Civil Liberties

American Scream


Miss America, by Howard Stern, New York: HarperCollins, 482 pages, $27.50

For reasons that are clear–if not at all convincing–the media absolutely loathe Howard Stern, the New York-based radio and TV personality who just happens to be the country's greatest living satirist. Stern is, of course, hugely popular with wide segments of the American people: His daily drive-time radio show airs in about two dozen markets across the country; his nightly show on cable's E! network is among that channel's most popular features; his first book, Private Parts (1993), was a chart-topper and his latest, Miss America, is the fastest-selling title in its publisher's history. But critics–whose moralistic pronouncements are not burdened by familiarity with Stern's radio, television, or written work–take a quick peek at the man and his shtick and cluck their tongues, convinced that here is just one more example of vulgarity über alles.

"Because he continues to embrace the qualities of a child splashing in sewage, Stern still belongs among those icons of depravity who make their living pandering to humanity's basest instincts," proclaims Al Martinez of the Los Angeles Times, who dubs Stern the "king of excrement." Stern's popularity, Martinez cryptically warns, "ought to tell us something about ourselves in an age that fawns over what it loves and blows up what it hates."

For Alan Ehrenhalt, the executive editor of Governing magazine and the author of The Lost City, Stern is symptomatic of an economic system that dares give people choice. Writing in The New York Times, Ehrenhalt invokes Stern as the horror child of laissez faire economics: "The tyranny of the market…has destroyed the loyalty of corporations to their communities; customers to their neighborhood merchants; athletes to their local teams; teams to their cities. The market has given us Howard Stern."

"Stern is no satirist, a latter-day Jonathan Swift making 'a modest proposal,'" contends Linda Chavez in USA Today. "He incites nastiness, crudity, and effrontery…Stern has made millions with this trash….[M]aybe [we] can shame the media executives who give Stern a platform." Echoing the Times's Martinez, Chavez asks, "What does it say about the state of our popular culture that radio shock-jock Howard Stern can replace Colin Powell as the best-selling author in America?"

Short answer: It means things are pretty damn swell.

Contrary to Chavez, Stern is indeed a latter-day Jonathan Swift–and not just because he is nasty, crude, and scatological (go read Gulliver's Travels some time). There is a quasi-political message to be gleaned from Stern's inspired rants and ramblings, one that is particularly relevant to a media-saturated, market-based society. In the tradition of folks such as Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce, Stern's search-and-destroy hijinks puncture the pretensions of all manner of fakes and phonies. He relentlessly and systematically debunks the fictions we tell about ourselves. He is particularly brilliant at deconstructing the pat, clichéd narratives that actors, politicians, and other public figures spin to their own advantage. In an age of overweening celebrity, that alone should make him a national treasure.

No wonder, then, that the media dislike him. They crave good "stories"–tight little tales that assume predictable, easily recognized shapes and reinforce already-held notions. But in this sense, Stern is resolutely anti-story, revelling in the mismatch between perception and reality, between what we say and what we do. He delights in pointing out just how large that gap often is. (That's also one of the reasons why he is such a great interviewer of celebrities–he gets them to step out of their well-rehearsed raps.) Stern's popularity is an indication that many people maintain a healthy skepticism toward the machinations of hucksters of all stripes.

And it's worth pointing out that despite his open obsession with strippers, lesbians, and sexual fantasies, such musings are a minor part of his act. Stern is, in fact, a moralist whose teachings could hardly be more traditional. Indeed, what drives him insane is the degree to which some people get let off the moral hook. The secret of life, he wrote in Private Parts, is simple: "You wake up in the morning. You eat a little breakfast, maybe read the newspaper. If you're lucky enough, you're married. You yell at your wife, you make up with your wife. If your testicles feel all right, you bang your wife. You watch a video you rented or maybe you go out to the movies….That's life. If you have kids, you live with the kids. You don't move out on your wife….That's the secret of life."

As his superb Miss America makes abundantly clear, Stern goes about his business with a child's sense of discovery, outrage, and insistence. Consider his comments on the Kennedy family: "The Kennedy men bother me enough," writes Stern, "but the idolization of the Kennedy women makes me berserk. People always get pissed off when I blast the Kennedy women, but they should thank me for the hypocrisies that I point out.

"Let's start with Rose Kennedy: What kind of role model is that? Here's a woman who buried her head in the sand and sat idly by while her husband fucked every Hollywood bimbo on two feet. The whoremeister General Joe Kennedy would even bring home Hollywood starlets to sit at the dining-room table with the whole family while Rose Kennedy kept her stupid mouth shut….[T]his woman should be ashamed of herself. No wonder her sons grew up and couldn't keep it in their pants. Just remember: The fruit doesn't fall far from the scumbag."

