Howard Stern: Secret softie

May 25, 2012


I’ve been a Howard Stern fan for most of his radio career. So I swallowed hard and set my DVR for “America’s Got Talent,” to watch him in his foray to the network.

I’ve never watched any of what passes for contemporary talent shows among the network’s reality offerings. I’ve seen nary an episode of “American Idol” or “The Voice” or “The X Factor” or “So You Think You Can Dance.” Call me a snob, but they all look like extended auditions for the next big lounge act in Reno or a headliner in Branson, Mo.

But I’m a Howard loyalist. I was lucky enough to be assigned the Playboy Interview with him back in 1994 and have always believed that he is an innovator and a delightfully iconoclastic comic observer of the modern world. How would he adjust to the rigors and constrictions of network TV?

The irony wasn’t lost on me that he was going to be on NBC. This was the same network that tried to end his career in the early 1980s by harnessing him to a constrictive, restrictive radio format and playing nanny about what he could and couldn’t talk about. This seemed like a chance for an unlikely triumphant return.

And he handles it with aplomb, without losing any of his quick-witted bite. He’s the reason I’ll keep watching – though the ability to skip through the show’s wasted time with my DVR is also a factor.

The rest of the show, of course, is your basic TV reality-sludge: over-extended with filler, false-suspense tropes and way too much of the show’s egregious host, Nick Cannon. Every time the director cuts away from a performer – good or bad – to show Cannon offering a feeble backstage ad lib, the show’s energy level plummets. He actually makes Ryan Seacrest look like a charismatic talent – and that’s some serious voodoo shit.

Even without Cannon, “AGT” is like a mashup of “The Gong Show” and “American Idol,” by way of the old “Ed Sullivan Show.” But Stern – and, to a certain extent, fellow panelist Howie Mandel – is funny and fast. When an act is terrible, he finds a witty way to say it; it’s even funny how fast he hits the buzzer on a bad act.

If anything, this vehicle has revealed something most casual listeners don’t realize about Stern: He’s actually a sweet guy and something of a softie. The casual radio listener – or those who only know him by reputation – tend to focus on the horny adolescent side of him; to be sure, that’s very much a part of the radio persona. Or they zero in on his tendency to mercilessly mock the people who publicly disdain him or refuse to appear on his show.

But as any number of celebrities can testify, the best way to tame Stern is to brave his studio or take his phone call. Answer his questions honestly – or sincerely say, “Gee, I just can’t talk about that” – and he moves on.

In fact, he’s a terrific interviewer, capable of getting a celebrity – in show business or otherwise – to open up in ways they probably didn’t anticipate. But he’s not the fearsome monster he’s often depicted as; if you’re a celebrity with the courage to face him, he’s actually kind of a pussycat.

That was on display during the first episodes of “America’s Got Talent,” in which he was much kinder to some of the middling talents than you’d expect. Even when he was dismissive, he wasn’t cruel, just honest (like to a woman who sang while covered with live cockatiels). No doubt he can make arguments for giving a “Yes” vote to some of the weaker contestants, like a singer who billed himself as “Simply Sergio,” who nearly got the boot for his rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema,” then won the panel over with a brave version of “God Bless America.”

But I believe you saw the real Howard the night he gave the buzzer to a pre-school rapper – and then melted into a flustered wreck when the kid started to cry. “I can’t handle this,” he pleaded, changing his vote from “No” to “Yes” – that’s the real Howard Stern.

So, yeah, I’ll keep watching, for Stern and Mandel (sorry, I’m not a Sharon Osbourne fan). But the fast-forward button will get a workout.

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