No private parts

Nov 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

It seems like eons ago. But before Howard Stern launched a successfully syndicated FM radio show in New York, he’d already found his place on television. Although his early-’90s talk show on the E! cable channel is now but a hazy memory of milder, more TV-oriented celebrity interviews and Stern’s former layered, teased ‘80s hair, his bizarre appeal has not yet waned enough to get him off the air.

Stern’s been able to evolve and has long since grown out of the unfashionable puffed bangs and the rapturous insights of esteemed guests such as Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. Thank God. And television pants after the ever-hipper Stern accordingly. It seems that nobody can get enough of his crude and controversial post-nerd personality, which falls between "Nobody liked me in high school" and "I’m now famous and charming enough to get laid at the drop of a hat."

He, the King of All Media (KOAM), has bounced from radio to television to print to the big screen, and is still ricocheting with intermittent successes and embarrassing failures. His 1998 face-off with "Saturday Night Live" — a quick network flop called "The Howard Stern Radio Show" on CBS — sent him running with his low ratings between his legs. But it isn’t like he had nothing to fall back on.

E! was — and still is — scoring viewers with the parade of strippers, porn stars, hookers, freaks, addicts and superstars who visit Stern’s almost oxymoronic and totally moronic televised radio show. Forget Nostradamus. How a face made for radio could attract and keep a television audience for this long, by merely allowing them to watch him — headphones in place — tossing insults and daft commentary onto the airwaves, is one of the greater mysteries of the millennium.

But hey, at least he’s proving the KOAM point.

In a way, putting a camera in Stern’s radio studio makes perfect sense. He’s a man with an obvious penchant for visual effect and is often forced to offer his morning listeners explicit descriptions of the glaringly politically incorrect shenanigans that go on during the radio show. Most of the time, his stumbling narratives would suffice. After all, on the TV version, the most titillating scenes are always broken up by tiles, which blur thongs, crotches, breasts and other unmentionables.

Then again, anybody who hasn’t been living in a hole in the ground for the past decade knows that "unmentionable" is not a valid category for Stern. Currently, the breakup of his 21-year marriage is pumping new life into the show. The country has taken the situation to heart, to such a degree that I’m waiting for Howie to burst into a moving a cappella version of "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina" any day now.

Stern has tapped into an obvious yet elusive secret to winning the attention of Americans. They’ll buy anything they’re not supposed to have, listen to anything they’re not supposed to hear, watch anything they’re not supposed to see, etc. Just picture those three little no-evil monkeys with their hands thrown in the air, waving dollar bills. Whether it be naked bodies, the sexual habits of celebrities or the intimate details of his marital breakup, Stern’s brand of forbidden fruit sells under the moniker: If you bare it, they will come.

During a recent rerun of "Howard Stern" late at night on E!, the featured guest, Divine Brown, sat behind a microphone doing her best not to say the name Hugh Grant and refusing to respond to the host’s lewd propositions delivered with a weak British accent. And I can’t say that a gratuitous view of Brown’s natural C-cups, Stern looking exceptionally cool in sunglasses (and much better hair), and the contributions of staff writer Jackie Martling and the rest of the crew enhanced my experience.

Later, Stern has an overly excited 20-something come up for a routine T&A inspection. He runs through the same lines, coaxing the young woman, who wallows in the attention, out of her belly shirt (probably the host’s favorite garment, if not a close runner-up to the thong).

Eventually, the girl is being sized up, wearing only blurred tiles, taking the following advice with a real-sportlike attitude: "Honey, you have a great body. But you need the implants to balance you out."

Mostly, I’m embarrassed for the desperate, convinced folks who come in off the street. Two women enter the studio later, one competing in a burping contest for a prized pair of silicon jobs. The other is willing to flash Stern if he’ll listen to her boyfriend’s CD. Watching is almost painful. Even more difficult than Robin Quivers’ laugh, Crackhead Bob’s insights, Hank the Drunken Dwarf, another round of the Lesbian Dating Game or Stern’s tennis match with a guy in a wheelchair — which the guy in the wheelchair won.

Giving a shameless exhibitionist like Stern not one but two simultaneous outlets for his experiments in high vulgarity is kind of like a burp and fart contest rolled into one. Not only a great metaphor, but another great show idea as well.