Rating — Worthless
Directed by Betty Thomas
Written by Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko
With Howard Stern, Robin Quivers, Mary McCormack, Fred Norris, Jackie Martling, Gary Dell’Abate, Richard Portnow, and Kelly Bishop.
By Jim DeRogatis
Sometime during the orgy of promotion for the empty propaganda film that is Private Parts, Howard Stern taped a series of allegedly spontaneous bits for MTV. The camera caught him running around a tree-lined neighborhood of single-family homes that looked like his native Long Island but could just as easily have been Queens, Brooklyn, or Jersey City. He seemed to be happiest when he met folks who confessed that they didn’t think his radio or TV shows were funny. Then he would turn on the charm, invite himself into their living rooms, and screen scenes from his movie, in which he plays himself as a bumbling college-radio nerd and then as a struggling young DJ trying to make his wife, Alison, happy by making her pregnant.
When the clips were over, Stern would lean forward, put his arm around his newfound friend, and fish for a reaction in a tone that said, “See, I’m not that bad.” The desperation in his voice was pathetic, even for a man who’s famous for talking every day to an estimated ten million listeners in 35 cities about things like his fondness for masturbation and the modest size of his sex organ. (“I’m hung like a pimple.”)
Harassing the rubes door-to-door is a shtick that was perfected by David Letterman, and it isn’t the only thing the self-proclaimed King of All Media has in common with the deposed King of Late-Night TV. Private Parts was directed by Betty Thomas, who also did the made-for-HBO film The Late Shift about Letterman’s battle with Jay Leno. Letterman even shows up in Private Parts toward the end of the film, when a victorious Stern guests on his show in the mid-80s and launches into a tirade about the “idiots” who run the National Broadcasting Company. Stern was on NBC Radio’s New York flagship station at the time, and Letterman was still on NBC TV.
Both men once loved to play the outsider and the outlaw, mocking their bosses in public, standing in for millions of Americans who wished they had the chutzpah or the clout to do the same. Both specialized in a somewhat disingenuous brand of self-deprecating humor, laughing at their own neuroses while at the same time making it clear they thought they were the shit. Both challenged the conventions of the moribund talk-show format–Letterman with his goofiness and Stern with his rudeness. And though neither has been as innovative as is often claimed, both stretched the boundaries of their respective mediums. Letterman took Ernie Kovacs-style stunts to the next level and made fun of talk-show conventions even as he bowed to them. And for two decades, Stern assaulted the definition of good taste on morning drive-time radio, playing the lab rat to test what language the Federal Communications Commission would allow. Having incurred fines of almost $2 million for some of the outlets that carry his radio show, he’s the most penalized broadcaster in American history.
But what I loved most about both Letterman and Stern was their ability to slice through the soap bubble of celebrity. These days, the feel-good tone of most entertainment “news” coverage is set by the syndicated TV program Entertainment Tonight, Entertainment Weekly magazine, the alleged newspaper USA Today, and cable’s E! channel (which also happens to be home to Stern’s nightly half-hour TV show). There is no room for even a hint of criticism or skepticism because management is afraid of offending the celebrities and losing interviews or cover stories to the competition. As a result, the entertainment press has gone past polite to downright obsequious, and the attitude has spread to more “serious” publications: even the New Yorker ran a glowing profile of Stern, gently dubbing him “The Accidental Anarchist.”
At their best, Letterman and Stern ignored such celebrity circle jerks, refusing to genuflect before people who simply weren’t that special. Their attitudes were often enough to make their guests nervous, to prompt a quick flash of some genuine human emotion, and to pry open some small peephole into the person instead of the pitchman. Letterman did it by refusing to stick to the preapproved script, by acting weird and edgy, and by appearing solicitous of female guests, right up to doing some awkward teenage flirting. Stern did it by asking the tough personal questions (How much money do you make? Do you hate your parents? How did you lose your virginity?), by being unrelentingly blunt, and by appearing solicitous of female guests, right up to having them take their tops off.
Of course, the celebrity interviews were only part of what Stern did on radio and TV. The rest of his act could be broken down into what his critics would call racism, sexism, and just plain meanness. In the first category were Stern’s many racially and culturally charged routines, including skits like the one where he tried to determine which of three contestants was a Jew, or gags such as interviewing rappers about Ebonics. In the second category were Stern’s leering, lascivious conversations with lesbians, strippers, and porn stars. (Think of someone reading Penthouse’s Forum on the air.) Finally, there was the constant kvetching about everything from what he’d had for breakfast to the way President Clinton was running the country.
