a while. I did a lot of personal material, including a game I invented for my family called "Gay Brother/Straight Brother" in which the audience has to guess which of my brothers I am describing. My gay brother told me it made his scalp sweat when he watched.

Are there any female comedians out there you emulate? Male comedians?
Emulate, no. Admire, yes. As far as funny women, I bow to Madeline Kahn. I really respect how savvy and smart Sarah Silverman is. I love Kathy Griffin's balls and Megan Mullally's acting chops. I love how comfortable David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jon Stewart are in their skins -- that's why they're the best at what they do.

Based on the photo gallery on your Web site, you definitely do not "have a face for radio." Why radio?
That's for sure a compliment, so thanks again. I endeavor never to have an ass for radio either. Radio is currently what's most immediate, challenging, and fulfilling for me right now. I'm also still doing television, as an actor, writer, and producer, so the punim is out there.

How does radio compare with your television and film work?
What I really miss on the radio is doing physical comedy. That's always been a trademark of mine, and for some reason, it doesn't work on the radio. As far as tone, I've learned to pull back and trust that the microphone picks up the littlest thing. At first that was counterintuitive: I thought that since the audience couldn't see me, I might have to express more. Not so. There's power in having the smallest inflection mean a great deal.

Bottom line: radio is harder. Doing an hour-long show every single weekday that has 3 guests and has to be smart, bleeding-edge topical and funny -- it's insanely taxing. I give massive props to my team and executive producer, Kerrie Hillman. The only aspects of doing radio that are easier are that I don't have to memorize any lines, and I don't have to factor in time for hair and makeup -- though I always apply lip gloss before we begin the show, as a courtesy to my guests.

What was the first time (on the air) like for you?
My heart was racing when I heard the opening music for the show and the whole thing was a bit like an out-of-body experience. I didn't know some of the things I said until I listened later. It takes practice to be able to read a script like you're not reading, to conduct an interview with someone while a producer is talking to you in your ear, and to improvise, digress, and be funny all with a strict clock on you. But it was an extremely cool thing to sit at that mic and say, "From Public Radio International, this is Fair Game. I'm Faith Salie." I still get a kick out of hearing it when the show airs. Mostly because now people will pronounce my name correctly.

"Q: Have you ever edited your own Wiki?
A: No, gross!"

Do you feel like you can get away with more on radio?
Ha! Are you kidding me?! On Significant Others I did a scene using an electric toothbrush as a "marital aid" during prime time. Or I shave my legs in the sink to get sexy for my gynecologist. Television is so much more fearless than radio, and therefore, I think, funnier. On the radio, a passing reference to bulimia (um, who doesn't love an eating disorder joke?), race, or anything resembling innuendo pretty much gets left on the radio equivalent of the cutting room floor.

Is there anything that isn't "fair game"? Is there anywhere you won't go? Any taboos?
There is nowhere I won't go, in theory. However, I'm also not interested in being a contentious, "gotcha"-style host. Nor do I want to be snarky in my humor. I take my role as a host quite to heart. If I could send every guest a handwritten thank you note and a Coca-Cola cake, I would. So with that in mind, even as I'm asking the tougher questions or calling people out on their preposterousness, I like to do it with playfulness.

What was doing Star Trek like?
Out of this world. First of all, I was "genetically enhanced," which meant I didn't have to spend hours getting prosthetics applied to my face. Secondly, I was part of a quartet of genetically enhanced mutants and our role was to bring some comedy into the show, which was a delight. When the producers brought us back for a second season, I got to break out of the quartet -- in song. I had an aria with the camera circling me, Sound of Music-style. Dream come true! And then, as if to gild the Star Trek lily, I got to be beamed up. After the show aired, it was an astonishing thing to become part of this cult community. Trekkers know my character, Serena Douglas, and I'm on a trading card. Between doing Star Trek and Sex & the City, I feel like I got to be a part of two cultural phenomena.

