Stephanie Miller on moving to TV, coming out and her craziest callers

 
 

In many ways, Stephanie Miller is the anti–Rush Limbaugh: Her show is smart, funny, and unashamedly liberal. On March 26, Current TV started televising her massively popular radio show, and she’s already zooming to new heights.

AfterEllen.com: Congratulations on your Current TV launch!
Stephanie Miller:
Thank you!

AE: You’re coming up on the end of the second week. How do you feel like it’s going?
SM:
It’s good to do television at a point in your career where you’ve lost the will to live.

It’s fine. I’m at the honey badger phase of my career: I just don’t give a s–t. [Laughs] I kid. We’re having a blast. We’re having fun. I got the best letter – I thought you guys would love it. It said, “My kids learn everything they need to know from you and Ellen and Rachel Maddow. Only the lesbians can save us now.”

AE: You had already been broadcasting on Ustream, so you were fairly used to doing the show while on camera, is that right?
SM:
Yeah. Honestly, I feel like it’s a great idea, because it’s really more of a fly-on-the-wall reality show. We’re really not trying to do a TV show. They really just said, “Hey, can we put cameras in your studio?” So we’re really in our house, which is great. We don’t feel like we’re trying to do a TV show, which I think is smart when you think about how we don’t have a budget to do the Today show. We can’t pretend we’re doing a television show. We’re doing a radio show.

But it is amazing how people seem to love seeing it, or seeing behind the scenes, or seeing what it looks like. It’s so funny to me, because I remember way back when, I was like, “Radio on television? Really?” But, you know, [Don] Imus always got great ratings. It’s interesting how many times I’ve heard from a TV executive “God, we should have just televised your radio show.” Because, I think it is really a blast. And, you know, many times what happens in TV is there are too many cooks in the kitchen and they water it down and they over-produce it.

I’ve had a whole variety of experiences in TV. This is really the most fun, because I do the show, as you know, in my baseball cap. They said, “We want it the way you normally do it.” You know, I’m in radio. I go to spin class every day after the show; I already get up at four in the morning. We do the show the way we normally do. We’re really not doing anything different. Everyone keeps saying, “How are you doing it differently?” We’re not doing anything different. Whether that’s smart or not.

AE: It is very interesting to watch. It’s made me late more than once.
SM:
Oh, Good. I know – we keep getting reports of that! People are like, “Thanks a lot.”

And some of these are people that don’t even like me. That are friends of mine, that actually have to spend time with me. “It’s too addictive! I’m late for this, I’m watching too long…” Isn’t that funny? It’s such a weird thing to me. Because there are people that listen to the show, but for some reason — I think one reason that our show may be more interesting visually is that we have a voice guy [Jim Ward]. It’s kind of fun to see him do these great impressions and stuff. I think there are a lot of visual elements we have that are unusual.

AE: You’ve mentioned on the show that booking guests is suddenly easier.
SM:
[Laughs] Right. It’s not every day I come into work and they say, “The White House called. They wanted to know if we have time for them today.” Ahhh, let me see if I can pencil them in.

I think that it’s interesting, because we’ve always gotten great guests. I’m a fan of guests, primarily. I think we have a lot of the smartest, funniest people in the country, and that’s what makes it fun. We have Hal Sparks and John Fugelsang and Aisha Tyler and Kathleen Madigan and political strategists, you know: David Bender and Karl Frisch and Charlie Pierce — just a lot of really smart, great, writers, comedians, strategists, that kind of thing.

AE: You came out publicly in the summer of 2010. What made you come to that decision?
SM:
Oh, gosh. I think we all have our own tipping point, right? The funny thing for me is I was out for years to my family and friends; I just didn’t talk about it publicly. I didn’t ever hide or invent boyfriends or whatever. I just think I’ve always been a private person, and I just didn’t really — I think for many of us, you sort of don’t want to be defined that way. I’m sure Ellen went through that for years, where you don’t want to be defined by just one thing.

I think it was a combination of all the stuff we were talking about on the air at the time: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and marriage equality, and I just suddenly went — It just didn’t seem like I could talk about those issues politically and authentically anymore without saying “I’m not just for that, I am that.”

And I think politically, that’s what they’re showing too. In poll after poll, the biggest predicator of being open to gay rights is that you know somebody. It’s your favorite daytime TV host, it’s your favorite radio host, it’s your favorite country singer.

