Tom Shillue Is a Mean Dad for a Better America [Reason Podcast]
The comedian and Fox News host celebrates his free-range childhood in the 1970s and what it means for his own kids.
In Mean Dads for a Better America, comedian and Fox News contributor Tom Shillue celebrates "the generous rewards of an old-fashioned childhood" of the kind he had growing up in a Boston suburb in the 1970s and '80s. Shillue's parents, he explains, were old school and never tried to be his and his siblings' friends. In fact, he aspired to be what he calls a "Darth Vader dad," a grumpy, grouchy, and morally absolute figure who inspires fear along with awe and love. Through dozens of richly recollected stories about everything from trying out for sports teams to mental breakdowns to hunting for pornography in the woods, Shillue explains how he learned responsibility, respect, and self-reliance.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Nick Gillespie that also covers politics and the demise of the Fox News late-night show Red Eye, Shillue says,
"Look, bullying made me stronger"… [there was] a bully across the street, [and my mother said], "Go hit him back." And I punched him back, and maybe I came out on the bad end in that fight, but I felt like it was worth it to fight back, and that most of the book is filled with appreciation [for that sort of guidance]. I appreciate my scary dad. I also appreciate the bullies, because I feel like they made me stronger.
Shillue talks about why he believes his rougher-than-the-kids-today upbringinallowed him to navigate young adulthood more easily and how he is trying to raise his own children as free-range kids ready to face a world very different—and in most ways far better—than the one in which he grew up.
Audio production by Ian Keyser.
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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: Hi. I'm Nick Gillespie, and this is The Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Today, I'm talking with Tom Shillue. He's a Fox News host and contributor, and he's the former host of the late, lamented Fox News show Red Eye. We'll talk about that later in the podcast. More pressingly, he is the author of Mean Dads for a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood. Tom, thanks for joining me.
Tom Shillue: Thank you, Nick.
Gillespie: Let's dig right into the book. You write early on, and I'm quoting, "My childhood was like the Bing Crosby movie The Bells of St. Mary's, set to the soundtrack from the musical Godspell. It was freedom, love, peace, and fierce individuality, all mixed up with parental authority, moral absolutism, and fear of God. A rich, hearty recipe for happiness if there ever was one."
Shillue: Oh my god. I'm glad you read that line.
Gillespie: I am assuming that you've lost virtually all of your readers right there, with the exception of people like me, maybe Greg Gutfeld, and a few others who remember Der Bingle as somebody other than a guy who we later found out beat his children mercilessly. But in The Bells of St. Mary's, there was … That's the sequel, right? To Going My Way, I believe? Or one is …?
Shillue: Oh. I guess so. I never really considered that way.
Gillespie: Bing Crosby plays a kind of hip priest who sings on occasion, and he helps the kids navigate their lives, and what was that, it was like in the 30s or 40s? Godspell, you know, that's like a musical version of the Warriors, right? Because Jesus ends up being beaten in Central Park, I think.
Shillue: Unbelievable. Yeah. It's like West Side Story meets religion. It's so weird.
Gillespie: Talk about what … And we're going to talk about Catholicism later, because I think this is the most Catholic book I've encountered since The Exorcist, and I mean that in a good way.
Gillespie: But, you know, The Bells of St. Mary's, Godspell, and you're talking about freedom, love, peace, individuality, and moral absolutism and fear of God. What world did you grow up in, Tom Shillue? Tell us, please.
Shillue: I just think it's so interesting that you took … You know, that's not on the inside cover of the book. Like, you took that out of the book. It's why I wrote the book. Like, that line, I really worked on that line. I wanted it to sound correct, because the whole idea for the book for me was, "I want to write a book that is an honest portrait of the 70s in America. Growing up in the 70s." There's a lot of people who talk about, "Oh, I grew up in the 50s." You kind of feel like you get that flavor, because there's some movies out there. There's some Depression Era kind of movies. There's some 1950s. But the 70s, when people talk about the 70s, it's always adults. It's college-age kids. It's like, Four Dead in Ohio. That kind of thing.
Gillespie: Or it's like The Ice Storm, where the 70s was the decade where marriages and key parties went to die or something like that.
Shillue: That's true. You're right. The Ice Storm is the perfect example of, "That was not my childhood." There was no key parties. There was no parties. I mean, my parents didn't go to parties. They were home, you know? But my town looked like Mayberry, you know? It was like the Andy Griffith Show. When I look back and I see movies or TV shows, or like an HBO series that takes place in the 70s, everybody, no matter where you are, is all, "Ding, ding, ding, ding." And they're just kind of like hippies, you know? There was no hippies in our town. Like, it was … We knew of them.
Gillespie: You grew up in a town outside of Boston, right?
