|The Best and Worst Thing
Funny Radio Personalities
By Adam Gropman
Aug 15, 2007
I've listened to a hell of a lot of radio in my life, much of it in the talk format. It was after college, when I moved back to Boston from Oregon, that my old friend and roommate Pete and I began tuning in RKO and other AM stations that featured crotchety, contentious talk hosts with stentorian, almost nostalgia-inducing voices and vaguely centrist/libertarian politics. A few times we even called and got on air with fake names, screwy voices and absurd questions. These were delightfully juvenile pranks which thrilled us to no end.
Years ago, while working a sleepy administrative assistant job at a huge San Francisco brokerage, for psychological and spiritual relief I would turn to the enthralling audio cocoon of my radio Walkman. Mornings brought the wacky “zoo”-like shenanigans of Bay Area broadcasting veteran Alex Bennett and his menagerie of almost-comedy, which comprised a cute n' sassy female sidekick, an occasional special guest and a daily revolving cast of local stand-up comedians. Even when Bennett or his crew weren't uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny, they were at least stimulating, mildly provocative and essentially entertaining.
Afternoons in San Francisco brought something altogether different, something a lot more thrilling, provocative and ominous. It was the early-to-mid '90s, the period of exploding extreme right-wing radio, and I was glued to the seemingly undiluted, reactionary blood n' guts vitriol of these ultra-conservative hosts for two primary reasons: a fearful compulsion to monitor just how extreme and dangerously provocative their words would get, coupled (ironically) with a visceral, decadent satisfaction at hearing the left-liberal ideological establishment I'd grown up in and around get skewered for its arrogance and transgressions. There was on occasion, however, an unexpected third payoff. Some of these right-wing commentators were using the humor of the irreverent, disruptive “outsider,” and in the case of at least one now-famous host, that comedy could be gut-bustingly powerful, despite its often crude, mean-spirited content.
These days when I'm driving, which is all the time since I live in Los Angeles, I turn on the radio almost unconsciously, a compulsive reflex against the sometimes soul-numbing monotony of the boulevards and freeways. When I tire of the handful of local music stations, I sometimes switch to a talk format. In the mid-'90s, L.A. enjoyed the distinction of having 97.1 FM, KLSX, a “cutting-edge,” “modern” all-talk station, a peculiar audio hybrid now found in several other American cities. It was somewhat political but mostly social/anecdotal talk aimed at younger, generally more urbane, blue-state crowds than the traditional AM talk format. It targeted the same demographic that prefers R.E.M., Norah Jones or Stone Temple Pilots over, say, Foreigner, the Glenn Miller Band or Toby Keith.
L.A.'s 97.1 had a few “odd couple” hosting duos like Conway & Steckler and John and Jeff but the strongest of these was a pair called “The Regular Guys.” Larry Wachs was a hardheaded old bastard, a bullying yet grotesquely riveting presence, and Eric Von Haessler was his younger, much mushier foil, the soft moderate to Wachs' head-cracking bad cop. It was only fitting in a mass media that so often rewards mediocre, down-the-middle, overcooked talent at the expense of sharp, fresh, risky stuff that these two were let go and replaced by something far less memorable. While specific details now evade me, I recall that in a world of disingenuous, blustery “shock jocks,” Wachs seemed like the genuine article and his sometimes powerfully destructive humor would give me, the listener, that feeling of being a witness to or participant in a modern-day socio-political catastrophe of the most spectacular and unpredictable sort. I was glad to discover that Wachs and Von Haessler enjoyed success in several other radio markets after their exodus from L.A., especially in Atlanta, where they apparently became radio legends before being fired, despite skyrocketing ratings, for interviewing a porn store on air.
