Once upon a time, there was a rabbi who really liked hookers.
Whenever he heard of a prostitute plying her trade, he’d toss a few shekels into his purse and go pay her a visit. So strong was his commitment to whoring that it was believed there wasn’t a single working girl in all the world he hadn’t patronized. One day his friends told him a new lady of the night had set up shop in a city far away, and that while her gifts came at a considerable cost, they were worth the trouble. Giddy, the rabbi saved up and set out to find this skilled sex worker. He finally did, and, dropping his drawers, took immense pleasure in the carnal delights that followed.
Mid lovemaking, however, the prostitute did something that surprised the rabbi: She passed wind and then following that exclamation launched into a little speech.
“Just as my fart can never return to my butt,” she told the astonished rabbi, “so, too, rabbi, will you never find forgiveness for your sinful ways, even if you tried to repent.”
Devastated, the rabbi ran out of the bedroom and begged the earth itself—the mountains and the hills, the sun and the moon—to forgive him. But the earth refused and the rabbi, despondent, realized he had no choice but to prostrate himself and beg God for mercy. He sat down by the side of the road, put his head between his knees, and sobbed so loudly that his soul soon left his body. And for that genuine act of remorse, he was rewarded with a place in the sweet hereafter.
The story—gross, ribald, hilarious, and profound—comes to us, of course, from the Talmud (Tractate Avodah Zarah 17a, if you want the whole sordid thing). And it’s just the sort of story that makes the seminal text of Jewish life—often introduced to young yeshiva students as an account of God’s own mind—so transcendent. To imbue humans with wisdom, the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud realized, you need more than just a commandment; if you want humans to listen and learn, you have to embrace all the appetites and the oddities that make them human. Try to talk to us about the labors of redemption, and we might scoff at such haughty moralizing or slink away from the effort it demands. Deliver it in a good yarn about a farting prostitute, and we’re bound to laugh, think, and empathize.
Which, really, is a decent explanation of how and why Howard Stern, arguably America’s most prominent broadcaster, rose from much derided “shock jock” to the closest thing we have to a national confessor, the man to whom the most celebrated and remunerated among us rush to share the sort of intimate insecurities they pay their publicists a mint to conceal. Now that the King of All Media—the title is self-given but not unearned—has published a third book, a collection of his finest interviews, it is time to radically rethink the role Stern plays in popular American culture.
To hear most magazine profiles tell it, his is a story of an enfant terrible growing into a man in full. A few decades of therapy, a few gray hairs in that sculpture-quality curly mane of his, and the dude who previously spent his on-air hours palling with porn stars or prank calling other radio shows, is now ready to draw Jerry Seinfeld, say, into admitting he’s perpetually emotionally unavailable, even to his wife and children, or embrace Tracy Morgan as he shares the harrowing account of his near-fatal accident. But that’s only part of Stern’s bildungsroman, and not the important one. The real story isn’t about how Howard Stern had changed; it’s about how he helped us change, making American culture a kinder and more soulful place by displaying the same passionate commitment to truth-telling that once burned brightly in the old Hebrew prophets.
If comparing the mind behind Butt Bongo Fiesta to Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos strikes you as a bit rich, take a look at this snippet from Stern’s short-lived TV show, which aired on WWOR-TV between 1990 and 1992, a total of 69 episodes. Dressed up as a game show host who is one part Haight-Ashbury groovy cat and one part Satmar Hasid, Stern welcomes Daniel Carver, then the Grand Dragon of the KKK, to the set. Carver appears in his full ghostly regalia, pointy hood and all, and Stern invites him to play a game. On a small board are arranged cards containing the names of various minority groups, each identified by the derogatory and hateful term given it by the Klan. Stern’s request of Carver is simple: Rate the races.