Gillespie: You weren't out in the middle of nowhere, either.
Shillue: No, no. It was a industrial town, like you know, one of the towns that had a town center, and I say "industrial town" because it was built by the great, you know, the great industrialists. Our schools were named the EJ Shaddock Elementary School, and everything was named after some great man. The town had an old printing press in it, so it was an old New England town, and it was still … You know, my dad drove a Dodge Dart, and then most of the kids had whiffles in the summer, which were like really short haircuts, and we went to the pool, and we all like played outside. A lot of kids were barefoot. It wasn't like Tom Sawyer, but kids would take their shoes off when school ended, and they would go the whole summer without shoes, so I had very.
Gillespie: At one point, you write that you grew up in the 70s, but you really kind of were growing up in the 50s, it seemed.
Shillue: Yes, so then originally, that was the title of the subtitle of the book, was, "My 1950s Childhood in the 1970s," because the idea for me writing the book was, "Let's do a real portrait." I wanted to get the details of that childhood, because I remember my childhood very vividly. For some reason, I have very strong memories of age three to age of 12 or so. I wanted to make a book about that. Then as I wrote it, of course, there was so much about family that it became about parents, and parenting. I'm a parent now, so I wanted to blend this kind of memoir with also a little bit of a, "Hmm. How did I get where I am?" You know, I'm a conservative talk show host. Where did that come from? Well, it probably came from the way I was raised, so why not just like … There's no politics in the book. I was like, I mean, "How much can we talk about James Comey?" You know? I said, "Let's do a book that is about growing up, but maybe there will be some lessons in here that you can, 'Oh, that's why. That's how a guy turns out the way he turns out.'"
Gillespie: Were your parents political? I mean, in most ways, and it's interesting, because even though the book references your father, or dads. "Mean Dads." It's really equally about both of your parents, who seem to have had an … And we'll get to where you talk about the contributions you think they made to you, which is quite touching and pretty powerful stuff towards the end of the book. But did your parents have politics, or did you just really never discuss that kind of stuff?
Shillue: Yeah. It was always there. Like, I grew up in the Nixon era, you know? They were mad at Nixon. They were classic, I think … I thought they were unique in their ways, but it really is a common story, of the blue collar, Catholic family that voted for JFK, and then after the Democratic … What was that convention? The '68 convention?
Gillespie: Yeah. The one in Chicago, where there were riots and everything. Yeah.
Shillue: Yeah. The cultural left really turned them off, and they went right to the Republican party, and from Nixon on, and then they were real big fans of Reagan. They weren't always that way. They campaigned door to door for Mayor White in Boston, who was an old Boston Democrat, and they were big … You know, they campaigned for Kennedy as well, when they were in college. That is a common story. I kind of thought my parents were the only ones who were like that, but there's a lot of New England that had cultural … Or, you know, who became conservative. They moved from the Catholic Democratic party, because they felt that the culture had left them, so they were those kind of parents.
Gillespie: You praise your father's stoicism in the book. His sternness, and even his authoritarianism. What is good about such personality traits? What was good about your father's stoicism, sternness, and authoritarianism?
Shillue: Well, it was kind of … It confused me as a kid, because we'd be with my dad, and we were kind of in silence. And I write this … The chapter opens up, it's called Be Afraid, and we're afraid to … You know, my dad wakes us up like Darth Vader, and makes us get in the car, and we didn't know where we were going, and we would just drive, and then we would be car sick, because we were getting motion sickness, afraid to speak up to my dad, so we'd end up throwing up on the floor, which would make him angry, you know? Then he'd have to cover it with dirt, you know? When I tell these stories, young people, I think guys like you will be like, "Uh, I totally get it." You know? Or Gutfeld. "It all makes sense." But when I tell this to a millennial, they kind of look at me like, "Why? What was going on? What was the problem?" They don't understand it.
That's the way the world was. Dads were angry, angrier. They were mad, they were stoic figures. The thing is, you had fun with your brothers and sisters, so you kind of bonded. The reason we were happy kids, I think, is because we sought shelter amongst kids. The world was a kids' world, and do you remember in that Miracle on Ice? There's that great documentary about the coach, and he has to pound these young hockey players into shape to beat the Russians, and he decides to become their enemy. He's like, "They need an enemy, and I'm going to be their enemy." I forget the name of that coach, but you know, that great coach. They bonded. He bonded that American team of kids from all over the place, and he did it by being essentially a mean dad, you know? That's the way I was with my brother. We had this kind of bond. We shared a room, and we were in the backseat of the car together, and he would take us on walks on the Freedom Trail. A lot of our life was lived in fear, and in trepidation of the world, but it was a happy world.
