Posted by Rob Eshman
Sacha Baron Cohen was on the show yesterday. It was theatre. Cohen as Bruno, Stern and Robin as his straight man and woman. If you didn’t hear it, imagine a Sid Caesar sketch from “Your Show of Shows”—funny accents, stream of consciousness humor, one-liners—but imagine Caesar dressed as a flaming queen, reveling in incest and body functions.
Oh to have a Time Travel machine and have Howard and Bruno on stage in front of Caesar’s audience. At first they’d laugh hysterically—it’s the same beats, the same funny accents—then slowly it would dawn on them what’s being said, and their faces would fall, dead silence, then homicidal rage….
Cohen/Bruno gets the credit for provoking those responses, but Stern paved the way. As I blogged earlier, Cohen is the heir to a brand of humor that Stern (and before him Caesar and the Marx Brothers) pioneered. Consider this:
THINGS BRUNO DOES THAT HOWARD DID YEARS AGO
Ambush unsuspecting celebrities in fake interviews
Display his butt for comic effect
Talk openly and matter-of-factly about gay sex, anal bleaching, every possible bodily function
Spoof celebrities who adopt African babies
Create skits about off the wall gay characters
This isn’t meant to detract from Cohen. His talent is for acting, for taking concepts and ideas Howard used and literally taking them to the street, fully developing them as movie concepts.
Clearly, Stern appreciates that—he said he loved the movie, and he seemed genuinely enthralled by Cohen’s in-studio performance. Sure: he’s a proud dad.
Click here for Bruno’s 5 Top Jewish Moments.
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July 10, 2009 | 6:27 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
“There is no lower form of media than radio,” Howard is fond of saying—over and over. Throughout the “The History of Howard Stern, Part 2,” Howard slams radio as the bottom of the media industry, and D.J.s as the lowest media life form (this was before Harvey Levin, mind you).
Whenever reporters asked him why he was trying a TV show, or going into movies, or books, his answer always included his opinion of radio—that he worked in the lowest rung of the entertainment industry, and yearned for the respect and money and fame that FM radio could never offer.
And yet he stayed.
He had enough success to leave, and he stayed. He stayed and he turned radio—which, when you flip around the dials, really is awful—into great entertainment. By talent and will, he made morning radio important, and profitable.
Yes, he wasn’t the only radio personality to become famous or rich or influential. But he did it by doing something new and different, not more demagogic talk radio, not the Top 40. He took a dead disrespected medium and made it into something.
And that’s been an inspiration to me.
Because if radio is the lowest form of entertainment, Jewish journalism, when I started 16 years ago, was about the lowest form of journalism. A lot of it still sucks, as does a lot of radio, but what Howard taught me was that there’s no reason any medium has to be second-rate, it’s the talent and creativity and drive and discipline you bring to it. That’s what Howard did that to radio: he took it seriously. The guy with the reputation for being a big joking a-hole was, while others were taking him lightly, treating his profession with utter seriousness. I get that listening to his interview segments in the documentary. He was on a campaign, a mission, to make radio matter, and he figured out the ways to do that, and he did it. Instead of leaving radio behind for a more “important” medium, he planted his flag—because that’s what he really loves and where his real talents lie—and made it work.
I think about that a lot.
July 7, 2009 | 9:29 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
“The History of Howard Stern, Part 2” replayed a segment from many years ago where Howard describes his upbringing by a domineering mother to being raised as a “little Hitler.” I think at one point he describes himself as the child of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress.
That prompts his mother, Rae Stern, to call in, and Howard and she go at it. His tone is goofball sarcastic—you know he’s kidding. But Rae is upset, and keeps trying to tell him so. Come on—a woman who came of age in the shadow of the Holocaust being compared to Hitler on air.
I’ve heard the segment a couple of times now, and it’s clear Howard’s mom doesn’t appreciate the joke. And it’s just as clear Howard is making great radio.
“Don’t you have some of my brown shirts to clean?” he asks her. Because the Nazis wore brown shirts.
It ends with him saying, “I love you mommy”—sincerely—and saying goodbye, even as she keeps saying, “Maybe you need to think before you open your mouth.”
