Truth Serum, Teflon, Rubber, Glue – Reflections on “The Howard Stern Show” at 45

(Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/NBC)

Not so much an intentional choice as an evolutionary inevitability, the brand known as “Howard Stern” has itself become a trigger on par with the substance of what, even 45 years in, still seems like every tenth passing statement uttered by its namesake. Whatever your personal opinion of the man behind the microphone, it has long since calcified into fact. Never mind that’s not how facts work. In some people – Stern’s legend and ubiquity transcend any notion of a traditional audience of listeners – his mere mention inspires disgust and indignation; in others, fawning reverence and a species of loyalty practically unheard of in our option-saturated, attention-deprived modern world. The latter group may legitimately think he can do no wrong, the former the exact opposite. The truth splits a finer difference, and sets a high bar for complexity. Appropriate to our current hyper-partisan environment, all consumer opinions held thereof are non-negotiable, though I’ll bet that among the fifty most interesting things you might learn about Stern is the discovery, heightened to an unbearable degree during our recent, already contentious presidential election, that devotees of all political persuasions, of wildly varying backgrounds and temperaments, value and follow him, and still constantly attempt to curry his favor. It’s difficult to identify any comparable medium in which a single figure stands so far apart from his peers, or casts such an all-enveloping shadow. In terms of the outsized influence Stern wields, and the slavish adoration he inspires in a segment of the population the remainder can neither explain nor fathom, the closest analogue I can conjure is actually that of our outgoing, lame duck president. Bear with me.

Whether either man would welcome such a comparison – or display the patience for it – is debatable, and I have no real interest in belaboring the point, except, perhaps, as an attempt to help prove a larger one. Both men are ace provocateurs, of course, self-styled “master of the universe” types boasting gargantuan egos, mastodonic cultural footprints, and levels of self-obsession that would alarm any psychiatrist in the world. Each has arrived at and now navigates a season of substantial personal change striking a predictable public pose and with his legion of supporters in full-throated thrall. But soon enough the similarities run out of gas, beginning with a particularly crucial distinction: only one of them currently has the proper job for his skill set. There is, to me, nothing left about Donald Trump that is the least bit fundamentally interesting beyond the fact that someone so irresponsible and ridiculously unfit was, nevertheless, once president of the United States.* Four years of experiencing the Trump presidency in real time – the non-stop barrage of delusion and derision, corruption and scandal, whistle-blowing and horn blowing, “tell-all” commentary and hand-wringing analyses – has, for me at least, drained his myth of all potency, and now, seemingly, his spotlight dims before our eyes. My apologies if your mileage varies, but we as a country neck-deep in crisis are well rid of him. Meanwhile, Stern, who, incidentally, agrees with all that, is celebrating, in his own imitable yet untouchable style, the announcement of his third contract extension to serve as figurehead, talisman, and Grand Poobah of the Sirius XM satellite radio service. Whatever the specifics, and we may never truly know, it is already money well spent.

*Stern is no politician (either), yet he could plausibly run for president right now and maybe even win. (I think you’ll agree the political ground beneath our feet has shifted.) This isn’t intended to put ideas in his head, and I’m not saying anything he doesn’t already know. He once famously ran for the governorship of New York as a publicity stunt on an exclusive platform of fixing all potholes and only withdrew when it became clear he actually had an above average chance at victory.