Gillespie: Explain that a little bit, because you write in that chapter, you start about being afraid, "My dad scared me into silence." You also talk a lot about you lived in a world that was populated, besides by your siblings and a couple of friends, exclusively by bullies. Even at Boy Scout camp, or maybe especially at Boy Scout camp, all kinds of horrible things were happening, and it was like Lord of the Flies. You write, "Constant harassment was just an accepted part of life." How did that make you a happy kid? Or how did that make you feel like you were living in a just and safe world?
Shillue: Home was just, home was safe. We would go to church, and we would learn about the trinity, and there was life after death, and there was … So you know, we did have an ordered world. We also had our schools, our churches, our merit badges. The fact that there was a Lord of the Flies world underneath all of this, that was basically like … That was the real world. The world of kids. We knew that kids were tough. We knew some of them were mean. Some of them were just tough. They were kind of like tough, competitive kids that you had to compete against, and you looked up to those kids. Some were mean and nasty, and you could see why, because you could see that their dad didn't seem like that nice of a guy. Like maybe he was a meaner dad than my dad, even, you know? My dad used to reach for the belt. He never took it out. He never pulled the belt out, but he always said he was going to, but he never had to. I feel like that we had the order, we had the structure in the home, we had both the parents. My dad would come home and he would grab hold of his wife, you know? She was always shooing him away. There was a very affectionate marriage, even though he was this kind of like strange, scary authority figure.
Gillespie: Talk about how he … Because this was something, and again, I'm 53. I think you probably might be a few years younger than me, but we're in the same ballpark.
Shillue: 50. 5-0. Yeah.
Gillespie: My parents were older than average when they had me, but it's all the same type of stuff, but one thing that I laughed at, when you were describing that your father, late at night, you would see him out on the patio or in the backyard just smoking a cigar, and like looking out into the darkness, and you're kind of like, "What the fuck is going on here?" My father did that. I knew people who the father would come home from work and just sit in an empty room for like 20 minutes, and everybody was like, "Don't go near there, and whatever you do, don't make a noise." What was your father … What was going on there, for your father?
Shillue: Well, it was like the warm nights. It seems like every night. I have these ideas of … I think back to my childhood, and one of the things I would do is look out the window, and I would look into the darkness, and I would just check to see if he was there before going to bed. It was like a ritual, and then I would just see the glow of his cigar. You know, I would wait for that glow to light up, because he would draw on the cigar.
Gillespie: By the way, that scene, that reminded me of Raymond Burr in Rear Window, when Jimmy Stewart realizes across the courtyard that he's the murderer, but it's like, "No, he's your father. He's the murderer. Of course your father is capable of murder."
Shillue: Exactly. I think when I saw Rear Window, he reminded me of my dad, that cigar. I used to think … The thing about it is, as a little kid, I would look out and I would think, "Now, why does he …?" He's a man. You know, I was like, "I'm a boy, and he's a man." But I'd think to myself like, I liked my brother around, you know? If I was alone, it was kind of like, "Oh, what am I going to do now? Maybe I'll play with a GI Joe or something." But you wanted to be with other people, okay? I also knew my dad came home from work and smothered my mother with kisses at the stove, so why did he want to sit out there all by himself in the dark?
It was just … It seemed strange and scary. "Why does this man like to sit in the dark?" I used to think, "I guess that's what happens when you're an adult." You know? Then I would taste black coffee. It tasted terrible. There were so many things about adults I didn't understand, but it made me think of them, and I thought, "Okay, one day I will be a man, so will I like to sit in the dark? Maybe I will. I don't know why. Maybe men like solitude. Maybe they're quiet. You know, maybe they have to think a lot." I didn't have any answers as a kid, but I remember thinking about it, and also thinking that, "Someday I will be that man." You know?
Gillespie: You talk about the ritual murder of your Pillsbury Dough Boy toy, or doll, at a Boy Scout camp. Recount the significance of that event. Why did you include that in the book?
Shillue: I included it because there's really no … There's nothing … Most of the stories as a kid, they're more quaint when you're younger, but then there's a dividing line between the beginning part of the book and then the end of the book, which is … The second half is kind of junior high and high school, when my ordered world became less ordered, and you're going through adolescence. It's a crazy time, you know? But I think the early part of the book, my strict upbringing, which I think gave me a good foundation to get through all of the turbulence of adolescence, and I feel like the dividing line was the Boy Scouts. That story to me says, "There's bullying, there's nastiness." There was a couple of kids who were vaguely called kind of homophobic slurs, and they're sent away from camp, and I remember thinking, "Now, what? Am I like those guys?" Because I wasn't a strong kid, you know, and I wasn't one of the bullies, but I didn't want to end up like those kids. I tried not to make any judgments about anyone, but there's obviously … The scoutmasters were not so nice. They allowed bullying to go on.
