Posted by Rob Eshman
Howard tipped off listeners to a trainwreckishly delightful new reality show: “Steven Seagal: Lawman.” I watched it the same way I used to watch the alley cats mating outside my window in Jerusalem: it’s noisy and gross but, hey, it’s also part of God’s world.
In “Lawman,” former action star Seagal goes on patrol with the Jefferson Parish Louisiana Sheriff’s department as a reserve deputy sheriff. Two things surprised me right off: 1. Seagal is a cop who physically cannot run, and 2. He is not even the heaviest member of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department. What is the motto down there— “To Protect and To Serve Ourselves Huge Portions of Jambalaya”?
I’m fairly sure Seagal knows how to shoot. I watched a scene where he instructs another cop how to hit a target from what looks like seven feet away. Seagal tells the cop, “I’m going to shoot a hole in the target. Then I want you to put your bullet through that hole.” Seagal then proceeds to do that, because, as he explains a half dozen times in the first episode, he is a trained martial arts master, and his years of Eastern discipline have taught him how to shoot, how to fight, how to stay calm, how to see things no one else sees—it seems, in fact, his years of martial arts discipline have taught him everything except how to say no to dessert.
But poking fun at Seagal is as easy for me as shooting a bullet through a bullet hole is for him. For all I know he may be in the joke—making him one of the most brilliant self-parodists since Mae West. But I doubt it.
What I loved about “Lawman” was watching how Seagal has so completely transformed his persona from the circumstances of his birth, to whatever he is now.
Because, really, Steven Seagal is a Jew.
I mean, he’s a Jew from Lansing, Michigan, the son of Samuel Steven Seagal (1928-1991), a high school math teacher. His father’s parents were Russian Jews, Nathan Siegelman - later changed to Seagal - (1892-1973) and Dora Goldstein (1894-1989). Seagal’s mother is of Irish ancestry (Jewish? Catholic?) but according to Reform Jewish law, the man is a Jew.
But Seagal, like many Jews of his generation, sought enlightenment and cultural attachment elsewhere. His family moved from Lansing to Fullerton, CA when Seagal was 5 years old, and Seagal grew up in the Southern California suburbs. (Which makes his attempt at a bayou accent in “Lawmen” all the more puzzling. I’ve been to Fullerton and they just don’t speak like that there.). He found meaning and spiritual succor in the Eastern martial arts—again, a very Jewish thing. The leading karate teacher in LA is an Israeli. Jews, especially of Seagal’s generation, were turned off by what Judaism had become—a pale copycat of Protestant propriety, with rote Hebrew school learning, mumbled, meaningless prayers, and bar mitzvahs that amounted to little more than a punch line. This is the Jewish world Howard Stern—who is just two years younger than Seagal—mocks often on his show, and it’s funny ‘cause it’s true. Jews growing up in the 50’s, 60s and early 70s got the assimilated version of Judaism, castrated of its spiritual power.
So it’s hardly surprising Stern has a running gag about being “half Jewish,” even though he’s as full-on Jew as Golda Meir. In fact, it’s telling: in Stern’s generation, American Judaism was practiced in a half-assed way, at half-strength, half-heartedly.
And it’s also hardly surprising that Stern turned away from Judaism and toward the Eastern practice of Transcendental meditation, of which he is a big proponent and practitioner. And that Seagal turned to Zen and aikido and karate and Tibetan Buddhism and etc. Just because it’s hard to take Seagal’s seriousness seriously, it’s easy to mock a 400 pound Zen master with the world’s worst hair weave, the face of a Pinsk peddlar, and a Bayou accent that sounds like he learned it by listening to Dennis Quaid in “The Big Easy.” But he did do what at least a generation of Jews did: leave what he saw as a stale religion and culture behind and seek meaning, connection and enlightenment elsewhere.
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October 21, 2009 | 8:46 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Yesterday Howard went on a rant against John Melendez, aka “Stuttering John.” Melendez used to work for Stern, left to work for Jay Leno, and defended his current boss on Facebook against accusations Howard made that Leno steals Stern’s material. That defense set Howard off.
