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PLAYBOY: You’re just back from Cuba and Hong Kong for a few days, and then you head to Naples and the Congo, which is a typical schedule for you lately. How often are you away from home?
BOURDAIN: I travel about 220 days a year.
PLAYBOY: Are you perpetually jet-lagged and burned out?
BOURDAIN: I don’t get jet-lagged, and I look at long flights as an opportunity to sleep. I smell jet fuel, I pass out. It’s a Pavlovian response.
PLAYBOY: You’ve done shows from places such as Japan, Beirut and Egypt that have been in the news after natural disasters and upheavals. What has been your reaction?
BOURDAIN: For me these places become about the people I meet. My first thoughts go to them. Japan is overwhelming. What can you say about it? I’m still trying to figure out what the fuck is going on in the Middle East. I don’t know that I’m smart enough to say anything intelligent about what’s going on over there, but listen, if Thomas Friedman can disappear up his own ass and not see daylight, what hope is there for me to understand it? Who knows who’s going to end up in power in Egypt or Libya or any of those places? We don’t know if the next asshole is going to be any better than the previous asshole, but at least it’s a new asshole. In Egypt we saw that most people’s diet was bread and some lentils, nothing else. We wanted to film that, and our government handlers suddenly got very upset. What were they so frightened of? They wanted us to show the wealthy two percent who live spectacularly.
PLAYBOY: Do foreign governments often try to control what you film?
BOURDAIN: In some countries it becomes clear that our driver’s or translator’s day job is working for the secret police. It’s not a problem, because at the end of the day I can come back to America and say whatever the fuck I want. I can say, “Look at these assholes.” I come home from Romania and I’m free to say, “Look at the dog-and-pony show they put on for us.” So yeah, sometimes the government shows us what they want us to see, but sometimes they take a chance; they trust us not to screw them. They go against their instincts and let a Western crew in. It can be harder when they let us do whatever we want. There’s a responsibility. We’ll go to a country that doesn’t have the kind of freedom of speech that we enjoy, where there are consequences for what you say, particularly about certain issues. A lot of nice people are open with us, are frank with us, both on camera and off. Afterward it’s easy for me to go back home and say what I think about Chinese policy on Tibet, but I have to think about all the people who were nice to me, who let me into their homes, who were openhearted and kind and helped us—people who may have hard questions to answer if we do a show critical of their country. I try to find a way to balance that. It’s a constraint, but I’m not fucking Dan Rather. Presumably this is a food and travel show, but sometimes the elephant in the room is unavoidable. If you’re in Laos and your host is missing two limbs, it’s worth mentioning. “Hey, fella, how’d you lose those limbs?”
PLAYBOY: Your host was missing two limbs? What happened?
BOURDAIN: Thank you, America. So you state the fact that we dumped a hell of a lot of cluster bomblets into Laos on the way back to Saigon many years ago. One week I’ll get a lot of angry mail from couch Rambos on the right, and the next my brethren on the left are screaming bloody murder because I’m taking a sustained piss on Danny Ortega.
PLAYBOY: What exactly happened when you tried to feed starving kids who’d gathered around your film shoot in Haiti?
BOURDAIN: It turned to shit.
PLAYBOY: It was reported that there was a mini riot—hungry children totally out of control.
BOURDAIN: What happened was something I would never in a million years have considered. You make a feel-good gesture, like I’m going to feed these kids, and then it all turns to shit.
PLAYBOY: Why did you decide to air it?
BOURDAIN: What am I supposed to do, make myself all noble because I’m feeding these kids and then cut away before the shit happens? I feel I have a contract with people who watch the show, so if a scene turns to shit like that and I pretend it didn’t happen, it’s grotesquely dishonest and a betrayal of everybody concerned. I don’t mind looking like an asshole on television or looking like an idiot if that was the reality of the situation. I’m not looking to make Jackass, but by the same token, if things don’t work out for me or are uncomfortable, or what I thought was reality turns out to be the opposite, well, there it is. I mean, I’m vain—I’m just not that vain.
PLAYBOY: If you found yourself in a situation like that again, how would you handle it?
BOURDAIN: I’d probably make the same mistake again. I’d try to do it better, though. At the end of the day, I’m trying to find a way to feed the kids. Who wouldn’t?
PLAYBOY: You went to see Sean Penn in Haiti. You tweeted, “Don’t know what he’s like in L.A. In Haiti? Not a dick.” How did you end up with him on your show?
BOURDAIN: I called him. [Penn has been doing relief work in Haiti since the earthquake.] I said, “I’m going to be in Haiti. I want to come by.” We’re in a position now that we can do that, call up whoever we want, and some of them want to come on the show. We’re getting a little cocky over it. It started with the Bill Murray thing.
PLAYBOY: How did he wind up on your show?
BOURDAIN: My sidekick for a lunch dropped out, and the chef at the restaurant we were going to said, “Well, how about Bill Murray? Do you want him?” and I’m like, “Yeah, right.” The next day, Bill Murray’s there, and for the whole scene I’m sitting there thinking, I can’t believe Bill Murray’s on my show. Why is Bill Murray on my show? How is this happening? We reached a point where we suddenly realized the shockingly high number of people we worship and revere who actually like the show and might actually come on if we ask.
PLAYBOY: Like Ted Nugent, who, given your liberal politics, seems like an odd choice.
BOURDAIN: I like mixing it up, even with politics. What do I share with Ted Nugent? Barbecue and rock and roll, but I want different kinds of people on. I don’t have a lot of respect for people who preach to the converted. You know, it’s too fucking easy sitting up there with your smug-ass face and your fancy suit, saying, “Look at these idiot Tea Party people. They’re so stupid.” I don’t know about Bill Maher or Glenn Beck. I don’t think either of those assholes are coming out of their trailers, frankly. Why the fuck can’t I get along with Ted Nugent, eat some barbecue on a person-to-person basis? I’m not saying it’s the answer to world peace, but why not? I know he has a lot of views that I loathe, but I also know he’s a hardworking fucking rock-and-roller. We have things in common. He’s an ultraconservationist. Rock and roll. He’s a hard worker. But he does have an insane loathing of the Obamas that I consider ugly. We were on a radio show together talking about the Michelle Obama school lunch initiative. I said, “This is a matter of military readiness and patriotism, Ted.”
PLAYBOY: How is her campaign against childhood obesity patriotic?
BOURDAIN: We might need to draft these kids to fight off terrorists and invaders. Sarah Palin and all these others, are they arguing that one out of seven or two out of seven kids having type 2 diabetes within the next few years is a good thing? I fully support your right as an adult to eat yourself to death. I would greatly prefer that if you’re going to eat yourself to death, you enjoy yourself while doing it. But a morbidly obese kid? No, that is wrong. What happens when all those evil Canadians and Mexicans and Al Qaeda come pouring across the border and rape our families on our shag carpets right in front of us, and we’re too fat and unhealthy to do anything about it?