Now, earlier in the book I say that, "Look, bullying made me stronger." My mother said- there was a bully across the street- and she said, "Go punch him back." And I punched him back, and maybe I came out on the bad end in that fight, but I felt like it was worth it to fight back, and that most of the book is filled with appreciation. Like, I appreciate my scary dad. I also appreciate the bullies, because I feel like they made me stronger. But then there's that section in adolescence where like, I kind of was saying "goodbye" to my childhood, and I always think of that story in that I brought a little Pillsbury Dough Boy to camp with me, and they found it, and I didn't want to end up like those two brothers who got sent home, and they were called a sissy.
Gillespie: They were sent home, they were sissies, they couldn't hack it. I guess they couldn't hack the hazing, or the bullying type of stuff?
Shillue: Yeah. They were bullied, and there's a few examples. I remember going to the archery range with these kids, and the scoutmasters, who were kind of Eagle Scouts themselves, you know, they were chaperones, and they would shoot arrows into the woods, and they would make the brothers go get them. Like, "Go get that." It was just being mean and demeaning to them, and just ruining their time at camp, and they just couldn't deal, and they went home. Everyone said, "Oh, look at those crybabies." Now, they probably should have gone home, because it was nothing for them at that camp. It was just people being mean to them.
Gillespie: But you realized, then, that's part of your recognition that the world is not so ordered after all, or that you are, as you get older, you're going to have to impose the order on your world.
Shillue: Right. I bought into it. I bought into the bullying. When they stole my little Pillsbury Dough Boy, they stabbed him on their knives, and there's just a little scene when I kind of come out of my tent, and they're tossing him from one scout knife to another. I used the motto, "be prepared," which I took my knife out with me, I opened it up, and I started stabbing my little Dough Boy along with them, and I murdered him with them, and I became … I wasn't going to get bullied. I took it out on my little toy, you know? I think I said I turned into this kid, you know? You look where it's going, and you're like, "I'm going to survive this." I survived Boy Scout camp by being one of them, and I remember saying, and I thought to myself, "I'm not going to end up like those brothers. I'm not going to get sent home from camp as a crybaby." I ended up being kind of like a little bully myself, you know?
Gillespie: But then you did not really … I mean, because you veered away from that as well, right? I mean, you're not … I hope, anyway, that you're not a bully at work, or you don't bully your own kids.
Shillue: No. I don't, and I'm definitely … Then I went into my adolescence, and I became a little bit of … I had to find my thing. It's like, "Okay, I'm not one of those guys." So I became kind of a punk rocker, and a little bit of an outlaw, or what I thought was. If you could see pictures of me, you'd say, "Oh."
Gillespie: You seem to identify pretty strongly with Ducky from Pretty in Pink. Is that an accurate characterization?
Shillue: Yeah. That definitely is. I started wearing tape measures as ties to school, like skinny ties, you know? When I say it now, it's like, you know, it really seems like I was a nerd, but in my high school, they called me punk, because people don't realize what … Punk back then was The Police. Sting and The Police, because they had spiky hair. They were seen as punk. Because in Massachusetts, it's a New England town, but we all listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet. It was like some type of southern rock, you know, in that Northeast, and heavy metal. Everyone liked Iron Maiden and that kind of thing.
Gillespie: Yeah. It was a time of flirting with disaster, and knowing that we were just dust in the wind. Yeah. It's a different America. How did you … You also, obviously you're an extrovert, and you found a real outlet in performing, both in terms of singing and comedy and whatnot. I mean, one of the arguments in the book is that you were forced to find yourself, because you had to kind of come up with something or you would die, right? Or you wouldn't thrive in a world that seemed to be kind of indifferent to you.
Shillue: Yeah. I never ended up having that … You know, there's a lot of … You always see the kind of alternative adolescent, and the movie always ends with like the guy kicking the dust off his small town and leaving, and going to New York, you know? But I did like my high school life, even though I was like trying to be the alternative guy in high school, and I didn't have any … I didn't have a lot of trouble in my teen years. Because my parents, who were very strict, all of a sudden they kind of let go when I was a teenager, and they would … They weren't in my face at all. My dad, who was a disciplinarian, and my mom was in there too, because she's the one who wanted me to be an altar boy, and my dad wouldn't let me quit my paper route when I was a kid, but then when I was a teenager, he basically said, "You know, go do it." I would go into the woods, and there was kids drinking and stuff, but I would have one beer. I never really … I didn't abuse alcohol. I didn't do drugs, but I did a little … I partied with the kids, and I didn't have any sex, either.
Gillespie: Let's talk about that, because you say that you're actually really grateful that you didn't have sex in high school. I'm thinking the only other people were the women who would have been forced to submit to you. They're probably pretty happy. But what was so good for you about not having sex? Why was that important to you?
