John Lithgow and Joseph Gordon-Levitt reunite to satirize Trump with poetry and short films
The former 3rd Rock from the Sun costars have teamed up almost 20 years later to bring Lithgow's book Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age to life via short films.
While there isn't a formal 3rd Rock revival happening (yet ... ), the two former costars have teamed up once more to promote Lithgow's second political satire book of poetry, Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age (available now). The book of poetry is a follow-up to his New York Times best-selling debut Dumpty, and it's full of even more original poems and drawings by Lithgow about the current political climate. Since he couldn't go on a normal book tour to celebrate its release, he turned to his longtime friend Gordon-Levitt for help.
Using Gordon-Levitt's collaborative media platform HITRECORD, Lithgow and Gordon-Levitt invited the online community to submit their own audio recordings of two Trumpty Dumpty poems, ultimately turning these readings into two animated short films — which EW is exclusively debuting below on the eve of the election. The short films are in addition to special video readings of the poems from celebrities like Gordon-Levitt, Meryl Streep, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Buscemi, Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Alda, Annette Bening, Kristin Chenoweth, Margaret Cho, Edie Falco, Laurie Garrett, Wayne Knight, Stephen Root, Steve Schmidt, James Carville, and more, to help remind people of why it’s so important to vote in the election.
Below, EW reunited Lithgow and Gordon-Levitt over Zoom to talk about working together on this collaborative project two decades after their cult-classic sitcom ended, if they'd ever consider doing a revival of 3rd Rock from the Sun, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: John, what inspired you to write this darker follow-up book of satirical political poetry?
JOHN LITHGOW: Things are getting darker by the day. The first one was more lighthearted, but I started the second one, and immediately we had impeachment proceedings, and we had a coronavirus epidemic, and we had Black Lives Matter and economic collapse that you can't be lighthearted about. What inspired me was I gave this performance for the public theater at a gala in New York City where they asked me to sing the "Major-General" song from The Pirates of Penzance, and I rewrote the third verse and performed it all in the character of [former United States National Security Advisor] Michael T. Flynn. And it absolutely killed. I've never heard a public theater audience laugh and cheer so hard. They were so primed for a little piece of Trump satire. I'm the least likely Bull satirist in the world, but this really captured my imagination. And of course, I had a muse. [Laughs] I had Donald J. Trump and his entire administration, and it's so delicious writing satirical comedy about these people because they are larger than life comic figures — if they weren't such figures from a horror show.
What did you learn from writing the first book that you applied to this follow-up?
LITHGOW: These are the first books I've ever illustrated myself. I've always done occasional caricatures as little gifts and party favors and wrap party readings —
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: We got illustrated holiday cards from him every year on 3rd Rock. [Laughs] It was something to look forward to every year.
LITHGOW: That’s right! But the first book, I was just trying it for the first time, and what I learned most was how to illustrate a book. The second one is much better illustrated than the first. Beyond that, my confidence grew. I got a little bolder as the events grew darker, and the subjects grew more urgent. I got a little more courageous with it.
Joe, what did you think of John’s poetry when you first read both books?
GORDON-LEVITT: I was delighted to see my friend and mentor expressing himself so deliciously and horrified that he had to. These last four years have sometimes felt like a comedy in the saddest ways. He really captured something about that feeling of when there are moments when a lie is so blatant, or where the incompetence is so glaring that if you don't laugh, then you'll cry or break something. So I found it quite cathartic.
How did you two come together for this collaboration, bringing the poems to life in videos?
LITHGOW: It's funny, Joe and I had been out of touch for a good year or two. I called him about something completely different, to ask him to participate in a sort of seminar listening session for an arts commission that I'm associated with. But it was the first time I'd spoken to him in years, and it was so great to just catch up. And in the course of that phone call, he heard all about the book, and he suggested that I put a couple of my poems out there on HITRECORD for his followers to riff on and to create short films and music, the way that all these brilliantly creative kids that Joe has unleashed on the world operate. I put two of my poems, "Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown" and "Fake News," at his disposal. He put it out there, and it had a fantastic effect. The things they came up with were brilliant. And in this time of COVID, you can't launch a book in a conventional way, so I had the quite unconventional idea of collecting people like Joe and lots of other actor friends, including in fact two others from this 3rd Rock family, Jane Curtin and Wayne Knight, and get them all to simply read my poems. And I got Tim Van Patten, a wonderful director, to connect me with these three wonderful guys who created a production company called Triptych Studios, they are the ones that have created these 21 videos. They're like Joseph Gordon-Levitt acolytes. And one very nice part of the whole process is it's put me in touch with a lot of old friends that I haven't communicated with, let alone collaborated with, in years. And Joe, of course, is one of my favorites.
GORDON-LEVITT: And that's the thing about HITRECORD, rather than just posting things that you've made on your own, the point is to make things together with other people, to build off of what some someone else is doing. That kind of connection has been really uplifting for people in the midst of the isolation that we're feeling during lockdown, and that was exactly the spirit we brought to this Trumpty Dumpty project. John gave some tips on dramatic reading of poetry which was wonderful to get. And people went at it, they performed the poems, they drew pictures based on the poems, and other people took those pictures and turned them into animations, and everyone just really got into the collaborative spirit inspired by his satirical poetry. We ended up with these two great short films.
LITHGOW: He also sent me an amazing song based on "Fake News" that I played on a speaker for my wife, and she thought it was Bob Dylan! [Laughs] I’m just so proud of Joe, it’s the surrogate dad in me. He’s just created something so wonderful and unusual with HITRECORD.
GORDON-LEVITT: Well, I feel like so much of what I learned growing up under your tutelage is so much of what I bring to my life today, whether professional or just my human life. You were such a consummate leader; you were a knight in shining armor on 3rd Rock.
LITHGOW: You really do know how to deeply embarrass me during interviews. [Laughs] We all had such warm feelings toward you and to everyone on 3rd Rock, we really were a family.
How did you guys feel about the way the show ended when the series finale aired back in 2001?
LITHGOW: Oh, there were plenty of tears. God, it was an incredibly sentimental moment. Realistically, it was a good time to wrap up 3rd Rock. For one thing, Joe had gone off to college, and we really struggled that last season because we only had him part-time. In fact, we shot an entire episode in New York just so we could go to Joe. [Laughs] That's how much we needed him and missed him; we had the aliens discover New York! It was a fabulous parody of Sex in the City, just to get us all back together. A sitcom family feels the strain after six years, and even though it had never stopped being wonderful fun and marvelous, we all had the sense that it was time to move on. But doing that final episode, it was just overwhelmingly nostalgic. You can't help feeling this terrible sense of loss and wondering could we have gone on longer, could we have made this last? But looking back at it in retrospect, it was lightning in a bottle. We wouldn't want to have it any different, including having to go on any longer.
GORDON-LEVITT: Like John said, I went away to college for the sixth year. And it's worth noting how extraordinary that is that the producers let me do that because they didn't have to. They could have said, you’re on contract, you’ll have to wait for college. It just goes to show about us being a family, they put my experience and my growing ahead of the show.
LITHGOW: And we had Bonnie and Terry Turner, this husband and wife comedy writing team who created and ran the show, and they parented all of us and protected us. We really didn’t know how lucky we were back then. And Bonnie and Terry told me that Joe sent them the script to Don Jon just to get their take on it. Right, Joe?
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, I did.
LITHGOW: That's how important they were to us creatively, and I stay in touch with them all the time. I would even call up Bonnie and read poems to her from Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown, very early on.
With how close you all were and still are, has there been any talk of doing a revival of the show or a reunion of some kind?
LITHGOW: I don't know how much realistic talk there has been. I look at the show now and I think it was meant to be performed by much, much younger people than I am now. [Laughs] There was something about our youthful energy, I just simply couldn't do that stuff anymore. And there's nothing worse than trying to regain the comedy of something that was magic. Joe’s particular comedy story was that he was an old man in a young boy’s body. That’s long gone. Look at this venerable, grizzled, old 39-year-old.
GORDON-LEVITT: [Laughs] I am getting old, it’s true!
LITHGOW: If you think you’re old now, just wait until you turn 75.
GORDON-LEVITT: I’m feeling older by the minute. [Laughs] But that’s what was lovely about doing this Trumpty Dumpty project together, it wasn’t a 3rd Rock reunion in that we didn’t have everybody and we weren’t playing our 3rd Rock characters, but I felt a lot of that old joy that I got from collaborating with John. Even if we don’t reprise those particular characters, I would love to collaborate further with some of the folks from that.
LITHGOW: Yeah, you and I have got to cook something up quick, Joe. It was wonderful being back in touch with you. I just downloaded the Peacock app and you can see all the old 3rd Rock episodes there.
GORDON-LEVITT: You can? No way! I’m glad to hear that it’s on a streaming service because I thought perhaps my parents’ VHS collection was the only complete collection of the show that existed.
LITHGOW: I watched a few and they are just so f---ing funny. They hold up so magnificently! I was so relieved that I hadn’t just mythologized it in my own mind.
GORDON-LEVITT: Wow. [Laughs] I'll have to go back and watch some now!
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