c. 2002 Ronald Bleier

No Laughing Matter:

Susan Stamberg and Scott Simon on NPR

by Ronald Bleier

In a highly unusual incident perhaps 20 years ago, Susan Stamberg, host of National Public Radio’s All These Considered program from 1972 to 1986, defended herself against charges that she laughed inappropriately in the course of interviewing a disabled person. The offending moment was rebroadcast in order to allow listeners to judge for themselves. Despite the plain evidence of the tape, Ms Stamberg claimed that she heard no impropriety in the broadcast.

If the incident served to restrain the bossy, immoderate element to Ms. Stamberg’s on air persona, her self-control was short lived and she soon resumed her previous extravagance as well as her inappropriate laughter. Even today she routinely practices her insincere laughter as she takes her turn on air in her role as Special Correspondent and when she fills in for other hosts. In addition she seems to have to have influenced a fellow NPR broadcaster, Scott Simon to do the same. The two of them have become NPR’s insincere laughing duo.

Ms. Stamberg has pioneered laughing as a way of turning the spotlight on herself and demonstrating that ordinary constraints don’t apply. Her laughter is a kind of signature: I’M HERE, it says, DEAL WITH IT. Scott Simon’s laughing is just as distracting, although in his case it reflects youthful braggadocio, as if to say, watch me as I do two things at once: fulfill my professional responsibilities, and enjoy myself at the same time.And with both Stamberg and Simon, there’s a manipulative element to their laughter, as if they were commanding the audience to join in their laughter, funny or not.

Scott Simon seems to use his position as host of Weekend Edition Saturday to demonstrate his hilarity: he and his producer apparently view the two hour show as an opportunity to lighten things up on a Saturday morning. This may explain their choice of features that tend to the inconsequential, and seem to be chosen for the amount of humor they can generate, along with an element of subtle cruelty. A representative sample of Simon’s conduct can be found on the Saturday July 6, 2002 show which included two instances of lightweight features apparently sought out for their humor potential and also a serious segment into which Simon managed to insert a hearty guffaw. In the first trivial segment Simon spoke with Scott Hammons, director of housekeeping at the Hotel Monaco in Washington, D.C., where goldfish are offered as companions to all guests. Simon set the tone of the interview by introducing his subject with a jovial “Glub, glub, glub.” Some of the humor aimed at Mr. Hammons turned on whether or not the goldfish wound up as “floaters,” in the hotel’s sewage system. The word “floaters” elicited an enthusiastic hoot from Mr. Simon while Mr. Hammons did his best to preserve his dignity.

In another similarly pointless segment, Simon interviewed Peter Benfaremo, the Lemon Ice King of Corona in Queens, New York, in connection with the summer heat wave tormenting the East coast. As so often with these lighter features, Simon seemed to delight in the contrast between his own importance and the humble profession of his interviewee. The running joke of the piece had to do with Simon repeatedly calling Mr. Benfaremo, “Your Majesty.” Towards the end, it almost seemed that Mr. Simon would get a comeuppance when the ice seller said that he didn’t need to be constantly called “Your majesty.” “Well what should I call you?” asked Simon. But it turned out that the good-natured ice seller only had a joke in mind.“You can call me, ‘Your Sovereign,’” said Mr. Benfaremo. Perhaps out of relief that he wasn’t called on the carpet for his sarcastic tone, Simon discharged one of his longer, more unpleasant belly laughs.

As I listened to the episode, I couldn’t help thinking that if Scott Simon and his producer weren’t so determined on the jocular mode, they could have used the East Coast heat wave as a way of exploring more purposeful issues. For example: perhaps they might have investigated the effects of the heat wave on the rise in water usage in the city and the low reservoir levels with which the city has to contend. Or they might have explored the effects of the heat on some of the poorer people in the city who have less access to air conditioning.

In addition to enjoying his own humor on these features, Simon also found an opportunity to release a vigorous laugh in the course of the discussion relating to reporter Elizabeth Mullener’s recently published volume, War Stories about the Second World War. One of the interviewees, Arthur Anderson, a war veteran who happened to be Herman Goering’s jailer spoke of his distaste for the Nazi’s arrogance even while he was held as a prisoner under U.S. command. Mr. Anderson related that at one point he became so enraged at Goering’s insistence on his own superiority that he “told him off…He had it coming to him.” Was this a laughing matter? Apparently Simon thought so and the radio audience was forced to endure his reaction.

My letter

More than ten years ago, after suffering Scott Simon’s insincere laughter for some time, I finally sat down one morning in September 1989 and wrote to him to complain. Among other things, I wrote that I thought his choice of feature stories was “puerile,” and that his laughter was insincere and “tyrannical” in that it attempted to force the audience into sharing his mirth. I concluded my complaint by saying that I felt that Susan Stamberg was the chief villain since she had provided him with such an appalling model.

I didn’t expect much of a response. Thus I was flabbergasted by Simon’s dramatic transformation the following week, on Saturday, September 23, 1989. For the first time in memory, the program was generally sober and it included solid and interesting features. In the course of the program Simon began a couple of laughs but stifled them, as if he were intent on breaking a bad habit. In one remarkable segment, in the course of his review of the news of the week with Daniel Schorr, the latter became confused at Simon’s new serious persona, and soon Mr. Schorr was forced to quit the jocular mode.

The change in that program showed me that Scott Simon did indeed have standards and that if he were held to them he could produce a quality show. In any event, I found the transformation so marvelous that I could hardly believe it. Never before or since has a letter of mine had such an effect, nor did I doubt for a moment that it was my letter that made the difference. As I listened to Weekend Edition that Saturday morning, I rushed to my files to pull out a copy of my letter in order to marvel at the power of my own words and to discover the magic which had so wonderfully translated my preferences into action at such a distance. However, my triumph, such as it was, turned out to be ephemeral. The very next week, Scott Simon was back to his former uproarious self. That singleton sober edition of Weekend Edition was like a stone falling into a lake, making the tiniest of ripples, and then sinking forever.

Afterwards I couldn’t help wondering about the process involved in Simon’s taking my advice to heart for that week and then abruptly reverting to his old ways. What had occurred to cause him to change back to his old ways? Did his producer remonstrate with him? Or was it possible that audience feedback, or some other feedback, made them reverse course and go back to the old sidesplitting Simon. Who knows? Lately Scott Simon is in an outrageous incarnation as ever. Now he has no compunction about treating the show as a sort of vaudeville act, even to the extent of, from time to time, lamely and self consciously singing introductions to features at the top of the show.


 It ought to be clear that I am an NPR junkie, despite its turn to corporate underwriting and its drift to the political center and to the right wing that it has undergone since the Reagan era. On too many controversial issues all that remains for the progressive listener is to take note of the limits of permissible discourse in our country. Unfortunately there are few other radio choices in New York City these days aside from the listener-sponsored Pacifica station, WBAI, which, while superb at times, is notoriously uneven, and is as politically correct in its way as is NPR. Nevertheless, I suppose that I should count myself lucky to have what many Americans lack since Congress and the FEC have colluded to rob radio America of its diversity by allowing media giants to buy up unlimited numbers of radio stations. In NYC we are fortunate to have two more or less listener-supported radio alternatives.

The End