"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."
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