After Shock

Howard Stern's switch to satellite means a whole new world for Phoenix radio. And for me

And so I drove the dark streets of the west side, trying to get to Rubio's house by 6 a.m. -- the time she normally gets up, and an hour in which I'd typically rather be dead than awake.

I listened, all the way, to NPR. It was way too early for the Diane Rehm Show, but they were doing a fleet of typically serious topics nevertheless, on Morning Edition. The longest segment (or did it just seem that way?) was about a screening program to monitor teens for mental health problems and, hopefully, prevent suicide.

It was dark, all right. And by the time I arrived on Alice Rubio's doorstep, at 6 sharp, I was beginning to think I needed screening myself.

83 hours a year of . . . well, what was it exactly?
Dan May
83 hours a year of . . . well, what was it exactly?
Laughing beats road rage.
Dan May
Laughing beats road rage.

And then Alice Rubio threw open the door.

I had been expecting a bathrobe and sleep-smashed hair. What I got was radiance.

Every light in the house seemed to be blazing. And Alice Rubio was completely dressed for work, in neat jeans and a sweater, her hair done, her makeup perfect.

The East Coast feed of the Howard Stern Show started at 4 a.m., she explained. On satellite, you don't have to wait for a local station to kick in; you can listen to anything anywhere.

So she'd set her alarm for 3:45 and heard the familiar heartbeat that Sirius had been playing as a countdown to the show.

She hit the snooze button.

But at 4 a.m., on came the radio and on came the show. By the time I arrived two hours later, bleary-eyed and cranky, Alice Rubio had been listening, and laughing, for two straight hours.

No wonder she was grinning.

"All morning I tried calling in," she reported, breathlessly. "But we couldn't get through."

In the two weeks since, Rubio tells me that she's continued to get up as early as 4 a.m. for Howard -- often, she says, before her alarm goes off.

"I never used to get up before the alarm," she says, and even she sounds amazed.

What was wrong with me? I was supposed to be a smart person, or at least had spent years thinking of myself as a smart person. And yet I was struggling, hard, to like NPR, which is what smart people are supposed to like.

But an answer came, supplied by the other Jewish comedian I adore -- one who, unlike Howard Stern, has been embraced by the intellectuals.

Yep, my answer came from Woody Allen.

In his 2004 movie Melinda and Melinda, Allen posited that people fall into two camps: those who prefer the escapism of comedy, and those who want the confrontation of tragedy.

Give two writers the same premise, Allen suggests, and they can spin remarkably different stories, one where life's problems are a source of humor, another, a place where the gods are against us.

And then Allen does it.

In the tragic portion of Melinda, the characters listen to Stravinsky and get suicidal over their failed relationships.

In the comedy, they play Duke Ellington. And when one character wants to leave his wife, he briefly agonizes over the situation, but only until she helpfully falls in bed with someone else and cheerfully informs him that it's over.

Anyone who's ever been divorced will tell you that's pure fantasy. Even the friendliest divorces are ultimately heartbreaking.

But Allen knows that. After all, even when arguing for comedy, his characters never suggest that life really is a warm, happy place. Or that divorce is easy.

Instead, he argues that we need comedy because divorce is awful. "It's exactly because tragedy hits on the truly painful essence of life," his comic writer explains, "that people run to my comedies for escape."

Indeed, after listening to NPR for a month, after hearing about the ice cap melting, the war in Iraq, and teenagers committing suicide, laughter seems like a better solution than ever before.

But I'm no longer convinced that I have to listen to comedic radio to find it.

Last Tuesday, Diane's guest was a guy named Robert Brustein, a noted acting teacher and theater critic, who had just published a book.

Within two minutes of listening, I'd discovered that Brustein had a) dropped out of the Yale School of Drama because it was "anti-intellectual," b) a crush on Meryl Streep, whom he described as a "femme fatale, the woman who excites every man she sees," and c) a voice so pretentious, it belonged on Inside the Actors Studio.

Diane didn't press Brustein on his strange attraction to Meryl Streep, as Howard would have.

She didn't even ask him about his role in championing the art of Henry "The Fonz" Winkler.

But, kinda like Daniel Carver, the KKK movie reviewer, just letting Brustein talk was enough.

"It's a spiritual journey I'm trying to describe here," he said.

And, "This is a calling rather than a business."

And, in dissing the movies, "In the movies you behave. You don't act."

Rehm, a classic tragedian if there ever was one, took all this quite seriously. She even asked about the poor would-be actors who face their parents' scorn for choosing such a disrespected field.

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