Anti-Christ of the airwaves

Howard Stern, America’s most shocking jock, is coming to SA to promote his film, Private Parts. ANDREW CLEMENTS met him in his NYC studio

ARRIVING at Howard Stern’s Manhattan studio, I am surprised by the identity of his previous guest. Initially, when I see her familiar rotund form disappearing into the lift, I am not certain it is who I think it is. But one blast of her distinctive car-alarm whine is enough to confirm that it is indeed Roseanne, the well-known comedienne and TV star. The same Roseanne, that is, who just a few short years ago made known her opinion of Stern: “He’s a racist, sexist, homophobic fucking pig.”

Roseanne, of course, is not renowned for her tact, but her summary of the so-called shock-jock’s character is by no means unusual or even particularly extreme. Certainly not if you sample his hate-mail, which he receives in industrial quantities. Another aspect of Stern’s unique standing in America is the complaints registered by listeners with the FCC, the government agency charged with maintaining broadcasting standards. So far they have resulted in the 43-year-old receiving fines amounting to $2-million (which he has refused to pay).

Then there are Americans for Responsible Television, countless religious and moral pressure groups and an A, B and C list of Hollywood celebrities, all of whom have come to see Stern as a serious threat. “A lot of people hate my guts,” he tells me.

Stern keeps his listeners meticulously up to date with his sex life (which seems to be mostly masturbatory). For the past 15 years, the self-styled “King of All Media” has plumbed previously unexplored depths of poor taste.

When an Air Florida jet crashed into a bridge shortly after take-off from Washington DC killing most of those on board, he called the airline. “What’s the price of a one-way ticket from National to the Fourteenth Street Bridge?” he asked. “Is that going to be a regular stop?” Stern would like to see himself as operating a non-discriminatory policy: everyone gets it. But according to his critics, Roseanne was right about the targets for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of bile.

He refers to gay men as `homos” and is likely to inquire of a male guest whose sexuality he doubts: “Have you ever put wildlife up your rectum?” Stern has famously maintained a monogamous relationship with his wife for 21 years. However, to compensate for his loyalty, the women who appear on his show tend to be porn stars or attractive young listeners willing to strip naked and let Stern spank them. They also tend to fall into two categories: “bims” or “bitches”.

For all these reasons, I am even more surprised, not to say extremely anxious, by the identity of his follow-up guest to the super-celebrity Roseanne: me, apparently. The original arrangement was that I would speak to Stern after he had finished his four-and-a-half hour morning show, which he does five days a week (televised simultaneously) and which he has made the number one-rated radio programme in America with 18-million listeners coast to coast.

Stern’s CV is full of this kind of boastful number-crunching: his show on the E! Entertainment Network reaches 26-million homes! His pay-per-view New Year’s Eve special grossed more than $27-million in one night! His autobiography, Private Parts, was the fastest-selling book in Simon and Schuster’s history!

Stern is currently promoting his new film, also called Private Parts, which topped the United States box-office after 40 000 people turned out to see Stern arrive at its Madison Square Garden premiere. He thinks the film should also go big in Europe and the United Kingdom.

“British satire to me has always been scathing and angry,” he says. This is why he has agreed to the interview. “He wants you to join him in the studio,” announces the film PR, before adding the pointless warning, “Watch he doesn’t ask you about your pecker. He always asks a guy about the size of his pecker.”

For a while, I just sit in the dimly-lit room waiting for the pecker question as I watch Stern do his stuff, surrounded by banks of consoles and his long-standing team. To his left are his sidekicks Fred Norris and Jackie “the Joke Man” Martling, who supply background gags, impersonations, noises and immoral support.

In front, inside a small, glass-fronted room is his newscaster Robin Quivers, who, unlike the others, is neither white nor male. Quivers is absolutely key to Stern’s act. According to Roseanne, he “gets away with it [the racism, sexism, homophobia] by having that stupid black woman sitting next to him, excusing it all”. Whether this is true or not, Quivers is undoubtedly the straight woman and foil who both makes Stern appear more outrageous and reins him in when he is too outrageous.

Stern is wearing sunglasses, as well as ripped jeans and a long, unruly hairstyle that few men outside a heavy metal band would dare contemplate. At six foot five with a physique that invites you to kick sand in his face, Stern should cut an awkwardly gangly figure, but here, in this enclosed, darkened space, he looks comfortable and in control.

Stern doesn’t mention my pecker. Instead his opening question is whether, like most Englishmen, I am gay. This is not the environment, I sense, in which to make concerned speeches, so I reply, rather lamely: “I’m not the one with a woman’s haircut.” Stern gives me a stern look and presses on with the next question: “Andrew, can you explain Camilla Parker Bowles to me?” I’m not sure where to start on this one so he adds helpfully: “Would you hump her? I’d rather hump a guy.”

There is a schooboyish quality to much of Stern’s humour but it’s too easy, and wrong, to dismiss him as merely puerile. He is also very funny. Often viciously funny. This is not the impression one gains from watching Private Parts, but it is one that is impossible to avoid while listening to him roll and rap his way across the void of radio static.

I can’t shed much light on the Camilla question – I hear myself making gnomic references to horses – but for some reason, which I suspect does not reflect favourably upon me, Stern is enjoying having me on the show. I am a handy butt for any loose jokes.

When, for example, Robin recounts a news story of a serial killer who entered a victim’s baked breast in a police cooking contest and won, Stern interjects: “This guy’s scarier than the reporter from London.” It soon becomes obvious that Stern is delaying the ending of his show – he sometimes runs over by an hour – so as to avoid doing the proper interview with me.

“I don’t want to go into that room,” he complains to 18-million Americans. “Anything but that room. Andrew, let’s get nude and worship each other’s feet. Anything but that room.” The foot worship is a reference to Eddie Murphy who a few days earlier had been stopped with a transsexual prostitute by the Los Angeles Police Department. Stern has been mercilessly covering the story ever since.

“I think Eddie’s a super talent,” Stern says, when eventually I do get to interview him, “but, you know, he’s in a car with a transvestite, there’s humour in that. I think the whole thing is hilarious. I’m sure he doesn’t. I’m sure it’s causing him personal pain and stuff but I’ve got to be true to the show otherwise it’s not cutting edge anymore and I might as well go away.”

Stern’s great achievement, the secret of his sustained success, is to appear cutting edge to a mainstream audience. His prejudices, despite the supposed hegemony of political correctness, are those of the mass ranks of the white, lower-middle class who commute by car. He is the angry sound of the suburbs, the repressed id of the outer boroughs let loose – farting, frothing and fulminating – downtown.

How can he maintain the authentic voice of frustration with which his army of loyal fans so closely identifies? Isn’t there a danger of going Hollywood? “I won’t let that happen because first of all I hide in my house,” says Stern, in a manner that makes it clear that it bothers him. Nevertheless, if Stern is immune to the allure of Tinseltown, he can’t seriously pass himself off nowadays as just another guy from Long Island.

“You know, I’ve worried about that. Like if you don’t take the subway each day and take a limo, do you lose touch? I grew up in a black neighbourhood and in the neighbourhood I live in now there’s no black people.

“But for some reason I don’t forget the past. It’s like I’m still living it. I don’t know why exactly, maybe it’s just fucking anger or something. It keeps spewing. But I know what you mean. I worry about that. But the popularity of the show is at an all-time high.”

That’s why, of course, Roseanne was able to overcome her political reservations. And that’s why Stern’s effort in daily persuading himself, in his ripped jeans and long hair, that he is still a disenfranchised rebel is one of the great modern triumphs of character acting.

Private Parts opens in SA this Friday, June 20

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