“Hi everybody, it’s Phil Hendrie. All of the voices you hear on the show today will be voiced by me, performed by me, some of them might be getting by me,….Here’s the show.” ~ Phil Hendrie
With that, another Phil Hendrie podcast begins. For the uninitiated, this is a place where the absurd is as common as breakfast, where reason is always on a break, where anger lies just underneath the pool of silliness, and where you are always thisclose to spitting out your coffee through your nose.
The basic idea is this: Imagine a morning radio talk show where the host, the guests, the panel of experts, the regular callers, even the security guy, are all the same person. In fact, close your eyes for a moment as you listen and the characters vividly come to life in your mind’s eye. There’s erstwhile entertainment reporter/ singer Margaret Gray, irascible military man General Gaylen Shaw, show producer/biker Bud Dickman, and security guard Robert Leonard, each of them just a gentle nudge from pushing someone down a flight of stairs.
But we’ll get to that.
For now, Hendrie is seated in a booth in a Ventura seafood taco joint on a brisk December afternoon, remembering his days growing up in nearby Arcadia and haunts in Pasadena. Our conversation is rapid-fire, between bites of food, with subjects flying and changing left and right, like two old friends who have much to catch up on.
Hendrie recalled attending Pasadena’s La Salle High School, before it was a coed school, as well as Arcadia High School.
“La Salle is where I formed my most lasting friendships, there and at Holy Angels,” he said, beginning a frontal assault on a basket of three fish tacos. (“No avocado, please. Too bulky.”)
“It was a great school in the late 60s in America, a liberal Catholic school in the midst of whatever else was happening in Pasadena then. It had modular scheduling, so we could pick our own schedules. There were some days I only had two classes, like college.
“And there was a lot of liberal thought going on there, greatly influenced by what was going on in America. We were the new generation, and the brothers at the school really looked at us with bemusement, thinking “this is what we’re training them to be.”
Hendrie remembers a creative writing class held at the brothers’ residence, with “fifteen of us guys, at eight in the morning, sitting around smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee with Brother Kevin! We talked writers, we talked literature, and we wrote,” he said.
Still too young to own a car, and living between the homes of his divorced parents, Hendrie and his buddies hung out in Pasadena, and Hendrie would often make the long ride on his bike down from Huntington Drive to Colorado Boulevard to visit with his musician friends, or visit the Free Press bookstore.
And of course, as a young teenager, he would hang out at KRLA, the Pasadena station that brought the Beatles to the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 1964. The station was located in the lobby of what is now the Langham Hotel on Oak Knoll, and teenagers would gather at what was called “the green porch” which overlooked the studio itself. Hendrie was a “green porch kid,” spending long afternoons, skateboard in hand, watching the DJs spin records and talk to what seemed like the entire world.
Wheels were turning in his head.
“I knew I wanted to be a writer,” he said. “I read Dylan Thomas, I read Jack Kerouac, of course. He was really my main guy during this time. I loved the beatniks, all of that scene. Shortly, after high school, I hitchhiked to San Francisco, you know, just to be there, just to soak it in.”
And thus his sensibilities were formed, along with a lifelong love of radio, a love which, of course, eventually became shattered like a jilted lover.
Suffice to say that Hendrie enjoyed a long career in radio, beginning as a 19-year old DJ in Winter Park, Florida at WBJW. From there it was mostly rock radio stints in Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles, Utica and Fresno, and then back to LA.
In 1990, while at KVEN in Ventura, near Channel Islands where he currently lives, Hendrie first began to explore the idea of creating make-believe talk show participants on a make-believe talk show. His first one, Raj Fahneen, was an Iraqi-American who would call in to the station in support of Saddam Hussein.
Try to imagine the reaction.
Phil took the show, now on KFI, to a syndicated national audience, and the phenomenon was born. And while his audience grew, Hendrie always knew that this was a seriously acquired taste, and not for the casual listener. He created his cast, which now numbers in the dozens, and then created completely absurd situations for them to live in, delivered with a completely straight face.
Callers would flood the phone lines, outraged at grocer Robert Green of Frasier Foods, suing the young child he hit with his Hummer, or Citizen’s Auxiliary Police officer Jay Santos taking “simulated” law enforcement to a new low level.
