Life And Art

Private Parts

Directed by Betty Thomas
A Paramount Pictures release

(Note: “Life and Art” is an occasional column that compares movies with the lives they’re based on.)

Toward the beginning of Private Parts, a heavily made-up Howard Stern, playing himself as a college student, explains in a voice-over that to enjoy the movie, “you’ve got to suspend disbelief.” Exactly how much disbelief does this biopic require us to suspend?

Not all that much, actually. Private Parts may be hyperbolic, but it basically adheres to the facts, at least as they are laid out in Stern’s memoir, also called Private Parts (1993); in interviews; and in an unauthorized biography, Howard Stern: King of All Media, by Newsday reporter Paul D. Colford. Stern grew up on Long Island, went to Boston University, and worked at stations in Westchester, N.Y.; Hartford, Conn.; Detroit; and Washington, D.C., before making it in New York City. Along the way, he dropped his fake-sounding FM voice and became a “shock jock,” talking more and more about himself, sex, sex with his wife, etc. The movie does gloss over the lengths Stern was willing to go to shock. In the movie, his racial comedy tends toward the mildly offensive (he invents a militant black traffic announcer). In his book, he writes of Rodney King, “They didn’t beat this idiot enough.” On the air, he encouraged police to shoot at rioters during the uproar in Los Angeles. He’s talked about having sex to “Negro race music,” and he’s asked his mother on the air if she “got on all fours” during sex, and if she was a “three-input woman.”

On-screen, Stern says he’s remained faithful to his wife–and by all accounts, that is true. On-screen, Stern’s penchant for exposing the details of his marriage strains it somewhat. That was also the case in real life. In the movie, Stern kisses and consoles a pregnant Alison when she complains, “I look like a house.” In his memoir, however, Stern writes: “I find nothing attractive about the pregnant form. I’m like Elvis. If a girl got pregnant, he couldn’t go near her.”

In the movie, Stern’s rise to the top is impeded by villainous, scotch-swilling network executives. Were his bosses at WNBC really that bad? In real life, Stern definitely tangled with the station heads. The movie’s main meanie, “Pig Vomit,” is a composite of several oppressive managers, based most heavily on Kevin Metheny (a program manager nicknamed “Pig Virus” by Stern). But Stern also had what he terms a “savior” in then general manager Randall Bongarten, who doesn’t figure in the movie. Randy would occasionally tell Stern to watch his content (he advised against a Bestiality Dial-a-Date routine, for example), but he also promoted Stern’s career. Among other things, Bongarten arranged for advertisements in which Stern (WNBC’s afternoon-drive deejay) and Don Imus (the station’s morning-drive star) got equal billing. In the film, Imus won’t deign to speak to Stern, much less appear in an ad with him.

However, in 1985, NBC executives did instruct Bongarten to fire Stern. Colford writes in his biography that Howard has elevated “the final chapter in his war with NBC” to the “myth of the inventive radio personality clashing with the stuffed shirts of a mighty network,” but goes on to record events that sound a lot like stuffed shirts clashing with Stern: Bob Rukeyser, NBC’s director of corporate communications at the time, said that he alerted Grant Tinker, then chairman of NBC, to Stern’s material, and that Tinker decided Stern had to go.

Stern reached No. 1 in New York City during morning drive (the most competitive time period) in the fall of 1991, but at a station that does not appear in Private Parts: WXRK-FM (92.3 K-ROCK), owned by Infinity Broadcasting. (Infinity hired Howard just months after NBC fired him.) During the film’s last scene, as Alison and Howard kiss, he explains in a voice-over that life is good, even if the Federal Communications Commission gets on his case every now and then. What he doesn’t say is that, in response to mounting fines from the FCC for indecency on Stern’s radio show, Infinity paid a settlement of $1.7 million in 1995. Nor does he mention that in the end, he did make a few compromises to stay on the air: Infinity instituted a seven-second delay so that offensive portions of Howard’s program could be bleeped before they were broadcast. He was also forbidden to refer to his boss, Mel Karmazin, on the air.

See Slate’s review of PrivateParts.