In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1997 and seven from 1987 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films that were among either year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
So goes a throwaway line in one of many talking-head interludes from 1997’s Private Parts, a biopic of media impresario Howard Stern that straddles hagiography and hogwash about as expertly as possible.
It’s not when a woman gets stage fright over introducing a new chapter of Stern’s life while naked … before Stern’s long-besieged whipping boy / producer Gary Dell’Abate suspiciously ushers in a donkey. It’s when Stern’s wife, Alison (played here by Mary McCormack), insists they neither had sex on their first date (“although he was very sexual”) nor that his penis is as small as he dramatically claims it to be (“His penis size is fine”).
Private Parts is not that psychologically interrogatory, but it shouldn’t be. It also need not be unassailable in its truth, which it almost certainly is not. However, those two words — ”Howard exaggerates,” perfectly scripted by Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko amid a surplus of hilarious hokum or happenstance — help chip away at why Stern, despite lapses into shitty-human territory of which we’re admittedly all guilty at some point in our lives, remains fascinating in an era where ribaldry is a clickable GIF away. Stern still plants his flag in the middle ground between society’s inherent curiosity for the illicit and our adherence to a rule we call golden but which Stern made platinum: Do unto others as they would have done unto you.
Stern’s knack for saying that which we may only wish we could goes beyond sound-bite bromides or morally bankrupt politics about “telling it like it is.” Stern’s best rhetoric resides in a realm of self-reflection that morphed into an (occasionally oversharing and often sophomoric) honesty that his listeners could respect, however begrudgingly. (Besides, trust no man who tells you he has never wondered about his own penis size relative to perceived norms for length, girth, angle, pleasurability and the like.) It’s also hard to argue against Stern’s fierce loyalty and sizable rewards for colleagues who stood by him in lean times. And If you think he’s cravenly taken advantage of overtly racist or mentally disabled members of his Wack Pack over the years, consider his criterion for inclusion: They don’t know that they’re funny. For many years, Private Parts suggests, Stern didn’t know he was, either.
Love or hate him, Stern faced one crucible after another over several years of small-time radio — compromise or conviction, and he always defended his need to be himself … even when he had zero idea of what that meant. (Stern knew only he did not want to be a rock-jock ronin roaming the countryside for pocket change.) As his own perverse expression of the brotherhood of man, Private Parts suggests a continued kinship with misfits even as he morphs into a self-proclaimed “King of All Media.” If Stern is idolized, it’s only for sincere inquisitions into his inadequacies, ineptitudes and idiosyncrasies. Does he embellish and exaggerate? Sometimes. But often only at his expense and in ways that weirdly wind up revealing something important about him. At its most insightful, Private Parts illustrates that an explosive sense of humor, outrageous lack of boundaries and elastic sense of taste doesn’t cancel out humanity, curiosity, empathy … and crippling self-doubt.
The film takes its title from Stern’s 1993 book, which became Simon & Schuster’s fastest-selling title within five days of its release (a record broken by Stern’s 1995 follow-up, Miss America). Blum and Kalesniko’s script covers roughly 20 years of Stern’s life and career from 1965 as a milquetoast middle-school existence to life in 1985 as a multimillionaire radio jockey at WNBC in his native New York. Upon the film’s release, Stern was more than halfway through a near 20-year run at WXRK – from which his show was syndicated to 60 markets and, at its peak, reached 20 million listeners. (His abrupt September 1985 firing from WNBC, at which he works in the film, is rumored to have happened after the CEO of RCA, which owned the station, took offense to his “Bestiality Dial-a-Date” segment days earlier.) In 2004, Stern signed a five-year, $500 million production / salary deal with Sirius Satellite Radio (before a merger with XM) — saving satellite radio and forever transforming its terrestrial forefather.
Sandwiched between all of that? Pay-per-view paydays, successful home-video releases (he made $10 million off a video compiling bits of the self-explanatory “Butt Bongo Fiesta”), concerts, TV shows (all 69 episodes of The Howard Stern Show once rivaled Saturday Night Live in ratings), books, and even a short-lived gubernatorial run in New York. Most recently, Stern replaced Simon Cowell as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent and remains on SiriusXM with a deal presently in place through 2020.
Movies were the sole medium in which Stern had not yet succeeded by the 1990s, but not for lack of trying. A film based on Fartman — Stern’s flying, fearlessly flatulent superhero character glimpsed briefly in Private Parts — seemed imminent until studio executives insisted it be PG-13. As development on that fell through, a despondent Stern turned to Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters) to discuss a biographical film. (Depressed that he had “lied” to his listeners, Stern thought such a success might revive Fartman. Here we are, 20 years later, and not noticeably worse off without a Fartman movie.) Stern allegedly rejected 22 versions of a Private Parts script. At one time set to direct, John G. Avildsen (Rocky) sought to make a story about a First Amendment champion. Producers at Paramount wanted something in the vein of A Hard Day’s Night and even suggested that Jeff Goldblum play Stern. As a last ditch, Reitman called on regular collaborator Len Blum, with whom he had worked on Meatballs, Heavy Metal and Stripes. Blum was skeptical, as he didn’t understand Stern’s appeal, but was in after sitting in for two days on Stern’s show and “laughing harder than I had in 20 years.”
Private Parts filmed from May to November 1996 — eons in Hollywood time but necessary to allow Stern to continue his radio show. Get a load of this schedule: Stern did the show from 6 to 10:30 a.m. each weekday, traveled to the set, endured three to four hours of makeup and then filmed until as late as 11 p.m. Filming dragged on so long Stern had to postpone a planned rhinoplasty because of reshoots. Stern asked Reitman to direct, but handed the reins to Betty Thomas — a specialist at both sneaking sly satire into seemingly flyweight projects (The Brady Bunch Movie) and tackling media-titan biopics (HBO’s The Late Shift, about the late-night war between Jay Leno and David Letterman). It’s said Thomas also had a calming effect on Stern’s anxieties about acting that, as he said, sent him home in tears some days — rehearsal and retakes like anathema to a guy used to improvisational adrenaline.
Some might wonder: What’s so hard about essentially playing yourself? Well, how readily might you — after nearly two decades of confidence, spotlights and success — summon those days when you lived in an apartment you couldn’t afford, doubted your life’s path and worried you’d end up miserable and alone? As performed by the man to whom this happened, it’s tantamount to welcoming long-banished demons, summoning the strength to exorcise them again and making people laugh in the process.
There’s nary a trace of nervousness in Stern’s turn, which resembles a gangly, oversized, basso profundo Woody Allen. Affecting upper-register tones befitting a polite weenie in his early forays on the air, Stern expertly establishes his inability to feel comfortable anywhere, especially when left to his own devices in a recording studio. Even after he’s achieved success, Parts emphasizes how pathetically people-pleasing the idea of Fartman is, and Stern feels like Derek Zoolander without authoritative self-assurance. He’s still a kid shoved in a locker, Gene Simmons if he had remained Chaim Witz.
The young actors handling kid duty perfectly complement Stern before he takes over in college. (“For this movie, you gotta suspend disbelief,” he quips.) Matthew Friedman particularly excels as teenage Howard, insisting “I talk” when challenged about his mostly mute existence. The unspoken punchline: No one listens, least of all him. (Even in college, it takes him three years to muster courage for the terrible “Howard Stern Experience” and even then he obsesses over the slightest screw-ups.) From there, Stern endures boorish peers, absurd rules and cutthroat miserabilism in the only place with an identity crisis stronger than his — the radio industry. Shuffled off the airwaves into a program manager gig, Stern finds more money — and a foundation through which to fumble his way to business knowledge — but grows physically ill when asked to fire people and, in turn, rob others of the very dream he seeks.
It’s not long before Stern recognizes his goofy voices and cheesy bits are personas without personality and — much to the consternation of many a beige-clad ad rep, manager or executive — casts aside mental filters on his ascent to the top. (The film opens with a monologue from one former supervisor, played by Allison Janney, and you suspect her cigarette habit formed as a side effect of dealing with Stern.)
Stern’s eventual cohorts also play themselves: kindred kooky spirit Fred Norris; newswoman, confidant and creative partner Robin Quivers; Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling; and, in the aforementioned interludes, Dell’Abate, Crackhead Bob and “Stuttering John” Melendez. Blum and Kalesniko’s script wisely never strains in trying to explain early-days chemistry with Fred and Robin over anyone else — instead suggesting a sort of alchemy of audacity that unexpectedly clicked between them. They feel like people enjoying conversations first, and prospectors chipping at the tundra to drill for gold second. Their audio exploits include no shortage of gut-busting laughs — a sound-system orgasm, Stern struggling to “correctly” pronounce WNBC, a Match Game segment rendered playfully crude by semantics alone, a studio tour that turns shocking for WNBC visitors.
They also stare down some of Stern’s lower moments — namely one in which he goofs on his wife’s miscarriage on the air and she wonders whether bedroom banter is simply a workshop for the booth. On one hand, it’s his form of counseling. Given real life on the other — in which he and Alison divorced four years later — it’s hard to wonder if some aspects of Private Parts aren’t a fart-filled weather balloon to see whether he could handle permanent separation.
And yet in a movie full of people playing themselves, leave it to a trained professional to steal the show with comically constipated conniptions that became his calling card as a character actor. After WNBC hired Stern, the company got cold feet after Stern’s prominence in a report from its news division about “shock jocks.” Their pride too thick to swallow in buying him out, the suits decided to either tame Stern or force him to quit. Enter Kenny Rushton, a composite of craven characters from Stern’s era at WNBC (primarily program director Kevin Metheny) played by Paul Giamatti. Kenny is a Southern-accented, sycophantic scumbag with a grin fresh off an all-you-can-eat buffet of shit. You hate him the second you lay eyes upon him. You nod knowingly when Howard nicknames him “Pig Vomit.” Kenny vows that he will either mold Stern or send him packing of his own volition — calling him “boy” and treating him like cattle to be corralled into compliance. Little does Kenny know he’s a thin paper target on which Stern will turn his turret gun.
Giamatti plays Kenny like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and a walking, talking polyp that needs clipping. “You have soiled the sanctity of my home!” he squeals in one panicked, sweaty yelp as Stern sabotages his every effort … and, in doing so, gains the ratings he promises. Thomas also frames Kenny as if in an increasingly inescapable pressure cooker, and Giamatti is golden in every moment during which he breaks the seal. (Don’t miss a credit-cookie postscript with Kenny, whose come-crawling self-preservation reveals itself and whose end rant is a sandwich board shy of full-blown mental surrender.)
“I’m a disgusting, sexist, racist pig with the maturity of a 3-year-old … but you know what happens?,” Stern says to a skeptical woman displeased to sit next to him on a plane flight. “I grow on you like a fungus.” That statement serves as strongly as a function of his own curiosity for who he is as his audience’s wonderment. As for them, the haters prove even more faithful than those who love him — listening for twice the amount of time and for the same reason: They want to see what he will say next. Maybe, just maybe, Private Parts supposes, they also took some inspiration to investigate themselves as deeply.