The Phil Hendrie Effect

One night I’m driving out in the sticks and tune the radio into KFI out of Los Angeles. Some guy named Phil Hendrie is talking to a recovering heroin addict who got a carpenter job out at a movie studio. Problem is, this guy doesn’t have a car and thinks the studio should provide him with transportation. People are calling up saying what a lazy guy he is, offering suggestions on how he could get himself to work . . . one caller even says he’ll pick him up and drop him off. The guy says no can do, he’s got to eat breakfast first, the caller says no problem we’ll stop at Jack in the Box. Then the recovering heroin addict says that he can’t do that, he’s got “dietary restrictions.”

Right about there it dawned on me. It was a ruse. There was no recovering heroin addict, he was some actor working for the radio show.

From time to time I’d listen to the program and heard the same three or four voices. They would talk about Y2K compliant videotapes and how John Denver wrote “Happy Trails” (he was 2 at the time) and about screenplays they had written with a storyline just exactly like a movie that had just been released.

As funny as the premises were, the entertainment was in the callers who didn’t realize they were being put on. They’d call up outraged, appalled, incensed and sometimes a mite testy. They’d try to talk reason to these people. They would voice their annoyance, point out flaws in their arguments or heatedly berate them for their stupidity.

A lot of time the callers would ask "Phil, where do you find these people?" Funny. I had the same question about the callers. Where do you keep finding people who have listened to the show long enough to call in but not long enough to clue in? I began to wonder if maybe the callers weren’t scripted as well.

So that was the whole shtick. A contrived situation and callers that are duped into believing someone could be so ridiculous. Then it got interesting. Some of the radio guys in the morning commented that Phil Hendrie does all the voices himself.

Now the show intrigued me on an additional level. How does one guy do both the moderator and the guest? My guess is there’s some kind of electronic time-delay and voice modification that allows him to do the whole thing in real time. However he does it, it’s an amazing talent and, as much anything, I continued to listen to the show to figure out the technical details.

After the morning guys spilled the beans, Phil Hendrie said, “Thanks a lot guys, give away my secret.”

I thought, ‘There it goes. There goes the pool of callers who don’t get it.’

But they didn’t go away. They kept calling. I have no idea where they came from, but they kept calling. It went so far that once G. Gordon Liddy actually reported the antics of a Phil Hendrie character as an example of how litigious we’ve become. “A construction worker out in California sued a lumber company for thus-n-such. Oh, my! That’s how out of control our society’s gotten.” All that and the character was fake to begin with.

Then Phil Hendrie even took to explaining the whole thing for the special ed students who hadn’t figured it out. “The voice of (so and so) was played by me, Phil Hendrie. The callers are real people who don’t know they are talking to a make-believe person.”

And still they keep calling.

Hendrie explained why he publicizes the secret. On one occasion when the phones were opened to clued-in people, one caller said "I was so outraged by your guest that I turned off the radio. Then I started listening again when I found out the characters aren't real." Hendrie asked him to repeat that, then he said "That's why I tell people about the shtick. The reason people listen is because they know it's a hoax." . . . or words to that effect.

It occurs to me that the reason the show works is because people in real life do such outrageous things. If you listen to the news, you don’t have a hard time believing the ridiculous things Phil Hendrie’s characters do.

But, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe since being tuned into his program my radio has gotten sucked into some kind of weird cosmic lock. The news today is so bizarre that maybe his show is the only thing that my radio's picking up.

Sure, the voices sound like the local radio guys and the stations are different, but the preposterous things I hear on the news? It’s pure Phil Hendrie.

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