In 2013, following a painful ten-year association with Talk Radio Network (TRN), Hendrie took advantage of the rise of the digital age, and created his own podcast. No more networks, no more bosses, just Hendrie and his legion of fans.
These days those fans are spitting coffee through their noses at Corona general contractor Steve Bozell, determined to sue his young daughter and her puppy, after it peed on him in front of a neighbor, and “humiliating him personally.” Bozell is only one of dozens of Hendrie’s characters always ready to burst into tears at the slightest prodding.
“With (Bozell), it’s the combination of anger and fear, in completely absurd situations,” says Hendrie. “There was a kid in my school, Chris Burns, who was always crying…” Hendrie scrunches up his face.
“Waddya trying to do, Hendrie?!”
“I only tackled you.”
“No you didn’t! You practically ripped my head off!,” Phil remembers, heaving with laughter.
Which brings us back to his show cast, most of whom are hilarious and unreasonable.
Of the handful of characters who make up his “studio team,” it’s Margaret Gray who is clearly the most complex and fascinating, and darkly hysterical. She is the show’s liberal, and the most easily outraged, spending much of her reports pronouncing words in “the proper French,” even when she is wrong (“It’s ‘mon-KAY,’ Phil, not ‘monkey.’”).
“She’s my mother,” Phil explains. “My mother was, at once, this proper and well-spoken woman, and at the same time, entirely inappropriate and disgusting. Margaret would say, (whispering), “I have to take a bowel movement,” and I would be, ‘Do you have to tell me that?’, and then she would be angry at me.
“How dare you?!” Margaret will seethe, and then “leave” the studio, only to return in seconds, launching into a quick lecture that would sputter into “Oh, forget it…!” after only a few words.
When I asked him about General Shaw, the cantankerous ex-military man, angry about everything every morning, he casually broke into the character’s voice, to explain him. It was astonishing. It was like sitting with your favorite performer or actor, and mentioning a song or a role, and they suddenly go into it, right at the table. As a more than casual fan, it was thrilling to me.
Hendrie is so many memorable characters that the effect is intoxicating when they begin to rapidly interact and engage with each other. On the morning when I drove to Ventura for our interview, Hendrie had created a situation where the characters had simply gotten out of control, jawing back and forth, threatening and insulting until finally Hendrie says, “Enough! Or I’m throwing you all out of the studio.”
One by one, at lightning speed, each character—Gray, Shaw, Leonard, and Dickman—says, “I’m sorry,” The effect was astonishing. I could see each one, seated around a table, heads bowed—all a creation of Hendrie’s mind.
“What you’re hearing is Phil Hendrie, completely in the moment, but bouncing off the walls within that moment,” is the best way he can explain it.
Thusly, each podcast centers around a guest and a topic, the more absurd the better, from astronomer Dr. Jim Sadler, angry that Stephen Hawking’s joke gets published in the astrophysicists monthly newsletter and not his, or Jay Santos and his amateur police buddies playing “grab ass” in an upstate New York parking lot, while state prison escapees run loose nearby.
To simply describe all the characters who appear and re-appear would be exhausting, but they range from Mavis Leonard, Robert’s conservative African-American aunt, who is campaigning for Donald Trump, to “Ted” of Ted’s of Beverly Hills” steakhouse, whose slogan is a a touch too racy for a family publication.
“I really try to plan the voices out for every show,” says Hendrie, switching voices as he speaks, “so if I have Bobbie on the show, I try not to have Clara Bingham, since they are very similar. I can have Bobbie and Margaret on the show, even though they are somewhat similar, they’re in different registers. And then I’ll have (football coach) Vernon Dozier on the show, since his voice is really different. And then I can throw Dr. Jim Sadler in as well.”
To listen to the Hendrie podcast is to be dropped into a boiling pot of water, with each cast member disagreeing how how the water is, and threatening to leave it at anytime—absurd and hilarious, sprinkled with a dose of reality, five days a week.
The World of Phil Hendrie is available on iTunes. www.philhendrieshow.com.