There are some people whose lives you can hardly imagine happening anywhere but in America. Howard is one of them. His grandparents were Jews from central Europe; many of his relatives perished in the Holocaust. He often mimics, at length, his parents’ gloomy recitations of their own long-ago travails, and the effect — perversely — is at once poignant and hilarious. Could his grandparents — part of a wave of immigrants who were oppressed in Europe and who sweated and strained to make ends meet in America — ever have imagined that their grandson would grow wealthy, and become a hero to millions of Americans, by saying things that back in the Old Country would have landed them in prison?
Indeed it’s hard to imagine a show like Howard’s existing even today in most Western countries, where there tend to be unwritten lists of approved and off-limits comedy targets. The FCC tried but failed to tame him (over the years his employers had to pay millions in FCC fines), but that was nothing: almost anywhere else on the planet he’d have long since been shut down for good by either the government or the media establishment. (Indeed, his satellite radio show wasn’t carried in Canada at first because of concerns about that country’s speech prohibitions.)
Howard, of course, isn’t only a radio performer. In 1997 he starred in an autobiographical movie, Private Parts, and he can be seen daily on a TV program consisting of excerpts from his radio show. But his natural medium is radio — and a very special medium it is. Movie stars are royalty — distant figures who seem to inhabit a higher reality. TV is more intimate, its stars more like next-door neighbors. But radio, in the right hands, can be more intimate still. You can have the illusion of being in the room with the guy at the mike. You can feel he’s talking directly to you. Howard is the master of this. He’s every listener’s pal — or, at least, such is the illusion he creates.
And since men, Howard’s core audience, can be pretty lousy at real friendship, this amounts to a valuable service. There are thousands of celebrities in America today, but the only one who looms anywhere near as large as Howard does — in terms of seeming to be a real and significant part of people’s lives — is Oprah. What she is to women, Howard is to men. And he talks in the same irreverent way that guys do when they’re shooting the breeze with their buddies in a bar or at a bowling alley. No matter what the topic, there’s only one rule: keep it real.
For years, to be sure, this insistence on keeping it real made Howard Public Enemy No. 1 for both the family-values racketeers of the right and the identity-group mafia of the left. Admittedly there was a time when some of his gay humor got under my skin; but Howard joked, and continues to joke, about gay people for a simple reason — because he jokes about everybody. I’ve always seen him as being, on the whole, a hugely positive force for gay people, simply because he’s always been frank about the curiosity and discomfort with homosexuality that he shares with so many straight guys, and because he’s always recognized gays, in a thoroughly natural and matter-of-fact and un-PC way, as fellow human (and sexual) beings who are a part of the world he lives in and who, as much as anyone else, deserve to live and love and be left alone. If straight American men, over the last quarter-century, have become less hung-up about homosexuality, Howard deserves a huge part of the credit for it — perhaps more credit than anybody else.
It’s not just gays whom Howard has included in his world. His “Wack Pack” — a collection of regular callers, most of whom suffer from some physical, mental, or emotional disability, and some of whom are just plain eccentric — is a showcase of human variety. Some might find Howard’s humor at their expense cruel; others might consider it radically inclusive. I can testify that it’s possible to feel both ways at the same time. I have to admit that on more than one occasion I’ve found myself comparing Howard to another long-haired Jewish monologist who lived a couple of thousand years ago and who, like him (though, admittedly, in a somewhat different way), opened more than a few people’s eyes to a world populated by the marginalized, the outcasts, the weird and wacky.
Sometimes it’s when Howard is at his most outrageous that I suddenly realize he’s also accomplishing something strangely moving and human.
Life is change. When I first listened to Howard, he was a husband and father who commuted to Manhattan every day from a typical suburban house on Long Island, and some of whose funniest spiels were about how he — tamed husband and maladjusted misanthrope that he was — spent his evenings alone in his basement, watching TV and looking at porn. Today he shares a Manhattan luxury apartment and Hamptons mansion with model Beth Ostrosky, whom he wed last October at the legendary restaurant Le Cirque in the company of some of the same celebrities (Barbara Walters, Chevy Chase) whom he used to make merciless fun of on the air. Indeed, even as many of the glitterati who used to look down on him have taken him to their bosom since he became super-rich and super-famous, many of the longtime listeners who made him a success complain about him sipping cocktails with folks he once mocked as showbiz phonies. He’s mellowed, they say, as if it were a crime. Well, it’s true that Howard — whose humor, rich in anger, resentment, and envy, once drew heavily on his frustrations as a family man and his conflicts with his bosses — now has a hell of a lot less to complain about.
But the salient fact here is that Howard’s fans have become spoiled. Over the years we’ve gotten used to his unparalleled candor. He’s poured his guts out to us about his most intimate personal failures and insecurities; he’s shared his deepest thoughts about every milestone of his life, from his NBC firing to his divorce. It’s as if we were his best friends. It’s remarkable. And as a result some listeners think he owes them everything. It’s as if they think they own him, and that he owes it to them to live a certain kind of life. They change, but they don’t want him to change; it’s as if they resent him for getting older. While they age, they want him to remain the same ambitious, energetic, irreverent young guy they first listened to when they were young. Ultimately, this resentment is a measure of the intensity with which Howard’s fans are attached to him, and of the extraordinary role he’s come to play in their lives.
An instinctive libertarian, Howard has always openly recoiled from dogma of any kind, whether identified with the PC left or the religious right. To be sure, if he’d had either of these constituencies on his side, the FCC might not have gotten away with the shameless harassment it subjected him to during his years on the terrestrial dial. In any case, it’s a very good thing that satellite radio came along when it did. Like the Internet, it’s proving to be a boon for free speech. And it’s only fitting that Howard Stern’s name has become all but synonymous with it.