Posted by Rob Eshman
No, he’s not gay.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The true outing of Howard Stern takes place in dribs and drabs, in offhand comments from various guests and staffers, so rarely and so quickly that only die-hard listeners would begin to understand the truth: Howard Stern is a mensch.
Yes, it’s true. I said it. A mensch: Yiddish meaning a good soul, a nice guy. And 30 years ago, when he was starting out, that sentence would have done more damage to his burgeoning career as an in-your-face, no-holds-barred radio DJ than a nude spread on the cover of OUT magazine. But now I don’t think his demographic is going to stick their fingers down their throats discovering that their radio god has feet of… well, the feet of a really good guy.
What is equally true though, is that outside his fans, the general public perceptions is still that Howard Stern is a cruel, creepy, sexist, racist boor. Just last week on the show Howard played a clip of his former girlfriend Angie Everhart mentioning his name on the Wendy Williams Show. The audience boo’ed, or oo’d, or made some collective animal-like noise that a herd of buffalo likely makes when they sense a coyote is getting too close. Howard said people still think he’s worse than Mel Gibson. To prove it he sent his writer Sal out on the street to ask people who’s worse, Mel Gibson or Howard Stern? Here’s how the site Mark’s Friggin reported it:
Gary told Howard he had Sal’s interviews about who’s worse, Howard or Mel Gibson. Howard said he didn’t expect that until tomorrow. Gary said Sal interviewed a wide variety of people out there. Howard played the clips and most of the people were saying ‘‘Howard Stern.’’ There were many who said they love Mel Gibson. There were people saying Howard is an idiot and they hate him more than Mel. There were some who said they don’t like Mel Gibson.
Sal edited together all of the people just saying ‘‘Howard Stern’’ over and over again. Howard laughed when he heard so many people saying his name. The people were saying that Howard Stern has a potty mouth.
Howard said he counted 21 Howard Stern’s and 11 Mel Gibson’s. He said that’s unbelievable. Howard said that they’re in a small world with their fans there and they don’t know what it’s really like out there. Howard said New York is really the best place to ask the question because he’s kind of beloved there.
Sal told Howard that they should have video taped this because the reactions he got were amazing. He said their eyes would pop out of their heads when he’d bring up Howard’s name. Howard said he respects the results he got. Sal said he would pick Howard too.
Bottom line: Howard Stern still creeps MIddle America out.
But fans get a glimpse into a different side: Celebrity guests will often say Howard is so different in real life. His parents say so. And his wife Beth says so—and she doesn’t seem to be the type that’s attracted to people who are worse than Mel Gibson.
Another clue came in my e-mail this week, and I’m going to share it (with the e-mailer’s permission). I’m gonna out Howard Stern.
Last week on the show Howard took a few moments to mock a CBS producer named Steve North, who had sent Howard an e-greeting card for the Jewish New Years. He said it was annoying the guy sent it to him, he didn’t want to open it, and who the hell is Steve North, and why does he have Howard’s e-mail, and why would a guy named Steve North act so Jewish when he clearly changed his name. From MarksFriggin.com:
Howard said he hates these E-cards that people send out. He said he got one from this guy, Steve North, and he keeps getting reminders in his email if he doesn’t open it. Howard said he gets one every year from Steve and it’s always the same thing. He said it’s not that much fun. Howard wondered if Steve gets notes telling him that he hasn’t opened the card. He said he opened it and watched it for like one second before turning it off. Howard said it’s a whole long Opus and he doesn’t care about it.
Howard said that someone had to have given Steve his email address but he’s not sure how that happened. Howard wondered why Steve North is sending him a Jewish holiday card. Gary said he’s not sure that he even did it. Howard also wondered why Steve has a last name of ‘‘North’’ if he’s Jewish. Howard said he must have changed his name.
That led to Fred playing some Gilbert Gottfried doing his Rabbi Gottfried impression and singing songs. Howard said he wants to make an E-card out of that. Howard said he hates when Jews change their names to things like ‘‘North.’’ Robin said maybe his parents changed it. Howard said maybe they did.
