The lights are up, the cameras are rolling, and the King of All Media is…crying.
Howard Stern and his costar Mary McCormack are seated in an obstetrician’s office on the set of Private Parts, the new comedy that, in all likelihood, is going to make Stern a much bigger star than anyone imagined he could be. Stern plays himself; McCormack plays his wife, Alison. It’s a mournful scene: Alison has just suffered a miscarriage. As Howard hugs her in tender consolation, the camera zooms in on his face. He looks gentle, sad, kind. Could that be moisture around the eyes?
Between takes, Stern, 43, goes behind a curtain and engages in a secret ritual with his director, Betty Thomas, a tall, imposing woman with a dignified arched nose, auburn hair done up in a neo-Victorian bun, and a combat-ready green-mesh vest that says: I’m the general here. Stern, at 6’5”, is even taller, and as they whisper conspiratorially, like towering lovers, he places a hand on her shoulder. Is he getting advice? Encouragement? Finally I notice the touchstone of their ritual; she’s slipping a little something into his hands. Later Stern fesses up to the secret of his sensitive acting: onions.
”Yes, I was emoting!” he says gleefully. ”I said, ‘You know, I really just want to cry in this scene.’ So I stuck the onions in my eye, and the water started flowing. But I didn’t tell Mary I used onions. I said, ‘No offense, I know you trained a lot of years and stuff, but I can just turn it on like that!”’
The teary moment, by the way, is a setup for one of the most famously scandalous incidents in Stern’s famously scandalous career. As Private Parts dramatizes, Howard, days later, went on the radio and talked about Alison’s miscarriage. He joked about going into the bathroom, taking a Polaroid of it, and sending it to her parents so they’d have pictures of their grandchildren. This, of course, is the sort of thing that inspires many people to hate Howard Stern. It makes them think he’s a heartless jerk.
Private Parts, which opens nationwide on March 7, is going to surprise a lot of those people. ”When I was first approached to do the movie,” recalls Thomas, ”I said, ‘Come on, man.’ I thought Howard Stern was funny sometimes, and then he would get sexist, or weird, or repetitive, and I didn’t like it. But Private Parts makes clear Howard’s sense of humor — that he’s doing an act. There’s a brain behind there, choosing what to do next, and it’s a very smart, always-turned-on brain. I think a lot of people will be able to identify with this rebel, this little nerd guy, fighting the big bureaucratic world.”
Howard Stern — satirical Antichrist; scourge of the FCC; Lenny Bruce of the information age; man who made America safe for butt bongo, small penises, and Fartman; comic genius — may now be on the verge of winning that fight. Private Parts, a rudely hilarious adaptation of his best-selling 1993 autobiography, stays true to what Stern’s fans have always loved about him. The movie takes off on the Duality of Howard. We see the nice Jewish kid who grows up on suburban Long Island, stumbles through college looking like a graduate of the ”Weird Al” Yankovic School of Better Grooming, and faithfully sticks by Alison, his devoted wife of nearly 19 years. The heart of the movie, though, is the development of Stern’s radio career, an anarchic parallel universe in which the Nice Guy wreaks his vengeance upon the world. Blasting away at all comers, including, in the film’s inspired centerpiece, his bosses at New York’s WNBC Radio, he becomes the renegade triumphant, a kamikaze hipster who uses his words like weapons.
As the filming of Private Parts winds down, Stern, whose daily radio show airs on 35 stations nationwide, reaching an estimated audience of more than 10 million, couldn’t be happier. He’s endured a work schedule that would test Hercules. Five days a week, he rises at 4 a.m. and leaves his Long Island home to arrive at the studios of WXRK (K-Rock) in midtown Manhattan by 5:30 a.m. He does his drive-time radio show for four to five hours, gets taken to a soundstage in Queens, spends an hour or two getting into hair and makeup (there are more wigs in Private Parts than there are characters), and then shoots the movie from noon to 7 p.m., finishing up in time to make his 8 p.m. bedtime. Several of Stern’s cohorts play themselves in the movie, and all of them are feeling the pain. “At one point,” says Robin Quivers, his rambunctiously brassy on-air partner and sidekick, “we were saying that this was going to be like Il Postino. You know, everyone who worked on the radio show would die by the time the film came out, and it would be a long list of ‘This movie is in memory of…’ But I think Howard is really, really happy when he’s in front of a microphone or a camera. Even when he claims to be miserable.”
