Taking Howard Stern seriously
The man who makes his living talking louder than everyone is suddenly quiet. His eyes close behind trademark shades, his hand rubs against the table between interviewer and interviewee, his foot dangles aimlessly at the end of lanky, nattily clad legs. The most obnoxious man alive is suddenly, for a very brief moment, calm and contemplative.
"I don't know," he says, his familiar voice unfamiliarly soft. "I don't know why."
These are words Howard Stern doesn't utter very often. He, after all, knows everything, and he'll remind you of that for four hours every day--four hours of pissing on and pissing off, four hours of taunting the government, four hours of roasting sacred cows and feeding the charred flesh to his ravenous audience. He knows how to make millions and still come off as the Everyschmuck, the lonely suburbanite still dying to become part of an entertainment community that views him as the vulgar outsider. He knows how to befriend mayors and governors and Donald Trump...and Crackhead Bob.
But as he sits in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Stern struggles to explain why he's still on the radio after almost two decades. The man, looking uncharacteristically dapper in a black suit, a black-and-white checked shirt, and two-tone spats, can't find the answer in his hip pocket this afternoon.
"I'm tired of getting up at four in the morning," he says, looking almost as exhausted as he says he is. "I've got to admit that. I do have a passion for radio still. That's why I signed another contract. I've got four years left on a five-year deal that took me a year to figure out. I've got four years left on that, and I'm still frustrated that I'm not in every city in the country. It disturbs me that guys get credit for shit that I've done."
Perhaps, then, it's about the money. After all, Stern's annual worth is estimated in the low to middle eight figures: He's currently heard in 35 markets around the country, each of which pays him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the right to air his show. His two books, 1993's Private Parts and 1995's Miss America, were bestsellers for months; he sold his first book to Paramount Pictures for more than $1 million. His New Year's Eve pay-per-view special grossed about $16 million at the beginning of 1994.
And now, it's likely that his first real foray into the world of Hollywood, the autobiographical film Private Parts, will become a blockbuster--even if it doesn't transcend the cult.
But Stern shakes his head, dismissing the money as only the rich can. "I really don't have an answer for you," he says again, sounding even more sincere, even more tentative. "I don't think it's the economics of it that drive me anymore. I always thought that was the reason, but I knew deep down in my mind that it wasn't. I got into radio at $96 a week, and when I got $150 a week, I said, 'This is fine. I know I can live.' It just didn't matter to me as long as I was on the radio.
"There's some need that is fulfilled in all of this. There's some sort of verbal drive or wanting to..." He stops himself again. "I always thought it was about proving to my father I wasn't an idiot. But I think I've done that. So why am I still doing it? I don't know. I just like it. Maybe that's it. Maybe I love doin' it. I really can't say for sure."
In the end, the question is not "Who is Howard Stern?" but "Why is Howard Stern?" The first question is too pat, almost too easy to answer: Howard Stern is both self-hating demagogue and caring father, husband, and son; he's the brilliant loudmouth millions hear on the radio every morning and the very private figure who hides in his basement once the "On the Air" light is dimmed. He's all these men at the same time--just like any actor once he puts down the script.
"What's he like?" That's the oft-posed question, even among people who listen to his radio show. "No, what's he really like?" Just as you'd expect, if you're at all paying attention--funny, thoughtful, honest, guarded, self-deprecating, arrogant, terrified. He's a 43-year-old Jewish boy from Long Island, New York, who became a media myth by talking about his dick and by figuring out how to say racist things without being a racist himself. He's miserable all the time, growing more pathetic the richer and more famous he becomes. He's scared of failing, more fearful of succeeding. He's a mama's boy who sends his daughters (ages 13, 10, and 4) to Hebrew school, and just like any sexually frustrated middle-aged man who has been married for 20 years to the same woman, he goes to topless bars to blow off a little steam.
Howard Stern is you. Howard Stern is your friend. And you don't know Howard Stern at all.
On the eve of the release of his first movie, Howard Stern is still not taken seriously--not as the man who wrested morning radio from the clammy hands of blithering Zookeepers, not as the savvy broadcasting businessman who proved a morning show could be nationally syndicated and profitable by the millions, not as a best-selling author, and sure as hell not as a movie star whose autobiography could well make Paramount Pictures a lot of money.
