May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

To paraphrase that timeworn saw about British weather, if you don’t like what you’re seeing on The Howard Stern Radio Show these days, just wait a couple of minutes. After undergoing a drastic revamping over the winter, a new and vastly improved Radio Show debuted on March 20. Dispensing with the single-topic format it had often relied on since its August 1998 debut, the reincarnation offers behind-the-scenes snippets, a rapid-fire barrage of celebrity interviews, and more debauched segments showcasing Stern’s ”Wack Pack”: Crackhead Bob, Gary the Retard, High-Pitched Eric, and Hank the Drunken Dwarf.

Though the show scored its share of home runs in its original format (like last winter’s come-one, come-all small-penis contest, and a hilarious-pathetic Queen for a Day takeoff), Radio Show generally seemed nothing more than a lazy transplant of Stern’s E! show, which is itself a videotaped grab bag of highlights from his syndicated radio show.

In answer to those viewers clamoring for a ”real” late-night show, complete with skits, musical acts, etc., Stern issued a ”take it or leave it” edict, claiming he had neither the time nor the inclination for such an undertaking. But for a man who hates failure almost as much as he hates Rosie O’Donnell, he apparently knew something had to be done. (The media-allergic Stern declined EW‘s request for an interview.)

To effect the transformation, original producer Jim Biederman was replaced by Scott Einziger, executive producer of the E! gabfest. Taking advantage of the humorless passages that plague (and all too often dominate) its sketch-driven competition — NBC warhorse Saturday Night Live and Fox’s insurgent Mad TV — Einziger ingeniously uses a multitude of bite-size comic chestnuts to beat them at their own short-attention-spanned game.

For example, those who tuned in April 24 were treated to 20-plus frenetic vignettes in the space of one hour. The video vaudeville careened from a testimonial by Luke Perry about his masturbation habits, to a one-eyed-dwarf rap act named Bushwick Bill, to a squirming Conan O’Brien being grilled about ex-girlfriend Lisa Kudrow’s bedroom performance, to a woman demonstrating her ability to walk on her butt, to another who hears voices in her head telling her that Howard is God, to Stephen Baldwin bad-mouthing fellow actor Nicolas Cage (The Usual Suspects ”is better than all of [his] movies combined”), topped of with a ”Hero of the Stupid” segment wherein Stuttering John quizzed a frazzled Nathan Lane. Take that, psycho cheerleaders.

The retooling came none too soon for the profitable but critically lambasted series. Currently airing on 12 of 14 CBS-owned-and-operated stations, and 69 outlets nationwide, Radio Show may finish third overall against SNL and Mad, but it’s more than held its own with those desirable male viewers. During February sweeps, it placed either first or second among males 18 to 34 in 35 of its 50 markets (in most cases going head-to-head with SNL and Mad), and No. 1 in that demo in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Minneapolis.

While Stern may still have a way to go before he’s crowned Mr. Saturday Night, at least now he’s got a vehicle that will actually turn some heads, as well as the occasional stomach.

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