Howard’s End

Fartman on the big screen.

Private Parts
Directed by Betty Thomas
A Paramount Pictures release

Although I remain dubious about Howard Stern, I’m bullish on Private Parts, the movie based on Stern’s best-selling auto-hagiography–which suggests that I’m either a hypocrite who refuses to own up to what makes me bust a gut for fear of appearing incorrect, or that a bunch of talented filmmakers has brought off the shrewdest piece of spin doctoring since Triumph of the Will. (It’s the kind of analogy Stern would love.) Whatever the truth, the picture is bad fun–wilder and more raffish than The People vs. Larry Flynt and without the First Amendment puffery.

In a marvel of chutzpah, Private Parts begins with the premise that, extravagantly popular as its protagonist seems to be (we watch him descend from the rafters of a stadium in the role of Fartman, a bare-cheeked superhero who explodes lecterns with a twitch of his derrière), he is, in fact, tormented by rejection: by his fellow artists, among them such pillars of refinement as Ozzie Osbourne, Dee Snider, and the late Tiny Tim; and by classy ladies, particularly a sumptuous thing (Carol Alt) seated next to him in the first-class section of a plane. And so the film takes the form of a seduction–of her and us–with voice-over narration by a man who insists that all his life, he has simply been “misunderstood.”

Needless to say, by the end, we don’t “understand” Stern much better. We have merely been impelled to collude with him against a universe of repressive corporate weasels. We cheer for Stern the way we do for Bill Murray and other oddly vulnerable dirt bags: Triumph of the Will becomes Triumph of the Swill.

The strategy makes brilliant commercial sense. Whereas on radio the egomaniac can be strangely entrancing (the medium loves the strongman, the Stern or the Rush Limbaugh, whose very self-aggrandizement is inclusive: Worship me, they imply, and I will be yourchampion), movies that don’t feature bodybuilders or aikido masters do better with heroes of the “aw-shucks” variety.

No, Stern does not clean up his act in deference to feminists and liberals. He still induces women to shed their clothes, and he never seems more in his element than when mocking the mind-set of African-Americans. But what a series of checks and balances! Incessantly dirty minded, the picture banners its protagonist’s fidelity to wife and family. Drenched in bigotry, it features a hero who is nonetheless steadfast in his support of a black female co-host (Robin Quivers, playing herself). Suffused with macho piggery, it boasts a leading man who perpetually refers to the dinkiness of his own member. And however outrageous Stern becomes, the prospect of yielding to network stoolies who have no regard for free expression–for his need to say whatever’s on his mind, however disgusting–is the far greater outrage.

The movie is like a pro-wrestling match in which the audience screams for the good guy to stop being such a deferential wimp and start kicking butt. As a boy, Stern (Michael Maccarone) is humiliated by a dad (Richard Portnow) who tells him constantly to shut up. At Boston University, he’s a curly-haired, high-voiced geek who’s rejected by girls (even the blind ones). He finally gets to be deejay (“If you love music, you’ll love Deep Purple!”), only to make a laughingstock of himself when he knocks over a pile of LPs. Sneered at by station owners and fellow deejays (one of whom calls him “Big Bird” and asks if he’ll be interviewing Kermit the Frog), he moves from one deadbeat FM station to the next in urban disasters like Detroit and Hartford–all while his beatific wife, Alison (Mary McCormack), does good works on behalf of the mentally challenged.

Where–the movie wants us to ask–is Fartman? Private Parts offers the standard biopic follow-your-dream scene as an answer. Stern, clutching his pregnant wife and ruminating on the directionlessness of his career, concludes (with her tender approval) that everything he thinks, no matter how offensive, he should just blurt out. Dare to be a pig, the movie says, and ye shall be redeemed.

Betty Thomas, the former actress (Hill Street Blues) who made The Brady BunchMovie such an unexpectedly happy experience–a broad mainstream comedy with a genuinely satirical point of view–does another nifty directorial turn. Thomas might be God’s gift to broad mainstream comedies. She and her crackerjack editor, Peter Teschner, know just when to nip off a gag and when to let it bloom. Once Howard becomes “Howard,” the cutting between His Lowness and Quivers in the radio booth is beat-perfect. There’s another, unexpected source of merriment: Playing himself, Fred Norris, Stern’s other side person and sound-effects wizard, has the scruffy, swacked aplomb of Michael J. Pollard. In the last third of the film, which is set in Manhattan, a hotshot NBC exec, Kenny (the virtuoso comic actor Paul Giamatti), takes it upon himself to Tame the Beast. The routines that Stern and company devise to drive Kenny (or “Pig Vomit,” as they call him) to apoplexy drive the audience to a state of elation.

P rivate Parts is so riotous that you almost don’t remember how unfunny Stern can be on his radio show. In theory, he’s a tonic–when I worked at the Village Voice, I used to tune him in as a relief from all the gay-left-wing-feminist yo-yos I took flak from every day. Alas, I could never listen for long. Half an hour with Howard was all it took for me to realize that my lot would be forever cast with the gay-left-wing-feminist yo-yos, who were not, at least, striving to be creeps. Ultimately, the man who’ll always say the most loutish thing that comes into his head is just as tedious as the man who’ll always toe the party line. Stern’s interviews with women take the form of sniggering sexual harassment, which is why he’s most at home with porn stars and centerfolds. And while you can hear amazing things (a few months back I heard Stern directing a message to O.J. Simpson, advising him patiently, in the soothing tones of a social worker, to put a gun to his head and pull the trigger), the bulk of the show takes place in a vacuum, the oxygen sucked out by the force of the host’s ego.

But Private Parts pulls off some deft sleight of hand. The Stern we see has no temper and no inappropriate aggression–no dark side at all, really. And while his wife is shown to be uncomfortable with his tendency to share the couple’ s private woes–he makes jokes about her miscarriage, about wheeling the dead fetus to the zoo in a jar–it doesn’t resolve the matter; it just lets it drop. We get little insight into Quivers except that she’s kinda nice and has an anti-authoritarian streak herself. (There’s no indication of why his jokes about black people don’t seem to bother her.) The film even gets away with the fact that the seduction on the plane is no seduction at all–for there is Howard’s family to greet him at the airport gate!

Of course, Stern tells us, he could have had the sumptuous thing. But when you think about it, it’s more in keeping with the movie’s brand of populism that he goes home with his family. If Stern took Carol Alt to bed, we’d resent him for being above the hordes. This way, Howard and his audience leer as one, proudly joined together at their (dinky) private parts.

Howard Stern encounters temptation (44 seconds):
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Howard Stern has a revelation (37 seconds):
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Howard Stern meets mainstream radio (39 seconds):
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The official site for Private Parts splits into “Howard Rules” and “Howard Sucks” sections. “Rules” includes a “slot machine for your libido.” “Sucks” lets you go mano a mano with Howard in a boxing match. Meanwhile, some enthusiastic listener has made RealAudio selections from Stern’s radio program, and John, of Long Island Globalink, has created this “Unofficial Howard Stern Sounds Page.” E!’s site lists upcoming guests on Howard’s show and links you to even more Stern-related Web sites. One of the most comprehensive of these purports to be All Howard! … All The Time!–its Daily Digest chronicles highlights of recent Stern radio shows, while its Howard Stern Show Timeline (for exceptionally hard-core followers) covers important Howard events from 1985 to 1996. And to see how the Stern film compares with the Stern facts, see “Life and Art.”