Shillue: It was such a time of sexual excitement, my teen years, because I was obsessed with girls. There's a part in the book when we go to my diary, and you can see that it's completely Dungeons and Dragons, until my first girlfriend. Then it was the one makeout session I had, and I was so sad I couldn't include, because the first draft, I included the full lyrics to Man Out of Time by Elvis Costello, because the song itself is like, it means making out to me. Like, the lyrics to me are just … They bring it all back. I wanted those lyrics in there, but I couldn't do it because of the rights or something. That makeout session …
Gillespie: This, by the way, your book is the best press that Imperial Bedroom has gotten since its release. It's pretty staggering. In a way, your book is a guilty pleasure. I've found it interesting throughout, and provocative, and evocative. But it's also, if you're of a certain age, the nostalgia quotient is just through the roof. The things that you bring back up that I had semi-successfully repressed is pretty wonderful.
Gillespie: Why was … You were edging your entire high school years, you know? You're horny, but there's no release, and that made you a better person, you think, right?
Shillue: I think it did, and it, look, it's part of willpower. I believe willpower is a muscle. I believe it can be worked, but I think a lot of it came from, you know … I mean, the combination of the straight-laced Catholic upbringing with the swinging 70s, with the Playboys in the woods, I mean, somebody just … I just did an interview over on Sirius XM with Ron Bennington, and it was so funny, because he said, "I was like you. If we found a Playboy in the woods, we'd build a fort around it."
Gillespie: That's another thing which I struggled. I have two sons of my own, and the idea of trying to explain to them that you would … You went into the woods not because you wanted to commune with nature, but on the off chance you would find a porno magazine. That's like the ultimate guerrilla marketing, right? Like, "We're just going to take a couple of Playboys and throw them in these woods, and we'll get great word of mouth that way." It's very strange.
Shillue: But they had … It was a hollow tree. Like, all you had to do was go in the woods. You'd find a dead tree, and then you could reach inside, and there was almost always Playboys inside it. But the thing is that the … To me, the combination, because there was … You know, historically, we were now in the era of sex, you know? We have left the 50s, and we are now in the swinging era, and yet growing up with that straight-laced upbringing, and then you get into adolescence, and it was like, this was the era of Porky's, you know? That movie that was … We were not allowed to see that. My parents said, "You're not going to see that movie." Because it was like a dirty movie. But when you look back on it now, it's very quaint, the movie. You know, peeking over the showers at the girls and whatnot.
But the thing is, I didn't have sex on my to-do list. I thought it was not allowed, and I kind of went into high school thinking that it was not something I was going to do. I didn't expect it, so I thought that that was good, that I had that idea, and so the dating to me was very … I had these girlfriends, and I would just make out with them. I mean, when I think back at those makeout sessions, because you could just sit all night and kiss these girls, and it was so wonderful, and I think that the entanglements of sex … You know, later on, there's something about it that I don't think a young boy, you know, 15, 16, 17, certainly where I was, it was not something I was ready for, so I'm so glad that I was deprived of it.
Gillespie: Well, you write in the book also that guilt is fantastic. "I thrived on it in high school." And that's why I was like this was … You know, this is St. Tom Shillue. I think you're going to be canonized or at least venerated after this book by the Catholic church. How did guilt, and particularly Catholic guilt is probably one of the most famous concepts out there, and it's always getting kind of shit on. Why was guilt fantastic for you in high school?
Shillue: I think it kept me … To me, guilt is just like willpower, you know? It keeps you from doing bad things. That's one of the things I love about Catholicism. I love the idea of sin, and redemption. I like the idea of doing things that are … You know, I don't wear a hair shirt. I don't punish myself. I don't flog myself, but I like to put myself in unpleasant positions to strengthen myself, you know? As a kid, I used to crawl under the couch, and I would sandwich myself in a small space, and I felt very uncomfortable in there. It kind of scared me, like claustrophobia, but I would see how long I could stand it. As an adult, I often put myself in a stress position and try to hold my breath, to see how long I can go without passing out. I like it, and I think it developed …
Gillespie: Yeah. That is a Catholic upbringing. Some things are easier to shake. You know, they're doing wonderful things with pharmaceuticals these days, Tom, if … You said from your dad, and what I want to do is, after you explain like the big lesson, or the kind of [sumo 00:27:05] lessons that you learned from your mother and dad in this strict upbringing, but then also one that as you were saying, you were given the space to become an individual, and a lot of responsibility as you got older that you responded well to, and then how does this play out with your kids? But you say, you write, "From my dad, I learned respect for family, tradition, and God. As I watched him from my perch at my bedroom window at night, I learned to appreciate the wisdom of silence. I absorbed his respect for authority, albeit with his healthy dose of skepticism and a fierce streak of individualism. From my mom, I learned how to take care of myself and how to be creative and find solutions to life's problems, and I retained her love of art and entrepreneurship, and on our long drives together, a love of theology."
