Howard Stern had been working at WNBC radio in New York for only a few days when I heard him for the first time in the kitchen of a childhood friend. I’d never heard anything like him. Most radio DJs had that phony announcer voice. He didn’t. But that was just the beginning. More than anyone else I’d ever heard on the radio, he was himself. He didn’t have a script or even a plan. Whatever was in his mind, he said it — unfiltered. He talked about his wife and parents and in-laws, ranted about politicians and celebrities who got on his nerves, and reacted to the news stories read by his newswoman, Robin Quivers. Sometimes his take on things was ludicrous (and he knew it), and sometimes it was deeply personal. And often — amazingly often, in fact — he put into words exactly what many of us listeners were thinking about the topic at hand but that none of us had ever heard anyone say publicly. And with remarkable frequency, what he said was absolutely hilarious.
Soon I was a regular listener, playing his afternoon drive-time show while I sat and wrote.
It was 1982. The years went by and brought many changes for me, but Howard — along with Quivers and his gifted sidekick Fred Norris — remained a constant. He saw me through several apartments and into and out of a long-term relationship. After he was fired by NBC in 1985 and became the morning man at WXRK, I got into the habit of setting my alarm for 6 a.m., when his program began. It helped me ease my way into the day.
Writing was, and is, my life — writing, mostly, about things I take very seriously. Listening to Howard every morning helped me keep a sense of humor about it all — a sense of the ridiculous, a sense of balance. From 1982 to 1998, when I moved to Europe, I had his show on, all four to five hours of it, almost every single weekday. In my entire life, I realized one day, there’s nobody whose voice I’ve listened to more. And nobody who’s given me more laughs.
I missed several years of Howard while making a new life for myself in Europe. But then fate came to my rescue. In December 2005, Howard — who by that point was syndicated across much of the United States — left what is now called terrestrial radio; the next month he, Quivers, Norris, and comedian Artie Lange (who joined the show in 2001) debuted on satellite radio; and a few months after that, it became possible for subscribers to listen to the show online outside North America. I subscribed pronto, and have been a faithful listener ever since.
What’s the appeal?
Well, look at it this way. Before Howard came along, your favorite comedian or comic actor might make you laugh a few times a year. The very best sitcom might give you a half-dozen real laughs during its weekly half-hour. A good Johnny Carson monologue might generate two or three chuckles a night. Not infrequently, Howard serves up several laughs a day. There have been occasions, too many of them to remember, when I’ve laughed almost constantly for ten or twenty or forty minutes at a stretch. Not infrequently I’ve laughed so hard that it hurt. That’s extraordinary. It’s an incredible addition to one’s quality of life to have been given that much laughter every weekday for so many years.
Even when Howard isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, he’s nearly always compelling. To be sure, there are whole areas of knowledge — art, literature, science, history — about which he knows virtually nothing. But that’s true, too, of a lot of people who focus on and excel in all kinds of specialized endeavors — from chess masters to world-class swimming champions. Part of Howard’s unique gift is that he can be positively brilliant about people. I almost want to say that he’s got a Shakespearean insight into them. Let’s just say he has uncanny interviewing instincts, perceiving things about the people he’s talking to that other interviewers wouldn’t pick up on and finding his way to places in seemingly unpromising interview subjects that are nothing less than revelatory. His nose for phoniness and posturing, his insistence on keeping it real, is always in evidence — along with his sense of the cosmic absurdity of life. There’s much more to him, in short, than the fart jokes and strippers for which he’s famous.
And the main person on whom he targets his scorn for phoniness is himself — for whether he’s interviewing someone, or interacting with his radio colleagues, or serving up one of his sublimely ridiculous rants, he’s always his own favorite subject. Who else in human history has placed his own self before us, naked, in all his human folly, for so many thousands of hours over so long a period? And at the heart of all his self-presentation — as all his fans fully understand — is an endless interplay between colossal egomania and a sense of the absurdity of all human pretensions. When Howard dubbed himself “King of All Media,” it was at once braggadocio and self-mockery.