Often this chronic dissatisfaction erupted into ugly anger as Stern lashed out at callers and the lower-level members of his staff. These included his long-suffering producer Gary Dell’Abate; various underlings such as Stuttering John, his guerrilla interviewer; and rabid listeners such as Crackhead Bob and Elephant Boy, who became characters on the show as members of “the Wack Pack.” It was not unusual for Stern to while away two hours of radio time chastising Dell’Abate for daring to drink his bottled water, reaming Stuttering John for incorrectly preparing his mid-show baked potato, or lecturing Elephant Boy about the need to trim one’s underarm hair and wear deodorant. Stern usually spared from his wrath his head writer, Jackie Martling, and his sound-effects wizard, Fred Norris, and he never attacked black newswoman Robin Quivers, whose presence in the otherwise white boys’ club has often been cited as proof that Stern couldn’t be offensive to women or blacks.
Which, of course, is utter nonsense. Of course he’s offensive to women and blacks. And to men and whites, Christians and Jews and atheists, liberals and conservatives, cats and dogs. Even if you only knew Stern by reputation (before his recent sugarcoating) you knew he was above all else (and to use his words) an equal opportunity offender. But what passes for offensive in Private Parts couldn’t get the man arrested. At one point in the movie, a frustrated program director calls Stern “the motherfucking Antichrist,” but Private Parts conveniently soft-pedals the behavior that prompted that charge (namely Stern’s refusal to adhere to any of WNBC’s broadcasting guidelines). The racial element of his humor is vastly underplayed (the movie includes one brief routine about a militant African-American traffic reporter), and though the strippers and lesbians make dutiful appearances, the prurient material here ranks a PG-13 to the R of the real thing.
What’s more, there’s no indication of Stern’s temper, his mean streak, his fondness for berating his subordinates–he’s never portrayed as anything but unfailingly loyal and loving to his coworkers. No mention is made of the nasty wars Stern waged against competing DJs–a favorite tactic was to hold mock public funerals for his foes–in nearly every market he worked, and we don’t hear him wishing that his competitors would get AIDS and die. You certainly don’t get the idea that this is a man who became a celebrity by devouring celebs the way Jaws munched on unsuspecting swimmers.
In a flattering profile in Rolling Stone, Rich Cohen noted that Stern has joined a select group of people who’ve seen their stories filmed in their lifetimes, including Jim Thorpe, Jim Carroll, Audie Murphy, and Larry Flynt. Of course, Cohen did not point out that the movies about all of these people are awful. An autobiography usually has an agenda–if you’re Mia Farrow, it’s painting Woody Allen as a pedophile; if you’re Dick Nixon, it’s stressing China over Watergate–and it tends to become more pronounced when the story is simplified for film. In Private Parts Stern is clearly presenting a sanitized version of his story–he had control over every aspect of the film and vetoed more than half a dozen scripts before choosing the one that pleased him–in an attempt to reach a whole new level of stardom.
Stern even owns up to it. Private Parts is framed by the hackneyed device of its hero telling his life story to a fellow traveler during a cross-country flight. The other passenger is played by supermodel Carol Alt, and in the beginning she’s clearly disgusted to be sitting next to Stern, who has just made an appearance as Fartman at the MTV awards. Stern knows that Alt thinks he’s a racist, sexist pig with the IQ of a three-year-old, and he attempts to convince her otherwise. “More than anything, I’d like the public to appreciate me,” he tells us in a voice-over. “No, forget that. I want them to love me. Not the myth, but the real man.” The flight and the film end with Alt thinking of Stern the way kids end up thinking of the monster in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, looking on in admiration as Stern hugs his wife and three children at the airport.
Unlike The People vs. Larry Flynt, Private Parts doesn’t even try to portray its hero as a champion of free speech; in fact, Stern’s celebrated troubles with the FCC are barely mentioned. Instead, he’s painted as an insecure and average guy struggling to succeed and show up the people who tried to keep him down. Loosely based on his best-selling book (which is much funnier and much less linear), Private Parts introduces Stern as a gawky and self-conscious kid who’s constantly being told by his father that he’s a moron. It moves on to him as a gawky and self-conscious teenager growing up as one of the few whites in the black community of Roosevelt, Long Island.
Stern begins to play himself when he’s at college at Boston University. He attempts to laugh off the awkwardness of this in an aside about the movies requiring a suspension of disbelief, but at any age he’s a horrible actor who overplays some scenes and tries to coast through others by hiding behind wigs, makeup, and period clothing. Stern’s sidekicks Martling, Norris, and Quivers also play themselves, but they all do better than the boss. The real Alison Stern often calls her husband’s radio show, but for reasons known only to her, chose not to join this particular circus.
