The shock jock turned movie star by putting his 'Private Parts' on the big screen. Meet the insecure homebody with a small penis who just wants to be liked
He will not stop. Sitting on a fold-out chair on 50th Street in Manhattan, Howard Stern just keeps moving. Even when he is sitting still, he is moving. Leg tapping, plot hatching. "I don't know," he says, rubbing his hands together. "Let's see it on the monitor." And then he's back on his feet, moving through a cloud of PAs and ADs, pleasant-looking young people (clipboards, Styrofoam cups) who control the block like an occupying army. "Everyone quiet," they say. "We're making a movie." This is on location for Private Parts, the film that Paramount Pictures is releasing of Stern's best-selling autobiography. Stern has now returned, along with a 120-person crew, to the Rockefeller Center entrance to NBC, where, 15 years ago, his radio co-host, Robin Quivers, was frozen out of a job. Howard was hired by NBC radio; Robin was not. In the movie, for dramatic effect, Robin is simply fired. "It can be very hard playing your life," says Stern. "When I bring back some of these old feelings, I get really fucking emotional."
It is 6 a.m. Sunday. August. In America, if a celebrity wants to move through a city like a regular person, he must do it early. "We try to shoot before the people show up," says Stern, who has been here since 5, grappling with his past: How does a man at 43 remember the anxieties of being 20? Was I the same person back then? Even now, with the city still cool and full of shadows, the crowds have begun to gather. They stand across the street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, in Fashion Cafe caps and T-shirts that say things like "I'm With Stupid." Yokels in town on weekend packages. Stern lets his eyes move over them, scratches his stomach, yawns. He lives under their gaze, like a meal under keep-hot lights, bubbles coming up through the sauce. "The advantage is, I'm playing myself," he later says. "So I go back and say, 'OK, what the fuck was I really like?' Then I try to tap into those moments in my life. I want people to feel like they're really watching this guy — like they've stepped into a photo album."
He walks over to a monitor, where an engineer will play back the scene that has just been filmed. Someone asks for the time. The crew must finish by noon, before the Dominican Day parade rolls through midtown, grinding up any errant clipboard boys. Stern, standing between Private Parts' director, Betty Thomas, and a makeup man who waves a blush brush, taps his foot. He is dressed like a kid who has waited all night for Pantera tickets, in khakis, white T-shirt and a denim button-down, sleeves cut off. "I've never seen myself on a big screen," he says later. "I've only seen it on little monitors. But I've seen it enough to get used to myself on camera." He pushes back his long hair, revealing sharp Old World features. "Here it is," he says, looking at the screen, which flickers to life.
Robin, as herself, racing out of NBC. Howard chasing. The neon Rainbow Room sign glowing in daylight. Robin saying she's been fired and wants Howard to quit. Howard saying that's just what the execs want him to do. Robin saying, "Oh, you're going to hang me out like garbage," climbing into a '70s-style high-top yellow cab. The driver also looking like something from the '70s. Robin rolling down her window, yelling at Howard, telling him to fuck off, the words echoing off the buildings like a gunshot. The yokels tittering. New York!
When the monitor goes black, Stern looks at the street, where the cab is moving back into place. And there is Robin, being driven in reverse, like someone moving the wrong way through time — which is exactly what Stern has been doing all summer: moving back through time, playing himself at all ages, taking the moviegoing public on the 43-year journey that has been Howard Stern. "It's the story of a guy coming up," he later says. "No different than Don Corleone or Stallone coming up as Rocky, or anybody who did it other than the conventional way."
Stern grew up in Southwest Long Island, in New York, where the Manhattan skyline is never far from the horizon. He spent his first years in Roosevelt, a village that was one day all white, the next day all black. As one of the only white kids in school, he says, he was a symbol of oppression — a victim. Though his parents soon moved to a whiter town, Roosevelt remains a place on his map. Roosevelt taught Stern to be an outsider, a role he still plays every day. "I have no idea what my place in show business is," he tells me. "I'm sort of this outcast."
