They just don’t make brilliant social commentators of the curmudgeon variety like they used to. Time was, you had guys on the radio like Henry Morgan and Jean Shepherd (who sounded warm and friendly, but his take on modern culture was always acidic) who could summarize the social scene in a few carefully chosen put-downs and do it with style. That, sadly, is a thing of the past — we now have the occasional comedian who will venture into that territory (Lewis Black is performer who comes the closest), but they are stand-ups first and foremost, and don’t have (or most likely want) a daily forum for their disquisitions on modern life. (And no, I’m not going to put Andy Rooney into the category that once contained leading lights like Morgan and Shepherd….)
There is one gentleman, though, who has taken on the mantle of smart social commentator with a cranky (or, as he puts it, “contrarian”) outlook. It is Lionel, the “logodaedalus and expert” radio host who was last heard on the late, lamented Air America (curse you for the Montel stunting, Mark Green!) and is beloved by NYCers for his stints on WABC and WOR. Lionel is unafraid to tackle literally any topic, from the loftiest of philosophical notions to The Real Housewives of New Jersey. He has now reappeared in two guises: on his own site, doing audio commentaries and writing blog entries; and as a commentator on the WPIX nightly news here in the NYC metro area.
I really can’t describe what it is that Lionel does — the man should speak for himself. So I’ve linked here to a bunch of his best recent commentaries on WPIX, as they are posted on YouTube, since that site allows for easy embedding. If you’re interested in the full range of the topics he’s covered, you can go to his page on the WPIX site, which offers every commentary he’s done thus far on PIX (I’d recommend the bit he did this past Monday on the issue of the “Wikileaks” about Afghanistan). They are tight little pieces that, like most good humor, hit the target and then vacate the premises quickly. Three minutes may seem like too little time to develop a thesis on television, but Lionel has the rhythm — and he most definitely has the vocabulary.
Perhaps it’s best to start out with the family reminiscence, a genre that Shepherd of course did to perfection. Here, Lionel offers us a reflection on funerals and wakes:
A kind of urban personal-madness piece that is done with good pacing, about a stolen wallet:
There can be no greater perfection than a man complaining about the insanity of the NYC subway system:
On a subject dear to Lionel’s heart, the life lessons one could learn by watching pro “wrasslin’”:
And just so you don’t think that politics and policy aren’t explored, a piece from last week on the latest airport outrage that will just become a regular ol’ part of life, the new “nude” full-body scanners:
I recommend Lionel’s writing (including his book, Everybody’s Crazy Except You and Me (and I’m Not So Sure About You)). He is currently blogging on a regular basis on his site, Lionel Media. The audio commentaries are good, with the ones that come in under 20-30 minutes being best. On a popular radio message board it had been noted that Lionel’s politics have changed over the years, from seemingly conservative to Libertarian to progressive and back to a centrist viewpoint. I can say without qualification that whether or not I agree with his take on a specific issue, he definitely holds my attention and, most thankfully of all, doesn’t insult my intelligence. I’d love to see him back inhabiting the radio landscape in NYC (god knows we need something besides the two good interview shows on NPR and the idiosyncratic folks of Pacifica). Here’s hoping these current endeavors last for a long time to come!