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?