I’ve been sure The Phil Hendrie Show (PHS) is great since I started listening to it. If I were one to throw around terms like “comedic genius,” I might’ve hurled that exact one right at the radio program’s titular host. Other fans of the show include George Carlin, Matt Groening, Gary Shandling, Larry David, Harry Shearer, and Kevin Pollak (whose interview with Hendrie served as a source for this piece). A few of those guys have probably been called comedic geniuses themselves. Who would I be to argue with them? Why would I even want to?
A dismissal of Hendrie as a jerk who uses his considerable talent for little more than pissing people off recently came to my attention. It’s in an essay called “Host” authored by the late literary luminary David Foster Wallace. While “Host” is the only thing I’ve ever read by him, I have listened to him speak thoughtfully and reasonably on a variety of subjects, leading me to believe he’s the kind of person whose opinions usually merit careful consideration. Plus, it had been about five years since I had spent any significant amount of time listening to PHS, or even really thinking about it. So while the stature of the critic certainly contributed to the weight of the criticism, there was a distinct possibility that a show I liked a lot in high school was just shock-jock juvenilia. Unable to shake the thought, I rattled my brain with a complete revisitation and reassessment of the show.
With cerebrospinal fluid settled, I can say I definitely don’t think it’s immature trash. In fact, it’s brilliant in ways I hadn’t previously considered. Yet it does do some things that now seem kind of stupid to me, a few of which even make me a little uncomfortable. And as is the case with any good brain rattling, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the two. Elaborate? Well, alright.
The World Of Talk Radio
I believe one of the keys to understanding PHS is understanding the environment in which it exists: that of commercial political talk radio in America (“talk radio” from here on out). For those unfamiliar, it’s an environment populated primarily by conservative political commentators who have positioned themselves outside of and as alternatives to what they perceive to be a liberally-biased “mainstream media.” Their rhetoric can be dogmatic. Their opinions frequently court controversy, occasionally bend it over the hood of a sports car and make love to it ecstatically with the garage door opened.
I could insert some Glenn Beck quote here as a catch-all example, but that’d be fairly reductive. Instead, I will quote from Wallace’s “Host” which, in addition to being my spark for writing this, is a compelling overview and analysis of the talk radio format. (In their original contexts, some excerpts I will be using may refer to only one host—John Ziegler—though here I will apply them to talk radio in general, which, in my opinion, is not out of line with the thrust of the essay.) Wallace posits that a talk radio host’s job is not “to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible.” People “complain about propaganda, misinformation, and irresponsibility,” but in doing so forget that hosts are not journalists or even necessarily ideologues—they’re entertainers paid to generate ratings. “The conservatism that dominates today’s AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits,” he says.
The problem some have with the format, though, is that many hosts (some with the power to influence millions of listeners a day) “enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved.” Their truths are instead “revealed” (Wallace). (Beck and fellow host Michael Savage don’t hesitate to use religion and revelation to support their opinions and claims. I once heard Savage suggest that God sent a snowstorm to a global warming conference to make Al Gore look like a fool, for example.) They hop back and forth between folksy and legit, commentator and journalist in ways that aren’t particularly becoming of any of those things.
There’s a precarious combination of piousness and posturing at play. Every election is the most important one of your lifetime. Every Middle Eastern political development a host disapproves of heralds an apocalyptic future. The opposition (Democrats, liberals, and progressives, not to mention marxists, socialists, and communists—though some hosts would argue there isn’t much difference between the first set of labels and the second) hates the country and must be stopped. Calling the show and agreeing with the host makes you a Great American (Sean Hannity—or, as Savage has called him, “Pawn Vanity”—in particular loves to bestow that exact title). Criticism is just more proof that the host is endlessly persecuted for taking on the establishment and breaking from the strictures of political correctness. Listeners will not believe what <political figure/organization the host dislikes> said or did today. It’s probably “scary stuff” that only the host has the guts to tell you about—coming up after the break. (Rush Limbaugh calls commercial breaks “obscene profit timeouts.”)
While the flamboyant language of the format will be forever entangled with the political agenda it attempts to advance, I would argue that it’s ultimately subservient to an agenda of “stimulation.” KFI is the radio station Wallace observed for “Host.” (Not so coincidentally, it’s also the station PHS was being broadcast from at the time.) Its slogan is “More Stimulating Talk Radio.” Like all slogans, its meaning is inevitably vague, but Wallace manages to cut to the heart of it: Content, he says, is “a subset of personality.” (You know, as in, “He’s a radio personality.”) What a host says is less important than how he or she says it. (See: “I think the rich are being unfairly demonized in America today” vs. “We’ll be right back after this obscene profit timeout.”) I wouldn’t necessarily say Limbaugh lacks conviction in the viewpoint implied by “obscene profit timeouts.” I would say that, professionally, the comment’s primary function is establishing him as an irreverent personality. You can get content similar to The Rush Limbaugh Show from countless outlets (Wallace notes that it’s the show on which “most syndicated and large-market political talk radio is modeled”), but there is only one Rush Limbaugh. Hendrie himself tells Kevin Pollak (during the interview linked in the first paragraph) that his respect for Limbaugh as a broadcaster has nothing to do with Limbaugh’s political views, which do not match Hendrie’s own.
More importantly, though, a host’s “remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners” (Wallace). Get conservatives scared about The United Nations infringing on America’s sovereignty. Energize them with an impassioned “us against the world” rallying cry. (Hannity has been invoking “The Conservative Underground” and “Conservatism In Exile” during the Obama years.) Enrage liberals by condescendingly dismissing their core values. Or make them laugh with an “ignorant” or “delusional” quote. As Wallace says, “the emotions most readily accessed [through talk radio] are anger, outrage, indignation, fear, despair, disgust, contempt, and a certain kind of apocalyptic glee.”
For all it’s political divisiveness, talk radio frequently works as entertainment whether you agree with the host or not. That’s because getting fired up about something is fun, whether in solidarity with or opposition to. Nonpartisan radio expert Michael Harrison points out that when hosts are embroiled in controversy their “detractors are listening because they feel vindicated.” (See also: People who enjoy discussing things they hate as much as, if not more than, those they love.) Want to savor the catharsis of the hypocritical liberal elites getting taken down a peg? You got it. Want to marvel at the hateful diatribes of radical throwbacks? Step right up. I’m not arguing that liberals listen to talk radio in numbers that rival conservatives, but if you’ve ever listened to a program, you know that a liberal calling in to argue is not a rarity. Plus, playing a “shocking” clip of a conservative host and then attacking it is a staple of many liberal pundits’ shows. It’s all part of the back-and-forth fun and games. Don’t try to tell me these guys aren’t enjoying The Rush Limbaugh Show just as much as someone who agrees with everything he says.
Note that the host’s analysis is not significantly more penetrating than a conservative host’s might be of a liberal’s soundbite. (Disclaimer: This video is my first and only exposure to The Majority Report. I have no idea how “responsible or nuanced” it generally is. Whoever runs its YouTube account did file the clip under “comedy,” though, which is a good sign.) But again, it’s fun. Relish Rush getting rebuked. Fume over him being taken out of context. Whatever. Forget politics and pretend that liberals and conservatives are instead two rival sports teams. If you’re a fan of a team that’s part of a highly charged rivalry, rooting for your team and supporting it through hard times is as fun as despising your rival, reveling in its every folly.
