Jewish Journal


September 16, 2010

Time to out Howard Stern



Steve North and Young Booey

No, he’s not gay.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The true outing of Howard Stern takes place in dribs and drabs, in offhand comments from various guests and staffers, so rarely and so quickly that only die-hard listeners would begin to understand the truth: Howard Stern is a mensch.

Yes, it’s true.  I said it.  A mensch: Yiddish meaning a good soul, a nice guy. And 30 years ago, when he was starting out, that sentence would have done more damage to his burgeoning career as an in-your-face, no-holds-barred radio DJ than a nude spread on the cover of OUT magazine.  But now I don’t think his demographic is going to stick their fingers down their throats discovering that their radio god has feet of… well, the feet of a really good guy.

What is equally true though, is that outside his fans, the general public perceptions is still that Howard Stern is a cruel, creepy, sexist, racist boor. Just last week on the show Howard played a clip of his former girlfriend Angie Everhart mentioning his name on the Wendy Williams Show.  The audience boo’ed, or oo’d, or made some collective animal-like noise that a herd of buffalo likely makes when they sense a coyote is getting too close.  Howard said people still think he’s worse than Mel Gibson.  To prove it he sent his writer Sal out on the street to ask people who’s worse, Mel Gibson or Howard Stern?  Here’s how the site Mark’s Friggin reported it:

Gary told Howard he had Sal’s interviews about who’s worse, Howard or Mel Gibson. Howard said he didn’t expect that until tomorrow. Gary said Sal interviewed a wide variety of people out there. Howard played the clips and most of the people were saying ‘‘Howard Stern.’’ There were many who said they love Mel Gibson. There were people saying Howard is an idiot and they hate him more than Mel. There were some who said they don’t like Mel Gibson.

Sal edited together all of the people just saying ‘‘Howard Stern’’ over and over again. Howard laughed when he heard so many people saying his name. The people were saying that Howard Stern has a potty mouth.

Howard said he counted 21 Howard Stern’s and 11 Mel Gibson’s. He said that’s unbelievable. Howard said that they’re in a small world with their fans there and they don’t know what it’s really like out there. Howard said New York is really the best place to ask the question because he’s kind of beloved there.

Sal told Howard that they should have video taped this because the reactions he got were amazing. He said their eyes would pop out of their heads when he’d bring up Howard’s name. Howard said he respects the results he got. Sal said he would pick Howard too.

Bottom line: Howard Stern still creeps MIddle America out.

But fans get a glimpse into a different side: Celebrity guests will often say Howard is so different in real life.  His parents say so. And his wife Beth says so—and she doesn’t seem to be the type that’s attracted to people who are worse than Mel Gibson.

Another clue came in my e-mail this week, and I’m going to share it (with the e-mailer’s permission).  I’m gonna out Howard Stern.

Last week on the show Howard took a few moments to mock a CBS producer named Steve North, who had sent Howard an e-greeting card for the Jewish New Years.  He said it was annoying the guy sent it to him, he didn’t want to open it, and who the hell is Steve North, and why does he have Howard’s e-mail, and why would a guy named Steve North act so Jewish when he clearly changed his name.  From MarksFriggin.com:

Howard said he hates these E-cards that people send out. He said he got one from this guy, Steve North, and he keeps getting reminders in his email if he doesn’t open it. Howard said he gets one every year from Steve and it’s always the same thing. He said it’s not that much fun. Howard wondered if Steve gets notes telling him that he hasn’t opened the card. He said he opened it and watched it for like one second before turning it off. Howard said it’s a whole long Opus and he doesn’t care about it.

Howard said that someone had to have given Steve his email address but he’s not sure how that happened. Howard wondered why Steve North is sending him a Jewish holiday card. Gary said he’s not sure that he even did it. Howard also wondered why Steve has a last name of ‘‘North’’ if he’s Jewish. Howard said he must have changed his name.

