On the day I left Boulder, Colorado, to move to New York, I bought a copy of Howard Stern’s just-released book, Private Parts, as a gesture toward learning about the customs of a strange new land. Anyone who paid attention to the ebb and tide of big media knew that Stern was the reigning “shock jock”of New York radio, that his “indecent” radio show had cost his corporate parents hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees payable to the FCC, and that “sophisticated” people were supposed to find him repugnant. (And, oh yes, Film Threat magazine had given a rave review to a Stern video called Butt Bongo Fiesta.) Along with Rush Limbaugh, Stern was the author who most offended Boulder’s excruciatingly correct political sensibilities.
So I tore through the book in the bathrooms of Comfort Inns and Motel 6s in nine different states. And it wasn’t a bad read. Oh, sure, it’s kind of scary to think somebody might take Howard Stern’s shoot-from-the-mouth opinions about anything and everything as gospel. Still, the appeal of Private Parts — aside from the obvious digressions on penis size, hemorrhoids, and naked girls — was its fairy-tale story of a kid who rose from absolute obscurity to media superstardom through dogged, singleminded conviction in his own values. (I could have done without the caustic but unenlightening personal attacks on celebrities as well as the singleminded celebration of self that takes over the book’s latter chapters.) The movie actually works a lot better than the book, because it portrays Stern’s rise to the top and then leaves well enough alone, sparing us the masturbatory ego-trip that might have seemed unavoidable. Hollywood’s Howard Stern is more loving, less hateful, and — but of course — far funnier than his real-life counterpart. He’s also one hell of a charmer, and his performance begs the question of where to separate the real Howard from the facsimile up on the screen. For a guy who’s routinely described as one of the uglier men in the public eye, he sure looks good on film.
In a way, this movie can be read as a lowbrow retort to The People vs. Larry Flynt. Where TPVLF argued that Flynt deserves free speech protection because what he’s doing is important in principle, Private Parts argues that Stern deserves it because what he’s doing is wildly entertaining. Private Parts is even, I think, interested in seeing what makes Stern tick.
The screenplay by Len Blum (Stripes) and Michael Kalisniko plays like a levelheaded riff on the jazzier Annie Hall, with Stern written as an Alvy Singer without the intellect or the woman problems. The movie opens with a depiction of Stern (yes, he plays himself) making an ass of himself as “Fartman” at the MTV Video Music Awards and then wandering backstage afterward where such comparably high-minded performers as Ozzy Osbourne and Flavor Flav (yes, they play themselves) snigger derisively. He speaks to us in voiceover, explaining how “misunderstood” he is. Who would have thought it — it’s the opening scenes of his own movie, and the king of all media is feeling like a loser. Soft underbelly thus exposed, Stern spills his guts to a beautiful woman (model Carol Alt, apparently not playing herself) who happens to be booked in the first class seat next to Howard’s on a cross-country plane flight.
Suddenly we’re catapulted back in time to Stern’s humble childhood in Roosevelt, New York. We follow him through college, where he screws up the courage to go on the air for the first time and where he meets the love of his life, Allison (Mary McCormack, notably not playing herself). His marriage to her, in which he’s 100 percent faithful except for the few hours of every day where he’s on the air, works as the movie’s sentimental balance to Stern’s outrageous persona. Out of school, he gets hired at a radio station in Westchester County and is almost immediately promoted to station manager.
We follow Howard to Detroit, Washington, D.C., and back to New York again as he develops an outrageous on-air personality that relies on shock and, as he’d have us believe, honesty. We see him hook up with his longtime straight woman, Robin Quivers — who, not incidentally, helps defuse some criticism of Stern’s race and gender baiting routines because she is both black and a woman — and cohorts Jackie Martling and Fred Norris, all of whom play themselves. It doesn’t take a genius to note that Stern’s talent is a sort of pigheaded failure to observe the prescribed boundaries of good taste and common sense on the air. “I have to go all the way,” he tells Allison, and she agrees. It’s exactly that urge that leads him to ever-more-outrageous stunts: inviting top-heavy bimbos to visit the studio and undress, telephoning and ridiculing his bosses while he’s on the air, inventing a host of demented and/or flamboyant sterotypes as regular “characters” on the program. It’s a protracted challenge of quotidian radio programming that will eventually change the face of American mass media.
The trick here is making the movie hysterical enough that even non-fans will give a toss who this guy is and how he got here. Betty Thomas, whose The Brady Bunch Movie is far funnier than I could have expected, is well up to the challenge. Stern claims to have rejected 20 different drafts of the script (either he’s an outrageously gifted mogul or just a control freak), and what he finally approved is a sharp distillation of the book’s best moments. But how do you keep this material — which includes Howard’s patently offensive stereotypes of blacks, gays, and women, for starters — from seeming merely tawdry and self-serving? Thomas manages. There’s an energy to the staging and pacing of the on-the-air scenes that rivals Howard’s, and the rhythm doesn’t flag much in the “domestic” scenes involving life with Allison. Stern’s persona is nearly as outsized as Jim Carrey’s, but while movie directors seem unwilling to come within striking distance of Carrey, Thomas seems to have guided Stern into an accomplished performance.
How does Hollywood Howard look compared to the real thing? Well, the real Howard isn’t unfailingly funny, and I can’t say much for his sense of comic timing. But he is certainly a storyteller. Stern has a gift for taking the lamest schtick and making it, if not fascinating, at least oddly engaging. He’s also got a singular talent for making people feel like they belong — witness the legions of fans who phone other TV and radio shows and dupe the poor sucker who pre-screens the calls just so they can shout “Baba Booey!” (the nickname of Stern’s producer, Gary Dell’Abate, who also appears in the film) over the air. These folks doubtless have too much time on their hands, but Stern makes misfits feel special. For somebody who’s taken pains to offend almost everyone on the planet, Stern’s following is surprisingly diverse and annoyingly rabid. Simply put, he’s onto something.
Exactly what that something is may be hard to say. You’d probably have to log more hours listening to Stern than I care to in order to take a crack at figuring out just where he’s coming from. But there’s one scene in Private Parts that seems to have a point of view, and I love it a lot. It comes at the end of Stern’s most shocking, no-holds-barred diatribe — the jokefest, both privately with Allison and on the air the next day, following the miscarriage of his baby. Near the end of the sequence, which is likely to offend anyone with a pumping heart exactly because it’s impossibly funny, the camera lingers for just a moment on Howard’s sunglassed face. The shot is a high-angle close-up, and it communicates very succinctly that Howard’s high-intensity bravado has just carried him through perhaps the single most painful event of his life. In this one shot, Private Parts demonstrates, as directly as any movie I’ve ever seen, the way a twisted joke can be born out of a terrible numbness. And, as always, the show must go on.
Directed by Betty Thomas
Written by Len Blum and Michael Kalisniko
Based on the book by Howard Stern
Starring Howard Stern, Robin Quivers, and Mary McCormack
Screened at National Amusements All-Westchester Saw Mill Multiplex, Hawthorne, NY (this place sucks)