In any event, Howard can’t even get a date at BU until he meets the movie Alison (Mary McCormack). As the story progresses, we follow the young couple to Detroit, Hartford, Westchester, and Washington, D.C., with Howard fighting every inch of the way to find his comic voice and do good radio in spite of the lunkheaded executives who don’t recognize his genius. Finally he arrives at WNBC in New York–the big time!–only to find that the corporate bigwigs there, too, are determined to see him fail. He doesn’t, and though he’s still as gawky and self-conscious as ever, the story ends with him celebrating his victory as the Big Apple’s number-one radio personality.
As the tale of a fascinating career, the recent Stern episode of A&E’s Biography was much more revealing. But Stern wanted Private Parts to introduce us to Howard the man, not just Howard the radio giant, so much of the film focuses on his long and loving relationship with Alison. Yet here, too, we get only the most superficial look. Stern’s unusual definition of love and fidelity is that he can massage and be massaged by nude women other than his wife; he can play “butt bongo” on their backsides; and, in a lowbrow rewrite of everyone’s favorite scene from When Harry Met Sally, he can drive them to orgasm over the radio. But as long as he doesn’t do “anything worse,” he’s still being faithful to Alison.
Alison’s only reactions to these antics are brief scenes in which she talks about wishing some elements of their life together would remain private and a shot of her turning off the car radio in disgust while mumbling what we’re led to believe is her mantra: “It’s just an act.” The dramatic potential of what is clearly a very complex personal situation is never explored. Once again, we’re asked to suspend disbelief and take it for granted that the Sterns’ marriage is “normal and happy.”
Surprisingly, Private Parts also gives short shrift to Stern’s undeniable power as a broadcaster–the very reason he is idolized by some and reviled by others. Stopped at a gas station en route from one of his early dead-end radio jobs to another, Stern has an epiphany: “I’ve got to go all the way, just let it fly,” he tells Alison. He vows to say whatever is on his mind on the air, even if he thinks he should be censoring himself, and his success flows from this decision. But while Private Parts includes a few of his most infamous routines–a scatological version of The Match Game, the disrobing of “the first naked lady on radio,” and his regrettable decision to joke about Alison’s miscarriage–there are no examples of Stern’s distinctive stream-of-consciousness rants or his wild and off-the-cuff celebrity interviews.
Thomas and Stern could have taken some cues from Oliver Stone and Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio, which features Bogosian as an obnoxious and somewhat Stern-like radio host dedicated to saying whatever comes to mind and challenging his listeners to shoot back (literally). It captures the freewheeling show as it explodes onto the airwaves, but without ever leaving the studio it also shows the impact of what’s being said, on others as well as on the man doing most of the talking. Stern opted for a movie that is much more commercial and–it must be said–very un-Stern-like. Why?
Just as Letterman wasn’t content with the late-late-night audience of college students and insomniacs, Stern wasn’t happy with only his “hard-core” following of ten million. They both wanted more; they wanted to be universally loved. To this end, Letterman moved to CBS and an earlier time slot, and Stern made his movie, presenting a kinder, gentler Howard. But in the process, they shattered the illusion that they were outsiders, and they lost their edge. Letterman’s newer, “nicer” show is lame and tired–and has slipped to third in the ratings, behind the Tonight Show and Nightline. Stern’s film is a snooze on par with a rather uninspired TV movie–and while the $15 million that it made at the box office on its opening weekend is a staggering sum, the trades say studio execs are whispering that it fell short of their expectations. Two decades after its original release, Star Wars took in $36.2 million on its first weekend in theaters. By week two, Private Parts was number three at $8.7 million, with Return of the Jedi number one at $16.3 million. And Princess Leia never even takes her top off.
These facts have not escaped Stern loyalists. I recently logged on to a Stern discussion group on America Online, and the first three Private Parts posts that I came to expressed various degrees of dissatisfaction: “I was expecting a blockbuster and it seemed more like a firecracker. I’ll be glad when the hype is gone and Howard can get back to being the Howard we all know and love.” “I’m a true fan. I’ve got audio tapes dating back to ’86, and I never miss one minute of the show. But a five-hour-a-day commercial for the movie for two months? He turned me off to even seeing it.” “For the first time since I can remember, I have tuned out the show in the morning. I am gagging on the suck-asses. I definitely will see the movie, but I cannot wait for the hype to be over. I fear, however, that we will never really return to the classic ‘Howard.'”
These members of Stern’s audience deserve more credit than most of the media–they see through the Private Parts hype. The man who prided himself on opening his head and letting the contents spill out has become just what he’s always loathed: another celebrity with something to sell.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Private Parts film still.