It’s not just radio, it’s a community

by sawamix

I’m not trying to turn this blog into a “Save Air America!” vehicle. Truly, I’m not. But you have to understand where it comes from.

I was never much of a talk radio listener. Yes, I used to listen to Don Imus many, many years ago, back in the Billy Sol Hargis days, when he was still funny and didn’t feel he had to be cruel and sophomoric in order to try to out-Stern Stern. Then for a number of years there was some decent music to listen to in the New York area on stations like WNEW, and AM radio was just a place to get news, traffic and weather. After the right-wing echo chamber took hold, I would listen to WABC very occasionally, for about ten minutes at a time, just under the Know Your Enemy doctrine. One day I stumbled on the drive-time show The Buzz, with Richard Bey and Steve Malzberg, and somehow became a regular listener. I’m still not sure why. Steve Malzberg is one of those screaming AIPAC wingnuts, but Richard Bey, yes, he of trash TV fame, had somehow metamorphosed into the kind of sane, thoughtful, intelligent somewhat left-of-center radio personality who who made for interesting listening. As the rush to war in Iraq accelerated in late 2002 and 2003, Bey became a more vocal opponent of the war, for reasons we all know now to be true, and was summarily fired by WABC management after the war started. He hasn’t worked steadily on-air since.

After that, radio for me became largely limited to the college and jazz stations, until Air America went on the air on March 31, 2004.

I don’t think anyone at Air America ever really understood what a lifeline the kind of entertaining, progressive talk radio they put on the air in the early days was for those of us who were growing more appalled daily by what we saw. Yes, the early product was raw and unpolished, other than the veteran Randi Rhodes. But we stayed with it as people like Marc Maron and Sam Seder and Rachel Maddow grew into their roles and matured as radio talent. And for a few brief months, listening to most of Air America’s lineup was like listening to fine improvisational jazz, but in the kind of intimate club where the band breaks down the wall between performer and audience and lets you jam with the band.

It wasn’t just the fact that shows like Morning Sedition and The Majority Report took calls. Morning Sedition in particular broke down the wall by providing glimpses into the odd, twisted place that is the mind of Marc Maron, and even into his life as he shared his adventures in trapping and taming a litter of feral kittens that were born in the yard of his Astoria apartment building. Then the show took itself on the road, with live broadcasts at local venues that were the best damn free concerts I’ve ever attended.

I needn’t go into the litany of disastrous Air America management decisions made by an ever-changing cast of characters, from the cancellation of Morning Sedition and Marty Kaplan’s weekend news magazine to the syndication of Jerry Springer’s radio show to the addition of progressive utopians with no sense of humor like Dr. James Forbes and Rev. Wilton Gaddy, who while well-meaning, don’t exactly provide entertaining programming.

But while Air America’s revolving door management marched the network towards oblivion, a community of listeners was building, one which clung to each other like freezing passengers in a lifeboat as we watched our beloved ship slowly and inexorably sink. As Air America gradually de-linked its interactive web sites for its cancelled and endangered shows, off-site links sprung up, such as Morning Seditionists, where Marc Maron’s listeners still congregate daily, almost a year and a half after the show’s cancellation and Seditionist Radio, where you can go back in time and stream teh Smart and teh Funny 24 hours a day. When the Majority Report blog stopped working, Sam Seder himself set up a blog as an offsite coffee bar where his listeners can congregate.

What Mark Green doesn’t understand is that when radio personalities make themselves this accessible to their audience, that audience’s loyalty is not to Air America; not to the business model or the suits that run it, but to the people at the microphones like Marc and Sam, and the behind-the-scenes people like Lauren and Joel and Justin and Dan “Canary in the Coal Mine” Pashman and Brendan McDonald. And you can’t push those people off the air and put washed-up hacks like “Lionel” in there and expect us to just go along.

So appropriately, this past Friday, which just happened to be the 13th of the month, saw the bittersweet confluence of the final Sam Seder show and the middle of the run of Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo, and Henry Rollins in a show informally titled “It’s Not a Play and There’s No Music” at the Gramercy Theatre. Mr. Brilliant and I went to this show, where we met up with Melina and her incredibly precocious, cool and deeply twisted son (and I mean that in the best possible way) Will, who will now forevermore be known to me as Egg Boy.

