All Hail the King (?)
Breast implants, porn stars, drunken dwarves… oh my! Every morning, millions of radio listeners tune in to the syndicated The Howard Stern Show for a daily dose of the controversial shock jock’s lowbrow humor, sexually explicit commentary, and risque celebrity interviews. Stern’s fame mystifies conservatives and angers humanitarians, yet he remains the number one radio personality in America, broadcasting an audio circus from his WXRK studio in New York, segments of which also air twice every weeknight on E! Entertainment Television (as Howard Stern) and Saturdays on CBS and UPN (as The Howard Stern Radio Show). Without a doubt, Stern is a prominent media figure (if not precisely his self-claimed title as King of All Media). My question is, how is it that so notorious a figure enjoys such immense popularity in this age of political correctness?
Like all celebrities—all forms of entertainment, for that matter—Howard Stern serves a social function, and, contrary to censors’ opinions, it’s not merely the display of degeneracy. One of the best analogies proffered to elucidate this function harks back to the medieval role of the Lord of Misrule, a member of the plebeian community chosen to act as mock king for a short period of social catharsis, turning all rules and morality upside down for a time of unabashed revelry. Similar to the participants’ experiences under the Lord of Misrule, avid listeners of Stern’s show get the opportunity to enjoy jokes at the expense of the disabled, scathing attacks on selected celebrities (e.g., Kathy Lee Gifford), and overt sexual humor—everything that’s frowned upon or prohibited at work, at school, and in most people’s homes. By no means is he the only source of such humor or attacks—they’re thoughts that run through all our heads, as much as we sometimes hate to admit—and Howard performs his role in full awareness of its social effect, but it seems he does so neither for the money it generates (though I’m sure that’s not a deterrent) nor out of an altruistic need to help others loosen up their superegos.
Stern repeatedly admits that he does what he does out of his own psychological frustrations. He grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, a tall and chubby Jewish kid picked on by other boys and rejected by girls. He learned broadcasting from his father, a radio engineer, and began his own career at Boston University’s college station. Even then, he would get himself in trouble for his bawdy remarks, the microphone serving as his emotional outlet. “I need to be hated,” he once said, and that ethos followed him as his early professional career was characterized by his landing positions, breaking too many rules, and getting fired—repeatedly. His last termination, from WNBC in New York, led him to the doorstep of Infinity Broadcasting’s WXRK (NYC’s K-Rock) in 1985, where he remains to this day.
Along with Stern came his small circle of sidekicks and underlings: voice of reason Robin Quivers, brooding sound engineer Fred Norris, and the show’s producer, Gary Dell’Abate (a.k.a. Baba Booey). A few years later, comedian Jackie “the Joke Man” Martling came on as head writer. Over the last 15 years, the Stern show’s popularity has grown exponentially. It is now broadcast in nearly every major market in the country, much to the chagrin of the FCC. Stern published his autobiography Private Parts in 1993; in 1997, he starred in Betty Thomas’ film adaptation, which grossed nearly $15 million on its opening weekend. With his fine acting job—as himself—Stern proved that he actually possessed some talent, and he depicted his life story in so compelling and sympathetic a manner that it was difficult not to empathize with him on some level. Still, although he may have an excuse for his bad taste, it’s bad taste all the same.
No matter how liberal or ribald a person you may be, chances are you’ll find something offensive when you watch or listen to Howard and company’s daily hijinks. His brand of sideshow freaks, lovingly dubbed the Wack Pack, consists of the physically and mentally challenged (Gary the Retard, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, Stuttering John, and High-Pitched Eric are only a few), stereotypes (Angry Black, any of the porn queens who regularly appear), as well as the downtrodden (mocked on “Stump the Homeless” and “Who Wants to Be a Vagina Millionaire?”, two of the show’s popular quiz games). Nonetheless, for every racially charged quip or toilet-humorous jingle, there’s an even more scathing remark made against members of the Ku Klux Klan (Daniel Carver, “the Klan Man,” repeatedly comes on, despite the harsh punishment he suffers at the hands of Stern’s crew and call-in listeners) or puritanical moral guardians (Joe Lieberman, for example). Like the notoriously funny Mad Magazine, Stern holds nothing sacred; everything and everyone’s susceptible to parody and verbal attack, which is a breath of fresh air at a time when the First Amendment seems in mortal danger.
Stern’s show is not high culture (whatever that may be), but neither is it, as has been suggested by conservative commentators like Laura Schlessinger, a perverse freak show. Granted, he asks nearly every woman who enters his studio to remove her clothing or whether she’s ever engaged in lesbian activity. Howard is sexist, chauvinistic, crude, and overly opinionated. But it’s all an act, and our understanding of the performance (our collusion) is the key to his success. For years, the paradox of his apparent “identity”—the Howard on the air is not the Howard outside the studio—was demonstrated through his fidelity to his longtime wife, Alison, his abstinence from any intoxicants, and his shy, self-conscious demeanor, referred to by all who knew him off-air. And just as his listeners vicariously exorcise antisocial feelings they must normally keep stoppered up, Stern does the same by turning on his mic each morning. His show provides a forum where the restrictions of political correctness, which can be just as stifling to personal expression as anti-sex morality, no longer hold sway.
In the closing weeks of the millennium, Stern signed a new, five-year contract with Infinity, promising his presence on the radio for at least another half decade. So, no whether you think he’s the funniest thing since the Three Stooges or pray to your gods he’ll undergo a laryngectomy, this King of All Media is sure to continue to push the limits of acceptability for many years to come.