What happens next is so transfixing that even though it’s been nearly 30 years since I watched it unfold, I can still remember it almost verbatim. With a microbiologist’s dispassionate precision, Carver leans over and examines the board. The Jews, of course, belong at the very bottom, he explains, ungodly creatures that they are. Then come the gays, who violate God’s explicit commandments, followed by African Americans and people of mixed race. The top of the board is a bit more challenging for the white supremacist, as he struggles to determine whether he hates the Vietnamese more than he does the Chinese, and just how he feels toward Mexicans.
The bit is hilarious, but it is also deeply illuminating. You can read dozens of newspaper profiles of men like Carver, and scores of academic papers, and still not quite get just how that man’s toxic mind works. But watch him on a surreal game show, straining to explain the tortured nuances of his bigotry, and you’ll understand, right away, just how laughable his worldview truly is. As the masters of the Talmud knew, such insights sometimes require profane or madcap settings to come across as anything but twaddle, which means that they also require a man unafraid to be perceived as a fool or, worse, a villain.
This is why so much of Stern’s career was defined by his battles against the various embodiments of the establishment. The FCC slapped stations carrying his show with fine after fine, penalizing everything from a bit that had men playing pianos with their penises to a monologue about masturbating while thinking of Aunt Jemima. Arsenio Hall, the height of 1990s parent-approved cool, unleashed his lyrical fury when he called Stern “a slimeburger to the max.” Politicians and religious leaders made his name a shorthand for everything that was rotten about American culture. Stern fought back with a mixture of over-the-top lewd jokes and impassioned soliloquies about free speech, but he realized perfectly well that having the freedom to say whatever he wanted paled in comparison to his responsibility to say something worth hearing. Sure, he was often pure id who’d probe, poke, insult, and sensationalize for effect, but he was also moved by the same calling that so stirred the prophets, the calling to community.
I met a few of Stern’s best-recognized congregants two decades ago. I was a journalism student at the time, and when given the freedom to choose my own assignment, I wanted to write about something that had to do with Stern. The eminences my professors encouraged me to lionize—the Dan Rathers, the Thomas Friedmans—struck me as wax, icons. Luminaries like them belonged to a cult, it seemed to me, that cared more about its own decorum than it did about really trying to understand what people needed, what they felt, what hurt them, and what made them laugh. Stern, on the other hand, whatever else he was, struck me as first and foremost a mensch. It’s an overused word but he was the genuine article. When he invited members of his Wack Pack—a ragtag bunch of misfits, many afflicted with inabilities, who are recurring characters in the show—he wasn’t, as his dull critics accused him of doing, exploiting them to score a few cheap laughs. He was welcoming them into his universe, a Beit Midrash where any and all aspects of humanity were discussed and where the chief rabbi himself wasn’t exempt from the edict of mandatory over-sharing.
For my class project, I spent an evening with “High Pitch” Erik Bleaman and Lester Green, better known as Beetlejuice. The former is a nobly proportioned man with the voice of a cartoon mouse and the emotional and intellectual capabilities to match; the latter suffers from microcephaly and dwarfism. I met them during their appearance at a bachelor party, where they were paid to do nothing more than be themselves. They were running around an Upper East Side bar, Green without most of his clothes on, gulping down beers and basking in the attention paid to them by able-bodied and handsomely paid young men who, had this been high school, would’ve either ignored or tormented them. This transformation was Stern’s alchemy. Without the show, a friend of Green’s told me, the diminutive entertainer would likely be spending his life “stocking the bottom two shelves at the supermarket.”
