In Defense of the King

Tuesdays get a bad rap. They’re not as hyperbolically agonizing as Monday, don’t have the hope of Thursday or Friday, and don’t have the cute, camel-related allusions of Wednesday.

I like Tuesdays because that’s the day new books come out. And this past Tuesday was more important than most because it was the day one of my heroes returned to the printed page for the first time in decades.

It took me a while to find the book at my local Barnes & Noble. It wasn’t by the front door, or in the New Release section; I found it on an endcap upstairs by the coffee bar and discount biographies.

I’m a dork for physical books the way some music guys are about collecting vinyl. I love the texture of the dust jacket, the crispness of the binding, the smell of the paper, the physical heft of someone else’s mind on the page.

So I lugged this beautiful 551-page tome to the front counter to check out. The college kid behind the desk smiled and asked me how I was, but her face fell when I handed her the book.

“Did you want…a bag for that?” she said with a trace of disgust, as though my purchase should be concealed for the good of society like a brown paper wrapper enveloping the latest issue of Juggs.

I looked down at the book, the photo of the author on the cover, its title. Howard Stern Comes Again.

“Yeah, I guess I should,” I replied.

No matter how many times it happens to me, I always forget how much vitriol the name Howard Stern can produce. I’ve alienated myself from conversations many times by invoking the King of All Media, drawing sneers from colleagues and friends like I just quoted David Duke.

Over the years, I’ve learned that to some, Stern is synonymous with raunch and indecency and everything wrong with society. Pick a label — narcissist, chauvinist, racist — I’ve heard them all. Even people I think I can trust with my secret adoration don’t always understand.

“How can you listen to that trash?” a co-worker recently said to me after I professed my love for the man. “I can’t believe you like him.”

I’m tired of being shamed when I tell people I’m a Stern fan, like I’m some craven maniac whose only source of dopamine release comes in the form of breast-oggling and fart jokes. Frankly, my wife appreciates the lowest of brows far more than I do (see “A Shitty Story”). 

The raunch isn’t what keeps me coming back to Stern day after day. The reason I love Howard Stern is because he is the best host in the history of the long-form interview.

I’ll admit, part of my love for Stern certainly comes as the result of nostalgia. I’ve been listening to him for as long as I can remember.

No trip to the flea market or the hardware store was complete without Howard as the soundtrack in my dad’s blue 1978 Chevy pickup, or blaring across the yard on a tinny boom box while I helped him with chores.

When I was younger, most of the jokes went over my head, but I enjoyed pretending to understand them and laughing along with my dad as Stern performed his schtick. I was listening in 1994 when Howard ran for governor of New York on a campaign platform of using the ashes of executed criminals to fill potholes, and in 1995 when New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman named a rest stop after him on I-295.

Yeah, there were times Stern was WAY inappropriate for my little ears, but my dad always did the right thing and turned Stern off when things got too racy. The second Howard began questioning his guests about their sexual practices, my dad would fumble for the dial, saying “alright Howard,” and changing the station.

Of course, things did occasionally slip through the cracks. One snippet of dialogue still burned in my brain was a discussion Stern had with a guest about oral sex. “That’s so disgusting,” I remember him saying. “How could anyone put their mouth on the body part you go to the bathroom with?”

Agreed, Howard, my 9-year-old brain said. How indeed?

I stopped listening for a bit when Stern made the shift from terrestrial radio to Sirius, mostly because I was a poor college student and couldn’t afford the subscription, but also because the show lost its luster for me. One of the things I used to really enjoy about Stern — even as a teenager with no real life experience — was that I felt a connection with him as an Everyday Joe. I related to Stern for the same reason I think most working-class Americans during the ‘90s did; his anecdotes about juggling a wife and kids and a career, his fantasies about what it would be like to hit the big time and become a man about town. Those beliefs jived with my understanding of how the world worked.

But when Stern finalized his divorce and actually began living the fantasies he played out for so long over the radio waves, a rift appeared. Now he wasn’t just talking about hooking up with celebrities, he was doing it, and it wasn’t entertaining.  

 Something about him changed during that time period. Something about his swagger, his demeanor, felt off, almost sad. Even as a confused college kid, I felt the shift.

Stern later admitted the period following his divorce was one of the lowest in his life.

“I hesitate to say [I was suicidal,]” Stern told NPR’s Terry Gross in an interview last week. “But I was pretty down. I’ve been pretty depressed in my life. And most of that occurred at the time that my marriage fell apart. And you know, it was tough. And I was lost.”