All it all, Howard took the thoughtful act of an old acquaintance reaching out to say Happy Jew Year, and turned it into a long and very fun attack on Steve North’s character.
Steve knows Howard because Steve was the first guy to offer Gary Dell’abate a job in radio. But the two have crossed paths many times, and though I have no idea if Howard admires Steve, Steve was an early promoter of Howard’s genius. In a long, March 18, 1992 interview with Howard in The Two River Times, Steve writes, “The bottom line is that this 6’5” shaggy-haired, happily married father of two young daughters has perfected the art of satire.” C’mon, very few people beyond maybe Howard’s agent, Robin and Fred realized back then the extent of Stern’s gifts. Steve had it right early on. (In an interview later he wrote, “You never know when [Howard]‘s going to berate you on the air for something.” Right about that too.)
But back to Howard the Mensch. Here’s what Steve e-mailed me following Howard’s rant about him:
So now I hear Howard was talking about the Rosh Hashana e-card I sent to him (and you and hundreds of others). And wondering when I changed my last name! (Blame that one on my dad).
A friend of mine sent me more details about it just now… too funny. And I laughed over the fact that he apparently was wondering how I have his e-mail address, as he well knows he gave it to me a few years ago when our mutual friend Mark Drucker was terminally ill, and we corresponded regularly… and, periodically since then (including a few months ago when he wrote to me before an appearance on the Early Show).
The truth is, personally, the guy’s a major mensch. I mentioned our mutual friend Mark (known as “Mark the Shark” when he was DeBella’s newsman in Philly); Howard was great during Mark’s illness, writing him a 3-page handwritten letter about their friendship, which hung on the wall in Mark’s hospital room, and asking me after Mark’s death to get him in touch with Mark’s mom and sister. I doubt he’d want any of this mentioned in detail… and I have other stories about what a good guy he is… but, you get the idea.
Case closed. I’ve made the case elsewhere that what people mistake for Howard’s misogyny or homophobia is satire aimed at the big, bloody red heart of American hypocrisy. Sometimes he gets close to the line, sometimes he crosses it (Honestly? Today his impromptu skit about Warren Beatty and Annette Benning daughter’s sex change to my taste crossed the line. I met the daughter many years ago when she was a girl performing in a play with my son, in a context where they were just another set of proud parents, and when I heard the story I just couldn’t laugh along—it has to be a really tough time for any parent and child going through that, even if you’re sick famous.) Anyway, Stern Rule # 27: You don’t get great by playing it safe….
I’m not saying Howard is all sweetness. I’m sure those who are closest to him, or who have been in the past, can cite their own examples of that. But there are enough examples of the type Steve e-mailed me to definitively prove that Howard Stern the man is far from the nasty, negative brand image of Howard Stern he and popular culture have created.
What I wonder is this: Can Howard Stern the Image exist without Howard the Mensch? Does it take a fundamentally kind person to create the atmosphere where people can feel free enough and creative enough to work at their peak? Wouldn’t a true a-hole have flamed out years earlier? Doesn’t it take a person who genuinely cares about people, is curious about their lives, and who at some level can empathize with their plight to be as great an interviewer as Howard is? Does nastiness work for Howard as an image because it’s a shell of armor he can put on top go into the world, and take off in private? In other words, could only a true mensch pretend to be such a true prick?
*Oh, by the way, Steve North sent me the same e-card he sent Howard. And I didn’t open mine either.
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September 7, 2010 | 9:45 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Howard has been hinting that things aren’t working out between him and Sirius. In four months, his contract is up, and there’s a good chance, judging by his comments, he won’t renew. But he doesn’t seem particularly upset: He seems to have an option under wraps that will allow him to do his uncensored show through a different delivery system.
People keep talking about about why or whether Howard would leave Sirius, but what’s happening of course is that Sirius is leaving Howard. As ar as his fans are concerned, Sirius is guilty until proven innocent. One day it might come out that as part of his new contract, Howard stipulated that he would work only from home, nude, in pantomime, but Howard doesn’t strike me as a prima donna or a kook. He knows what he’s worth, and he knows what he has to do to be worth it.
