Indecent Exposures

No one in the media seems to understand the source of Howard Stern's dark allure. Sigmund Freud might have.

Published February 25, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

it could happen -- Howard Stern could go mainstream."Private Parts," the movie version of his bestselling life story, hits theaters on March 7, with a gala New York premiere this Thursday. It's hard to believe Stern first caught everyone's attention -- and Hollywood's fancy -- as a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited outsider, a barbarian at the very gates upon which he now advances in triumph.

After all, Stern's career was built on pariahdom. Despite his string of recent successes -- the two bestselling books, the show on cable TV's E! channel and, of course, the radio show, which seems to enter a new market every day -- he's still seen as an outsider. The media continue to emphasize his marginality, saying he "obliterates the boundaries of good taste," as the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz puts it, and describing his fans as a "cult" (or, in the March Vanity Fair, a "mega-cult").

But to deem Stern a mere oddity is to miss the point of his show -- and its real radicalism. Talk shows commonly hawk pathos, bringing in pop psychologists to dispense advice to damaged guests. What Stern does is a lot closer to psychotherapy itself. His studio may not be the safe haven of a therapist's office -- often it's more like a war zone -- but it's a place where real feelings are released, childhood hurts exorcised and dark desires set free.

The revelations start with Stern himself. This is a guy who discusses virtually every part of his private life on the air, from his famously small penis to his bowel movements. Who else would devote a chapter of his book to descriptions of (and excerpts from) his extravagantly embarrassing cybersex sessions? Or relate the details of his childhood bout with rectal worms? ("I had to take a dump in a cardboard box and my mother and father drove me and my turd to the doctor's office, where he made the diagnosis.") In "Miss America," he even reveals his painful struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Paralyzed and ashamed, he hid the problem from everyone, even his wife, for years.

Stern's favorite themes are almost comically representative of Freudian developmental stages, with the difference that they don't progress from orality to anality to genitality. Instead, Stern caroms dizzily from erogenous zone to erogenous zone, conducting lengthy discussions about farting, peeing and shitting; his perversely Spartan diet (he seems to subsist entirely on bran cereal and baked potatoes); his repelled fascination with anal sex; and his masturbatory techniques (he claims to masturbate several times a day, in constant terror lest his wife catch him). The show's other personalities and guests join in, trashing their inhibitions with guilty glee. Stern doesn't feel he's succeeded until he's coaxed out some embarrassing fantasy or anecdote from a visiting celebrity, drawing the outsider into this compelling, exhausting simulacrum of group therapy.

Or maybe it would be better to call it family therapy. Those who see the show as a stream of bimbos, celebrities and crazies (as most viewers of the E! channel's edited version probably do) are missing the extent to which it revolves around domestic squabbles and anti-parental rage. The show's staff form a kind of family, with Stern as angry father, his black co-host, Robin Quivers, as moralizing mother and the rest of the cast and crew as rival siblings. At the same time, though, both Stern and Quivers speak openly about their abuse by their own parents. Or they'll talk about their "real" families -- Stern's wife and daughters, cast member Fred Norris' troubled relationship with his wife, Stuttering John Melendez's new baby.

Still, the show isn't exactly awash in feel-good vibes. Stern's ferocious mockery of women, African-Americans, gays and just about every other group you can name is both ugly and baffling in its intensity. Stern declares that all women should have breast implants. He derides "homos." He sarcastically mimics black speech patterns and foreign accents, and makes jokes about Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. In part, these outbursts are verbal belches, eruptions of suppressed feeling that flout the rules of decorum just like his bodily obsessions do. They're also, it must be said, expressions of genuine xenophobia. As he writes in Private Parts, "If you're not like me, I hate you."

Stern's anger stems from a very real sense of alienation. He's enraged at the thought that anyone should find automatic acceptance in any group -- even an oppressed one -- just because they share a color or culture. His wrath isn't that of the white supremacist or woman-hater; it's that of a lifelong social reject who doesn't even identify with his own group, describing himself as a "half-Jew."

Women in particular stir up angry memories of high-school rejection. Stern drools over the porn stars and strippers who parade through his studio, then insists that they're only attracted to his success. "The sad truth is, I need fame to get girls," he laments. The only women he seems to actually like -- as opposed to just lusting after -- are his wife, Alison (who, he emphasizes, loved him when he was "a ninety-six-dollar-a-week disc jockey"), and his long-time co-host, Quivers.

Stern's female fans have to shrug off these attitudes -- but then, all his fans have to shrug off something. By deliberately mocking any group allegiance they could possibly cherish, he forces his listeners to share his sense of alienation. To appreciate Stern, you must forget whatever ties you have to others like you, and descend once more into the netherworld of your own painful youth. "You'd be surprised at who listens to me," Stern said in a 1995 interview with New York magazine. "Because there is no specific demographic. There's no ethnographic. It's a psychographic."

If you were ever picked last for a team or bullied on the playground; if you were (or are) weird or clumsy or terminally uncool, Stern's life story will make you feel both recognized and explosively vindicated. "If you're ugly, if you're deformed, or if you're like me, ugly (and) deformed ... this is the place for you," he wrote in "Miss America." "Here is where the misfit can be a giant." He was talking about cyberspace, but his words can be applied to the world he creates on the radio show.

And what if you aren't? Well, then, it's doubtful you'll ever understand his appeal. But quite a number of people -- millions of them, by any estimation -- do understand it. And as Stern moves into the purview of those folks who make up the "mainstream," maybe a lot of them will come to understand as well.

Which raises an interesting question. If the mainstream turns out to be made up of Stern fans -- of the ugly, the deformed, the excluded and abused -- then can it be called "mainstream" at all?

By Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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