The self-proclaimed King of All Media (which might not be such an arrogant claim anymore) is still regarded as a goof, the accidental celebrity who panders to the lowest common denominator and makes one hell of a living by saying "penis" for four hours a day. He's written off as a juvenile, racist, sexist, monomaniacal son of a bitch who likes to jerk off and dreams of cheating on his old lady--especially by those who have never listened to the show. And so Stern is not defended by journalists or his fellow broadcasters when the Federal Communications Commission levies millions of dollars of fines against him and his bosses at Infinity Broadcasting; he is left instead to fend for himself.
And then there was the time when Stern was at Washington, D.C.-based radio station DC-101 in the early 1980s and the station withheld pay from him because he was going to New York's then-prestigious WNBC. Even though Stern was supposed to stay on and finish out his "ironclad" (Stern's word) contract, DC-101 had found Stern's replacement and forced Howard off the air prematurely. When Stern took his grievance to the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors union, he was told the union might consider his case. It didn't.
And then not long after he went to WNBC--and went to number one in New York--he was fired. Take that, funny boy.
The most recent issue of Los Angeles magazine features Stern on its cover painted as an Academy Award--a vision of gold and hair. The cover also trumpets a story inside written by Stern himself, "The End of Hollywood as You Know It." But Stern did not write the piece; indeed, he had no idea the magazine was going to run an article with his byline, and he's outraged. The magazine says the idea was approved by Stern's publicist, but Stern says he found out about the story when he was in L.A. two weeks ago and saw an advance copy of the magazine. What apparently happened was that Stern gave an interview to one of the magazine's writers, who then turned around and wrote a piece using some of Stern's own words while writing the rest as though he were Howard. But anyone could tell Stern didn't write the article: Unlike Private Parts or Miss America, there's not a single funny line in it.
If Stern had been Jack Nicholson or Kevin Costner or Madonna or some other celebrity primed for a wet ass-kiss, this would never have happened. But for some reason--perhaps because he forces the audience to sniff his dirty laundry every morning, making him somehow more like Us and less like Them--journalists still feel they can mess with Howie. Why not? He's a phenomenon, a mistake slipped through the back door while no one was watching.
"This is just fucking outrageous," Stern says of the Los Angeles piece. "They would never do that to anybody else, but people feel like they can get away with that shit, that I'm up for anything. It goes down to even when I'm doing these photo shoots now. They'll call up and go, 'Hey, you wanna take your hair and put it in a braid and then you'll be hanging from the ceiling?' It's the goofiest fuckin' shit. They wouldn't suggest it to anybody.
"They have this perception of me that I'm just a fucking freak. And yes, to some extent that should be there. I'm pretty insane on the air, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure I'm not insane off the air--I'm just pretty good at disguising it. I guess because of the nature of what I do, people think that they can take liberties and know what I want, when in fact they don't know what I want or who I am."
Most telling is that one critic dismissed Stern as a "hype" after a New York press screening of Private Parts--and this guy liked the movie. It's typical: Stern's still repudiated when he isn't being ignored. Typical of the reaction to Stern was the first line of a National Review book review of Private Parts when it was released in 1993: "The secret of Howard Stern's success is that he does not deserve it."
Stern smiles--and stiffens--when he hears that line read back to him. "There's something interesting there," he says. "Maybe this is why there's a lot of hostility from a lot of my critics: He doesn't deserve to be famous. For some reason, they just have this feeling I don't deserve it. I mean, I certainly feel that way about myself, but why should they feel that way?"
Those who would dismiss the show as toilet talk and racist humor miss the point. If it's about stereotypes, it's also about poking fun at those who created them; it's about sex, but it's also about a guy who rarely has any. Stern's the brilliant idiot of talk radio--the smartest 15-year-old in the world, as one pop-culture critic refers to him. Unlike most call-in shows, this one's all about the host and his "wack pack," the friends and freaks he stuffs into the studio every morning from 6 to 10 a.m.--the celebrities (William Shatner once went willingly into the Homo Room), the deviants (one regular guest is a porn star who set the world's gang-bang record--and Stern still has to ask whether she'd sleep with him?), and the defective hangers-on with speech impediments who are there to amuse the host.