“He suddenly thinks he’s on Jay’s team,” Howard started. “Just shut the fuck up! You bitch. Just shut up John. And do me a favor: tell your fucking wife to stay away from my wife and her fucking bullshit friendship…”
It went on like that. Howard ranting against John, declaring his career dead, his wife dead to to him—just a fountain of anger pent up and unleashed….
...And I was envious. Anger is a great motivator for Howard. Yes, he knows it makes for good radio, but it really seems to motivate him as well. He NEEDS to be angry, like Buddhists need to be calm. His best career moments are a livid reaction to some real or perceived obstacle: other radio DJs standing in his way of ratings, radio managements blocking his creativity; Les Moonves of CBS blocking his move to Sirius, the FCC’s blocking his freedom of speech and the Sirius merger, the WORLD for not acknowledging his specialness. Howard finds a way to be always on edge, and that anger keeps him fresh and funny.
Think about it: he has three healthy children, a loving wife, all the money he could ever need, unquestionable professional success, two living, loving parents, the loyalty of his staff, creative freedom—but he still finds a way to be angry.
I used to think I just had too happy of a childhood to rely on anger to motivate me. But the truth is what I’m doing now, when I strip away the logical reasons, I see anger as a big reason behind my actions: my anger at specific people set me on a course to prove them wrong and get beyond their roadblocks. In that, I have to credit listening to Howard: he made that singular emotion work for him, so, I realized, why can’t I just acknowledge my own anger, and make it work for me?
Thanks for the tip, Howard.
And fuck you, John.
October 19, 2009 | 4:20 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
If there was ever a time to “Save Artie Lange“, that time would be now. We have now entered Week 2 of Artie’s absence.
Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange is out for the second week in a row, a source of speculation, drama and comedy on the Stern Show. According to the web site savebabygorilla.com—a somewhat loving tribute site dedicated to Lange:
A text was sent to Gary explaining on what was going. “Artie’s got a lot of drama going on and we’re right in there with him”, said Howard. According to the note, it is not drugs. Neither Howard nor Gary knew if the text was for public display. Howard handed the note over to Robin to review for her opinion on whether or not to read it on air.
Robin reacted with an “Oh wow” upon reading it. The Queen of Mean actually silenced? Must be sensitive material. Howard said that he actually thought that [content of the note] was going on. Robin added, “but that’s what everything is about anyway.” She added, “I thought there was something being given to prevent that.” Then she asked Howard, “Have you ever just wanted to stay home?”
So what does this all mean? Depression? Father Issues? Still Drugs? Rehab? Girlfriend stuff? A-Rod producing in the post-season?
Howard’s reaction to Lange resonates with me. He tends, at least on radio, to excuse, overlook, avoid and dismiss the most egregious lapses by his co-workers. I can relate. The same muscles that enable his creativity atrophy when it comes to being a disciplinarian. He can’t and won’t be both.
I wrote before how Howard has taught me not to avoid confrontation, but that doesn’t seem to apply to the people closest to him on the show. Either that or he realizes that their disciplinary lapses are actually good for the show. Speculating about Artie or upbraiding Sal is good radio, and perhaps Howard would rather have ongoing drama than the finality of discipline and—inevitably—dismissal. Because, face it, in any other workplace Artie and Sal and likely Richard would have been let go by now.
Maybe Howard recognizes that their talent is not simple to replace. Maybe he knows that it’s all good radio. Maybe has has a weakness for those who work most closely with him. For someone who can be so unrelentingly hard on himself, he sure can be soft on others.
September 27, 2009 | 3:16 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I picked up a copy of Dr. Keith Ablow’s, “Living the Truth” on the Barnes and Noble remainder table last night. $5.98 marked down from $25.98. I’ve heard the doctor on the Stern show and have been impressed with his direct, almost jargon-free approach to people’s emotional problems.
