by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - September 10, 2007) Have you noticed, radio has died in America. Dead as a dodo.
By "dead," I do not mean that transmissions have hardened into rigor mortis. No, the frequencies are stronger than ever before and more wide-ranging than they have been in living memory. But what is being transmitted is a pandemonium of mendacious commercials, moronic sermons, canned music, maniacal pitchmen, ignorant phone-ins, three-minute nutshells of condensed headline news and a wave of Kallikakian sub-normality that paints a picture of a society whose brains are corroding at an alarming rate.
Amongst all these mind-deadening programs, there is now a progressive radio show ostensibly created to diffuse the right wing pomposity of people like Rush Limbaugh who, astoundingly, remains one of the most popular commentators on the air. The Stephanie Miller Show on Air America was supposed to be the liberal antidote that was going to diminish the rush of Limbaugh's toxicity, but it doesn't seem to have worked.
Stephanie is perky, chirpy, playful, snide, sardonic, loquacious, self-deprecating; she has everything but humor, but unfortunately it is humor she is desperately trying to purvey. On her own Web site, she describes herself as "a washed-up stand-up comic who is unqualified for any work other than her radio show," but I would suggest her deficits as a comedienne are what make her such a lead balloon on her radio show as well. She follows in the lumbering tradition of Al Franken who preceded her in a "progressive" talk show and brought -- uh-er-uhm-ugh -- inarticulateness to a new level of tedium.
Whatever cavils one has against Rush Limbaugh (and there are gazillions), his chatter is embedded in a fluent pomposity as he tries to demolish Democratic Party activists and justify the unjustifiable idiocies of the current inhabitant of the White House. He is blatantly partisan, employing exaggeration, half-truths, and downright lies to whitewash the administration's more insidious shortcomings. But all Miller can do is employ mockery, funny sound effects, and canned bursts of applause in her attempt to show up the ludicrous missteps of the Republican leadership.
Her response to constitutional violations, brazen lies, and political faux pas is to deride them with casual putdowns. Comedy employed not so much as a potent weapon taking deadly aim, as it is with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but as a kind of flame-thrower that never hits its mark and incinerates everything around it. All of these failed attempts at satire are interspersed with volleys of canned applause, which, given the flatness of the humor that precede them, only draw attention to the fact that we are in the presence of a humorless drudge who sincerely believes she is the "life of the party."
Miller does not help the cause of progressive thought in America by smirkingly deriding the opposition. If she had the intellect and the rhetorical smarts to combat the ideas of Cheney, Bush, and the more antediluvian conservatives she regularly takes on, she might enable listeners to recognize the malevolence of their political positions, but lacking these talents, all she can do is "send up" her opponents using a feeble, punistic, and misguided sense of humor, which, if anything, makes her appear more misguided than the targets she attempts to ridicule.
Discourse not rooted in the nuances of public debate and drawing on instantly-accessible political minutiae is like a freshman trying to take on an erudite, blisteringly articulate Professor Emeritus. Faced with heinous acts of governmental stupidity or malevolence, all Miller can do is spray it with crazy string and, in a three-hour program broadcast several days a week, that becomes pretty messy.
One would call Miller's humor sophomoric but that would be a grievous insult to perky, smart-ass sophomores who, judging by recent teen films, frequently expel great gusts of genuine comedy. In Miller's case, one would be more inclined to say "sub-sophomoric" -- used as a euphemism for "excruciatingly unfunny." Anyone who has ever been exposed to a gormlessly ebullient, inebriated joker at a party wholly unaware of the sorry spectacle he is making of himself as guests roll their eyes, smother yawns, and grope for their car keys can gauge my meaning.
One rails at Miller, not so much because she is a humorless churl, but because the purpose of her being there at all is to counter the battery of archly conservative commentators who virtually rule the airwaves. It is right and proper that the libertarian point of view be there to oppose the right-wing dogmatists who believe they can get away with murder -- i.e., policies, positions, and prejudices that infuriate more open-minded Americans who feel their voices are being drowned out by the Hannaties, O'Reillys, and Limbaughs who dominate the media.
Judging by the call-ins and e-mails, the Stephanie Miller Show tends to attract a non-political listenership, which is amused by light-hearted antics that take nothing very seriously -- not even the weighty political issues that need to be taken seriously. In short, it is not reaching the libertarians, but the Great Unwashed who prefer levitas to gravitas and so it is failing in its primary objective, to "take on" the large phalanx of conservative commentators who already monopolize the airwaves.
Instead of countering governmental lies about Guantánamo or illegal surveillance, the program uses these issues as fodder for sarcasm and sound bites. Instead of shedding light into darkness and thereby illuminating the issues, it obfuscates them for the sake of a laugh; a laugh that, in most instances, it never gets. The tacit assumption is that we -- that is the listening public and the commentators themselves -- all share the same opinion on these issues and all that is needed is a jab in the ribs to infer agreement. Instead of countering lies with evidence or counter-argument, the performers, with a scoff and a snicker, assume solidarity.
It is probably unfair to cite Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as counters to Stephanie Miller, but in the shows of both those wits there is a real fusion of comedy and content. Amusement and enlightenment regularly copulate together. Compared to them, Stephanie Miller is like the pathetic class clown that no one, not even the irritated teacher, takes very seriously because once the bell rings, everyone will make for the hallways and plunge back into the vicissitudes of real life so even admonishment is not worth the bother. I sort of feel the same about this critique of Stephanie who, in a sense, is not worth the slap across the mouth that might temporarily make her stop to consider the difference between empty levity and real wit.
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