Daniel Fickman is a writer, producer and aspiring comedian. A lifelong comedy fan, Daniel has written an entire blog on the history of SNL and studied journalism at Texas State.
Throughout his celebrated career as a broadcasting icon, Howard Stern has been the big bull in the china shop of radio, battling general managers, interviewing strippers and gobbling up microphones along with fervent adoration of his audience. But underneath the jovial crassness, Stern has always made one thing very clear: He’s a human being. The problem is today a good portion of his fans have forgotten this fact and feel disenfranchised when they see Stern do what most human beings eventually do – grow up and mature.
The Howard Stern Reddit page is a dumping ground of resentment. Supposedly populated by Stern devotees, a lion’s share of the comments calls him a hypocrite, a sell-out and lodge the complaint that The Howard Stern Show is no longer cutting-edge.
His fandom seems rabid. They call him a hypocrite because, after years of mocking Ellen DeGeneres, he’s now found a way to bury the hate and has even brought her on the show for a detailed interview about her career. They call him a sell-out because after all the time he spent poking fun at the Hollywood elite, he now eats at Nobu and is friends with Jennifer Aniston. And they see the loss of strippers riding the Sybian as the loss of the cutting edge.
But as time moves forward, what was once cutting-edge, even dangerous, quickly becomes commonplace. Elvis, the Beatles, even Richard Pryor. Sound familiar?
To be fair, Stern’s outrageous antics, while fun and no doubt revolutionary, never represented who he actually was. He resented the title bestowed by critics: shock jock. And he still does.
In truth, it wasn’t the antics that moved us. It was Stern’s real-world reaction to them. It was his humanity that audiences fell in love with. Even after becoming the king of morning radio by being the first jock to have the No. 1 show in New York and Los Angeles simultaneously, Stern would go on the air and complain about his somber sex life, how his wife would barely “give me any,” as he would so eloquently put it. It was real, and it was honest.
In his 1993 best-selling book, “Private Parts,” Stern wrote about how his mother, Ray, used to sew name tags into all of his underwear. “Plus, my mother kept this up all through college,” Howard wrote. “Can you imagine my embarrassment when I was in bed with some lady and she’s taking off my underpants and she slips her hand beneath the elastic waistband and says, ‘what’s this tag on the back?’” By divulging the private parts of his life, Howard Stern kept fans falling in love with him.
But fans can have short memories, and it’s necessary to let the object of your affection grow up and evolve with the times. Imagine if Steven Spielberg only made shark movies after “Jaws.” It’s unfathomable. Great artists must continually grow and reinvent themselves. If they don’t, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant, trapped in the syrupy amber of creative limbo.
One of the key aspects of Stern’s creative evolution is the celebrity interview. In recent years, he has become a world-class interviewer. By side-stepping the mundane questions heard on most late-night talk shows and going in for the nitty gritty, he has a way of making his guests bare all.
Case in point: the legendary Bill Murray. In Oct. 2014, Stern had Murray in the studio for the first time. Murray –famous for being a bit hermetic when it comes to discussing his personal life – opened up.
“Are you lonely?” Stern probed.
“I don’t think I’m lonely,” said Murray. “It’d be nice to have someone. I mean it’d be nice to go to some of these things and have a date – to have someone to bring along. But there’s a lot that I’m not doing that I need to do,” Murray said. The confessional amounted to some of the most personal information about Murray ever to surface. And a far cry from what fans of Stern’s in the 90’s might have expected.
In those days what the guests had to say never seemed all that important. As long as they could roll with the punches and take a good ribbing from Stern and his crew, that’s all that really mattered.
But Stern has been open about being in therapy for years, which has no doubt sharpened his skills as an interviewer. It’s also helped him to become a more empathetic human being. As a result, we get Stern not only listening to his guests but actually needing to hear what they have to say. From that need, we get revelations from someone as private as Bill Murray. You really don’t hear this type of long-form interview anywhere today besides The Howard Stern Show. What could be more cutting edge than that?
Still, there are moments when even the most evolved person has a backslide. Stern made headlines in 2013 for publically apologizing to Lena Dunham, creator and star of the television show “Girls,” after calling her “a little fat girl who looks like Jonah Hill.”
A week later he issued the apology. “I felt bad because I really do love the show “Girls” and enjoy it, and I admire the girl who writes it,” said Stern.
Needless to say, certain fans didn’t take too kindly to what they saw as backpedaling on Howard’s end, and they brought out their pitchforks. They called him a hack who should have stood his ground.
Years later people on the Howard Stern Reddit page still rail against him for that on-air mea culpa. They describe his apology as pathetic.
What these fans are missing is that his apology to Dunham had nothing to do with going Hollywood or becoming politically correct. It was about emotionally evolving into a more compassionate human being. There was no hidden agenda, no conspiracy to make himself appear more PC. He’s a human being and he acted like one; he made a mistake and he apologized.
The Howard Stern Show has always been about one thing; Stern’s view of the world. As people get older their perspective changes. And in the case of Howard Stern, he’s an artist who has found a way to reinvent himself by becoming a more emotionally open individual. If he keeps it up, he’ll always be cutting edge. And the audience will just have to evolve to keep up with him.