Stern made Beetlejuice a star. He did the same to Wendy the Slow Adult, Jeff the Drunk, Tan Mom, and Bobo, all of whom would’ve otherwise been condemned to a life sentence of invisibility. In Stern’s studio, they found an attentive ear and a group of friends, both luxuries rarely afforded to the mentally underprivileged and the tragically different. In a recent bit, for example, Stern had Wendy, known for her insatiable appetite and her incontinence, call up her fellow Wack Packers and ask if she could move in with them for a little while; many said yes, without hesitation. That’s not to say that Stern could never be cruel or demeaning to the members of his court but he was never any crueler than the Wack Packers themselves, who, we listeners came to know, not as freaks but as people, with all the human appetites and compulsions, which they gladly acted out for us and each other, and for their king. We knew they were people because Stern invited them in, not just once or twice for a cheap drive-by laugh, but show after show and year after year, which is something that his morally hygienic critics never would have imagined doing, actually rubbing shoulders with the unfortunates they rushed to defend. That is the Stern spirit: whether his guests are dwarfs or divas, sex symbols or slow adults, he reminds us that they are, first and foremost, fellow human beings who deserve our attention and our consideration—not out of charity, but because they are interesting subjects, too, as rich in human material as anyone—richer maybe since they are so often overlooked and bursting at the chance to be seen.
That, at least, was what America should’ve taken away from Stern’s rise to fame. Instead, animated as always by a juvenile taste for more, we took Stern literally but not seriously. Listening to him hold his communions, a generation of lesser hearts paid little attention and surmised that Stern was successful not because of who he was but because of what he appeared to facilitate, namely an endless torrent of vulgarities. Emboldened by new technologies and a plethora of platforms on which to amuse an ever more ravenous audience, these dim disciples did the gospel of Stern a disservice. Some gave birth to reality TV, a genre that closely follows Stern’s lead of placing the oddballs among us under a microscope and watching them grow; Stern’s care and compassion, however, were replaced with cruelty and malice, his communal spirit with a circus-like indifference to the attractions in the ring. The same was true of porn, which Stern championed by welcoming its practitioners to his studio for candid and difficult conversations about childhood dreams gone sour and personal traumas being worked out while fornicating on camera; Stern’s successors mucked that up, too, flooding the zone with soul-crushing, hard-core smut that demeaned and abused. All of a sudden, with the Internet abloom and cable TV ascendant, the things Howard Stern could never say or do were being said and done in abundance by men and women who cared little for what happened next.
And therein began the trial of Howard Stern.
When he signed on with Sirius, the satellite radio company that is still home to his show 13 years later, his fans expected him to celebrate his newfound freedom by reveling in the destruction of all barriers. Now that he was no longer subject to the FCC’s strictures, and bolstered by a swarm of subscribers who followed him to the new promised land, it wasn’t crazy to expect Stern to break out the old butt bongos and engage in debauchery on a cosmic scale. But Stern wanted none of that. Like the bearded rebukers of the Bible, he realized that there was nothing more radical or transformative than empathy, and that for empathy to thrive, boundaries had to be set to dissuade us from listening to the lesser angels of our nature.
“What I soon realized,” he wrote in his new book, Howard Stern Comes Again, released this week, “is that when you’re able to do the most shocking things you can think of, then nothing is shocking anymore. You can’t be a rebel if there aren’t any rules.” Jeremiah would agree; so would Ezekiel.
The real shock of Howard Stern’s metamorphosis, then, isn’t watching a jagged youth mellow into a fully rounded adult, or a playful narcissist mature and realize that others exist. It’s watching the visionary who chided us for being unhealthily repressed about our bodies turn around to tell us that we’re now being careless with our souls.
But how to do that? Sure, from time to time Stern takes to the air to howl at this iniquity or that, including chiding his former star guest and current president of the United States, Donald Trump. But too much moralizing would put him in Pat Robertson territory, so Stern took that old adage to heart and simply became the change he wanted to see in the world. His unorthodox vehicle for that change? Celebrity interviews.
Falling somewhere between selfies and Styrofoam packaging on the list of modern contrivances that are mildly useful yet indicative of a deeper moral rot, the celebrity interview, before Stern’s arrival, fell into one of two categories. Famous men and women who merely wanted to promote their new work could pop by a late night talk show, fake charm for a few minutes, and leave without having delivered anything too revealing. If, however, the same luminaries were in the mood for gravitas, they could go on a small number of highbrow shows, and open up under the protective canopy of Prestige Journalism. Because he realized how central celebrities had become to our culture, Stern understood that if he wanted to model to the rest of America what a normal human conversation looked like—a once basic skill eroded by years of texting, tweeting, and staring at screens—he’d have to do it by talking to the famous people they adored.
