His career kaput, the king of shock radio goes for bigger grosses as (ugh!) a movie star
It wasn’t the Lesbian Dating Game that did it. It wasn’t the gay Munsters sketch. It wasn’t even the Family Feud parody in which ”hookers” battled ”call girls.”
No, last month’s cancellation of The Howard Stern Show didn’t have anything to do with any of the above. Stern’s late-night shockfest may have been vile, vulgar, and vindictive—one critic likened it to an enema—but those were the reasons it was a hit, not why it got yanked. Stern’s flair for outrageousness had made his program one of the hottest on syndicated TV, with millions of viewers each week; in some markets, including New York, it even beat Saturday Night Live. The show helped make the poodle-haired shock-radio jock into a national TV cult figure as well as a soon-to-be movie star with an $11 million film in the works.
So why the abrupt cancellation? His producers say it was a ”simple business decision.” ”The cost of producing the show exceeded its revenues,” explains Grazia Manziano, spokesperson for WWOR-TV, the New Jersey superstation that syndicated the program. Fuming, Stern called a July 28 press conference to put his own spin on the story. ”I was not canceled. I canceled them,” he boomed, claiming he had walked from the show because WWOR had refused to increase its budget. ”The lighting was off, the sound was off. I wasn’t happy with the production values.” In other words, the Master of Crass claims he pulled the plug because the show didn’t look classy enough.
Part talk show, part sketch comedy, part prefrontal lobotomy, the series was pretty much a visual version of Stern’s notorious syndicated radio show, which can be heard daily in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. With a set that made Wayne’s basement look glitzy, Stern entertained guests from Bob Geldof (Stern locked him in a car trunk and forced him to sing) to the Rev. Al Sharpton (Stern asked if he had ever slept with a white woman; Sharpton said no). His skits were not-even-remotely-ready-for-prime-time (perhaps the most tasteless was Homeless Hollywood Squares, featuring real homeless people). There were also taped interviews by Stuttering John (John Melendez), Stern’s speech-impaired celebrity correspondent; bikini-clad models providing gratuitous jiggle; and, throughout it all, the unflappable Robin Quivers, Stern’s African-American female sidekick, who has been giggling at Howard’s crudities for more than 10 years.
This sort of loose-cannon comedy hasn’t exactly made Stern the poster boy of PC. He has offended women, gays, lesbians, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, Koreans, Japanese, Irish, Italians, Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, liberals, conservatives, pro-lifers, bald people, fat people, dwarves, crash victims, cancer victims, sexually abused children, amputees, and stutterers (the National Stuttering Project briefly boycotted the show in L.A.)—among others. Nor has he won many pals at the FCC: His radio show was once slapped with a $6,000 fine because of a 1988 Christmas sketch, in which a ”gay choir” sang ”I’m dreaming of some light torture.” He ran into trouble with a 1991 Christmas TV show, too: At least one station turned it down because of a sketch that showed Howard giving birth in the manger.
”There are at least a hundred different groups that want to see Howard hang,” says comedian Richard Lewis (Anything But Love), a frequent Stern radio guest. ”A lot of what he does is really offensive. But a lot of it is breakthrough material.” Comic Richard Belzer, another Stern fan, agrees: ”Howard’s genius is that he says exactly what he wants without fear of retribution-almost like a child. He says what other people don’t dare to say. He’s brilliantly irreverent.”
Something about Stern is certainly clicking with the public. His radio show is relished by more than 3 million listeners a day (it’s No. 1 in New York and Philadelphia). Though his television show was broadcast in only about 60 percent of the country, it became the fourth-most-popular syndicated series among males ages 18 to 49. This summer, live call-in talk shows, including some heavyweight ones, were spontaneously ambushed with prank calls from fanatical Sternophiles from around the country. During a Today show interview with Ross Perot, for instance, a Stern fan dialed up to ask the quasi-candidate if he wanted to ”mind-meld” with Stern’s penis. ”Fans do that sort of thing because they want people to know about Howard,” explains Kevin Renzulli, 29, a controller at a New Jersey shopping cart maintenance company and the publisher of the monthly Howard Stern Show Newsletter. ”They’re just trying to spread the word.”
Not surprisingly, Stern tends to be cautious about public appearances. According to friends, he lives in a secluded ”bunker” on Long Island, commuting by limo every morning to his Manhattan office. He seldom gives interviews and hates reporters (”All journalists are lying skunks,” he has declaimed). Some details of his life have slipped out, however. He was born in 1954, grew up in a mostly black neighborhood in Roosevelt, Long Island, and in the mid-1970s attended Boston University, where he met his wife, Alison, a social worker (they have two young daughters, Debra and Emily). After performing a bit called ”Godzilla Goes to Harlem,” he got fired from his very first job, at B.U.’s radio station—a job pattern later repeated at stations in Detroit and Washington, D.C. In 1985, after getting canned from New York’s WNBC (for a skit called ”Bestiality Dial-A-Date”), he moved to the city’s WXRK and began the morning show that would eventually make him the most famous-make that infamous-shock jock in the country.
Stern’s television break came in 1990, when WWOR-TV asked him to tape four local late-night specials. Those did so well in the ratings the station began syndicating a weekly version around the country. ”It was doing great,” says Richard L. Mann, a vice president at All American Television, the series’ distributor. Despite Stern’s tendency to stray from the text during his live commercials—he once gave a bikinied spokesmodel an impromptu ”Snapple massage,” rubbing the soft drink over much of her body—Mann says ”there were no problems selling advertising.” (”Howard is Howard,” says a spokesperson for the unflinching Snapple company. ”He helped put Snapple on the map.”) There were no problems selling the series to broadcasters, either: Mann reports that more than 40 stations had already renewed the show for next season. ”We thought it was coming back,” he says. ”We were surprised by the cancellation.”
So was Howard, who was on vacation from both radio and TV when, on July 15, WWOR sent out a three-paragraph press release announcing that the station had ”discontinued” the television series. But his press conference protestations aside, he probably didn’t lose much sleep over the news. As he told the reporters, he now has bigger fish to fry: Howard the Vulgarian is going to Hollywood.
Along with all the other things on Stern’s to-do list these days—he has been musing on his radio show about a possible Perot-like run for the Presidency—he’s about to make his first motion picture, an adventure comedy called (no joke) The Adventures of Fartman. The concept, naturally, could hardly be more revolting. Stern will play a superhero who propels himself through the air by the force of his own flatulence. Such major players as Fox and Universal were rumored to be hot for the project, but it was independent New Line Cinema (distributors of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Player, and John Waters’ Polyester, viewings of the last enhanced by scratch-and-sniff cards) that ultimately signed him by offering him full creative control.
Stern won’t say whether Fartman will employ Polyester‘s famous ”Odorama” technology, but he did reveal some script secrets during an interview with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. ”It’ll be the most disgusting movie ever made,” he promised, and it will be replete with ”actual hookers, lesbians, everything that made my radio and TV show popular.” He also predicted that it would be the biggest hit of the year.
Hooray for Howiewood.