Stern's father was a sound engineer at a radio station in Manhattan. Howard often went with his old man to work, where he watched stars like Don Adams record voice-overs. On weekends, Howard used a tape player to record his own show, a kid's version of the show he still does today. He would sit upstairs with friends, saying the most disgusting thing that came to mind. He would go to the phones, harassing local merchants. Calling a pharmacy, he might ask, "Do you stock LSD?" Whenever one of these tapes made it down to Howard's father, he would call his son a moron, saying that Howard had no idea what he was doing. When Stern sent a tape of his college radio show home, his father sent back a note: "You stupid idiot, this is terrible. They don't talk like that on real radio stations."
"My father was harsh," Stern says. "But I always felt loved by him. And all the criticism kept me in check. Someone who grew up in my house can't get too full of himself."
After high school, Stern went to Boston University, the school of communications. Same old story: parties, pot, coeds. He studied, was rejected by girls, worked on college radio. The first record he cued as a DJ was by Santana. And he met Alison Berns, who would become his wife. Before he met Alison, who later became a psychiatric social worker, Stern was the sort of lonely college kid who can't get a date. All these years later, he's still amazed that this sweet, attractive woman went out with him. "I was so punch-drunk from getting knocked around by women that I couldn't imagine someone this dynamite would be into me," he later wrote. "Within a week after our relationship began, I knew I was going to marry her."
Maybe that's why, even as he became a big shot, as models dropped their pants and let him play Butt Bongo, Stern stayed faithful. Long ago, when there was something he really wanted, she was the only one who would give it to him. When Stern's first book came out, it was dedicated to her: "To my wife, Alison, who stuck with me through thick and thin, who never gave a shit about material things or put any pressure on me, who let me finger her on the first date and who loved me before I had a radio show." Stern graduated magna cum laude.
After college, Stern moved in with Alison, took a 9-to-5 job (doing marketing in an ad agency) and griped. With her support, he quit and got himself back on radio, a tiny station in Westchester, N.Y. During the next few years, he followed the jobs, which he read about in Radio and Records, a trade publication. He went city to city. The stations were usually run-down joints in just the worst part of town, paper peeling off the walls, know-nothing program directors with bullshit rules. "You know, 'Don't do anything different,'" says Stern. "'Keep your fucking mouth shut. Don't talk to women on the air — you sound wimpy.' And just when you defeat one guy, you go somewhere else, and they tell you the same shit all over again."
It was a strange way to live. Stern wore open-collared shirts, corduroy pants, a mustache. His short hair was feathered back. He would wake in the dead of night, dress in the dark, sit all morning in some booth, coming up with bits. In Hartford, Conn., he asked local leaders to talk about their best dates; in Detroit, he petitioned the governor to change the state song to Ted Nugent's "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang"; in Washington, D.C., he made light of Alison's miscarriage. "We got him in formaldehyde," he said on air. "Just because he's in a bottle doesn't mean he can't have a life of his own." And everywhere, he made enemies.
Stern was also getting noticed. From the beginning, his fans were loyal, passionate, opinionated. They formed a kind of secret society, a network of cabbies, cops, students, lawyers, mothers, investment bankers — people up too early who loved the bluster but also saw through it, past the enemas and douche bags, to the hidden truth: Stern is funny. In a society ever more focused on celebrity, where the famous so often get off scot-free, he treats all people like the assholes he knows they are. He suffers from a kind of voluntary Tourette's syndrome: He finds the most inappropriate thing to say and says it.
"When people come on my show, they must know I'm going to ask some direct things," he says. "But they're still shocked and like, 'Whoa! How can you ask me that?' But most celebrity interviews are dull because they don't ask. That's why talk shows are in trouble. They're dull unless there is some reality to it. You talk about politicians being dishonest? People in show business are so fake and phony and fabulous and wonderful, they're boring. They are all fucking phony. They won't say a bad word about anybody. Who knows what they are thinking? They all seem like clones and robots."