Stern is a superstar not because he panders to the lowest common denominator--indeed, various Arbitron ratings studies have shown that his demographics skew toward older, upper-middle-class audiences with incomes exceeding $70,000 and homes worth $300,000. He is a phenomenon because he comes off as an average guy sitting in your bedroom, your car, your office each morning. He's a paroxysm of frustration for those who listen to the show only on the surface, a shrewd commentator for those who dig beneath that surface, the last angry comic for those who'd lump him in with Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. He hates everybody, mostly himself.
"Srew it. If this doesn't work, I'll just stay on the radio."MSuch were the words Howard Stern uttered from the set of his never-broadcast 1987 Fox TV talk show pilot. It was Stern's first foray into television, and it was so uncharacteristically awkward, stilted, and unfunny, it's painful to watch even now. It was the first--and last--time Stern died outside of the radio studio.
Private Parts is not Howard Stern's first big-screen appearance. Indeed, he had a bit part in a 1984 film called Ryder, P.I., a no-budget detective spoof in which Stern played a wacky newscaster. The movie, of course, gets no mention in his book Private Parts or his Paramount bio--though some footage of Stern's goofy performance has turned up, on occasion, on the Paramount-owned Hard Copy.
Stern almost made his feature debut four years ago with The Adventures of Fartman, based on the flatulence-propelled superhero he created for the radio and who, later, made a much-ballyhooed appearance on the MTV Music Video Awards show--much to the chagrin of a viewing audience ill-prepared for the sight of Stern's milk-white, flabby ass. (Appropriately enough, the film Private Parts begins with a re-creation of this rather auspicious occasion in Stern's life.) But Stern and New Line Cinema, which was prepared to make Fartman, couldn't agree on licensing rights--they figured, with all seriousness, that Fartman dolls would fly off shelves--so Stern walked.
Then in stepped Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters, Twins, Stripes, and myriad other well-received and ultra-profitable comedies. Reitman is a long-time Stern fan and perhaps the only Hollywood player not immediately repulsed by him. The director says he told Stern as far back as 1991 he should make a film about his life; Reitman might even direct, he suggested, giving Stern the sort of instant legitimacy he could never receive belching into that microphone every morning.
"I thought he was an original voice," Reitman says. "I pitched him. I said, 'I think it should be a biographical film, I think you should star as yourself, I think it should be almost documentary in feel.' It just took a while for that to happen."
Indeed, as Reitman went off to make Dave, the presidential comedy with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, Stern turned away from filmmaking and began writing (with Larry "Ratso" Sloman) his first book. Stern actually tried to get Reitman to direct or produce The Adventures of Fartman, but the director passed. "I told him, 'It's a great Fartman movie, but that's what it is.'" He advised Stern to stay away from it; to become Fartman, to don the silly outfit and fart his way across the big screen, would have meant giving up being Howard Stern. The transformation into a joke would be complete.
Reitman considered buying Private Parts when no other studio wanted to touch it. Stern's 1994 New Year's Eve special nearly ruined his bankability in Hollywood: Crass, boorish, and surprisingly juvenile for a man who had learned to turn the outlandish and trenchant into high low-brow art, it was a chance for Stern to have the four-lettered fun he couldn't on the radio, when the FCC was monitoring his every syllable. Unlike his short-lived 1992 television show for New York's WOR, which was syndicated nationally late Saturday nights (where it beat Saturday Night Live in the ratings in some markets, including New York), the special was more shit than wit. Of course, it made millions of dollars--at the time the highest-rated pay-per-view special ever.
"There was a fear I would be somewhat ostracized, thought of strangely" for working with Stern after the New Year's special, Reitman says. "Having just made Dave and Twins and Ghostbusters--these sort of grand traditional Hollywood films--what the hell was I doing working with this outcast? On the special, he just went for the edgy side of himself. It was just about breaking rules as opposed to entertainment. It didn't have the intelligence his daily show has, which is what I wanted to present in a film."
After the publication of Private Parts, Stern entered into a deal with Rysher Entertainment, Inc., to make a film version of his autobiography; at one point, John Avildsen had been signed on to direct, perhaps because Stern liked the idea of Rocky's director bringing his own underdog story to the screen. But Avildsen eventually backed off the project, perhaps because Stern kept rejecting script after script.
