After I wrote the blog entry on Howard being the anti-Carson, I realized another way in which he turned the Tonight Show template on its head: Robin Quivers.
Where Johnny had a sidekick, Ed McMahon, whose job was solely to applaud everything Carson said, Howard found a partner who could turn on him any second, and stand up to him, and call him an idiot when need be. Ed was Johnny’s consort. Robin is Howard’s conscience.
McMahon was complimentary, Robin is complementary. Ed was there to reflect Johnny’s “greatness” to us, to amplify it, to laugh at every joke, to nod at every question. Whenever I watched the show, I always wondered: How is that a job for a grown man? He leveraged the exposure into more work and millions of dollars—all to his credit—but on the show itself he was a highly paid pet.
When Howard had the chance to find his foil, he must have had thoughts of Ed McMahon in mind— Ed was the uber-sidekick of the Boomer generation… but Howard ran the other way. He didn’t discover Robin, but when she was brought to him, he had the insight to see why she would be integral to the show, and he had the genius to stick with her after the two were fired and separated. It wasn’t just loyalty—he knew without Robin, he might just end up with another Ed.
When I started listening to the show, Robin annoyed me. That laugh. That high rolling whinny. I couldn’t hear a thing beyond that. But after a few listens, I heard her voice, and it is sharp and funny, angry and independent. Some of the best show moments are their arguments. When she’s not on the show, the magic goes out of the room. I can only compare it to….
I was listening to Howard talk about his last interview with Paul McCartney, about how much the Beatles meant to him, and it dawned on me that he has, on his show, recreated the band. Great comedy, the experts say, is musical—comedy has a rhythm. Howard the DJ knows music as well as anyone, is passionate about music. The band he started as teenager became the show he created as an adult, but the model for him, the ideal, will always be the Beatles.
Howard is John. The wit, the vision, the poet.
Robin is Paul. The feminine voice. The humanizer.
Fred is Ringo (but only in the good ways). Fred is so clearly the rhythm maker of the show. His sound effects punctuate some stories, provide a backbeat to other, a counterpoint to still more. After listening to the show for 16 years, I have a Pavlovian response to Fred’s drops—if someone says the word “fun,” for instance, and Fred doesn’t do the Billy Crystal drop, I tense up, just waiting….
Artie is George. The lyrical comedy that weaves in and out of the music. There…gone…there…gone.
It took four players to make the Beatles, and the genius of Howard—for all his reputation of egotism and superstar me me me status—is that he understood that The Howard Stern Show wouldn’t, couldn’t and doesn’t work with only Howard Stern.