A few years ago, not many people had heard of Glenn Beck. Nowadays, the conservative commentator seems to be everywhere. Over the past two weeks, he's performed before sold-out crowds on his comedy tour. He's had several New York Times No. 1 best-selling books (a new book, "Glenn Beck's Common Sense," is due to hit stores next week); 8 million listeners tune in each week to his radio show; and now he's the host of his own television show on Fox News.
Watch John Stossel's interview with Glenn Beck on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
It's a wild show -- complete with dead fish, parodies of Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" documentary and other stunts, like one in which Beck pretended to pour gasoline on a guest to illustrate the onslaught of government growth.
Oddly enough, all these wild antics are paying off. Beck's audience has exploded. The show airs in the ratings desert known as the late afternoon, yet it now has a bigger audience than every prime time show on all the other cable networks.
How does he do it?
He works constantly, starting at dawn with a commute into Manhattan. He works the morning preparing for his radio and TV shows, and then he spends three hours live on the radio. After that, the work continues. He'll spend a few hours approving book covers, hosting Web chats with fans on his Web site and rewriting the script for his comedy tour. And then he has his hour-long television show.
With the third most-listened-to radio and television shows in the country, those best-sellers and his comedy tour, Beck, people might assume, is just a narcissist desperate for attention.
"Please like me! Please," he joked. "I'll dance! Give me the cymbals."
Beck began his career when he was just a teenager dreaming of becoming a Top 40 disc jockey. He won a contest and was given his first radio show when he was only 13 years old.
"It just shows how low the standards are in this country," he joked.
He kept at it and worked his way up the radio ladder, eventually reaching well-paid jobs at big radio stations. Yet his personal life spun out of control, with problems stemming from his teenage years, when his parents divorced and his mother committed suicide.
Glenn Beck: The Drinking Years
"[My mother] was an alcoholic and a drug addict," he said. "When I hit 30, I was going down that same path."
He believes the word "jerk" would be the kindest way to describe him at that stage.
"I fired a guy one time for bringing me the wrong kind of pen," he said remorsefully. "I was beyond a jerk.
"I hated myself. Hated myself," he admitted. "I tried for two years to stop drinking. I'd look myself in the mirror and I'd say, 'You're not an alcoholic, you don't have a problem.'"
Beck didn't admit he had a drinking problem until one morning when he was unable to remember a bedtime story he had drunkenly told his children the night before. And so, that evening, he attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
"I don't know what I expected, but you guys don't look like alcoholics," Beck recalled telling the attendees. "This lady, she must've been 70 years old. She was wearing a sweater set and pearls. She was sitting right in front of me, and she just leaned back and she said, 'Oh, honey, we're all drunks in here.'"
In typical Glenn Beck fashion, however, he didn't stop his reformation there. He became a Mormon.
"I apologize, but guys will understand this. My wife is hot and she wouldn't have sex with me until we got married, and she wouldn't marry me unless we had a religion," he said. "I'm like, ah, you've got to be kidding me! I've got to go to church for this?"
But now he says that going to church has given him the faith to ground himself, and so he's grateful to his wife. Glenn and Tania Beck have been married now for nearly 10 years, after first meeting in a parking lot.
"I was a loser at local radio and she came up to me and she said, 'Are you Glenn Beck?'" he recalled of their first meeting. "She said, 'I used to listen to you when I was in high school. Thanks for the laughs,' and then she turned around and walked away."
Beck has been called an "idiot" who engages in a lot of "crazy talk." Does it bother his wife when people have hateful things to say about her husband?
Glenn Beck: A Big Target
"If I let every single thing bother me, you know, I would have jumped off a bridge a long time ago," she said.
Beck has become a big target for comedians and commentators alike. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert often mocks him, and Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" once said of Beck, "Finally, a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking."
"You can get rich making fun of me. I know. I've made a lot of money making fun of me," Beck said.
Beck is also criticized for crying on television.
"Somebody get this blubbering buffoon a Kleenex!" said journalist Tina Brown on her March 31 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Others have accused Beck of faking the crying for entertainment purposes.
"I should be paid a lot more money if I were able to cry on will like that," he responded.
The criticism he receives from the media doesn't stop there. Al Franken wondered aloud on CNN whether Beck should be allowed on television. Keith Olbermann frequently names Beck the "Worst Person in the World."
Some even go as far as to charge that Beck's complaints about the government actually encourage violence.
"A man kills his own mother and nine others and turns out to have kept a hit list. And Glenn Beck is rationalizing it and blaming liberals for it," said Keith Olbermann on March 13.
But, does Beck actually encourage the anti-government violence of people like Timothy McVeigh?
"No. Timothy McVeigh was a coward," explained Beck. "Violence is the stupid way out. It'll discredit any real legitimate movement."
Beck added that most people who criticize him don't actually watch his show or listen to what he says.
Many in the media label Beck as a staunch Republican -- a label which he strongly disagrees with.
"Both parties only believe in the power of the party," he said. "Stand up. Throw off the shackles of the two-party system!"
He criticizes both parties for exercising more power than the Constitution intended and for abandoning what he considers to be common-sense ideas.
Glenn Beck: Freedom to...
"Look, the American experiment was about freedom," he explained. "Freedom. Freedom to be stupid. Freedom to fail. Freedom to succeed. Freedom to succeed.
"We just put General Motors in the hands of people who can't even run our own government," he added. "Our debt is -- just the interest -- a trillion dollars a year. You can't pay for that!"
Beck also compares himself to Howard Beale, the fictional anchorman from the 1976 film "Network" who famously exclaimed: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
"I am like Howard Beale," said Beck. "When he came out of the rain and he was like, none of this makes any sense. I am that guy."
And so Beck works constantly, on radio, TV and onstage, saying that a lot of life would be better if government -- Republicans and Democrats -- just left Americans alone.
"I believe that if we get out of people's way, the sky's the limit," he said. "The sky is the limit."