KLSX's flagship personalities over the years represent a who's who of the less political, more big-city sensibilities of FM shock-jockery. Howard Stern, before he went satellite, carried all of KLSX on his back with his powerful morning numbers and rabidly loyal fan base. I found Stern's on-air output to be a frustrating, almost tragically contradictory blend. The man has undeniable talents, starting with his trademark sonorous, basso voice and cool, smooth charisma, as well as his nearly seamless unflappability and straightforward rapport with big celebrities.
Stern could also turn out a brilliantly funny line full of commanding yet quirky attitude. The problem, I found, was that Stern was basically comedically lazy and much too taken with the severely mean-spirited, frat-boy attitude of his dumbest listeners. This led him down time-wasting spirals of insults, petty disgust and small-minded prejudice.
Speaking of small-minded prejudice, when I first discovered syndicated Tom Leykis over a decade ago in the Bay Area, he seemed novel and exciting. A clear-voiced, boisterous personality from the political left, Leykis was doing a genuinely risky, hard-nosed show about controversial issues. Among the first topics I caught back then were abortion rights and atheism, with Leykis proudly, raucously defending both.
Although he always had the classic broadcaster's booming, mid-range, over-enunciated vocal instrument, the very content of his show has now followed suit into predictable, prefab conformity-ville. Leykis' main topics in recent years seem to be training men to scam on chicks without paying for dinner and blasting on “fat people” for their inexcusably lazy, hedonistic ways. While still highly intelligent for a radio host, Leykis squanders his commendable guts and political knowledge in order to openly cater to the totally apolitical, livin'-for-the-weekend, boozin'-and-cruisin' crowd. This makes him somehow not just less credible and meaningful but also, over time, not very funny.
Adam Carolla, a consistently sharp and funny improvisational talker on the syndicated “Loveline,” has since left that show to take on the enormous task of filling all of Stern's former broadcast territory west of the Mississippi. I give Carolla full credit for not trying to replicate Stern's particular brand of nastiness, but rather for splitting the difference between the quirky yet plain-spoken, sometimes whimsical vibe he perfected on the ultra-cool, late-owl "Loveline" and the fairly traditional “morning zoo” naughtiness that's called for in his new time slot, albeit with his own slightly smarter take. In a world where pure, powerful funniness is often a scarce commodity, the best practitioners, especially on our public airwaves, must be honored. And so must the worst.
Best Funny Radio Personality
Since I listened to hard-right KSFO years ago up in San Francisco, one of its local voices has become a widely syndicated radio host, major bestselling author, controversially fired cable TV personality and all-around agent provocateur of the confrontational right. He is a man for whom the overused adjective “rabid” is sometimes truly accurate and whose stated opinions at times make his fellow right-wing broadcasters look as polite and decorous as English butlers. But he is also, and was back then when he first hit local talk radio in the Bay Area, capable of being extremely hilarious. The host? Michael Savage.
Yes, that Michael Savage, the guy who a few years ago put out national bestselling books entitled The Enemy Within and Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder. While Savage's diatribes much of the time are hysterical symphonies of gross exaggeration, false straw-man argument and base prejudice, underlying all of this toxic pathos is a potentially brilliant late, late night stand-up comedian, the kind you'd find in a subterranean, brick-walled, blue-lit lounge with an audience of attentive loner intellectuals, Manhattan-sipping sophisticates and random angry rebels, sucking up his heartfelt, stream-of-consciousness barrages with more than a few grains of salt and spitting back a lot of ribald laughter.
In fact, when Savage was much younger, he wanted to be a stand-up comedian in the vein of Lenny Bruce. Today he'd denigrate Bruce as a “filthy, sick, degenerate junkie who spewed irresponsible, leftist hippie garbage,” or some such similar invective. The funny thing is, he'd be saying it with a lot of the tone, rhythm and attitude of Bruce and similarly “angry” comedians like Dennis Leary, Lewis Black and even Sam Kinison.