Howard Stern is already on the record swearing that his next contract – five years’ worth of jam-packed three-day weeks – will also be his last. Before the ink on his new agreement was even dry, he was on the air half-joking with characteristic fatalist cheek that he was now working an approximately 500-show countdown to the fabulous and definitive end of his broadcasting career. We’ve heard that song before, albeit in a slightly different key. Howard – who devotes approximately 60% of each show to good-natured omnidirectional kvetching in the grand Yiddish curmudgeon’s tradition – has agonized to varying degrees over each of his previous renewals, if not necessarily the historic initial jump to satellite radio, and, of course, opened his thought process wide each time for extensive Monday morning quarterbacking after the fact.** That’s no surprise. Stern’s career has been built on a foundation of bottomless, unwavering, boundary-free transparency, both for him, his staff, his guests, and everyone else in his orbit. No topic is inherently out of bounds. Anything, no matter how boring or inane, can potentially be worth the show’s time. Anything the least bit saucy or salacious is handled like the sort of dynamite they want to explode. The more personal and potentially embarrassing, the better. All conceptions of personal privacy, or dignity, are summarily subjugated by its participants for the good of the show. That’s the cost of doing business. That’s the brand. Friend or foe, employee or intern, confidant or collateral damage, many and varied have been the unwitting souls sacrificed by Stern not on the altar of good taste but of radio gold.

**Stern once used the announcement of a prior renewal decision as the occasion to stage a massive staff-wide practical joke that reduced its target, one of his most gullible, sycophantic, and deserving minions (it was Sal) to hysterics, histrionics, and, I’ll admit it, hilarious tears. This year, he feigned to his rapt audience an earnest and humble stock-taking confessional speech to the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” before cutting to radio silence ala the infamous series finale of “The Sopranos”. Twice. Fooling listeners both times. Then wielding the background music like a threat every time the topic came up for the next two weeks. The joke itself eventually undermined even Stern’s ability to control it and he had to resort to a traditional but still highly memorable reveal.

I counted myself a fan of Howard Stern long before I qualified as a listener, spending college-era late nights beyond number thrilling to his videotaped exploits on the otherwise useless E! television network. Callers nowadays look even farther back, often seeking by way of introduction to prove their bona fides and differentiate themselves from the common rabble by name-dropping the DC101 or WNBC days – the modern show’s embryonic and rebellious teenaged phases respectively, both chronicled in the movie Private Parts. They, and we, wear those respective histories as badges of honor. Each successive stop on the show’s journey – from its aforementioned East Coast salad days to a decade ruling the rickety roost at New York’s K-Rock to its current fifteen-year (and counting) reign of comedic terror on Satellite – represents a new iteration, and a full step forward along the path to the product’s purest form. In all that time, it’s not the show that’s appreciably changed – the move to an unregulated pay platform effectively insulated THSS against any threat of external censorship, ensuring it’s as wacky, bizarre, biting, stimulating, and unapologetically vulgar now as it ever was – but its host. Howard’s core co-conspirators – literally irrepressible sidekick Robin Quivers, sound effects comedy savant Fred Norris, put-upon executive producer Gary Dell’Abate – are intact from the WNBC days, even as the supporting cast around them has congealed into a murderer’s row of applied eccentricity and comedic dysfunction. Callers, staffers, and all species of parasitic hangers-on clash over airtime and constantly try to one-up each other. At the center of the chaos is Stern, playing them all like a maestro.

The show itself has the feel of a three-ring circus, but instead of acrobats you get neuroses and idiosyncrasies (see Howard’s four-alarm germ-phobia, his endless fascination with writer Richard Christy’s*** lack of any personal care standards, or the latest shocking details of 71-year-old Ronnie “The Limo Driver” Mund’s still thriving sex life); instead of animals you get spectacular failures to deconstruct (see Dell’Abate’s abortive first pitch attempt at Citi Field****, or infamous “love tape”, in which he bore his soul to a long-ago ex to THSS‘ fiendish delight, or witness Quivers’ righteous fury at breaking the testing scale in the process of being judged the staff’s biggest narcissist); and instead of clowns…well, you still get clowns (see most any content provided by prank call engineer Sal Governale, such as his periodic attempts to correctly pronounce and/or spell certain words, defend psychics, interpret dreams, pass a middle school U.S. History quiz, the time he confessed to a past life as a pregnant sea turtle while under hypnosis, or the rambling “apology” for an on-air racist comment that made him look exponentially worse). And there’s more.***** Equal parts professional complainer, arguer, and button-pusher, ringmaster Stern presides over the chaos with the gravitas of a stereotypical Jewish mother times ten, leaving little doubt about the learned behavior/accumulated baggage from his life’s most significant and enduring relationship. If Transcendental Meditation cured Stern of OCD and decades of therapy helped teach him empathy, neither did much to address his overdeveloped sense of propriety, which remains the show’s most dependable source of tension, and, therefore, content.

