Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Howard and I were both disc jockeys who made career stops in Detroit. He was at WWWW (playing Layla every half hour) and I was at WDRQ (playing Seasons in the Sun every ten minutes).
I thought I was edgy on the air. Double entendres over record intros. “Here’s Olivia Newton-hyphen-John. Boy I’d love to bust her hyphen.” -- that sort of high art. But Howard was far edgier. He’d hassle Scotland Yard, destroy a foreign car, pull outrageous stunts. I give him credit. He was willing to stick his neck out.
Since then of course, he has gone on to become the self-proclaimed King of All Media. Unlike Paula’s success, I was not surprised for a minute.
Back in the ‘90s I used to listen to Howard every morning when he was on the real radio. Once he jumped to satellite I lost touch. But two things reminded me of Howard recently.
I’ve been doing radio interviews for my book and have been on a few Morning Zoo programs. As these teams of three or four chuckleheads try to be funny and provocative all I could think was, “What a bunch of idiots! These morons couldn’t carry Howard Stern’s Altoids tin.”
But all you have to do is watch Howard on that panel for five minutes to see why he has become such a mega success. Face it, you have three opportunists at that judges table. There’s Sharon Osbourne, a woman with utterly no talent other than the ability to promote herself. What got her to where she is? She’s married to a vegetable and managed to exploit the exposure into a career as a national celebrity. She’s even on the Columbia Broadcasting System every morning offering her opinions on the news. We’re so far beyond Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK that we can no longer even see it in the rearview mirror.
Next to her is Howie Mandel – a has-been comedian who lucked into hosting an inane game show that became a hit for exactly five minutes and from that he’s a television personality again. Seriously, the revival of his career is his ability to say, “Pick a briefcase.”
And then there’s Howard. After years of relative obscurity on satellite radio (for which he was paid the equivalent of the National Debt) he’s decided to once again claim some national exposure and for good measure, he got someone to pony up $10 million for the privilege.
The reason Howard stands out on the panel, the reason he has had such a meteoric rise in radio continually leaving his imitators and competitors in the dust, the reason he’s been able to star in a major Hollywood motion picture even with his nose, and the reason he is probably approaching billionaire status by now is this…
He is smarter than everyone else.
Listen to him on AMERICA’S GOT TALENT (?). A far cry from my Bar Mitzvah table mate. This is the high level of constructive criticism we’re used to: “You can kick it, dawg!” “I don’t know, sweetheart. It just didn’t work for me.” Howard is articulate, insightful, and gives specific feedback to each contestant. And when he gets into tiffs with Mandel it’s like a battle of wits with an unarmed man. Stern destroys him every single time.
Is the feud calculated? Probably. Again, it’s Howard’s savvy. All of his feuds are calculated. The FCC. Leno. Imus. Ellen. Rosie. Dr. Laura. Sherri Shepherd. Andy Dick. When you see that list it’s hard not to take his side. (Would somebody ask if he has time to add Whitney?)
He knows how to generate controversy. He knows how to get attention. And he knows how to win. Oh, and one other tiny thing: Howard Stern is very funny. It’s not just shock value. It’s not just recreating the hilarity of your junior high locker room. He is way funnier than these Morning Zoo buffoons. If he had gone into sitcom writing instead of radio he’d be Larry David today. If he wrote for Broadway he’d be Trey Parker & Matt Stone. If he went into sketch comedy he’d be a very ugly Tina Fey.
Not every bit works (despite Robin’s uncontrollable toady laughter at every single thing he says), and I think he’s on too many hours every day. I’m sure he knows that but when Sirius/XM is paying him Fort Knox it’s a trade-off I’m sure he’s willing to make.
People dismiss Howard as just a shock jock. And I’m sure I’m going to get a bunch of comments saying he’s lame, he’s brutal, he’s not funny, he’s just crass. But look what happened when he left terrestrial radio. CBS had an entire year to replace him… and could choose from anyone in the country. Any morning man, any “zoo keeper”, any stand-up comic, any TV star, any hotshot blogger. And after a year-long exhaustive search they selected David Lee Roth and Adam Carolla. How’d that work out for them?
He may not still be the King of All Media (I wouldn’t be surprised if NBC has less of an audience these days than satellite radio), and you may think he’s an ass, but he’s a SMART ass. And I say that with genuine respect.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM