ONE icy night last year I rented a car at the Minneapolis airport and began the 150-mile drive northward to Duluth, for a meeting the next day. In the car I faced the standard entertainment decision for the solo traveler: order or chaos. Order was the recorded book I'd been listening to for several days. Chaos was seeing what was on the radio. I'd had enough of the book, so I tried scanning the AM dial to see if any interesting stations were blasting through the night sky from Texas, Canada, or the East Coast.
Within the first few seconds of tuning in each station I could tell what its offering was going to be. A Rush Limbaugh rebroadcast. A preacher. A pro-basketball game. The all-purpose expert Bruce Williams, giving smug advice to people who had made horrendous life-management mistakes. A Spanish-language music program featuring accordions. And then something I couldn't immediately categorize.
The show was somebody talking, but he didn't seem to be answering callers and he wasn't sticking to the staple AM topics of sports, money, politics, and "relationships." Instead he was talking about ... Larry King, and why the column King publishes in USA Today should be considered uniquely preposterous in the realm of modern letters. He read from the column, and he used a funny voice to imitate King saying the same things to his new, much younger wife. Then, with a fully orchestrated version of the Beatles' "Let It Be" swelling in the background, he suddenly started singing: "When I find myself alone on the toilet, / Brother Larry comes to me / with those written words of wisdom, / Look at me." He ranted on for ten minutes about life's nuttiness and the oddities of fame. The effect was like overhearing Robin Williams entertain himself at home. In the dark of the Minnesota woods, which was broken only by the neon glare from tribal casinos, it made me wonder, Who is this guy?
I couldn't find out that night, because the signal crackled away before the host identified himself. In the following weeks whenever I talked to someone who had lived in Minneapolis, I described what I'd heard and asked if it rang a bell. Eventually I learned what the program was and began listening regularly, either when I traveled within range or by means of a live Internet broadcast when I was at home. The address is www.am1500.com, and the show is broadcast on KSTP Monday through Friday from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. Central Time. This is early evening on the West Coast, where I've been living, and over the past year I've heard the program on average once a week while sitting at my computer grinding out e-mail.
I have come to think that the host, a lifelong resident of St. Paul named T. D. "Tommy" Mischke (pronounced Mish-kee), brings the first truly original approach to AM radio since Rush Limbaugh began mixing comedy with polemic, more than a decade ago. He is at least as funny as any national radio figure, and his political sensibility is far less sledgehammerish than has become the norm on talk radio. Indeed, the reason he stands out is precisely that the AM landscape has become so flatly formulaic all around him. But the same determined hometown spirit that in part explains his humor has made him reluctant to pursue a national audience for The Mischke Broadcast, beyond those who happen on his Web site (where, to be honest, the experience isn't quite the same as listening to an actual radio while driving at night or doing the dishes). For now he is like a fine, strictly regional wine -- or, to use an image he'd find more attractive, like a stein overflowing with great-tasting beer that you can drink only at the brewhouse.
LIKE music, comedy loses something when it is described rather than experienced, but I'll start by saying what Mischke's program is not. His comedy almost never involves gags, in the sense of jokes with punchlines. "The problem with 'jokes' is, none of them are funny," he told me, when I finally met him on a trip to St. Paul this spring. "Okay, everybody can think of one joke they laughed at real hard. But they're not funny in that they don't fit the definition of humor, which is the unexpected. As soon as you announce that you're telling a joke, the unexpected is lost." His program consists mainly of comic riffs, lasting ten or fifteen minutes each, which Mischke carefully prepares based on the day's news but which are meant to sound as if they were unfolding in a stream-of-consciousness way.
Mischke's show also lacks an element whose absence becomes striking as soon as you think about it: almost none of his routines are about sex. Pop humor -- from Howard Stern through American Pie and Road Trip to the current version of Saturday Night Live -- has become a series of sex skits. Mischke's fetishes seem to be death-and-dismemberment humor and attacks on the excesses of high-tech culture. For instance, he devoted one segment to a new Web site for the "National Hobo Association," wondering how, exactly, the hobos had gotten organized and where they were supposed to log on. "Sex jokes are just too easy, and it's so clearly the fact that we're all uncomfortable with [sex] that it's used as humor," Mischke told me. "I'm not that uncomfortable with sex, but I am uncomfortable with death, so maybe that explains my humor."