I remember one of the things that affected me was seeing Chely Wright, who is my good friend now, on Ellen. And I remember almost crying, because she touched me so much. I thought, “That takes bravery.” Not like a liberal radio host – everyone thinks we’re French and gay anyway. But to be a country singer and come out was obviously a big thing. It was very powerful. It was very powerful for her to say, “I’m a Christian, and I’m gay, and I’m a country singer.” And she was certainly one of the people that — my listeners call her The Gay Whisperer. She was the one that shot down all my arguments: “Yeah, yeah, I get that argument. Yeah, I thought that too.”

You know, there comes a time for everybody when it’s time to stop cheering from the sidelines and get down on the field and be a part of it. She made a good point, too, that it makes a difference. It makes a difference to that kid in Kansas who thinks there’s nobody like him. You may not think it makes a big difference, but —

I did an appearance right after I came out, and this beautiful 16-year-old girl and her whole family came up, and they were all crying. And they hugged me, and they said, “You just gave our daughter the courage to come out to us this weekend.” Oh, it was just so — Randi Rhodes was sitting right next to me – we were doing an appearance for a radio station up there – and she said, “That was beautiful. You just gave that 16-year-old girl the hope that she can be beautiful, successful, and have a life someday. It really was a touching moment for me. I just looked at her and said, “It’s going to be OK. You’re going to be OK. You’re going to have a great life now.”

That’s all you can do, right? Speak from your own personal truth.

And look at how badly Ellen’s career has gone since she came out. Obviously, Ellen has been huge in this country. She’s someone who everyone has always loved. It’s put a human face on it. And a bad dancer. She put a human face and bad dancing on it.

AE: Maybe if the dancing had been more intimidating, things would have gone a different way.
SM:
[Laughs] That’s right.

AE: Still, any performer gets advised that coming out is going to be a career killer. Were you worried about that?
SM:
Oh, yeah. And in my case — for whatever reason — a lot of times, you don’t control your own marketing, and talk radio tends to skew male. My ads say “Making men rise in the morning,” because I have really great male numbers. But, you know, that’s sort of the way you’re marketed… I loved it when someone said to me, “Stephanie, what exactly did you think was going to turn men off about this?” [Laughs] Because a lot of people told me, “Your ratings have only gone up.” Because, you know, you say “gay,” they hear “three-way.”

Yeah, I’m sure that’s part of it, is you think, “I don’t want to be defined that way.” It’s a business thing, but at some point you reach your own perfect storm and you say, “This is silly that I’m not speaking my truth.”

AE: How is being out to friends, family, and coworkers different from being out as a public figure?
SM:
Honestly, in some ways… You know, you feel bad for people who have had negative repercussions, but I really haven’t. It’s been overwhelmingly positive and/or no big deal.

AE: That’s great.
SM:
I know. And you recognize that not everybody has that experience. Certainly some kids in Bible belt areas don’t feel safe. I work with The Trevor Project here [in Los Angeles], the suicide hotline for gay youths, and they counsel them, “Don’t come out unless you feel safe.” Because sadly, it’s still not safe in some areas of this country. I remember Chely Wright saying to me, “I did it for that teacher in Kansas who has to take Pepto Bismol every morning because she’s afraid she’s going to get outed and lose her job.”

And that was the other thing Chely said that resonated with me: “It’s incumbent on those of us who can hide not to.” Meaning those of us who don’t necessarily look like someone else’s stereotype of what a lesbian looks like. And I think she’s right. That’s important. Otherwise, the people that we need to reach just think, “Oh, it’s all these freaks I see in parades on TV,” and they need to know “Oh, it’s my sister, oh, it’s my doctor, it’s my brother.” It puts a more human face on it for all of us to stand together.

AE: How do you decide how you’re going to shape the show each day and what does or doesn’t get in?
SM:
I pull it completely out of my ass. I can finally reveal the secret of talk radio.

No – that’s the thing that people in radio hate the most: “Oh, you only work three hours a day!” We obviously work the other 20-however many hours getting ready, because it’s news. I’m watching cable news and pulling stories and doing prep pretty much all the time. And that being said, you’ve got to be ready, because there’s breaking news.

So, obviously, we don’t have writers. It’s radio, so most of it is improvised, but we obviously prepare a lot, especially for guests you have booked already. But that being said, you have to be fast on your feet in terms of taking callers and covering breaking news and all that. Honestly, that’s why I love radio, because it’s the most creatively free to me. They can’t possibly over-produce it like they can with television sometimes.

AE: So even with the preparation, you have to talk and improvise for three hours a day.
SM:
Oh, yeah.

AE: Do you have sympathy for someone like Rush Limbaugh, who routinely says horrible things?
SM:
Well, I have to say, I have defended him to some degree, because, look: There but for the grace of God goes any of us. I mean, believe me: Right-wing groups can take ten seconds of my show and target my sponsors and my stations, do you know what I mean? That gets a little scary for anybody in the radio business. I think that’s why Bill Maher defended Rush, because look what happened to him. He said something and he lost a show.

But the thing about Sandra Fluk is that it wasn’t just an offhand comment that any of us could go “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that,” when you talk for three hours a day. That was a sustained, several-day attack on somebody. And more importantly, on someone that’s powerless, that wasn’t a public figure. It’s a private citizen.

That’s the thing – it becomes like that mob movie: “You send one of ours to the hospital; we’ll send one of yours to the morgue.” There’s a right-wing group called NewsBusters that takes stuff from my show every day.

AE: And there was that odd chorus of “Well, Bill Maher said something misogynist once!”
SM:
Yeah. One time. On stage. That’s what they do. They always draw these false equivalencies.

AE: You mention your girlfriend Lisa occasionally.
SM:
[I wish you could hear how much her voice brightened here.] Yes!

AE: What is maintaining a relationship like when you have to get up at 4 a.m.?
SM:
[Laughs] Well, she’s 17 years younger, so she’s in elder care essentially anyway. Sadly for her. No, it’s been great. She is, thank God, an early riser anyway. I keep saying that she’s not making me younger, I’m making her older. She – shockingly – goes to bed sometimes when I do. Not always. It depends if she has other stuff going on.

AE: Your dad was Representative William E. Miller, who became Barry Goldwater’s running mate in the ’64 Presidential election. You must have been politically aware from a very young age.
SM:
Yes, but I was way too ugly to be used as a campaign prop like the Palin children. I looked like a wolf-child. You know, it’s funny: I wasn’t really political at all. I wanted to be Carol Burnett. And then all my dreams died, and this is how you end up when all your dreams have died: You end up in radio.

No, I joke, but I didn’t really get political until later. I was a comedian; I got a degree in theater from USC. I thought I was going to do whatever: stand-up, sitcoms… Things just sort of developed. Someone said to me, “I think it’s in your blood.” I started doing talk radio in the mid-‘90s, and that’s the first time I really started talking about politics. And one thing kind of just led to another.

AE: You grew up in a Republican family. How did you make the shift to your current point of view?
SM:
Mine was just gradual over time. My dad died when I was 21, and I wasn’t even political then. I think so many people have made the point that this Republican party has moved so far to the right that I don’t think my dad or Goldwater would recognize it. I don’t think Reagan would recognize it.

So I think that my politics have developed like a lot of people’s have. It wasn’t a conscious development.

Yeah, my mom doesn’t care that I’m gay. She just wants me to be a Republican. She’s like, “Ugh, whatever.”

AE: You do seem to be very good at talking to the Republicans and conservatives who call in.
SM:
That’s because I’m related to and love many of them.

AE: What do you think liberals miss when they’re failing to get through to Republicans?
SM:
Well, I think it’s the same thing we were talking about on the gay rights issue. You’ve got to humanize it. You know, people who go “Oh, I thought I hated gay people,” and then you realize that you love one because it’s your sister or your cousin. I think it’s the same thing with politics: When we talk to each other like human beings, I think we do better than when we’re just becoming a talking point for either side. Because I love and am related to Republicans, I don’t think of them as the enemy.

You know, there are a lot of really good — I hate to admit this, but I talked to Sean Hannity for an hour the other day, because I’m trying to get him to come on the show. He’s, you know, we’re friends of a sort. I’m sure we each hate what the other does politically, but we’re friends. We actually really like each other.

AE: I got annoyed the other day because you mentioned on the show that he had called and been very nice to you after your dog died, and I was forced to like him a little bit.
SM:
I know, yeah. Except then that didn’t last very long, because then he offered to buy me a dog. And I said “I’m a liberal. We rescue dogs, you capitalist pig!” And then he threatened to buy it anyway. “Do not buy a dog!” Oy vey.

AE: As many people have pointed out, support of LGBT rights is old-school conservative in a way.
SM:
Right. These people, “Small government, get the government out of your personal life.” Yeah, exactly.

AE: Why do you think that doesn’t resonate with the current crop of Republican politicians?
SM:
I don’t know. They seem so out of step in so many ways. It’s like it’s 1952 in the Republican field. And not just with gay rights, it’s women’s rights. Really? Are talking about contraception?

So that’s the thing that’s good news for me politically: They’re just completely out of step with the rest of the country on just about every issue. One of the best headlines I’ve read recently in Politico was that Republicans have kind of retreated on gay marriage. They see the same polls you and I see. There is majority support for marriage equality in this country now. That’s on every issue: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — I think they realize they’re losing the fight on that.

I’ve got to tell you, even Sean Hannity said to me the other day – and we hadn’t talked since I came out – and he’s like “Ah, I don’t really care if you get married.” It’s not an issue.

They’re just getting more and more out of step. I mean, Rick Santorum, are you kidding me? I think, particularly in this economy, the fact that they’re so focused on these social issues… And, again, not just social issues, but social issues from 1952. Social issues that the American people are largely against them on.

AE: You seem to let a surprising number of eccentric, cranky people through. What are your standards for screening your calls?
SM:
The crazier the better! No — we actually love the right-wing callers that we can play with like cat toys. You can tell that they’re just doing the talking points that they heard on Rush or Hannity or whatever. That’s fun. That’s what’s fun about talk radio, and probably also seeing it on TV: It’s not one of these slick, over-produced morning TV shows, and you can tell. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know who’s going to call or what they’re going to say. There’s an element of true spontaneity there that I think you don’t see in a lot of places.

It’s sometimes just Parade of Crazy in the morning.

AE: There seems to be a population of people who just call up and try to rattle off as many talking points as possible.
SM:
Right. Our favorite is John in Amherst, who called once and said the mortgage crisis was caused by [she takes on a Buffalo accent] “a room full of black guys.” You know, that flat, Buffalo A? “Obviously, a room full of black guys.”

AE: There do seem to be organizing websites set up that say, “Call a liberal radio show and say these five things.”
SM:
You can always tell, because they all say the same things. It’s hilarious, because you can tell they were told to call with these talking points, and we start to parrot them: “Hello, Stephanie. I am an independent small business owner. I like to listen to both sides.” Oh, God, please. I can hear the script in your hand.

AE: But they do have a battle plan. Do you think liberals should be more mobilized?
SM:
The difference is that I don’t think they let through many liberal calls if they can help it much on the right-wing shows. We’re happy to have them. Right-wingers go to the front of the line for us.

AE: Do you have a favorite phone call ever?
SM:
Oh, God. That’s hard. You take so many calls every day — I can’t. Mama doesn’t like to play favorites with her crazy callers. I love all of them equally. Crazy bastards.

AE: In addition to your weekday show, you’re dashing off on weekends to do The Sexy Liberal Tour.
SM:
Yes! Much to my complete shock and surprise, we have the number one comedy tour and the number one comedy album. It really started by accident, and it has just been — I don’t know, this is sort of a movement. This isn’t just me. It’s starting to feel like a real backlash against what’s been going on politically.

It started up in Wisconsin, and next Saturday, that’s where we’re going. It started with the recalls for Scott Walker and the Wisconsin 8. And then we give to a different liberal cause in every city. We’ve given to the Trevor Project here in L.A., and marriage equality, and animal rescue, and anti-fracking. Yeah, we’re really having a ball. It’s become pretty crazy – sold out wherever we go. So, yeah, sexyliberal.com, Sexy Liberal on Facebook! Check it out!

AE: Any words of wisdom for any AfterEllen.com readers who are thinking about coming out or in the first stages of coming out?
SM:
I respect everybody’s time frame. That’s what I don’t like, is when people say, “Oh, why did you wait so long?” or “Why now?” I think that everybody has their own tipping point and a myriad of different reasons.

Don’t sweat wherever you are in the process. We’ll be waiting for you with a nice, cold beer for you when you get here.

Talking Liberally: The Stephanie Miller Show airs weekday mornings on Current TV, 9am–12pm ET/6am–9am PT.

 
 

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