In "An Open Letter to All the Third Generation Kennedys (Except for my friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger)," Stern adds, "You don't know what it's like to grow up in the real world, to actually have to work for a living….My grandfather wasn't a criminal who passed down his money to a series of leeches who are so nonproductive that they've just about pissed away the family fortune….My uncle never drowned a poor young woman and got away with it. My aunt never married an old Greek just so she could raid his coffers. My uncles never gang banged Marilyn Monroe." This is powerful, outrageous, irreverent stuff–all the more so because it is essentially (if not quite literally) true.

While Stern might have the energy level of a child, however, it's wrong to think that he is an unsophisticated observer. The chapter of Miss America detailing Stern's clandestine meeting with Michael Jackson demonstrates that the "shock jock" possesses a pretty sharp mind. In 1994, after Jackson had settled a child-molestation charge out of court and married Lisa Marie Presley, his agent contacted Stern. In a meeting at Dolly Parton's Manhattan apartment, Jackson's agent spun out a scenario in which Stern, who had mercilessly lampooned Jackson for years, would champion the singer and lead a "spontaneous" demonstration in the "streets" supporting Jackson.

As the agent unveiled the absurd plan, Stern kept sneaking peeks at Jackson, who sat silently in the room, his face slathered with thick white makeup, his nose covered in dirty, unraveling surgical tape. Stern paints a portrait of a literally dissolving image: "It is getting hot and every few minutes Michael is wiping his face…and now there are big black smudge marks running all over it….[His agent] keeps talking like Michael is normal….I want to stand up and call 911: Come quick, we've got a melting Michael Jackson on Dolly Parton's chair. Over!"

Stern, of course, turned down the offer to be part of Jackson's public relations rehab team. And his critique of Diane Sawyer, who later aired a puff piece interview with Jackson and Lisa Marie, is nothing short of devastating. Sawyer, he says, is "just Sally Jesse Raphael with better skin and hair." Her interview was "candy-cane journalism."

"The interview was pathetic," writes Stern. "She did everything but beg the audience to take to the streets for MJ….And then I realized that the son of a bitch even got the masses into the streets for him. Of course, he had to pay them, but take a look at that stupid movie trailer that…ran during the show. The streets are lined with weeping fans. They're holding up signs saying KING OF POP. And here comes Michael, like a conquering monarch. He's got the gay militia outfit on, with the hockey shinguards, and he marches into town, surrounded by troops, waving, blowing kisses. The camera is pulled back so you can't see the melting face. It's a perfect world." But even as "everybody falls into line," Stern notes that "Michael's record sales go into the toilet. Why? Well, partly it's just that the music sucks, and partly it's the nasty smell of those charges, charges that linger in the public's mind because there are questions that were never answered."

Even Stern's most seemingly juvenile antics reveal a contempt for glossy, prefabricated images. For instance, one of the most popular–and pilloried–parts of Stern's radio program involves his sending his crony "Stuttering John" out to interview celebrities. As he did in Private Parts, Stern devotes a chapter to John's misadventures. "To me," writes Stern, "John has the scariest job imaginable. He has to approach celebrities and, armed only with a microphone and a list of cleverly engineered questions that we write, verbally terrorize them into revealing their true essence to the world….Morton Downey Jr. overturned a table and threw John to the floor….Eric Bogosian grabbed him and slammed his head up against a wall….Lou Reed put his hands around John's neck, trying to strangle him…. Raquel Welch whacked him right in the nose" after he asked her, "Are they drooping yet?"

What is brilliant about the bit is that it catches off guard celebs who thrive on presenting a seamless image to the public–it is guerilla theater at its best. The results can be nothing short of hilarious, as when John showed up at a Burt Reynolds book signing and asked the question, "Did you avoid Ned Beatty after he got raped in Deliverance?" As security guards bear down on him, Stern tells us, John is able to get off one final question to the enraged actor: "Burt! How do you respond to charges that you are hot-headed?"

In the same vein, Stern devotes a chapter to "the unleashing of the mad phone stalkers," fans of his program who harass other radio and TV programs with fake calls. Highlights include calls to the Today show with Ross Perot as a guest ("Mr. Perot," queried the caller, "Have you ever had the desire to mindmeld with Howard Stern's penis?"), to CNN's Sonya Live during the World Trade Center bombing (posing as a worker trapped in the building, a caller attributed the explosion to one of Stern's farts), to local Oklahoma TV in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing (impersonating Rep. Frank Lucas, a caller told viewers that the suspects were Islamic men and one of them was believed to be Howard Stern). "What's amazing," Stern writes, "is that these genius phone artists can go right on the air…and no one even bothers to check them out."