Savage is unique among right-wing radio hosts, even among those who display humor. While O'Reilly and Hannity both display some Northeastern, blue-collar, neighborhood-guy familiarity, both still are somewhat smoothed out by an understandable catering to Middle American tastes and also by a sense of lace-curtain Irish rectitude. Rush Limbaugh certainly uses humor, but his comes from a less gritty, raw or examined place. This hefty Missouran's wit is the province of those with unassailable heartland credentials, the geographic and ethnic Perfect American, the ultimate non-minority.
Savage, by comparison, is a frothing, boiling cauldron of whip-smart, street-seasoned New York Jewish resentment, schtick and neuroses. Every psychological and verbal arguing tool of the recent American shtetl (Jewish ghetto) has been sharpened by Savage into the aural equivalent of a lethal jailhouse shiv.
Unlike some of his flimsier, stringier, more effete cohorts from that corner of the world, Savage makes Big Apple Yiddishkeit and old-school Nooo Yaaawk verbosity a wholly masculine, even powerfully macho attitude and style. When he out-muscles defiant callers with his alpha-ape, psychotic roar, it's the radio equivalent of Harvey Keitel's Mickey Cohen in the the movie Bugsy, intimidating everyone, including Bugsy Siegel himself, with his seemingly infinite, outwardly aggressive bravado.
At his comedic best, Savage whips off complex strings of ridiculous, ad hominem insults in a voice combining both indignation and alarm. Women from the Berkeley area become “Radical-vegan, died-green-hair, man-hating dykes.” Members of the "liberal elite" are “Red diaper doper babies,” a rather mellifluous epithet. He even displays a little Jew bashing -- partly, I'm sure, to put real Jew-haters off the track of the natural born Michael Weiner (Savage's real name) when he calls his U.S. Senator “Barbara 'Bagel' Boxer.” While it causes one to cringe, there is also plenty of humor in it. He recites these insults as if doing a character on SNL or MADtv.
About his perceived political enemies, Savage says, “The radical Democratic left is an army of soulless ghouls. Being of the living dead, they live in a world of death and try to impose it on we the living.” If you hear Savage recite this in his purposefully semi-monotonous tone, as if he is simultaneously a vibrant, human commentator and a robotic messenger of unthinkable doom, the unreasonable, incendiary content is clearly accompanied by another layer: the distinct ring of very good satire. And when he says things like, “We are all sitting here asking ourselves, was there lead in Al Gore's silver spoon?” you've simply got to credit Savage for one hell of a zinger. To imagine Savage at his comedic best, think of a darker, throatier Larry David gone 10 times meaner and a lot further into the murky, ugly waters of the stream-of-consciousness.
What's interesting is that his core audience of heartland Americans -- self-proclaimed salts of the Earth who state calmly in flat, twangy tones what would have been thought of years ago as radical reactionary political thought -- have not only bonded with this pushy, aggressive, New York Jew know-it-all, but many of them have adopted him as their socio-political savior. With his superhuman confidence and chutzpah, Savage somehow makes this all seem as complementary and natural as apple pie washed down with a kosher egg cream. But just as The Simpsons can be taken on two totally different levels, the upper sarcastic/ironic and the lower iconic/outrageous, so can Savage's show. And I don't think that the majority of his listeners take it for the theater-of-the-politically-absurd that it usually becomes.
Savage, quite simply, says things that no other major conservative host would even conceive of. He openly admits to loving the environment and often speaks fondly about nature. He recalls his years as a credentialed scientific researcher and writer, studying botany in far-off exotic places like the South Pacific. Some of these diversions not only stray from the political, they seemingly have nothing to do with any relevant topic whatsoever. He is an avid reader and revels in his knowledge of certain classic authors, philosophers and even poets. One of his quirky catch-phrases is “Do you know what I'm talking about? I don't even know what I'm talking about!”