That led to Fred playing some Gilbert Gottfried doing his Rabbi Gottfried impression and singing songs. Howard said he wants to make an E-card out of that. Howard said he hates when Jews change their names to things like ‘‘North.’’ Robin said maybe his parents changed it. Howard said maybe they did.

All it all, Howard took the thoughtful act of an old acquaintance reaching out to say Happy Jew Year, and turned it into a long and very fun attack on Steve North’s character.

So I happen to know Steve North.  He has written columns for The Jewish Journal, and on Rosh Hashanah, during a family visit to LA, he actually attended my wife’s congregation for services.

Steve knows Howard because Steve was the first guy to offer Gary Dell’abate a job in radio.  But the two have crossed paths many times, and though I have no idea if Howard admires Steve, Steve was an early promoter of Howard’s genius.  In a long, March 18, 1992 interview with Howard in The Two River Times, Steve writes, “The bottom line is that this 6’5” shaggy-haired, happily married father of two young daughters has perfected the art of satire.”  C’mon, very few people beyond maybe Howard’s agent, Robin and Fred realized back then the extent of Stern’s gifts. Steve had it right early on.  (In an interview later he wrote, “You never know when [Howard]‘s going to berate you on the air for something.”  Right about that too.)

But back to Howard the Mensch.  Here’s what Steve e-mailed me following Howard’s rant about him:

So now I hear Howard was talking about the Rosh Hashana e-card I sent to him (and you and hundreds of others).  And wondering when I changed my last name!  (Blame that one on my dad).

A friend of mine sent me more details about it just now… too funny.  And I laughed over the fact that he apparently was wondering how I have his e-mail address, as he well knows he gave it to me a few years ago when our mutual friend Mark Drucker was terminally ill, and we corresponded regularly… and, periodically since then (including a few months ago when he wrote to me before an appearance on the Early Show). 

The truth is, personally, the guy’s a major mensch.  I mentioned our mutual friend Mark (known as “Mark the Shark” when he was DeBella’s newsman in Philly);  Howard was great during Mark’s illness, writing him a 3-page handwritten letter about their friendship, which hung on the wall in Mark’s hospital room, and asking me after Mark’s death to get him in touch with Mark’s mom and sister.  I doubt he’d want any of this mentioned in detail… and I have other stories about what a good guy he is… but, you get the idea.

Case closed.  I’ve made the case elsewhere that what people mistake for Howard’s misogyny or homophobia is satire aimed at the big, bloody red heart of American hypocrisy.  Sometimes he gets close to the line, sometimes he crosses it (Honestly?  Today his impromptu skit about Warren Beatty and Annette Benning daughter’s sex change to my taste crossed the line.  I met the daughter many years ago when she was a girl performing in a play with my son, in a context where they were just another set of proud parents, and when I heard the story I just couldn’t laugh along—it has to be a really tough time for any parent and child going through that, even if you’re sick famous.)  Anyway, Stern Rule # 27: You don’t get great by playing it safe….

I’m not saying Howard is all sweetness.  I’m sure those who are closest to him, or who have been in the past, can cite their own examples of that.  But there are enough examples of the type Steve e-mailed me to definitively prove that Howard Stern the man is far from the nasty, negative brand image of Howard Stern he and popular culture have created.

What I wonder is this: Can Howard Stern the Image exist without Howard the Mensch?  Does it take a fundamentally kind person to create the atmosphere where people can feel free enough and creative enough to work at their peak?  Wouldn’t a true a-hole have flamed out years earlier?  Doesn’t it take a person who genuinely cares about people, is curious about their lives, and who at some level can empathize with their plight to be as great an interviewer as Howard is? Does nastiness work for Howard as an image because it’s a shell of armor he can put on top go into the world, and take off in private?  In other words, could only a true mensch pretend to be such a true prick?

Shana Tova.

*Oh, by the way, Steve North sent me the same e-card he sent Howard.  And I didn’t open mine either.

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