Unfortunately, as columnist Glenn Greenwald makes crushingly apparent, the fun and games, the good narrative, and the stimulation have consequences. Mainstream political discourse in America really does pretty much boil down to Our Guy versus Their Guy, without much regard for subtlety or specific policy. Talk radio may not have created the problem, but it certainly capitalizes on it, fostering frothing hysteria around the petty while ignoring or oversimplifying daunting-but-crucial institutional issues. It (and associated punditry) might be good for political venting (it feels good to hear “you’re right and a good/real American” and “they’re evil and hate America” when frustrated), but at what cost? It may all be in the name of ratings, but apparently a lot of people take it seriously.
If Wallace, Greenwald, and I can’t convince you, maybe Bill O’Reilly can. He once said this to John Stewart: “You can make a lot of money by being an assassin. […] It doesn’t matter: right wing or left wing. You go in and you’re a hater—radio, cable, in print, whatever—you can get paid. And there’s a people who do that. And they go in, they don’t even believe half the stuff they say. […] Capitalism drives that. There are people—Americans—who want to hear hate.”
Phil Hendrie: Talk Radio’s Odd Duck
Within this environment, Phil Hendrie hides in plain sight—a terrorist in a tuxedo, a prankster in pinstripes. He walks like a duck, but doesn’t end up at the pond. He quacks like a duck, but in a way that makes you think, “He knows he’s quacking like a duck… And ducks don’t know what ‘ducks’ are, much less what ‘quacking’ is—or if they do, they don’t let on.” While his superficial traits undeniably place him in the Anatidae family, Hendrie may be more accurately classified as an ornithological chimera—with the beak of a parrot, the talons of a bird of prey, and the soul of a mocking bird.
Utilizing the very mechanisms that allow talk radio to masquerade as something deadly serious, PHS creates farcical mayhem by twisting the format’s tropes towards the absurd and surreal. Like most talk radio shows, it features a host discussing the news and issues of the day with guests and callers, often under the pretense of a “conversation” or “debate” (in the cultural sense). The opinions spotlighted are undoubtedly outside of the mainstream. And yes, exchanges can get heated and emotions do run high. “Stimulating?” Check.
The show’s high-concept hook is that Hendrie simultaneously plays the role of both Host and Guest. (I’ll be capitalizing those two terms and “Callers” when referring to them in the context of PHS). He plays the roles so convincingly that Callers—who are not “fake”—call in to converse and argue with them under the assumption that they are “real.” If that sounds impossible, well… I’ll just let Hendrie speak for himself. Then again, that may not be the best choice of words.
This aspect of the show always gets the most attention, somewhat understandably so. The revelation is shocking and the talent it takes is highly impressive. However, it’s usually portrayed as little more than a prank call turned inside-out. Hendrie’s performance is admired and people think it’s funny, but the ideas the performance serves are rarely discussed. It’s a shame because there are some fairly subversive ones to be discovered if the show’s artifice is viewed as a means rather than an end. While the show relies on the talk radio format, it also antagonizes many of the format’s signature elements.
In this video, that contentious relationship plays out more openly than usual.
Hendrie sits on a panel of talk radio hosts. Yet all he does is talk about how much he hates talk radio. He uses the terms “snake oil salesman” and “hucksterism” to describe hosts and their behavior. It seems safe to assume, however, that he does not consider himself a “snake oil salesman” or practitioner of “hucksterism.” Why not?
If a traditional host is a radio personality, then Hendrie, with his cast of characters (the Guests), is a radio multiple-personality. The presence of multiple characters being played by one person turns the concept of characters and acting into a foregone conclusion, which is not the case with traditional talk radio shows. Sometimes it’s not a conclusion at all, since hosts try very hard to maintain the illusion that their personas are indistinguishable from their “real” selves. It’s hard for them to be emotionally engaging if listeners are not swept up in the idea that everything they say is sincere and they’re motivated by nothing less (and nothing more) than love of country. Playing only one character does not mean that it’s not a character, of course. (The way a host acts on the air is sometimes called their “persona,” a word derived from the Latin “persōna,” meaning “mask” or “character.”) PHS deals with this phenomenon in several segments.
[Note on sources: PHS aired from 1990 to 2006. I tuned in at least a few nights a week from 2004 to 2006, so I have experienced what an entire show is like many times. (While it is true Hendrie returned to the air in 2007 after a brief retirement, he’s no longer broadcast on a station I have access to.) However, since it would be difficult to recall specifics from at least six years ago, I will primarily be relying on my collection of “best of” PHS albums as source material.]
On World Famous’s “Let’s Kill Arafat,” for example, the Host suggests it wouldn’t be very hard to raise $50 million to fund an assassination of Yasser Arafat. His boss, recurring Guest and ostensible Vice President Of Syndication David G. Hall, then calls in to the show and orders him to actually do it. “That was your big ‘disc-jockey,’ ‘morning show bit’ idea. NOW FOLLOW THROUGH ON IT!” he screams. “It’ll liven up this rotten show!” The radiothon that follows is a complete disaster, naturally.
“Smokin’” (“Are You For Real?”) finds Hall trying to get the Host to adopt the catchphrase of Jim Carrey’s character in The Mask (“Smokin’”) as a way of capping off each segment before a commercial break. “You need something like that, okay? You gotta have some kind of a catchphrase—a word, something like that! Your show doesn’t lock out with jack, okay!?” He has the Host say “Smokin’” with a variety of inflections while providing notes like “Do it with feeling!” and “Ehh, it’s wimpy.”
“Show Monitor” (World Famous) documents Hall’s introduction of a device that beeps just like a heart monitor to keep track of how engaging the show is. Whenever the show is boring, the monitor “flat lines” and the “show is dead.” The joke plays out with the show “dying” whenever the Host tries to talk about anything. In the end he loses it and starts yelling for the device to be turned off. The outburst perks the monitor back up.
I can’t imagine a better way to subvert the mythology of the maverick talk radio host than to put a host’s boss on the air with him—it’s quite the cold shower. The call for the assassination fundraiser might’ve served as proof of how audacious or fearless a traditional host is. It taps many of the emotions Wallace identifies as hallmarks of the format and works as political venting. On PHS, it instead becomes an exercise in pathetic drudgery as the Host’s boss forces him to do something ridiculous (i.e., a ratings stunt) under the threat of losing his job. All the while he has to insist the initial comment was just a joke (i.e., entertainment). Later, when an elderly Guest helping out with the radiothon expresses his admiration for the cause, Hall snarks that the Host is “really locking up that upper-70s demo[graphic]!” Even when dealing with something as inflammatory as the assassination of a foreign leader, it’s all about the ratings. (“The truth is, we do everything for ratings. Yes, that’s our job. I can show you the contract.”—John Kobylt of KFI’s John & Ken Show, quoted in a Los Angeles Times profile, via Wallace’s “Host.”) Further, the gag suggests that the ideas and actions hosts advocate for would fall apart if anyone actually tried to put them into practice.
“Smokin’” draws more attention to host personas by having one tweaked and critiqued by the person who signs off on them, much like a network executive might a television character. Plus, Hall makes sure the Host knows it’s a one-way street and he’s in charge. When asked if he could be a little nicer, Hall orders the Host to “dispense with your commentary on my personality.” “Show Monitor” makes explicit what talk radio hosts are paid to do: entertain—not liberate the masses with the truth or save the country. The Host’s well-received anger at the end points to the type of entertainment and character the format favors.
