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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Howard Speaks From Our Hearts

March 12, 1997|ROBIN ABCARIAN

My editor wanted me to write about Howard Stern. "The nation is awash in Howard Sterndom," he said. "People are talking about the movie, lots of chatter going on."

Yeah, right, donkey breath. The crawl space under my house was awash in Howard Sterndom when my sewer line broke last year, and nobody made a movie out of that.

Anyhow, I can't write about Stern. I'm on the radio now in a talk show myself. Stern's my competition. What kind of moron would give me an assignment like that?

"What is humor?" my editor continued. "How does he move the needle? Why do we love what we detest?"

Forget it, pinhead. I'm writing about blind children practicing for a 50-yard dash. Or maybe about abortion. Or domestic violence.

"What is it about this guy?" he droned. "Are we picking strange heroes?"

What is the matter with this man? I know what I'm doing. Do you see his picture up there next to the name? No. You see my picture. That's because it's my column. I think I know what to write about, OK?

How am I supposed to soar with the eagles around here?

I feel so misunderstood.

Just like Howard Stern.

*

Let's face it: If I ever spoke to my editor that way--let alone transcribed the conversation for print, I'd be so fired, I'd be carbon. Nobody gets away with that kind of sass in real life. Which is why, even if you hate him, in some dark part of your soul you have to appreciate the curious career of Howard Stern, at least as it's depicted in "Private Parts," last weekend's top-grossing movie.

Like his books, his radio patter, his talk show appearances, the movie is a celluloid anthem for the powerless, the frustrated, the misunderstood. (It is also an anthem for the sexually obsessed, self-pleasuring and puerile, but that is a column for someone else's newspaper.)

"Private Parts" is balm for any hacked off worker bee who has ever wanted to hurl at the boss an epithet like "Pig Vomit."

The movie, in other words, is for anyone who has ever felt smarter, braver or funnier than the person who signs the paycheck. Personally, I loved it and plan to see it several more times.

Sure, Stern gets fired. Almost everybody in radio gets fired eventually. But no one--and this is one of Stern's lasting contributions to the medium--gets fired for bad taste anymore. You get fired for bad ratings. And if they say they are firing you for bad taste, they are merely using it as an excuse because your ratings are bad or you have grown too old for the targeted demographic or you have personally and deeply offended management, as Stern did publicly and repeatedly.

But it is also a field where--far as I can tell--even the worst publicity is good publicity, especially if it translates into more buzz and bigger ratings. Stern's well-publicized battles with the FCC have cost his employers several million dollars, but his program generates many more millions than that.

A lot of people love him.

A lot of people hate him.

But most important, people love to hate him, and so they tune in.

*

Clearly, we live in a country where plenty of folks, whether they admit it or not, enjoy being repulsed. If they can be titillated and repulsed at the same time, so much the better for the bottom line (see "The People vs. Larry Flynt").

In a memorable scene from "Private Parts," the WNBC-AM program director dubbed "Pig Vomit" is stumped when a researcher informs him that people who love Stern listen for an average of an hour and 20 minutes "because they want to hear what he'll say next." People who hate Stern listen for 2 hours and 40 minutes "because they want to hear what he'll say next."

I stood in line Saturday morning, not willing to brave the evening crowds for a showing of the movie. In front of me, a 30-ish woman with a baseball cap pulled low over her forehead was saying she felt embarrassed to be seen waiting for Stern's movie.

"I'm the kind of person," she said, "who turns the station down when I have to roll my car window down to pay for parking. I don't want anyone to know I listen to him. But I'm a social worker. And his wife was a social worker. So I figure if she can stand him. . . ."

The great appeal of this movie, whether or not it truly reflects the career of a man whose most offensive bits didn't make it to the screen (see "The People vs. Larry Flynt") is easy to figure: Deep within the breast of even the mildest mannered social worker beats the heart of a drudge who delights in the boss' comeuppance.

So next week: Abortion. Or domestic violence. Or something else, depending on what my editor wants.

* Robin Abcarian co-hosts a morning talk show on radio station KTZN-AM (710). Her column appears on Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is rabcarian@aol.com.

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