Film Reviews

Stern und Drang

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And then there was the time when Stern was at Washington, D.C.-based radio station DC-101 in the early 1980s. The station withheld pay from him because he was going to New York's then-prestigious WNBC. Even though Stern was supposed to stay on and finish out his "ironclad" (Stern's word) contract, DC-101 had found a replacement and forced Stern off the air prematurely. When Stern took his grievance to the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors union, he was told the union might consider his case. It didn't. Not long after he went to WNBC--and went to number one in New York--he was fired. Take that, funny boy.

A recent issue of Los Angeles magazine features Stern on its cover painted as an Academy Award--a vision of gold and hair. The cover trumpets a story inside written by Stern himself, "The End of Hollywood As You Know It." But Stern didn't write the piece. The magazine says the idea was approved by Stern's publicist; Stern says he found out about it when he saw an advance copy. Apparently, one of the magazine's writers interviewed Stern and then wrote a piece loosely derived from the Q & A. But anyone could tell Stern didn't write it: Unlike Private Parts or Miss America, there's not a funny line in the article.

"This is just fucking outrageous," Stern says of the piece. "They would never do that to anybody else, but people feel like they can get away with that shit, that I'm up for anything. Even when I'm doing photo shoots. They'll call up and go, 'Hey, you wanna take your hair and put it in a braid and then you'll be hanging from the ceiling?' It's the goofiest fuckin' shit. They wouldn't suggest it to anybody.

"They have this perception of me that I'm just a fucking freak. And yes, to some extent, that should be there. I'm pretty insane on the air, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure I'm not insane off the air--I'm just pretty good at disguising it. I guess because of the nature of what I do, people think that they can take liberties and know what I want, when in fact they don't know what I want or who I am."

Most telling is that one critic dismissed Stern as a "hype" after a New York press screening of Private Parts--and this guy liked the movie. It's typical: Stern's repudiated--when he isn't being ignored. Typical of the reaction to Stern was the first line of a National Review book review of Private Parts when it was released in 1993: "The secret of Howard Stern's success is that he does not deserve it."

Stern smiles--and stiffens--when he hears that line read back to him. "There's something interesting there," he says. "Maybe this is why there's a lot of hostility from a lot of my critics: 'He doesn't deserve to be famous.' I mean, I certainly feel that way about myself, but why should they feel that way?"

Those who would dismiss the show as toilet talk and racist humor miss the point. If it's about stereotypes, it's also about poking fun at those who created them; it's about sex, but it's also about a guy who rarely has any. Stern's the brilliant idiot of talk radio--the smartest 15-year-old in the world, as one pop-culture critic refers to him. Unlike most call-in shows, this one's all about the host and his "wack pack," the friends and freaks he stuffs into the studio every morning from 6 to 10 a.m.

Stern is a superstar not because he panders to the lowest common denominator--indeed, various Arbitron ratings studies have shown that his demographics skew toward older, upper-middle-class audiences with incomes exceeding $70,000 and homes worth $300,000. He is a phenomenon because he comes off as an average guy sitting in your bedroom, your car, your office each morning. He's a paroxysm of frustration on the surface, a shrewd commentator for those who dig deeper, the last angry comic for those who'd lump him in with Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. He hates everybody, mostly himself.

Private Parts is not Howard Stern's first big-screen appearance. He had a bit part in a 1984 film called Ryder, P.I., a no-budget detective spoof in which he played a wacky newscaster. Stern almost made his feature debut four years ago with The Adventures of Fartman, based on the flatulence-propelled superhero he created for the radio and who later made a ballyhooed appearance on the MTV Music Video Awards show--to the chagrin of a viewing audience ill-prepared for the sight of Stern's milk-white, flabby ass. (Appropriately enough, the film Private Parts begins with a re-creation of this rather auspicious occasion in Stern's life.) But Stern and New Line Cinema, which was prepared to make Fartman, couldn't agree on licensing rights--they figured, with all seriousness, that Fartman dolls would fly off shelves--so Stern walked.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky