“I think the strength of what I do is that I sort of open up my head to the audience, and say whatever’s on my mind,” Howard Stern told radio-focused pop culture site The Talent Report in 1997, on the promo circuit for his feature film Private Parts, released twenty-five years ago today. “And I think that’s kind of brave, in a sense, even though I’m a coward.” In one ten-second soundbite, the ur-shock-jock and self-proclaimed “King of All Media” tidily encapsulates his whole sloppy gestalt, both the appeal and the repugnance. His absolute candor has earned him a legion of fans and made him one of the most consistently entertaining interviewers in the game, willing to ask A-list celebrities about their regrets and addictions and fetishes with a shamelessness he wields like a superpower. His policy that nothing is off limits cuts both ways, giving habitual listeners (like my mother, a proud second-wave feminist whose longtime Stern obsession remains one of my life’s great riddles) a rarely intimate degree of access to every inch of a neurotic, opinionated man’s life. This is how you fill multiple hours with talk, multiple days a week, for multiple decades, and keep your audience. Well, that … and topless Jell-O wrestling.
But then, as a grin slithers across his mouth, he can’t stop himself from that second sentence. He hits us with a one-two punch of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation, neither one suggesting the other is a pose. Stern loudly trumpets his own subversive genius at every available opportunity, his pervy-carnival-barker hucksterism a key plank of his longevity. Along with it comes an openness about his flaws and shortcomings, though never dressed in any form of contrition. He’s spent untold days of airtime dishing about his smaller-than-average penis, his germophobia, his incorrigible horndoggery, all with the same proud tone he uses to discuss his ratings. This is who I am, he says, take me or leave me. Though he may be a boorish, tacky chauvinist, at least he’s got nothing to hide.
Or at least he plays one on the radio. Private Parts, an adaptation of Stern’s million-copy book recounting his early years and rise to the #1 spot, would have us believe that that’s the central quandary of its main character/unreliable narrator. In one hard-to-watch scene, Stern’s then-wife Alison (played by Mary McCormack, though the real Alison pops up as a receptionist at WNBC) listens to his show in the car with her mother and an uncredited, pre-fame Edie Falco. As he waxes rhapsodical on some lady’s major-league gazongas and Mom shows her pity by cheerfully talking over him, Alison says that it’s just a persona, not the real Howard. The quiet meekness with which she makes this claim suggests that she’s trying to convince herself more than anyone else. If she’s not sure she believes it, how do we figure out where we stand?
As is the case with pretty much all professional trolls — and make no mistake, that’s what he is, albeit a funnier and more daring troll than most — there’s not nearly as much nuance to the situation as he’d like the public to think. We are what we do, and acting like a pig under the pretense of irony or attention-baiting doesn’t necessarily clear a person of piggishness charges. Even if it’s all a bit, the humiliation he creates for his patient, tolerant, long-suffering wife — for all women who don’t fit within Stern’s tanned, hairsprayed, augmented standard of hotness — is all too real. Same goes for the segments that hinge on what could generously be called racial humor, including his extended run as a Black character complete with an I’m-just-talkin’-bout-Shaft-baby accent. At his best, his material hits the same lowbrow-brilliant sweet spot as the MAD Magazine he’s seen reading. The film’s finest moment comes when Stern uses the bass of his voice to make a listener straddling a subwoofer achieve orgasm remotely. I still have fond boyhood memories of screaming with laughter at a contest that saw bowel movements being weighed in-studio.
Stern excuses himself from scrutiny by painting with a broad brush, all provocations being created equal. The driving conflict of the film is Howard Vs. The Man, a lifelong rage against politeness and good taste that comes to a head once he makes it to corporate America at WNBC. With America deep in the throes of Gen X anti-authoritarianism, he took up the good fight against the suits, represented by the apoplectic executive Stern nicknames Pig Vomit (a just-breaking-out Paul Giamatti, in what remains one of his finest performances to this day). We’re right to hold this man and his stupid, arbitrary top-down office mandates in the harshest contempt, every bit as exasperated as Stern at his instruction to read the call letters with a flourish on the N. Doing everything humanly possible to piss these people off would seem to be the noblest pursuit there is.
But Private Parts has an underhanded way of forcing us into Stern’s binary worldview, by which we’re either cool and fun or humorless scolds who can’t take a joke. We see that the one person in this world he truly respects is his trusty cohost Robin Quivers (played by herself), the rare woman unfazed by his on-air schoolboy snickering about her breasts. (Another such woman is the film’s director Betty Thomas, a Second City alum with experience holding her own against John Candy onstage.) On the other end, there’s Stern’s disgusted boss (a young Allison Janney) from his stepping-stone gig in DC, her unamused description of his sophomoric antics beginning the script like a shot across the bow. Stern’s so attached to his self-perception as an uncompromising truth-teller that in order to sell this narrative, he has to make everyone with any objection to his methods into a flunky of the authorities. He fancies himself a latter-day George Carlin, evident in his invocation of the infamous seven dirty words. In Carlin’s 1992 appearance on Stern’s show, however, the legend specifies that his nemeses are the “golf course schmucks” of the world.
Without qualification, Stern subscribes to the philosophy that if you’re making people mad, you must be doing something right. Twenty-five years after the fact, we’re developing a keener understanding that it’s more about making the right people mad by lobbing your punches in a sporting direction. To his credit, he’s made efforts to evolve, doing away with the racist caricatures. The call-in personality formerly known as Wendy the Retard — one of the menagerie of oddballs collected under the aegis of the Wack Pack, Stern’s stable of dysfunctional weirdoes he loves like John Waters does his Dreamlanders — has been rechristened Wendy the Slow Adult. Even so, he’s cleared a path for bad-faith operators along the lines of Joe Rogan and the hellhounds of Barstool, using his manufactured untamable-rebel antagonism to more harmful ends than getting women’s tops off.
“Without qualification, Stern subscribes to the philosophy that if you’re making people mad, you must be doing something right.”
The funny thing about Private Parts is how it’s a work of memoir that ends about a quarter of the way through its story. His marriage to Alison forms the emotional throughline under his fratty dirtbag-ism; she goes into labor at an outdoor festival in his honor, and he proves that he still has a grain of decency by ditching to go with her. They’d separate two years after the movie debuted, though, and file for divorce two years after that. Stern’s beefing with his C-suite overlords would worsen, until he got the last laugh by ditching terrestrial radio for a new gig at satellite giant Sirius for half of one billion dollars. But the most important part of his coda lies in the culture he’s left in his wake, a legion of controversy-courting talking heads mirroring Stern’s sense of puffed-up self-importance. Unlike the OG a-hole, they lack his willingness to own his shittiness, styling themselves as prophets or saviors rather than farting enthusiasts getting the better of management. Stern knows he’s scummy, and he wants us to know, too. Relative to the bastard generation of charlatans and far-right creeps coming up behind him, it almost looks like a virtue.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevassse) is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vox, and plenty of other semi-reputable publications. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.