Howard Stern, My Literary Idol
By SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH
Published: October 5, 2013
WHEN asked to name the influences on my fiction and nonfiction, it’s become fairly customary, and perhaps a little pretentious, for me to cite the literary gods Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and George Orwell. And while it’s not untrue to say that these three legends, who broke such fertile ground in portraying the struggle of the alienated Everyman, made me want to be a writer, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a fourth artistic influence, one who might not come so readily to mind when thinking of literary inspiration but who is equally important to me: the radio host Howard Stern.
For example, it’s 2 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and rather than do work, I am listening to Mr. Stern’s show as someone called Tan Mom informs me, quite candidly, of, among other things, her recent attempt at sobriety, her online sexual behavior and her utter dislike of someone called Teen Mom. I have no idea what Tan Mom actually looks like — which is probably for the best — but based on her name, the sound of her voice and the physical details that Mr. Stern occasionally mentions in passing, I have formed a lurid vision in my head. Lurid visions, as we know from our nightmares, are often more vivid than reality.
Here, then, is the first significant overlap between the world of Mr. Stern’s show and the world of the writer laboring at his desk: to achieve, through restricted means, a visual effect on the audience. In Mr. Stern’s case it’s the listener; in my case it’s the reader. Yes, ours are waning skills in industries that have been given up for dead. Still, we eschew progress for the pleasure of our modest tools. We are like primitive beings — or fools — dwelling in a futuristic age of technological ease, where movies and pictures can now be created and exchanged so effortlessly. And yet I would no more want to see an actual picture of Tan Mom than I would, say, a picture of Kafka’s protagonist Josef K., so fully formed these intimate strangers have become in my mind.
Howard Stern, as of last year, has reasserted himself in popular culture as a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” appraising our nation’s singers, dancers and aerial balloonists. I don’t care about this. After five minutes of watching Episode 1, I turned it off. It’s Mr. Stern’s storytelling that I’m after, his uncanny ability to create scenes on the go, to locate and draw out drama, to introduce surprise, to leaven pain with humor. Or to put it another way: what I’m trying to do.
His radio show, on Sirius XM Radio, is usually live Monday through Wednesday, from 6 to 10 in the morning, but runs on a loop throughout the day, and also on the weekends, and if that’s not enough, on a second channel where archived shows, some dating back 20 years, are frequently broadcast. This does not bode well for me, a writer who writes from the comfort of his living room, who seeks, like all writers, distraction.
After years of dismissing Mr. Stern as a sexist, racist potty mouth — without having ever listened to him — I happened upon his radio show purely by accident one morning about 10 years ago, and I was struck by a measured, thoughtful tone that did not precede him. Not only was he funny, but I found that his troubled childhood as an isolated Jewish boy in the predominantly black town of Roosevelt, N.Y., also dovetailed nicely with my unhappy childhood as an isolated Jewish-Iranian-socialist boy in Pittsburgh. This identity of the alienated, forged in the crucible of early youth, is the engine that drives Mr. Stern’s radio show toward the elevation of outcasts, the disassembling (read: humanizing) of superstars, the impulse to say, no matter the cost, what you really think and feel. “Tonight we honor the sick, the retarded, the slow-witted, the sexually promiscuous, the morally bankrupt,” Mr. Stern says by way of promotion.
My mother was a devoted member of the Socialist Workers Party; my father left home when I was 9 months old; and the subsequent severance from the mainstream community that I underwent in my formative years convinced me that I was intellectually odd, physically ugly and doomed to be forever on the outside. No doubt, this is why I have so strongly identified with characters like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Orwell’s Winston Smith and Beckett’s tramps, and why, now, decades later, I identify with Tan Mom and the host of other strange, deluded figures who parade in and out of Mr. Stern’s studio.
This procession of regulars happens to include, at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, Jeff the Drunk and Eric the Midget. Jeff is a chronic, unredeemable alcoholic, Eric a dwarf who uses a wheelchair. Eric deplores being referred to as a midget and favors the sobriquet Eric the Actor. Mr. Stern, through some finagling, has arranged for them to phone in to audition for a film director for parts in a movie. They are real roles in a real movie, but one of the roles is that of a gay character, and this has caused Eric, who is concerned that people will mistakenly assume that he himself is gay, to refuse to audition, despite Mr. Stern’s importuning. “Who cares what people think of you?” Mr. Stern exclaims, a sentiment that I myself have never been able to follow.
Is Eric’s reluctance a failed opportunity for comedy? No, with any good artist a creative misstep can be turned into something better, and in this case, Mr. Stern proudly takes on the role himself, playing it to the hilt, reveling in the freedom of the part, seemingly making a point about sexual expression and the roles we are all forced to play. Beneath the laughs something more serious is at work.
None of this would be effective if Mr. Stern didn’t submit for examination the most interesting character of all: himself. Bathroom habits, sexual behavior, overblown insecurity — all are laid bare for the inspection of the listener. Mr. Stern is, remarkably, the only one on the show who evinces awareness of his own peculiarity. If these are freaks, he seems to be saying, I am a freak among them.
Very few guests appear to have gone on Mr. Stern’s show thinking themselves at all odd. Even Jeff the Vomit Guy, an emetophiliac, asks, almost as a mantra, “Am I the crazy one here?” The lesson is that we are all the crazy ones here. We are all Gregor Samsa, we are all Tan Mom. The only question that remains is how much we are really willing to reveal about ourselves. Any writer would do well to make this his mission.
Last edited by Nemo; 10-05-2013 at 03:50 PM.