In 1982, Stern made it back to New York. He was given an afternoon slot at WNBC. Two years later, according to Stern, some NBC bigwig tooling around in his limo flipped to Stern and was offended enough to dump the show. Stern was soon hired by WXRK (known as K-Rock), an in-town rival operating from the same studio where his father once worked. Once there, he quickly became the Stern we know today. He finished assembling his current cast: Robin Quivers (sidekick), Gary Dell'Abate (producer), Fred Norris (sound engineer), Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling (writer). He let his hair grow. His big, technocrat eyeglass frames gave way to round rock-star shades. His show became a haunt for America's strangest celebrities: Sam Kinison, Jessica Hahn, La Toya Jackson. Stern signed with Infinity Broadcasting, a radio network that syndicated the show around the country. He hit No. 1 in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia. He is now listened to by more than 18 million people nationally each day. Excerpts from his radio show are aired each night on the cable channel E! And he has written two best-selling books: Private Parts and Miss America.
Looking back, some powerful people saw not just an interesting journey but a major motion picture. Stern was ready to join a select group: those who have seen their stories filmed in their own lifetimes — Jim Thorpe, Jim Carroll, Audie Murphy, Larry Flynt. It sometimes seems that Stern has spent his whole life getting here, that the setbacks were no more than fate making his life movieworthy. And with the movie, the embarrassments of his early years would be magically transformed from pain to material. He wasn't suffering — he was preparing. It was every awkward kid's dream: Abuse me now, but I'll be back with a film crew.
"The Howard Stern Show" goes on air each morning at 6. The show has all the logic of a late-night conversation. It doesn't end so much as run out, signing off sometimes at 10:30, sometimes closer to 11. The result is a long ramble, a document not unlike the Bible — a nut can find whatever he wants in it. "Some guy might tune in midshow and hear, 'Nigger,'" says Stern. 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' And think I'm a fucking racist screaming about 'niggers.' When it turns out I'm screaming about some asshole from the Klan who screams about 'niggers.'"
The night before a show, Stern goes to sleep at around 8. He has said he masturbates in bed a few minutes before 8, this being the only way he can get to sleep so early. He wakes at around 4 and drives to the city. With his house, wife and three daughters (Emily, Debra, Ashley) on Long Island, he lives the ordered, humdrum life of a million other commuters. He is one of those sets of headlights streaking across the Queens-boro Bridge that you see in the early morning, after a night at the bars, and think, "Poor bastard!"
He broadcasts from K-Rock, which, when I spoke to him last fall, was on Madison Avenue in midtown. We met at 11 a.m., soon after he got off the air. We talked in a room a few doors from the studio that was forlornly bare with nothing but a table, desk, telephone and small fridge, and boxes stacked along a wall. The station was getting ready to move. As Stern shook my hand, the phone rang. He looked at it, sighed, answered. He gazed out a window as he spoke. The sun went behind a cloud. The city was a dark shape behind the glass. "Not a good time," he said into the receiver. He spoke quickly, his words clipped. He rolled his eyes. He said goodbye.
He crossed the room and opened the refrigerator. It was full of Snapple. He offered me a pink lemonade. It was delicious. For years, Stern had been a pitchman for Snapple. But when the company was bought, in 1994, by Quaker Oats, which has a strong family image, he was dumped. Snapple sales have since dropped sharply. Don't fuck with Howard Stern!
Stern is famously funny-looking — like a cartoon drawn by a 10-year-old. From a distance he's little more than a collection of features: nose, hair, height. He has too much of all three. He is lean, rangy, 6 feet 5 inches, with long arms and long, bony fingers. He let his long legs stretch beneath the big wooden table as we spoke. "Sit down," he said, offering me a chair. "What do you want to know?"
It seems appropriate meeting Stern here, in a kind of scaled-down boardroom. Despite the roadie clothes and cowboy mouth, he has proved himself a master businessman. With a keen sense of self-preservation, he has made right decision after right decision. In the past 20 years, he's moved from the bottom of his profession, making less than a hundred bucks a week, to the top and an estimated yearly income of $12 million, which includes money from his books, movie deal and television contract. How did he do it? By remembering what makes America go round, knowledge that he shared with a French radio exec in a conversation recounted in his first book. "The more money you make at a radio station, the better it is," he said. "Because when you have money, you have power, and when you have power, you have freedom."
