From Her Los Feliz Basement, Stephanie Miller Is Rallying Millions Against Trump
Stephanie Miller's lack of big-time name recognition beyond Los Angeles remains something of a paradox, given the stunning size of her audience.
At precisely five minutes before the crack of ass, or stupid o'clock, as it's known in these parts — which is to say a sylvan street of houses perched regally near the entrance to Griffith Park — a Lululemon-clad whirlwind with a spinner-sinewed frame clatters downstairs two steps at a time. Uggs bumping carpet, she makes her way toward the hothouse warmth of a brightly lit, dorm room–sized basement space, a cup of coffee cantilevered in one hand against a page freshly printed with Donald Trump atrocities in the other, two polar bear–white Great Pyrenees lumbering behind her like a furry snow front.
She stops short in the doorway, looks in wide-eyed astonishment at her two "stem cells" (her term for her millennial producers, Vanessa "Baby" Rumbles and Sean Comiskey) and issues her version of a morning salutation: "Did that motherfucker start a war while we were getting shitfaced?"
She's referring to the evening before, when President Donald J. Trump, in the midst of hoovering up "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you've ever seen," while meeting with Chinese President Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate, ordered a showy but ultimately meaningless Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airfield.
Trump did so, he tweeted, as payback for the country's leader gassing his own people. But to those like her, who (along with many others, including a recent panel of psychiatrists gathered for a conference at Yale University) consider him a sociopathic liar, the real reason was less noble: He was desperate to stop his tanking poll numbers and cauterize the metastasizing cancer of Russia revelations spreading through the press.
At the time the Syria story broke the evening before, she and her friends were several glasses deep into a chardonnay haze, watching the images flashing on her flatscreen default-tuned to MSNBC — images of the "expert" panels, of the silly Chryon crawls and of the man she calls (take your pick) Blotus, Cheetolini, Agent Orange, Hair Furher, Mango Mussolini or Fat Donny Two Scoops. Anything but president.
Now, in the predawn darkness, Rumbles and Comiskey barely pause to respond. They simply shake their heads and, with seconds to go before the first power chords of the radio show's theme song — Christina Aguilera's girl-power anthem "Fighter" — rip into the morning, return to the task of preparing the daily menu of Trump tweet storms and head-exploding sound bites.
At 6:06 a.m., the crew assumes battle stations — swivel chairs, computer screens, dial- and button-filled boards — and Aguilera begins to belt: "So I want to say thank you, cuz it makes me that much stronger ..."
Stephanie Miller, host of The Stephanie Miller Show, pulls on her headset, chair-dances up to her mic and launches the day's first salvo.
"Pardon me, Baby Rumbles?" she says over one of her go-to sound drops, a round of polite applause. "But did that mother[bleeeeep] start a war while we were drinking our faces off last night at happy hour?"
"Yeah," Rumbles says, shaking her head.
"Yeah. OK, just checking in with you. ... Good morning, everybody!"
At her Los Feliz home, Stephanie Miller has hosted "resistance dinners" with guests such as Nancy Pelosi and Rob Reiner.
Over the next three hours, Miller does what she does — seamlessly blends a mélange of fart jokes, bleeped-out profanities, morning zoo slide whistles, harp tinkles, parody songs skewering Trump (Bob Dylan's "Tangerine Man" repurposed as a Trump diss) and Ginsu-sharp wit into what may be the smartest, sharpest, funniest, fiercest progressive political comedy soufflé on the planet.
Miller does not boast the name recognition of, say, a Samantha Bee or John Oliver or, ahem, Bill Maher. Her shows are unlikely to generate the kind of water-cooler chat borne of, say, Melissa McCarthy rampaging through a press gaggle on a weaponized lectern or Alec Baldwin as Trump blowharding "believe me" in a Saturday Night Live cold open. She doesn't break bombshells the way Rachel Maddow does, or make Trump lose his shit over a particularly blue zinger à la Stephen Colbert.
