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Radio Provocateur 

Phil Hendrie conquers the AM dial one deluded caller at a time. So why can't he get his mug on TV?

Thursday, Jun 10 2004
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

“You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”

—George W. Bush, 2001

Phil Hendrie is coming to television. Just as soon as someone can figure out what to do with him.

Much like Robin Williams when he first emerged from the improv comedy clubs of early-’70s San Francisco, Hendrie — radio dog, stellar mimic, cult avatar, meta-theorist and polyphrenic zookeeper — has become something of a design problem: Everyone agrees he’s the best in the world at what he does, without having the slightest idea how to translate that into film or TV.

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For anyone who doesn’t know who Phil Hendrie is or quite grasp what he does — and it’s staggering exactly how many people still don’t — he is the eponymous host of radio’s The Phil Hendrie Show, now syndicated to nearly 100 stations nationwide, and airing locally on KFI AM 640. Broadcasting from the fifth floor of the City National Bank Building at Ventura and Sepulveda, approximately 200 yards from the nexus of the 101 and 405 freeways, Hendrie interviews two guests per three-hour show, five nights a week, and entertains callers. When the discussions grow contentious, as they invariably do, he uniformly sides with the callers against his often contrarian guests.

The hook — the kicker, as they like to say in Hollywood — is that Hendrie does the voices of all his guests, some 40 regular characters in all, while the callers themselves are real. So when a certain Don Parsley (a.k.a. “Don the Suicide Guy”) tells Hendrie that he was fired from his job as a department-store Santa after his boss discovered he had a prison record, Hendrie is initially sympathetic. Except it turns out that Parsley (“I basically named the guy after a vegetable,” Hendrie says) was convicted of armed robbery. At a mall. Well, it was a hostage situation. Involving children. Several of whom were gunned down by police. After they had been used as human shields. Well, actually, it was his own children he used as human shields. By now angry listeners are phoning in and Hendrie is expressing disgust with his “guest.” Callers vigilantly monitoring the airwaves for the first signs of threat, and not the most dispassionate observers to begin with, heatedly become invested in the material until they suddenly find it impossible to disengage.

Hendrie is aided in his deception by an almost preternatural ability to alter his phrasing, stagger his breathing, calibrate his ear for idiom, and switch back and forth between voices, using nothing more than a hand-held microphone, at a speed at which the brain can scarcely fathom it, even when you’re staring right at him.

“Try this when you drive home tonight,” says Jonah “Bing” Weiland, Hendrie’s one-time producer and call screener. “Talk to yourself — hold a conversation with two sides. It’s impossible. You can do the voice, yes, and you can answer yourself, but it won’t make sense. That’s the amazing thing that he can do.”

This presents a unique theoretical challenge, in that the people who call in to voice their displeasure believe themselves to be the audience for a talk-radio show. But in reality, the show is merely a shill; they are the show, and the real audience is out there in the murky depths somewhere beyond the barrier reef, huge and indefinable. Counterintuitively, Hendrie doesn’t make a secret of the show’s central gimmick, believing there to be an infinite pool of gullible participants. He will often open the show by declaring, “It’s a goof.”

But that’s radio. What about putting Phil Hendrie on television? Simpsons creator Matt Groening used him to voice two characters on Futurama (Free Waterfall Senior and Junior), as did Mike Judge’s King of the Hill (Coach Stowers and attorney Jules Crawford). He played a judge on the short-lived NBC sitcom A.U.S.A. (“Assistant U.S. Attorneys”) and a disembodied voice on Andy Richter Controls the Universe. But by and large, this has only scratched the surface of what goes on inside that giant chromium head.

Which is why hopes were so high for Phil Hendrie, a Fox animated pilot, totally improvised, that almost made it into the network’s 2004 fall lineup. Hendrie was set to play a radio talk-show host raising three kids in a gated community and commuting to work in the city, an urban nightmare. For the voices of his family, the producer and showrunner Steve Levitan (the creator of Just Shoot Me and a staff writer on the short-lived Greg the Bunny) scoured L.A.’s improv community: Amy Yasbeck, John Ritter’s widow and a Wings alumnus, as his wife; comedian Sarah Silverman as daughter Courtney — “trouble on a stick” — who was going to be dating a 35-year-old guy who lives at the marina; Nat Faxon of the Groundlings as Hendrie’s oldest son, Dwayne; and Neil Flynn, the janitor on Scrubs, as youngest son Bunker, a 6-year-old coffee drinker and dark intellectual. Adam Corolla had a cameo as Yasbeck’s ex-husband. Hendrie voiced all the other characters, including many of those from his standing repertory on radio (and would have retained the rights to all his characters). A new animation process to be used by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the guys behind MTV’s aborted series Clone High, was supposed to allow faster rendering and greater flexibility, and there were plans to incorporate actual calls from the radio show.

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