Claiming misery is one of Howard Stern’s favorite pastimes. It’s part of his self-deprecating, I-may-think-you’re-a-schmuck- but-then-so-am-I routine, and it’s oddly ingenuous and disarming. On the set, he has a warmth and graciousness that can’t be faked. Long curly hair pulled back into a ponytail, baby blue eyes peering out from behind wire spectacles, he seems to revel in being as polite and other directed off the air as he is reckless on. Look beneath his signature heavy metal mane (it says that Stern’s comedy isn’t just about “laughs”—it’s about laughter as a primal, rock & roll release), and his eyes are so angelic they could practically be a bar mitzvah boy’s. “Because he is so aware of how it feels to be a sensitive person,” says Quivers, “and to feel those slings and arrows, he can be the one who throws them.”
Of course, the nice-guy act is also a seduction. Everyone on the set understands that whatever they say or do may end up on the air. “When I first went to dinner at his house,” recalls Thomas, “I asked him to invite his parents. And the first thing his mother said to me was, ‘Be careful what you say, because he’ll say it on the air!’ And I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, his own parents are afraid.'”
Right now, Stern is throwing a few arrows. Standing outside one of the wired-for-sound radio booths constructed especially for the film, he meets a camera crew from one of the entertainment-news shows and instantly shifts into “on” mode, stopping traffic with his naughty-boy riffs. “Anna Nicole Smith was complaining about being tired,” he says. “Yeah, she’s tired, all right. Tired from vomiting in rest rooms.” Everyone is cracking up now, and Stern feeds on the attention. “Didn’t she marry a corpse? I think she’s married to the Crypt Keeper.” His eyes dance, his voice gets lower (“It sounds like it’s coming out of his crotch,” says one wag), and he speaks even faster than he does in normal conversation, the words flying out of his mouth like sparks.
Six months later, in the glowy, purplish sanctuary of K-Rock’s new digs, Stern offers more of the same from within his broadcast bunker. The studio walls feature several Stern posters mounted on chains. On one side, there’s a rack that holds his impossibly long winter overcoat (it looks like Ichabod Crane’s). In the corner, a Poland Spring dispenser bears a Post-it note that reads “Howard Only,” a perk for the admittedly germ-phobic Stern. Even here, goofing on the news of the day, Stern plays to whomever’s in his immediate presence—Quivers, seated in a glass booth 12 feet in front of him, and the observing journalist. (The show’s two other regulars, Fred Norris and Jackie “the Joke Man” Martling, sit behind him like stoic gremlins, providing gags, sound effects, and the occasional peanut-gallery shriek.)
The difference between listening to Stern on the radio and actually watching him perform is that he’s less threatening when you can see his naughty brat’s grin and adolescent eagerness to get a reaction out of you. The voice itself is pure rat-a-tat-tat hostility: It may be the only voice in media that can convey the raw, combative aggression of swear words even when he’s not using them. But the smile makes it clear that he is performing. He confers with his producer, Gary Dell’Abate, between almost every segment, instantly switching to cool managerial mode.
Earlier that day, in one of the on-air fights Stern makes a point of encouraging, Gary had had a spat with Howard’s testy hairdresser, Ralph Cirella. “He doesn’t want anybody acting mad,” says Dell’Abate. “He wants people being mad. He knows what buttons to push.” That he does. Over the years, Stern has pushed the buttons of so many celebrities (Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Madonna, Kathie Lee Gifford, Chevy Chase, etc.) that you sometimes wonder if there’ll be anyone left to come to his premiere. Of course, the shameless, almost maniacal bluntness of his honesty is exactly what his fans cherish. When Howard Stern talks, he invites you to share in the thrill of obliteration. He obliterates celebrities, taboos, his own niceness. “People have never seen me as Don Rickles,” he says, “because he did it with ‘love in his heart,’ you know? It became a nice thing to be ragged on by Don Rickles. Are people going to find that with me? I don’t think so.”
Coming up with four hours of live comedy every day is the primal anxiety of Stern’s existence. “I always feel like it’s Sunday night, and I gotta go to school the next day,” he admits. “The appeal of the show is that I have an opinion on everything. There’s a beauty to that, at least in my mind. But there are days I don’t get any time to prep, and, in a sense, everything is prep—and that’s what drives me crazy. I’m home and I go, ‘I gotta get the TV on, I gotta get some magazines’—I read f—ing everything—and, you know, I wait for something to happen.”