On air, Stern's tone is a sharp staccato, a crowbar busting through a door. He is a man of appetites. He is concerned with orifices: what goes in, what comes out. Fucking, shitting. If he were to interview Einstein, you would learn not the first thing about relativity. But you would learn where the professor lost his virginity, the make of the car, about the girl. For Stern, radio is the grandest orifice of them all, a hole that takes him in, then shits him out in cars and bedrooms all over America, where, who knows, people might be fucking. Life is a circle. Off air, his tone drops. He is tentative and honest, someone who wants to be liked. "Is everything OK?" he asks. "Let me know if you need another drink." Talking about his film (how it came about, his hopes for it), his voice is a helium balloon, drifting to the ceiling. "I've always wanted to do a movie," he says. "I was just waiting for something decent."
For years, Stern had been offered roles in mostly terrible films. "Oh, you know, I would play a rock star hiding out in the Catskills from the mob," he says, shaking his head. "You could smell bomb all over it."
In 1991 he signed with New Line Cinema. He had his deal, now he just needed an idea. As every listener knows, Stern is a percentage player. Sometimes he hits, sometimes he misses. Either way, an idea is always coming. The idea came a few weeks later, on The Tonight Show. When Jay Leno asked what his movie would be about, Stern, seizing on a regular character from the radio show, said, "Fartman." Even Stern seems surprised by the idiotic things he sometimes comes up with. "It came from nowhere," he says. "Top of my head."
So all of a sudden, New Line wants to make the movie. They even have a guy writing the script. And what breaks the deal? The lame premise? The special-effects nightmare? No. According to Stern, merchandising breaks the deal. "They would actually own the rights to my name, to Fartman dolls," he says. "I've always avoided that shit. I never wanted a Howard Stern T-shirt — the act of a desperate disc jockey. I always felt this guy Rush Limbaugh thinks his career is going to end, 'cause he's selling tape machines so his audience can record his show. At some point you view your career as something that will last more than a week." Stern wanted to make a movie, not a doll. The deal fell apart.
Stern lives on air. Every episode in his life moves from his world into his studio. He is a transparent being. Everyone knows everything. So he feels he is judged as much for his plans as for his accomplishments. When the deal fell through, he accordingly felt a kind of shame most people suffer only in private. It was like bragging about a girl, then she breaks the date. "I was really in a depression," he says, rubbing his neck. "Here I'd gone on air and said, 'I'm going to make a movie.' I sort of felt like a liar. I looked like I had failed."
This was 1993. Stern shut himself in his basement and wrote a book. It was a way to escape, to salvage some sense of victory. He called it Private Parts. He told everything in it — about his crummy childhood, how his dad called him names, how he was the punching bag of his school, how he waited patiently for puberty, and when it was over, his penis was still small, and about his tortuous rise in radio, like a dead fish floating to the top of the tank. He held nothing back. He was Philip Roth on goofballs. It was the fastest-selling book in Simon & Schuster's history. All of a sudden, everyone in Hollywood wanted to make the book into a movie. Stern had again played the percentage. This time he hit.
He struck a deal with Rysher Entertainment. Two weeks later, the execs at the company came back with a screen adaptation of Private Parts. "I just didn't get it," says Stern. "I don't know about scripts, I just know what I like. And I would be embarrassed to be in it. They kept coming with more scripts. There was no story. Also, there were fantasy sequences where suddenly Richard Simmons is baby-sitting my kids, and I'm yelling at him. I said no to six or seven scripts."
Stern showed some of these drafts to Ivan Reitman, a friend, who had produced the hit comedy National Lampoon's Animal House. "When his book came out," Reitman told me, "I said, 'Yeah, it's basically right here: a heightened version of his life.' His personality and charm come through. But those scripts didn't capture the wit and intelligence of the book. They were silly."
"I thought Ivan could tell me if I was being unreasonable," says Stern. "I was starting to feel pressure; these people had put in a lot of money. Ivan read a couple of versions and said, 'Look, if you do any one of these, you can kiss a movie career goodbye.'
"After the sixth script, I met with the executives," says Stern, looking out the window. "I said, 'I cannot in good conscience do these scripts.' They threw up their hands. 'You're afraid to be in a movie,' they said. 'I swear, I'm not afraid,' I told them. 'But I can't be in some goofy Coneheads movie. My radio show isn't even like that. Yeah, there are times I'm goofy, but I'm serious, too. I like Richard Simmons but not for my movie.'