To fully understand his genius, consider the following two examples. The first is an interview with Stephen Colbert, conducted by Terry Gross in 2018. Praised to the heavens for being the greatest interviewer of this or any other time, Gross famously sits alone in her booth in Philadelphia, preferring not to be in the same room as her guests. Then, she asks informed questions in the calm tone only a Very Smart Person may command, a soft-spoken priestess of authority and knowledge. Here’s how she began her interview with the late night host:
When you started doing The Late Show as opposed to The Colbert Report and you were able to drop the Colbert Report persona, did you know what your authentic voice was going to be, you know, what your voice is—like, the actual Stephen Colbert was going to be—’cause you still have to have, like, a bit of a persona as an entertainer onstage.
It’s an intelligent question and Colbert gives an intelligent answer, saying things like “I would say that what I didn’t anticipate was how much I would over-correct for not doing the character.” Things took a different turn when Colbert came to Stern’s studio in 2015. Unlike Gross, Stern insists all his guests sit across from him on the couch, so that he may look them in the eye and speak to them like two normal people would. When Colbert walked in, Stern could barely hide his excitement. “There he is,” he said, “the famous Stephen Colbert. How great is this? Sit down. I can’t wait to talk to you.”
One simple act of genuine emotion begat another, and Colbert asked Stern if he was allowed to shake his hand.
Stern: You have to put on the Purell. You’re not afraid of shaking hands? You don’t worry about germs or any of that stuff?
Colbert: No. I’m one of 11 children. The youngest of 11. It was filth all the time.
This, naturally, led Stern to ask Colbert about his Catholic upbringing, which led to both men opening up about their mothers, which led to a conversation about Chris Farley and Colbert’s early days as a comedian. Eventually, they got to The Colbert Report, too, but by the time they did, you didn’t feel like you were listening to a trained and licensed journalist exchanging facts and opinions with a trained and licensed guest; you felt as if you were in the room eavesdropping on two smart guys having a candid conversation. There is, of course, more than one style of effective interviewing; talking to people isn’t a zero-sum game. But there’s also a discernible difference to a Terry Gross conversation, say, and one by Howard Stern: The former often leaves you informed and unmoved; the latter frequently reminds you that whatever it is that’s going on in the country right now, we’re all in it together, so we better drop our preconceived notions and our self-obsession and listen for a while. That’s why every fifth caller or so to the Stern show eventually says something like “thanks for having so-and-so on the show; I used to really hate him but you made me see him in a whole new light.”
The prophets have always lived among the people they sought to sway back toward righteousness. Comport yourself as my moral and intellectual better, and I’ll either shrug my shoulders and ignore you or contemplate giving you the finger; speak to me like an equal, and I’ll listen.
Stern the equalizer is on display on every page of his terrific new book. The move from audio to print does nothing to rob his conversations with the mighty—Madonna and Colbert, Paul McCartney and Joan Rivers, Amy Schumer and Donald Trump—of their energy and intimacy. Instead, they now read like a hopeful historical transcript, a steady stream of irrefutable grace amid an increasingly barren cultural terrain.
Maybe we’ll get it wrong this time as well. Maybe we’ll read Stern’s new book and walk away with nothing but a hollow appetite for more fame and more fortune. But maybe we’ll finally listen, and understand, as our ancestors had millennia ago, that fart jokes and wisdom are frequently hard to separate, that nothing human ought to repulse or repel us, and that the best thing we can do—the most moral, most compassionate, most meaningful thing—is simply to shake someone’s hand, sit down, and really listen.
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