The Gramercy is a conversion of one of those old New York art theatres that used to show only movies appealing to the most geeky of film geeks and trash culture mutants — such as Robert Flaherty retrospectives and obscure documentaries like Comic Book Confidential. They’ve pulled out all the orchestra seats and left the stadium-seating in the back, so they can either put folding chairs in the front for spoken word shows like this one, or leave it open as a dance floor for the neopunks and headbangers. I planted the Brilliant at Breakfast flag in the 4-seat second row of the balcony that boasted an aisle seat with lots of legroom into which Mr. B. could unfold himself.

Shortly before the show, a small, frighteningly thin woman in a worn and seemingly unclean shearling coat that we used to call an “afghan coat”, sporting uncombed, matted hair, who bore a frightening resemblance to that homeless woman, Sharon, who used to live in the World Trade Center and always had a sleek, well-fed cat or rabbit with her, climbed up into the balcony. Now, I’m one of those people who never recognizes “celebrities” when I see them, unless they’re so distinctive looking that they have big, Tex Avery-style neon arrows that flash FAMOUS PERSON over their heads. I worked in New York for thirteen years, and the only FAMOUS PEOPLE I can recall seeing in passing were Bryant Gumbel, who is impossible to miss because he’s about nine feet tall and as big as a linebacker, and Paul Shaffer, who is impossible to miss because he’s about my height. Usually what happens is somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind there is a glimmer of recognition, but it doesn’t usually take hold in my conscious mind. Once I saw Kate Hudson walking down 56th Street between 7th and 8th, but I was at Carnegie Hall before I realized who it was. And so it was on Friday night, when it wasn’t until the small, frighteningly thin woman in a worn and seemingly unclean shearling coat that we used to call an “afghan coat”, sporting uncombed, matted hair, who bore a frightening resemblance to that homeless woman, Sharon, who used to live in the World Trade Center and always had a sleek, well-fed cat or rabbit with her, began her Renfield-like crawl through the audience and onto the state that I realized it was Janeane Garofalo.

I’ve said for years that if they made a movie of my life, Janeane Garofalo would play me. Like me, Janeane Garofalo is the short, smart, funny girl who battles continuously with her weight and whose humor masks self-esteem problems as she tries to navigate a world in which none of this means anything, that the only currency that matters for women is conformation to a certain standard of beauty. For some of us, the film The Truth about Cats and Dogs wasn’t a light romantic comedy, a reimagining of Cyrano de Bergerac, but True Life, except we knew that in True Life, Ben Chaplin doesn’t wake up and realize that while we may not be tall and blonde and willowy, we’re the one with whom he really connected. Well, sometimes he does; Mr. Brilliant did, though I wasn’t competing with Uma Thurman at the time. The cruel irony of …Cats and Dogs is Janeane was every bit as attractive as Uma Thurman, though in a very different way. It’s grieved me to watch Janeane over the years since them, as she’s tried mightily to make herself as unattractive as possible. She’d appear one night on the early Daily Show with uncombed hair, ratty jeans, and thick glasses, looking at that dimwitted golden fratboy Craig Kilborn as if he were the male equivalent of Uma Thurman, and then the next night show up on MSNBC with lustrous hair and a neat turtleneck and blazer, looking like a smart and sexy college English professor. Janeane is like those really draining friends you have, who never really appreciate just how fabulous they are, and you get tired after a while of telling them.

In her waning days on The Majority Report, when it was clear that the nightly grind of having to actually show up for work and do a radio show was more than she could deal with, it was easy to forget just how funny she can be. Friday night, with no acknowledgment of the incongruity of an attractive woman who has dieted herself into emaciation and hides behind an ugly coat being addicted to the false promises of Sephora, she went off on the Beauty Problem, Rome, spending life stuck at the corner of 13th Street and University Place while chronically late for something, and about the need to decompress from thinking about the horror that is life in the Bush years by taking a liberal dose of Teh Cuteness. I look at videos of Knut Das Eisbärbaby, Janeane whips out books containing pictures of puppies doing adorable things. But as annoying as Janeane can be, there’s something incredibly brave about getting up in front of a roomful of people and exposing your most raw psychological wounds. It’s one thing to sit in a house in a bathrobe in the morning before work and expound for a bunch of people who will never see you. But to put it all out there for the world to see is either incredibly brave or incredibly self-indulgent. At any rate, she makes it incredibly touching and incredibly funny.