That's a wonderful thing, and your parents are still alive, and they come back at the end of the book, where you're kind of telling them about writing the book, and they recognize they're going to be in it. Those are great lessons. How does that temper how you deal with your own children, and how many children do you have? What's the age range of them?
Shillue: Two daughters, and they're 11 and seven now. I often joke about, and I think I say in the book that I want to be more … Because I called my dad a Darth Vader dad, and I want to be a Darth Vader dad, but I can't be, because the world doesn't allow Darth Vader dads anymore. It's just not something you could be. You'd just be a strange figure in the neighborhood, you know? But I like to try to be the mean dad in the neighborhood, and I want to give the kids the kind of security-slash-freedom that we had, because I feel like back then we had stricter parents that were … There was more consequence. There was more reaching for the belt. There was more of that world, okay? The law and order world. But then there was more freedom, because 90% of our life was spent out of the watchful eye of parents.
Gillespie: Or adults, right? Because that's certainly one thing. My sons are 23 and 15, but it's the same thing, where they have many more opportunities and options than I certainly had growing up, but they're always in a controlled environment. They're always either with parents or other parents, or they're at a school, or an after-school thing. There's always adults around.
Shillue: Yes. I think that's why the … I like to give freedom to my kids as much as I can, because you can't let them … I would love to have them walk to school in the Bronx, but you'd just be the weird parent then, because they'd be like, "Look at that weirdo who lets these little kids walk to school." But I walked to school, and we had kids, they were older kids who would burn us with cigarettes. There was, like, dangers out there, you know? I like to take them out to the playground in the Bronx, and I like to have them go, go, go, and maybe they … I like when my littlest, the seven-year-old, she goes in the woods. She loves to go in the woods like I did, and just pretend and explore. She's out of eyeshot. I can hear her. I can hear the twigs snapping, but then if there's a fight that goes on amongst kids and they come running, "Oh, look what they did to me." I say, "Go back in there and work it out. You two get back in." I don't want to have parents solve every problem for them.
Gillespie: Do you think your daughter is going into the woods and looking at porn on her cell phone?
Shillue: No. She's not. I don't allow the devices, so they can't have them.
Gillespie: Okay, so she's rooting around in hollow trees. I miss the simpler America, when it was just Soviet agents would be putting microfiches of nuclear weapons in hollow trees, or pumpkins or something.
Shillue: I know. It was so much easier to be … Like, being a spy back then, it was such work, you know? It's so much easier now. They just kind of send a file somewhere, whereas you had to go … You remember. You had to go down to the mall, the Washington Mall, with an envelope, and hand it over to some guy.
Gillespie: That's right. Are you raising your kids Catholic, and is that a big part of their life?
Shillue: Yeah, and we're in a parish in the Bronx, but it's probably not as big of a part of their life as it was for me. I take them down there. We do the First Communion. We go to church on Sunday. They go to Sunday School, but I think it was more in my town, because I was an altar boy, and then during my teen years, like I said, when my parents let me be kind of artsy and they would let me dye my hair and be a little bit of a rebel and things like that, my mother used to go to the Latin mass. She became a real Latin mass fanatic, so the really old school Catholics. I would occasionally go with her, and I would go to the Latin mass, so I became like … I have a soft spot for the old Latin masses. I like to go off to myself to the Tridentine Mass. There's a place on Street I go to.
You know, they're not getting the … My parents were really, like, old school. They missed, like … Vatican II was when the Catholic Church started going down for them, you know? They didn't like the liberalization of the Catholic Church. They gave me much more of an old school Catholic upbringing, and I think they were more … My mother was very much into theology, and talking about the trinity, and getting into the Catholic teachings. I'm a little bit more loose with them. They go to Sunday school. But when I see them, because I work hard on Fox News and everything, I tend to be the secular dad. I take them out to the zoo, and we have a good time. It's not as devout of an upbringing that they're getting from their parents, but I think that's what happens generationally. Each one kind of loosens up a little bit.
Gillespie: What do you think … Because your kids, and particularly if they're daughters … Part of when I was reading your book, I was curious what your sisters, if they had a similar set of memories, or if there's a gender difference. We live in a better world in, I would argue, probably every way, but certainly I think you would agree most ways, and where most people have more opportunities. You're living a life that is very different than your parents, and it's kind of probably more self-fulfilling in a way. You're doing more what you want to do. You get to express yourself through your work and all of that kind of stuff. Your kids have, I'm sure, no real material wants. Are they living in a better world, or did you grow up in a richer America, you think, even with all the limitations?
