Posted by Rob Eshman
Today’s “History of Howard Stern, Part II” spent some time on the show’s use of ambush interviews, when the show sends out an intern or employee to pose as a reporter and pester celebrities with rude and inappropriate questions.
At first Stern used his producer, Gary Dell’abate, to carry out the task, and Dell’Abbate hated it. Dell’abate called the practice, which has since been emulated or copied or ripped off by many others, a perfect name: “asshole journalism.”
It’s one part of the show that always makes me squirm. I find myself lowering the volume or even switching the station—it can be compelling, it just makes me cringe. I suppose it’s because I’m trained to do the non-asshole journalism, and I always feel the relationship between myself and those I interview is mutual—we might not agree on much, but we agree to be civil, because at the end of the day there’s a mutual understanding that we both have a worthwhile job to do.
Then again, I rarely interview celebrities.
“Celebrity journalism” has become an oxymoron in our culture, and Stern was onto that long ago. Long before the Daily Show or Sacha Barron Cohen, Stern was sending his low-paid or unpaid minions out to ask the most uncomfortable questions of the most famous people.
“Do you pee in the shower,” I remember they once asked Dustin Hoffman.
Dustin f-ing Hoffman.
Stern saw that so much of what passed for serious interviews was PR-contrived nonsense, pre-approved by a publicist, vetted by a lawyer, and then cut to a three second soundbite. The Stern show decided to become a part of a media pack, join in a frenzied junket—but instead of using the opportunity to elevate some star’s reputation, Stern used it to entertain his audience and elevate his own reputation. If no one expects “celebrity journalism” to be real or serious, why not make it completely unreal and completely un-serious—and in so doing expose it for the sham it is.
In other words, stack the show’s ambush questions—about bodily functions and career flops and race relations (“Have you ever used the n-word?” was one I remember)—against the fawning tripe put out by the Today Show or any other PR-approved outlet, and you’ll see where the real “asshole journalism” gets done.
So I get it—it’s a subversive and dead-on commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture. But it still makes me cringe.
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July 1, 2009 | 4:23 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
The show is on vacation this week, so they’re playing a radio documentary Stern and his team did on his life and career, “The History of Howard Stern, Part 2.” It may not be compelling to anyone but diehard fans, but it should be.
There’s a lot of universal insight and lessons there. One aspect that comes through over and over is how driven Stern is. Today the show went into how important it was to Howard to crush his competition when he expanded his show to Philadelphia. They had been on in New York, and going to Philly was their chance to prove they had a show that could be syndicated around the country.
But beyond that Howard could not abide the idea that anyone who could listen to him wouldn’t.
In the course of a segment, Howard talks about how he went up against the Number 1 deejay in the Philly market, John de Bella, and pulled out all the stops to crush him—insulting him, mocking him, railing against him.
Describing his motivation, Howard says something almost in passing that to me is so telling.
“I couldn’t accept not being number one,” he says. “I couldn’t accept failure.”
To most of humanity, not being Number 1 means you can be Number 2. After an “A” comes a “B.” But in Howard’s mind, after an “A” comes an “F.” The fact that this brilliant man can say that with no sense of irony shows his complete and utter drive—turning his career into a zero sum game where he can never settle for anything less than the top.
That’s a very demanding lens through which to see your world, your life, but it worked for him. It took 3 years, but Howard became the Number 1 deejay in Philly.
June 30, 2009 | 8:42 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
The new head of the FCC is a smart Jewish boy.
How smart is Julius Genachowski?
According to his Wikipedia bio:
Genachowski grew up in Great Neck, New York and received his B.A. in history in 1985 magna cum laude, from Columbia College, Columbia University, where he was an editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator. He received his J.D. in 1991 from Harvard Law School, where he was a notes editor at the Harvard Law Review when it was headed by Barack Obama, who graduated in the same year. After graduating from Harvard, also magna cum laude, Genachowski clerked for the Honorable Abner J. Mikva on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and then at the U.S. Supreme Court for two years, for Justices William J. Brennan and David Souter.
And how Jewish?
Again, from Wikipedia:
His parents are Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust. His cousin, Menachem Genack, is an Orthodox rabbi and the CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division.
Pretty funny that the media guy has the long and very Jew-y name, while the rabbi has the short, Anglicized name.
