Film Reviews

Stern und Drang

Page 8 of 9

But now there is no one around Stern save for his coterie of writers and the ever-present Robin Quivers. It is Valentine's Day, and Stern is sitting in the Manhattan studio of WXRK-FM talking to comedian Pat Cooper, a once-forgotten Italian comic from the 1960s whose career was resurrected when Stern began booking him as a guest several years ago. Cooper's the only guy who talks louder than Stern: Next to him, Howard's an ant in a hurricane, a mute observer who can only nod as the old Vegas comic rants and raves at the microphone.

Dozens of lights hang from the ceiling, and there appear to be at least six cameras stationed at various angles. Posters from Private Parts and Miss America, framed in steel, hang from thick chains; Plexiglas sculptures of Stern and Dell'Abate stand on small columns between Stern's station and the glass booth that houses Quivers. The studio is so large that Quivers doesn't even notice a couple of visiting journalists until she comes out of her soundproof cage during commercial breaks.

Contrary to the chaos overheard by radio audiences--the dissonance created by Norris' pistol-quick sound effects and Martling's whinny and Stern's own tenor--the studio seems almost calm this morning--surprisingly serene. Until Cooper opens his mouth. On the morning of this most romantic day, Cooper starts yapping about how a woman's vagina is more like a "Brillo pad," a "hairbrush" men bust their balls to get at for even a moment. But Cooper growls he doesn't need what other men crave: "I've got my right hand," he snarls. This is a man who does not whisper sweet nothings--or anything else. "Kiss my ass, you vagina."

Stern agrees--but of course. This is his gambit, too, the lament of the tortured man who insists he wants to cheat on his wife but is too guilt-ridden to go through with it. That and, he laments, some "loudmouthed broad" will rat him out to the tabloids, thus giving his wife half his hard-earned millions. Better he masturbate than do the deed with a stripper.

"He happens to be right," Stern says to his microphone. "He's like a sage. You get crazy and make crazy decisions. What do ya think O.J. killed over? Not a penis."

And then Stern rolls his eyes. He wiggles his eyebrows. He flashes a grin. It's the one that says, "What the hell did I just say?"

A moment such as this one occurs in the film Private Parts, when Stern goes on the air to talk about Alison's miscarriage. It has since become a classic Stern moment, one that took place during his tenure at DC-101 in 1982: Stern, speaking as "God," phones to blame Howard for Alison's miscarriage: "A real man would have done it right the first time," God tells Howard, who then shouts back, "I don't think this is funny!" But Howard does, dragging the bit out for two days even though it infuriated his wife and nearly destroyed his marriage.

Yet there's a moment in the film immediately after that bit when Stern looks genuinely sorry for what he has just said. The smile turns into a frown, the laugh gets swallowed. It's the look the radio audience cannot see, the moment when Stern realizes he has crossed that imaginary line separating the absurd from the inexcusable.

"That moment occurs throughout my day," Stern says later. "I often sit and go, Jeez, what did I just do? What are the consequences of what I just did? And it's tough because I do not ever want to lose the premise that you have to just talk about whatever's on your mind. When I come into the house and get into an argument with Alison, it's happened to me a million times in my life. I know she's gonna give it to me. I'm like, 'Hey, honey, I'm home!' but I know I'm gonna get nailed.

"What goes through my mind when that happens is, Uh-oh, I'm fucked. I'm in for it. I'm gonna get yelled at. And yet there's a tremendous satisfaction of having just revealed things to my audience--I'm on a roll--and that roll is, like, unbelievable."

People have long tried to find the "real" Howard Stern, but in the end, there's really only one--the shock jock who surprises even himself, who traps himself in cages of his own creation and spends his off time trying to extricate himself until the next jam. On the air, he turns on his friends, betrays his wife even by his own admission, wishes death on his enemies and maybe even feels bad about it. For a second. But did he make you laugh?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky