Will movie and fame spoil Howard Stern? Hype: Howard Fever is so rampant that his satire may lose its bite. But don't give up hope just yet.

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March 09, 1997|By Matthew Gilbert | Matthew Gilbert,BOSTON GLOBE

Did you know that Howard Stern has an autobiographical movie, "Private Parts," that opened Friday?

That's a rhetorical question, because Howard Fever has struck every American media outlet possible, and you'd have to be living in the outskirts of oblivion not to have sighted his towering head of heavy-metal hair at least once during this past week.

You've probably participated in at least one lively conversation about how much you a) love Howard or b) hate Howard, and words like "racist" and "strippers" and "Kathie Lee Gifford" may well have figured into that interaction, which may well have been heated.

The buzz about Stern and "Private Parts" is the result of a hype attack that testifies to the very hugeness and efficiency and redundancy of the American entertainment media. Forget about the nonstop promotional love fest on Stern's radio show, which now dangerously resembles a four-hour daily infomercial. It's Howard going on David Letterman, Howard taking over MTV and prime-time E!, Howard doing the "Today" show during his own radio show, Howard in "family" newspapers from Bakersfield to Boston. It's Howard as wallpaper on the newsstands, flashing his un-sunglassed baby blues from the covers of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide, as well as Howard being deemed worthy of an extended examination in the New Yorker.

Naturally, the media are gobbling up the opportunity to celebrate Stern, partly because he's a media figure and "Private Parts" is a media movie, but mostly because, as one of the few unpredictable commodities in an entertainment world that has become a well-run factory, he makes good copy.

Will he drool over Katie Couric during their interview? (He didn't.) Will he criticize Dave Letterman in person? (He didn't.) Will he dis "Saturday Night Live" on "Saturday Night Live"? (He did.)

He's an edgy, "alternative" hero at a moment when "alternative" has clout with broad audiences that are flocking to Oscar-nominated independent movies and that have already taken on "alternative" rock. As David Remnick points out in his New Yorker piece, the only magazine article to strike original chords about Stern, "Stern thrives at precisely the time when what seems to be on the edge of acceptability is firmly mainstream; one could call it over-the-counter counterculture."

For some Howard fans, this one in particular, there is pleasure and vindication at Stern's presold success as a movie star, but discomfort in watching him flirt with becoming over-the-counter and acceptable. For one thing, acceptability -- especially Hollywood acceptability -- rubs against the grain of what Stern has represented all these years. He has been the underdog, the outsider fueled by feelings of vengeance and insult, particularly toward bosses who didn't nurture him and women who didn't love him and stars like Jerry Seinfeld who got famous and snubbed him. Suddenly, he may be an insider on the flip side of the power game.

How much bite can his antagonism and satire have if the country embraces Howard Stern? Will Stern's on-air persona lose its potency when the world discovers, through "Private Parts," that Stern the man is actually a loving husband, a loyal friend and a tester of the First Amendment?

It's also disconcerting to see the articles and TV spots and find him repeating himself ad nauseam. The spontaneity that he uses as the bread and butter of his radio shtick gets reduced to a series of quotes, the very type of quotes he will not tolerate on his own show.

With the current overflow of bite-size analysis of Stern and self-analysis by Stern, he's starting to seem a little too easy to figure out, almost reduced to formula.

So here's hoping that Howard Stern will not be domesticated, that he will continue to thrive as a satirist once he has passed through his Hollywood dazzle.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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