For Better or Worst

The Howard Stern Experience


Sarah Vowell
March 8, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

the late, great French actor/author/radio dramatist/madman Antonin Artaud
once imagined a "body without organs." Media theorists have often used this
phrase while describing radio's disembodied voice: that way in which the
voices of the living and the dead roam freely and forever through the air,
into outer space, transmitting thoughts released from the constraints of
the flesh.

The "body without organs" escapes the minor humiliations of sweat,
mucous and feces, theoretically turning radio into a Calvinist's paradise of
germ-free ideas. But that was before Fartman. Artaud, with his landmark
work "To Have Done With the Judgment of God" was getting kicked off
French radio for calling God "shit" long before the American
actor/author/radio announcer/madman Howard Stern was even born. But Artaud could have been describing Stern when he wrote, "He is ... sometimes anus and sometimes nose, sometimes sex and sometimes heart, sometimes saliva and sometimes urine, sometimes ailment and sometimes sperm, sometimes excrement and sometimes idea."

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While Rush Limbaugh might be the most corpulent figure working in the
talk format, Stern is the most corporeal. As he writes in his tellingly titled
autobiography, "Private Parts," his superhero altar-ego Fartman (who
frequently breaks wind into the microphone) makes announcements like, "My
tushy rules and drools, my digestive system pumps foul air for truth and
justice. I squat and fart and whoosh my way into the hearts of my people, as
my hemorrhoids sway in the breeze, my stenching toots burn nostrils and bowl
over bad guys because 'I am Fartman!'

On a recent David Letterman show appearance to promote his new movie
version of "Private Parts," Stern enumerated his successes in the
publishing and film worlds and cracked, "Radio might be the thing I do the
worst." Judging by the surprisingly touching film, he might be right. Listening to Stern's scatological outbursts on the radio can be astonishing.
Once. Week after week, year after year of bodily function jokes
and lesbian sex fantasies can get tiresome.

So I'm hardly a fan. On film, Stern's tits-and-ass preoccupation comes off
as almost cute, whereas on the radio it doesn't really anger me so much as
just leave me bored. It's his outspoken pro-choice stance, along with, for
better or worst, his honesty, that keeps me from writing him off completely.
Through his often juvenile schticks, Stern demystifies stuffy radio rules by
standing up to station executives and by never letting his audience forget
that the voices coming out of their car stereos belong to real people with
real lives. Sure, the woman delivering the weather helps remind you to bring
an umbrella along. But she's a human being, too, with hobbies (like being a
dominatrix) just like you and me. However, this point doesn't always have to
be planned out; one of the most enjoyable moments in the film depicts a
greenhorn Stern playing college DJ. In a scaredy-cat voice, the young,
mustachioed Howard announces Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Only
seconds after the worn-out riffs begin, Stern accidentally topples a shelf
onto the record as he yelps -- on mike -- "Oh my God! Oh my God!" The lesson:
Dropping something on "Smoke on the Water" and freaking out about it makes
for more compelling radio than the song itself.

For a man who began his career as a disc jockey, Stern never had much
interest in the discs. In his book, he recounts a "Donahue" appearance in
which the TV host quizzed radio personalities about the effect racy rock
lyrics have on children. Stern was surprised, "since we don't write the
lyrics, we didn't pick the records to play, and we didn't particularly like
playing any records." Which might explain the organization of the
"Private Parts" soundtrack album. For every song -- from rockers by the likes
of Ozzy Osbourne, Ted Nugent, Green Day, AC/DC, Marilyn Manson and, not
surprising since Howard's always been a Joey ringer, the Ramones -- there's
an audio clip from the film. Through sound bites of Stern's programming nemesis,
Pig Virus, the aforementioned Deep Purple gaff, and the rudimentary semiotics
of Stern's "Match Game" ploy to use words like "cock" and "pussy" on the air,
the soundtrack becomes its own kind of "Howard Stern Show." Still, the
choices are relatively tasteful within Stern's boy-rock world. I would have
liked to have heard a little of that famous mean spirit carving into a turkey
of a song.

In his book, Stern attacks a WNBC memo that forbade "making derogatory
remarks about the music you play. God forbid I should make fun of Olivia
Newton-John." Since this kind of opinion-mongering begs for just desserts, you'd think
that watching Stern experience the disdain he's always dishing out would
equal entertainment. But the most moving highlight of "Private Parts" is the
re-creation of his infamous MTV Awards appearance as Fartman. The
ridiculous, bare-butt costume invites a kind of pathos missing in his on-air
bravura. Farting on the radio is just showing off. Walking around in yellow
tights with your hairy ass on view in the company of pop culture's beautiful
people comes off in the film as honest-to-God tragedy. I've never felt sorry
for Howard Stern in my life, but the scene in which Fartman walks the
backstage gauntlet of stars made me want to give him a Lifesaver or
something. One celebrity after another, from Ozzy Osbourne to Flavor Flav,
looks down on Stern with complete contempt. He looks crushed. And it gets
worse; you know you look gross when even big sweaty John Popper of Blues
Traveler finds you disgusting.

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Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

MORE FROM Sarah Vowell

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