Although he calls the show “The Savage Nation,” himself “The General” and his broadcasting studio “The Bunker,” going so far as to play exploding bombs and machine guns for bumper music, Savage will launch into serious and knowledgeable discussions of his favorite wines and Italian restaurants. With an audience that tends toward mashed potatoes, Coors light and Marlboros, he loves his vintage Shiraz, plate of Tuscan-braised pork and fat Dominican (Cuban seed) cigars. He is now the rarest of species: an extremely wealthy, academically credentialed, anti-elitist populist firebrand and gluttonous gourmand. If Savage wasn't real he'd be a character in a T.C. Boyle short story.
He rightfully complained when a Republican president stole his radio show-coined term “Compassionate Conservative.” However, I would dub Savage with another delightfully contradictory title: Angry Epicurian. See, even that makes him funny.
I also cannot think of another host, especially in the serious political realm, who does such shockingly zany, off-the-wall voices. One of his trademark sounds is a high, pinched, nasally forced, scrunched whine, representing any of a number of public figures that he hates, usually on the left or in the center, but occasionally even on the right. This absolutely over-the-top voice of juvenile mockery is, pound for pound, one of the funniest things you will ever hear.
Savage portrays his target du jour as sounding like a combination of Marvin the Martian and little Cindy Brady irritatedly imitating her sister Jan. As with the best character voices in stand-up comedy, it doesn't even matter what words Savage says as the character. The effect is simply hilarious, which leaves me further convinced that Savage must be winking, ever so slightly, to those of us out in radio land who appreciate visceral, absurd humor.
While a lot of his content is serious and potentially harmful social and political invective, Michael Savage is, during his finest moments, arguably the naturally funniest person currently working in American radio.
Worst Funny Radio Personality
My answer on this one might seem like a dodge or an evasive gimmick, but it's really not, because I'm making a very important point. As funny as Michael Savage is capable of being while lurking on the extreme, far right, you'd think we could have such viscerally funny hosts on the left or even far left. But we don't. I've listened to plenty of hours of public, listener-sponsored, low-on-the-FM-dial radio in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, and while I think there's some intelligent, informative, provocative and worthwhile programming at times, my main criticism of these kinds of stations, if distilled down to one factor, would be the incredible lack of humor. Why is the greater political left -- which somehow produces the majority of successful actors, stand-up comedians, and sketch, sitcom and comedic movie scriptwriters in this country -- so damn incapable of putting some powerful funny into their political talk?
I'm talking about stations like the Pacifica Radio chain on the West Coast and NPR affiliates everywhere. To be fair, NPR has Garrison Keillor, who can be brilliantly comedic, and Ira Glass' This American Life which can be a very cool, dryly funny show despite Glass' bizarre, subtle speech impediment, which you'd think might have kept the guy from being a huge radio host. But those shows are major, national-level exceptions and both are more cultural-, observational- and entertainment-based than they are overtly political.
In the world of local, grassroots liberal public radio, the motto seems to be “Have a strange, grating, disturbingly offbeat, weak or flat-out annoying speaking voice? Come on in! We've got a job for you!”
What these station managers don't seem to realize is that the host's on-air style -- his or her intonation, timing, inflection, timbre and overall dynamism -- affect the quality of the show and the listener's experience. It is, after all, a medium that offers only sound. Good radio, like all the performing arts, is not just about the words written on the page, but also about how they are delivered.
In L.A., for instance, we've had a rogues gallery of hosts with terrible voices. On KPFK there's Marc Cooper, a respected and industrious political writer. The problem is his reedy, thin, high-pitched and incredibly nasal voice, which makes him sound like a lanky science nerd with ear plugs stuffed up his nose. Ruth Seymour runs KCRW, the NPR affiliate out of Santa Monica College, a basically lower-than-junior-college which wisely leaves any hint of pejorative out of its name. She has a nasally, often whiny, vowel-twisting Bronx brogue that I can almost guarantee turns off thousands of otherwise loyal listeners.