What fuels the show, says Stern, is rage. “The best environment is when everybody hates you. Plenty of people within this building hate my f—ing guts, and the reason they hate my guts is because I talk about them on the air.” Private Parts catches this phenomenon quite deliriously during Stern’s on-air battles with the WNBC program director known as Kenny, whom Stern nicknames Pig Vomit. The movie becomes a kind of on-air M*A*S*H, with Pig Vomit, vividly played by Paul Giamatti, as its Frank Burns—the spirit of uptight exasperation. “I did what I consider to be some great radio at NBC,” says Stern. “And the reason was that I was fighting f—in’ Kenny every day. It became personal. I would just get on the air and rag on him, two or three hours at a time, like a maniac, because I was so filled with rage. And I miss that rage. Kenny inspired some of my best material. I mean, going on the air and gargling semen happens because you want to infuriate Kenny.”
Stern had been trying to get a movie made for years, and while several studios showed interest, notably Rysher and New Line (a deal for The Adventures of Fartman fell apart, says Stern, over New Line’s insistence on merchandising rights—which, in hindsight, probably saved him from a lowball embarrassment), he couldn’t find a script that rose above the wacky-moronic. “I sat with one pretty big director,” recalls Stern, “and he said, ‘I don’t care what you do, but I’ve got to see you falling out of a building!’ The guys at Rysher were, like, ‘We’re going to get Jeff Goldblum to play you!’ That’s what they threatened me with.”
It was producer-director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Dave) who came to Stern’s rescue. A fan since the early ’90s, he’d been giving Howard friendly, informal advice about developing a movie project. “I just had to admire the way he let it all hang out,” says Reitman. “He lets his emotions run free, which we’d all love to do.” When Private Parts topped the best-seller lists in 1993, “I called him and said, ‘Well, there it is. I can see the movie in here.'” There was still a delay, though, due, in part, to Stern’s New Year’s Eve pay-per-view special that year, a spectacularly raunchy orgy of bad taste that included a nearly naked woman who ate maggots. According to Reitman, the special “scared the s— out of everybody in Hollywood. It was the most evil version of Howard Stern, and it really frightened the major studios.”
When a deal was finally struck with Rysher and Paramount, Reitman, now on board as producer, commissioned a script by Len Blum (Stripes) and brought in Betty Thomas, the former Second City player and Hill Street Blues cast member who’d gone on to direct The Brady Bunch Movie. One of the savviest moves of Stern’s career may have been holding out to make a movie with this sort of mainstream machine behind him. “My focus was to make this film work for the sort of movie lover who’d never seen him before,” says Reitman.
For someone whose outlook can modestly be described as search-and-destroy, Howard Stern lives what may be the most grounded existence of any celebrity in America. When he isn’t playing footsie with strippers or trolling after tales of lesbian conquest, his act feeds on the mundane confessional details of his life with Alison, 42, and their three daughters, Emily, 13, Debra, 10, and Ashley, 4. His adolescent fixation on extracurricular sex fantasies seems to emerge directly from the fact that he’s too devoted to Alison and his family ever to act on them. “It’s like the favorite dessert he can never have,” says Quivers.
“I’ve still got to cut five commercials today,” Stern says after his radio show, sitting down in a surprisingly small, still only partly furnished new office and digging into a Styrofoam cup of tomato-and-tortellini soup from his latest sponsor, Soup Man. “I’m not a big soup eater,” he says. “I mean, I love it, but I’m always trying to stay thin.” For Stern, life is an eternal test of restraint. “It’s like everything is role playing,” he says. “This whole day we go through. I feel uncomfortable; I don’t have many friends; I’m absolutely reclusive. I feel that even in my relationships with family members, I’m on good behavior. And because of that behavior, when I deal with management, even when I started to get completely crazed on the air, I could go in and play a very reserved businessman and talk to them in their language. I think they used to say, ‘Wow, he really is a rational guy.’ And then I’d go on the air and talk about the size of Kenny’s c–k.”
It’s no accident that Stern replays his life like an endless tape loop; he’s as fixated on the legacy of past injustice as Richard Nixon. In college, he’d watch his friends pick up women in bars, “and I would go to these bars and get dressed up in those Huckapoo shirts, with the bad mustache and the hair, and I would, like, smoke a cigarette in the corner—I was a smoker then—and nobody would talk to me. I just thought women found me so f—ing ugly. You know, I don’t think I’m an attractive person.” Says Quivers: “They have a name for this disease where you’re obsessed with a body part and you think it’s obnoxious or ugly, and he definitely has that about his nose. I have never seen him pick up a picture and not analyze how his nose looks. He sits there shading it in.”