From the get-go, Hollywood envisioned Stern's film as a big-screen version of his radio show; it would be bigger, bawdier, wilder--the radio show on a movie's budget. One early script opened with once-regular guest and friend Richard Simmons baby-sitting Stern's kids and running around Stern's Long Island estate in a tutu.
Eventually, Reitman got involved and brought in long-time collaborator Len Blum, who penned Meatballs and Stripes, to write the script; he also brought in The Brady Bunch Movie and The Late Shift director Betty Thomas, the former Hill Street Blues star who proved she had a deft, irreverent touch with pop-culture icons from Greg Brady to David Letterman. Stern would fit right in.
In the end, Private Parts is less about the famous Howard Stern and more about a gawky young man who stumbled through several radio jobs until he found his voice--or, more accurately, his roar. He's portrayed as a nerd who becomes enamored of radio at a young age, a fumbler who can't get laid because of his awkward height and goofy looks, a clumsy DJ who can't even keep the needle on the record. It's a love story, boy meets Marconi--and gets the girl to boot.
Private Parts is Stern's valentine to his wife, Alison--and to himself; it functions almost as a propaganda film, his way of proving to the world that he's more than just a walking dick joke. The man who once wished AIDS upon his competitors in L.A., and who once begged for long-time rival Don Imus to get cancer and die a horrible death, now wants to be liked. He's downright thrilled that the film has tested well, that critics have received it warmly during junket interviews.
Meet the new Howard Stern, mensch.
"Well, I am your friend, though," Stern says. "In fact, someone said to me the other day, 'When I met you, I felt like I knew more about you than I do even my own family.' It's true. I am being genuine when I'm on the air, I am telling the truth and letting down my guard for a purpose. I never saw myself as a celebrity, and I'm still not a celebrity in my mind. I look at it like I'm a guy who's just gonna tell you everything that's in my head and stop worrying about image. My image is I'll do that; so if I don't do that, I no longer have a career.
"I can't imagine that someone wouldn't feel like they didn't know me. You do know me. You know my every thought. In some ways, you know me better than my wife, because I go home and I lie to my wife sometimes. I talk about my masturbation with you on the air, but when I go home and my wife asks me, 'Do you masturbate?' I go, 'No.' I know I'm play-acting in my real life. I know I'm being honest on the radio."
And therein lies the true appeal of the radio program: It's not about the silicone peaks and tawdry valleys. It's about the way Stern has somehow turned his little show into a clubhouse where he and his pals bitch about their wives, whine about their sexual problems, and reveal the most intimate parts of their lives without hesitation.
His long-time cohost, "newswoman" Robin Quivers, has yet to live down the revelation, included in her own best-selling book Quivers: A Life, that her father molested her with "ham hands." Sound-effects wizard Fred Norris' failing relationship with his wife, Allison Furman, whom he met during a Dial-a-Date segment, has become almost weekly fodder. Listeners know how well producer Gary Dell'Abate and his wife, Mary, are doing as they raise their first son, Jackson. And head writer Jackie Martling suffers endless ribbing about the show-biz aspirations of his wife, Nancy, who sells her albums through Martling's own 1-900 line and Internet page.
The Howard Stern show is, for lack of a better description, an unexpurgated soap opera with Stern as the catalyst, his colleagues as his supporting cast. "You know as much about us as you probably know about your friends," says Martling, who began as a once-a-week contributor to Stern's WNBC show. "And I'm not sure Howard thought that would even happen at the beginning."
"Howard always wanted to have reality on the radio," adds Norris, who met Stern back when Norris was a college student in the late '70s working at a Hartford, Connecticut, radio station where Stern was a bumbling DJ-in-training. "And Howard finds conflict very interesting."
Stern may well goad women to take off their clothes every morning, checking to see if their breasts are real or implanted, but he and his cronies are the ones who are truly exposed--naked, if you will--every single second of every day. But therein lies the great contradiction: You know only what Stern wants you to know. He keeps his most private parts to himself.
"People come up to me all the time and go, 'I'm just like you,'" Stern says. "In fact, when I was talking to directors--this was before Ivan got involved with Betty, when I was in earlier incarnations of the script--I would meet with directors, and a guy would come up to me and go, 'I'm just like you.' These guys were not like me, and I get that all the time. You're selective because you still have to entertain, [but] you still have to have your private life."