Next up was Marc Maron, who seemed like a paragon of mental health by comparison. Maron is the kind of comic that you either get what he’s doing or you don’t; you either find his work sidesplittingly hilarious or he leaves you cold. But for those of us for whom his work resonates perhaps a bit too much, hearing for the fifth or sixth time about the mindset of fundamentalist Christians or talk about the virus-ridden dirty whore of a PC in his garage that he uses only for porn, or about how we don’t even know who we are anymore if we lose our cellphones is like listening to the Allman Bros. Band riff through an extended version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed — you’ve heard it a million times, but you get something new from it every time. Sometimes Maron reminds me of a smarter and far funnier version of the kind of Jewish guys I used to date in an attempt to do my Jewish Girl duty of marrying a Nice Jewish Boy — the guys who were maybe cuter than the parade of prematurely bald guys named Mel who had bad combovers in their twenties, but who were every bit as neurotic; the guys who wore those neuroses on their sleeve, guys who would wear you out just dealing with them. As Conan O’Brien once told Maron, “It must be hard being you.”

But what Marc Maron does is reach down into that scared, vulnerable place inside all of us, the part of us that does self-destructive shit and then wonders what the hell we were doing, and forces us to look at it. But he’s not a whiner, he’s not the kind of scared, sniveling little weasel who gets stuck at the “this is why” phase of therapy and then demands that the world make allowances for the fact that his parents belittled him his entire life. Instead, Marc takes the pain and the anxiety and the low self-esteem and the other baggage of being raised by angry Jewish parents and turns it into raw, real, commentary on the human condition. Spitting the words out one by one like a staccato fusillade of verbal bullets, he doesn’t ask you to indulge him because he’s neurotic, he forces you to face the scared child, the believer in magic, the little fat kid, the little gay man, that you both know and fear lives inside you too.

When the tattooed, coiled ball of testosterone-fueled energy that is Henry Rollins follows these two onto the stage, it’s as if the captain of the Rugby team were crashing the Chess Club mixer. But while Rollins exudes more sheer Badass than anyone this side of Samuel L. Jackson, there is nothing cynical at all about Henry Rollins. While Marc and Janeane are the sad clowns trying valiantly to infuse these most hopeless of times with humor as we go slouching towards the apocalypse, Rollins is there with his fists raised, saying “Fuck you, Apocalypse! You want a piece of me? Go ahead…I dare you!” And for the next 45 minutes, he goes on about why New York women are great because they don’t give a shit what you think, about how global warming resulting in more predatory animals is cool, why scientists should clone dinosaurs, and about his trip to Iran, the first stop on his “Axis of Evil” tour. He’s incredibly hot in that Leader of the Pack bad-boy motorcycle guy kind of way — and an overgrown seven-year-old at the same time. What Rollins does isn’t stand-up in the conventional sense. He’s more of a monologuist — he’s Spalding Gray on crack. But where Garofalo and Maron are fundamentally pessimistic, Rollins is exuberant. And it isn’t the kind of dark, nihilistic exuberance of Slim Pickens riding the bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove. Rollins really does still believe that people can make a difference, and he sends a by now exhausted audience out into the New York night ordering them to do so.

Despite the fact that we left the theatre utterly spent and exhausted, as if Rollins had just spent 45 minutes drawing the energy reserves from our souls to fuel his manic rant, we were also exhilarated at having just spent two and a half hours listening to intelligent crafters of words into something important. These days, when we have a president who can’t speak the language, when the crawl on news channels is always rife with errors, and when most stand-up comedy consists of zhlubby guys on Comedy Central opening with a fat chick joke, a gay joke, and a fart joke, it’s a wonderful and rare thing to spend an evening in the company of like-minded souls, all appreciating that brilliant people can still turn words into art.

For another take, go visit Egg Boy’s mom.