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.
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