Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Have Yourself a Mark Steyn Christmas

A writer with the extraordinary talent of Mark Steyn has no business being a superb broadcaster as well. We amateur hobby hacks in each medium NEED to think that each is uniquely difficult and nearly impossible to perfect. Sure, a chosen few could do one or the other. But both? Never heard of it.

Of course, Steyn's writing has been known for years as the best in political and cultural commentary. While his fill-in broadcasts for Rush and Hugh Hewitt have been good, sometimes very good, they haven't quite been up to elite standards. Turns out maybe political grind radio just isn't his forte.

Superb is the word to describe his self-produced and non-political holiday effort, The Mark Steyn Christmas Show. Two hours of highly entertaining and utterly charming radio (except done exclusively for podcast). The man himself on the guest list:

I stuck mainly to old friends and neighbors for this first tentative fur-trimmed boot toe back on the Santa sleigh. Rob Long, writer of everything from "Cheers" to Al Gore's e-mails, joins me to talk Christmas comedy. From across the Connecticut River in Vermont, Elisabeth von Trapp fills us in on what happened to her famous family after The Sound Of Music. There are a brace of British lyricists - Don Black, writer of "Born Free", "Ben", "To Sir With Love", and "Diamonds Are Forever"; and Tim Rice, writer of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Lion King and, of course, "One Night In Bangkok". There are a couple of Québecois cuties - Dorothée Berryman, star of the Oscar-winning film Barbarian Invasions, and Monique Fauteux, from the province's legendary progressive rock band Harmonium. Hugh Martin, composer of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", performs his classic song his way; and Martha Stewart, America's homemaker, mocks my pie dishes. And I couldn't celebrate Christmas without my Sweet Gingerbread Gal Jessica Martin, but, if you've ever wondered what she sounds like de-Steyned, she gets a shot at a couple of solos.

Along the way we consider a range of topics from Ron Paul's artificial Christmas tree and Perry Como's cocaine classic to the dearth of New Hampshire songs and the alleged sexiness of my French. And there's lots of live music from my guests, including performances of "White Christmas", "Silent Night", "My Favorite Things", a bilingual "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" not to mention North America's oldest Christmas carol, and a song that nobody's sung in over a century, plus a couple of great medleys.

There are great moments in nearly all of these segments. Standing out in particular were Martha Stewart critiquing Steyn's baking skills, Christmas carols sung in French by the various chanteuses of his acquaintance, and the 95-year-old composer of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and his first-hand observations of working with Judy Garland (who died 40 years ago). Even the jazzy instrumental bumper music between segments is pitch perfect.

This combination of intelligent conversation, humor, appreciation of cultural history, popular music standards, a touch of high culture, and bad singing by the host reminds me of one person- Garrison Keillor. Except without the anti-Semitism.

I should say it sounds like Keillor at his best. Not once does Steyn delve into the shrill political partisanship or lazy cornpone humor Keillor has increasingly subjected his Prairie Home Companion audience to in recent years. With Keillor hinting at retirement in the next few years, maybe Steyn could be the answer to the question, what if public radio were actually interesting to listen to and truly non-partisan? Now that would be a Christmas miracle.

Until then, we have The Mark Steyn Christmas Show, something I hope at least becomes an annual tradition.

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