Do you listen to NPR? Or is NPR now a mortal enemy?
The only deep brand loyalty I have is to Coca-Cola. And I'm new to public radio, so the NPR/PRI thing doesn't really mean that much to me. Obviously, I'm grateful to PRI for getting behind Fair Game, but I learn from listening to all kinds of shows -- on the rare occasions I get a chance to listen to the radio at all. And when I do, I don't just listen to public radio ... I love to hear what Dr. Laura and Sean Hannity have to say about what kind of woman and American I am, respectively. I really miss my drive time in L.A. As my carbon footprint has gotten smaller, so has my daily exposure to hilariously infuriating conservative thought.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
Platitude alert ... Luck and hard work. The luck part happened early on ... like way early on, because I was lucky enough to be born to the best mother and father in the history of history. Really, everything good in my life can be traced back to their support, encouragement, generosity, and, yes, faith. Then I worked my ass off. When I was young, I followed all the rules. Home before curfew, no drinking, no drugs, no sex, went to church, never cursed, never pulled an all-nighter. I was rewarded academically and professionally for that kind of behavior. And then I think around turning 30, it was, well, not so much breaking the rules, but departing from them. Not trying to fit into a mold but embracing all of who I am: feminist and girly, Yankee and Southern, raised Catholic but now a Very Bad Catholic, educated yet salty-mouthed, pop-cultured obsessed as well as politically and scientifically aware, and an actor who also writes and produces.

Have you ever edited your own Wiki?
No, gross! I don't know who put that up there. If I had, it would be infinitely more interesting. It would detail my entire oeuvre -- including my winning the title of Miss Aphrodite in my high school pageant -- display a fetching photo, and include lots of fascinating trivia, like the fact that I can recite the titles of all of Shakespeare's plays in under 30 seconds.

According to your Wiki entry, your brother worked for the Howard Dean campaign. What are your thoughts on the 2008 race?
Oooh, I like this question because it allows me to brag about my brother David Salie, who was a real pioneer in grassroots fundraising. He created a model for taking online political communities and bringing them together in the flesh -- and for making small contributions aggregate into something significant. I think the Dean campaign changed the face of American politics, and my big brother was a part of that. (My other big brother Doug is extraordinary too.) There's this general eyerolling about how early this presidential campaign has started, a good year and a half before the election. I love it! I can't get enough of it. It's like a really important reality show, the kind you feel smart for watching -- we get to watch these 18 or so people try to prove to America that they've got talent, that they think they can dance, that we should give them the rose. All we're missing is seeing them in bathing suits. I think Wolf Blitzer should get them drunk in a hot tub for a debate. Actually I'd rather see that Rob Marciano moderating in a hot tub. He's the CNN weather guy, but he must know a bit about politics, right?

I am excited about watching all the candidates on both sides of the aisle. They're demonstrating so much energy, and I think it's infectious and hopeful for the country. It's also great for comedy. I just interviewed Senator Mike Gravel on the show. This is a 77 year-old man polling at 1 percent, and he is determined to win. That's so American -- I love that!

What do you think about the potential of an XM-Sirius merger?
I don't think about it. Sounds sexy though.

What's your media day like? (Be specific as possible -- wake up, read The New York Times, watch the Today show, etc.)
I wake up at 7:00 a.m. to the siren call of Morning Edition and keep it on as I check news online. Then I head to the gym for an hour where I am on the treadmill or the elliptical, reading either a book or a series of articles for that day's guests while I am listening on my headset to CNN and a few of the network morning shows (multiple TV sets in the gym). I perform my ablutions and maquillage while listening to BBC World Service (Robin Lustig's voice makes me giggle). As much as the height of my heels allows, I dash to the subway and continue reading on my commute -- the day's paper or an article or book by a guest.

Then while I'm writing, editing, and preparing that day's show, I am checking the news all day long on the Internet and on our closed caption TV. Although sometimes we like to change the channel to Jerry Springer and read the closed captioning: "What do you mean you work at a midget bar? [Laughter. Angry women smackdown.]" After the show tapes, I place a quick call to my dad on the way to the subway -- for an update on extremely local family news. Then I read while commuting to whatever I have to do that night -- go to a play or a screening or an event for Fair Game. If I get home with any energy left, I might turn on The Daily Show or Colbert to see if/how they covered the same stories we did.

That's my media diet. I'm sure it could use more fiber.

What's your dream (onscreen) role?
Well, I began my career (at 13) as an actor and remain an actor at heart. So my dream role is to be in a movie with Meryl Streep, if she'd have me.

Finally, The Sopranos ending -- love it or hate it?
Do all "Media People" watch The Sopranos after they read the The Times? I don't think I've ever seen an episode of The Sopranos --maybe just parts of one or two. I did follow the furor over Mr. Chase's cut to black; and I think it was brilliant -- offering mystery to some and closure to others. It's the premium cable version of the ending of The Turn of the Screw. And please, what's more genius than the most critically-acclaimed television show in history ending with onion rings and a Journey song?

[Dylan Stableford is's managing editor, news. He can be reached at dylan AT mediabistro DOT com.]

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