Miller is perhaps the underground's answer to those celebrities — if someone belonging to the underground can host Hollywood A-listers for dinner and reach millions of households (and cars) across the country. In the last six months, she has emerged as one of the nation's most influential radio personalities, conservative or liberal (and yes, that includes Rush Limbaugh), certainly the most consequential to be operating without mainstream fame.
"I listen to Steve Colbert every night, and I love what he's doing," says Lily Tomlin, the comedic icon and Miller's mentor, who currently stars in the Netflix dramedy Grace and Frankie. "But there's something about Stephanie's show, the fact that it's longer format and they can talk in a different way, like a conversation. I just see it as having compassion and being a true person and being a true human being and being able to relate to everything in a more sensitive, human way. I just wish we had so much more."
Among the cognoscenti, in fact, the 55-year-old Miller has become something of a lodestar, with her home, she jokes, serving as a sort of "resistance central." Since Trump's election, she has held regular "resistance" dinners, with a highly curated guest list that includes everyone from political heavy-hitters like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to Hollywood celebs like Tomlin and Rob Reiner, to high-level operators such as Malcolm Nance, intelligence analyst for NBC, and Lisa Bloom, the lawyer largely responsible for taking down Fox's Bill O'Reilly.
"There's no bullshit," Reiner, the director of This Is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally, says of Miller. "She doesn't mince words and she doesn't throw out lies.
"People (on the right) will say, 'Well, Stephanie is just as ridiculous as Infowars and Alex Jones," Reiner adds. "No. Alex Jones says that Sandy Hook was a made-up thing. Stephanie doesn't say anything insane like that. You may not agree with her politics, but she doesn't make shit up."
Lest there be doubt about Miller's influence, no less than Rachel Maddow — whose nightly MSNBC show now boasts the highest ratings in all of cable news — bestowed her imprimatur on Miller a few years back: She is, Maddow said on her show, "the high priestess of excellent liberal talk."
In addition to Miller's stable of regulars — a collection of political comics that includes John Fugelsang, host of SiriusXM's excellent Tell Me Everything; Angela Shelton and Frances V. Callier, better known as "Frangela"; Dean Obeidallah, a regular CNN and MSNBC contributor who also has a SiriusXM show; and two out-lesbian stand-ups, Suzanne Westenhoefer and Dana Goldberg — she routinely counts as guests on her show the same heavyweights who attend her dinners.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters, for example, whose fierce opposition to Trump includes calls for his impeachment, has made several appearances. California Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also is a friend of the show. Nance counts himself among Miller's biggest fans — and credits her show with helping launch his analyst career.
Miller's lack of big-time name recognition beyond Los Angeles, where her face appears on buses and billboards, remains something of a paradox, given the stunning size of her audience. Michael Harrison, publisher of the influential trade publication Talkers Magazine, estimates Miller's weekly listenership, including terrestrial radio, online, satellite radio stations and Free Speech TV, to be nearly 6 million.
That number — huge for any talker but mammoth in the wasteland that is liberal radio — routinely lands her on the magazine's "Most Listened to Talk Show Hosts in America," a list that includes ratings behemoths Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Behind the scenes at The Stephanie Miller Show
Most impressive to Harrison, Miller has boldly gone where even the Hannitys and Limbaughs have not. Her ability to generate "nontraditional" revenue — industry-speak for creative ways to reach audiences and make money beyond her core talk show — has made her a trailblazer in the broadcast industry, he says.
"It's an amazing feat. She's a major player in American talk radio, one of the biggest stars in internet talk and one of a handful of progressive hosts who have developed a large following of listeners from coast to coast," he says. "She's a pioneer in the evolution of radio from the 20th to the 21st century."