"So they said, 'Fine, we'll get somebody else to play you: Jeff Goldblum.' I said, 'You must be insane. That will be the biggest bomb in history. The Fly as Howard Stern? But if you want Jeff Goldblum, you have my permission. I would like to see that movie myself.'"
Reitman took over the picture. He had long wanted to work with Stern. "He's a remarkable person," Reitman says. "He has overcome an inferiority complex, I guess instilled by his parents. His parents did an interesting thing. They gave him all these hang-ups, but they also gave him their intelligence, drive, humor. It had to come from somewhere, right?"
Reitman wanted to focus on Stern's rise in radio and also on his relationship with his wife. "He wanted people to see what I'm like off the air," says Stern. "People say I'm reasonable off the air, a human being. Yet on the air, I'm this fucking animal. Ivan wanted to see that in a movie."
In 1995, Reitman began assembling a team. He asked Betty Thomas (The Late Shift) to direct. He wanted Len Blum (Meatballs, Stripes) to write. At first, they weren't enthusiastic about working with Stern. They saw him the way adults once saw rock music: a noise, a curse, a threat. No one dislikes Stern so much as someone who has not put in the hours.
Len Blum: "Ivan asked what I thought of Howard. I said I thought he was dangerous. 'Forget that and read his book,' Ivan said. He then told me to come meet Howard in New York. 'Don't make a judgment until you're on the plane home,' he said. I had the impression Howard would be this attack dog. But when I met him, I saw he was afraid. I could do something with that. Then he told his story, and it was funny and self-deprecating. The next day I went to the station with Ivan and my friend Danny. On the way, Danny said, 'We are going to see the Beatles.' I knew Danny when he was 15, so I knew what he meant. He saw Howard Stern as a monumental cultural event. When I watched the show, I laughed and laughed and laughed. We then sat with Robin, Gary, Fred and Stuttering John. They each told us how they met Howard. We recorded it. It could go on air as a performance piece. On the plane home, I thought, 'Should I do this?' Then I realized I had laughed harder in two days than I had in the last 20 years. I decided to do the movie."
Betty Thomas: "Ivan and I were working on The Late Shift. When we were done with that movie, Ivan asked what I thought of Howard Stern. I said, 'Not much.' My boyfriend is a fan, so sometimes I would be forced to listen. But it was not my thing. But Ivan wanted me to read the script anyway. It was a very interesting script, so I flew out to meet Howard. I went to the station and looked into that little room where he broadcasts. Gary tried to bring me in, but I wouldn't go. I did not want to be on the air. After a while, Howard came out. When he took my hand, he was shaking. He was so vulnerable and scared. I couldn't believe it. I saw something in his eyes that I loved. Right then, I wanted to do the movie."
The screenplay that Blum came up with is a collection of crises and sight gags that dramatizes one man's attempt to change radio, have fun and show his father and the women of the world that he is not a schmuck. (When Stern told his dad about the movie, he said, "But you never took acting!") And it offers the public a different Howard, a Howard moving away from the mike, slipping into the street, driving home to his wife, and she's mad as hell. This life has always been discussed on air, but it came through in a vague way only, a Xerox of a Xerox. The camera would now follow Stern up the steps and through his front door.
Why give up this last patch of privacy? Because Howard Stern is absolutely shameless. "I didn't want a Hollywood version of my career," he says. "I didn't want my director to love me. Betty [Thomas] will be the first to admit that she did not love me when she started the movie, yet she came to appreciate me as we went on. And that's what I want the movie to accomplish. I want people to begin to understand what I'm about, that I'm not just a guy who tells pussy and dick jokes all fuckin' morning, that there is some intelligence behind it.
"The movie is really a love letter to my wife," he says, looking down. "A guy who can't get laid meets a wonderful woman at a young age, a woman willing to travel the country with him, to go along with this wacky career. Then, as I get more and more confident, I begin to say these very private things about her on the air."
He looks at the phone. "Remember when I got that call before?" he asks. "Well, that was my wife. She was angry, said I was abusing her on air. I take a no-holds-barred attitude even toward my family. The radio show comes first. Who would put up with that? And what kind of relationship do you have after you've said all this shit on the air?"