I’m impressed with the man’s experience:
Genachowski was Chief of Business Operations and a member of Barry Diller’s Office of the Chairman at IAC/InterActiveCorp. He had previously served on the Boards of Directors of Expedia, Hotels.com and Ticketmaster.
He is a co-founder of LaunchBox Digital and Rock Creek Ventures. He is also a special advisor at General Atlantic and a member of the Boards of Directors at The Motley Fool, Web.com, Mark Ecko Enterprises, and Beliefnet. He was appointed to the board of JackBe in April 2006.
Genachowski serves as a board member of Common Sense Media, a leading organization seeking to improve the media lives of children and families; and as an advisory board member of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). He also recently helped found the New Resource Bank, the country’s first commercial “green bank.”
He seems to understand new media, which I assume means he wants to create a media landscape that allows for a multiplicity of voices and points of view, and that expands, rather than shrinks, the promise of democracy.
In other words, I hope he treats the FCC with as much respect as Howard Stern always did.
Respect? Didn’t Howard spend hours trashing the FCC, insulting its chairmen, detailing its abuses and mistakes?
Yes. That’s not because he thought it was worthless—it’s because he believed in it, and was angry that it wasn’t living up to its potential.
People misunderstood Howard Stern’s fight against the FCC—and I’m speaking as someone who still plays tennis in a shtunky white T-shirt that says, “FREE STERN” on one side and “F the FCC” on the other.
Howard is not an anarchist—he’s a conservative. He saw the forces of the radical religious right tampering with America’s bedrock values of free speech and free enterprise, and it enraged him. The FCC’s battle against him outraged his sense of fairness. By trying to stop Howard from saying “vagina” on air—but not trying to stop the corporate takeover of the airwaves, or focusing on more important things—like the economy or war or the environment—the government was abdicating its true responsibilities. Decency? The word “vagina” is a lot more decent than 35 million people without health insurance.
It seems that President Obama’s new choice for FCC chair is a step in the right direction toward restoring decency where it has been most sorely missing—in government.
Here’s what Genachowski told his staff he will focus on, according to The Wrap:
“As the country’s expert agency on communications, it is our job to pursue this vision of a more connected America, focusing on the following goals:
Promoting universal broadband that’s robust, affordable and open.
Pursuing policies that promote job creation, competition, innovation and investment.
Protecting and empowering consumers and families.
Helping deliver public safety communications networks with the best technology to serve our firefighters, police officers, and other first responders.
Advancing a vibrant media landscape, in these challenging times, that serves the public interest in the 21st century.
Seizing the opportunity for the United States to lead the world in mobile communications.
These are just some of the goals we will pursue in the days ahead.
How we will work will be central to what we can achieve.
We will be fair.
We will be open and transparent.
Our policy decisions will be fact-based and data-driven.”
June 30, 2009 | 8:09 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
At about Minute 12 of my 15 minutes of fame, Steve Langford of Howard 100 News interviewed me for a story he was doing on this blog.
My son and I heard it replayed as we were driving home one evening last week…
…and I cringed.
Steve has a resonant radio voice. Me, on the other hand, I sounded like Howard in his bar mitzvah tapes. I’m a 48 year old 6 foot 2 heterosexual male with lines on my face, and I sound like a kid whose balls haven’t dropped.
Even worse: I sounded like JD.
JD is one of the show’s employees who Howard has fashioned into an on-air personality. He is a 20-something slack-shouldered mumblemouth, who would not get an audition, much less become a regular, on any show, on any medium, anywhere.
But Howard recognized that there is something entertaining in JD’s relentless inadequacy. Most shows reward talent with exposure. Howard delights in exposing the least talented, the most imperfect. His show sweeps up the people show biz discards. These people don’t appear on our screens or programs not because they aren’t moving or amusing, but because they aren’t pretty, poised or accomplished—in other words, they’re like most of us.
(In many cases they’re even worse off—drunks, dwarves, the mentally impaired and the physically disabled. How Howard deals with these folks is worth a whole separate post, or 100).
And because these people are like most of us, we can relate to them. I’d like to believe I have a bit more going on in my life than JD, but there is a part of me in him: my voice is not deep and resonant, I can mumble, pfumfer for a word, dig into my memory for an anecdote that refuses to materialize. In my 20s I was even more like JD—hell, I bet Howard in his awkward teens and twenties felt more like JD than Howard.
The genius of the show is that it is populated with characters to whom listeners can relate.