Miller's Sexy Liberal comedy tour (now known as the Sexy Liberal Resistance Tour) packs big-city venues across the country. Her autobiography, Sexy Liberal: Of Me I Sing, sat atop Amazon's comedy memoirs list for weeks. Both of her comedy albums debuted at No. 1 on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play. In addition to her online subscription, which has more than 5,000 subscribers at just under $60 annually, she offers a weekly "Happy Hour" show, a far more personal (and, loosed from FCC strictures, profane) one-on-one interview with celebrities and comedians that adds yet another revenue stream.
Miller's success, of course, has made her a target of the political right, particularly in the tin-hatted reaches of the roiling internet. In an interview with Miller for Breitbart News, writer Larry O'Connor called her show "mostly fiction and vitriol" (although he also called her a "big media mogul" whose show he found "entertaining"). She is a favorite object of derision for Newsbusters.org, another far-right outlet, which bills itself as a website dedicated to "exposing and combatting liberal media bias." (One headline, over a Miller bit about how her Republican mother's bird masturbates to Fox News, tsk-tsk'd at the "kooky libtalker" and stated that her "sad, bizarre attempt at humor reveals [her] as Seriously Unfunny.") Miller includes such jabs — and her frequent "hate stack" of emails and mean tweets — on her show.
In one sense, she is lucky. The advent of Trump has united the notoriously disparate factions of the left in a way unprecedented in modern politics. Saturday Night Live just wrapped a banner season. Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel are regularly thumping the once seemingly invincible Jimmy Fallon in the late-night ratings wars. Maddow has ascended to the ratings summit.
Even Miller, who in a 30-plus-year broadcasting career has always logged solid ratings, stands in awe at her success and others'. "We've sold out the Chicago Theater three times," she says — along with Hollywood's historic Pantages and New York's Beacon. "People in the stand-up field are like, 'What the fuck?''' she says, curled on the couch of her elegant, multistory home. "When the first Sexy Liberal Tour album hit No. 1 on Amazon, iTunes and Billboard magazine, industry folks called me and were like, 'Who the fuck are you guys? You don't have a record company, you don't have a publicist. How are you No. 1 on Billboard?'"
The answer is, on one level, simple. She's good — a polished pro who has honed what she does through stints as a music deejay, a talk show host, an actress, a stand-up; in the 1990s, she even had her own late-night network talk show, going up against Jay Leno and David Letterman.
She's also willing to share the most intimate aspects of her own life. In 2010, Miller came out as a lesbian — on air — a disclosure that, earnest as it was at the time, is now just another part of her shtick.
And she goes where the mainstream media can't or won't. Whereas NPR loftily debated the propriety of using the word "liar" to describe Trump, Miller screams it hourly with lusty delight. She railed daily against the breathless coverage of Hillary Clinton's email server by The New York Times and others. While pundits tiptoe around the "I"-word — impeachment — and hem and haw over whether Russian interference actually affected the 2016 election outcome, Miller flatly asserts, "This was a stolen election" — often evoking affirmative responses from serious guests who might demur on any other show.
"Stephanie Miller was the first person I know of in radio to take that wacky zoo format — rife with impressions and inappropriate sound effects and wacky inserts — and use it for something smart, political and moral," says Fugelsang, who credits regular appearances on Miller's show with helping him land his SiriusXM gig. "Most of the guys that do wacky morning zoo formats are insufferable boobs. Stephanie actually decided to use that kind of format toward helping working people in America, oppressed minorities, LGBT people, people at risk."
She does so by using the show "as a delivery system for truth and empathy," he says. "She's doing a show that's entertainment first, informative second and preachy last."
Bob Cesca, another progressive political comedian whose podcast is a semi-spinoff, says: "It's an extraordinarily unique show that draws this amazing balance between political conversation and saying some things that aren't very PC, which I love."
Cesca, whose podcasting partner, Chez Pazienza, died suddenly in February, was astonished, to say nothing of grateful, at how Miller handled the awful news: with a heartfelt, tear-soaked tribute. The point, he says, is that "she doesn't always have to have a punch line."
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"She can do segments that are extraordinarily emotional and poignant, as well as hilariously funny, and sometimes are both."
