On my way to work every morning I listen to Howard Stern. I’ve been listening for 20 years.
In the beginning, I didn’t tell anyone. Polite society dismissed Stern as a crude, sexist, racist “shock jock.” Putting “shock jock” before someone’s name is an instant denigration, like saying “discount surgery.”
I came out of the closet several years ago, first by writing a column, then launching a blog, which I titled “Serious Stern.” The blog examined Stern’s social impact. Its name played off Stern’s move to the censorship-free world of Sirius satellite radio. My blogging flagged. His show got better and better.
And in the years that followed, something remarkable happened: Howard Stern got respect. The New Yorker’s David Remnick and media critic Jeff Jarvis were the first to remark on how Stern wasn’t just changing radio but also our culture. Major celebrities lined up for a chance to speak with him. News cycles revolved around his on-air conversations with politicians.
He is the single best interviewer in any media today, period. (One reason why? He’s the single best listener.)
The dirty secret of Hollywood, as comedian Rob Corddry said, is that everybody listens to Howard Stern. A generation has been raised on his brand of humor, and it is somehow heartening to hear them come into the studio, one after another, and tell Howard how much he has influenced them.
“Either you’re a Stern fan or you’re gonna be one,” the cultural critic Bob Lefsetz wrote, “or you just don’t know it yet.”
Howard turned 60 earlier this month. On Jan. 31, he will be celebrating with a birthday party/show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York to be broadcast on the radio and for free on the Internet.
The guest list is pure Stern: On the one hand, yet-to-be-named politicians and cultural icons like David Letterman and Sarah Silverman. On the other, an assortment of freaks Stern has made regulars — Elephant Boy, Bobo, Marianne from Brooklyn. At press time, it’s unclear whether Eric the Midget will show up. One can only hope.
How to explain Stern’s success, his victory over the forces of censorship, his move from the perennial outsider to the ultimate insider?
The answer occurred to me while I was reading last week’s much-discussed New York Times Sunday Review piece, “What Drives Success,” by Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua.
Why have some ethnic groups succeeded far beyond the norm in America, the authors asked, while others lagged behind?
“Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based,” they wrote. “Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.”
And, of course, Howard Stern.
Looking at Jews along with the Chinese, Mormons and Indians, Chua, who is Chinese-American, and Rubenfeld, her Jewish husband, pinpoint three traits that account for success.
“The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality,” they say. “The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.”
That, I saw immediately, explains it. Because the Stern show is essentially Howard talking for five hours a day, and his persona is to give us the most honest and revealing version of himself possible; the show is a living laboratory for this self-revelation.
He is, on the one hand, the “King of All Media,” a title he took on as a goof but which betrays his sense of ego and mission. He is also constantly tearing away at himself, which explains his twice-weekly visits to his psychoanalyst.
As he (or his shrink) might say, Stern is equal parts his mother’s total investment in her son’s glory and his father’s nagging doubts that the kid will amount to anything. He is the messiah, and the nebbish.
And, finally, Stern is driven. His loose, raw show hides the enormous planning he and his staff do every day. Improvisation, it turns out, takes a lot of preparation. He’s gotten up at 4 a.m. for 30 years — how’s that for impulse control?
It is no coincidence that the great Jewish comedians — Woody Allen, Larry David, Mel Brooks — all share these exact traits: massive self-loathing, tremendous self-assurance, unstoppable effort.
And there is one more thing about Stern, a trait Chua and Rubenfeld don’t mention: He didn’t run from his past, or try to hide it, or pretend to blend in. In fact, the more particular his humor, the more universal his appeal. The more he has embraced his identity, the more successful he has become.
There’s a good lesson there for us all. Happy birthday, Howard.
And thank you.
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