Howard Stern is, as you may know, a radio personality whose forthright, frequently vulgar commentary on The Way We Live Now has yielded a hit radio show in 10 major cities, a whopping fine from the Federal Communications Commission ($600,000, for what the FCC termed ”indecency”), and now, a new television endeavor, The Howard Stern Interview, broadcast on one of the more obscure cable outlets, E! Entertainment Television. ”Do you get E! in your home?” Stern asked a recent guest, musician Suzanne Vega. ”I think so — I’m not sure,” Vega replied. ”Oh, then here’s the one viewer E! has!” shouted Stern in mock triumph. ”I’m trying to pump some life into this channel,” he muttered a bit later, ”but it’s almost impossible.”
The 2.5-year-old E! claims to reach more than 21 million homes, but I don’t know anyone — other than irredeemable media-heads — who is hooked on its 24-hour schedule of gummy entertainment news, soft celebrity profiles, and an occasional clever idea, like ”Talk Soup,” a daily roundup of the best moments from TV talk shows. Stern, in other words, is right: Since his show premiered Nov. 27, he is the biggest, liveliest star E! has.
But to give E! some credit, it’s also one of the few channels that would take a chance on Stern’s charged chatter. Stern inspires fierce loyalty and bitter loathing for his refusal to obey show-biz niceties; no major commercial network would put up with his casual bluntness. ”Are you depressed,” he recently asked guest Dick Cavett, who has made public his battles with manic-depression, ”because you have to go around explaining to people why all your shows are failures?” (This was shortly before Stern went to a commercial break by announcing, ”When we come back, we’ll get Dick to talk about his days as a mental patient.”)
At his worst, Stern is an ego-addled boor who has trouble phrasing his naughtiness coherently. ”Have you ever had lesbianism?” he asked Vega. ”’Had lesbianism’?” teased Vega. ”What are you trying to say?” But at his most effective, Stern taps into a desire that most TV watchers share: to see banal talk-show etiquette evaporate, to see the nuts and bolts of the celebrity machine. Garry Shandling accomplishes this with infinite subtlety on HBO’s Larry Sanders Show. There’s no subtlety in what Stern does, but his brand of crassness is first rate. (Perhaps in mutual recognition of this, Shandling was the first guest Stern had on his E! show; Joan Rivers, Grace Slick, and pop rocker Richard Marx have also undergone Stern treatment.)
”I’m gonna do something that no one else has been able to do,” Stern brayed early in his session with Cavett, ”which is to make Dick Cavett interesting.” And darned if he wasn’t right: Cavett withstood Stern’s ceaseless gibes with a cheerful, fixed grin and was slowly, surely revealed not as the erudite smoothie he has always asserted, but as a shameless publicity hound, willing to be abused by Stern if it enabled him to spend another 30 minutes of his life in front of a TV camera.
If you’re experiencing Stern for the first time, you’re bound to be put off by his endless rants about the greatness of Howard, the self-described ”King of All Media.” His E! show is just a half hour, with only one guest per show, so it rarely gives you the full Howard Stern Experience you receive listening to his four-hour-plus daily radio broadcasts.
Because he says everything in the same flat, adamant, New York bark, Stern strikes his most knee-jerk critics as hostile and sour. Yet what comes across clearest to regular audiences is delight — in his own success, in the responses his coarse questioning elicits.
E!’s version of Stern is a considerably toned-down one; banished, for example, are the cornball comedy sketches and the bikini-clad models who cavorted on his slovenly 1990-92 syndicated show. (I miss the models, mostly because I like the way Stern — a 39-year-old, long-married family man — still approaches sex with goggle-eyed lust and blissful glee.) Stern is a shaggy-haired embodiment of American know-nothingism whose intentionally tasteless remarks regularly achieve a kind of inverted elegance that can be startlingly funny. I admit it — I laughed when Stern, himself a proud if irreverent Jew, talked to Vega about her religion, Buddhism, and said in tones of fatherly advice, ”A nice girl like you should be praying to Jesus — he had a nice swimmer’s physique; he seems to me more your style.”
Sure, he can be a tiresome lout; there are few cultural events I’m dreading more than Stern’s planned 1993 feature-film debut, The Adventures of Fartman. But at a time when nearly every aspect of entertainment strives to avoid offense and the moral messiness of life, Stern’s resolute orneriness has its own kind of honor. B+