It might be true that Ruth Seymour, general manager of the Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, isn’t as insularly Left as many people assume. Because the comic commentator she recently hired to replace the basically apolitical Sandra Tsing Loh (now at rival L.A. public radio station KPCC in Pasadena)–fired by Seymour this spring for saying the f-word on-air–is sitcom writer and longtime National Review contributor Rob Long. They both began their new radio gigs earlier this month.
Rob–who, like Sandra, I’ve known for years–also writes humorous essays about politics and Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek’s international edition, which is edited by his old friend and Yale classmate Fareed Zakaria. And he’s a Rightie even Lefties like, because his skewering of Hollywood’s political pieties isn’t hard to imagine coming from some liberal late-night talk-show host.
Here’s how he explained (in NR recently) why the entertainment industry tilts Democrat: “If you’ve spent all day lying on the telephone and screwing your client out of his money and yelling at your assistant for bringing you the wrong kind of water and paying your Guatemalan maid sub-minimum wages, then maybe you, too, might need a little John Kerry in your life to make you feel good about yourself.”
Last summer he wrote an L.A. Times op-ed about listening in traffic “to an inane NPR report about the prescription drug giveaway to the elderly… ‘Why don’t we send the money directly to Carnival Cruise Lines and eliminate the middleman?’”
But the piece actually ended with an explanation of why he sends money to public radio anyway: “I got home exhausted but happy. Exploding at the inanities on NPR is about the only release we repressed, uptight Republicans allow ourselves.” In any case, NPR wasn’t offended; Rob respun the essay as a radio commentary for the NPR/Slate magazine show Day To Day.
Much of Rob’s appeal is his constant good cheer, which, strangely, never seems compromised by his equally constant bitter cynicism about Hollywood, how it works, and how entertainment journalists fail to understand it. (“Variety gets it wrong all the time,” he noted. “A hit and a flop sometimes change within a week of reporting.”)
Rob and his writing partner, Dan Staley, have been on the top of the TV heap since running Cheers in its final season 11 years ago, when they were still in their 20s. They’ve had a string of network shows on the air since then, all of which have been quickly cancelled. But they had high hopes for this fall season, with two pilots presented at the upfronts in New York last month. So far neither have been picked up, although they may still make the midseason schedule.
“So back to the drawing board,” he told me. “Or to another drawing board altogether, since the New York Times reports that the sitcom is dead. Which either means 1) That it’s alive; or 2) That it died last year and they’re just getting around to noticing it.”
He has enough to keep him busy in the meantime. Rob said that Ruth Seymour called recently and wants to send him to the Republican Convention. He may go, although as he warned her, “you do understand that I’m not a reporter–I don’t cover things.”
Not that his stories don’t have plenty of vivid anecdotes. A recent Martini Shot (as his new KCRW commentary, which airs at 6:44 p.m. Wednesdays, is called) had an actor friend explaining to an incredulous Rob that a certain network hates him: “‘They never buy any of your shows. I can’t believe this is news to you.’…He gives me an it’s-a-crazy-business-someone-always-hates-you-you-pathetic-out-of-touch-loser-I-can’t-believe-you-didn’t-know shrug, which is similar to the basic it’s-a-crazy-business shrug, except that in addition to the sad shake of the head, his eyes are closed.”
“But even things that happened to me didn’t really happen the way they did in these pieces,” Rob said last week over lunch at a Venice restaurant within walking distance from his home. “Or at least, not in such a way that they’re traceable to an actual person. They’re tru-ish. I stand by the essential truth of them.”
What Rob finds essentially untrue are the lies aspiring writers tell themselves, as well as the false way writers are often portrayed in the media. “I keep track of all the idiotic things writers say,” he noted. “Like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get home and write!’ Or, ‘I don’t really write–I let my characters tell me what to say.’ Then there’s that repellent elderly woman fantasy Something’s Gotta Give, with Diane Keaton laughing as she types happily away at the keyboard.”
Rob wasn’t always a Republican. He voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1984 primaries and for Walter Mondale in the general election. “I told that to Reagan when he visited the set of Cheers, that I didn’t vote for him,” he recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, you were one of the few.’ I always thought that was a great line, because it made me feel special and it made me feel like an idiot.” His politics changed in the late ’80s, after he’d gone back to teach at his old high school, Phillips Andover, for a while, in a kind of preppie version of Welcome Back, Kotter.
Witnessing the lax cultural standards the Left had brought to academia is what made him more conservative. “These kids were reading the entire collected works of Toni Morrison,” Rob recalled. “Now Toni Morrison is a fine writer, but why weren’t they reading, say, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold?”
During the Reagan funeral events, Rob was bemused by how the press seemed flummoxed at the public outpouring of affection for the late president. “I was watching [CNN's] Wolf Blitzer,” he said, “and you can see how these guys genuinely don’t understand why anyone’s out there standing in line. They don’t get what Reagan did. They don’t get that he ended the Cold War. They’re just trying to get through this til it’s over.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.