(Artvoice 16 December 1999)
by Bruce Jackson
John Otto, Buffalo's premier talk show host since 1962, died early Monday, December 6. He was 70 years old. He is survived by Sallie, his wife of 41 years, their four children and six grandchildren. He requested that anyone wanting to donate anything in his memory should consider Buffalo General Hospital or the SPCA. At the very end it was people and cats and dogs in need he thought about.
John had emphysema for years and of late his body had all but abandoned him. He had to be on oxygen all the time. Last year, when he became too weak to work at the station any more, WGR set up a studio in his house and he'd do his shows by phone. In October, his producer and longtime friend Doug Young said to me, "It still sounds like John but you wouldn't recognize him. I think the show is all that's keeping him alive." Sallie said the same thing.
The final two weeks had been particularly bad. Even with the oxygen he'd been painfully short of breath. Saturday night he'd managed to watch a videotape of "The Haunting." Early Sunday morning he slipped and broke his hip and when they took him to the hospital they found a bleeding ulcer. John said he wanted to watch the Miami-Indianapolis game the next night, but he didn't make it.
He was brilliant at what he did. He could get anyone to talk about anything. You want to see the First Amendment at its worst, go to bad talk radio. You want to see the First Amendment at its best, go to good talk radio. John was good talk radio. He wasn't NPR kind of talk radio. But NPR isn't the only kind of talk radio.
The first time I was on his show was in the spring of 1968, shortly after I moved to Buffalo. Over the years he invited me to talk about drugs, the Vietnam War, student protests, capital punishment, sexual license, and, most recently, the imbroglio between the Brooklyn Museum and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani over Chris Ofili's painting, "Holy Virgin Mary."
He had a courtly air. He'd say, "sir" a lot. "Thank you, sir," he would say. The first few times I heard him do it I thought it an affectation, then I realized it was just John. He was immensely polite to everyone I ever saw or heard him address. And he had a curious formality. He always called me "professor," even when we weren't on the air. He called on the afternoon of October 5 to talk about the Brooklyn Museum show and to warn me that it might bring out some of his weirder callers. "It might be rough seas tonight, professor." I asked how he was and he said, "Ah, professor, not too well, not too well." I asked what it was. "A problem with the lungs, I'm afraid." I remembered him smoking cigarette after cigarette in the studio. "Cancer?" I asked. "No, but something equally bad: emphysema." I said I was sorry to hear that. "I manage, professor, I manage," he said.
A few days after he died a friend who is very active in Erie county politics said, "Did you and he ever agree on anything?"
"Me neither. And didn't you just love him?"
"Yes," I said.
"Me too," she said.
And, for two reasons, I always loved doing his show. One was because John loved language and so do I and even when we disagreed totally we had great fun working at one another's language. Most shows and interviews aren't any fun: you just say your piece and that's it. With John, it was like playing tennis and poker at the same time. About the fifth time I was stemwinding about how Rudy Giuliani was using the Brooklyn Museum show as a device to appeal to upstate Catholics in his senatorial campaign against Hillary Clinton, John said quietly, "That's surmisal. It's speculation. I don't believe it, I don't buy it and you state it as fact." I stopped cold, like RoadRunner in one of those cartoons. I told him he was right, I had been uttering those lines as if they were facts and they were indeed simply opinions. Without missing a beat he graciously rounded it off: "And giving every valid support to your argument, but it's an argument nonetheless."
The other reason I loved doing his show was because I couldn't get away with so many of the easy platitudes I get away with nearly everywhere else. I couldn't just say, "The First Amendment is the most important of all" and have it end there, the way it would if I said it in class or to a group of my liberal friends. If John didn't challenge me one of his callers surely would. Sometimes the callers seemed like outpatients, but John treated them with utmost respect and because of that one of us would have to deal with their arguments. I'd always leave his program feeling good, as if I'd just had a hard workout, which in fact I'd just had.
I never saw him outside a studio. We never met at a restaurant or at a movie or on the street. We never talked about our dogs, our children, our cars, what restaurants we ate at or what movies we went to. I knew the guy for 32 years but-with a single exception, the Brooklyn Museum show-it was entirely limited to us sitting on opposite sides of a table with two huge studio microphones between us.
One time in the late 1960s or early 1970s he called and said he wanted to do a show about legalizing marijuana. Was the professor up for it? He didn't know it, but I had only a few years earlier worked on a major study for the President's Crime Commission in which that was exactly one of our recommendations. John said we would ask callersto vote on the issue and the vote would end just before I left the studio so I'd know how things went. We both knew perfectly well how his ordinary callers would vote, so I alerted all of my students. That night John and I went roundyround about the killer weed (him) a.k.a. innocuous intoxicant (me) and about 30 minutes into the show he opened the line for calls. My kids came through: the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of legalization. I think John was truly shocked. It hadn't occurred to him that I'd salt the mine. I think he had another hour or two on the air when I left the studio about midnight. I listened to the show on the car radio going home and heard John say that he couldn't believe Buffalo really wanted to legalize marijuana and the phone lines had been clogged earlier, they'd been far busier than usual, so he was going to extend the deadline on voting until he went off the air. I yelled nasty things at the windshield.
When I got home I called the station and told the person who answered that I wanted to talk to John at the next newsbreak. John came on a few minutes later. I said, "You rat. How could you do that? You knew my friends wouldn't be there after I left the studio. That's not fair." "Fair, professor? Fair?" he said, in that great voice. I started to spout, heard the absurdity of it, began to laugh, and so did he, and then he had to go back on the air.
