It's a question that never gets old: What is Howard Stern thinking? He's spent decades building his own private empire as the King of All Media. So what does it mean now that he's a judge on America's Got Talent? Why is he going on network TV to watch a family-friendly parade of jugglers, cloggers, magicians and break dancers? For the original shock jock, it's the most shocking move he could make. Which might be why he's making it. He can't resist messing with people's heads, including his own.
The weirdness here isn't the edgy comic who tones it down for Middle America – we've all seen that story before. No, this is something new: The guy who sweated his whole life building his own railroad is spending the summer shoveling coal on somebody else's train. This is Sherlock Holmes joining Scotland Yard. This is Dylan joining Jefferson Starship. This is like Elvis deciding to spend the Seventies playing Mr. Roper on Three's Company.
The most bizarre part of all? Stern is not merely brilliant on America's Got Talent – he actually looks like he's having fun. After all, these contestants are the dregs of showbiz, which means they're as desperate and driven as Stern himself. On some level, he has to see some of his own crazy in them. Like the guy whose whole act was sticking needles into his face. Stern said, "You remind me why I don't like people." And it sure sounded like a compliment.
Success on Stern's level means you never have to put up with anyone else's crap again. But that can be dangerous for a comedian, who needs that friction with real-live human beings. When Stern went to satellite radio in 2006, it looked like he might be seceding from planet Earth, like one of Newt's moon colonies, drifting off into his own comfort zone.
It was a high-risk move, and almost everybody who was paying attention predicted it would fail. Stern proved us all wrong. He not only kept his empire, he took it to new creative heights, and deserves mountains of respect for that. Since I was one of the many people who thought it wouldn't work, and since Stern took offense to that on his show, I hope it isn't out of line to mention that it's always an honor to be proved wrong by the greats. At SiriusXM he's been at the top of his game, and his show has been stronger than ever. (Except maybe when he was calling me an asshole – but he was probably right about that too.)
It's strange to see Stern step outside the boundaries he's built and guarded so aggressively. In his Rolling Stone interview last year, he admitted he hides in the studio, with a shield of monitors to keep anyone from seeing his face. So watching him exposed on camera like this is like seeing Darth Vader take off his helmet in Return of the Jedi. He even hugged a contestant and got the dude's sweat all over him, a big deal for a notorious germaphobe.
It's equally interesting to see him function as a team player – especially on a team as neurotic as this one. If you read Howie Mandel's autobiography, Here's the Deal: Don't Touch Me (and I swear I'm not making that up), you might remember that it opens with Mandel's story of how his life was shattered when Stern goaded him into an anxiety attack on air. Now they're sitting at the table together, and who's the buffer in between? Sharon Osbourne. Oooh, dear. Stern's best line so far was for a tone-deaf girl singer: "Some fatherly advice – marry a rich guy. Sharon did, and it worked out fantastic." He and Mrs. Ozzy are going to have an interesting summer together.
Still, that burning question: Why is he doing this? In his RS interview, he confessed that time has done nothing to mellow his raw need for admiration, attention and approval. How can you have such Kleenex-thin skin when you're America's go-to guy for dishing out emotional abuse to the rich and famous? But that's the eternal Stern mystery, and anyone who's ever presumed to solve it has failed. Including, no doubt, Howard himself.
This story is from the June 7th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.