I’m about to show that I know way too much about Howard Stern. What can I say? I’m a fan. Stern is the greatest humorist whoever lived. I’d like to say that he’s the funniest person but I think lesser humorists are funnier people. For instance, anything that Jack Benny or Rodney Dangerfield does breaks me up. If I saw Benny buying toothpaste, I’d laugh out loud. They have personas that make me laugh, even though they haven’t produced the volume of humor that Stern has.
Stern has at least half a dozen different personas. I can think of six of his roles offhand: bombastic, pro-wrestlerlike braggart, annoying little brother at his big sister’s slumber party, sycophant, lecher, victim of wife, family, or in-laws, backstabber. Stern is the greatest humorist because he produces 4 to 6 hours of humor 5 days a week. Of course, not all this material is funny; but so much of it is funny to so many people that all other comedians pale in comparison to him. If you knew what to look for, you could edit 10 hours out of Stern that the biggest Stern hater would find hilarious. Compare that to Rosanne Barr. She turned 10 very funny minutes into years of stardom.
Stern is best known for sexually explicit comedy and politically incorrect sentiments. Libertines and social reactionaries think they find an ally in Stern; but his humor is not so simple. At its best, his sexual material is actually “domestic satire.” Likewise, his politically incorrect routines attack racism and other prejudices as often as they attack sanctimonious hypocrisy.
Howard Stern is a deceptive performer. His comedy is never simple. Perhaps the greatest misconception about him is that “he says what we all think but are afraid to say.” More accurately, he says what a lot of people feel but are too inarticulate to express. Another mistake about Stern is that “he says what he thinks,” as though he shows up at the studio and just speaks his mind. Stern is the world’s greatest humorist because he is one the world’s hardest working performers. He gives a great impression of spontaneity that you can see through only after years of listening.
Lately, Stern’s show has suffered from a lack of work or perhaps the exhaustion of his prodigious imagination. Ever since his movie, he has turned into a mediocre Stern impersonator. Even though his movie was successful and helped propel his radio show into new markets, it was not very funny. “Private Parts” was a mediocre effort, a sort of reverent autobiography. Occasionally, he shows flashes of humor; but, in general, he merely repackages old material. Perhaps, I’ve listened to him too much. No comedian can produce enough material to fill up so much time. But he kept me laughing for 5 years and now I turn the dial to his station only occasionally to see if anything is going on. It hardly ever is.
Supposed “Bad Boy of Radio,” Stern expresses a few libertarian ideas. He favors decriminalizing drug use and consensual sexual behavior. He acknowledges the wastefulness and uselessness of most government programs. These are his intellectual positions. His heart is elsewhere. He states these ideas as a matter of form; but he becomes excited and exuberant in putting forward his pro-government feelings. Stern displays adamant and unconditional love for the police. Whatever the issue, Stern is squarely and emotionally on the side of law and order. His defense of the police in the Rodney King beating must have infuriated many of his listeners but that never dampened his ardor. The King case involved some technical details concerning police procedure that Stern never discussed; he simply opined that such a beating was justified and correct.
What I find most disturbing about him is his true admiration for politicians. Even though he has criticized Imus, a New York competitor, for airing local traffic reports on his show, Stern seems to think that the country is as impressed by local politicians as he is. He brags of his relationships with New York Senator Damato and New Jersey governor Whittman.
Several years ago, Stern instructed his fans to take over the New York Libertarian Party and nominate him for governor. In this role, he provided his listeners with weeks of hilarious satire on the political process. It ended abruptly when he refused to divulge his finances in accordance with a state regulation. Nevertheless, he lovingly chronicles every detail of every second that he spends with any second rate politician who will deign to use his popularity. He pointed to his invitation to some inaugural ball as a high point in his life that would make his father proud of him. It’s actually pathetic. He seems to have no idea how much greater it is to make people laugh than to meddle in other people’s business. He’s like a man who enjoys the company of stewardesses because they smile at him.
Stern is rarely serious for long and there’s virtually nothing that he won’t make fun of. After the deaths of the men, women, and many children of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Stern turned to his callers for about an hour of Branch Davidian jokes. In this case, the chief humor was the stupidity of the jokes. It was pure Stern. Nothing is sacred. No matter how horrible the event, Stern uses it for humor. The Holocaust? A million laughs. Actually, the humor is often a sort of subtle self-satire on self-involvement and callousness. As far as I know, the only time that Stern actually turned serious for very long was after the Oklahoma City bombing. Apparently, he found nothing funny about this one event. I believe he even sent some money to the survivors. I’d like to think that Stern was only thinking of the FCC when he turned serious; but his deep pro-government feelings are too consistent.
His attitude toward Clinton is even stranger. Apparently, nothing that Clinton has ever done is wrong in Stern’s eyes. He makes the usual Clinton sex jokes but spends more time defending him. This attitude is particularly troubling since Clinton has not espoused any of Stern’s stated ideas on good governance. Perhaps his remarks on Clinton are part of a settlement with the FCC in which the company that broadcast Stern paid several million dollars. The trouble with this particular conspiracy theory is that Clinton’s FCC continues to harass him. Stern roundly condemned Bush for spending too much time at Camp David. When Clinton fled there on a weekly basis and gave up any attempt at governing, Stern never uttered a peep. Instead, Stern has become a part of Clinton’s woman hating machine that trashes anyone who says anything unflattering about the President. He mechanically repeats the latest White House handout as though such tedious argumentation were entertaining.
Regular listeners of Stern’s show know that his feelings toward his parents are complicated at best. It is tempting to play psychologist and see his relationship with the state as a mirror image of his parental relationships. Is bad boy Stern really good boy Howie crying out for attention from the powerful? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of money. Maybe he’s a person who knows when to be quiet. He makes a few pro forma jokes about the president, but never says anything too cutting. It’s just his style. Don Rickles had a style like that; no one really gets hurt. My problem is that I would like to see a number of people get really hurt. At the end of the day, we may see him playing golf with ex-president Clinton. Stern is on his way to becoming the Bob Hope of the 21st century.
“We’ve all had a good laugh, but seriously folks, this is a great country and a great president.”
I’m on the verge of taking Stern too seriously. This is the same mistake his ardent fans and critics make. Of course, he often contributes to this attitude; but on occasion, he pulls back and says that he’s only a comedian, don’t take him so seriously. Stern is a comedian. He’s a sort of Court Jester who knows just how far to go. I wish he were as funny as he used to be. I wish he weren't so tame. But he was once the greastest humorist whoever lived.