June 24, 2009
Reality Should Bite
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:
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?)
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.