The ultimate coup came when a caller got through to Peter Jennings of ABC News during the conclusion of O.J. Simpson's Bronco chase. While Simpson's truck was parked outside his Brentwood home, the caller got on by posing as one of Simpson's neighbors. The caller, as Stern tells it, "slipped into a thick black dialect that made Kingfish seem like a Rhodes scholar," complete with observations along the lines of "Oh, my Lord, this is quite tenses" and "Now lookee here, [O.J.] look very upset. I don' know what gon' be doin'." While such shenanigans are in undeniably bad taste, Stern correctly points out, as with Stuttering John's questions, that the media get what they deserve: "If Jennings wasn't a wooden Indian, he would have realized that this guy is a fake. First of all, his dialect was obviously phony. Second, a shucking and jiving black man is obviously not O.J.'s neighbor. All Jennings could see was his exclusive!"

Stern's account of his abortive 1994 run for governor of New York on the Libertarian Party ticket similarly illustrates his penchant for discombobulating standard procedure. While some LP members are no doubt still smarting from the experience, there's no question that Stern heightened the party's visibility while also mocking politicians, always a worthwhile activity. For example, he recounts how he came clean to the electorate at the press conference announcing his candidacy: "I've got a few faults: I'm forty years old and I masturbate. Maybe I talk about sex too much. I don't think that's a horrible thing. But I'll tell you what my assets are. I am totally honest. There will be no backroom dealings on this. Everything will be done on the radio. I'm embarrassed I'm so honest. Who else would admit to the size of his genitals being under two inches?…So I'm saying that I'm an honest person–and I have the hair to be the governor."

Stern's campaign–which included a photo-op at a strip club called Goldfinger's–was a ferocious parody of the political process, right up to its anti-climactic end, when he dropped out because he couldn't get a waiver from financial disclosure laws (he notes that his lawyers even filed a challenge against the rules). At his farewell press conference, Stern spoke after being introduced by a man who "suffered from throat cancer and…could only speak through his voice kazoo." Stern relates his criticism of disclosure laws: "I want you to know that I spend twenty-five hours a week telling you all the most intimate details of my life. Name another candidate who gives you such disclosure. Has Mario Cuomo ever told you the size of his penis? Has he talked about the stains on his underpants and burying those underpants in his backyard when he was young? And this guy Pataki [whom Stern would later endorse], has he ever shown you his face on camera, much less his ass at the MTV Music Video Awards?"

To be sure, this kind of humor is not for all tastes. But it is remarkably consistent and Stern, like all great satirists, rarely forgets to train his guns on himself and his image. "There are those in my audience who think I'm busy going to parties and socializing with celebrity friends," writes Stern in a chapter on cybersex. "But the pathetic fact is, I sit in my basement…and seldom emerge except for meals."

Stern's attempts at scoring on the Internet are no more successful than his pitiful, pre-marriage attempts were in the real world. "If you're ugly, if you're deformed, and married for twenty years, this is the place for you….Here on Prodigy chat I'm a single, Brad Pitt look-alike," he says. But alas, that's only one more illusion that fades away. After striking out with a potential cybermate, Stern notes: "Well, a major theory of mine had just been shot down. For forty-one years I had always believed that I was one of those guys who had a great personality but women never noticed me because of my ugly face. Turns out, not only am I ugly, but I have a dip-shit personality." And even when he finally does find cybermates, the sex turns out to be less than perfect–typing and masturbating don't really work well together and he has a bit of a performance problem ("Not even two minutes into this cybersex and I blow my load. I prematurely ejaculate even with computer sex").

True to form, Stern must completely tear apart the image: He eventually brings "Rubberbaby," a cyberlover who had described herself as a Janine Turner lookalike, into his radio studio. "Rubberbaby shattered my illusions….My dear sweet vixen was…well, she was a housewife on fucking crutches. She wasn't ugly, but she wasn't exactly a fantasy woman….The way she was hopping around the studio on one leg to give me a hug wasn't exactly filling me with fantasies," writes Stern, who swears he will not "use the computer for sexual purposes, ever again."

Although Stern's unending demolition of public and private narratives strikes some as nihilistic, cruel, and perverse, it seems to me that it is absolutely an appropriate response to the world in which we live. When Stern asks, say, Woody Allen pal Dick Cavett, "Do you have any daughters I can bang?" he isn't simply going for a cheap laugh. He is driving home the point that when everyone is constantly trading in self-serving visions of goods, services, and themselves, the only proper response is to insist on honesty. It is Stern's willingness to stand by that fundamental truth that energizes his satire and binds him to his audience.