Is the master of shock hot stuff -- or is he just full of hot air?

By Bruce Fretts
Updated October 15, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Howard Stern claims to have read only three books in his life: Manchild in the Promised Land and Black Like Me while he was growing up in a black neighborhood in the New York City suburb of Roosevelt, Long Island, and a biography of Henry Kissinger a few years ago. But one would be hard-pressed to detect any influence those sober works might have had on his own new book, Private Parts (Simon & Schuster), a 446-page autobiography encompassing his childhood, his career in radio and TV, and his unbridled views on sex (”Homosexuality is just another way of delaying adulthood. You’re stuck in the phase of your life where you just hang out with the boys”), social issues (”They didn’t beat this idiot (Rodney King) enough”), and celebs (”(Tom Arnold’s) only talent appears to be getting it up for this fat slob (Roseanne)”).

The book finds Stern, 39, still showing no signs of relinquishing his position as the poster boy for political incorrectness. His eight-year-old radio comedy show, a four-plus-hour, something-to-outrage-everyone affair—featuring scatological sketches and song parodies, salacious celebrity interviews, and satirical news commentary—draws 3 million listeners every weekday morning in the 14 markets where it airs. Ranked No. 1 in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Boston, the show reportedly earns Stern $2 million a year. It has also earned its host a passionate following that includes such disparate figures as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Simmons. ”Howard doesn’t just attack sacred cows,” says die-hard fan and frequent guest David Brenner, ”he cuts their throats.” But despite his large, fervid core audience of 25- to 54-year-old men, Stern has been foiled so far in his attempts to spread his gospel to every corner of America.

Stern, whose show was recently dropped by its Chicago affiliate, says, ”We would have been fully national now if it hadn’t been for the likes of Jesse Helms and the FCC slowing us down” by fining radio stations that carry the allegedly indecent program more than $1 million. The stations are appealing the fines. Stern hopes the issue goes to the Supreme Court, which he believes would ultimately rule in his favor.

Among Stern’s on-air musings that the FCC ruled indecent, says FCC lawyer Bob Ratcliffe, ”there’s one passage I find telling. Stern talks about a Super Bowl party where (Stern-show writer) Jackie Martling is eating finger food on the floor and some guy moons him, so Martling sticks his finger in this guy. From my personal point of view, I thought this was particularly offensive.”

The government’s campaign against Stern has led many people—including Stern himself—to make comparisons to so-called sick comic Lenny Bruce, who was prosecuted on obscenity charges in the ’60s. ”I think he’s testing new ground & like Lenny did,” says Stern’s wife, Alison, who went with Howard to see the biopic Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, on their first date in 1974. ”But he’s not into drugs, and he doesn’t have a crazy life like Lenny did. Howard eats well and takes care of himself and makes sure he goes to bed on time.”

It’s no surprise that Stern has become the FCC’s Public Enemy No. 1. He has seemed to court trouble since his days at Boston University, where he introduced his distinctive brand of rude talk radio in 1973, getting himself fired with his first skit, ”Godzilla Goes to Harlem.” His in-your-face irreverence also got him booted from stations in Washington, D.C., in 1982 and New York City in 1985, but along the way, it inspired a legion of shock-jock imitators across America. The very qualities that have made him a valuable radio commodity, however, have frustrated his efforts to move into mainstream movies and TV.

His deal with New Line Cinema to make a $14 million comedy about a flatulent superhero, The Adventures of Fartman, fell apart. Stern’s self- titled syndicated TV series (featuring video versions of some of his raunchiest radio routines, like ”Lesbian Love Connection”) ended in a feud with the syndicators last year. Now he hosts a relatively sedate one-on-one interview show on the E! cable channel.

Has Howard Stern pushed his career—and the country’s tolerance for lewd insult—to the limit? “I have no way to tell if I’ve peaked,” he says. “Part of me says I should probably move on from radio and concentrate on TV and films. But I don’t know too many mediums where you can sit there and create your own show for four or five hours.”

Of course, if Private Parts hits the best-seller lists, Stern will have staked a claim in a whole new field. He’s certainly trying. Though he usually avoids and often vilifies the media, he has made himself and his family available for interviews. Talking with Entertainment Weekly at the offices of K-Rock, the New York City station where he broadcasts his show from a dingy, dimly lit studio, he relaxed into a tamer version of his hungry-lion broadcast persona. His comments still have plenty of bite.