My last blog compared the show’s main cast to the Beatles. But at the risk of being a bit repetitive, I’ll suggest that the show also follows another model.
What accounts for the Stern show’s success and longevity is what accounts for the success of the sitcom form on TV—putting together opposite, relatable types of people in comedic situations. Howard is the dad—relatively stable and straight, responsible for the well-being of the family, but still full of unmet desires and crazy schemes.
Robin is the voice of reason. She’s protective and loving of the dad, but also there to chastise and correct him.
Artie is more carefree, more impetuous than Howard. He can be slower (compared to Howard, not to other mortals), less responsible and less driven.
Fred is mysterious—you don’t know when he’ll drop in (he literally does “drops”—sound bites that amplify the goings-on), where he came from or what he’ll say.
In other words, Howard is Ralph Kramden, Robin is Alice Kramden, Artie is Ed Norton, and Fred is Trixie Norton—and the show is the Honeymooners.
June 26, 2009 | 5:33 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Not a lot of time to post today, but I do want to end the first week of Serious Stern by thanking everyone whose positive feedback has convinced me I’m not alone in thinking there’s more to Howard Stern than boobs and gas (not that there’s anything wrong with that…).
Thanks to the commenters, to the many emailers, to Steve Langford and to Howard himself.
More next week, including my answer to my wife’s question last night, “Aren’t you ever going to write anything crappy about Howard?”
Meanwhile, in the comments section of another blog that attacked Howard as irrelevant and over-rated, both as a performer and as an investment for Sirius, I found this rebuttal, which is as eloquent and informed as anything I’ve read:
Steve, you obviously don’t listen and never have. Your last statement— “Face it, Stern’s creative peak was decades ago. He used to be a very funny guy; now he’s just a very rich man”—shows your insane ignorance of the situation.
First off his show his 10 times better than it ever was on TR [terrestrial radio]. He breaks for commercials once an hour for about 3 minutes. His content and guests are free to speak like normal people do these days- not using the F word every sentence but being able to express normal thoughts that people have without the FCC finsing them every 5 seconds. His interviews are insanely funny and delve into guests live like no one else can and his wack pack- the most incredibly ingenious cast of characters ever along with Richard and Sal are able to pierce the bounderies of comedy like never before. Its just plain entertaining as hell. And no he never ever ever claims that all 20 million subscribers listen to him. What you fail to grasp is that its not about numbers of listeners. And its certainly not about the company’s stock, that, quite frankly a management issue. No it’s about how many people will pay to listen to him, which exactly what the TR business is also. If he is so relevant why is TR tanking right now? And if he is so irrelevant why are TR execs throwing offers at him every week to come back? Why? Because he made that business what it was.
Hey if you’re not a fan Steve I understand but get the facts straight. Sirius started with 385,000 subscribers paying 13.95 per month. Now they have 20 million paying 13.95 per month. Even if only 1.25 Million customers buy Satellite for Stern, that works out to $205 Million per year. Minus his 100 m Contract , sounds to me like Sterns profited them 105 M per Year. Right? Yes.
Amen. And Shabbat Shalom.
June 25, 2009 | 8:23 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
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.
June 24, 2009 | 7:29 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I don’t want to belabor the point, but here’s another clue that Howard Stern and Larry David are cut from the same shmata: oral hygiene.
In the Esquire interview with Larry David this month, reporter Scott Raab notices that David whips out a bottle of breath spray after eating some room service white bean humus:
SR: What’s the garlic content like on the hummus?
LD: Oh, do they put a lot of garlic in the hummus?
SR: It depends on the hummus. Some hummus is very garlicky.
LD: I can’t tell. I better stop eating it.
SR: I shouldn’t have said anything about garlic.
LD: You ruined the whole thing for me.
SR: What is that?
LD: Breath tonic.
SR: It’s called Breath Tonic?
LD: Yeah. That’s what it’s called — Breath Tonic.
SR: You get it at Ralphs?
LD: It’s from a health-food store. Most people are completely unaware of their breath. They violate your space, they have no idea that they have halitosis.
SR: Is this something I need to think about?
LD: No. No. But I’m surprised how few people actually think about it.
SR: I do think about it.
LD: Do you? I’m a little obsessed with it, I have to say.
On yesterday’s show, Howard spent a good five minutes discussing how, to quote David, “Most people are completely unaware of their breath.” Except he wasn’t quoting David.