"I am the chick who cries on radio," Miller admits. "I cried about Chez. I cried when my dog died. ... Oh, it's just not having a grip on life. It's called being a hot mess."
Still, for all her success, there has remained a nagging sense that Miller has never fully received the recognition she deserves. Ironically, the rise of her biggest nemesis, Trump, may be precisely the thing that changes that.
It was still dark out when I pulled up in front of Miller's house one Tuesday morning in March, stifling a yawn as I checked my watch — yup, crack of ass — trying not to spill one drop of my jumbo-sized, gas station coffee. I didn't want to be late, but we hadn't exactly worked out whether I should knock, ring a buzzer or hoist a boom box over my head, Say Anything–style.
The place was dark except for a small square of light from a tiny window at the base of the house. I knocked and one of the "stem cells," Comiskey, motioned me to a side gate, which creaked open.
Getting to the little studio — and it is little, especially compared with the rest of the house — requires navigation through an exercise room filled with ellipticals and stationary bikes. When I entered the studio itself, the other stem cell, Rumbles, looked up with a puzzled smile. Just then Miller trundled down the stairs: "Oh yes, this is Bryan. He says he's a reporter, but he may be a Russian assassin, I'm not sure yet."
Lesson one: Anyone, at anytime — even a reporter/assassin cringing in the corner — can be turned into an on-air bit. Rumbles, who previously produced Tavis Smiley's show, and Comiskey are used to it by now, having their personal lives regularly laid bare.
"There's a reporter in here," Miller said on-air, shortly after the show's opening. "He's lurking over there in the corner. He's here in my basement, to talk about my media empire. It's going to be a whole exposé."
"I let him in not realizing," Comiskey says.
"Can I just say I would be really easy to kill?" Miller interrupts. "I don't even know if he's really a reporter. I was just like, oh, publicity for me? Come on in! Here lies Stephanie Miller, killed by her own ego."
Stephanie Miller: "I thought that's how it worked. I'm like, you come out to L.A. and work weekends at KFI, and then you get your own talk show against Leno and Letterman."
It is with heavy doses of self-deprecation that Miller describes her upbringing. She was, she says, either raised by wolves who abandoned her when she was a "furry little cub" (explains the unibrow in childhood photos, she says) or raised by Gypsies (again, unibrow) or was taken in by a kindly Republican couple before going on to find fame as a featured pole dancer at the Itchy Kitty in Reseda.
All of that is fake news, of course, including, sadly, the fictional Itchy Kitty, though the part about the kindly Republican couple comes close.
Miller was raised not as a wolf child but in a comfortable suburban home in Lockport, New York. She wasn't taken in by a kindly Republican couple but born to one, including a pretty famous father.
William "Bill" Miller was the running mate of Barry Goldwater, the five-term conservative stalwart famed for his campaign as the 1964 Republican nominee for president. Goldwater lost the election by the most lopsided popular vote in U.S. history but is at least as well known for the dignified and honorable way he and Miller ran it. Miller's father, a lifelong conservative, also was an assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.
Her now–94-year-old mother, also named Stephanie, is, to Miller's everlasting and public chagrin, a Trump supporter, someone she believes has been "Foxified," duped by Fox News and other conservative media outlets. "It makes me the saddest," Miller says. "It's hard to have a conversation with her, because I have to constantly say, 'Well, Mom, that's just not true. I know you saw that on Fox News, but it isn't true.'"
On the other hand, it qualifies her to comfort those in her audience who face similar dilemmas with family and friends. "I will give her credit," Miller says of her mother. "She finally called me a few days after the election to see if I was OK, and I was crying when I spoke to her. I was like, 'Mom, you know this is personal. I wanted you to see me get married before I die. Are they going to take away my right to get married? I just feel like this man [Trump] has ripped this country apart.'"
