The attached profile of media star Howard Stern will tell you a lot that you might not have known about him, but it will also mislead you, if you’re not careful.
David Segal is shocked (and a little disappointed) to discover that Stern is a thoughtful man, but those who have followed Stern’s career for a long time have always known that. The fellow who throws bologna at the oiled-up bottoms of bikini-clad strippers to see if it sticks is just a persona. The man behind that invented persona is someone entirely different.
Stern tried to tell us this himself in his 1993 book, Private Parts, and, to a lesser degree, he is also mostly honest in the movie of the same name from a few years later. If you had listened a few times carefully to his terrestrial radio show, however, you wouldn’t even need the book. You’d know. The weaker that day’s material or the weaker the guest, the more likely it was that Stern would go off on his “incompetent” staff (a very competent bunch, indeed) or take over the show himself and say or do something outrageous. In this respect, he is like the actor William Shatner, who, when the script was good, would rein in his natural broad style, but when the script was bad would let it all hang out because he felt that it was his responsibility to make the show watchable.
When the guest was good, however (a Max Baer, Jr., or a Corbin Bernsen, or a Milton Berle), Stern had the great sense to get out of the way and let the guest carry the show. I must tell you that the funniest four hours I’ve ever spent in front of the radio were those listening to Milton Berle–an absolute master of timing–tell joke after joke to Howard and Robin Quivers. All who listened that day had to be in tears, we were laughing so hard. Some of that particular broadcast from the 1990s made it on to the videoed portion of Stern’s TV show for the E network, I believe; all I remember was the radio broadcast. Stern went overtime that day, as he often did when the guest was a good one, a practice that drove his affiliates crazy because it messed up their programming schedules. But the one thing Stern was careful never to do on the air was piss off the advertisers on his show. He was always mindful of getting those breaks in, even when he was behind schedule; and when he did so, he would always stop his cackling laugh and let his natural baritone (a great voice for radio) drop into its proper low register.
Stern always prided himself during his combo radio-TV days that nobody had ever done a radio show that was also in part a television show, but his claim was not quite true. Ask an old person who Arthur Godfrey was, and you’ll find out that Godfrey was also a radio star from the 1950s whose radio show was broadcast on TV for a time. It was very popular. Like Stern, Godfrey did comedy and had comedic guests. Also like Stern, Godfrey had a darker side. He fired singer Julius LaRosa from the show while the show was on the air, and dozens more behind the scenes–this, after having carefully cultivated a jovial public face that he held in place for years. (The 1957 movie that rips the mask off Godfrey and Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow is A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith as a country bumpkin made into a radio-TV star–an absolute must-see, if you’ve not seen it.)
The difference between them is that Stern has always been more honest and far less hypocritical. He genuinely loved his longtime first wife, Alison Berns. She was seldom seen, but she was always on his mind. In his conversations with Robin or Gary Dell’Abate, or when she would call in, she became part of his radio show in the way that Columbo’s wife was always part of the old Peter Falk detective series on NBC. She got tired, though, of being the butt of so many of Stern’s jokes–as almost anybody in her position would have. She also got tired of Stern devoting so much of his time to the show. Despite the fact that she was supportive of his career, she had always hoped that Stern would one day leave the radio gig and become solely her husband. Money was never the issue. People forget that Stern was well-compensated on terrestrial radio, too. The issue was always how long Stern was going to continue his career, and why he was going to continue it.
From Stern’s point of view, however, the move to Sirius-XM was simply too good to pass up. The money he was offered was, and remains, astounding; and he doesn’t have to battle the FCC every day. He can do the interviews that Segal complains about, the interviews he had started to do in the 1990s on The Howard Stern Interview on the E network, a short-lived spin-off of his TV show. Some of those interviews were fluffy, but even then, Stern often tried to ask the penetrating, personal question that lets viewers or listeners see and hear who someone is. What Alison never quite understood–not fully, anyway–is that the radio show and the TV shows made Stern. That work enabled the Long Island lives that the two of them had together, along with their children, whom they wisely kept out of the spotlight. It is as if Alison never registered her husband’s thought: This is what I do; this is what gives us the lives we have. Their divorce was painful, and Stern was reluctant to discuss it on the air. I’m certain that there was more going on than what I’ve sketched here–things that will remain forever private between them–but I’ve never felt sorry for Alison Stern. The choice to divorce was her choice, too, and she walked away with $20 million–a sizable sum to live upon, even in New York.
To have listened to Stern in his heyday was to have listened to an adolescent, a Ferris Bueller taking a day off, a Butthead talking, with a whole gallery of Beavises to assist him and laugh at his jokes. But the adult was always there, and not always below the surface, battling with moralists, critics, censors, and our government. That adult wanted the life he now has; he wanted to do the uncensored interview. (When was the last time O’Reilly did an interview in which he listened to his guest and didn’t try to control him?) And he wanted a wife (or at least a companion) who understood, through good and ill, what the life of a media star was. He found that wife, I think, in Beth Ostrosky.
Only Stern knows what lies ahead for him. In relation to money, his choices won’t matter. He’ll be well paid. In relation to his happiness, though, his sense of his own contribution to the media through which he’s made his living, his choices may matter a great deal. He’ll have to be the grown-up he’s always been, perhaps a dramatic actor in a movie or TV series. The answer to Segal’s testy question, “What the hell happened to Howard Stern?” is, “Nothing.” Stern’s the same guy he’s always been; a lot of his audience just hasn’t looked deep enough. Expecting him to stay the 6’5″ teenage dope forever (a character he never was) is as unrealistic as expecting Julia Stiles to remain twenty years old forever, perpetually playing the ingenue. Stern’s always known that a comedian can tell only so many fart jokes before he has to move on to different material or to a different life. And bologna on an ass? If you’ve ever wondered, it doesn’t stick.