Shillue: I think they are definitely living in a better world. I think part of the problem is everyone trying to sell us on the fact that we are living in a worse world, a more dangerous world. The world was more dangerous back when I was a kid, for sure. Not only just from broken arms, and from the fact that our main role model was Evil Knievel when we were kids. Like, there's not a worse role model for a child's safety.
Gillespie: When he hit the parachute button, he hit the eject button on that Snake River Canyon jump, like while they were still counting down. That was my personal Vietnam, you know? I realized, "Hey, you know, don't follow leaders." You know? "They're done. They're all fakers."
Shillue: No. How. When he did that, it was like … Not only in the sense of broken arms and other things like that, but the sense of stranger danger. You know, we were much more free, and then in the 80s with cable TV and the Sally Jessy Raphael show and things, people started becoming more and more paranoid, and also about health. The idea that if you get an itch or something, you go immediately and you start going down a sinkhole online about that you have some terrible disease, you know? It's so much easier to make ourselves unhappy now. The world is a better place, and yet why were we so happy back then? Not because the world was a better place, but because it was really an attitude thing, of expectations and of attitude, I think. That's why I try to keep saying those things in the book.
Also, there's a reason I contained the story from high school where I had a girlfriend who struggled with mental illness. I use that as an example of kind of an adolescent story, and it's kind of funny, because she's … You know, the scenes of me driving her around trying to cure her mental illness with fresh air, you know? Driving with the windows down in Massachusetts in the winter. It becomes quite silly, but then finally she goes to the hospital, and I kind of have to step up to the plate and be a caregiver all of a sudden, and I feel like it was a little bit much for this little man to be doing, but I felt like I was able to step up because I had a good, solid upbringing.
I was thankful for the upbringing, but that's not the entirety of the story. The reason I left that message in there, it's kind of to show I had gratitude for the mental health system them. You know, it's not like we were going to pray away her mental illness. There's a lot of like, "Oh, strict Catholic upbringing," and everything. But then when we get down to it, when she has mental illness, she had to go see a series of doctors and be treated. I was so thankful for the modern medical profession. I didn't want this book to be a polemic about, like, "Oh, in my day, the world was better." You know?
Gillespie: Well, let's talk about the current day. You know, it's only a few months ago, I guess, that Red Eye was canceled. I say that as a frequent guest, and a devoted watcher. I know I miss it every night of the week. How was that for you? Was that a tough adjustment to make?
Shillue: Yes. It was a shock. Although once it was gone, I though, "Oh, boy. I could have …" Once it ended, the first thought was, "Jeez, I could have done this forever." Because if you had asked me then, when Red Eye was on, "I'm having the time of my life. I could keep doing it forever." Once it was canceled, I thought to myself, "You know what? I could have done this for another two years." Because when I thought about it, once it was over and the exhaustion of the show, it was like, that's all I did. Red Eye was, even though it seemed like it was shot in a garage and we threw it together, we had a small staff of seven people, and we put together a TV show every day. It was hard work. Like, we had to work on it every day. All I ever did was, I would wake up in the morning and just think about Red Eye all day, and then do the show, and then have a whiskey, and then go to sleep.
Gillespie: I do think, you know, it's to the show's credit that it was never knocked off by other networks. I mean, at various points different cable networks tried something like it, but they weren't able to replicate, I think, the mix of wit as well as substance, and the ability to keep bringing it every day of the week like you're saying. Where are the best places on Fox for people to see you? And also talk a little bit about Red Eye podcast that you're doing as well.
Shillue: Yeah. Once the show was canceled, I thought, "Okay, you know, Fox is … They're very busy doing a lot of new things in their schedule. They're doing a lot of live programming at night." Things are live now. Like, it used to be, when Red Eye was created, and even when I took over the show, everybody was … All of the prime time stars were all pre-taping their shows, and then they would run at night, you know? But we're in a world where people are demanding the most current information, so everything in prime time now is live. Like, Tucker's live at eight. The Five is live at nine. You can see why we got pushed aside, okay? But I think that there's room for Red Eye, and I think in the digital world, I want to resurrect the concept of Red Eye, and when I first had the show canceled, I sent out an email to the people at Fox here, and I said, "I think this could be a digital show. I think we could find a place to shoot it, and I think I could get a half a million viewers on a digital show."
That's what we got at night on the network. Half a million at three in the morning was … They loved it. But if they let me go, I said, "You know, I could get you half a million viewers if we throw it out there into the internet, and just let anybody watch it on their devices or anything like that." They know that that's what I want to do. Also, they got me filling in on radio, so I've been doing six to nine at night, and they like what I've been doing on radio, so there may be a future in that for me. I'm trying to not sit around, even though there's plenty for me to do. They like to use me as Greg's backup on The Five. They like to use me on Outnumbered. I'm doing that tomorrow, or rather one day this week.
