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Jeff Simon: The Age of Howard Stern

It's one of the knottier problems in current American media: We have no Howard Stern to interview Howard Stern.

That is, for an hour or more on the radio, someone to get Stern to talk in candor and detail about what he does and exactly why and how he does it.

At this point in America's presidential election season, Stern's influence is all over it. His radio show, with its post-pubescent boys' clubhouse atmosphere, has provided at least half of the quotes which are now being used to define predatory sexuality and behavioral immaturity.

He has declared himself a Hillary Clinton supporter but amiably joked he'll be Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee if he wins.

Except for his Sirius Satellite Radio show, he has been publicly as invisible as his influence has been ubiquitous. What has finally happened is that more and more people writing about him have begun to get the point of what he has done so entertainingly and so satirically for years.

He is one of the best celebrity interviewers in America. And one of the slyest. His own embarrassing candor about himself elicits its counterpart from others whose public images have been far more painstakingly and carefully constructed. When they're talking to Stern, they're likely to answer at least some of the same ticklish questions people really want answered.

That atmosphere makes the whole thing seem to be a trivial joke. The election season of 2016 has proven that all you have to do with more than a decade's worth of Stern interviews is move them a few inches to the right, expose them to a different light and they look very different from what the interviewee originally thought.

Stern's studied braggadocio and bombast about himself as "King of All Media" looked like something else altogether when Trump appeared on his show. When Billy Bush carried that Stern radio show tone into a private communication about women on a bus when he was with "Access Hollywood," the whole thing helped Bush get in termination trouble in his prestigious gig in the third hour of the "Today Show."

Truth to tell, Bush's raunchy sycophancy with Trump probably had less to do with NBC's suspension than Bush's interview performance with swimmer Ryan Lochte, which was considered both soft, at first, and downright apologetic on Lochte's behalf in later colloquies with Al Roker.

The now-infamous bus tape simply revealed Bush to be kissing up mercilessly.

In 2016, the whole thing sounds infantile and awful -- especially given the age of the participants.

What's clear about the tape is how much Bush was aping Stern's classic interview technique (especially about sex): bathing the subject with so much faux-admiration and flattery that he or she feels comfortable revealing things which will sound completely different in another context.

That is Stern's genius. He has created his own context, wherever he's been. He has done it so well that some people have a  difficult time thinking of either him or his guests any other way.

And yet outside Stern's world, things are very different.

I must confess more than a little shock looking at his paintings online. He has become something of a Sunday painter at his age (62). And what, besides his wife Beth, does he like to paint? Still lifes of apples. And flowers. All of which are limpid but meticulously and finely observed in a way that is diametrically opposite the coarse and overgrown adolescent way he makes his living.

Anyone with the psychological insight of the average kumquat would guess that the real Stern is the fellow who paints those daffodils and chrysanthemums and that the ringmaster of the radio boy's club is the brilliant professional who has devised a "shocking" way to make a living.

The Stern we saw for several seasons of "America's Got Talent" was probably as close as we've come to the "real" Howard Stern.

There was plenty of ego, bordering on bombast. He always seemed to assume, as a judge on the show, that he was first among equals i.e. he was a media superstar among B-grade showbiz careers.

He was, somewhat remarkably, oddly graceful in doing what was essentially a graceless thing, which was a credit both to the show itself and Stern's professionalism on it.

And when he talked about the individual showbiz acts he judged on the show he was astute, usually, and deeply sentimental. When obviously moved, he had the kind of bluster and crust that three quarters of American males adopt in the world to avoid letting on just how close to the surface their emotions might be.

The time has come for an interviewer as artfully manipulative and relentless as Stern himself to get him to talk in open detail, about himself and the election which he has influenced in a way that was completely inconceivable a few years ago.

It is possible that he had some vague idea, beneath all his self-parodying, self-aggrandizing bluster, just how low America itself would go to meet him, while he secretly floated almost effortlessly up.

And stayed home on Sundays, painting ever-so-meticulously his still lifes of apples and chrysanthemums.


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