"The Rush Limbaugh Show" debuted on August 1, 1988 on a handful of AM radio stations across the country. In the more than 30 years since, there have been many memorable moments and a few long-running gags that helped make the show – and its host – popular among a wide swath of the population.
Many years, Limbaugh, who died Wednesday at age 70, would reminisce each Aug. 1 about his first program and how the show had grown. On Aug. 1, 2017, Mike from Plymouth Meeting, Pa., called into the program to offer his own memory of that very first show.
"I caught you on your very first broadcast on [WABC] radio station AM 770. My wife and I were on our way to the Jersey Shore. I heard you talking, and I said to my wife, "What did he say his name was?" Mike recalled. "And she said, ‘I think he said ‘Rush.'’ And I said, ‘Man, I don’t know who he is, but I sure like what he’s saying. He’s saying what I’m thinking,’ and I’ve been listening ever since."
Many callers to the show had stories just like Mike’s, offering Limbaugh "mega-dittos" – a spin on Limbaugh’s "DittoHead" nickname for listeners who agree with him – about how Limbaugh drew them into his program with a combination of humor and politics, and at times helped broaden their worldview.
Limbaugh recalled at the time how his first show was broadcast from that Manhattan radio station’s studios on a particularly hot summer day. He later moved his operation to Palm Beach, Fla., where many more hot days would be had.
Over the years, Limbaugh’s penchant for injecting humor into politics often took the form of "parody" songs, with callers later requesting old parodies they hadn’t heard in a while. As with much of Limbaugh’s humor, it was often done in a faux-righteous, self-deprecating way:
One oft-requested song was "Thank The Lord Rush Limbaugh’s On," by the fictitious "Rush Hawkins Singers. The name was a take on the 1960s gospel group "The Edwin Hawkins Singers," popular for such hymns as "O Happy Day!
"You hear him every day on the EIB/Talent from God/He likes to tease Bill and Hillary/Talent from God/You love every word that he says, the liberal left is nearly dead, come and join me DittoHeads/Talent From God," the song went in a snappy, syncopated time with a Gospel choir singing the response line throughout.
"Talent on loan from God," and "…with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair" were comments Limbaugh would routinely make in jest about himself when returning from commercial breaks.
With the help of satirist Paul Shanklin, Limbaugh employed several other "parody" songs, including a jab at President Barack Obama with "Every Cent You Make (I’ll Be Taxing You)" -- a spoof of The Police hit "Every Breath You Take" – and "Bomb Iran", a jab at the neoconservative foreign policy of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a play on the Beach Boys tune "Barbara Ann."
However, not all of Limbaugh’s parodies were taken in jest by the public. In 2007, controversy broke out after the host played a tune called "Barack, The Magic Negro" – which was intended to be a spoof on "Puff, The Magic Dragon." The song, recorded by Shanklin, came about after Limbaugh discussed a Los Angeles Times editorial by writer David Ehrenstein which had a similar title to the parody tune.
At the time, the Seattle Times reported Obama’s presidential campaign dismissed the song as "dumb", and the future president himself took the jab in stride during a WJR Detroit radio interview:
"I have not heard it but I’ve heard of it. I confess that I don’t listen to Rush on a daily basis," Obama said. "On the other hand, I’m not one of these people who takes myself so seriously that I get offended by every comment made about me."
In another memorable moment, Limbaugh exchanged his radio microphone for the world of television animation in 2010, portraying himself on the FOX broadcast program "Family Guy."
In the episode, aptly named "Excellence In Broadcasting," Brian, the Griffins’ otherwise liberal family dog, has a political epiphany while reading one of Limbaugh’s books after the talker holds a signing in his hometown of Quahog, R.I. Limbaugh voiced himself throughout the episode, which ends with the host transforming into a bald eagle and flying away after Brian realizes he is still a liberal at heart and makes peace with the conservative commentator.
Much earlier in his career, after the 1992 election, Limbaugh memorably received a letter from President Reagan urging him to keep up the fight for conservatism. That year, Bill Clinton had unseated Reagan’s former vice president, President George H.W. Bush.