With the Host repressed, a vacuum is created. The format needs controversy and charged rhetoric to generate emotional engagement and ratings. There’s a moment (2:53) in the discussion panel video embedded above when one of the hosts suggests that the reason he and others sometimes have to engage in “hucksterism” is that they don’t have the luxury of being their own guests like Hendrie. He says this as a half-joking insult, but he’s right. On PHS, Guests fill the vacuum. They’re the thunderous lightning rods spouting controversial opinions.
For instance, Bobbi Dooley, president of her neighborhood’s Home Owner’s Association, bans the mother of an MIA soldier from hanging yellow ribbons because the mother failed to submit a written request for these so-called “out of season decoration[s].” Meanwhile, she is hanging her dirty underwear around the neighborhood in hopes of attracting her lost dog home with the scent (“Dirty Panites”—The Death Of Talk Radio). On “Homeland Security” (The Death Of Talk Radio), Dean Wheeler explains that, in a post-9/11 world, we all need to be vigilant. For him, this means counting the empty jars of sexual lubricants in his neighbors’ trash cans. “Saddam” (“Are You For Real?”) features Lloyd Bonafide outraged over the publication of a photo of Saddam Hussein in nothing but underwear. He’s worried the photo, which he feels highlights how well-endowed Hussein is, will arouse women to the point that they will start to forget about his atrocities and feel sympathy for him.
Guests attempt to defend these opinions using many of the same rhetorical tactics talk radio hosts do. On another Bonafide track (“Mister Lloyd”—A Chilling Day For Talk Radio), the Korean war veteran is arguing that all veterans have an obligation to hang a flag on Flag Day. When he found out his neighbor, a Vietnam vet, was not hanging one, he broke into his house, stole a flag, and hung it. When a Caller (who is also a veteran) starts lambasting him, he appeals to the audience’s sense of patriotism (“I believe in the flag…”) and starts crying, both forms of emotional manipulation. They don’t work, though, so he resorts to inaccurate and irrelevant insults, claiming the Caller fled to Canada to dodge the draft. “The thing that scares me about this whole situation, sir, is you’ve become a self-appointed guardian of the flag,” says the Caller.
“I am appalled that she would use a Bible verse as justification,” chides the Caller on “Flu Shot” (“Are You For Real?”). During the segment, Bobbi Dooley indeed quotes The Bible—to justify her healthy sixteen year old son getting a flu shot before the elderly. “Da Da” (The Death Of Talk Radio) finds Vernon Dozier using a mocking voice to support his claim that George W. Bush only invaded Iraq to impress his father. Larry Grover attempts to play on the fear of another terrorist attack to make the audience take seriously his 9/11 conspiracy theory involving “French operatives in the eye sockets of the Statue [Of Liberty] with orange flashlights” (“The French”—The Death Of Talk Radio).
Obviously these controversial opinions are incredibly goofy. However, they are related to charged topics talk radio thrives on like political correctness, religion, and war. The difference is the context. The “constant conflict” on traditional talk radio is generated by situating the discussion of everything within a large-scale political struggle or culture war between liberals and conservatives. This is a narrative that people can get swept up in, and it’s one that allows for the extreme and emotionally-charged rhetoric of hosts because the stakes appear to be so high. Take a look at some of the subtitles of books hosts have written. (A smattering: Stopping Obama’s Attack On Our Borders, Economy, And Security and Saving America From The Liberal Assault On Our Borders, Language, And Culture—both Savage, Winning The War Of Liberty Over Liberalism and Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, And Liberalism—both Hannity.) Doesn’t it seem like they’re selling themselves as “self-appointed guardians of the flag” and not just radio personalities? That’s because the former elevates hosts and ensconces them in the exciting narratives (brands?) they’ve created on their shows. Radio hosts don’t generate big ratings and sales. Culture Warriors do.
PHS yanks talk radio down from the clouds of political abstraction and slams it into the concrete. Its constant conflict comes from Callers and Guests arguing with each other. The kinds of stories and opinions Guests share are simply too weird, too personal, and too stupid to get sucked into broader conflicts—even though Guests and Callers sometimes try to push them in that direction, as shown above. But it always comes off as ridiculous. The crying, the insults, and the excessive, narrowly-defined patriotism and piety suddenly seem hokey and comical when being used not by a skilled host operating within the highly-charged trappings of the political arena, but a crotchety old man telling an absurd story. PHS characters are not Culture Warriors. They don’t have any political or emotional baggage with the first-time or casual listeners who tend to call in. They’re just random strangers. Thus, Callers tend to either dismiss Guests as jokes or take them seriously and come off as jokes themselves. The final twist in “Mr. Lloyd” is a nurse (another character) picking up the phone and revealing that Bonafide is just a senile man in a nursing home who loves to call talk radio shows when unsupervised.
Yet despite these parallels, PHS Guests are still framed as traditional talk radio guests, not hosts. This choice brings with it circumstances that allow the show to further undermine format rhetoric. Wallace says that talk radio, not a medium commonly used for background listening, has a “special intimacy. It’s usually listened to solo […] and feels like a one-to-one” conversation. It’s no wonder people may “start to feel [they] know” the person speaking or get wrapped up in monologues that might not resonate in another context. This refers only to hosts, of course, who are broadcasting from a professional studio backed by a production team ensuring their “pro-caliber” voice transmits cleanly and smoothly.
Conversely, guests are typically calling in to a show. The lower-tech audio makes their voices come through patchily and a bit muffled. They’re intruding on the intimate world created by the host. (On PHS, sound effects and music are occasionally used to establish the specific location a Guest is calling from, like Rudy Canosa’s lingerie shop—The Death Of Talk Radio’s “Lingerie,” Margaret Grey’s bathtub—Fahrenheit 7/11’s “Margaret Grey In The Bathtub,” Father James McQuarters’ church—World Famous’s “Holy Water Urination,” etc. Not only are they intruding on the Host’s world, they’re bringing their own world with them.) Plus, the host is usually questioning them, and even softball questions imply a certain amount of skepticism. If nothing else, the questions at least break up what the guest is saying in a way that robs it of the power a monologue can have. It doesn’t matter how charismatic or rhetorically skilled a guest is, he or she will never have the same connection with the audience the host does.
The Host on PHS may not be that exciting, but he still exists. He questions (and sometimes even hangs up on) Guests and provides a voice of reason for Callers to appeal to (“Flu Shot,” “The French,” “Lord Vader” and “My Name Is Judy”—Communism Is Neat, “Homeland Security” and “Short Stack”—The Death Of Talk Radio, etc.). His mere presence instantly casts PHS Guests, spotlight hogs and talk radio rhetoricians though they may be, as outsiders. (Half-joking suggestive-question: Is PHS the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty of radio?) His relative tameness also further exaggerates how ridiculous Guest opinions and tactics are.
All this begs the question: What would happen if a host, “in personality” (i.e., in character), appeared as a guest on another program? Would Mark Levin’s wrathful monologues, for example, have the same impact filtered through a telephone, moderated by someone else? PHS seems to doubt it. By injecting the format’s trademark rhetorical techniques into a destabilized comfort zone, the show expresses skepticism toward both the techniques themselves and the people who use them. “What is the difference between the average talk radio show and a recording of two people yelling at each other?” it seems to wonder.
