July 7, 2009
“The History of Howard Stern, Part 2” replayed a segment from many years ago where Howard describes his upbringing by a domineering mother to being raised as a “little Hitler.” I think at one point he describes himself as the child of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress.
That prompts his mother, Rae Stern, to call in, and Howard and she go at it. His tone is goofball sarcastic—you know he’s kidding. But Rae is upset, and keeps trying to tell him so. Come on—a woman who came of age in the shadow of the Holocaust being compared to Hitler on air.
I’ve heard the segment a couple of times now, and it’s clear Howard’s mom doesn’t appreciate the joke. And it’s just as clear Howard is making great radio.
“Don’t you have some of my brown shirts to clean?” he asks her. Because the Nazis wore brown shirts.
It ends with him saying, “I love you mommy”—sincerely—and saying goodbye, even as she keeps saying, “Maybe you need to think before you open your mouth.”
Afterwards, because this segment part of a radio documentary format, Howard comments on it.
“I was out of control,” he says. “I didn’t ever think that my words had consequences. All I cared about was making great radio.”
There’s regret in his voice, but the truth is, if Howard weren’t out of control, he’d have ended up as Steve Allen—the innovative founder of The Tonight Show who was much loved and quickly surpassed. Clever, a bit edgy, but hardly a culture-shaper.
In the argument with his mother, we the listeners were eavesdropping on a battle between a man’s ego and his superego—his need to assert himself versus his sense of what’s right and proper. It was the battle of what he knows he can be versus what he thinks he should be, his Inner Voice versus His Masters Voice.
That’s a battle we can all relate to, and it was Howard’s genius to make it part of his show. It was uncomfortable and dangerous—would he make his mom cry? Would she ever speak to him again? Would his dad stick up for his son or take his wife’s side?— and therefore you had to keep listening—Stern has a genius for creating radio suspense—what would happen next?
David Letterman, on “The History of Howard Stern,” says, “Howard has changed the culture.” It’s to moments like that he’s referring.
The Letterman Show itself used David’s mom in segments (whether they were “inspired” by Howard or came to it on their own I leave to others to prove—I just don’t know), but the difference is telling. Letterman’s mom segments are sweet and homey. Dave’s Mom is a gentle lady who is always forbearing, shaking her head at her cute rascal of a son. She’s the mom in those 50’s movie who smiles when the kids poke their fingers in her cooling pies, then run away.
That’s not Rae Stern. Rae Stern is an Old Testament God. She’s Jehovah in an apron. Forgiving? Not until he apologizes. Not until he REPENTS. “I didn’t raise you to talk like that!” “How dare you compare me to Hitler!” So he’s Howard Stern—he is still judged and sentence not on the fact that he’s rich, and famous, and successful but on how he behaves that day, that moment. If not, SHE is there, to call him, to chastise him, to be the mom we all fear, and he can be the son we wish we all were—the one who gives back as good as he gets, who lays it all out, who at least has the balls to call his mom Hitler, even if he has to take it back like a kid in the principal’s office. No—you can’t compare Howard Stern’s use of his mom to Letterman’s, you can only compare it to…
Phillip Roth. The greatest living American novelist and the greatest living American radio personality drink from the same Freud-infested well. (Roth’s background, upbringing, accomplishment and comedy is of course of a piece with that of Woody Allen, Larry David, and Stern). Remember the title of the first chapter of Roth classic book, Portnoy’s Complaint? It was. “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met.”
IT WAS HIS MOM!
And where did these words first appear, in a Stern monologue, or a Roth chapter:
That’s the famous first line of Portnoy’s Complaint, and it’s a trope that Howard brought out of literature and dramatized on drive-time radio. He brought this revelatory intimacy to radio both because he understood that it was funny and it sells, but because…
…he needed to. It was his cure, like writing was Roth’s and movies were Allen’s. Stern may say he regrets it, but to some extent, there was no other way out of his feelings, no better way to do battle than in public, through his art.
If, looking back, Stern regrets putting the people he loves through so much public drama, it’s a good thing for his career, and for us, that he did.
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