Saturday, September 20, 2008
The Sad Crash and Burn of Phil Hendrie
I remember the first time I heard Phil Hendrie. It was on WORC the night before Thanksgiving, 1999. I turned on the radio and heard Phil interviewing a man from the Citizens Auxiliary Police who was describing how he and his pseudo-police force were stopping shoppers coming out of supermarkets and confiscating any Thanksgiving ingredients what weren't 100% natural and additive-free. Then following the interview Phil took calls from outraged listeners incredulous at how this infringement on their freedom was being tolerated. I would later learn that the guest was Jay Santos, of course... and that he wasn't really a guest. He wasn't even a person. He was Hendrie himself. I found out Phil was perhaps the world's most amazing voice artist and that he was doing BOTH sides of the interview with such amazing timing that it took a week of listening to believe it was happening. Hendrie was the most brilliant force of nature I'd ever encountered on the radio. His show was several things at once: the listener would be amazed at his voice skills. The listener would also be amazed at the gullibility of the listening audience. Phil would present ever wilder and more outrageous scenarios, and they would call in with predictable umbrage. There was Steve Bozell, who always was filing some baseless lawsuit over some perceived slight. There was Bobby Dooley, the suburban fascist housewife. There was Ted Bell, owner of Ted's of Beverly Hills Steakhouse and the inventor of the tinfoil-wrapped baked potato who was the world's greatest snob. And there were about a dozen other great characters. And what was brilliant about Phil is that he USED them. He used his wide cast of characters to express a uniquely arch commentary on American mores and values. It was so great, you knew it couldn't last. There were early signs something bad was about to happen. First, Phil turned on the fans' websites that were devoted to the show, using legal threats to shut them down. Then he launched a pay website. Then he fired his best writer, Melissa. And finally he started insulting his listeners on the air. Then his bits started losing their brilliance. Where before they had been weird, extended, multilayered performance pieces, they suddenly became one-dimensional and dull "skits". Then Hendrie got cranky, lost his hip vibe, and eventually quit the business to become an actor. It was strange. He ended the show with barely a goodbye. He simply swore he'd never be back on radio. Then, of course, a year later, he was back. His new show, however, is a shadow of its former self. The voice bits are awful. There's no humor. No callers reacting to something outrageous. No sly commentary on American culture. And Phil has decided to become yet another one of the Little Limbaughs that are crowding the airwaves. He's no longer funny. He's no longer brilliant. No one I know listens to him anymore. It's like he had some sort of breakdown and decided to drive off a cliff. Maybe someday he'll realize what he's lost and make an effort to return to form, but the sad thing is, all his loyal listeners have moved on. And they ain't coming back. It's over, Phil.