The show often functions like a behind-the-scenes tour of the format guided by a man gleefully pointing out how the sausage is made (and how the outrage is manufactured) at every opportunity. The Guests and their preposterous personas are literally fake. The conflicts are intentionally trumped up by Hendrie to keep his show engaging. (He tells Pollak that on the rare occasions a Caller has sympathy for a Guest, he still has to try to piss the Caller off.) PHS treats character and narrative as tools “openly” invented by the host, not as pre-existing realities the host gets sucked into because the future of the country is at stake. It pops talk radio’s speech bubbles and lets the once-protected words freefall and fend for themselves. Like a riff on Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message,” PHS suggests that with talk radio, “the format is the feeling”—but doesn’t have to be! Anger, outrage, and fear are all negative emotions that spring from taking hosts (or, in this case, Guests) and their speech seriously. By subverting the format and stripping its hosts and topics of their pageantry, PHS not only makes those feelings seem silly, but opens the format up to a range of new feelings inspired by its own silly comedy—ones that are positive and “non-serious.” It works as a kind of loose protest against talk radio because it does not just antagonize the content. It’s not an opposing opinion delivered by a liberal pundit using the same type of tactics—it’s an alternative way of thinking about the format’s methods for dealing with the world altogether.
You could claim that the show also lies to people and does outrageous things for ratings, but that’s missing the point. PHS’s facade is only gimmick-deep. The ideal way of enjoying the show flies in the face of traditional talk radio modes of listening. Rather than encouraging listeners to get caught up in an intense debate or captivated by a charismatic monologue, it demands they become aware of the host’s emotional manipulation. The show might even help foster a healthy skepticism of media. Even if you’re a Caller who gets tricked, it might make you wonder who else is trying to trick you, and why.
In one of the show’s more inspired moments (“Margaret Grey And The Jesus Freak”—Fahrenheit 7/11), the Host claims he has to go to a commercial break in the middle of an argument between the Guest and Caller. He tells the Caller he is putting her on hold, but doesn’t actually do it because he doesn’t actually have to break. He and the Guest begin talking as if they are off the air. The Guest starts disparaging the Caller (“I don’t want to talk to some gap-toothed, Bible-thumping hick bitch”) and encourages the Host to “blow through that call” so they can focus on her book signing. Of course, the Caller can hear all of this and immediately throws it in the Guest’s face when they pretend to return from the commercial break. First, the Guest denies it. Then, defeated, she attacks the Host for not putting the Caller on hold properly.
Back when I was able to listen to PHS live, it came on after a local conservative host, The Glenn Beck Program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Sean Hannity Show, and The Savage Nation. After PHS was Coast To Coast AM, a show that gives a platform to people genuinely interested in things like extraterrestrial conspiracy theories and the paranormal. Those shows constituted the other twenty-one hours of the station’s daily programming. None of them are humorless, but each ultimately presents itself as something to be taken seriously. Against this onslaught of self-important seriousness, PHS stood alone, armed to the fake chattering teeth with bang guns.
If you read all of the above (*high five*) and watched the talk radio discussion panel video, perhaps it’s occurred to you that Hendrie’s skeptical view of the format is actually quite similar to Wallace’s in “Host.” Yet here’s what Wallace writes about the show:
In some cases, though, the personas are more contrived and extreme. […] [For instance,] the Phil Hendrie Show, which is actually a cruel and complicated kind of meta-talk radio. What happens every night on this program is that Phil Hendrie brings on some wildly offensive guest—a man who’s leaving his wife because she’s had a mastectomy, a Little League coach who advocates corporal punishment of players, a retired colonel who claims that females’ only proper place in the military is as domestics and concubines for the officers—and first-time or casual listeners will call in and argue with the guests and (not surprisingly) get very angry and upset. Except the whole thing’s a put-on. The guests are fake, their different voices done by Hendrie with the aid of mike processing and a first-rate board op, and the show’s real entertainment is the callers, who don’t know it’s all a gag—Hendrie’s real audience, which is in on the joke, enjoys hearing these callers get more and more outraged and sputtery as the “guests” yank their chain. It’s all a bit like the old Candid Camera if the joke perpetrated over and over on that show were convincing somebody that a loved one had just died. So obviously Hendrie—whose show now draws an estimated one million listeners a week—lies on the outer frontier of radio persona.
Just about everything else in the essay is quite insightful (and, obviously, influential on this piece), but the analysis of PHS is lacking. The comments are still useful, however, because they bring the focus back to the most readily accessible aspects of the show (angry Callers, lowbrow and/or offensive content, etc.). Ironically, much of what I wrote about PHS making talk radio’s facade more concrete is fairly abstract. It’s a way of understanding the show, but a fairly unrealistic way of experiencing it. I stand by my somewhat “meta” analysis of “Let’s Kill Arafat,” but I should note that the ensuing “disaster” of a radiothon I alluded to features the recurring joke of an old man laying down to rest and looking up a woman’s skirt (“I could see all the way up your poop deck,” “I can see your taco,” “I’m lookin’ at your enchilada,” etc.).
Yes, Wallace’s comments bring us back to the euphemisms for “vagina.” They bring us back to the burping, the farting, the vomiting, and all the other crassness that is likely to figure heavily in a typical PHS segment. They remind us that, neat as turning a prank call inside-out might be, prank calls are usually pretty puerile. I’d be fine with never hearing “Ass Basting For Peace” (Bring It!), “Steve Bosell And The Dirty Diaper” (Fahrenheit 7/11), “Evening With The Quaids Part 2″ (aka “Dennis Barfs On Meg”) (#1 Rated), and a handful of others again. They’re generally just gross or “shocking,” with little humor or redeeming value for me. I admit that stuff like the size of Saddam Hussein’s penis being a serious threat to our national security and Dean Wheeler blaming his hemorrhoids on the stressfulness of George W. Bush’s reelection (“Hemorrhoids”—“Are You For Real?”) has made me laugh, but keep in mind that I was raised by someone whose sense of humor could be best encapsulated by an America’s Funniest Home Video of a flatulent fat man being bitten in the crotch by a gay dog, so I probably never stood a chance at sophistication anyway. Still, there’s plenty to unpack on the show’s less subtle side. So while I appreciate Wallace’s PHS comments and realize they were not the focus of “Host,” I’m going to take issue with them on several points.
From what I can tell, the primary obstacle keeping Wallace and Hendrie from being on the same page is their empathy for Callers. Wallace feels bad for them. Hendrie does not. To summarize Hendrie’s views on Callers expressed during the Pollak interview: They’re “freaks.” They’re the kind of people whose bumpers are completely stickered, that organize letter writing campaigns. (Sure enough, the Caller from Fahrenheit 7/11’s “Herb Sewell’s Out Of Body Experience” promises to write a letter to the parole board that let Herb Sewell out of prison, and the one from The Death Of Talk Radio’s “Burning Man” requests the contact information for the RV association the Guest is representing.) They just love to hear themselves talk and want the approval of the host. For him, Callers are “bottom of the barrel” and not who he does the show for. So no, I don’t think he has trouble sleeping at night over Caller-exploitation.