This is from the show rundown, provided by Marksfriggin.com, which is a remarkable and telling web site (does anyone in the world bother to provide a minute-by-minute account of what Ryan Seacrest is saying?)
Another caller said he was just in the middle of brushing his teeth. Howard said he’s noticed a lot of people who have shitty breath and it’s like they ate a shit sandwich before talking to him. He said it’s unbelievable….
…Howard said there are so many people walking around so unevolved. He said it has nothing to do with income level either. He said it just takes some time to take care of your teeth.
I found this so entertaining, in the same way I find Curb Your Enthusiasm entertaining. People don’t dwell on this stuff in public. Over the years Howard has spoken in great and minute detail over every body part and function: from proper wiping techniques (not in relation to windows) to a long, ongoing segment about his producer Gary Dell’abate’s penile stent. (He was doing that long before Larry David first came to us in the guise of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, and reappeared in Curb).
Again, it’s taking what’s private and making it public. It’s talking about what we’ve been told polite people don’t talk about. It’s constantly pricking at even the smallest and most insignificant social conventions, until the foolishness of society becomes apparent, and a new idea for a better society can take hold.
Yes, it’s humor that, at its root, wants to make the world better.
Is that overkill? I don’t think Howard (or Larry David, or Woody Allen) would ever express it that way (for one, it’s not funny) but I do believe that impulse, that value system, informs their comedy. It’s explicit in Jewish comedians like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Bill Maher, they were and are on a crusade to make the world better. Howard, Larry and Woody would never admit or even think to say they’re on a crusade (again, not very funny), but that’s at least one impulse behind their humor. It’s not just funny, it’s comedy with a purpose. It’s meaningful comedy.
Whatever the impulse, the effect is the same: the world is a better place because of them. Media influences society, and the media landscape pre-Howard was more full of dishonesty and hypocrisy. The greatest single contribution of Howard Stern to society—all the laughter aside—was to lower the B.S. factor.
Even today, in a world saturated with reality shows and YouTube, he still does this.
Howard rightly gives himself credit for helping to create the reality show idea, but the truth is he doesn’t give himself enough credit. Reality shows have taken a cue, or sometimes an exact idea, from him, but they don’t dare reflect reality to the extent he does.
Here’s a Howard Stern reality show from this week: Take some random homeless guy, ask him questions, and bet on what he knows. No editing, no careful casting.
Here’s another one: a welfare washout, mentally borderline pathetic loser named High Pitch Eric calls in—he’s a regular guest on the show—and he begs Howard for $100. Howard refuses to lend him the money. It’s clearly the wrong thing to do. (Then again, using someone who is mentally impaired for our driving entertainment is already questionable, so what’s another 100 bucks?) What follows is a debate over whether Eric will ever pay back the money. Howard finally lends it to him, because he wants to prove that despite all of Eric’s promises to pay the money back by Tuesday, the $100 is as good as gone. Now that’s a cliffhanger.
In other words, Howard still presents a much more raw and unvarnished world to his audience than so-called reality shows. His inclination is against artifice—not just because his audience expects that of him, but because that’s what interests him. If your impulse is to improve the world by laying it bare, you won’t settle for what passes as “reality” on TV. Reality should bite.
That’s why on today’s show Howard opposed the idea of Artie Lange doing his own reality show. (He didn’t say, “I’m against it,” but he only raised the negatives—figure it out.) The producers as Lange described them want to capitalize on his propensity to overeat, overdrink, overmedicate and thus overreact.
There are a hundred great Artie show possibilities, but that isn’t one of them. And Howard opposed it because it reeks of artifice and set-up—everything his kind of humor, and his kind of career, stands against.
Meanwhile, I went out and bought the breath spray Larry David recommended. It’s good. It’s really good.
June 23, 2009 | 4:00 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
So last night I broke the news to my family that I was writing a Howard Stern blog. My wife looked at me with a mix of pity, patience and dismay—it was the look you give a ten year-old caught with a Penthouse at school. It’s not like he hurt anybody, but still, could he…just…not.
“Good morning, Howard’s bitch,” she chirped when she woke up this morning. In a loving, funny way.