Afterwards, because this segment part of a radio documentary format, Howard comments on it.
“I was out of control,” he says. “I didn’t ever think that my words had consequences. All I cared about was making great radio.”
There’s regret in his voice, but the truth is, if Howard weren’t out of control, he’d have ended up as Steve Allen—the innovative founder of The Tonight Show who was much loved and quickly surpassed. Clever, a bit edgy, but hardly a culture-shaper.
In the argument with his mother, we the listeners were eavesdropping on a battle between a man’s ego and his superego—his need to assert himself versus his sense of what’s right and proper. It was the battle of what he knows he can be versus what he thinks he should be, his Inner Voice versus His Masters Voice.
That’s a battle we can all relate to, and it was Howard’s genius to make it part of his show. It was uncomfortable and dangerous—would he make his mom cry? Would she ever speak to him again? Would his dad stick up for his son or take his wife’s side?— and therefore you had to keep listening—Stern has a genius for creating radio suspense—what would happen next?
David Letterman, on “The History of Howard Stern,” says, “Howard has changed the culture.” It’s to moments like that he’s referring.
The Letterman Show itself used David’s mom in segments (whether they were “inspired” by Howard or came to it on their own I leave to others to prove—I just don’t know), but the difference is telling. Letterman’s mom segments are sweet and homey. Dave’s Mom is a gentle lady who is always forbearing, shaking her head at her cute rascal of a son. She’s the mom in those 50’s movie who smiles when the kids poke their fingers in her cooling pies, then run away.
That’s not Rae Stern. Rae Stern is an Old Testament God. She’s Jehovah in an apron. Forgiving? Not until he apologizes. Not until he REPENTS. “I didn’t raise you to talk like that!” “How dare you compare me to Hitler!” So he’s Howard Stern—he is still judged and sentence not on the fact that he’s rich, and famous, and successful but on how he behaves that day, that moment. If not, SHE is there, to call him, to chastise him, to be the mom we all fear, and he can be the son we wish we all were—the one who gives back as good as he gets, who lays it all out, who at least has the balls to call his mom Hitler, even if he has to take it back like a kid in the principal’s office. No—you can’t compare Howard Stern’s use of his mom to Letterman’s, you can only compare it to…
Phillip Roth. The greatest living American novelist and the greatest living American radio personality drink from the same Freud-infested well. (Roth’s background, upbringing, accomplishment and comedy is of course of a piece with that of Woody Allen, Larry David, and Stern). Remember the title of the first chapter of Roth classic book, Portnoy’s Complaint? It was. “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met.”
IT WAS HIS MOM!
And where did these words first appear, in a Stern monologue, or a Roth chapter:
She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.
That’s the famous first line of Portnoy’s Complaint, and it’s a trope that Howard brought out of literature and dramatized on drive-time radio. He brought this revelatory intimacy to radio both because he understood that it was funny and it sells, but because…
…he needed to. It was his cure, like writing was Roth’s and movies were Allen’s. Stern may say he regrets it, but to some extent, there was no other way out of his feelings, no better way to do battle than in public, through his art.
If, looking back, Stern regrets putting the people he loves through so much public drama, it’s a good thing for his career, and for us, that he did.
July 6, 2009 | 10:21 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Whether Howard Stern retires from his daily morning show at the end of his contract, or extends it for another couple years, the writing is on the wall—he isn’t going to be doing his show for that much longer. Two years? Three years? Five? Any way you look at it, it’s hard to see him going at it much longer in the current demanding format.
And why should he? There’s a lot to be said for going out at the top—and he is still at the very top of his craft. He’s achieved every milestone possible in broadcast radio, pioneered a new medium in satellite radio, and been more successful in print, TV and movies than any radio personality in history (Want to argue this? Try. Maybe I’ll grant you George Burns and Groucho as worthy quadruple-threat competitors).
That said, time is running out for all those celebrities who until now have been too scared to sit for a Howard Stern interview. Those A-listers who have can wear it as a badge of honor, something to tell their grandchildren about, something to boast to their friends about: I was interviewed by Howard Stern.