Occasional gruesome routines notwithstanding, the program doesn't have a mean or nasty tone. Its political content boils down to a Will Rogers-like tweaking of big shots and standing up for the little man. Although stores in the gargantuan Mall of America, outside Minneapolis, are major advertisers on his station, Mischke goes after the mall once a week or so, calling it "the mother of abominations" for its effect on small merchants and for occupying the space where the city's outdoor baseball stadium once stood. Whenever Alan Greenspan or some New Economy titan is in the news, marveling at the perfection of these economic times, Mischke wonders how this sounds to the guy living in a mobile home and punching holes in sheet metal.
After Jesse Ventura left pro wrestling, he was briefly Mischke's colleague as a KSTP talk-show host. On the weekdays before Ventura was elected governor, Mischke waged an on-air crusade urging listeners to get out and vote for him, as a way of shaking up Minnesota's staid political establishment. Did this make a difference? "Well, you never know," Ventura told me in a phone interview. "But we had the highest voter turnout in the United States of America, and for a show that has kind of a cult following, I'm sure that it did have an effect." Ventura added that he likes listening to the show, and likes appearing on it as a guest. "Tommy really is a unique talent. He does a show that is incredibly entertaining, but he also has subtlety in the ways he gets his points across." One of the people Ventura defeated for governor was the mayor of St. Paul, Norm Coleman, who is also a KSTP talk host -- a handsome young Republican with TV-newsman hair and teeth. He and Mischke have at times been on friendly terms, but Mischke turned on him when, in his view, Coleman became too much a booster for big business. Mischke spent a lot of time in 1998 railing against a plan, which Coleman favored, to convert a tiny old restaurant called the Original Coney Island, owned by a Greek woman in her nineties who had opened it with her husband in 1923. The space was going to be used for an office building and parking garage. The plan was beaten, largely because of Mischke's efforts. Coleman now says of Mischke, "He's an off-the-wall genius. Very off-the-wall. Tommy exalts the little guy -- that's part of his persona. I've become the big guy."
One way to describe the show is as a combination of The Onion and The Simpsons. Like the creators of The Onion, a satirical newspaper published in Madison, Wisconsin, Mischke has captured the tone of mainstream news coverage so as to parody it. A headline and subhead on a typical Onion story read "AMISH GIVE UP. 'This Is Bullshit,' Elders Say." Mischke reports in similar terms about Montana's rejecting the federal 55 mph speed limit and replacing it with the speed of light. [Click here to listen. Requires RealPlayer.] At its best the show is full of throwaway gags, doesn't strain for a laugh, and makes fun of everything without losing a cheery tone.
Mischke also cultivates the idea that the show's structure will be unpredictable from night to night: all call-in one evening, monologues only for the next few days, serious political discussion on one show, and all farce on the next. The night the final Seinfeld episode aired, Mischke "took himself hostage," yelling quite convincingly that he had a gun and would shoot if anyone stopped listening to watch TV. Two years ago he paused to consider what to say at the beginning of a program -- and decided just to keep quiet. For the next two hours he said nothing at all, until his usual "Sleep well!" sign-off at 10:00 p.m. When callers rang the station in confusion, he pressed a button to put them on the air without telling them he was doing so. Soon a spontaneous callers' show was in progress.
Music plays a very large role on the program, which points up how scarce it is on other talk shows -- except for Limbaugh's occasional song parodies. Mischke has worked as a singer and a piano player, and on many shows he bursts into song several times. After reading a ghoulish news item about poor people in India whose kidneys were surreptitiously being removed by surgeons for sale to the rich, he swung into what Noel Holston, of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, described as a "quaintly bizarre blend of rap and Rudyard Kipling called 'I Lost a Kidney in India.'" [Click here to listen.] Once, I lived a clich and literally had to pull over because I was laughing so hard at a Mischke song. It was the twenty-third anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, on Lake Superior, and Mischke was conducting a phone interview with a leading expert on the incident. The expert, named Gumbinger, had been doing interviews all day and was momentarily flummoxed when Mischke, of whom he'd never heard, began singing questions to the tune and doggerel rhyme scheme of Gordon Lightfoot's song: "Could something like this ever happen a-gain? / Is there any way we can a-void it? / Should they be worried to-day, / up there near Whitefish Bay, / Or am I just getting all para-noid-ed?"
