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Around the Dial

Phil Hendrie parodies talk radio by playacting a variety of call-in guests. Listeners not in on the joke rise to the bait, dial up--and vent.

March 29, 2002|STEVE CARNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When he hears "I usually don't call in to radio shows, but I can't believe what this guy is saying," Phil Hendrie knows he's hooked another one.

The caller is incredulous about the moronic or deviant suggestions of the guest on Hendrie's program, whether it's a Catholic priest rationalizing molestation or a columnist saying the elderly should forgo air-conditioning during power shortages so celebrities can keep cool. Often, Hendrie joins the outraged listener in berating the guest. All the while, he keeps reeling in the caller, who is thrashing and gnashing like a prize marlin.

Then he cuts the line. The caller is mercifully gone, and Hendrie reveals, to those few in the audience who don't already know, that the entire thing was a comedy bit, and that it was Hendrie playing the part of the outrageous guest--who exists solely to incite and attract callers. Every "guest" on his show is actually a character that Hendrie plays--he has about 40 in his repertoire--in what he calls "interactive improv." It's not talk radio, but a parody of that medium, and a satire of society in general.

"The humor is dark. We deal with issues that are close to the heart," said Hendrie, 49, whose program airs weeknights from 7 to 10 p.m. on KFI-AM (640) locally and on 89 other stations around the country.

In his studio in Sherman Oaks, Hendrie sits at a desk examining the day's headlines with a bank of old-style telephones arrayed in front of him. During the show, he speaks into one as a character, making it sound as if the guest is calling from a busy street, then hits a switch and flashes to his own, crystal-clear microphone. On the air, Hendrie and the guest continually interrupt each other, almost sounding like they're talking over each other. Even to see it in the studio, the technique is impressive and hard to believe, and the act has attracted fans including Howard Stern and George Carlin.

Apart from them, Hendrie's audience averages about 163,000 listeners per week in Southern California. And according to the latest Arbitron ratings for fall 2001, he ranked second in his time slot in Los Angeles among listeners ages 25 to 54, placing behind the Spanish-language love songs on KLVE-FM (107.3).

Soon Hendrie may be taking his act to television. He recently signed a deal with NBC to develop a series, though he said he'd rather express his creativity behind the camera than in front of it.

"No one is doing what Phil is doing. When it's really unique and dynamic, the likelihood of success is tremendous," said George Oliva, the former program manager at KFI, who brought Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger to the station, and who liked Hendrie so much, he fired him in 1990.

"I really enjoy the show. I think he shows incredible creativity, and he's been able to make points in a very different way, using satire," Oliva said. "I think he needed to go out and find a unique voice. And Lord knows, he did more than that."

One day last week, to talk about the Academy Awards, Hendrie assumed a regular character, Doug Danger, an entertainment reporter for the "Orange County Courier," who prefaces nearly every sentence saying, "I am a gay man and a gay journalist." He said the big story of the Oscars was not whether Halle Berry would break the color barrier but whether Ian McKellen would win as the first openly gay Oscar-nominated actor.

"I think all of America is looking to see if we're going to get the big gay win," the character said. As for African American women, he noted that Hattie McDaniel won a supporting actress award for "Gone With the Wind" in 1939, "so they got theirs."

Hendrie's characters at first seem harmless, or at worst odd. The more Hendrie talks to them, however, the more it becomes clear that these folks are deranged yet cocksure of their sobriety.

The comedy comes not only from the outrageous things his characters say, but from the sputtering exasperation and incredulity of the disgusted people who phone in. According to Hendrie, 95% to 98% of his listeners are in on the joke, so he relies on the small percentage who haven't figured it out, or who tune in accidentally and feel compelled to call. And there are always plenty of callers.

Hendrie said he knows he can go too far. During the anthrax scare last year, Hendrie had a character say she just came from the doctor and had been diagnosed with smallpox. After a while, she said she was only kidding.

"The audience was [angry]. They were really scared," Hendrie said. "I went home that night believing I had lost a couple of radio stations."

He said he first became entranced by radio in 1958, when his family took a car trip from Los Angeles to Toronto to see relatives. His father kept the AM tuner on while driving all night, and the 5-year-old Hendrie was fascinated by the stations as they faded in and out.

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