Mary McCormack, who currently stars in the ABC drama Murder One, plays Alison Stern. Working on the film, she came to understand this: Being Howard's wife is probably harder than playing Howard's wife. "She's raising three kids, and their father is Howard Stern," says McCormack. "And always, she is in on the joke and in on the joke until he goes too far, and then she is out. I am terrified what Alison Stern will think of this movie. I hope she doesn't vomit."
"The whole thing is weird," Alison tells me. "I'm still trying to get beyond the oddness and realize it's probably good for people to get a sense of what Howard and I have in private."
When I ask how Alison felt about Stern doing a love scene with another woman, essentially her stand-in, she stammers. "Well, he assured me that it was, like, nothing really, you know — uh — well, you know that it really wasn't a love scene, unless I misinterpreted." She pauses, then says, "Did you get the feeling it was a love scene?"
"Well, I don't think it was like a Fatal Attraction kind of scene or anything like that," I say.
"It is weird that it's somebody playing me," she says. "But I feel it's a really good representation of my relationship with him."
When I later speak with Stern (it was our second interview), I tell him about this exchange. "When I asked your wife about the love scene, she said she was assured there was no love scene. Is there a love scene?"
"Just kissing, making out," says Stern. "That kind of stuff."
"I felt like I was covering for you," I say. "Like you were my college roommate and your girlfriend from home called."
"Do me a favor," says Stern, laughing. "Don't mention that again."
Stern started work on the movie last May. For most of the summer, he hosted his show each morning from 6 until 10:30, then raced off to his second job. "All these whining actors who say how rough it is on the set, let them do a radio show for four or five hours, go into makeup for three or four hours, then finally finish acting at 8 or 9 o'clock," he says. His eyes light up when he says this, and he gets a pleased look on his face, the look of a man who has always done it the hard way, insulted every boss, tried every nerve and still come out ahead. "I love that everyone in Hollywood has to kiss major-league fuckin' ass and practically blow someone to get a part," he says. "I don't. It's my movie based on my book. I rejected script after script. I'm in on the planning and execution of it. And that's a cool way to do it. If I ever make another one, I'll do it the exact same way."
Private Parts was filmed in Westchester, Washington, Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey. The crew was tracking after Stern's past, re-creating every important stop along the way. Scenes were shot in replicas of the rickety studios where he first worked, when his voice was just a squeaky thing. He knew then how he wanted it to sound, but it didn't come out that way. What you do in your mind and what you do in the world are two different things. "I went back and listened to tapes of myself at 20, and my voice was locked in this very high register," he says, frowning. "I got so nervous on the air. And physically, I carried myself differently. I was just this meek fucking guy who hadn't found himself, a tiger waiting to get out."
Stern finally broke through when he was 25. He did it by going against everything his past had taught him, by turning all the manners and lessons of his middle-class upbringing inside out. "I knew I could be a stronger performer if I was more honest with the audience," he says. "In this scene, my wife and I are driving to Washington, where I have taken a job. I turn to her and say, 'I've been holding back.'
"'What do you mean?' she says. 'You're pretty wild.'
"I say, 'No, no, no. Whenever I feel like I shouldn't say something, that is precisely what I've got to say. If I am thinking, "Oh, shit, I shouldn't say on air that I have a small penis or that I masturbate," then I'd better go ahead and say it.'"
When Stern broke through, it was a kind of revelation, a noise that came on a wind from suburbia, a voice for the next 30 years, a voice born of prosperity and boredom, a voice in your head when you're stuck in traffic on a Monday morning. The line between thinking and saying had been obliterated. If you listened long enough, all that perversity melted into a pattern, an ideology, where every fifth word is a blow for common sense, something that changes what you are willing to talk about. Penis? Pussy? Just words. "I see him as the voice of the unconscious," Len Blum told me. "He says things literally without thinking. In speaking without thinking, he's going to say a lot of distasteful things, things that hurt people, cruel things. But at the same time, he says an amazing amount of brilliantly funny things. So I forgive him."