Most of the time, I don’t think he should. I can only speak for myself here, but if I were going to call in to a talk radio show, I’d probably want to listen to it for a few days and maybe check out its website to get some context. That’s why the decision-making processes of some Callers strike me as rather strange. They’re listening to a show they’ve most likely never heard before. Maybe they’ve caught it in the middle of a discussion. (Callers sometimes admit this, see: The Death Of Talk Radio’s ”Floor Seats” and Still On The Air!’s “Push Number 2.”) A person on the show says something that piques their interest. If it’s early on in a segment, it might just be a bizarre opinion expressed in a crude way. If it’s later, it’s probably something flagrantly offensive or completely nonsensical. Either way, it seems it would be obvious there’s something weird about the show. The kind of person who, under these circumstances, immediately calls in and starts arguing with an idiot in front of a national audience likely possesses the kind of brashness that has backfired before.
The Caller from World Famous’s “Pee In Pool” even unwittingly recognizes the absurdity of calling in. “What do you expect when you call a radio station with a story like this?” she says, not to herself but the segment’s beleaguered and humiliated Guest. “I mean, this is a ridiculous story.” She laughs at him several times on the track, which is not an uncommon thing for a Caller to do to a Guest (see: “I’ve Gotta Rock”—“Are You For Real?,” Bring It!’s “Ted Loves The Lakers,” The Death Of Talk Radio’s “Hit & Run,” etc.). If these Callers expect Guests to be more responsible about getting on the radio and have no problem laughing at them for their stupidity, how bad should listeners feel about laughing at these Callers for being irresponsible and getting tricked on the radio?
Frankly, it’s not just irresponsibility or brashness that some Callers exhibit. It’s hard to have sympathy for the Caller who starts screaming at the Guest on World Famous’s “Taliban Olympics,” suggesting he should be deported for his opinions, set on fire, and killed—then claims she’s “a true American” who “supports everything [her] country does,” and that he’s “a fairy” and “such a bigot.” (The Guest smugly suggests that she’s only saying this stuff to “impress the talk show host.”) That’s probably the most egregious example of an offensive Caller from the “best of” compilations, but there are others: The “you people” guy from “Grape Soda” (World Famous), the woman saying a young Latino entrepreneur is “’loco-coco,’ or whatever you call it in Spanish,” “on welfare,” “doped up,” and a car thief (“Push Number 2”), the “he sounds like a fag in drag” lady from “Mavis & Rose” (Still On The Air!), etc.
Though most Callers are not overtly bigoted, many do exhibit the traditional talk radio attitudes and emotions Hendrie so hates. Occasionally PHS goes out of its way to razz these types of Callers, with segments ranging from parodies of the letter writers who want Hendrie thrown off the air (see: “David G. Hall,” “Please Hang Up,” and “‘It Just Faaaades’,” among other Still On The Air! tracks) to more subversive pranks like The Death Of Talk Radio’s “Belt Sander.” The segment features a Caller (Mike, a Vietnam vet) who is very angry with Guest Jay Santos’s Citizens’ Auxiliary Police squad for operating well outside the bounds its non-existent authority. Mike, full of bravado, threatens Santos several times. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, until the show introduces one of its cleverest methods for undermining Caller rhetoric: bringing a character on not as a Guest, but as another Caller.
Lloyd Bonafide becomes part of the conversation. He’s a pissed off Caller and a veteran, just like Mike. He starts out by establishing a sense of camaraderie with Mike, couching their shared hatred of Santos in their shared status as veterans. Except, unfortunately for Mike, Bonafide is less his friend than PHS’s version of his id. Mike claims that if Santos tries to pull him over at a flare drop, Santos will “eat the flare.” Bonafide claims that if Santos tries to touch his car, he will “tear [Santos’s] eyes out and have sex with [his] skull.” When Santos asks for the Callers’ addresses so he can arrest them for their threats, Mike dares him to “come on down” to his home in Fort Mitchell, Alabama. Bonafide invites him to “123 Ass-Kick St.”
While those exchanges alone are ridiculous enough to ensure that even a fake serious debate would not be taking place during the segment, PHS pushes further. “You know what we used to do to guys like [Santos] in the [military] service?” asks Bonafide. “Yeah!” encourages Mike, eager for a tale of tough guys beating up on a weaselly wimp. “We’d vaseline up their rear-end[s] and go ahead and go to work on them, one after the other. Isn’t that right, Mike?” “Not me!” Mike exclaims, unexpectedly finding himself on the defensive. “I’d pound [Santos] into the ground,” he assures us, trying to wrest back control of the show’s tone. But it’s too late. His threats, already made ineffectual by Bonafide’s parodic extreme ones, now also seem utterly foolish as the conversation devolves into name-calling and he turns on Bonafide, suggesting he’s gay because he lives in California, and so on and so forth.
At the end of the segment, when Mike calls Hendrie “Mr. Bohannon” (referring to fellow host Jim Bohannon), it becomes clear that PHS pulled a rug out from under him that he didn’t even know he was standing on. Even after all of Bonafide’s antics (not to mention Santos’s stupidity), as Mike picks himself up off the hardwood floor, he’s thinking about how comfortable the rug was, what a nice design it had. He’s more in-tune to the sudden and acute absence of the rug than to the newfound presence of the hardwood floor. PHS is still just another talk radio show to him. Hendrie is just another host. At points Mike laughs at Bonafide, but he always goes back to threatening Santos. He won’t stop attempting to use traditional talk radio’s bombastic seriousness and self-importance against a cartoon character, nor will he let the conversation be what he sort of intuits it is: comical. He keeps trying to fit it into his preconceived notions of the format. It’s the dog returning to its vomit. While PHS may be partly provoking “the vomiting” (with Santos), it’s also shooing “the dog” away from returning to it (with Bonafide). You’d think that’d be enough, given the unappealing nature of vomit, but apparently it’s not. Segments like these show how most of the Callers who come off badly ultimately have no one to blame but themselves.
That’s why Wallace’s Candid Camera zinger is a faulty comparison. The premise of that show hinges on those being filmed not knowing it (i.e., “candid”). A goofy premise a la PHS is involved, but there’s a big difference between being secretly filmed and choosing to call in. As Hendrie summarizes in his interview with Pollak: “Somebody said it’s like throwing a banana peel out there. No, not quite… because these are people that see the banana peel and want to walk over it.” Plus, keep in mind that all the audience gets is a first name, a city, and a patchy voice. Callers may be getting embarrassed publicly, but also essentially anonymously. (And let’s be honest, it’s not like the industry has some magical, loving bond with its listeners that PHS is betraying. As Wallace puts it: “Given how intimate and relationship-driven talk radio is, it’s disheartening when management’s only term for KFI’s listeners, again and again, is ‘market.’”)
Do Callers have to get embarrassed, though? The show often seems to be portrayed as a Venus Flytrap that lures in the unsuspecting, chews them up, then opens its mouth while making a puking noise like a third-grade boy hate-flirting with the girls’ table. To that I say: Ew! Gross! (That’s third grade girl for: “You’re misunderstanding what makes the show funny.”)
This media story on the show exemplifies that kind of portrayal well. It mostly focuses on the deception. Fans being interviewed only talk about that and the “irate” “saps” that call in. Wallace suggests that “the show’s real entertainment is the callers.” Pollak calls them the “[real] fun to be had.” This way of appreciating the show seems to be based on the idea all Callers are “outraged and sputtery” (Wallace). But it just ain’t so. In most cases, the Callers are not really the butt of the joke. They’re just part of the show’s comedy formula.