Miller describes her actual upbringing as mostly idyllic — other than being tormented by an older brother, Bill, who turned out to be another Republican Trump backer. "It was sort of ironic," she writes in Sexy Liberal, that her father was an assistant prosecutor at Nuremberg and "most of what my brother was doing to me in our own home could technically be categorized as war crimes, and yet it seemed to escape his attention entirely."
After high school Miller moved to Los Angeles, where she earned a theater degree from the University of Southern California with a plan, she says, laughing, to be "the next Carol Burnett." Her idol later offered a better idea. In a phone call arranged by Burnett's daughter, Miller's friend, the comedy legend told her: "There's only one Stephanie Miller. You don't want to be Carol Burnett. You're the Carol Burnett of radio."
"Of course I cried," Miller says, laughing at the recollection.
After graduation, she writes in Sexy Liberal, she "quickly landed a highly promising position in L.A. selling customized pens over the phone. 'How do you sell pens over the phone?' you might ask. The short answer: You don't."
She landed a gig at a choice spot — Hollywood's famed Laugh Factory — but with less-than-choice duties, which included answering phones, cocktail waitressing and "changing the names of the famous comedians on the marquee with a giant pole."
A few months after her graduation, her father suffered a major stroke. He died in 1983 shortly after she returned to Lockport. Miller resumed her career there, this time answering phones at Yuk Yuk's in Buffalo ("center of the white-cold Upstate comedy scene," she says), living in a $125-a-month apartment over a pizza parlor near the club.
Her first radio gig was doing impressions of Katharine Hepburn at Hot 104 in Buffalo. "Radio was a complete accident for me," she recalls (she still harbored dreams of being a TV star), but it proved a perfect fit for her emerging comic voice. She rose rapidly in the next few years, landing on stations in Chicago and, in 1989, on her own morning drive show at HOT 97 New York City, becoming a ratings smash in both cities.
She traveled West again in 1989, when Warner Bros. offered her a sitcom, but "the moment I moved to Los Angeles, everyone from Warner Bros. got fired, including all the people who had made my sitcom deal," she writes. As luck would have it, however, her old manager at Yuk Yuk's in Buffalo knew the program manager at KFI, the 50,000-watt mega-station in Los Angeles. She started there with a weekend show in 1994. "It was the first time I had done talk radio, and I was like, 'Oh, you mean just me talk, with no music?'" she recalls. "I was like, blah, blah, blah. Oh, I still have 10 minutes left. That's when I guess I started to get political, and I started to realize more of my liberal leanings."
The turning point came in August 1992, when she heard Pat Buchanan's now-notorious gay-bashing "culture wars" speech. "It was just so mean," she says. "It changed everything for me."
In short order she was offered a five-day-a-week gig at KFI and then, a year later, a shot at the real big time: a chance to host a late-night network talk show, going up against Letterman and Leno. "I thought that's how it worked," she says. "I'm like, you come out to L.A. and work weekends at KFI, and then you get your own talk show against Leno and Letterman." The show, critically acclaimed but a ratings flop, was canceled after 13 weeks.
She returned to radio and, for a time, television, via the airing of her show on Current TV, the network Al Gore founded and then sold to Al-Jazeera, where Miller logged the top ratings of any original programming. She continued to score well in the ratings. She had also, by that time, picked up a group of regulars, including Fugelsang, Frangela, Cesca and Obeidallah, who made his name as a Muslim stand-up and now, thanks largely to Miller, hosts his own three-hour SiriusXM political comedy show.
In early December 2013, however, came the blow that drove her to the basement studio. Clear Channel (now iHeartRadio) announced that it was flipping KTLK, its flagship 50,000-watt "blowtorch" station in L.A., from progressive talk to conservative. The bloodbath, brought on by "floundering" ratings (Miller was actually No. 1 in the market at the time) deep-sixed her show, as well as those of progressive talk stalwarts Randi Rhodes and Bill Press, and replaced them with Limbaugh, Hannity and Glenn Beck. Miller lost both her show and the Los Angeles studio from which she broadcast it.