"Now that I've retired from active politics. I don't mind that you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country," Reagan wrote, as chronicled by David Remnick in the Washington Post. "I know the liberals call you the most dangerous man in America, but don't worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear 'the way things ought to be.'" the 40th president added, playing on one of Limbaugh's book titles.
Even the show's opening music, the instantly-recognizable opening bass line to The Pretenders' "My City Was Gone," has a backstory.
Limbaugh and Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde notably share polar opposite politics, but the two have enjoyed an amicable relationship when it comes to the famous bumper music. Hynde has said over the years that her father, a former Marine veteran, was a big fan of Limbaugh’s and part of the reason she ultimately allowed him to continue using the tune as the musical front door to his program.
The now-69-year-old rocker wrote an open letter to then-President Trump on the matter after she heard he would be awarding Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
"He loved listening to Rush, which is why I allowed my song, ‘My City Was Gone’, to be used on his radio show," Hynde wrote. "My father and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. We argued a lot, but isn’t that the American way? The right to disagree without having your head chopped off?"
In addition to his choice of theme music, Limbaugh memorably expressed a liking for the techno holiday tunes of Mannheim Steamroller and many in-cues and outcues from his December programs over the years featured the group.
To the other extreme, fans noted the solemnity of Limbaugh ending his final show of 2020 with "Silent Night." He had done so in years past, but his health gave the event added poignancy. An emotional Limbaugh spoke at length about his love for his audience, and how he was grateful to God to have outlived his cancer diagnosis.
In February 2009, Limbaugh received a rousing welcome at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where he delivered the keynote address, carried live by C-SPAN and Fox News.
Limbaugh went well over his allotted speaking time, opening with his signature humor by referring to his personal security as "Joseph Stalin." The sobriquet, the host remarked, had rendered him safe from liberal "attacks" because people on the left would be "afraid of offending Stalin."
Limbaugh later later struck a more serious tone as he sought to explain "who we conservatives are."
"We love people," Limbaugh said."We see human beings. We don't see groups. We don't see victims. We don't see people we want to exploit. What we see is potential. We do not look out across the country and see the average American, the person that makes this country work."
"We do not see that person with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government," he continued."We want this to be the greatest country it can be, but we do understand, as people created and endowed by our Creator, we're all individuals. We resist the effort to group us. We resist the effort to make us feel that we're all the same; that we're no different than anybody else. We're all different."
"There are no two things or people in this world who are created in a way that they end up with equal outcomes. That's up to them."
Limbaugh has also been known for boosting up-and-coming talk show hosts by letting them fill in for him. Some of those guest hosts, like FOX News' own Sean Hannity, became big names themselves in conservative talk.
At the time of Limbaugh’s cancer diagnosis, Hannity recounted that he was so nervous to be in the host char that he dropped the ‘Golden EIB Microphone’, which is indeed made of gold. Limbaugh, Hannity recalled, took the accident in stride.
More recently, New Hampshire-based writer and political commentator Mark Steyn has been Limbaugh's regular fill-in, referring to himself as "The Last Rush Guest Host Before the [Canadian] Border," broadcasting from "Ice Station EIB."
When Steyn himself is unavailable, audiences are now often met by conservative Pennsylvania radio host Ken Matthews, who has hosted programs in both Harrisburg and Allentown for many years. Matthews has spoken about how guest-hosting Limbaugh’s show has given his career a second chance to thrive following his dismissal as a morning drive host in 2006.
"If you said … 'Hey, in 2018 you'll be filling in for Rush Limbaugh', I would've been like, ‘Yeah, whatever’," Matthews, who now hosts his own talk program, remarked in a 2019 interview.
In 2020, Limbaugh was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Trump during his State of the Union address. Television cameras showed a surprised and emotional Limbaugh in the House gallery as he rose to be awarded the medal by first lady Melania Trump as Limbaugh's wife, Kathryn, looked on.
"Here tonight is a special man, someone beloved by millions of Americans," the president said from the dais. "He is the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet."