Posted by Rob Eshman
I was reading Mary-Lou Weisman’s biography of Al Jaffee, the legendary cartoonist and writer for MAD magazine, and came across Jaffee’s drawing of his first childhood superhero, a man his father called “Fartman.” Fartman was a fat old European who sat on a park bench in Al’s first home town (complicated, read the book) of Savannah, and farted on command for passersby. “He would challenge me to do it, then he’d rip off another one,” Jaffee said.
I don’t know whether this inspired Stern’s Fartman character, but I do know how much MAD magazine inspired Stern—and how much it inspired me. I devoured every new issue. After I stopped reading it—not sure why, guess I just thought I outgrew it—I never found any humor like it, until I started listening to Howard.
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June 22, 2011 | 4:38 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Today Arlyn, one of my colleagues here, stopped my on the way to the coffee room and said, “Howard loves you.”
Arlyn drives in from the Valley, a looong schlep, and she listens to Howard each way. Thirty something, single mom, professional, well-educated—exactly the type of person Howard’s critics assume DON’T listen to him. And she loves him.
She told me Howard mentioned my blog post from yesterday. I missed that listening on the way in, but we found it on YouTube:
Just for the record, here’s my Top Ten for America’s Greatest Living Humorist:
1. Howard Stern
2. Woody Allen
3. Steve Martin
4. Larry David
5. Stone and Parker
6. Garrison Keillor (Not my cup of tea but fair is fair)
7. Jon Stewart
8. Stephen Colbert
9. Don Rickles
10. Bill Maher
June 21, 2011 | 2:38 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
So there’s a post over at Slate.com, “America’s Greatest Living Humorists: Parker and Stone, or Larry David?”
The author, Jeremy Stahl, goes back and forth trying to decide who is our number one funny man: the creators of South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon, or the co-creator of Seinfeld and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The jumping off point for his essay is a piece at Salon.com by Mark Stoller Zeitz that says… basically the same thing.
The criteria they go by are “audacity, visual flair, musical chops, verbal invention and gut-busting silliness, not to mention consistency of vision over time.”
“I can think of a few other serious contenders, including Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, and Tina Fey,” writes Stahl.
Really? You can’t even think of Howard Stern? Okay, put Howard aside for a second. Woody Allen? Garrison Keillor? Steve Martin? Matt Groening?
Say Stahl can’t think of other “serious contenders.” Does he have one of those laptop thingees? Can he Google? I mean, in the realm of “living” humorists, if not popular and active (those weren’t his criteria), you’d have to add Carl Reiner, right? And what about Don Rickles? Whole parts of these peoples’ acts wouldn’t exist had Don Rickles not made the stage safe for Heeb jokes.
But since the writer doesn’t do his due diligence, let me answer his question: Who is the greatest living American humorist? Howard Stern.
I’ll break it down:
Audacity: Howard pushed the envelope so far the FCC tried to take away his stationery. He has taken on the Federal government, popular taste, celebrity culture, and his corporate bosses. He has rolled the dice on his career many, many times in order to win laughs on hi own terms.
Visual flair: Not sure why this belongs in the “humorist” criteria, but so be it. Howard has turned his show into a ‘visual” medium by painting word pictures of the antics in his studio, the characters in his head, the thoughts in his mind. So he doesn’t draw funny pictures. The category was greatest humorist, not greatest cartoonist.
Musical chops: Are these qualities just selected to tilt the verdict to Stone and Parker? I mean, what were Mark Twain’s “musical chops?” Did Will Rogers play the ukelele? What musical was Jon Stewart in? Anyway, so be it. Howard incoporates music into every aspect of his show, from his long-running gag-band The Losers to the Robin song parodies.
Verbal invention: Howard does this for five hours each day, mostly extemporaneously. He does it without his personal team of highly paid Jewish writers (you try being funny without one of those), and while he is surrounded by talented funny people like Robin, Fred and Gary, he has no big production values besides his mike and his mouth.
Gut-busting silliness: See above: 5 hours a day. No script.
Consistency of vision over time: All credit to Stone and Parker, who are brilliant. But on this last point, Howard wins hands down. He was upsetting the political hypocrites, religious nuts and celebrity sycophants before those two were out of diapers. Along the way he’s written two best selling books, starred in a successful movie, created a crazy-funny TV show, and inspired a generation of humorists—like Parker and Stone.
As for Larry David, he’s funny too. I’ve written before that the similarities between Stern and David (and Woody Allen) are telling.
But if the writers for Slat-on pick “audacity” as the lead criteria, Howard Stern wins.
Which begs the question: What web site wins the award for Most Hackey Attempt to Drive Web Traffic Under the Guise of Making a Significant Cultural Observation? Ladies and gentlemen, the award goes to… Slate!
