I devoted my column in this week's Jewish Journal to Howard Stern. Second time in 13 years of columns. I wanted to do something timed to his high-profile birthday bash, and the connection between Howard and a very controversial, interesting piece in last Sunday's New York Times leapt out at me.
The Times piece analyzed why it is that three groups-- Mormons, Chinese, Jews-- have been successful far out of proportion to their numbers in America. The authors identified three factors: a sense of superiority, a feeling of inferiority, and the ability to control impulses; that is, to delay gratification. I read that and thought-- bingo, that's Stern.
So in "Howard Stern's Secret, and Ours," I wrote:
How to explain Stern’s success, his victory over the forces of censorship, his move from the perennial outsider to the ultimate insider?
The answer occurred to me while I was reading last week’s much-discussed New York Times Sunday Review piece, “What Drives Success,” by Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua.
Why have some ethnic groups succeeded far beyond the norm in America, the authors asked, while others lagged behind?
“Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based,” they wrote. “Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.”
And, of course, Howard Stern.
Looking at Jews along with the Chinese, Mormons and Indians, Chua, who is Chinese-American, and Rubenfeld, her Jewish husband, pinpoint three traits that account for success.
“The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality,” they say. “The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.”
That, I saw immediately, explains it. Because the Stern show is essentially Howard talking for five hours a day, and his persona is to give us the most honest and revealing version of himself possible; the show is a living laboratory for this self-revelation.
He is, on the one hand, the “King of All Media,” a title he took on as a goof but which betrays his sense of ego and mission. He is also constantly tearing away at himself, which explains his twice-weekly visits to his psychoanalyst.
As he (or his shrink) might say, Stern is equal parts his mother’s total investment in her son’s glory and his father’s nagging doubts that the kid will amount to anything. He is the messiah, and the nebbish.
And, finally, Stern is driven. His loose, raw show hides the enormous planning he and his staff do every day. Improvisation, it turns out, takes a lot of preparation. He’s gotten up at 4 a.m. for 30 years — how’s that for impulse control?
It is no coincidence that the great Jewish comedians — Woody Allen, Larry David, Mel Brooks — all share these exact traits: massive self-loathing, tremendous self-assurance, unstoppable effort.
The paper with my column came out Thursday morning. By 8 am that morning, I'd already heard from two of the most renowned rabbis in town. One said he had been a big Stern fan, but stopped listening after Howard's divorce, when he felt Howard lost what made him most interesting-- the paradox between his private life as a family man and his public persona as a wild man.
But then came a surprising email from a rabbi known for his intellectual rigor and seriousness. Turns out the rabbi has been a long-time fan and astiute listener. He sent me a passage from a book he is working on that quotes Howard at length.
And then a note from a community leader whose son, has been following Howard since he was a child, and who is now a big TV executive... on his way to the birthday bash.
And that's just Thursday morning...
Click here to read my column in its entirety.