***It sometimes seems musician turned fan turned “THSS” writer Christy can draw Stern’s ire by his mere existence, and then intensify it by treating his inevitable pointed diatribes and moralistic lectures like water off a duck’s back. Routinely ribbed for his “hillbilly” Kansan upbringing, the amiable prank call master is, in fact, living the dream, too thankful for his lot in life and unassailable status as one of the greatest drummers on Earth – he played on Death’s “Sound of Perseverance”, for f’s sake – to ever take a slight personally. As a fellow passionate and unironic lover of horror movies, underground metal, and craft beer – all of which drive Stern delightfully crazy – there is little doubt I’d be good friends with Christy IRL, though the show has made me occasionally question whether I could stand the smell.

****Everybody on “THSS” eats a modicum of crap on a regular basis. That’s just part of the gig. Nobody carries more shrapnel, however, than Gary Dell’Abate, who in his thirty-six years as producer has elevated taking abuse to an art form. As appalling as the visual of the lifelong Mets fan sailing his ceremonial first pitch high, to the right, and into the unsuspecting hands of an umpire yards away from the plate was, I still have nothing but sympathy. I took so many pictures of Citi Field upon my first visit last spring you’d think I was a religious pilgrim entering the Vatican. Ask me to take that field – hallowed ground to a fellow Met-head like me – in front of tens of thousands of drunken, potentially judgmental witnesses and there’s no guaranteeing I wouldn’t chuck my pitch into the visiting dugout.

*****An exhausting amount of “more”, honestly. Add in game shows, staff challenges, field reports from the far edges of fandom (Juggalos, Bronies, binge-drinking casually racist hot wing fanatics [unofficial name], enthusiasts of seemingly every possible sexual fetish or identity), outrageous original prank calls, and insightful, meticulously researched, far-ranging, long form interviews with the biggest names in music and movies (Paul McCartney, Elton John, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, and Eddie Vedder just in the last month) and you push into another realm of entertainment value altogether.

Stern has created a self-contained world here, and as the arbiter of all its truths really can be an exasperating jerk at times. Any interest he doesn’t share is inherently weird; anything he doesn’t understand is likely stupid to boot. The surest way for a staffer to get airtime – whether voluntary or not – is to operate in any way counter to Howard’s finely honed and, you’d think, by now self-evident personal standards. There is no perceivable daylight between “my favorite” and “the best”, and God help anyone who purposely contradicts him. To wit: the series of recent episodes where someone had the temerity to challenge Stern’s proclamation that the legendary John Bonham of Led Zeppelin was the greatest drummer in rock history almost made me abandon THSS in disgust when it grew into an increasingly personal extended hit piece on my own musical idol, the late Rush percussionist Neil Peart (though I did relish the moment in which compliments from Stern-appointed judge Lars Ulrich seemed to make him really sweat before the Metallica drummer admitted his own preference for Bonzo).****** How interesting then to see the ultra-opinionated Stern giving arguably undue time to the airing of all/opposing viewpoints during a 2020 election season that soon enough manifested itself into a self-contained mini-hellscape of belligerent certitude living within the greater show. I don’t trust loyal listeners who reflexively consider Stern perfect any more than I do obvious non-listeners who reflexively label him some figurative devil. Both viewpoints reflect lazy thinking. THSS may never be a guaranteed winner, but each episode verily bristles with that potential. And very often delivers. Stern makes sure of it.

