Unfunny Business

Kenneth Starr makes Howard Stern look obsolete.

The Howard Stern Radio Show
CBS; Saturday nights (check local listings for air times)

Over the past year, I’ve learned three new things about 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.

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. (Two stations–one in Arizona and one in Texas–have dropped the Stern show since it premiered Aug. 26, citing offensiveness. Its ratings hover just above zero.) It is not much different from Stern’s daily radio show–Stern belches into his microphone, talks about the modest dimensions of his penis, and molests strippers. The only difference is that on television, we get to see the strippers. The penis remains hidden.

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 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 jigaboo jokes. He was–and this seems so quaint–enemy No. 1 of the Federal Communications Commission and of middle America.

But time has passed him by. What Starr can say, Stern can’t. On a recent episode of his show, the censors bleeped over Stern saying the word “anal,” as in, “Do you have (bleep) sex?” (The question was asked of an allegedly hermaphroditic bodybuilder.) In the Starr report, one footnote matter-of-factly refers to “oral-anal contact” between the president and Monica Lewinsky. No bleeps there.

The dilemma facing Stern is simple: 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, Stern is no longer funny.

One of Stern’s trademarks is his frank discussion of sexual perversion. His sexual inquisitions of witless celebrities have often been amusing, but they are now tame in comparison with the work of the independent counsel. Stern’s technique is to bully second-tier celebrities into revealing embarrassing facts about their sex lives; 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 Starr’s interviews so much more raunchy.

To prove my point, here are excerpts from a recent Stern interview with the fading supermodel Cindy Crawford:

Stern: So you had sex with one of two guys before Richard [Gere]?

Crawford: (mumbled response)

Stern: How many dates do I do before I get Cindy Crawford into bed?

Crawford: It was like, I don’t know, over a month.

Stern: Over a month he was working you? He can kiss you but you’re like, “You can’t feel me up?”

Crawford: I don’t think we kissed on the first night.

Stern: Maybe he’s doing some light petting, the guy’s getting aroused, maybe you have to finish him off?

Crawford: I don’t remember.

Stern: You never tried to help him out on a date? God, his nuts must have throbbed.

While Starr’s report does not contain the word “nuts,” in either its testicle or its macadamia meanings, it is, as I read it, the end product of a taxpayer-funded investigation by a possibly unconstitutional federal agency into why the president wouldn’t ejaculate into the mouth of his intern. Stern is perverse, but not as perverse as that.

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

Stern: You grabbed his crotch?

Kendra: Yes.

Stern: Over his pants?

Kendra: Yes.

Stern: You didn’t put your hand down his pants?

Kendra: Yes, I did.

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 Starr’s staff, Solomon Wisenberg (far too weighty a name for a man engaged in such bawdy proceedings):

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?

Clinton: That is not my recollection …

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

Clinton: I’m going to revert to my former statement.

Wisenberg: OK. If Monica 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.

And so on.

Even if Stern hadn’t been pre-empted culturally by Wisenberg, his career might have been waning anyway. Though he has often played an important role in popular culture, exposing the pretensions of the celebrity-industrial complex and scorning the precepts of political correctness in that long-ago era when political correctness was an actual cultural force and not a marketing concept, his act was already getting old.

T he flaw of 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 Stern in a stationary position. Like many bands–have you ever tried to listen to Aerosmith in your living room?–Stern can really only be enjoyed while driving (preferably down the Long Island Expressway) or doing something else, like washing your car.

Nonetheless the show is not entirely without merit: One night, while watching a tape of Stern’s show, I got so bored–this was the show that featured a young man farting 400 times into a microphone–that I popped the tape out and began to watch Politically Incorrect, an episode in which Grace Slick was brought on to discuss the president’s infidelities. Bill Maher was at his unctuous worst, and I popped the Stern tape back in. There’s something much more honest about actual farting.

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

Early this spring, while I was transacting a piece of journalistic business at NYPD headquarters, the police commissioner, Howard Safir, asked me if I wanted to meet 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 Stern?

There was quite a buzz of anticipation running through police headquarters–New York City cops, particularly those residing on Long and Staten islands, make up the hardest core of Stern’s fans. But police brass, like most conservative, middle-aged men, tend to view 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 Safir was only vaguely aware of Stern’s mission, which was to thank the NYPD for renewing his gun license.

Stern was escorted into the commissioner’s office, and the two men shook hands. Stern looked, not to put too fine a point on it, dirty, and I noticed that Safir steered him clear of the shiny oak desk once used by Teddy Roosevelt. I also noticed that Stern is incredibly tall, taller even than 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?” Safir asked Stern.

“Five years ago.”

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

Stern was rattled: “I get all nervous around here. Lot of cops,” he told the commissioner. Stern explained that fear of unstable fans had led him to seek a gun permit. They talked for another minute, and then 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 Safir, like many other adults, misinterprets Stern’s role in society. 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.