They kept it up, Gumbinger giving straight-man answers as if he were being interviewed on drivetime radio, Mischke coming back with stanza after stanza of plausible but ridiculous questions. [Click here to listen.] "I never thought he'd stick with it," Mischke told me. "I thought he'd just hang up or blow me off, and I'm sure he would have if it hadn't been the last one of the day." This episode, along with "Kidneys in India" and two dozen other segments, is included on The Best of The Mischke Broadcast, a pair of CDs.
At unpredictable intervals Mischke opens the phones -- sometimes for serious conversation with regular listeners, but whenever possible for unintentional comedy from midwestern naifs. "In the screening process for the show I say, 'Give me a relatively intelligent caller or give me one who is a complete character and doesn't know it,'" he said. "'Do not ever give me a person who is a character and knows it.' No matter how good they are at being a character, if they know it, it ruins the show." Mischke has a knack for revealing people's oddities seemingly without their feeling bad or mocked -- in a way that Johnny Carson could and David Letterman can't. In "Gullible's Travels," a segment also on the CD set, he rings up a man who has just published an earnest letter to the editor about the risks hockey players run when they pile on one another after a win (think of those sharp skates!). Mischke says he's calling to break the news that the man's warning was all too prophetic: a player has just been decapitated in a pile-on at a college tournament. They're showing the film now on CNN! "Oh, no," the man says in sympathy, a voice out of Fargo. Then Mischke switches to a tone of outrage, telling him that the newspaper apparently had the letter the previous day and could have published it in time to avert the tragedy -- "reminiscent of what happened with Pearl Harbor, when there was a warning early and it didn't get all the way up to FDR!" After about ten minutes the man begins to wonder if this is really a golfing friend of his, "Bocky," calling to pull his leg.
"You got me," Mischke says.
"Bocky! But you don't sound like yourself," the man says, puzzled.
"Well, I got throat cancer."
(Perkily) "Not much of it, but just enough to screw up the voice a little bit." [Click here to listen.]
I MET Tommy Mischke at his house, in St. Paul, on a rainy night in May. He didn't look anything like what I had expected, and I gather I'm not the only one who has felt this way. I expected a codger -- perhaps Harry Dean Stanton in one of his desert-rat roles. "People tell me the show has been ruined for them, just ruined, when they see me," he said, "and they're not kidding." The problem seems to be that his voice and manner allow each listener to imagine what the host looks like, and most of Tommy Mischke's audience apparently come up with a picture that has nothing in common with the actual person. "Let people have their theater of the mind," Mischke says. "I'm very protective of what radio is supposed to be."
Mischke, who turns thirty-eight this month, is tall, with thick dark hair. If you had to describe him by comparison to a movie star, you'd choose Dennis Quaid rather than Harry Dean Stanton. When I met him, Mischke was wearing jeans, scuffed cowboy boots, and an old blue sweatshirt over a white T-shirt. His house is a tidy bungalow in the Midway district of St. Paul. Stepping inside was like stepping into the 1930s -- black-and-white family photos on the walls, doilies on the armchairs, a big fire in the fireplace. An elegant, burnished 1937 Philco console radio the size of a chiffonier sits in the living room. He is married to a psychologist and has two young sons and two college-age stepsons.
Mischke grew up in a big German Catholic family, the seventh of eight children. His parents ran a community newspaper, which his brother now edits. He got kicked out of a local Catholic military school, had assorted brushes with the law, and rode freight trains to the West Coast when he was seventeen. His high school class voted him "Best Sense of Humor" but also "Most Unpredictable," and he had to choose one. "It's kind of disturbing now, but I thought that if one day I committed some horrible crime, I didn't want to give them the luxury of being able to say, 'See, there was the beginning! We should have seen it back then!' So I let the number-two guy have 'Unpredictable.'" He studied journalism at two small Catholic colleges, tried writing serious articles for local papers -- and then began making regular comic phone calls to a local talk show run by a host named Don Vogel. After a few months he was hired as a sidekick, at $20 a show. He and Vogel had a falling-out, and in 1993 Mischke, at thirty-one, got his own program. Vogel, who was blind, died two years later. Mischke is careful to credit Vogel with giving him his first chance.
