Posted by Rob Eshman
So yesterday I posted my first Stern blog, put my computer to sleep, went down to my car and turned it on. The first words I heard out of the radio were: “Super elongated [female body part].”
I had to laugh. Here I was trying to describe Stern in the most elevated terms, dedicating a whole blog to understanding his critical impact on culture—and then he smacks me in the face with a super-elongated….
Here’s where Stern differs from the rest of the media pack that has covered the lurid story. First, he stakes out a position. He’s a Jew and he has an opinion. I’ve listened to the show long enough to know that he has a knee-jerk rant against sex change operations. “The doctors who do these things should be locked up,” he says. He calls it mutilation. He says the same about circumcision (he has three daughters, so he never had to face the choice).
Then, after giving his opinion, Stern demanded details. Exact details. How do they form her organs into his. A skin graft? A bone transplant? Does it have sensation? Can it be used like an authentic one.
Keep in mind Stern’s on Sirius now, so there’s no FCC regulation. This is adults speaking to adults, using adult words. Stern is unafraid to be graphic in the pursuit of information, and as difficult as it is to hear, it is fascinating. That’s one Stern attribute: He doesn’t look away. Most of the media draws us in to a topic especially for its lurid value, but then takes a polite step back. If Stern has a transsexual on the show, he has the woman pull down her pants and has someone describe, in detail, what’s doing. “Nothing human is strange to me,” the Roman poet Terence wrote. The truth is, almost everything human is strange to us, and Stern forces us to look.
I get in the car this morning and Stern is still talking Chastity. This time he is getting a report from one of his reporters, Lisa G (née Glasberg), who he sent out to investigate how exactly a sex change operation works. She reports back that it involves clipping a ligament, freeing up a woman’s sexual part, adding a kind of prostheses, creating a sort of robo-penis. The gang on the show cracks some jokes about it.
It’s so awful, Stern concludes, you gotta believe no one would choose to go through this if they didn’t have to. Same with choosing to be gay, he says.
And here is where Stern’s talent really impresses me, and where society underestimates him: by going deep on Chastity Bono, he has just educated his audience, brought a hidden and shamed world into the light, laughed about it—used humor and information to foster tolerance. We fear what we don’t know, we hate what we don’t understand. Stern’s show goes a long way, among a wide demographic, to reducing that ignorance.
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June 17, 2009 | 8:56 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Warning: No matter what your opinion of Howard Stern, this blog will offend you.
If you’re not a Howard Stern fan, you’ll wonder why anybody is wasting time writing about someone the media often portrays simply as a foul-mouthed shock jock.
Or, as my wife said last night, “You think that guy is way more important than he is. Enough with the Howard.”
I mean, what kind of show celebrates Father’s Day by giving away a free double “date” with what I’ll euphemistically call a working mom and her equally working daughter. (I got the impression, as I often do, that even some cast members, like Fred Norris, like Howard, didn’t approve. It was wrong. It was bizarre. It was compelling.).
And if you are a Stern fan, you’ll wonder why this blog veers so often toward the serious. Howard’s about giggles and strippers and midgets, right? If the show were meant to be taken seriously, it wouldn’t offer up mom and daughter hooker teams to married dads. Who dares to say something serious about that?
Well, I do. And you’re welcome to chime in.
The truth about Howard is that he’s right: he is still, despite his enormous financial success and fame, underrated and neglected as major cultural force. He is heir of a tradition of outsider satiric comedy that stretches back beyond the shtetl. He is on a pantheon of culture-changers that includes Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen and Larry David. As I wrote back in 2004, when the Federal Communications Copmmission was threatening to sue the Stern Show into oblivion:
It isn’t surprising that Stern is caught up in the kind of cultural and political battle in which Jewish comedians and commentators like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce once found themselves.
He is heir to the Jewish tradition of the badchen, or shtetl entertainer. “They were scandalous, filled with gossip,” comedian and frequent Stern guest Richard Belzer has said. “Their essence was to expose and make fun of things in their society. The badchen’s society was the shtetl. We expand it to include the whole society.”
“Stern’s is an unleashed id unrepressed by socially approved feelings,” writes Lawrence Epstein in his seminal study of Jewish comedy, “The Haunted Smile.” “He is an attack on society’s right to censor the honest feels of the individual. He is a safety valve, a release.” In as free and democratic medium that exists, 18 million Americans vote for Stern each morning.
The badchen is what Thomas Cahill might call a “Gift of the Jews,” an outsider who exposes society’s foibles, pokes fun at its hypocrisies, makes people laugh and makes people think…
But I digress. I digress because I get defensive talking about Stern—in polite society people who enjoy his show always have to explain themselves. After many, many years of starting my morning with Stern, I’m up to the task. Let the blogs begin.