******Since you didn’t ask but are somehow still reading – and since I’m a drummer and Stern isn’t – here are my off the cuff top ten rock drummers (no metal, or we’ll be here all day): 1) Neil Peart (Rush); 2) Stewart Copeland (The Police); 3) John Bonham (Led Zeppelin); 4) Ginger Baker (Cream); 5) Danny Carey (Tool); 6) Matt Cameron (Soundgarden); 7) Jimmy Chamberlin (Smashing Pumpkins); 8) Carter Beauford (Dave Matthews Band); 9) Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree); 10) Jean-Paul Gaster (Clutch). Only when you take into account the staggering talent on display in such a list, and start pondering who among the worthy to, let’s face it, arbitrarily rank higher or exclude, does it become clear how futile the exercise really is. Callers (and Robin) loved riling him up over the Bonham/Peart thing, of course, while as a fan of both drummers I eventually wanted to crawl in a hole and die. It’s obvious that for Howard it was more about being right and punishing a perceived slight. Live and let listen, I say.

It wasn’t until COVID-19 restrictions forced us both indoors – him to broadcast from his basement, me to listen from my couch – that I began to see Stern as more than a pure, if calculating, entertainer, to not only sense but share in the elusive connection that had brought Democrats and Republicans of the hardest core into voluntary, if still contentious, close contact at a time when all other indications were that they’d rather feast upon one another’s steaming entrails. Howard was with us all the way through the pandemic (I remember clearly thinking he was overreacting at the beginning, and being wrong) as a commentator and constant companion, wrestling with the same COVID uncertainties and feeling the same fears, complaining about duplicitous politicians, anti-maskers, and irresponsible mass gatherings in addition to (rather than instead of) awards acceptance speeches, the inanity of celebrating Halloween, and people who don’t understand the genius of ABC’s The Bachelor. I related when he worried aloud over how his aging parents were faring. I applauded his sincere attempts to combat and correct misinformation. He showed genuine concern for his homebound staff – yet another glaring difference in any itemized Trump comparison lies in his famous reticence to fire even the most egregiously unworthy employee – in and around the standard issue ribbing. The show, which had always reliably evolved and refined itself from one iteration to the next, met this latest challenge admirably, and didn’t miss a beat under quarantine. The laughter was ample, if at times necessarily a little dark, and for that reason among others, highly therapeutic.

As winter reared its ugly head and the end of Howard’s contract loomed, you could sense palpable unease amongst his battery of callers, who are usually my least favorite element of any show. Some fans are so stunned to be on the air that they stammer, gush, and even space out, all but stopping the proceedings cold. Others do everything they can to hijack the conversation with tangents and personal obsessions – sort of the auditory equivalent of a selfie photobomber – leaving Stern, who it must be said indulges them all to a fault, to expedite them as combination shepherd and sheriff. This time, under these circumstances, I understood more from whence they came. 2020 had already tried our souls; the legitimate fear was that THSS would be just one more thing taken from us. Stern’s renewal announcement, made during his last work week of the year, was greeted equally by sighs of relief and cries of joy.******* Howard thanked everyone – his inner circle, his staff, and his audience – for their part in making his decision, if not easy, then obvious. The secret of THSS is threefold: Howard Stern is a genius broadcaster, communicator, and entertainer; he presides not over a radio show but an entire ecosystem, with its own history, language, and far-reaching community: and both his crew and his fans care as much about making the end product great as he does. Episodes since the announcement have had the feel of a well-deserved victory lap. This new contract’s completion will mark Stern’s 50th year in radio, which is admittedly a nice, round number. Whether or not it also marks the end of his unparalleled road, five more years of wonderful possibility and controlled comedic madness – five more years of elevating the lowbrow and humanizing the highbrow – is well worth celebrating now.

*******”Mariann from Brooklyn”, the shrill-voiced, big-hearted superfan whose hysterical calls Fred often accompanies with the sound effect of a cawing crow, was given the honor of unveiling the surprise, and the ordeal, as she nervously fumbled open a child’s safe containing the fateful slip of paper before finally exploding into cacophonous ecstasy, was prime “THSS”. The catharsis in her voice was heard, and felt, and echoed, well beyond the confines of her living room.

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