Conservative talkers pounced: "Anyone who knows Stephanie Miller, and there aren't many, knows she has no audience — she's been up and coming for 20 years," right-wing host Mark Levin jabbed on his show. "She's sarcastic and ultra left-wing." Today, Miller gleefully uses the sound bite. Still, she admits, the moment was devastating, enough to make her wonder whether to continue.
"Boy, nevertheless she persisted," says Miller, referencing the words U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell used to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren's objections during the confirmation hearings of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now a feminist rallying cry.
"We found out right before Christmas that they were pulling the plug on KTLK, and I was like, 'Fucking dammit, really?'" Miller recalls. First, her dreams of TV stardom were all but dead. Now, radio too? "Certainly that would have been a time when a lot of people would have just quit, just would have gone, 'Fuck it.' I had to take an almost 50 percent pay cut. We all had to take huge pay cuts.
"That's when the rubber hits the road. You either go, 'I quit,' or it makes you more determined. It made me more determined."
First, Miller and her business partner, Ron Hartenbaum, decided that relying for studio space on a corporate broadcast entity was untenable. The solution was to build the basement studio.
Doing so would not be easy — particularly around the holidays, and on a tight deadline. Miller would have to pay for the construction, a major outlay given what was required to create the kind of high-tech required. "This was not a Clear Channel building. It's my home, so there was all the extra construction and handyman stuff that had to be done — phone lines, power, ISDN."
Because the show would be simulcast on Free Speech TV — an independent nonprofit network that reaches, according to its website, 40 million U.S. homes — she had to mount cameras and install studio lighting.
In the end, the studio — with its walls crammed with posters and photos and odds and ends (a Goldwater/Miller campaign placard, a peace sign pillow, a bronze bust of Miller's butt sharing a table with mics and laptops), and with her two dogs, Max and Fred, loping in and out — fit perfectly with the show's spirit and personality.
"It's really true what they say: Sometimes your dreams turn out differently than you thought," Miller muses. "Or as I say sometimes: When God shuts a door, he shuts a window, too, and then you're fucked."
After Clear Channel cut Miller's show, she rebuilt it at home.
It's Friday, mercifully, the end of the week, third hour of the show, time for one of Miller's — and her audience's — favorite segments, announced by the rising tide of the Laura Branigan song "Gloria!" (sung by comedian-actress Tichina Arnold and reworked by show regular Rocky Mountain Mike, who creates a variety of parody songs and guest jingles).
As the song soars, Frangela (motto: "Get your back up and get your black up!") chair-dances, arms waving, butts shaking, heads weaving. Simultaneously, the pair pull referee flags from their back pockets and toss them onto the table in front of them.
"Good morning, Frangela!" Miller says. "Well, no news to talk about."
"Nooooooooo," Shelton answers.
"Really dull week," Callier agrees.
Then, the conversation suddenly turns serious.
"So, anybody else wanna call some bull[bleep]" on the Syrian attacks? Miller asks.
"I'm throwing a flag," Shelton says. "If you care about Syrians, why did you renege on the deal to let refugees come here? We can't feed and shelter the people, but we can bomb the country they're in?"
The conversation continues, somber and thoughtful. But this is The Stephanie Miller Show, which means the lure back to laughs is irresistible.
"We are not stupid," Shelton screams. "We are not Boo-Boo the Fool up in here! Fat meat is greasy!"
"That's right," Callier chimes in. "You can't wax a pony twice."
"No you can't," Miller says. She pauses, trying to catch her breath. "I think I'm starting to speak Frangelese."
The dogs lumber in. Aguilera's "Fighter" pounds the basement studio.
And the woman in the baseball cap and "Herr Twittler" T-shirt, the high priestess herself, leans in, uttering a few words that offer at least some small assurance that the world will continue to turn for her anti-Trump congregation:
"See you Monday, on The Stephanie Miller Show."
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