But worst of all is David Barsamian, a rigorous and strident far-leftist writer and activist seemingly born without either normal male vocal chords or testosterone, either problem so severe that I'd work full time for government-sponsored universal medical care just to see him get that problem taken care of. This guy's voice has no bass whatsoever, and is also a little wheezy or raspy, which makes it go beyond annoying and unpleasant into the land of creepy and unsettling. You're not sure if you're listening to a chain-smoking old woman, a sad ghost or a frightened castrati just escaped from a psychotic murderer's basement torture pit.
Of course, the geniuses at public radio put such lovely examples of sonorous excellence on the air while every year hundreds if not thousands of aspiring air talent graduate from university communications programs just frothing at the chance for such precious air time. In the eyes of such public-radio types, quality of broadcast voice simply doesn't matter.
While the basso profundo, superficial and super-trained voices of stereotypical FM rock jocks and some major league AM talk jocks might take it too far in the other direction, left-wing radio could benefit from having some greater quality control in the voice quality and old-fashioned vocal and broadcasting-training departments. I believe that quality of voice is one of the first major components toward an effective presence and especially an effective comedic presence. Voices with some richness, smoothness, assuredness and timing tend to naturally convey at least a sense of ease, warmth, looseness and that magical “smile you can hear.”
A good radio or TV personality will display an upbeat brightness of speech or perhaps punctuate their conversation with an occasional light giggle or laugh. While your average FM radio jock or even TV news anchor may not be actually funny, they at least have a “sense of humor” about them. And it is sometimes easier to tell what a sense of humor is by looking at what it is not. In this case, the absence is more dramatic and much easier to spot.
Amy Goodman, who hosts the not-too-subtly named and clearly “important” -- no, make that “world-shatteringly, stop-the-presses important” -- show Democracy Now on KPFK holds the absolute, complete hands-down record for most humorless host of anything I've ever seen or heard on the public airwaves, be it TV, radio, cable, short wave, or walkie talkie.
It's as if this woman used a special comedy vacuum cleaner to suck all the funny out of herself and her news stories and then spot-cleaned the area with some kind of humor bleach, blotting out any accidental drips or drops of ha ha or ho ho that might have splattered in the vicinity. She then had the whole area sealed off like an operating room or microchip laboratory and ordered all visitors sandblasted and scrubbed clean of levity so that no one who enters her secret studio (engineer, assistant, food delivery guy) would dare contaminate the proceedings even a trace of comedy.
Amy Goodman's seriousness is so palpable, she sounds like someone who's been stranded in the woods and doused by chilling rainstorms for weeks, or like the survivor of an ugly divorce, IRS audit and major earthquake, all on the same day. Her tone and delivery so completely lack even an infinitesimal, microscopic hint of ease or casual lightness, one wonders if she might be a specially engineered human of the future- an android designed without the capacity for frivolity or fun. Or maybe she's just personally lived through every horrible worldwide violation of democracy that she reports on.
Goodman accomplishes the astonishing feat of making everyone else- Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Chris Wallace, Tom Brokaw, Diane Sawyer, Kelly Ripa, Dick Clark, Wolf Blitzer, Barbara Walters, John Madden, Ryan Seacrest, George Stephanopoulos, Louis Farrakhan- seem funny by comparison. Even local newscasters are a giggle riot compared to this grand dame of dour distress.
It was when she was having some controversial falling-out with her station KPFK that Goodman's broadcasts became even more extremely serious, to the point of intolerable or deliciously absurd depending on one's outlook. During this period of disagreement with the station brass, she would bookend her broadcasts with: “This is Democracy Now -- in exile,” or some such breathlessly dramatic tag line, as if she were a member of the fearless, hunted “rebel underground” in a science fiction movie.
On the occasions that I've caught Amy Goodman's show, I've sometimes had the feeling that maybe I, too, am being persecuted by an extreme and unjust regime and need some radical democratic remedy. But it wasn't my government that was bringing me down. It's was the grimmest, most painfully humorless show on radio.
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