Howard Stern is the most brilliant — and misunderstood — comic artist in America. In the years since he first launched his New York radio show (which is now syndicated to 14 major markets), he has made it all too easy for the media to dimiss him as a gross-out king, a ”shock jock,” a ringleader of sleaze who jacks up his rating points by getting beautiful young women to strip on the air. He has made it easy because, of course, Howard Stern is all these things.
He is also the Lenny Bruce of the information age: a kamikaze hipster with a machine-gun brain, a slash-and-burn rock & roll nihilist who, in his hostility and wit, his dazzlingly intuitive observational powers, his savage compulsion to smash every taboo that middle-class society places in his path, is probably the only professional entertainer in the country who answers to no one but himself. On the air, Stern creates a kind of manic free-associational theater, chainsawing through the pretensions of celebrities and politicians, of conformists and ”rebels,” and of the entertainment-media culture that binds them all together. What his fans cherish is his blessedly untamed hilarity, the rollicking freedom of his voice.
That voice comes through with buoyant abandon in Private Parts (Simon & Schuster). Penned by Stern himself (though he might almost have talked it into a tape recorder), this blasphemously funny autobiography-scrapbook is, in essence, Howard’s radio show jammed between two covers. How could it not be? There’s hardly a private part of his life he hasn’t already dissected on the air, whether it’s his psycho-suburban upbringing in an all-black Long Island neighborhood (”They should have issued me a gun to go to that school”), his marriage to the eternally affectionate and forgiving Alison (”I started shaving her. She started shaving me. Within a few seconds we were totally bored”), his defiant xenophobia (”This Eiffel Tower is a major tourist attraction? It looks like it was made with an Erector set”), or his effulgent fantasy life (”Lesbianism, let’s face it, is a godsend”), which seems to run like some succulent porno tape loop in his mind. ”Basically,” writes Stern, ”my mother, Ray, raised me like a veal. It was like growing up in a box with no lights on.” As the book makes clear, the overarching joke of Stern’s existence is that he’s still a veal. Bunkered down in Long Island with his wife and three young daughters, too terrified of his own sexual reveries to do anything but parade them — endlessly — on the air, he may be the prime contemporary example of Flaubert’s dictum, ”Be cautious and bourgeois in your life so that you can be daring in your art.”
Private Parts is studded with amusing anecdotes, from Stern’s one homosexual experience — an adolescent masturbation session — to his fumbling sexual encounters at Boston University, where he emerges as a kind of ’70s-collegiate Holden Caulfield, to his beleaguered attempts to help Andrew Dice Clay shop for a ranch house. The book is most fascinating when it traces the development of his radio career. As the outrageousness of his routines escalates, so do his battles with management, a pattern that culminates in his three-year war with the suits at New York’s WNBC radio. What this chapter reveals is that Stern’s utter refusal to suck up to his bosses ultimately fueled — became the living proof of — his anarchic honesty as a radio personality.
By the time Stern lands his top-rated show at the radio station K-Rock, Private Parts has turned into one big Howard’s Greatest Hits package. There are transcriptions of his radio and TV interviews with trash celebrities like Jessica Hahn and Richard Simmons, riffs about his least favorite stars (on Arsenio Hall: ”Since when does someone use the word posse and not get kicked out of Hollywood?”), loving reminiscences of butt bongo, and a description of the one public appearance in which Stern seems blind to how he came off: his fizzled Fartman routine at the 1992 MTV Video Music awards. The second half of the book is compulsively readable, like brain candy, and for anyone who has never actually heard Stern it may prove an irresistible introduction. For anyone else, though, it can’t help but seem a substitute for the real, live thing. By the end, you long to hear the bad-boy jester in his own court. B+