June 17, 2011 | 8:28 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
So who the hell is Benji Bronk?
He’s the heckler who disrupted Anthony Weiner’s press conference yesterday afternoon.
As the New York congressman intoned his prepared text, apologizing for texting salacious messages and photos to constituents and fans, taking responsibility for his actions, apologizing to his wife Huma Abedin, apologizing to the staff and supporters he betrayed, and finally resigning, Bronk shouted amidst the scrum of whirring cameras and flashing lights.
“How big is your penis!? Seven inches?! ”
Bronk is a writer for The Howard Stern Show. Fans of the show—like me—know he is 43, though he lied and concealed his age for many months until Howard Stern News reporter Steve Langford finally dug out the truth. Bronk is Jewish, from the South, perpetually horny, morose about his career, struggling to move up a rung. He carries a chip on his shoulder the size of a Walmart. On a show that elevates every participant, even every intern, to supporting character status, Bronk’s persona is that of an attention-starved, off-kilter sexually hyperactive man-child
Howard credits Bronk with being a good writer, if a very strange man. His finest moment may not have been Weinergate, but several months ago when he came across the comedian Tracy Morgan on a Manhattan street. Bronk started helping Morgan, acting like he was part of Morgan’s entourage. When Morgan asked, “Who are you?” Bronk responded, “I am part of your life.” It was creepy and brilliant and inspired—even Morgan later came on the show and said so.
Story continues after the jump.
Video courtesy of ABC News.
But why would Bronk disrupt what is supposed to be a solemn moment in the life of an American politician?
For years, one of the hardest parts of the Stern Show for me to appreciate was the faux journalism. Howard sends staffers into the world posing as reporters—people like Stuttering John, Gary Garver, Benjy Bronk. They identify themselves as reporters either from the stations Howard has worked for, or from Sirius Satellite Radio. They get access to newsmakers and celebrities. Then they ask about penis size. Or if someone ever said the N word. I remember cringing when Stuttering John asked Water Chronkite if he ever peed in the shower. I had to actually turn the radio off when he asked Dustin Hoffman if he ever farted in the bathtub.
I cringe, but inevitably I find myself smiling. It’s awful. It mocks journalism. And it’s funny.
For Stern, the ambush interviews serve two purposes. They provide content for the show. The reactions of the interviewees are the radio equivalent of those embarrassing Enquirer photos. Sometimes the Stern staffers are forcibly removed or shouted down. That’s good radio too.
They also give the show free publicity. It’s a really cheap way of branding the Stern show using other people’s cameras. Last night Bronk’s name and face were all over TV news. MSNBC’s Lawrence O ‘Donnell did a whole segment just on the disruption. Bronk’s face—round, sweaty, half-covered in a ski-cap—filled the corner of the screen.
But beyond those immediate functions, Stern’s use of ambush reporters does something else: it punctures the pomposity that passes as importance in our over-inflated political and celebrity culture.
Really, how seriously should we take a press conference featuring a congressman who texts his naked, challah-looking penis to admirers? How seriously should we take a press corp that sends 40 cameras and reporters to cover Weinergate, while news stories from Africa to Alabama go unreported? If the media wants to fiddle while America burns, Howard Stern will be there to demonstrate just how foolish they are. Sure Bronk’s questions are rude and silly, but how important is this story that it should suck all the coverage and resources away from serious stories about the soldiers dying in Afghanistan, the Medicare debacle, et al? Bronk is at least paid to be funny. He’s doing his job: is MSNBC? Fox? NBC?
In other words, sure Bronk is making a mockery of the news media. But can you really make a mockery of a mockery?
For more on Howard’s Stern’s crucial role in American culture, click here.
June 15, 2011 | 7:45 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
I’m watching Anthony Weiner roast in public humiliation, and I can’t help thinking: If he had only paid attention to Howard.
The congressman, whose shocking shirtless tweets have by now pretty much sunk his political career, is a classic case of someone who used the Howard Stern Show for publicity, who maybe enjoyed Howard, but who but didn’t learn from it.
Because here’s Howard Rule #1: Be Honest.
A couple of days ago, Howard himself said it best: He has built his successful carer by telling his audience the truth about himself. By not hiding the darkest parts of his personality. By being honest.
Skidmarks, masturbation, pornography, marital temptation, flirtations— Howard talks about every aspect of himself. In doing so he has all but inoculated himself against public humiliation. What could possibly come out about Howard that would be more shocking than what he himself has revealed? Nothing. Unless it turns out he drowns puppies in his fish tank, nothing.
When you can’t express your urges, they can overtake you. If you refuse to face the darker parts of yourself, they can end up defining you. For a public figure, the more honest you are, the less likely your life will be revealed as scandalous. In over 30 years in the public eye, Howard has constantly shocked people, but never once has he surprised them. In other words, by owning up to his foibles, by talking early and often about them, he has controlled the shock value of his life.
Early in his career Howard decided to tell people the truth about his life. That single decision not only changed radio—as I wrote a couple days ago, among other things it made the airwaves safe for the word penis—it made him into the rare public figure who is almost scandal proof.
That doesn’t mean Howard doesn’t have secrets, or doesn’t present a persona to his audience that doesn’t 100 percent jive with the real Howard—of course he does. But when it comes to the areas of life we expect our public personalities to hide—their psychological challenges and physical weaknesses and public humiliations and sexual peccadilloes—Howard has been quite open and entertaining about these. The only way Howard can be accused of hypocrisy, of his public image not comporting with his private one, is if he turns out to be normal. Do you see the genius here? The only thing that can be revealed about Howard, that he has not revealed himself, is his normalcy, his goodness, his menschiness.
Hindsight is 20/20, but if Weiner on his Stern Show appearances had slowly revealed his struggles with whatever the hell is bothering him (Sexual frustration? Body hair?) the revelations now either wouldn’t have happened or wouldn’t have been so explosive.
And when they did become public, instead of doubling down on his lies and obfuscation, he should have again followed Howard’s rule and just been brutally honest: It’s me. I did it. I need some help.
We all hide. We all need help. None of us gets all our desires met, or all our fantasies fulfilled. To various degrees, each one of us is, as Howard’s theme song says, “a tortured man.”
Howard has taught me how to take control of the shock value of my life. When I write or speak, I strive to reveal as much as I can about myself—what happened to me, what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking. Not talking these things to others allows them a power over our private life that eventually sinks our public lives.
I do believe Anthony Weiner will be reborn as a superb and better paid TV pundit like Elliot Spitzer. If you’ve heard him on Howard or watched his YouTube rants against FoxNews anchors, you’ll see what an adept and entertaining speaker he can be. If The Jewish Journal had two nickels and a TV studio, I’d hire him today.
But I would only do so on one condition: Be yourself, Anthony. Or, at least, be more like Howard Stern.
June 7, 2011 | 10:45 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
We are living through a time of unprecedented penis talk.
Between Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal, and the attempts to ban circumcision through the ballot box, the news cycle has turned into one long crotch watch.
And who deserves credit for making the world safe for public penis talk? Howard Stern.
His show pushed the boundaries of what was considered an appropriate topic for the airwaves. As far back as the early 1980s, he was incorporating penis jokes and skits into his radio show (remember the infamous kielbasa-swallower?) and making his obsession with his small penis size an ongoing show myth (Yes, myth. He’s 6’5”. The same Hox genes that control limb size influence penis size). Stern’s focus on genitalia was one of the reasons he was kicked off KNBC, and the source of many of his run ins with the FCC. Fittingly, he named his 1993 autobiography, and the subsequent film, Private Parts.
Howard didn’t start people thinking about penises, but he pioneered the very idea that it was okay to talk about what everybody was thinking about, anyway. Today’s generation of show producers, newscasters and viewers grew up either listening to Stern, or in a world that he had prepped for the P word. And today’s network executives grew up watching Stern reap enormous ratings and success by talking penis. Critics always accused Howard of having the maturity of a 14 year old boy—but Howard revealed that most of us are right there with him.
In doing so, he stiffened the spine of all of us in media who have to make decisions about what is or is not “appropriate” to say or print. My first editorial decision at the paper was whether to do a story on oral sex in the wake of the Clinton/Lewinsky Scandal. Listening to Howard, I knew that there was no reason not to just talk about what everybody was thinking about. I steeled my nerves and put the story on the first cover I ever edited for The Jewish Journal. There was a shitstorm of backlash. Not one positive letter to the editor. One of LA’s biggest rabbis publicly excoriated me. And that issue of The Jewish Journal? Every single copy was picked up.
So now, thanks in part to Howard, the P word is filling the airwaves. We are on a 24 hour penis news cycle, broadcasters are giddy with puns, Jon Stewart, Howard’s direct satiric spawn, is in his glory, and it’s as if America doesn’t need to worry for a second about unemployment, the deficit, dying soldiers in Afghanistan, cutbacks in social services, or any of those things that pale in significance to…penises. I don’t speak Chinese, but I am going to bet that while we’re fiddling around with our penis stories, China’s media is urging the people on to greater success and productivity. Yes, we’re screwed.
We can only hope that the penis obsession returns to the place where it began and where it belongs, The Howard Stern Show. Then CNN and MSNBC can go back to covering more important things. Like vaginas.