Take “Short Stack” from The Death Of Talk Radio. The Caller is a fairly affable guy. He calls the Guest “insane” and “a complete idiot” for his scheme that involves women forgiving their cheating husbands in exchange for a short stack of pancakes, but he keeps his cool. He’s more incredulous than infuriated. He laughs at the Guest and ribs him a little bit, and at the end he explains that he’s a truck driver and has to get off the phone because there’s a weigh station coming up. He was probably just bored after hours of driving on flat, featureless highways and figured it might be fun to talk to a strange man on the radio. That hardly makes him a “sap.”
There are the also segments like “Pee In Pool” and “I’ve Gotta Rock” that center on two Guests antagonizing each other. A Caller is featured on both tracks, but each ends up spending a significant portion of her on-air time laughing at what the Guests are saying and doing. This is partly because the conflict is deflected from the Caller (or at least dispersed between the three—another example of comedy arising from the destabilization of the format’s intense intimacy), but also because what the Guests are saying is funny. Much like those listening at home, Callers are laughing because something humorous is taking place on the show—and it obviously isn’t them going haywire. Any divide between those “in” on the joke and those outside of it dissolves under these circumstances. There’s a reason that any list of best lines from the show is made up of Guest quotes exclusively.
These segments—among many others (“Eyeball To Eyeball”—“Are You For Real?”, “Mock-Spanic”—Communism Is Neat, “Donation”—The Death Of Talk Radio, etc.)—show that PHS is not all about snickering at screaming suckers. That view also ignores segments like “Let’s Kill Arafat” and the recurring parodies of Coast To Coast AM and morning show shock jocks (the “Skippy & Frank” skits) which do not feature Callers but are still plenty funny. It turns Hendrie from a provocative comedian into a provocateur who fools others into being funny, which sells him way short.
Wallace’s introduction of Candid Camera as a comparison again comes in handy here. This clip isn’t from the original Candid Camera, but it’s the exact same premise.
What’s funny about this video? To me, it’s the concept of the prank. A good samaritan trying to return dropped money but ending up arrested for soliciting a prostitute is ironic and humorous in a “no good deed goes unpunished” or “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” way. It’d be a good opening scene in movie or way to establish a character’s hangdog nature in a novel. In other words, it’d be funny without the “real life/person” aspect. Did you actually watch that and think, “Haha! Those stooges got owned! What a bunch of dumbasses!”? If so, you’ll need to pick up a phone, walk to the nearest radiator, handcuff yourself to it, and call 911 because you’re probably a sociopath and pose a danger to yourself and society.
If you’re supposed to feel anything towards the victims of the prank, I’d say it’s a sort of cringing empathy. It’s possible I’m in the minority here, but I just don’t think they’re what’s really funny about the clip. They’re more like variations on a good theme, a device for riffing on and experimenting with the prank. But if the prank is dumb, people’s reactions to it will rarely redeem the comedic value. See:
(The “joke” is that men like watching attractive women do sexually-suggestive stuff. Get it?)
The same formula applies to PHS. Callers are like chord changes for Hendrie, master soloist, to improvise over. Or maybe they’re like randomized dungeon generators in videogames, adding elements of uncertainty and surprise. But if the soloist can’t play or the videogame doesn’t have a solid set of underlying mechanics, none of that matters. I suspect that the flashiness of Caller deception distracts some people from the show’s real draws of funny writing (i.e., scenarios/premises), great voice work, and thrilling improvisation.
Here’s the premise of “Mock-Spanic:” David G. Hall is explaining his new programming idea designed to bring in Spanish-language listeners. It’s called “Mock-Spanic,” and it’s just him pretending to speak Spanish over a recording of The Rush Limbaugh Show. You have to hear Hendrie doing it to get the full effect, but the idea is just so brazenly stupid it’s hard not to laugh. The Caller is a minor player that Hall bounces a few ideas off of. The voice work and writing are what make the segment. “Don Parsley And The Munchkin” (Fahrenheit 7/11) starts out routinely. The Caller is upset and chastising the Guest for treating his wife poorly. It’s funny enough. The segment only becomes particularly memorable, though, when the Guest suddenly accuses the Caller of being his mother-in-law and unravels over his inability to escape her torment. Admittedly, the Caller’s reaction to this is amusing, but it’s secondary to the neurotic performance of the improvised writing.
That doesn’t stop a Caller from being the star of a segment, of course. But, contrary to popular belief, being the star does not have to involve coming off negatively. The pre-pubescent kid who calls in on “Lord Vader?” What a likable jerk! The Guest (Doug Danger) enjoys roleplaying Darth Vader so long as everyone addresses him as “Lord Vader” (which he explains is “a respectful appellation”) and pretends to die if he pretends to strangle them with The Force. The kid is clearly a huge fan of Star Wars mythology, but also has a healthy distance from it and can make fun of it. (“I like the movies. I like the comic books. I DON’T BELIEVE IN IT!” he says.) He explains that only members of the Imperium Senate call Vader “Lord,” while simultaneously deriding how seriously Danger takes his roleplaying. “The Force is a load of bull!” he says, ridiculing Danger’s assertion that he draws strength from it. Convulsing with laughter, he admits he’s “barely holding it together” in the face of Danger’s absurdity. He knows how stupid the argument is, yet still wants to win it. The awareness is charming in the same way that “Belt Sander” Mike’s lack of awareness is chafing. The kid may not know that Danger isn’t real, but he understands the nature of conversation he’s involved in. (It’s worth considering that this is due to the conversation’s subject matter. Star Wars is obviously not typical fodder for traditional talk radio. Thus, conversations about it may not be as likely to stick to the format’s conventions. However, given the kid’s demeanor and ability to laugh at himself when Danger mocks him, I’d like to think it’s also at least partly due to him having a good head on his shoulders.)
When the argument devolves into goofy posturing and threats and the kid plays along, dropping lines like, “Watch me bust out my kung-fu on your butt!” and “[I’ll] knee you in the balls so hard you’ll be flyin’ to the moon and back—whaddaya say to that?” we’re witnessing a type of collaborative comedy as unlikely as it is exhilarating. In the hackneyed, repetitive world of talk radio, this qualifies as a minor miracle. The last ten seconds of the track, nothing but the kid cachinnating like a caffeinated madcap, are a pretty good encapsulation of everything unique and joyful about the show. Despite the fact that he’s clearly a wiseass, he’s endearing because you can tell he’s also just a kid flushed with the thrill and possibilities of being on the radio. (At his best, Hendrie exudes a similar combination of skepticism and wonder.) He’s got to be one of the greatest Callers of all time.
Keeping the above points in mind, I’d like to address the small (but not insignificant) portion of PHS’s material that I can’t get behind. During the Pollak interview, Hendrie explains that he does not wake up in the morning seeking to offend or enrage. He just wants to be entertaining while having fun. Offending listeners is not part of his planning for the show, but it’s also not part of the editing process. He goes on to say that he sometimes needs to go “where people live” and where they’re most “raw” in order to get them riled up enough to call in and interact with Guests in comedically satisfying ways. I understand this. A comedy show that relies on live improvisation and interaction does not always lend itself to measuredness or sensitivity, which is bound to lead to some unfortunate material. Of course, Hendrie has the “I’m in character” defense to fall back on. As he tells Pollak, other hosts “are getting thrown off the air everyday in this country for doing shit that we do every night.” However, if you accept the argument that all host personas are a type of character (as Hendrie seems to), then the fact that other hosts get thrown off the air for doing the same stuff Hendrie does merits some reflection, even if his characters are of a different nature than a traditional host’s.