Howard Stern remains good friends with David Letterman, the first man to expose Stern to an audience outside New York. When Stern was working at WNBC in the mid-'80s, he regularly showed up on Late Night. He was a wacked-out bar mitzvah boy, Jewfro and all, in Hell's Angels garb, and Letterman seemed endlessly amused by Stern's bad-boy rants.
They would often speak on the phone about, among other things, their disdain for NBC and their affection for broadcasting. Letterman and Stern had found a way to transcend the cliches and revitalize their respective mediums; they breathed new life into moribund formats, brought in audiences who would have never thought about watching TV talk shows and tuning in to morning talk radio.
Letterman had his Stupid Pet Tricks; Stern, Lesbian Dial-a-Date. Letterman had Larry "Bud" Melman; Stern, Stuttering John and Fred the Elephant Boy. Stern introduced Letterman to the joys of ridiculing Richard Simmons, and in return, Letterman helped make Stern a national star. But where Letterman aspired to make great television, to become part of his medium's rich heritage, at first Stern just wanted to fart on the radio.
Now he's not so sure he hasn't become part of the very institution he claims to despise so much--radio, which he often refers to as a couple of steps below circus clown on the entertainment food chain. He is enamored of the medium's possibilities, hateful toward those in it.
"At some point, it's just, 'Gee, I just want to be able to make a living and be in radio, and I don't want to lose my job,'" Stern says. "I've talked to Letterman recently about this topic. Here he is about to turn 50 still doin' it, and there's something driving him as well. He's miserable doing it, and yet he's driven to do it. I don't think anybody [starts out looking] at it like you're part of a legacy or this or that, but I guess I do want to prove something. Who knows? I truly don't have an answer why I still do it. I just need to do it. I don't want to walk away from it.
"Maybe it's because [you] work so long and you get the shit beaten out of you for so long. Like [when I was] at NBC, you assume they know what you're doing, but they don't, and they undermine you and try to get you to lose your job and ruin your career. The people you're working for are trying to ruin your career!" As Stern's voice rises, so does he--almost out of his chair.
"It's frightening. So maybe now, when you've got some control and power, you go, 'Wow, I finally got here. I don't want to give this up--not yet.' I'm just coming into my own, really, when you think about it. Now I'm in a different situation. I can...Well, am I really? I got the government on my ass...it's always something."
Maybe the reason Howard Stern doesn't trust success is that each time he accrues a little, he can't quite wallow in it. Something always stands in his way.
Indeed, when Stern went to Los Angeles in 1991, one of L.A. radio's top talk men, Tom Leykis, predicted the show would die. "People in Los Angeles do not like insult humor, for one thing," he told the L.A. Times. "And for another, folks here don't really like New York or New Yorkers." Variations on Leykis' comments could be heard when Stern debuted in Dallas the following year: That obnoxious New York Jew won't last a year in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
And yet, by late 1992, Stern was number one in L.A., marking the first time a radio jock was at the top of the ratings charts in both of the nation's biggest cities at the same time. He went to number one in Dallas two years later, and he tops most of the 35 markets he's currently in.
But just three weeks after Stern hit number one in L.A., the FCC hit him with a $105,000 fine. It was one of many he'd get--not the first, not the last, not even the biggest. In December 1992, Stern--through his stations in New York, Philadelphia, and Manassas, Virginia (Washington, D.C.)--was fined a total of $600,000, which was then a record for the largest fine ever imposed. But Stern knew the FCC was sending a message, and he says now it was the first time he really knew that he and the government were in it for the long haul.
"They timed it just so because I was getting real heat when I went to number one in Los Angeles," Stern says. "They were gonna teach me a lesson, and they won. They did. They just keep coming."
On September 1, 1995, the FCC announced that it had settled the complaints against Stern: Infinity Broadcasting Corporation--which was sold to Westinghouse Electric Corporation in December 1996--had agreed to pay $1,715,000 to the U.S. Treasury to get the government off its back. In exchange, the FCC agreed to wipe the slate clean: Any subsequent fine against Stern would be dealt with as a first offense, which carried a significantly lighter fine. And, indeed, when Stern's Richmond (Virginia) affiliate, WBZU-FM, was slapped with a fine in October 1996 for broadcasting "obscene, indecent, or profane language," the amount was a mere $10,000.
