Howard Stern is Listening

A Long Collection of Interviews, and a Sort-of Apology

Howard Stern wants you to know that he’s really really really really changed. In his first book in nearly a quarter century, Stern apologizes for his early autobiographies, Private Parts (adapted into a pretty good film) and Miss America, characterizing them as works of a workaholic, bridge-burning maniac. That guy, he says in the new book Howard Stern Comes Again, was out of touch with himself, his family, and guests on his trailblazing radio show, doing anything for laugh and scorching the earth when he should have been listening more.

All this is probably true, but that guy, who once showed his doughy white ass to the nation as Fartman on the MTV Video Music Awards, was the one who got famous. The one who battled the FCC, the one who almost single-handedly saved Sirius XM radio from the technology dustbin, who already did a lot to repair his image as a fair, lively judge on America’s Got Talent.

As anyone who’s been listening to the Sirius XM “Howard Stern Show” since 2006 knows, Stern’s move to satellite radio, aging, a second marriage, and a lot of therapy have led to a wiser, slower-paced, and much kinder Howard Stern. Feuds with celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell and Jon Bon Jovi have turned into loving friendships. The guy lives with dozens of cats because his wife is super-into animal rescue with North Shore Animal League. And the “Shock Jock” label, some 40 years into his career, is finally starting to fade.

The Good Stern

 

Howard Stern Comes Again is evidence of  his growth as a human being. His interviewing skills have blossomed, turning his long-form conversations into frequently revelatory listening. There are still phony phone calls and weird sex adventures and harrowing stories from the surviving members of the show’s Wack Pack. But the interviews largely drive the show and frequently make headlines. Stern’s ability to empathize with guests and get them to open up produces about one very good interview a week on his show, depending on the guest lineup.

He’s collected the best of these (or the weirdest, or the most revealing) in book form for posterity. It’s mostly a look back at the last two decades of work.

It’s unclear if Stern will continue his radio show after his contract ends next year. So the book acts as both a mea culpa to his old rivals as well as a victory lap not just for his career, but for his evolving into a better person.

The Wisdom of Jerry Seinfeld

But it’s also, as Stern explains, a way to capture some of the wisdom from guests that can get lost from hearing the conversations as audio. He prefaces the major interviews with guests like Madonna, Jay-Z, and Joan Rivers with new introductions summing up his thoughts on the person, or why he included that particular talk.

In the lead-up to a 2014 Chris Rock interview, Stern writes, “When I listen to these interviews – maybe because of the pacing or because I’m caught up in the sound of the voices–I miss things. In the case of Chris Rock, whose mind moves at the speed of light, the potential for oversight is even greater. There’s material in this interview that you’re about to read that, in my opinion, rates with the greatest stand-up Chris has ever performed.”

He’s not completely correct: off-the-cuff Rock is not nearly as thoughtful and polished as Rock in Bring the Pain. But he’s correct that, on the page, it’s easier to absorb what Jerry Seinfeld has learned about comedy and marriage, or what Courtney Love is actually talking about at any given moment.

The longer interviews typically run about 10 pages, while Stern has collected some shorter bits into sections on “Sex & Relationships,” “Money & Fame,” “Drugs & Sobriety,” “Religion & Spirituality” and “Gone Too Soon,” with celebrity reflections on Tupac Shakur, Amy Winehouse, John Belushi and others.

They’re all good interviews, even the weird ones with filmmaker Vincent Gallo and self-described mob murderer Henry Hill. The Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly interviews show, with hindsight, the way those two hid behind their own words and public personas.

And Now a Word From Our President

But the most revealing bits might be 11 interview excerpts called “And Now a Word from Our President,” a range of Stern Show appearances by President Donald Trump. What’s most shocking about them is how little they shock. The boasts, the threats, the evaluations of women, and the self-aggrandizing business claims sound all too familiar.

But one interview, a 2001 fight between Trump and gossip columnist A.J. Benza about a model they both dated, serves at the pettiest material in the entire book, an opera of misplaced machismo and cruelty. It reveals more about Trump’s nature than any of his presidential debates with Hillary Clinton did.

Howard Stern Comes Again is an achievement, a very savvy legacy-PR move, and a smart collection of well-chosen career highlights. But actually reading the book end to end is a huge task. It’s a slog that doesn’t line up with the radio pioneer’s ability to entertain an audience for hours at a time, day after day, for decades. Instead it’s the kind of book to skim, and jump around in, to read in short bursts and discover that some interview subjects, such as Ed Sheeran and the Kardashians, are much more interesting that you could have ever imagined.

(Simon & Schuster, May 14, 2019)

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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