Converting this story to film may put Stern in a precarious position. Maybe I have seen too many X-Files episodes, but I think Howard Stern is in metaphysical danger. He is the dangling man whom the existentialists spoke of. He swings above an abyss. By turning his life into film, his past may become inaccessible, an exhibit behind glass that belongs less to him than to the gawkers who fill the hall. Even last fall, long before the movie was released, Stern was talking not of memories but of scenes. Speaking of his life, he said things like "great sequence" or "important scene." For Stern, there is no suffering (getting fired, losing a baby), only bits. "Even living my life, I think, 'This is a good scene for a movie,'" he says. "I never thought in those terms, but now I guess I do."
Stern plays himself in the movie. "I didn't have to audition," he says. "I told them I could act, and they believed it." He is himself at 20, 30, 40. He wore wigs, fake facial hair, wide lapels, thick ties; he had his face pulled, prodded, pushed. For the most part, though, he was trying to recover the awkwardness of his youth. "Some of the shit that actors say is starting to make sense," he says. "When you're playing yourself at 20, you damn well better become that guy. Even though it was me, it's almost a different person. So you ask, 'How does a 20-year-old approach a woman?' I remember shaking. I felt inferior, in awe of this woman sitting there.
"By the way," he adds, smiling, "actors are full of shit. They're lying. You definitely get aroused doing a love scene. I was aroused during mine. I said to Mary afterward, 'I got to tell you the truth: I'm really aroused.' And she goes, 'Oh, I didn't feel anything.' 'Cause I have no penis, practically."
When Stern first met Betty Thomas, he asked her if he should take acting lessons. She instead gave him a how-to video put out by Michael Caine. "Yeah, I watched the tape and had my doubts," says Stern. "He said things like: 'I don't want you to blink. If you blink, you look weak. As a man, you want to look strong. If you are a woman, and you want to look weak, I would blink.' I thought a lot of what he said was horseshit, but halfway through the movie I thought, 'The son of a bitch is right.'"
When I ask Ivan Reitman if he thought Stern could play himself as a young man, he says, "We were concerned. But he ended up doing a very good job. He went back to being a mediocre disc jockey, like when he started. His voice was high and nervous."
"I had my parents to the set," says Stern. "They saw me shoot a scene where I was first on radio and I'm awful. My father came out with a big smile. 'Yes, that is exactly as I remember it,' he said. 'You were awful.'"
For Stern, working on the movie — which cost roughly $25 million — was a wildly expensive therapy session that returned him physically to the past. "It helped put the pieces together," he says, standing. "All of a sudden, there is a coherence to my life. I see a story." He walks to the window and looks out. The lights are on in the shops along Madison Avenue. "One of the last days of shooting, we went to Briarcliff Manor, in New York, where I had one of my first radio jobs. We were filming outside the house where I worked. And I saw this half-window that looks out on the parking lot. 'Holy shit,' I thought. 'When I was working in that prison, doing six-hour air shifts, getting $4 an hour, I'd look out that window and think, "All my friends have good jobs, making like $12,000 a year. What the fuck am I doing? I suck at this! Will I ever get the fuck out of here?" '
"I got depressed after the movie," he says, turning from the window. "You play all these scenes in your life and realize, 'What the fuck kind of life is this? I must have been insane.'"
"Rich Cohen from Rolling Stone magazine is going to sit and watch us for a while," says Stern. "All reporters like to watch us. I never know what they learn by doing that. But I let 'em, because if you don't, they write a crummy article. You got to do whatever they say."
It's a Thursday morning in January. A cold front has come down from the north. On the street, strangers check each other out or exchange dirty looks. Everyone hates everyone. Stern country. Private Parts will be released in about six weeks. In test screenings, audiences have shouted and cheered. Stern is in a great mood; victory is in his grasp. On Feb. 27, he will cap the celebration with a sort of populist premiere at the Theater at Madison Square Garden with the likes of Marilyn Manson, Porno for Pyros and Rob Zombie performing songs from the soundtrack.
I have come to the studio to see Stern at work and also because I know it will be fun. A few minutes before 10, as the show moves into its final phase, Gary Dell'Abate brings me in. The room is a dimly lit aquarium blue. Fred and Jackie are in the back, behind a control board. They scribble notes. Robin is across the room in the newscaster's booth, behind glass, an inmate in isolation. People in the studio can hear her only on headphones. Slipping on a pair, I take a seat across from Stern. "Hey, Rich," he says. "How's it going?" He's wearing dark pants, boots, a baggy shirt, shades. I can just see his eyes through his glasses. "If I'm good at anything, it's relaxing people," he says later. "They sort of forget we're on air."