When the settlement was reached with Infinity, FCC chairman Reed Hundt issued a statement proclaiming victory: "The settlement...represents the largest amount ever contributed to the U.S. Treasury by a broadcast station licensee."
Commissioner James Quello--a former newsman and a self-proclaimed regular listener who, four years ago, said Stern had "tamed" his act--issued a statement through the agency that hinted Infinity had acknowledged Stern's licentious actions by paying up. "I am...encouraged," Quello wrote, "that the ownership of Infinity itself has taken positive and concrete steps to more carefully train, supervise, and monitor its on-the-air personnel."
A month later, Stern was back in the FCC's bad graces with a broadcast about having sex with his wife. According to government transcripts, it was an exhaustive broadcast that included references to anal sex, vibrators, and lubricants ("the vibrator disappeared"), black music (or "Negro race music," as Stern calls it, "because to me, that's the music you have sex to...this music was so rhythmic a Mongoloid could feel the beat"), and oral sex. It's the sort of fodder that regularly fills four hours every single weekday, a peek behind the curtains at the Stern house.
"They're funny, aren't they?" Stern says of the FCC's transcripts of his show. "I mean, you read through them, and you just giggle. That was my perception with the book [Private Parts], that if you could somehow get it onto paper, it would look funny. It's harmless."
In reality, the monetary amounts of the fines are secondary to the larger issue of how the FCC uses the citations against Stern to refuse to grant Infinity Broadcasting licenses in other markets; documents obtained from the commission show that the FCC slowed Infinity from obtaining stations in Dallas and L.A., among other cities.
During a speech delivered March 17, 1994, before the Federal Communications Bar Association in Washington, Quello explained that if the FCC were to continue granting new licenses to Infinity, that might be "misinterpreted as the FCC endorsing Infinity and Howard Stern's actions, [and] I believe it is antithetical to the public interest to authorize additional stations for probable dissemination of gross indecency and possibly obscene broadcasts by Stern." However, not all Infinity stations broadcast Stern--and not all of Stern's affiliates are Infinity licensees.
Infinity tried, on several occasions, to take the FCC to court: The broadcasting corporation tried to goad the commission into proving Stern was legally obscene and indecent, which is supposed to be determined by a particular community's standards. But the FCC never called the bluff; instead, the government agency engaged in what Stern calls "blackmail," holding up Infinity's licenses until the company paid the exorbitant fines.
"They should have brought me to court," Stern says. "That would have been the honorable thing to do. If they think I am doing something indecent or obscene, take me to court, and I should be in jail if I'm broadcasting indecent material. They never did. Infinity begged them to go to court. We kept filing papers saying we will go to court, but what happened was they delayed all of that for years, and they blackmailed Infinity. They cost them millions and millions of dollars.
"I don't know why this doesn't disturb journalists. I don't read about this. The United States government can't use blackmail in one situation through a government agency to get you to do something in a whole other scenario. What they did was unthinkable. And where were my fellow broadcasters? Where the fuck were these people? Where were the journalists? They think, 'Oh, I'm not gonna go to bat for Howard Stern. If it was Dan Rather who was having a First Amendment situation, we would go to bat for him.' Well, Dan Rather isn't gonna have a First Amendment issue. Dan Rather's not gonna test the envelope of free speech."
Gary Dell'Abate is perhaps the best known of Stern's associates. The producer of Stern's radio show, the man who actually keeps the runaway train if not on the tracks then at least near them, the large-toothed Dell'Abate has become sort of the show's mascot--"Baba Booey" he is called, so named because he once mispronounced the name of cartoon character Baba Looey, and the name stuck. "Baba Booey" has become something of a mantra among the show's die-hards: Whenever Stern fans crank-call television programs such as Today, they almost always spout "Baba Booey" as code. He's also been fired by Stern a dozen times on the air--and yet Stern referred to him in the book Private Parts as "my main man."
Dell'Abate recalls the moment he realized Stern had transcended stardom and become a true celebrity. It occurred during the 1993 Private Parts book signing in Manhattan, when Stern closed down an entire Manhattan block. "I rode over with Howard to his very first book signing," Dell'Abate says. "And Howard had no idea. We got stuck on Fifth Avenue six blocks before the bookstore, and we're thinking there must be an accident up ahead. And when we got two blocks away and we saw the crowd, that's when it started to hit him that that's what was going on. As we got closer, as we got about a block away, everybody surrounded the limo and started pounding on the roof. It was like the Beatles! I got scared, because they were out of their minds. "All you could see was a sea of bodies, and I remember thinking, 'He's fuckin' big now, man. Wow!'"
