RANDY NEWMAN: No one likes us don't know why -- we may not be perfect but heaven knows we try...
JIM LEHRER: Randy Newman has been an unusual pop music phenomenon for more than there decades, known first for his biting wit and social commentary.
RANDY NEWMAN: They don't respect us so let's surprise them
we'll drop the big one and pulverize them
Asia's crowded and Europe's too old...
JEFFREY BROWN: He's known more recently as one of the era's most successful composers of movie music. From "Ragtime" in 1981...
ACTOR: Don't ever stop.
JEFFREY BROWN: ...To recent hits like "Seabiscuit" and "Monster's Inc.", for which Newman won an Oscar.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now he's back with a retrospective look at his career, a new recording called "the Randy Newman songbook"-- just Newman and his piano taking a fresh, stripped-down approach to his songs. We met him at a stop on his current tour, at the Birchmere, a club in Alexandria, Virginia.
Randy Newman, welcome.
RANDY NEWMAN: Good to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: So after 30-plus years of writing songs, have you figured out what makes a song work?
RANDY NEWMAN: No. I don't have any more confidence in my ability to go in and write one than I had when I was 16. I know it when I hear it. You know, when I heard Stevie Wonder's "Living in the City," or Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," or when I write something myself that works, I know it, you know. It can be that something really rocks, that it's a good lick, you know, like...
( playing piano ) or it could be that, you know, it moves you.
RANDY NEWMAN (singing): Sometimes I'm crazy but I guess you know. I'm weak and I'm lazy and I hurt you so...
SPOKESMAN: What you guys doing here?
JEFFREY BROWN: Newman first made his name in the early 1970s as a musical storyteller, a creator of vivid characters and miniature dramas.
SINGING: It's money that matters hear what I say.
JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of pop music is confessional. Sort of, "let me tell you what I'm feeling."
RANDY NEWMAN: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you write more little narratives, little sort of one-act stories.
RANDY NEWMAN: I do.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why approach it that way?
RANDY NEWMAN: Well, all of a sudden one day-- I remember when it was, it was 1965 or so, earlier. I was a kid. And I just got bored with "I love you, you love me," you know, "we love each other, now we don't love each other." And I thought that there's no reason why a songwriter shouldn't have the latitude that the short-story writer has. You know, John Updike's not in his stories, or Alice Munro's not in hers. We could do that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now these narratives you have to do in three-minute bites. So, there's real limitations.
RANDY NEWMAN: It's actually difficult to do what I've done and have people listening to lyrics, which is required. You can't listen to my music and eat potato chips at a party, you know, it's all... because all of a sudden, there's some kind of jarring word, a bad word or something, some kind of thing. It isn't like something that can be playing in the background. You've got to listen to it.
RANDY NEWMAN (singing): Used to worry about the black man
Now I don't worry about the black man
Used to worry about the starving children of India
you know what I say now about the starving
children of India...
JEFFREY BROWN: Newman's characters often take things too far, exposing their own bigotry or other flaws.
RANDY NEWMAN (singing): It's money that I love.
RANDY NEWMAN: I generally think the audience is better than the characters in my songs, since I often write songs about people who are insensitive and don't know themselves very well, or don't realize that they're indicting themselves by what they're saying.
JEFFREY BROWN: In his own voice, he wields the wicked pen of a master satirist. In his song, "The Great Nations of Europe," Newman skewers the age of empire.
RANDY NEWMAN: Columbus sailed for India found Salvador instead
He shook hands with some Indians there
and soon they all were dead; they got TV and typhoid and athlete's foot diphtheria and the flu
excuse me great nations coming through.
RANDY NEWMAN: 70 - 80 percent of my songs are meant to make people laugh, which is
far from the norm in pop music. It takes itself very seriously.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you write to make people laugh?
RANDY NEWMAN: Maybe to cheer myself up. I mean, writing is such a grim thing, maybe I write that way to do it. And there's a thing about laughter that lets you know you're sort of alright, you know, if you're trying to make people laugh. If it's inadvertent, you're in trouble.
JEFFREY BROWN: One long-time fan and friend is a classical music star, Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the National Symphony.
LEONARD SLATKIN: Randy's music harmonically it's not so far removed from traditions of New Orleans, traditions of blues. It's all sitting right in there. It's just that within that he makes it complicated. A harmony there, an emphasis on a syllable there, and of course there is still nobody who does it better than Randy does.
JEFFREY BROWN: These days, many young people know a different Randy Newman: The composer of film songs and scores. Movie music is actually the family business. Newman grew up in Hollywood, three uncles were leading film composers. Onstage, he recounted his assignment in the hit "Toy Story."
RANDY NEWMAN: It's clear that this boy and this cowboy have a special relationship, that it's his favorite toy. It's obvious. So there is a birthday, the kid has a birthday and he gets a lot of presents. One of them is a spaceman doll who immediately takes his place... the cowboy's place in the boy's heart. Supercedes him completely, and I had to write sensitive, really sensitive song about the confusion that the cowboy was feeling.
RANDY NEWMAN (singing): You've got a friend in me you've got troubles
I got 'em too -- there isn't anything
I wouldn't do for you. If we stick together
we can see it through cause you've got a friend in me.
JEFFREY BROWN: I saw an article the other day where the writer said you were his four-year- old's favorite songwriter.
RANDY NEWMAN: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are you okay with that?
RANDY NEWMAN: For about three minutes, and then I'm in trouble with 'em ( laughs ) yeah, oh, I'm definitely okay with it. I mean, I'm grateful. The movies at the beginning scare you because you wonder "what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I don't know how to do this one." The score is difficult. I have to work at it all the time every day to do it. Just because I've written a lot of songs doesn't give me confidence that I can go in there and write a song. I do have confidence that if given an assignment for a picture, I can write a song. You know, they tell me that Woody and the kid in "Toy Story," they're real good friends, it's a special relationship, they're very close. You know, and "you got a friend in me, you got a friend in me," there it is. I can do all that. But thinking songs for myself is more difficult.
JEFFREY BROWN: But performing's easier than writing?
RANDY NEWMAN: Oh, yeah. You kidding? I mean, you do it, you mess up a hotel room, you mess up on stage, you leave, you don't look back at it. It's great. People are applauding. You know, there's no... maybe if I hired people to applaud when I was writing. ( Applause )
JEFFREY BROWN: In spite of those difficulties, Newman is planning a new album with new songs as his next project. ( Applause )
JIM LEHRER: You can ask your own questions of Randy Newman by joining in an online NewsHour forum with the songwriter. You can do it on our Web site at pbs.org.