Couple Stern’s depression with the fact that his new home on Sirius radio gave him carte blanche to be as filthy and controversial as he wanted, and it was a recipe for disaster.

With the move to regulation-free Sirius, Stern discovered a paradox: you can’t blow the roof off if there’s no roof.

“I realized rather quickly, [being controversial is] so boring on satellite radio,” Stern told Gross. “All of the outrageousness that I was about was because the government hated it. Religious groups hated it. And now suddenly, I’m in the Wild West. I can talk about anything I want.”

While most people in his position would have soldiered on, playing the same note again and again into a crowd of fans slowly heading for the exits, Stern did something nobody else did.

He evolved.

This is where I think Howard’s story really gets interesting, and where he solidified his position in both my heart and radio history.

The show started booking guests for long-form interviews. These subjects weren’t homeless people with deformities or porn stars or girls looking for free boob jobs; they were legit, A-list celebrities.

Over the last decade, Stern has tackled interviews with some of the most prominent and interesting people in American culture. Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman, James Taylor, Lady Gaga. Paul fucking McCartney.

Just think about that for a second. The dude who once had a Sybian masturbation chair permanently installed in his studio interviewed a Beatle for an hour and a half.

And these interviews aren’t fluff, the type of canned sound bytes you get watching a celeb talk for seven minutes on a late night show before they throw to commercial. It’s not the inane filler you get from a three-hour podcast interview, either. The content of his interviews make headlines; not because they’re so over-the-top, but because Howard’s typically guarded celebrity subjects end up telling secrets to the one person they’re not supposed to tell secrets to.

Case in point: on the Stern show, Hulk Hogan admitted to having affairs prior to his divorce; Wilmer Valderrama lied about taking Mandy Moore’s virginity and exposed himself as a scumbag; Lady Gaga opened up about drug addiction; Conan O’Brien discussed the depression he felt after being fired from The Tonight Show. The carpet in Stern’s green room must be threadbare from the nervous pacing of these celebrities’ PR managers.

Howard gets deep with these guests not only because he has the freedom of time, but also because he has the uncanny ability to connect with them, to suss out details about their lives you wouldn’t even get from a tell-all memoir.

If you ask him how he does it, he says it’s about preparation and feeling the interview’s flow.

“You have to not only do research but also have a sense of what keeps people interested, when to cut them off, and when to help them out,” Stern said in The New York Times Magazine. “It’s a whole process, and you have to labor over it. There is an art to conversation, and we’ve lost that.”

  As a journalism teacher, I talk to my students a lot about how to conduct good interviews, because it’s not just about preparing a list of questions and about firing them off didactically. I tell them I think Stern is the best interviewer in the industry. I want nothing more than to use clips of his interviews in my classroom as exemplars, but I’m worried a parent or administrator will catch wind of it and have my head on a pike.

Which brings me back to his new book and my shame.

Unlike his prior books, Private Parts and Miss America — which are products of the crass narcissistic character most people assume Stern to be — Howard Stern Comes Again is a collection of interview transcripts from some of his greatest guests. I heard a lot of the interviews live as they occurred, but seeing the dialogue in print pulls back the curtain on Howard’s interviewing talent. There’s a deftness in the way he sets up questions, phrases things to lower the subject’s guard, drops in jokes or anecdotes to provide levity when things get too heavy. It’s like watching a beautifully-executed touchdown pass in a football game and then looking at that same play diagrammed on a locker room chalkboard.   

I’m not saying Howard has transformed into Mike Brady. There’s still plenty of smut to be had on his four-hour show. One recent segment about FistFest — a convention in Georgia where gentlemen go to, well, you can connect the dots — was so gross and explicit, I had to turn it off. Even Stern’s celebration of his book release this Tuesday featured staffer Richard Christie making a congratulatory toast and then pouring champagne into his ass. 

By his own admission, Stern will never stray completely from what he calls “second grade humor,” nor should he. It’s part of what makes him who he is. But on the whole, it’s my appreciation for his talent, his work ethic, and his understanding of the art of conversation that makes me a true admirer and a defender of his craft. I hate the idea that people judge Stern on what he once was and not what he is. Like Tuesdays, Stern gets a bad rap, but it’s not completely founded.

I’d like to say I went to work Wednesday and proudly displayed Howard Stern Comes Again to all my colleagues, but I did not. I brought it so I could read during lunch, but I left the dust jacket at home, just in case. 

Some people aren’t ready.

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