He spends mornings with his children, afternoons reading papers and writing songs and scripts on an old Smith Corona manual typewriter, and evenings at the radio station, which he frequently sneaks into and out of without talking to anyone else. In the summertime he often broadcasts his show from "the shack," a little wooden box suspended over center field at Midway Stadium, home of the minor-league St. Paul Saints. In the background of those shows is the crowd noise of a ball game, and Mischke now and then interjects "Home run!"
At the end of each program Mischke calls the station "KSTP -- good old St. Paul, big-time Minneapolis." The contrast between the Twin Cities is significant locally and reflects classic second-city status. Good old St. Paul is Baltimore to Minneapolis's haughtier Washington, D.C., Providence to Boston, Tacoma to Seattle. It's the blue-collar city of neighborhoods and taverns and parishes. Every person I interviewed about Tommy Mischke referred to him as "just a St. Paul boy," and he obviously loves thinking of himself as the Barry Levinson or the Damon Runyon of his city.
"A show like his could only happen at a family-owned station," Katherine Lanpher told me. Lanpher is a former newspaper columnist who had her own talk show at KSTP before she moved to the local National Public Radio station -- and she is the one who said "Oh, you must mean Mischke!" when I was asking around about the unidentified show I'd heard. "There is no consultant anywhere who would recommend this," Virginia Hubbard Morris, who is the president of KSTP and whose family owns the station, says. "People like him. He is a brilliant mind and an entertaining guy, and we get great support for the show." "Great support" means something more modest at night than during the important drive-time hours. The audience for all AM radio falls off dramatically after dark, so a weekly listenership of 30,000 is enough to keep the show afloat.
The extreme localness of Mischke's operation could be seen as rinky-dink. The station made several thousand copies of The Best of The Mischke Broadcast -- and then offered it for sale only at the Minnesota State Fair and at a booth in the Mall of America. Suppose people who were not in Minnesota wanted to buy it? I asked. Well ... maybe they could call the station? (That number is 651-647-2826.)
But Mischke seems clearheaded about the advantages of his small-time role. He is careful to speak respectfully of St. Paul's other radio humorist -- Garrison Keillor, the one people have heard of. Mischke says that in his magazine essays Keillor is outrageous and inventive. "But what Keillor has got into with radio is exactly what I want to avoid. He has created this world where there are rules. Garrison Keillor does not have the luxury of getting up on a Saturday and saying, 'Wow, I've got a wild idea for this show. It'll be unlike anything anybody has ever heard before!' He knows his audience won't allow that." Keillor said, in an e-mail message to me, that he'd "only heard little bits and pieces of the Mischke show" and that although he found Mischke "interesting," he didn't know enough about him to comment. A leitmotif of local press coverage is that Mischke is the funnier of the two radio broadcasters. A more useful comparison is probably that Keillor's radio world is funny because of its structure and predictability, whereas Mischke's is funniest when it is least predictable. Mischke dreads being set up for a fall by such comparisons, and he calls Keillor a "literary giant delving into radio" and himself just a "radio guy."
Since the fall of 1998 Mischke has taken several breaks from the show, totaling six or seven months, because of what was eventually revealed to be clinical depression. His audience besieged the station with concerned phone calls. Before people knew what was wrong with him, they offered to give blood, donate organs. The idea of a depressed comic is hardly surprising, but this was apparently an isolated episode rather than part of a lifelong pattern. Mischke says that the problem was stress, overwork, and too deep an emotional involvement in the news items he scoured in preparation for each day's show. "I realized I was reacting emotionally to what I saw in the paper and bringing that to the show," he told me. "It was too much."
No doubt reflecting the American media's bicoastal bias, I asked if this episode had grown out of frustration over the limits of his reach: he had turned down offers to do bigger shows in bigger markets -- had that bothered him? On the contrary, he said, the months away from work had made him feel all the more fortunate in the freedom he enjoys: "I am in my home. I have looked at every talent that I have, and every one of them is employed in this job. I am even more cognizant than I used to be of how many people have looked back later, and found this little golden moment they kind of shot through on their way to the top." A local show, he seemed to think, is his golden moment.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent.
Photograph by Michael Crouser.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Mischke's Moment - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 100-104.
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