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.
A selection of T.D. Mischke's radio routines from the CD The Best of The Mischke Broadcast (requires RealPlayer).
"Montana's Speed Limit" (3:02)
"Big German Bank" (6:28)
"Shipwreck Expert" (3:43)
"Kidneys in India" (3:22)
"Gullible's Travels" (11:37)
All recordings © 1999 KSTP-AM, LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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."