I remind her that there are things she admires in Howard too: those interviews. His ability to tell a story. My wife is from Brooklyn. A good story to her is more precious than gold. She laughed until she cried listening to Howard describe how his overprotective mother, Rae Stern, raised him “like a veal,” taking his rectal temperature until he was what, 46? She can even do an imitation of Howard imitating his mother’s voice (why Cartoon Network hasn’t asked Howard to do that voice as a character I don’t know. Here’s the pitch: Howard’s “Rae” and the Midwest matron that Richard Christy voices in his crank calls meet cute at Penn Station and end up… I don’t know, that’s what the geniuses over at Cartoon Network need to figure out).
I also remind her (defensively) that I am not a Howard fanatic. (I explained to her that there’s a fan site, Marksfriggin.com, that gives a blow-by-blow recount of the show, every show, every day. I could see her wheels spinning—would I become that obsessed? Would I end up in a Venice ally, shushing my unwashed children as I struggled to get reception on the one possession the marshal couldn’t pry from my hands… my Sirius radio receiver?
The truth is: I’m normal. I listen to Howard on the way to and from work. I switch between him and NPR. I never think to listen to him at work or at home— though I will sit in the driveway to hear the end of a good segment. I will scan Howardstern.com to see what I missed. That’s it. Maybe 20 minutes a day, max. When he used to be on commercial radio, half that—the commercials were endless (now I just lose a few minutes as my satellite radio reads “updating channels” or “acquiring signal”—does Sirius credit me for that? Shouldn’t it? Does it have any money left to credit me? Can I get it in 25 cent stock vouchers? Is Sirius still around?)
I don’t think I’m that unusual. Howard’s image is that he attracts freaks, washouts and lowlifes, but his demo is professional and educated. (Someone else can actually research and post his demo info to buttress my point— please—we go to press today). I can tell just by the quality of people who e-mailed me yesterday after hearing Howard mention my name. A wealthy home builder. A graphic designer for The New Yorker. A college-educated housewife. A lawyer. We’re all in the closet, but we’re all there.
I started listening when I started working at the Journal, 16 years ago. (Ouch.)
And here is why I kept listening, why we all do: there hasn’t been one single day in 16 years when the show doesn’t make me smile on the way to work. I can be tired. I can be sick of my job. I can be in the middle of a spat. I can have a million things on my mind. But the words flow out of the radio, and sooner or later, I will catch myself…
…laughing. Laughing in my car, at the radio. Sometimes even out loud. I’ve paid 10 bucks and sat through many a two hour comedy movie and never cracked a single smile. But Howard gets me there guaranteed, every day. Making someone smile on the way to the job—that is doing God’s work. That is hard. Every weekday, for 16 years. That’s why I started this blog: entertainers who do a lot less get taken a lot more seriously, get fawned over and venerated. (Did someone say Bob Hope? Jerry Seinfeld?) Respect must be paid…..
Anyway, on to a thought inspired by today’s show:
I heard Howard speaking about Ed McMahon, who died today. He gave McMahon his due, pointing out that no other sidekick ended up with so long and lucrative career, even if he did blow it all in his dotage.
“I never really liked Johnny,” Howard said.
That explained so much: I didn’t like Johnny either. Never did. If I could be blunt, he was, in a word, goyishe. Whitebread. Tame. If he ever got wild, it was a tiresome, aren’t-we-naughty WASPy kind of letting loose. The only time I liked the show is when they had on Robert Klein, Carlin or any of the then-young comedians, or the alter kokers like Rickles and Dangerfield, who weren’t afraid to ruffle Carson up. The show was relentlessly safe until and unless those guys showed up.
It struck me that you could read The Howard Stern Show as a kind of reaction to The Tonight Show. I imagine Howard as a young man watching the Tonight Show and muttering to himself, “This is bullshit.” Nobody’s always that happy. In life, every line isn’t an applause line. Johnny’s up there being suave and cool but we know he’s smoking and drinking and screwing around and thinking how he could give two shits about Steve and Edie’s newest tune or Burt Reynold’s latest comedy. Howard has gone a long way to introduce a different model of talk show to the world. He pioneered the idea that what people laugh at privately they will laugh at publicly.
The Christian Right calls Howard the anti-Christ, but really he’s the anti-Carson. There will always be a market for milquetoast, for the “Here’s Johnny!” crowd, but Howard realized that there must be millions of people like him, people who kept Mad magazine and National Lampoon in business, people who suffered Carson to get to Rickles, who found the bloopers funnier than the show, who wished the bloopers were the show, people who yearned to hear, “Here’s NOT Johnny!”