Howard Stern TV show is obsolete after Starr report

October 06, 1998|By Jeffrey Goldberg

OVER THE past year, I've learned three new things abou Howard Stern: He's possibly the tallest Jew in the world; he carries a gun; and, as a cultural phenomenon, he is very much over.

For this last, most pertinent, fact, he has the Office of the Independent Counsel to thank.

Mr. Stern's new TV program, "The Howard Stern Radio Show," which appears Saturday nights on an ever-shrinking number of CBS-owned and affiliated stations, is a nonstarter.

The show's problems go deeper than bad writing or crappy production values. Imagine watching Lenny Bruce perform in 1990. That's what it's like listening to Mr. Stern today. He was the Vasco da Gama of porn radio, a man who sailed fearlessly into the uncharted sea of lesbian mud wrestling and racist jokes. He was -- and this seems so quaint -- enemy No. 1 of the Federal Communications Commission.

But time has passed him by. What independent counsel Kenneth Starr can say, Mr. Stern can't. Now that the insertion of cigars into female genitalia is a prosecutable offense, sex is no longer funny. And if sex is no longer funny, Mr. Stern is no longer funny.

Mr. Stern's technique is to bully second-tier celebrities into revealing embarrassing facts about their sex lives; Mr. Starr's technique is to bully Starr-created celebrities into revealing embarrassing facts about their sex lives in exchange for transactional immunity. It is the promise of immunity, I think, that makes Mr. Starr's interviews so much more raunchy.

Two days before the Clinton deposition videotape aired, I watched on tape this exchange between Mr. Stern and a woman named Kendra, described by Mr. Stern as "the chick in the tabloids who slept with Jerry Springer":

Mr. Stern: You grabbed his crotch?

Kendra: Yes.

Mr. Stern: Over his pants?

Kendra: Yes.

Mr. Stern: You didn't put your hand down his pants?

Kendra: Yes, I did.

Mr. Stern: Oh, that's so sexy. You are a bad girl. . . . Did he put his hand under your dress?

Kendra: Yeah, I think so.

Here is an exchange between President Clinton and a member of Mr. Starr's staff, Solomon Wisenberg (far too weighty a name for a man engaged in such bawdy proceedings):

Mr. Wisenberg: The question is, if Monica Lewinsky says that while you were in the Oval Office area you touched her breasts, would she be lying?

Mr. Clinton: That is not my recollection . . .

Mr. Wisenberg: If she said that you kissed her breasts, would she be lying?

Mr. Clinton: I'm going to revert to my former statement.

Mr. Wisenberg: OK. If Ms. Lewinsky says that while you were in the Oval Office area you touched her genitalia, would she be lying? And that calls for a yes, no or reverting to your former statement.

The flaw of Mr. Stern's show is not that it's offensive but that it's boring. The problem is apparent early on: It's impossible to listen to Mr. Stern in a stationary position. Like many bands -- have you ever tried to listen to Aerosmith in your living room? -- Mr. Stern can really only be enjoyed while driving or doing something else.

But about the gun, which brings us to the outmoded idea that Mr. Stern is a dangerous force in society:

Early this spring, while I was transacting a piece of journalistic business at New York Police Department headquarters, the police commissioner, Howard Safir, asked me if I wanted to meet Mr. Stern. I was raised on Long Island, and the only island celebrity I had previously met was Dee Snider from the band Twisted Sister, so how could I say no to Mr. Stern?

There was quite a buzz of anticipation running through police headquarters -- New York City cops make up the hardest core of Mr. Stern's fans. But police brass, like most conservative, middle-aged men, tend to view Mr. Stern as a subversive force worthy of surveillance.

"What do I say to this guy?" the commissioner asked me, as if I should know. It turned out that Mr. Safir was only vaguely aware of Mr. Stern's mission, which was to thank the NYPD for renewing his gun license.

Mr. Stern was escorted into the commissioner's office, and the two men shook hands. Mr. Stern looked, not to put too fine a point on it, dirty. I also noticed that Mr. Stern is incredibly tall, taller even than Mr. Safir, who was, at that point, the tallest Jew I thought I had ever met. Height, a first name and a tribe are all they had in common.

"When did you get your license?" Mr. Safir asked Mr. Stern.

"Five years ago."

"Good. No one can blame me," Mr. Safir said, and you know he meant it.

Mr. Stern was rattled: "I get all nervous around here. Lot of cops," he told the commissioner. Mr. Stern explained that fear of unstable fans had led him to seek a gun permit. They talked for another minute, and then Mr. Stern escaped.

Later, in the elevator, the commissioner said, "I half expected that guy to show up in handcuffs," and he was serious. I could tell that Mr. Safir, like many other adults, misinterprets Mr. Stern's role in society. Mr. Stern is not a subversive but a clown, and a tired clown at that. To him, sex is a joke. The real subversives are those who use sex to destroy people's lives. Howard Stern can't compete with that.

Jeffrey Goldberg writes regularly about bad television for Slate magazine, in which this first appeared.

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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