But now there is no one around Stern save for his coterie of writers and the ever-present Robin Quivers. It is Valentine's Day, and Stern is sitting in the Manhattan studio of WXRK-FM talking to comedian Pat Cooper, a once-forgotten Italian comic from the 1960s whose career was resurrected when Stern began booking him as a guest several years ago. Cooper's the only guy who talks louder than Stern: Next to him, Howard's an ant in a hurricane, a mute observer who can only nod as the old Vegas comic rants and raves through the microphone.
The studio itself is much larger than it appears on the E! show: Dozens of lights hang from the ceiling, and there appear to be at least six cameras stationed at various angles. Posters from Private Parts and Miss America, framed in steel, hang from thick chains; Plexiglas sculptures of Stern and Dell'Abate stand on small columns between Stern's station and the glass booth that houses Quivers.
Contrary to the chaos overheard by radio audiences--the dissonance created by Norris' pistol-quick sound effects and Martling's whinny and Stern's own tenor--the studio seems almost calm this morning--surprisingly serene. Until Cooper opens his mouth. On the morning of this most romantic day, Cooper starts yapping about how a woman's vagina is more like a "Brillo pad," a "hairbrush" men bust their balls to get at for even a moment. Cooper growls that he doesn't need what other men crave: "I've got my right hand," he snarls.
Stern agrees--but of course. This is his gambit too, the lament of the tortured man who insists he wants to cheat on his wife but is too guilt-ridden to go through with it. That and, he whines, some "loud-mouthed broad" will rat him out to the tabloids, thus giving his wife half his hard-earned millions. Better he masturbate than do the deed with a stripper.
"He happens to be right," Stern says to his microphone. "He's like a sage. You get crazy and make crazy decisions. What do ya think O.J. killed over? Not a penis."
And then Stern rolls his eyes. He wiggles his eyebrows. He flashes a grin. It's the one that says, "What the hell did I just say?"
A moment such as this one occurs in the film Private Parts, when Stern goes on the air to talk about Alison's miscarriage. It has since become a classic Stern moment, one that took place during his tenure at DC-101 in 1982: Stern, speaking as "God," phones to blame Howard for Alison's miscarriage: "A real man would have done it right the first time," God tells Howard, who then shouts back, "I don't think this is funny!" But Howard does, dragging the bit out for two days even though it infuriated his wife and nearly destroyed his marriage.
Yet there's a moment in the film immediately after that bit when Stern looks genuinely sorry for what he has just said. The smile turns into a frown, the laugh gets swallowed. It's the look the radio audience cannot see, the moment when Stern realizes he has crossed that imaginary line separating the absurd from the inexcusable.
"That moment occurs throughout my day," Stern says later. "I often sit and go, 'Jeez, what did I just do? What are the consequences of what I just did?' And it's tough because I do not ever want to lose the premise that you have to just talk about whatever's on your mind. When I come into the house and get into an argument with Alison, it's happened to me a million times in my life. I know she's gonna give it to me. I'm like, 'Hey, honey, I'm home!' but I know I'm gonna get nailed.
"That's that open-ended issue in my marriage, but it was also important to show why we're friends. What goes through my mind when that happens is, 'Uh-oh, I'm fucked. I'm in for it. I'm gonna get yelled at.' And yet there's a tremendous satisfaction of having just revealed things to my audience [and that] I'm on a roll. And that roll is, like, unbelievable."
People have long tried to find the "real" Howard Stern, but in the end, there's really only one--the shock jock who surprises even himself, who traps himself in cages of his own creation and spends his off-time trying to extricate himself until the next jam. On the air, he turns on his friends, betrays his wife even by his own admission, wishes death on his enemies, and maybe even feels bad about it. For a second. But did he make you laugh?
"Another day in paradise," he says when this is all over, when 10 a.m. rolls around and the on-air light is dark for another weekend. Stern's whole body seems to groan, his every muscle and follicle exhausted.
"Shit," he says, stretching and yawning, looking ready to hide again. "I'm tired.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.