I could always recognize his voice on the phone, except once when it was Tom Bauerle calling and imitating him. Tom could do a superb John Otto. The first time I heard him do that was when Tom was a student at UB. It was during a break in class and all of a sudden I heard John carrying on about something I'd said on his show the previous night. I whirled toward the voice but John wasn't there, only this kid, grinning at me. Tom said he was working at the station and that he hoped someday to get to the microphones himself. Later in the term he said that he'd substituted for John a few days when he was out or away. (Tom now has the early morning show at WGR-it starts at four a.m., when the insomniacs are winding down or the truly virtuous are getting up.)
One of the things I've noticed about really good writers is they hit the ground running, there's not a lot of foot shuffling or foreplay. You read the first paragraph and you're in the action. John was like that with his shows. He'd start off almost as if he was talking to himself, and there you were, in the middle of something. This is how he began our conversation about the Brooklyn Museum show:
"It's today's degeneracy brought to canvas. It's been the subject of countless photographs. There staring back at you is the cartoon figure of a woman with Negroid features who is really ug...ly. The thing is no Whitney Houston by any means. Two large clumps of what we are told are elephant leavings are labeled 'Virgin Mary' at the base of this atrocity. Chunks of the stuff cling to the canvas. And added to the collage, dotting the surface, pasted on are cutouts from pornographic magazines which depict rectums and vaginas in graphic detail. Rectums? Vaginas? Get the connection? Your average male homosexual would, I'll tell you that. Behold the elephant dung collage of the blessed mother Mary, immaculate mother of God, Mary of sweet innocence and purity, who millions of the R.C.s venerate. So I ask professor Bruce Jackson, Capen Professor of American Culture: really professor, should American taxpayers be required to pay any part of the cost of this exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art? Ought taxpayers funds be withheld from this house of swill, this Brooklyn Museum, to assure there is no financial support for such an exhibit out of public money? This is John Otto doing the initial asking, let me say, and inviting you as well to make such questions as you're of a mind to do, such observations as you would make, at any of the following numbers...."
By the time my phone went live I was nearly frothing. There was no time wasted getting up to speed. I was in the middle of the argument immediately, which is exactly what John Otto intended. When I listened to the tape of that broadcast I realized that two-thirds of the things John said that got me going that night (and no doubt on all the other nights) weren't statements but questions: "Don't you think...." or "But wouldn't you say...." He really did like to get the guest talking, the show wasn't simply a stage for his opinions.
One caller raged for a long time about the Ofili painting, but it turned out he was really talking about Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," which is in the Whitney Museum in Manhattan. I said something about that and the caller said to me, "You got an estranged mind, you and Hillary. I don't call that no art."
After he was off the phone I said to John, "He was referring to the Serrano photograph of-"
"Do you want to say it or should I?"
"It's the crucifix in urine," I said.
"No, no, it's p-i-s-s- Christ," John said.
"Yes, 'Piss Christ.'"
"You said it. I didn't say it."
"I said it."
"I spelled it."
Although he could be superbly provocative, he could also be tactfully protective of his guests. When a caller complained that because I was a Jew I had no right to talk about "Piss Christ" or the Brooklyn Museum brouhaha, John jumped in, not only saving me from having to do that, but giving me time to formulate a more lucid and polite answer than I otherwise might have. When the same caller said "Are you here to talk about Mayor Giuliani or this supposed art?" John said, "We'll define the topic, thank you, as we go along."
After the caller was off the line, John said, "I told you we might have rough seas ahead."
"Well," I said.
"Well. Oh darn it all," he said. (How many grown men do you know who can say "darn" without seeming silly?)
"Oh, John, we've floated on a lot of seas in our years together."
"We have done."
He could say elegant sentences like that: "We have done." Stress on the middle word. "We have done." I just love that.
Near the end of the show, John said good art wasn't offensive. I said that's absurd, a lot of good art offended people. I mentioned Mozart. Nobody found Mozart's music offensive, John said. Well, I said, how about initial reactions to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"? John's voice rose: "That's the most noisy pointless lacking in ...[I missed a couple of words because I was laughing] ever contrived, unless it's 'Persephone.' You can have Stravinsky." He said I could also have Picasso. He did like Andrew Wyeth.
We went back to Ofili's collage. "We haven't actually seen it," I said. "Here we are having a furious argument, we've got people calling in from all over Erie County, and none of us has seen the object we're talking about."
"I tell you a secret: I'll never see it. I'll never go near the show."
"I'm gonna bring it to your house, John. I'm gonna show it to you."
"On Halloween night. Scare me to death. Thank you so much professor for talking to us. It's great to have you on. Perhaps another time we'll connect on some unrelated matter."
"Thanks a lot, professor. Good night, sir."
Yes. And good night, John, good night to you, sir.
The following day I was at a party at the Center for the Arts on UB's North Campus. A distinguished professor of medicine said to me, "I really liked what you said on John Otto's show about the First Amendment."
"What were you doing listening to the John Otto show?"
He shrugged. "You were on it."
"That's why you listened?"
"No. I never know who's going to be on it."
I never know who's going to be on it: that's a continuing condition. My distinguished professor of medicine friend listened to John Otto regularly. Who else was out there? You?
The composer John Cage tells a story about someone asking Sri Ramakrishna why, if god is good, is there so much misery in the world. Sri Ramakrishna replied, "To thicken the plot." That's what John Otto did: thickened the plot. We need people who thicken the plot. Few people do it, and fewer do it well. John Otto did it well.