"I said, 'George Bush is not a racist. He's a cashist. All he cares about is cash,'" says lefty comedian Will Durst, who next month begins a career co-hosting, along with former S.F. Mayor Willie Brown, a show called Keeping It Real with Will and Willie.
Durst didn't mean this as a joke. Well, he meant it as a joke. But not in the way that it's actually funny.
The idea of any show with Brown as a co-host accusing Brown's political opponents of being " cashist" is the height of irony. The fact that it was intended to be seen as funny is at the heart of what's wrong with San Francisco radio executives' plan to reinvent Willie Brown as a talk show host, save Bay Area liberal radio, and reinject life into American leftism.
The show will begin airing as a three-hour morning drive-time call-in show Jan. 2, replacing Jerry Springer's syndicated show on Air America affiliate KQKE, owned by Clear Channel. It's the brainchild of local radio producer and host Paul Wells, who hopes the show will leap to national syndication after a local run.
Keeping It Real will have aired three Saturday test runs by this week. The start has been a little rough, Durst says.
"We're just getting to know each other. We were stepping on each other, making mistakes cutting to commercials and getting out of them," Durst frets. "There was flow. But it was just directionless."
Here's some unsolicited direction on how to keep it real: Rather than pretending Willie Brown's legacy is something other than turning government into a crony feeding trough, why not do what the successful talk jocks do in the conservative world? Embrace the darker aspects of your character. Turn yourself into a caricature. Then make this absurdist vile persona into the subject of endless over-the-top riffs.
If this Clear Channel show can generate enough hilarity surrounding the subject of our former mayor's pay-to-play legacy, perhaps people will start talking about it, in the same way that Bill O'Reilly's outrageousness seems to clang around endlessly in people's heads. Maybe this technique of keeping it really real will paralyze right-wingers with anger in the same way conservative absurdist humor now seems to constipate leftists. With the most irritable segments of political persuasions thus neutralized, our national dialogue will become all the richer.
As of late, America's right-wing political entertainers have been kicking liberals' asses by inventing snippets of outrageous opinionated shtick that have the remarkable ability to hang in the air for weeks at a time. I just read a column that called Bill O'Reilly "stupid" for his quip saying the military should let Al Qaeda attack San Francisco.
Stupid? Brilliant is more like it.
O'Reilly's aside caused California politicians from Supervisor Chris Daly all the way up to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to publicly denounce the remark. The quip was in newspaper and television stories, in political cartoons, on television, and in radio chatter. Then there's O'Reilly's the-liberals-are-stealing-Christmas riff. I've never watched O'Reilly. But I know what he's talking about thanks to liberal fuming. Put "Bill O'Reilly" "Christmas" and "Stupid" into Google and you'll get 244,000 hits, most containing some variation of "someone needs to stuff a Christmas tree up Bill O'Reilly's ass."
There isn't a pundit worth his salt -- myself included -- who wouldn't die for that kind of hoopla. And the best conservative political entertainers seem to ingeniously cook up a similarly notorious riff each week.
Here's their secret: The right-wing punditry foments dither by embracing, rather than disguising, its most offensive traits and characters. Promote terrorist attacks on the West Coat? Hoo hoo! Ollie North a prominent moralizer? Hardy har!
This kind of humor neutralizes criticisms that conservatives are hateful, anti-democratic and bellicose by embracing these very notions.
Liberals, on the other hand, haven't had much luck in the humor department. Air America is puttering along, with its local affiliate KQKE holding a steady Arbitron share of 1 since it started up its left talk format a year ago. This makes liberal chatter the 29th most popular format on San Francisco Bay Area radio.
What the hell's up with that? Aren't we supposed to live in lefty chatter la-la land?
Wells tells me he conceived of Keeping It Real with Will and Willie in order to connect the dots between the Bay Area's ubiquitous leftist cafe-talkers, and heretofore ignored liberal radio talk. As the producer currently envisions the Keep It Real show, hosts attempt to generate laughs while pretending Brown's financially compromised political legacy never existed.
When I asked Wells for typically funny highlights from the test shows, he recalled one.
"Durst did a thing on Bush being the first 'green' president. He called him a 'cashist,'" Wells said.
During Brown's 15-year career as all-knowing-all-controlling Assembly speaker, systematic capitol shakedowns became so rife that FBI agents launched an undercover sting operation, ensnaring lesser pols and leaving Brown unscathed. As S.F. mayor Willie again systematically funneled public funds to political friends. FBI agents crawled over San Francisco, carting away underlings and getting nothing on Brown. That one needed to be a Willie Brown crony of one sort or another in order to feed at the S.F. government trough, however, was well established by investigative documents and news reports.
Since he's left political office, Brown has lobbied for developers wishing to build on toxic waste sites and for pharmaceutical companies in their battles against consumer groups.
For someone with a sardonic sense of humor, this is the stuff of great comic farce.
Sadly, Keeping It Real with Will and Willie doesn't see it that way. Rather than share with me ways his new hosts might exploit the aura of corruption that surrounded Brown's years in government by acknowledging and laughing about it, Wells seemed to wish to play down the subject.
"I don't think it's a bad thing to be able to get things done. I don't think it's a bad thing to be loyal to people you know can get things done. Are we faultless in this life?" Wells asks. "To me, Willie Brown is someone who represents a lot of good, and has done a lot of good for this town, for this state, for these people. Some of them may be friends of his who he helped bootstrap up. Certainly I've had friends who, if I could improve their lives, if I could help live to their best potential, I would."
Now there's a great recipe for liberal humor: weak rationalizations and bogus excuses.
I have a better idea.
Why not openly cop to Brown's reputation as a craven political money- and power-grubber, in the same way that O'Reilly taunts liberals by creating a clown version of right-wingers' penchant for mean-spirited, bellicose authoritarianism?
Miles of humorous riffs might come from the Sacramento political machine Brown brought to this city, where ties to the mayor served as a type of currency exchanged for hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts, real estate permits, favorable bureaucratic rules, and jobs for patronage hacks, friends, and girlfriends.
So how many S.F. taxpayers did it take to screw in a light bulb while Willie Brown was in office? None. They didn't do the screwing. They got screwed.
The payola politics spawned a U.S. attorney public corruption investigation. As related by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Chuck Finnie and Lance Williams, agents inquired into more than $1 billion in suspicious contracts awarded to companies, people, and other entities with connections to Brown. But they never pinned anything on Brown.
Did you hear the one about the politician who escaped a corruption investigation by ordering his staff to pelt FBI agents with breath mints? The U.S. attorney's office said in a press release that agents weren't used to diversionary Tic-Tacs.
Clearly there's more (and hopefully better) where that came from.
So, in the spirit of Yuletide giving, I urge SF Weekly readers to each come up with their five best Willie-the-juice-man jokes and e-mail them to me. I'll publish the best of the best so that readers can call KQKE and read them over the phone.
The fate of American liberal talk radio hangs in the balance.