What struck me was that the publisher, Little,Brown, didn’t list appearances on the Sten Show among Ablow’s credits. Good Housekeeping, Tyra Banks, the O’Reilly Factor, Good Morning America—but not a single mention of the fact that millions hear the doctor at his best on Stern. His on-air treatment of Riley Mrtin is some of the best radio—and therapy—you will ever hear. (I only wish he’d do the same for Ronnie the Frustrated Jewish Limo Driver).
Why no Stern mention? My guess is that Ablow and his publisher believe it is mainstream poison—another example of how Stern can be at the cutting edge, and constantly get cut out.
September 25, 2009 | 7:17 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Yesterday Robin noted that when McKenzie Phillips was hocking her ailing career, Howard was always happy to have her on the show. But now that she has a major scoop about her alleged affair with her dad, she goes straight to Oprah. Robin noted that the show can get the big names on their way up or down, but not at the peak.
“Users!” Howard interjected. “That’s why I hate everybody.”
I can relate. In Jewish journalism, long the journalistic equivalent of FM radio, we can get the big celebs only after they’ve entered adult diapers or when they’re just out of baby diapers… but we do get ‘em….
September 23, 2009 | 2:04 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Imagine my thrill to hear that jewishjournal.com’s newest advertiser is Sit n’ Sleep. There it is on our very own site, the face of Larry “Or your mattress is free, FREE!” Miller, who I’ve heard for years plugging away on The Howard Stern Show. Me and Howard sharing Larry Miller— I can’t help but think of the poet Alan Ginsburg’s pride when he slept with Dean Moriarity the found out Morairity slept with Gavin Arthur ho slept with Edward Carpenter who slept with Walt Whitman. “I slept with Walt Whitman,” Ginsburg used to boast.
Well, I shared an advertiser with Howard Stern.
What I remember about Sit n Sleep on Stern bac when he was on terrestrial radio was how carefully and precisely Stern would do the lead ins for Miller’s commercials. I began to see that Stern was an excellent pitchman for his products, he took the plugs and placements as seriously as the fart jokes and stripper sketches. Sometimes the copy was awful, but Stern would make it his own, put it in his voice, but infuse it with his on air passion. Didn’t matter whether it was mattresses or Binaca or backhair removers or some spray he was hawking that removed butt odor. Here’s what Stern, one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in media knows: which side his bread is buttered on. He never got cocky or glib with the people paying the bills, the companies whose money keeps the staff employed and the lights on.
A lot of creative types just starting out tend to look down on the business part of show business—they resent the intrusion of commerce in art. And as they get more and more successful, they try to distance themselves from the fact that they are, in a way, selling soap. But Howard pay his dues, dutifully. He taught me to pay attention to advertisers—not to bend standards because of them, but to respect their support, and do what they pay us to do with excellence and attentiveness.
It’s like the Dylan song says, no matter how big you are, how rich you are, you gotta serve someone…
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk,
You may be the head of some big TV network,
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame,
You may be living in another country under another name
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
One day I look forward to calling Larry Miller and talking about his Stern years. In the meantime, click on one of his ads and buy a mattress.
September 21, 2009 | 8:32 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
The blog has made me listen to Howard more intently, which may be a good thing.
Or may not.
I am actually in danger of using the Howard Stern Show as a self-help guide, which when I think about is, is frightening. Who’s your life coach? Deepak? Oprah? Your shrink? Your dad?
No, it’s Howard Stern.
C’mon, I’m fairly convinced even Howard wouldn’t think that’s a good idea.
But I’m going through… stuff… and as I do, I find that the insights I glean from the Show, on the way to work and on the way from work, are very helpful. (My dad’s helpful too, by the way). And yes, I understand it’s a show, and I understand Howard is an on-air persona, not the real Howard. I know enough famous people to know 99 percent of them aren’t looking to be anyone’s personal guru, and 99.9 percent of them have feet, hearts and minds made of clay. Famous people are human, and humans are flawed.
But Howard keeps spinning off insights, which in these times of my…stuff… turn out to be relevant and useful. I call them my “Stern Rules.” Some are simple, but as my wife the rabbi reminds me, most big truths are.
