It's the day after the birthday party, and Stern is spending Saturday afternoon in a distinctly domestic fashion — watching over workers who are completing the renovation of his large, sunny house on the North Shore of Long Island. Having moved twelve times as he's wandered the wasteland of American radio, Stern hopes this house will be a more permanent home to Alison and their two daughters, Emily, 6, and Debra, 3. He sits in the kitchen wearing dark glasses and talks in a calmer version of his radio voice about his past. Outside, a repairman fixes the electronic security gate — a practical symbol of his current fame.
As any devoted listener could tell you, Howard Stern grew up in Roosevelt, on Long Island, the son of Ben and Rae Stern. On the air, he often says he's half-Jewish — "So I can make fun of Jesus all I want" — though in fact, both of his parents are Jewish. Ben ran a successful commercial recording studio in Manhattan; Howard still recalls visiting his dad at work, seeing Don Adams, Larry Storch and Allen Swift record the voices for the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon show. "I thought they had the coolest job in the world," he says.
By the time Stern was ten he had his first tape recorder. From the start he preferred talk radio to music — though he and some school friends did form a band called the Electric Comicbook, which got as far as playing a short set at Jerry Dikowitz's bar mitzvah.
But then came a change that had a profound influence on Stern. "Overnight, Roosevelt went black," he says. "In sixth grade, it was almost all white. In seventh grade, it was half-and-half, and by eighth grade, I was one of about ten white kids in my school. People moved from Roosevelt in the middle of the night."
Stern says his own parents didn't believe in running from a situation and were angered by their fleeing neighbors' behavior. "I remember when Martin Luther King was killed, the buzz was if you were white, you should stay the fuck out of school," he says. "My mother said, 'Absolutely not, you're going.' " Stern says he tried to fit in but had a rough time of it: "I was literally cracking up at Roosevelt. Getting beat up constantly for being white will do that to you."
Stern thinks this experience shaped his sensibility but rejects that it made him racist. "I love it when I get called a racist for doing black dialect," he says. "The fact is that some people do talk like that. I talked like that."
His escape from Long Island led him to Boston University, where he studied broadcasting and film. Caught in a rainstorm one day, he knocked on the door of his future wife's apartment and asked to borrow a blow-dryer. "Alison thought I was the biggest asshole in the world," Stern says. Undaunted, he asked her to be in his student movie, a documentary about Transcendental Meditation — which both he and Alison practice to this day.
In sophomore year, he and three friends started a student radio show called The King Schmaltz Bagel Hour, a takeoff on the then popular King Biscuit Flour Hour. "We said whatever the fuck we wanted. It sounded just like what I'm doing now."
Stern hoped to attract at least one off-campus fan when he sent a tape of the show to his father. "He sent me back this five-page letter telling me how stupid the tape was," Stern says. "He said, 'Why don't you try and sound like the other disc jockeys?' He'd also say, 'Why do you need college to be in radio? I see these guys come into the studio, and they're morons. They used to be dry-cleaning guys.' "
Ironically, Stern says his father — now a dedicated listener — was instrumental in developing the philosophy, such as it is, behind his entire radio career: "I've had the same concept since the beginning. I'd watch my dad commute, and when he was stuck in the car, he'd just sit and listen to CBS News. And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if he was laughing? If every once in a while he heard a disc jockey say something funny, something that made him glad he was there?' Whenever I ran into bosses who tried telling me my kind of show wouldn't work, I always thought about that one miserable bastard on the parkway in his car. And I just knew if I could make him happy, then I'd be all the rage."
Ready to go to hell?" asks Howard Stern. It's six o'clock, morning drive time as its known in the business, and Stern is getting ready to debut "The Cancer Man" — a song parody set to "The Candy Man," sung by Stern in a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation. The song is Stern's less-than-sensitive reaction to Davis's recent bout with throat cancer and includes such couplets as "One day I'm eating a knish/The next I'm calling Project Wish." As the tune plays, Stern lifts his glasses and rubs his eyes.
Today, like most days, he's been up since four. During the thirty-minute limo ride into Manhattan, he meditates. Arriving at K-Rock's midtown office around 5:30, he heads to his office to search the morning papers for material. Just before show time, he walks into the slightly cramped studio, takes his place behind the console, puts on his headphones and begins a somewhat premeditated four-hour free association.
Directly across from him are Jackie "the Jokeman" Martling and Fred Norris, who form a kind of comedy mass-production line. Like troublemaking schoolboys, they pass funny notes to each other and Stern. Norris has other responsibilities, like keeping Stern on track for commercial spots, overseeing much of the musical parodies and doing a number of running character voices — such as "Guess Who's the Jew" host Kurt Waldheim Jr. He also orchestrates the various sound effects that fill the tape racks, each marked with names like "Fart-man Intro," "Duck Sex," "Nazi Patrol Music," "You Dick!" "Vomit/Potatoes/Fast" and, of course, "Vomit/Potatoes/Slow."
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