Stern’s obsession with the women who rejected him then feeds into his obsession with bimbos now, and it has made him the whipping boy of certain feminists. “I think where feminists get confused about me,” he says, “is that because I’ve decided that my career should be allowing anything to happen on the air, 99 percent of my thoughts are sexual. I’m convinced that I’m not any different than any guy. It’s our penises controlling our brains, and I don’t want to inhibit that. I think that’s sort of, in a bizarre way, a service to women. You’re hearing it straight from a guy’s head, exactly what he thinks about sex. Maybe I’m making a complete idiot out of myself, but I don’t see myself as sexist. Women comment to Alison on what a disgusting a–hole I am. They go, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for you!’ The hypocrisy is unbelievable. Their husbands are off f—ing some chick in North Shore Towers, but no one knows about it. I’m on the air sort of playacting—or maybe not, I’m not sure—but whatever I’m doing, it’s so visible, and Alison has to put up with it. She’s this terrific woman.”
Ironically, one person who refuses to add himself to the list of Howard bashers is the real Pig Vomit, Kevin Metheny, who now programs five radio stations in Jacksonville, Fla. “I have no beef with Howard,” claims Metheny. “I often find people are dying to characterize this relationship as World War III, and it just wasn’t so. I think it served Howard’s purpose to perceive it as enormously personal. Part of his act is being defiant and disdainful, and who doesn’t love to loathe their boss?” Metheny, who has read Private Parts but hasn’t seen the film, says of Stern’s characterization of him, “I have not read or heard anything woefully untruthful. But he selectively reports that which he recalls and that which happens.”
Even if Private Parts turns out to be a major hit, it raises a question: Can comedy’s ultimate bad-boy outsider now be an insider—can he proclaim himself the King of All Media without irony? Gary Dell’Abate remembers the first time he knew what a folk hero Stern had become. “When Howard did his New York book signing at Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue,” he recalls, “we were in the limo, and as we inched closer and closer, we realized that the crowd that came to see Howard had stopped traffic. The security guards practically lifted him out of the car and carried him in. Howard may have in his mind dreamt of that sort of scene, but I don’t think he was really expecting it. He actually looked scared.”
He may be more prepared this time. “After these test screenings,” says Stern, “it reminded me of the last scene of The Godfather, when he gets his ring kissed. The guy comes back and says, ‘We tested higher than Forrest Gump and Indiana Jones.’ All of a sudden, everyone begins to move around you. It’s like you have your ring out.” Stern claims that he’d like to make more movies, but even if America is truly ready to embrace Howard Stern, it’s far more tempting to envision him as the future king of late night. He’s had offers over the years from several networks, notably Fox, and Stern believes that, given the chance, he could beat Leno and Letterman. “Hands down, I would beat them both. And they know it. They both know it. Believe me. I’m a better performer than they are. There is a great calling to go on late-night television and kick and whomp everybody’s ass, and set the world on fire. I wouldn’t even have to go half as far as I do on the radio in terms of outrageous content. I think you can do less on network TV and still seem like you’re doing more.”
For now, though, he has other ideas. “I still feel like I haven’t gotten my due on radio. I still feel like I want to finish this Howard Stern Network concept—I want to be on in every city in the country.” More payback for past injustice? Perhaps. But also a way of staying underground, in that bunker of machine-gun comedy where he can keep taking aim at the big, bad showbiz world he’s now undeniably a part of. “It kills me when people say, you know, ‘Rosie’s nice, and this one’s nice.’ I say, ‘S—heads, don’t you want anybody who speaks out, and who’s completely off-the-wall, and tests the First Amendment?’ You get caught up in that Hollywood scene, you get fat and lazy, your sponsors accept you, your boss accepts you. But only an angry young man—I don’t care if you’re 80, if you’re an angry young man inside, you will create great television, radio, great media. Because being accepted, it’s like being in a cocoon, it’s so wonderful. Being in that room at Paramount, where they kiss your ring, it’s great. And if I ever got caught up in that moment and said, ‘I love this, I’m basking in this, this is what I craved my whole life,’ I’m finished! I’ll go out and make a Coneheads movie.”