The studio is abuzz with gossip, jokes, slanders. "Hey, screw O.J.," says Stern. "I'm sick of him and his goddamn Bruno Magli shoes." As he talks, he seems to gather darkness around him. Jokes go off in the air like tiny bombs. "'Why would you wear your best shoes to do a murder?" he goes on. "If I'm going to kill my wife, I wear my Cons." Watching him, you know right away that no matter how well his movie does, this is where he belongs: the Howard Stern biosphere, a crazy sociological experiment where everything is lived on air. What happens here is what must happen on other shows before the red light goes on, with talent bitching about management, men creating an atmosphere, everyone trashing everyone. The American workplace! Stern was may be the first person to realize the simple beauty of a naked woman on the radio.
A kid who works for the show — his name is Steve Grillo; they call him Gorilla — slips in, crosses the studio, gives Stern a sandwich. As he opens the foil, steam drifts into his face. "You know what I'm into eating now?" he says. "Pita bread with chicken, a little shot of mustard, lettuce and tomato." He looks at the sandwich, frowns. "How come there's no lettuce and tomato on here, Gorilla? I waited a goddamn hour for this."
Grillo, his face flat, pale, uncomprehending, comes back. "I can't watch them," he says.
Dell'Abate comes in to give Grillo some pointers: "Steve, I'm not breaking your balls, but you know what's got to be done? You should go there and get it. That way, when you're standing there, they'll do it quicker because they want to get rid of you."
"Yeah," says Stern, "the delivery boy don't care if I eat."
"Then, when the food is given to you," says Dell'Abate, "you open it up, look at it and make sure everything, like lettuce and tomato, is on there."
"No offense," says Stern, "but you're not doing your job, Gunga Din."
Grillo leaves, disappearing into the nowhere that is off the air.
A few minutes later, Dell'Abate, still talking about Grillo, says: "The new crop of interns is ready to put him on a cross and nail him in. He bosses people around."
"Plus, it's hard taking orders from a nitwit," says Stern.
An intern enters. "We get along better now," She says.
"Gorilla, where are you?" asks Stern. He can summon people to the studio as if by magic.
Gorilla appears in the doorway. "I never asked to be in a position to tell people what to do," he says. "I'm not good at it and don't want to do it."
As Grillo leaves, Stern says, "I love to watch a beaten man leave the room." He adds, "Wait till you see Rich's article: 'Howard Stern is a scum bag. He belittles and berates his staff on air. For the time I sat there, I saw one young man humiliated and degraded in front of millions.'"
A few minutes later, Stern says, "Hey, Rich, you better write a good article about me or else I'll ridicule you for the rest of your life. That's the bottom line."
After the show, I follow Stern into the hall. K-Rock has just moved to a sleek office on 57th Street. The walls have the clean look of possibility. As he walks, Stern seems to fill the entire hall. All arms and legs. He calls everyone by his or her first name. The place feels less like a corporate office than campaign headquarters in a small town where everyone works for the same cause: Stern for county controller.
Though he has no plans to quit his show — "I think I'll leave radio eventually," he says, "but I just signed a five-year contract" — anything can happen. Like the walls in the office, his life has the blank look of possibility. "Ivan already said he sees a sequel to this movie," Stern says. "He sees it taking place in the present. But I think I'd enjoy playing a character other than Howard Stern."
"What if you become a huge star?" I ask. "How can you be a regular guy asking stars embarrassing questions if you're the biggest star of all?"
"Well, here's my secret," he says. I don't feel like a big star. I can go to a bookstore, sign 25,000 books and still feel like a fucking failure."
As he turns a corner, Stern just about runs over Grillo. "How are ya, Steve?" says Stern, stepping aside. "Have a good weekend."
Grillo nods, walks on, his face locked in the same dull, uncomprehending look. "We hassle him on air, but he has a good time," says Stern. "Everyone knows how great he is." That's just like Howard Stern: He says mean things to your face, then turns around and says something nice behind your back.
You can't trust him.