EW: Why do you think you’ve been targeted by the FCC?

Howard Stern: The FCC has decided that what I do is disgusting and horrible for the morality of this country, which I don’t agree with. I firmly believe that nothing is offensive. God knows why we’re so repressed about sex in this country that if you hear the word penis or vagina you will somehow grow up to be a bad person.

EW: Should the FCC not regulate radio speech?

HS: Absolutely. I think the FCC should make sure everyone is broadcasting on the right frequency. I don’t know who these five guys are who are arbitrarily deciding what you shouldn’t hear. Setting no guidelines except if it’s “patently offensive to the community,” we don’t want it. You tell me what I’m saying on the radio that could be more offensive than people killing each other on the street. That’s what’s going on in my community.

EW: Why did you decide to do a low-key interview show on E!?

HS: I wanted to do a legitimate show where I sit with a person one-on-one and prove to all the network a–holes that I could get huge ratings just doing that. Everyone said, “He’s only got to be filthy to get huge ratings.” This show’s not a filthy show. The networks go to such trouble to find talk-show hosts. Chevy Chase, they give millions of dollars for that a–hole to sit there and he can’t even talk to someone one-on-one. You’ve got to be a pretty dull, pathetic person if you cannot talk to somebody one-on-one and at least make it somewhat interesting.

EW: If Fox asked you to replace Chevy Chase, would you do it? (Stern turned down Fox’s 1987 offer to replace Joan Rivers as host of The Late Show; Arsenio Hall took the job.)

HS: Yeah, I would. I might consider it. I don’t know, if it means walking away from a radio show that’s very successful. It depends on the deal. Right now, I don’t see Fox doing that. I think they’re committed to Chevy. Although how long can that last? How long will the affiliates put up with a 2 rating? They’ll say, “We can put on a M*A*S*H rerun and make a fortune with it. What do we need this a–hole for?”

EW: Is it true that Letterman got mad at you the last time you were on his show?

HS: That was weird. I’m going on Letterman again to promote the book Oct. 12. I like doing Dave’s show. But sometimes Dave gets a weird vibe on me. I was talking about Fartman and Dave turned to me after it was over and said, “What is wrong with you?” I said, “What do you mean what’s wrong with me? Who the f— can figure out what’s wrong with me? There’s a lot of s— wrong with me!” That was the last we spoke.

EW: When you were on The Tonight Show, you told Jay Leno he didn’t have the killer instinct to win the late-night war. How do you think he’s doing?

HS: Jay Leno is the nicest guy in the world, but his chances are being hurt by the fact that he doesn’t have this competitive, killer instinct. Jay makes statements like (affects a nasal, whiny voice) “Yeah, you know, Dave’s a good guy and if I’m gonna compete with him, I’m competing with the best.” You don’t say you’re competing with the best! You’re telling me that Dave is better than you? It’s funny, though, because the ratings are leveling out, Jay’s doing okay and Letterman’s doing okay. But when Nightline is winning, something’s wrong with all these talk shows. I think I could go on the air and kick all of their f—ing asses right into the ground, quite frankly.

EW: You say of Jay Leno, whom you like, “There couldn’t be a better asskisser in the U.S.,” and yet you condemn Arsenio Hall as “Asskissio.” What’s the difference?

HS: Jay is a brilliant stand-up performer. That’s what Jay’s going to end up doing eventually. He’ll be out of the late-night talk-show business. Arsenio has no talent. Arsenio’s talent is kissing ass. I can’t watch those interviews. I cannot take the a– sucking that goes on on a nightly basis.

EW: What’s the status of your feud with Jerry Seinfeld?

HS: I haven’t heard from Seinfeld. He’s a great stand-up comic, but I always knew if his TV show got into the top 10 consistently, he would find an excuse not to be friends with me anymore. He used to come on my show all the time when he was getting his ass kicked by Home Improvement. But this time he says we went over the line by singing about him and a 17-year-old girl. He ought to get a sense of humor about himself.

EW: Why did New Line scrap your Fartman movie?