I’m trying to figure out, if Howard wants to stay at Sirius, why in the world Sirius would let him walk. Sirius is in the radio business, and he’s still the most innovative and original voice in radio. I’m trying to look at this from management’s perspective, because, as a fan, I can’t quite believe it.
Let me be clear, the day Howard Stern leaves Sirius, I leave Sirius. If I want to hear standup, I can TiVO Comedy Central. If I want to hear uninterrupted music, they’ve invented something called an MP3 player that you only pay for once, not every month. If I want to hear Nancy Sinatra talking about her dad, I can go down to the Museum of Television and Radio and watch some old Mike Douglas segments. I don’t know why the company would let Howard go, but I’ve narrowed it down to five reasons:
1. He’ll cost more than he’ll bring in.
2. They think they can retain the subscribers he brought in without him. Put Howard in the window, attract a lot of PR and subscribers, then move him out and move in some cheaper model. This is my Howard as a Loss Leader Theory.
3. Howard’s contract demands are unreasonable, would set a bad precedent, would give him too much control over the company, would hurt the bottom line or investor confidence.
4. Somebody important at Sirius just doesn’t like him.
5. The company has figured out a new revenue model that doesn’t depend on brilliant, original content. Maybe there’s more money in the actual hardware business. Maybe they want to just be a conduit, renting out satellite and radio technology, not a content provider.
Those are the rational reasons. But we live in a world where serious companies make the dumbest , most self-destructive decisions imaginable, dragging down whole business sectors, whole countries, in a wake of short-sightedeness and arrogance. GM, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Merrill, Bear Stearns, Nationwide. So maybe that’s what’s going on.
Whatever it is, I’ll just click off my subscription and follow Howard. Because he isn’t a Loss Leader, he’s a leader. Plain and simple. Radio will follow where he goes.
Yes, he’s 50 something. But no one younger is doing anything more cutting edge or interesting. Maybe he’s a little cranky sometimes, and maybe close to burnout—but he’s not there yet. He has a good 5 years in him, especially energized by his almost frightening need to prove himself, to win. Sirius, watch out, you’ve awoken a sleeping, giant, needy, brilliant, Jewish overachiever.
How many others beside me will leave? That would be a great book to make in Vegas. Howard claims he signed a million listeners. Let’s say he’s wrong by half. And let’s say of the 500,000 he signed, only half cancel their subscriptions. That’s 250,000 subscribers at 13 bucks a month times 12 months. $39,000,000 sucked out of a company that’s still hooked up to a respirator, and whose share price could be posted over a lemonade stand.
But I’m no financial analyst. Others, much smarter than me, have written that Sirius, with its billion-plus revenue, will experience Howard’s departure as a blip, maybe a bad year, but it is sufficiently diverse that it will recover. Writing on his blog Seeking Alpha, Relmor Demetrius says that Sirus has already proven it can get millions of subscribers for reasons other than Howard:
The facts are quite clear on this. Sirius XM added more than 1 million customers this year alone. That would offset losing Howard Stern right there. Their growth would probably cover any cancellations and they wouldn’t miss a beat. The company that hired Stern 5 years ago is vastly different in 2010.
Maybe, but Demetrius neglects one huge factor: competition. What if Howard or someone else develops a radio delivery system that’s better and cheaper? What if Sirius is susceptible to bad press, or the defection of another top talent? I think even Mel Karmazin would admit that Howard was the cornerstone of Sirius’ success. When you pull out the cornerstone, a lot of unpredictable things start to happen. Radio, like newspapers and TV and film, always come back to content, and content always comes back to talent. Neglect talent, and you pay a price. Ask Clear Channel.
Granted, Sirius is not going to disappear all at once, and maybe it’s only $30 million, or $20 million or, as Demetrius says, even $100 million that Howard’s departure will cost the company (after accounting for savings). But you’re talking about a company that makes its dough 13 bucks at a time. In any subscription business (here;’s something I know a little about) the key thing is retention—retaining subscribers. That’s steady income, money you can build next year’s budget around. Without it, you better be able to tell the friggin future.
