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From Vulture: How Phil Hendrie Transforms Stupidity Into Brilliant Comedy

You might not have heard of Phil Hendrie, but you’ve certainly heard of his fans. Die-hard Hendrie stans include Howard Stern, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean, Lost in Space’s June Lockhart, and Laurie Metcalf. Matt Groening has said Hendrie is in the upper echelons of what you can do with audio, even casting him as the entire freedom-fighting Waterfall clan on Futurama. “But Phil is in a league of his own, because Phil is working in the slimiest lower intestine of the medium,” Groening told LA Weekly in 2004. “He’s on with those yammering right-wing dimwits on KFI. And that his show completely deconstructs what the rest of them are doing every day just makes me laugh.”

Hendrie got his start in radio back in the ‘70s. Out of boredom, he started making up characters to bait people into calling in to voice their outrage. Hendrie’s fake talk show lived alongside Rush Limbaugh on KFI in Los Angeles. Hendrie has since quit terrestrial radio, making entire shows out of whole cloth for his podcast audience.

Jon Glaser came to Hendrie as so many other have: off the recommendation of comedy cognoscenti. He and the other Late Night With Conan O’Brien writers would gather around a conference table and listen to one of Hendrie’s best-of CDs like a bunch of little RCA dogs. Like Hendrie, Glaser isn’t scared of coming off unlikable. From Councilman Jamm on Parks and Recreation to his eponymous character on Jon Glaser Loves Gear — which returns to truTV tonight at 10:30 p.m. — Glaser lets himself come off as a nasty little id monster. But Glaser’s own cavalcade of dicks is nothing compared to the 30 years of monsters Phil Hendrie has lurking behind his paywall.

Tell me what you like about Phil Hendrie.
The first thing is that he is just so incredibly funny. The idea he has, the execution of it is impeccable. He’s a very subtle but very strong performer. It’s a very specific sensibility that just appeals to me. He can be equal parts subtle and big. The stuff that for me is very inspirational was from a long time ago. I got turned on to him back in ’97, when I lived in Los Angeles. I remember sitting in my car late at night and listening to one of his shows. This was before the internet. And it was just so funny. And then I bought a bunch of his CDs. They’re still on my computer. I counted — I have 99 clips from these old CDs, probably going back to ’97 or ’98. They are just so funny. Really hard laughs at some of this stuff. I’ve mentioned him to a bunch of people over the years. None of them have heard of him, which is always surprising to me. I think a lot of people in comedy know who he is.

He seems like one those people who gets cast by their fans. I first encountered him through Futurama, but then I think the only other thing I’ve seen him in was Drunk History. He seems like someone who industry people know, but has never made that mainstream transition. Why do you think that is?
I really don’t know. Maybe because it’s a specific thing he’s doing, with radio? But I really don’t know, because it’s genius comedy. The execution is good, the ideas are good, but they’re such simple ideas. The ones that appeal to me are so simple, and he hits them so hard and so perfectly in these ways that are nuanced. God, they just kill me. He has this character, Jeff Dowder. He’s kind of almost like a surfer guy. I don’t know if this stuff is available online.

He keeps it pretty tight behind the paywall. There’s some stuff on YouTube. But there’s such a huge body of work, and that’s behind the paywall.
Well it is worth buying all of it, in my opinion. He’s playing a dumb guy and he does it so well. And you obviously have to be very smart to play dumb and have it succeed. It’s brilliant.

It’s crazy, because in scenes like that, he’s not just playing a dumb guy. He’s playing up to four people of varying intelligences.
It’s so impressive and so seamless. I’ve seen a couple of the clips online, and watching him do it is amazing. I can’t even imagine having the capacity to switch back and forth between multiple characters like that and not only sound seamless, but be so funny. It’s so dry sometimes, but the comedy is just massively strong.

The other thing that appeals to me is that he’s such an effortless performer. He’s not a sweaty performer. He really takes his time. You don’t feel like you’re listening to someone that’s panicked at all.

Have you watched many of the clips of him on YouTube?
I’ve seen a couple of clips. I remember when I was on Conan, he did a performance at the Museum of Television and Radio, and I did not go see him, and I regret it to this day.

I love the way that when he plays each character, he moves slightly around the room so that his voice resonates differently in the microphone for each person.
Oh yeah! Even that is so great. To watch it is something else. He knows how far to hold the microphone or the phone from his mouth so that it sounds perfectly off-mic for someone who’s farther away in the room. All that stuff is so incredible. It’s incredible to watch; it’s brilliant to listen to. More people need to know who he is. Have you heard his drive-time morning zoo thing, Skippy and Frank?

I believe so.
The one where he blows half his face off?

Okay, no, I don’t think I got that far.
Ho-ly shit. First of all, he’s doing an absolute dead-on parody of these guys. And at this point, that’s almost been done to death. It’s almost not funny anymore to do a morning-zoo guy. But again, this was from the late ‘90s. Where he goes with it … I just gave the joke away. Basically, they do this stunt, after all this stupid bullshitty morning-zoo chitchat. He’s playing two guys, both of the [hosts], as well as some other characters on the show. And they’re very, very different. They do this prank where one of them is going to put a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger with his toes. He blows half his face off. And the next segment is their show, and they’re still trying to do the morning-zoo stuff but the guy can barely talk. [Imitates sound of a person with half his face missing talking] Goddammit! I had these when I got hired to write on Conan in ‘98, and we would just sit and listen to these things.

There is a through line between Phil Hendrie, your work, and Conan, of seeing the bit through to its dark conclusion.
Not everything he does goes to this dark place. Certainly some of them do. There’s one where the character Margaret, she’s talking about advocating for people donating the tissue of aborted fetuses to make skin grafts for Christopher Reeve so he could walk again. This was after he was paralyzed after falling off his horse.

Part of the joy is hearing these callers losing it. Just rage. Depending on the premise, getting frustrated or annoyed. Or in this case, losing her mind at the idea of it. And he just keeps pushing the simplest things. She keeps saying, “Have you seen a Christopher Reeve movie? Have you seen Superman?” And people are screaming “I DON’T CARE!” And that character, Margaret, whenever she does her little “mmhmm,” it’s so good.

A lot of Phil Hendrie characters, and a lot of Jon Glaser characters, are unlikable. We were just talking about taking premises to dark places, but part of that is starting with an unpleasant character. How do you approach characters that start from an unlikable place?
You have to start off good. Certainly the writing has to be good. It can certainly ride that line. The Christopher Reeve thing is a pretty rough subject matter, but he handles it so well. You just have to make yourself look like the idiot, so the comedy is coming at your expense if you’re doing something so rough and dark. Because otherwise it could be potentially mean, and pranky. I don’t necessarily view what he’s doing as pranky. Even though it’s really making people so mad, it’s never at their expense — at least it doesn’t seem that way to me. To me he’s putting the onus on his characters being so ridiculous, and just clueless.

Well, on the podcast it’s just him. There aren’t … laypeople? Normies don’t call in anymore. And the comedy is still there.
That whole Skippy and Frank thing, no one calls in for real. It’s all this conceptual piece, and it’s so funny. There’s another one I have where no one calls in. It’s just this one old woman character, calls in to complain. She says some funny things, but then she gets mad and tries to hang up her phone, and she just can’t hang her phone up. This is an old landline phone, and you hear the noise of her trying to put the phone back in the cradle, the noise of plastic on plastic. And he just keeps going with it and going with it.

The way that the conversations on the show get derailed by one small thing — “Have you seen a Christopher Reeve movie?” for example — how entire segments spin out of control, feels similar to what you’re doing with Jon Glaser Loves Gear.
Nice segue!

Well, I try.
Actually, can you say that again? I derailed my own train of thought by saying that to you.

Gear is a show about a person who has a passion, and will cling to that passion in the sea of chaos in his life, the same way a Margaret clings to the cinematic excellence of Christopher Reeve.
Certainly with the Gear show, one of the things I like about it is that no matter what is happening, no matter how things have fallen off the rails or strayed from the original premise or topic of the show, that the show is still trying to cling to what it is. Sometimes we’ll use a graphic, [and] it will come in at a moment that feels comedic. There might be a really awkward moment that’s happening on screen, and an ID comes in and fills that awkward quiet. Those moments really make me laugh. People will think, Oh, they’re still trying to present this as this gear show.

How many of those lifestyle-magazine shows have you watched, to get the vibe down?
Probably zero. I really watch so little TV. I was not looking to parody something specifically. I just wanted to make the show however it was. It really evolved from the pitch to the pilot to the series. Originally I didn’t even see it as a comedy show. When I first had the idea, it was very loose, and it was a much more reality-based show where I would just go to companies and check out new gear — get to test stuff, and kind of nerd out on gear and have the comedy component be more of an afterthought. And then it just became more and more scripted and much more comedic. Now it’s a predominantly scripted comedy show. It still has reality elements of course, but it’s really become a show I didn’t envision at first.

What motivated that change?
The idea was fairly loose when I pitched it. Once the pilot got approved and we started writing the script, it felt like the stronger and better way to go was in the direction of making it more comedic. It sort of defined itself as it unfolded. Because it was so vague, as we kept working on it, it took more shape.

Last question: Who holds the megaphone when you shout “Gear!” and do they have ear protection? Because it’s pointed right at their face.
There are multiple people who hold the megaphone. Originally it was one guy, Tim, who was an actual crew guy. He did the bulk of it in the first season. This season, there are more people holding it. But there is an episode where we do a story line about Tim. I always thought it would be a funny thing, where the megaphone comes in a little low, not with its usual authority. I can tell something’s wrong, and I start talking to Tim about it. That’s the photography episode. We do get to see a whole episode about the megaphone guy. And no, they’re not wearing headphones. Because we do all the megaphone effect in post. I’m still screaming, and it’s annoying, but it’s not amplified.