June 7, 2011
Howard Stern and the Rise of the Wiener
We are living through a time of unprecedented penis talk.
Between Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal, and the attempts to ban circumcision through the ballot box, the news cycle has turned into one long crotch watch.
And who deserves credit for making the world safe for public penis talk? Howard Stern.
His show pushed the boundaries of what was considered an appropriate topic for the airwaves. As far back as the early 1980s, he was incorporating penis jokes and skits into his radio show (remember the infamous kielbasa-swallower?) and making his obsession with his small penis size an ongoing show myth (Yes, myth. He’s 6’5”. The same Hox genes that control limb size influence penis size). Stern’s focus on genitalia was one of the reasons he was kicked off KNBC, and the source of many of his run ins with the FCC. Fittingly, he named his 1993 autobiography, and the subsequent film, Private Parts.
Howard didn’t start people thinking about penises, but he pioneered the very idea that it was okay to talk about what everybody was thinking about, anyway. Today’s generation of show producers, newscasters and viewers grew up either listening to Stern, or in a world that he had prepped for the P word. And today’s network executives grew up watching Stern reap enormous ratings and success by talking penis. Critics always accused Howard of having the maturity of a 14 year old boy—but Howard revealed that most of us are right there with him.
In doing so, he stiffened the spine of all of us in media who have to make decisions about what is or is not “appropriate” to say or print. My first editorial decision at the paper was whether to do a story on oral sex in the wake of the Clinton/Lewinsky Scandal. Listening to Howard, I knew that there was no reason not to just talk about what everybody was thinking about. I steeled my nerves and put the story on the first cover I ever edited for The Jewish Journal. There was a shitstorm of backlash. Not one positive letter to the editor. One of LA’s biggest rabbis publicly excoriated me. And that issue of The Jewish Journal? Every single copy was picked up.
So now, thanks in part to Howard, the P word is filling the airwaves. We are on a 24 hour penis news cycle, broadcasters are giddy with puns, Jon Stewart, Howard’s direct satiric spawn, is in his glory, and it’s as if America doesn’t need to worry for a second about unemployment, the deficit, dying soldiers in Afghanistan, cutbacks in social services, or any of those things that pale in significance to…penises. I don’t speak Chinese, but I am going to bet that while we’re fiddling around with our penis stories, China’s media is urging the people on to greater success and productivity. Yes, we’re screwed.
We can only hope that the penis obsession returns to the place where it began and where it belongs, The Howard Stern Show. Then CNN and MSNBC can go back to covering more important things. Like vaginas.