June 23, 2009
“Here’s NOT Johnny!”
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!”