Why I like Howard Stern

Why I like Howard Stern

In the maelstrom around Howard Stern and free speech — and my daily coverage of the story here — one thing I haven’t made clear is why I like him and his show so much.

I once thought what many of you thought about Stern — because I hadn’t listened to him. I heard the same snippets and quotes and characterizations. I made the same assumptions. But then I assigned myself to review his cable show for TV Guide and I listened to his radio show.

And I liked him. I found that Stern is best taken in large doses. In the small dose of one outrageous quote or stunt, well, sure, anybody wouldn’t like what they hear. But listen to him for a whole hour, then a whole show, then a whole week — and by then he’s a habit — and you’ll find that he’s a very charming, likable, decent — and funny — man.

But more than that, he is an antedote to all the over-packaged, smiley, phony, condescending, pap of personality in American media and entertainment. The most frequently used word to describe Stern — and the most frequently mocked — is “honest.” But it is the truest description of him. In an age of political correctness, of tiptoeing — dishonestly — about no end of topics, of a numbing cotton gauze covering our national rhetoric, Stern cuts through the crap and says what he thinks… and what many of us think. And that is incredibly refreshing. No, it’s liberating.

Be honest: We don’t all talk like Hallmark cards and ministers and HR directors all the time. When we sit down in the bar with friends, we gossip and talk about people we don’t like and joke about sex. Be honest. And when we look at some news on TV, we think thoughts we wouldn’t like to admit. Stern admits them.

Is he racist? No, he certainly is not. He has racists on the show — a KKK somethingorother or just the random bozo on the phone — and he ridicules them, allowing them to expose their utter idiocy. And idiots are funny. Admit it: When you watch game shows or reality shows you love to make fun of the idiots there and that’s not necessarily anything to be proud of; making fun of idiot racists is

Stern gives us the respect to know that we, too, ridicule them; he doesn’t have to protect us from them or explain to us that they’re hateful fools; we’re smart enough to know that. Practitioners of political correctness don’t give us the respect for that judgment.

Is he mean to people who are different? No. I’d argue that he accepts them for who they are rather than just what they are far better than those of us who avert our eyes or treat them differently because they are different. Stern takes them at face value. He took a stutterer and turned him into a star who just got a big-bucks gig with Jay Leno. He reveals a garbageman to be one of the most together guys on radio. He attracts the different — the wack pack — because they feel comfortable with him and each other. We’re all misfits in some way; Stern admits his oddities and they theirs.

When I first started listening to Stern, I did think he could be mean to his staff. But then I was let in on the joke. He pulls their chains. They pull each others’ chains. The truth is that what you hear in Stern’s “office” is very much like the drama and personal politics of any workplace. It’s better than Dilbert.

He and his crew share their lives on the air with sometimes incredible candor. Stern lived through his marriage and divorce; his crew talks about their marriages with amazing candor. They’re real.

Stern is quite self-aware. He knows he has to have a big ego to be an entertainer. He also makes fun of himself as much as anyone.

All that is about Stern’s personality (at least on-air). He is also a damned talented entertainer: He’s creative and funny and he is one of the best interviewers alive; he can get stars to say the things they didn’t think they’d say (why do you think ABC hired him for an interview show?).

I’ve come to like the guy. I don’t know him. I used to appear on TV or radio with some frequency as a critic and (token) Stern defender. I spoke with him once on the air about one of those appearances. He read the review I wrote in TV Guide on the air and said grateful things (involving sexual favors, as I recall). But I haven’t been concentrating so much on him and the maelstrom around him because I’m a friend.

I am doing this because I am a fan. Every morning, I look forward to listening to him and his crew when I run and show and drive too damned far to work. I like to listen. If you don’t, fine. Listen to something else. I won’t stop you. So don’t stop me.

I am also doing this because I fear for the First Amendment. In the hysteria — and admit it’s hysteria — over Janet Jackson’s iron-clad and not naked boob — the result of a malfunction of judgment, not wardrobe — Congress and the FCC are about to trample the rights of anyone who speaks on radio or TV or in print… or on the Internet.

Defend Stern. Defend speech.