Take “Ted Bell & The Curse Of Low-Brow Customers” (Fahrenheit 7/11). Ted Bell owns an upscale steakhouse and is tired of customers who are not as classy as it is. He’s so tired of them that when someone, say, drives up in a Ford Ranger truck and asks to have it valeted, he “screams as if he’s just seen Frankenstein” and throws up. To prevent these lowbrow customers from watering down the clientele and bringing up his last meal, he’s begun asking them “a simple question” (like, “Merlot: Is it wine, or is it the name of a magician?”) to determine whether or not they get in. This is obviously elitist, classist, etc. The Caller makes these points, admitting that she is not in the same economic class as Bell, but that his behavior is “sickening” and that “he should be happy that someone of [her] class would want to go eat at a restaurant like that and pay that kind of money for those kind of steaks,” among other reasonable things.
The conversation gets interesting when Bell starts asking the Caller the questions he wants potential customers to answer. He poses a question to the Caller and then asks the Host to play the theme music from Jeopardy while she thinks about it. The Host is outraged at the suggestion, claiming he’s “not gonna make fun of people” and that such a stunt would be “demeaning.” Eventually, the conversation circles back around to another question. “Filet mignon: fish or beef?” asks Bell. The Jeopardy music starts playing. “Fish,” says the Caller. If you have any empathy, you cringe. But wait, where did the Jeopardy music come from? Surely not the anti-elitism Host, right?
Another question, another clip of Jeopardy music. At the end, the Host yells, “Will you turn the music off, please?!” Here, the “I’m in character” defense doesn’t quite hold up. The Host is a character, sure. However, he is usually a reasonable and sympathetic one that shares the Callers’ feelings of disbelief and outrage. And in this specific segment, he actively and adamantly established his feelings about the Jeopardy music. Yet he let it play twice without a word. When he finally calls it off, it’s as if the Host is talking to the “real” Hendrie. While the implications of that are somewhat intriguing (how does the “real” Hendrie, actual host of PHS, factor into the Host/Guest/Caller matrix, and how much of a persona is he?), at that point the whole thing starts to feel rather mean-spirited. I’m pretty much okay with Callers embarrassing themselves or getting made fun of by a Guest during a stupid argument, but this feels more like the “real” Hendrie entering the “fake” talk radio show’s world to make fun of a woman who was not belligerent or racist or anything like that. He’s lowering himself to a man like Bell’s level, the type of man (and level) he’s allegedly satirizing. The segment still makes fun of elitism, and, yes, nobody forced the Caller to call in or stay on the line, but it still makes me feel guilty for listening to and laughing at it.
I guess I just wish the “real” Hendrie was a bit more empathetic on occasion. There are some Callers who get so upset it genuinely seems like they might be on the verge of some kind of a breakdown (“Greens Keeper” and “Dental Breast Exams” from #1 Rated, to name two). In cases like that, it’s usually not all that funny anymore anyway, so why keep making them angrier? If a Caller says something like, “My heart is beating so fast right now!” (“Jay Santos, The Pervert And The Garage Sale”—Fahrenheit 7/11) or “I’m so, so mad right now I can’t even breath…” (“Steve Bosell And The Dirty Diaper”), why not get them off the air and let them know the Guests aren’t real so they calm down? (The Caller from “Jay Santos, The Pervert And The Garage Sale” is cut loose mid-call, but only after she’s gone “off the deep end,” as the Host puts it.) Then there are segments like “David G. Hall” which feature Callers that are clearly confused (sometimes in a “bordering on incoherent” way). Do these types of people really need to be put on the air? I’m sure there are others to choose from. Situations like these find Hendrie falling victim to the thinking I tried to debunk earlier that treats Callers as the show’s primary source of comedy.
The kind of segments I personally find most off-putting are ones in which a Guest is being physically abusive on the air. “Margaret Beats Her Kid” (Still On The Air!) is pretty self-explanatory. “Straight Arrow Ministries” (#1 Rated) is about using electroshock therapy to “cure” gay people. I guess it’s supposed to be a satire of Christians who think homosexuality can be cured, but there’s a difference between talking with a Guest who runs one of those places—and maybe even claims that he or she cured someone with electrocution—and playing electroshock noises while a patient (another Guest, of course) screams in the background. Admittedly, at one point the patient says that he was just joking and isn’t really hooked up to the machine (it’s as if Hendrie’s conscious took control for a moment), but soon enough the electroshock noise starts playing again and the guy goes back to screaming. The Caller and Host are begging the Guest to stop, calling it torture.
On “Plane Go Boom” (World Famous), Vernon Dozier is training a mentally challenged man named Bobby to work in airport security. When Bobby screws up, Dozier electroshocks him. Although it’s clear by the time Bobby nearly chokes Dozier to death by wrapping a phone cord around his neck that the joke is supposed to be on the abuser—not the victim—is that enough to justify a segment like this? What are uninitiated listeners and Callers supposed to do when they hear someone being abused live on the radio? What do they think after the segment is over? You don’t have to be a self-righteous letter-writing “freak” to get passionate about someone being abused.
To clarify: My problem is less with the content than with the show’s facade. People who abuse the mentally challenged exist. Depicting them is, to me, not an inherently bad thing. (Doing so in a comedic context, regardless of intent, is, of course, a different debate—one I can’t add much to, aside from saying it’s not something I would feel comfortable doing.) Allowing people to believe that what they are hearing is actual abuse is what’s cruel. Listening to it or, worse, calling in and failing to stop it, must be pretty disturbing when it seems real.
Of course, Hendrie hardly keeps the show’s true nature a secret. He sometimes talks about it in between segments or at the end of the show, his website is upfront about it, ads for the show explain the premise, and he appears in media stories featuring video of him performing. However, keep in mind that in the media story I linked to earlier, one of Hendrie’s bosses claims that eight out of ten listeners don’t understand how the show works. (Though I’m not sure what the context of that statistic is, since Hendrie tells Pollak—whose interview is more recent than the media story—that he thinks only 5% of listeners don’t get it.) But whatever the number is or should be, I don’t think those people deserve to be put through something as potentially upsetting as listening to abuse for the amusement of the others.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, this happens: After the reveal that Lloyd Bonafide is senile in “Mister Lloyd,” his nurse starts spanking him and performing other acts in an obviously sexual way. Bonafide claims he likes it. Remember, though, that he’s senile. The Host and, more unsettlingly, the Caller laugh at and dismiss this. But she’s abusing him, right? So whether these segments are potentially disturbing or disturbingly enjoyable to uninitiated listeners and Callers, their effect is disheartening.
At one point during my thinking on this, The Milgram Experiment popped into my head. While PHS and that are worlds away from each other, I think the juxtaposition is worth briefly exploring. However you feel about the controversial methods and ethics of the experiment, it seems safe to say its results and implications are fascinating and undeniably worthy of deep reflection on both personal and societal levels. PHS, with its relatively widespread (if not always effective) disclosures of method and Hendrie’s assumption of the role of sole fake electroshocker, is probably less ethically suspect than the experiment. But to what end? Pointing out that some talk radio listeners are gullible or dumb? In addition to not being particularly enlightening, that’s one of the underlying implications of all his segments with Callers, most of which don’t feature fake abuse. While an argument could be made that the laughter at the abuse in “Mr. Lloyd” is Milgram-esque (with The Host serving as the authority figure whose reactions are imitated by the Caller), its persuasiveness would be blunted by the segment’s comedic trappings.
Hendrie addresses accusations of offensiveness with Pollak: “If there’s nothing else I do on the radio, man, I know what I’m saying and I can defend it. It may not be funny, it may be a lot of things, but I can defend it—on the surface.” The “on the surface” bit is interesting, especially when coupled with his repeated use of “get away with” when discussing the defensibility of material. It seems to me his definition of “defensible” is something like “does not put me at risk of being fired.” With that kind of definition, just about everything on the show probably can be defended (“I’m playing an offensive character,” “It’s satire,” “It’s ironic,” etc.). I’m not sure I would define the term that way, but I’ll cede the definition to Hendrie and attempt to reframe my point around the type of empathy I mentioned earlier. Perhaps the question to ask when evaluating PHS material is not “Is it possible to defend this?” but “What is the justification for this?”
At several points during the interview Hendrie mentions characters he has had on his show as pedophiles. “I think we’ve invented the world’s only funny child molester,” he tells Pollak, in reference to Herb Sewell. He says he makes pedophilia a part of some characters because it’s an evil in the world and a darkness that lies in the minds of certain sick individuals. He admits that people ask him if depicting that is funny and responds thusly: “The people are fuckin’ laughin’.” Personally, I need more than that. Kids laugh at school bullies when they torment “losers,” large swaths of people have laughed at demeaning stuff for centuries, etc. I’m not suggesting Hendrie is one of those people. I’m simply pointing out where that type of thinking leads.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the child-molesting iterations of the characters he’s talking about, so I can’t properly comment on them. Maybe I would think they are handled in a justifiable way. I don’t have a problem with the segments I’ve heard featuring Father James McQuarters, a priest who got a lot of airtime after The Catholic Church’s molestation cover-up came to light. Satirizing that institutional corruption has potential value as social commentary, which is the kind of justification I look for when “raw” subject matter is involved. World Famous’s “A Wee Peek” features McQuarters’ explanation of the disciplinary action The Church took with him after finding out he molested a boy. The victim was payed $10 and McQuarters was ordered to perform community service at a summer youth camp. “Holy Water Urination” finds McQuarters attempting to distract from the molestation scandal. When a sex stunt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral bumps their scandal from the front page, he and his fellow priests receive permission from The Vatican to celebrate. In both cases, the jokes are clearly at the expense of The Church and its corruption (i.e., similar types of jokes could be made if the scandal were, say, financial rather than sexual).
Regardless of the tact with which sensitive material is or isn’t handled, “the people are fuckin’ laughin’” seems like an unfortunate way for Hendrie to be thinking about his work. While discussing the controversies of others, he agrees with Pollak’s assertion that a person’s reason for saying something offensive can’t be “I’m right.” Wouldn’t it follow, then, that the reasoning behind some of his more controversial segments can’t be “They’re funny?” As I said, I think the show deserves some leeway with its dicier material given its chaotic nature. That doesn’t count for much with the segments I’ve taken issue with, though, because they are not “cost of doing business” mishaps—they’re on albums meant to represent the best material of a given year. They were singled out for honorable distinction.
Hendrie also tells Pollak that he thought it was “fantastic” when David Letterman, in the wake of a controversy, articulated the following idea: If a comic can’t sell the audience on his or her intent, he or she is the one who has screwed up. Although I can’t tell for sure from the interview if Hendrie applies that standard to himself, I can say that I think doing so is probably admirable. However, even if he does, I don’t think my problem is really with the intent of these types of segments (I realize he’s striving for a comic effect and is not endorsing electroshock abuse, etc.). It’s more that he often doesn’t convince me that what he intends to do with them is worth the collateral damage that can come with the way he does it.
Early on in this piece I mentioned watching clips of Wallace speak. During one such clip, he discusses the idea that, sometimes, comedy is the only way to deal with the most painful and terrifying stuff in life. It’s not a foreign idea to Hendrie. He didn’t have the easiest childhood, and tells Pollak that, growing up, he loved comedian Jackie Gleason for his ability to make “the anger and the strife and [the horrible] things that were happening in [Hendrie’s] home funny.” He also mentions taking comfort in Laurel and Hardy films while struggling with depression later in life. His interview on Paul Gilmartin’s The Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast reveals the way childhood traumas inspired some of his most beloved characters. Without getting into all the details of his personal life (the podcast is well worth checking out), I can confidently say that Hendrie is intimately familiar with comedy at its noblest—as a source of healing and catharsis and identity. He’s performed it and he’s been influenced by it.
At the end of “Host,” Wallace chooses to doubt that the world is as “bleak and merciless” as talk radio hosts would have him believe. At its best, PHS is capable of serving as a bit of evidence that his doubt is well-founded. It’s especially convincing because it turns what is traditionally a source of that worldview (the format of talk radio) into both a rejection of and escape from it (via subversion and comedy). I raised a few concerns about the show not because they ruin all the neat things it does, but because they strike me as somewhat bleak and merciless—not noble. They strike me as the type of material that might allow someone like Wallace to mistake the show for something worthless. Perhaps worst of all, “the people are fuckin’ laughin’” strikes me as eerily similar to “the rhetoric is generating high ratings.” Hendrie is better than that.
Most hosts probably could be, too. While listening to talk radio as “research” for this piece, I remembered how I once stumbled upon The Glenn Beck Program shortly after 9/11 as a politically ignorant 11 or 12 year old. I didn’t know who Beck was, but he was talking about all the new airport security after the attacks. Some airports had set up displays showing all the things you were not allowed to bring on a plane. One display featured a lawn mower. In a related story, a flight passenger was trying to bring home a toy soldier he or she had bought while traveling. The toy soldier had a gun—plastic and a couple inches long. Airport security confiscated it. Beck started riffing on these stories and joking around. In the climax of the segment, he detailed a “nightmare scenario” in which this toy soldier, having lost his gun, has obtained a tiny lawn mower and is loose on the plane, terrorizing passengers. “He’s running up my leg, clipping my leg hair!” Beck mock-screamed (not an exact quote, obviously). It was hilarious. It still makes me laugh. Yet as you might imagine, I don’t associate Beck’s show with laughter and levity during tough times anymore. In spite of PHS’s flaws, I can still turn to it for that. In just about every case except Hendrie’s, the bleakness and mercilessness has taken over. I could blame radio ownership or management or talent or listeners or whoever else I want for the takeover, but the fact remains that PHS managed to (mostly) give it the slip.
Someone escaped. That means it’s possible. That means others can escape as well. Keep in mind that, by his own admission, Hendrie just kind of screwed around for the the first forty years of his life. He did his first character voice on a something of whim. It wasn’t an attempt to launch a comedy career or coin a new type of talk radio. He was just bored and had an idea. With all due respect to the work he and his staff have put in since that fateful day, one might say that PHS’s invention was an “accident.” In light of this, don’t forget what mobsters have been threateningly (promisingly?) telling us for years: “Accidents” happen all the time.
Then again, that might only be in the movies—which is where Hendrie may well end up. He told Gilmartin he believes he’ll one day need to pursue acting full time since traditional radio may be on the way out. If that is the case, I’ll take comfort in Hendrie getting the last laugh. It would be funny if the best alternative we ever had on a format full of insanity was a man who talked to himself.