Gillespie: That's one lucky guy, four girls and a couch, right? Something like that?
Shillue: Exactly. the couch.
Gillespie: The couch is the real winner on that show, I think. Yeah.
Shillue: But I could run around here and be a favorite guest on Fox, but I still am dying to create my own thing, and I want to resurrect the spirit of Red Eye in some form. For me, it starts on radio. Andy and I have been doing nights on radio, and I've been talking to the radio guys about doing some more in that world. It's going to start with radio, and I'm speaking to the Red Eye fans now who are skeptical about what I'm doing. They think I'm just sitting on my laurels and like writing a book. But it's going to start on radio, and I'm trying to bring the fans over there onto the radio space, right? Then we're going to go to video, because I've been doing Facebook Lives from the radio studio, and perhaps, Nick, you'd like to come up some night and do radio with us, and then you can see how that works.
And then keep the flavor. I want a show that has the diversity, and I love using that word, diversity, because I feel like we were the most diverse of all the talk shows. You know, with Libertarians, and Democrats, and Republicans, and hedonists, and stand up comedians. It was a great mix, so I want to keep that on radio as well. I shouldn't say radio. I want to say digital, because I want to do radio, and I also want to always be making videos for the internet and stuff like that.
Gillespie: Let me ask you a final question, Tom Shillue, author of the excellent new book, Mean Dads for a Better America. What is the dividing line for you between Libertarian and Conservative?
Shillue: Good question, because I have … It's two things, because there's the two issues. For Libertarians, you've got the statist issues, right? And then you've got the moral issues. I'm a bit of a moralist, because I'm Catholic, so a lot of times I'm still Libertarian in the economic world, and also in the government world, because I grew up Catholic, but also there's a lot of the Catholics, like my dad, have part of their Catholicism is a kind of … There's an anti-government spin to it, you know what I mean? Because they get there. They're like, "Listen, I got mine. Don't tell me … I don't need you to tell me how to order my life. I've got my life here." You know what I mean? That's why I always … From the perspective of someone who's skeptical about the government, I feel like you're gonna look for your authority somewhere, right? I'd rather look to a higher power for our authority than government. That's why I think the religious conservatives, or at least religious Catholics, anyway, like the kind of working class, Northeast Republican Catholic that I am, has an affinity with Libertarians in that way, right?
But then you have the statist issues, and the war on drugs kind of thing, and that's where I tend to be very Libertarian, because, only because, I lived through seeing how badly it all worked. You know what I mean? You almost had me when I was … Because you know, when I was first starting doing standup, I would go perform for the D.A.R.E. people. You know, the drug resistance education people, and they're all cops, and I love cops, and firemen, and I love law and order, because I grew up in a very ordered world. But then you look at the travesty that has been national law enforcement on so many things, right? And horrible … And what we're living through today, with the national security, you know? I said it on Gutfeld the other night. I was like, "You know, all these idiots that keep getting caught giving away the secrets. The Manning, whatever. You know, Chelsea Manning, and they're all a bunch of jerks and idiots, and you think to yourself, 'How did they get clearance?'" Well, maybe because it's too big. Maybe they need too many people, and they can't screen these people because it's so massive, you know?
A lot of people, they try to act like Libertarianism is this kind of like line between liberalism and conservatism, but I don't think it's that way. That's not the way I see it. I see those two big issues, the statism issues … Is that what I'm saying is right? Statist?
Gillespie: Yeah, I think so.
Shillue: It's like the big government thing.
Gillespie: The political issues, or, "How should government work? How should politics work?" Yup.
Shillue: Yes. And it's like, I'm sufficiently anti-government to join with the Libertarians, you know? But then …
Gillespie: On personal issues, you're much more morally conservative. You don't like sex out of wedlock. You don't like using drugs, even if you don't think they should be illegal, things like that. Well, we can work with that, Tom, and maybe over the next couple of sessions, we'll be able to put you in a Libertarian sports car. I hope so.
Gillespie: I want to thank Tom Shillue. He's the former host of the late, lamented Fox News show Red Eye, and he's a regular host, and look for him on Fox Radio in the evenings, six to nine PM especially, and all over the network. And we've been talking to him specifically about his excellent new book, Mean Dads for a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood. I highly recommend reading it. Tom Shillue, thanks so much.
Shillue: Thank you so much, Nick. We'll see you soon.
Gillespie: This has been The Reason Podcast. I'm Nick Gillespie. Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to us at iTunes, and rate and review us when you're there.