So, yes, Howard Stern is making me a better person. A better manager of my own life. A better husband. A better dad.
How weird is that?
Today’s Stern Rule is, “Be Yourself.”
The comedian Mitch Fatel actually thanked Howard on air for teaching him this. From Marksfriggin.com:
Mitch said that he had to thank Howard for the internship there. He said that when he was a little kid he would listen to Howard and he got from him that he could be cool by not being cool. He said he just wanted to be himself and that’s what he’s done. He said he didn’t have to create a persona for himself. He said that’s the reason he’s successful today. Howard thanked him for that, gave him some more plugs and said he’s very proud of him for that.
“You don’t need to invent a persona,” said Howard.
If you listen to “The History of Howard Stern” show, you hear how Howard himself learned this—it comes out in his voice. In his early shows it is thinner, hurried and forced. As his career progresses his voice deepens, slows and approaches his natural speaking voice. As his persona became more authentic, and less “cool,” his true voice comes out. Voice coaches speak of a person’s “body voice,” which seems to resonate from deep within their chest, not leap out from their throat. Stern developed that as he dropped the persona of the cool DJ. And he passed it on to Mitch Fatel and other listeners, and that can only help them—and me—- with… stuff.
September 18, 2009 | 1:06 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
When you strip the Stern Show down to its essentials, it is this: storytelling.
Howard and his colleagues tell what happened to them. They talk about their pasts. They report on the present. Howard interviews guests, better than any living interviewer, and extracts thir best stories. Sandra Bernhard was in his studio last Thursday—admittedly she’s not the type from whom you have to pull information, with her and a guest like Kathy Griffin it’s more a question of artfully directing their yentas-on-meth shtick to keep it interesting to people other than Sandra Bernhard and Kathy Griffin.
But Howard hit a jackpot—the fact that last July the bisexual Sandra had engaged in a threesome with her partner and show regular Ralph. Once Howard got the headline, he didn’t just wow and guffaw and whoop it up. He carefully led Sandra and the audience through the telling of the story, eliciting the sequence and the details as carefully as any journalist. Because storytelling matters.
The older I get, the more I see how true this is. My friends who work in Hollywood and succeed are without exception good, even great, storytellers. I once knew an agent whose highest praise for a client was, “He can tell a good story.” He didn’t mean on paper, he meant in a meeting. It’s hard to get a writer or director in front of someone who can greenlight a movie. That’s half the battle. But once your guy is in the room, he has to keep their interest, entertain, fascinate—and nothing does that better than a story.
It is the oldest human art. You need a brain and a mouth—something humans have always had, when they had nothing else, not even fire. Darkness would fall, you’d sit in a circle, and even before there was fire there was the warmth of another person’s words, their story.
The Stern Show at its most elemental is that circle. Howard, Robin, Artie, Fred and us, this big, satellite assisted circle. Listen to Howard tell a story. It seems artless and effortless, but it sounds like it would read. The people on his show are all expert at it: they keep your interest from word one. They construct these mini dramas and mini comedies and draw us in, and the stories—the time Gary pleaded on video with his old girlfriend to take him back, the time Robin had passionate sex over a bathroom sink, the time Howard showered with his wife, John Stamos and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos Conelly Eshman (hmm, might have accidentally one too many names there). The gang repeats and refines these stories time and again— and they become as familiar and polished as Biblical passages.
My wife is beautiful and funny and smart, but right up there with the reasons I married her is the fact that she’s an exceptional story teller. She can hold an audience or a dinner table rapt, and she has a million of them. Marriage is long and sometimes hard: having a good strory teller at your side makes it entertaining. And what do we do for fun? Sit arond and listen to The Moth, a story-telling series on public radio. Some of the speakers are Stern Show worthy—and that’s pretty good.
So, now, I’m about to head into a big meeting, and I think it will work out fine, but man would it be easier if I were the type who, at the right moment, could tell the right story. Where’s my inner Howard when I need him?