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Dan Savage On His Chicago-Style Bluntness And The Changing Nature Of Advice

By Ariel Cheung | June 14, 2017 8:25am | Updated on June 19, 2017 8:27am
 Dan Savage will host a live recording of his Savage Lovecast at Music Box Theatre on Thursday.
Dan Savage will host a live recording of his Savage Lovecast at Music Box Theatre on Thursday.
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LAKEVIEW — If you've ever been offended by Dan Savage's brusque persona, you have only Chicago to blame.

The longtime advice columnist and gay activist credited his Rogers Park upbringing with honing his "cut-through-the-bulls---, common sense" style of giving advice. 

Ahead of a live recording of his podcast set for Thursday at Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Savage took the opportunity to reflect on how Chicago continues to shape his writing after 25 years of his column, "Savage Love."

"I think all the best advice columnists are mouthy, Midwestern broads," Savage told DNAinfo, citing his own favorite advice givers, Chicago's Ann Landers and "Dear Abby,"  though he's also a fan of West Coast-based "Dear Prudence."

In fact, Savage said, there's a particular "laying-it-down" bluntness that comes specifically from being raised as an Irish Catholic in Chicago (the short-lived ABC sitcom, "The Real O'Neals" was inspired by Savage's childhood).

While he has been based in Seattle for decades, Savage said there's no place like home, and curses his bad timing in bringing his husband Terry Miller to Chicago for the first time in the winter.

"I would move to Chicago in a heartbeat if my husband would," he said. "But the first time he came to Chicago it was February and 20 below, and he was like, 'Never, never, never.' "

When Savage gets the chance to return to the Windy City, there's nothing he likes more than a bike ride along the lakefront ("Seattle is too hilly"), a bite at Shaw's Crab House ("my brother worked there when he was in college") or some good-natured razzing at The Wiener's Circle.

"When I was a young queer kid and first out, we used to go to The Weiner's Circle before it hardened into the camp and schtick it is now," Savage said. "There's nowhere on the West Coast to get a char polish, and nothing better on a summer's day than a char polish and a root beer on the picnic tables out front."

In print, Savage's Chicago-style bluntness is sometimes considered too irreverent or disrespectful, but that's not his goal, Savage said. In one case, he got flak for telling a woman with terminal cancer that she should persuade her boyfriend to propose with the argument that he'd get sympathy — and more women — as a widower.

"She laughed, but other people were offended on her behalf," Savage recalled. "But that's me, that's Irish Catholic right there. They get you laughing and then give you some advice."

In fact, he can be blunt to a fault. Savage has come under fire from not only conservative organizations, but also glitter-bombing critics who accuse him of biphobic and transphobic messages and language (including a controversial appearance at the University of Chicago in 2014).

Savage freely admits, in retrospect, that his opinions have evolved since his column for The Stranger began in the early 1990s, and that some of what he wrote back then was misinformed and in bad taste.

"I think we all know more about gender issues than we did 25 years ago, myself included," Savage said. "I'm an imperfect ally."

At the same time, he's not afraid to stand up for himself and his work.

"I was doing something 20 years ago that no one was doing," Savage said. "When there were questions about trans issues, I got trans people to answer the question. I used the language that everybody uses when talking about sex with their friends, but I did it in print, in a newspaper."

While Savage began giving sex advice in the Seattle alternative weekly, millions have watched his career explode over 25 years to include national syndication, his weekly podcast, four books, founding of the It Gets Better Project and the HUMP! pornography film festival.

Adapting his work to a world where an abundance of information on sex toys and swingers clubs can be found with ease online — there was no Google back in 1992 — means the nature of his advice has become much more complex, Savage said.

"Questions I get now are situational, complicated and messy," he said. "I never get a week off where I can just relax and explain what a butt plug is; I'm always on this high wire giving high-stakes advice to people where the answer isn't obvious."

Live recordings of the Savage Lovecast like Thursday's at the Music Box add an element of surprise, which Savage said he enjoys.

"I get the questions right then and there, and sometimes I don't know the answer," said Savage, who added that he will sometimes call an expert on the spot in such situations. "I can be stumped — that's what fun about a live show."

Despite the challenges, Savage said there's nothing he'd rather do. While other advice columnists like Emily Yoffe of Dear Prudence run out of steam in a couple of years, "my advice column will be pried from my cold, dead hands," Savage insisted.

Tickets are still available for the Thursday event with Savage and Chicago comedian Kristen Toomey and cost $39 online