Anyway, once Howard leaves, I don’t give a crap about Sirius. I hope it thrives—I was one of the shmucks who bought the stock. But in my radio life, I can go back to listening to NPR and all my iBooks and finally stop bringing cocktail party conversations to a dead halt by interjecting, “You’ll never believe what Howard Stern did today…”
More likely, I’ll pay whatever Howard asks in order to hear him through his next medium. The most plausible is a podcast, like the one Adam Carolla does. I listen to that when Teresa Strasser hosts it, because Teresa is just so damn good and quick, and funny and bright. I don’t know if a pay model can work for podcasts, but if Howard can get a million people to pay 120 bucks a year, and he spends half on overhead, he can still do pretty well—and own the company he creates. That, and a Howard Stern web site and event division that is as much lifestyle as Stern Show, and he will go into his dotage creating a brand that can live on long after The Howard Stern Show, and Sirius Satellite Radio, are gone. .
September 6, 2010 | 10:30 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
The comedian, writer, thinker and mensch Larry Miller has a beautiful tribute to Robert Schimmel on his blog today. Schimmel was a regular Howard Stern guest. As funny as his stand up was, there was something in the interactions between him and Howard that unleashed an even funnier, even darker side. In some deep ways, those two understod one another.
Miller understood Schimmel too. Here’s an an excerpt from the blog:
....Here’s something you won’t read in any of the papers, and it’s really the whole point of this clog.
Robert’s parent were both Holocaust survivors. His father was marched out of their concentration camp with thousands of others as the Americans were advancing in the winter of ‘45, in order to… Oh, who knows what those horrible folks were even thinking at that point. They marched the prisoners, in no coats, until they died or dropped. And when they dropped, trying to catch a breath, they walked over and shot them — as calm as a glass of tea. Robert’s father dropped, along with his best friend, and a guard walked over and killed him. Otto, the father, was next to him, and he was the one shot, weakly holding up a hand and whispering, “No. Please.”
Then the guard turned to Otto and… Shot him? No. He screamed, “If you want to live, get up and keep going.” And somehow Otto did.
And a few years later, Robert was making people laugh in Las Vegas.
Here’s the thing, though. One night, Otto told Robery after a show, “You were good. You know, I always wanted to be a comic, but, well…” Can you imagine? Is life weird enough?
And here’s the deepest part: Otto never forgot that moment in the snow on that march. And one day Robert said to him something I still find extraordinary. Did you catch it? It was what the guard said.
If you put it in different hands, at a different moment, with a different feeling, Robert said, it’s actually the greatest, deepest, simplest advice in history:
“If you want to live, get up and keep going.”
Robert Schimmel certainly learned that lesson. Get up and keep going. He never gave up. He was a terrific comic, but maybe that was his greatest gift: Get up and keep going.
Not a bad lesson for all of us to learn. With all the things in his life, I told him once, even Job turned to God and said, “Gee, now I don’t feel so bad anymore.”
Have a great Labor Day weekend. And then, get up and keep going.
(P.S. If you feel like it, that new show of mine is available for free by subscribing to iTunes: “This Week With Larry Miller.)
REMEMBER: IF YOU WALKED OUT OF BED TODAY, AND NO ONE YOU LOVE GOT SICK AND DIED, AND NO ONE SHOT YOU WHEN YOU GOT TIRED… FOLKS, TURN ON A GAME AND CRACK A BEER, BECAUSE YOU ARE WALKING IN TALL COTTON.
Rest in peace, Bob Schimmel.
By the way, our writer Naomi Pfefferman did a nice interview with Schimmel a few years back. Here that is:
In June 2000, Robert Schimmel—whose ribald routines earned him a spot on Comedy Central’s list of 100 greatest comics—was pondering his mortality after undergoing a cancer biopsy: “Is there a God? What about Jesus . . . I didn’t believe in him on earth so is he gonna be pissed at me now?” the 58-year-old recounts in “Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life.”
In the memoir—which he’ll discuss at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 28—Schimmel mixes harrowing stories about his chemotherapy with hilarious anecdotes about his illness and treatment. He riffs about the salesman who tried to sell him a pubic hair toupee (it’s called a “merkin”); lusting after various nurses; having to ask his mother, the Holocaust survivor, to buy rolling papers for his medical marijuana; and imagining his funeral (“I probably should’ve gotten close with some rabbi so I don’t get the generic eulogy,” he said. “I hate those. You know he never knew the dead guy.”)
Even before his diagnosis of Stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Schimmel’s experiences had the makings of an inspirational book. He suffered a heart attack in his 40s and the death of one of his six children (also to cancer) in 1992, but he returned to the stage and, by 2000, had produced an HBO special, best-selling CDs, and a sitcom, “Schimmel,” slated to debut on the Fox network.
While in rehearsals for the pilot, however, the comedian experienced severe chills and night sweats; a biopsy revealed he had an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His response to the doctor was immediate: “Just my luck. I get the one not named after the guy.”
“My instinct was to go for the laugh,” Schimmel said recently, looking fit eight years into his remission. He realized that even though he had just been told he had cancer, he hadn’t been told he was going to die. To prove it, he was going to do the one thing that showed he was very much alive, which was to make people laugh.
His audience consisted of fellow patients in the chemotherapy room at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix—“the toughest room I ever worked,” he said. “But remembering what Norman Cousins said about the healing power of humor ... [made] me want to be part of their recovery. I want to help them to feel good, even for a short time…. For in the moment that they laughed, in that one moment, they weren’t sick, and they weren’t afraid.”
Schimmel traces his own survivor’s spirit to his parents, Betty and Otto Schimmel, who survived Mauthausen and Auschwitz, respectively. During the most grueling part of chemo—when he briefly considered suicide—the comic was fortified by Otto Schimmel’s words about how he had traversed a Nazi death march. The prisoner had remembered a Nazi’s admonition: “If you want to live, keep moving.”
Doctors first warned Schimmel that he might be prone to cancer when he was 13, and they performed surgery on an undescended testicle. Nevertheless, Robert proved to be a class clown with a predilection for trouble. When he failed his German final exam in high school, he declared that the teacher was anti-Semitic: “My father went apes—- and threatened to sue the district,” the comic said. “He even got a Jewish German teacher to re-administer my final exam, but I got a worse grade from her than I did the original teacher.”
Schimmel went on to work as a stereo salesman in Phoenix, never envisioning a career as a comic, nor even attending a comedy club until he visited his sister in Los Angeles and she signed him up for an open mic night at The Improv—without telling him—20 years ago, when he was in his early 30s. The club’s owner chanced to pull Schimmel’s name out of a hat and heckled him until he ventured onstage. Schimmel riffed; the audience laughed; and the owner offered him future gigs.
“So I quit my job, put the Phoenix house up for sale and my [then-wife] and I loaded our belongings on a U-Haul to drive to Los Angeles,” he said. “I got off the Hollywood Freeway to show her where I was going to be working—and it turned out the club had burned down the night before.”
Schimmel stayed in Los Angeles, supporting himself as a salesman and working open mic shows until he could support his family as a comedian.
When his 3-year-old son, Derek, was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s, Schimmel found solace in the Book of Job: “The story talks about whether one can have faith when s—- happens, and I always had faith,” he said. “I think the real you comes out when you hit bottom. That’s when you find out who you really are.”
Later, between Schimmel’s own chemotherapy treatments, he incorporated his illness into his nightclub act, complete with a slide show of his deterioration. (“That’s me when they told me what the co-pay was,” he quips about one skeletal-looking picture.) Club owners warned him that audiences wouldn’t appreciate the dark subject matter, but viewers roared with laughter, rewarding him with standing ovations and rushing to hug him after each show.
Later, the slide show incorporated photos of the now-healthy comic; his wife, Melissa; and his children (there is one of the late Derek as well). Schimmel just taped a Showtime special, and he performs numerous standup shows a year but still spends a good deal of time speaking to (and joking with) cancer patients.
“How can I say ‘no’ when people reach out to me? If there is a reason I survived, that’s it.”