As he was working himself into a lather on the set at Fox News Channel last week, Glenn Beck picked up a gasoline can. He pretended he was President Barack Obama pouring gasoline on the American people, as he emptied the can (filled with water) on a shivering actor and lit a match.
It was one of Beck's "crank up the crazy and rip off the knob" moments, to borrow the words of Stephen Colbert.
Depending on your politics, the monologue was either absurd or astute. Either way, it was undeniably entertaining television - the kind of jaw-dropper you rarely see on a cable news network and an example of an overlooked reason why Beck's show has been a sensation since he started at Fox in January.
"If Charlie Rose was the way to get your point across, Charlie Rose would have higher ratings," Beck said in an interview less than two hours after putting away the gas can. "Just because you are funny or make your point in an entertaining way is no reason to dismiss that point."
Must-see moments are following Beck, even inadvertent ones: a college professor on as a guest passed out and fell to the floor Monday, in a clip quickly passed around the Internet.
Beck is appointment television for Robert Lehman, a stay-at-home dad who lives in Wichita, Kan. He's a regular even though he's a Democrat who considers Beck a "nut."
"It's very difficult to describe why you watch him," Lehman said. "But it is captivating. It's an interesting show and it moves very quickly."
From his start at Fox in mid-January, Beck's 5 p.m. EDT show averaged more than 2.2 million viewers through March 29, according to Nielsen Media Research.
That's more than twice what Fox had in the time slot a year ago. Except for Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, Beck has more viewers than any other cable news show and he's on at a time many people are at work.
Both men would shiver at the comparison but Beck is similar to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann in the way they mix outrage and humour to create addictive TV.
Ben Jensen, a marketer from Highland, Utah, who tries to watch Beck every day, said he appreciates Beck's honesty and willingness to speak up to the powerful.
"If I look at some of the things he says hypercritically, I could tear it apart and say this guy is out of his mind," Jensen said. "But if I look at it as an objective person, even someone who agrees with him, he's funny. He's just trying to stir up some laughter."
Not everyone is laughing.
Beck, 45, largely advances libertarian views and has opposed government bailouts. He uses striking language and imagery, saying Obama is leading the country toward "a brand of nonviolent fascism."
At one point, he ran a picture of Adolf Hitler that switched to one of Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He described the nation's government as "full of vampires that are trying to suck the life blood out of the economy."
He has likened the stimulus package to the "nanny state" and even slavery. He's said Obama has "surrounded himself with Marxists his whole life."
"There's a difference between ludicrous and humorous," said Erikka Knuti, a spokeswoman for the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. "A lot of the stuff he does is dressed up with stagecraft but the content itself is still serious. It isn't called the 'Glenn Beck Comedy Show,' so there's an expectation of news."
The danger with Beck is that he takes hysteria and conspiracy theories and makes them seem palatable, she said.
The entertainment value notwithstanding, Beck wouldn't get such a large audience if what he said - not just how he said it - hadn't struck a chord.
"He loves his country very much and he wants to show the country another way," said Cheryl Herin, a viewer from Menefee, Calif.
Beck is a former radio disc jockey who bottomed out on drugs and alcohol before turning to talk radio. His heart-on-his-sleeve manner, even bursting into tears during one recent show, is appreciated by his fans even if it provides Comedy Central's Colbert with rich material. He worked on HLN, formerly CNN's Headline News, before making the switch to Fox and an audience of many more people in tune with he says.
"I am who I am, like it or not," he said. "Am I surprised people hate me? I don't expect everyone to like me. I don't like everyone. But I do expect that we approach each other with genuine honesty."
He announced last weekend that he's taking a stand-up comedy show on the road for a week late this spring. It's something he tries to do at least once a year.
His opinions aren't an act, though. He believes them very deeply, he said.
He does not resent Colbert for mocking him.
"It's what he's paid to do," Beck said. "He's very funny. I don't know if he hates me personally or not. But I'm a fan. I'm a fan of Jon Stewart. I think they're great.
"If they're doing it with vengeance or malice, then maybe it's more than just a job for them," he said.
Brent Bozell, a prominent conservative media watchdog, said he anticipated that opposition figures would rise with Obama taking office, and so far Rush Limbaugh and Beck have led the way. Without criticizing Beck, he said he worries about a lack of seriousness considering the serious issues.
"There is going to be a point one reaches where one goes too far in the entertainment aspect of a public policy discussion," he said. "Have we reached it? I don't know. So much of what is on television is goofy these days."
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