HS: I was getting all of these scripts from various studios, so I said, “Why don’t I just wait for a good script?” But the scripts I was getting were so god-awful—you know, I’m not Dan Aykroyd, I don’t just pick through the garbage and take any stupid script. I wanted to make a good movie. So New Line said, “We’ll front you the money to develop a script for Fartman.” But when it came back they were really nervous. They said, “It’s R-rated, and we think this should be PG, so 6-year-olds can go see it.” There’s no way I could be a PG superhero.

EW: Are you ever going to make Fartman?

HS: I think it’ll be a second movie. If I get to make a good first movie and it’s successful, then I’ll have the clout to make the second one Fartman. I think Fartman would do incredibly well. We have a huge audience that would go see a Howard Stern movie if it was good. I think a lot of people would go see it if it was bad, just to see me make an a–hole out of myself.

EW: Are you worried about your book competing with Rush Limbaugh’s second book?

HS: I’m actually a little afraid of Rush Limbaugh’s book because his first book was bought by a lot of people, and I think anyone who tried to read that book was bored out of their mind. I’m very much afraid that people are going to say, “Well, he’s another radio guy. It’s going to be like that s—ty Rush Limbaugh book.” It’s nothing like his book. It’s not some boring monologue about what I think about the state of America.

EW: Should we take your political views seriously?

HS: No, of course not. I’m just a guy. Why would you take me more seriously than anyone else? If someone gets offended by a political view of mine, well, I’m just another a–hole with a view. It’s no more powerful than anyone else’s view. In fact, most of my views are quite absurd. I’m not here to educate anyone. It’s a f—ing comedy show.

EW: Why are some people ashamed to admit they listen to you?

HS: There’s a lot of shame in this country. I don’t know why. People are ashamed of their bodies, they’re ashamed of sexuality, they’re ashamed to admit that they find these taboo subjects funny. I think it’s the same kind of person who says, “I’m a big fan of Charlie Rose and the news, that’s all I watch.” Meanwhile, they’re watching f—ing Batman cartoons.

EW: I’m going to read a list of words that have been used to describe you. Tell me if you agree with them. “Racist”?

HS: No. I don’t have those feelings. If I’m portrayed as racist because I do black dialects and Jewish dialects on the air, well, then, so be it. I just don’t feel that there’s racism behind it.

EW: “Homophobic”?

HS: It’s weird. When I first started doing “Gay Dial-a-Date” on the radio there was a review in a prominent gay newspaper (The Washington Blade) that called it very heroic. And now I’ve started to hear that I’m homophobic. I think I got that because I’m willing to deal with homosexuals the same way I deal with heterosexuals. I have a geniune curiosity, and I want to ask them about their sexuality. And also if I do a gay dialect, the lisping kind of thing, I guess that indicates I’m homophobic. I don’t feel that way.

EW: “Sexist”?

HS: I gotta confess I really do enjoy women sexually. I prefer the company of men most times when we’re just sitting around bulls—ting, and I prefer the company of women sexually and I also enjoy talking to them. Why is that sexist? Some women say, “But you only see women as sexual objects.” I don’t agree. But what the f— do I know?

EW: “A–hole”?

HS: Sometimes I say things that are like what an a–hole says, but I think that’s sort of the Everyman in me. Because I’m willing to go on the air and say things. I don’t hold back. If that’s an a–hole, then I am one.

EW: “Dangerous”?

HS: I’m dangerous only to publicists. If I ask a celebrity a question that has anything to do with reality, then they panic. I don’t think I’m dangerous. The government might.

EW: “Revolutionary”?

HS: Yeah. Nowadays we turn on the radio and everyone’s talking. And I feel directly responsible for that. I don’t think that Rush Limbaugh knew what to do in radio. He was in radio many years and got out. He had no idea he could talk the way he felt. Most guys in radio all had jive voices—big, deep, dumb radio-announcer voices—and never said anything more than what was written on cards for them. I do think that I revolutionized what’s happening in radio and television today. I think things have gotten a lot looser.

EW: “Genius”?

HS: Oh, I don’t know. To me, genius is the guy who invented the polio vaccine. When you talk about a guy on the radio saying the word vagina, it’s hard to take credit for being a genius.

EW: What’s the biggest misconception about you?

HS: That I have a small penis. No, that’s true, but that’s another story. And it’s all in the book. I don’t think there’s a more honest book than this one. I don’t remember reading about Kissinger’s penis.