As I’ve written before, he is a master of the unscripted, unpredictable, in depth and ultimately utterly humanizing celebrity interview. They clamor to get with James Lipton of “Inside the Actors Studio”—the thinking man’s sycophant. (Lipton can shamelessly milks applause for even his guests’ crappiest movies. “And then, Ms. Hawn, there was a little something called ‘The First Wives Club….”). A Howard interview is for the celeb so secure in his or her career and his intellect that he is willing to be…honest. Or 85 percent more honest than normal.
That said, I’ve been making a list of all the people who need to sit with Howard before they lose the chance. Is that clear? It’s not for his legacy, but for theirs. Here’s my list, feel free to suggest names in the Comments:
Jamie Lee Curtis
Mick Jagger &
Keith Richard (ask them what was on C—-s———Blues, and who has a copy—I know)
Who am I missing?
July 2, 2009 | 9:43 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Today’s “History of Howard Stern, Part II” spent some time on the show’s use of ambush interviews, when the show sends out an intern or employee to pose as a reporter and pester celebrities with rude and inappropriate questions.
At first Stern used his producer, Gary Dell’abate, to carry out the task, and Dell’Abbate hated it. Dell’abate called the practice, which has since been emulated or copied or ripped off by many others, a perfect name: “asshole journalism.”
It’s one part of the show that always makes me squirm. I find myself lowering the volume or even switching the station—it can be compelling, it just makes me cringe. I suppose it’s because I’m trained to do the non-asshole journalism, and I always feel the relationship between myself and those I interview is mutual—we might not agree on much, but we agree to be civil, because at the end of the day there’s a mutual understanding that we both have a worthwhile job to do.
Then again, I rarely interview celebrities.
“Celebrity journalism” has become an oxymoron in our culture, and Stern was onto that long ago. Long before the Daily Show or Sacha Barron Cohen, Stern was sending his low-paid or unpaid minions out to ask the most uncomfortable questions of the most famous people.
“Do you pee in the shower,” I remember they once asked Dustin Hoffman.
Dustin f-ing Hoffman.
Stern saw that so much of what passed for serious interviews was PR-contrived nonsense, pre-approved by a publicist, vetted by a lawyer, and then cut to a three second soundbite. The Stern show decided to become a part of a media pack, join in a frenzied junket—but instead of using the opportunity to elevate some star’s reputation, Stern used it to entertain his audience and elevate his own reputation. If no one expects “celebrity journalism” to be real or serious, why not make it completely unreal and completely un-serious—and in so doing expose it for the sham it is.
In other words, stack the show’s ambush questions—about bodily functions and career flops and race relations (“Have you ever used the n-word?” was one I remember)—against the fawning tripe put out by the Today Show or any other PR-approved outlet, and you’ll see where the real “asshole journalism” gets done.
So I get it—it’s a subversive and dead-on commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture. But it still makes me cringe.
July 1, 2009 | 4:23 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
The show is on vacation this week, so they’re playing a radio documentary Stern and his team did on his life and career, “The History of Howard Stern, Part 2.” It may not be compelling to anyone but diehard fans, but it should be.
There’s a lot of universal insight and lessons there. One aspect that comes through over and over is how driven Stern is. Today the show went into how important it was to Howard to crush his competition when he expanded his show to Philadelphia. They had been on in New York, and going to Philly was their chance to prove they had a show that could be syndicated around the country.
But beyond that Howard could not abide the idea that anyone who could listen to him wouldn’t.
In the course of a segment, Howard talks about how he went up against the Number 1 deejay in the Philly market, John de Bella, and pulled out all the stops to crush him—insulting him, mocking him, railing against him.
Describing his motivation, Howard says something almost in passing that to me is so telling.
“I couldn’t accept not being number one,” he says. “I couldn’t accept failure.”
To most of humanity, not being Number 1 means you can be Number 2. After an “A” comes a “B.” But in Howard’s mind, after an “A” comes an “F.” The fact that this brilliant man can say that with no sense of irony shows his complete and utter drive—turning his career into a zero sum game where he can never settle for anything less than the top.
That’s a very demanding lens through which to see your world, your life, but it worked for him. It took 3 years, but Howard became the Number 1 deejay in Philly.