The Evolution of Howard Stern
Howard Stern wants you to know that he’s changed. Adopting the cringeworthy parlance of our times, Howard himself says he has “evolved.” That’s the kind of language politicians use when they’ve flip-flopped on a contentious issue after social mores have shifted. However, in the case of Howard, I think the word choice is fitting: he has evolved — but not everyone is happy about it.
The whole notion of an evolution suggests growth and development over time from something simple into something that’s more complex. There’s also a normative connotation to the term that implies that this new thing that someone has involved into is a better version of themselves. In some ways, this characterization seems to be true of Howard. All the therapy he’s been doing has spurned greater self-reflection and softened the crueler impulses of his character. His new wife, Beth, has transformed him into a lover and savior of animals. Finally (and most importantly), the Howard Stern Show has become less of a raucous circus hellbent on making fun of any and everybody no matter how famous they are or what the moral consequences might be, and instead has morphed into a show that’s interested in probing and humanizing the guests Howard brings on to interview.
But as I’ve dipped my toe into the zeitgeist over the last decade or so, I’ve felt that many people are upset about this evolution, especially that last part. Many of his most diehard fans have become the show’s biggest critics. As much as the sycophants on staff like Bababooey take every opportunity to say “the show is better than ever,” the discourse on social media seems to suggest something different. Just take a look at the reviews on Amazon of his new book, Howard Stern Comes Again. The book has an average rating of 3.3 stars (out of 1309 reviews as of this writing), with a sizeable chunk giving it 5-stars (41%), but even more people giving the book a dismal 1-star review (48%). To echo a phrase I’ve seen in a plethora of comments: what happened, Howard?
People dislike the book in part because it consists of interviews that most true fans have already heard. There’s a little additional commentary by Howard, but in general people feel that the interviews are better listened to than read. I haven’t bought the book, but I did skim through it last week at a bookstore and the critique checks out. Nonetheless, I’m more interested in what’s motivating people to be so ready to dismiss a man they used to love and admire. There’s the real rub. Based on my assessment of things, the criticism of Howard goes roughly as follows: The show has gotten less funny because Howard turned into the mainstream celebrity that he used to ridicule; in a decade that consisted of culture wars over political correctness and conformity, he adopted PC lines rather than persist as the radical rebel he used to be; finally, he turned his back on both the fans and the spirit of the show that made him the “King of All Media.”
I disagree with much of this narrative. I have too much respect for Howard and what he achieved in over four decades on radio to dismiss him so easily. The interviews are great. The show is still funny. Calling Howard PC is kind of bogus, I just heard him talking about jerking off to Step-Mom porn this morning. I think it was inevitable that Howard would evolve as he got older, and if he’s happier and more comfortable with himself, I applaud it. But I wonder if it’s true that this evolution is all motivated by him getting over his ego. All this talk of a “legacy” seems to suggest he cares more, not less, about what other people think. The problem with that, if you ask his fans, is now cares about the wrong people.
If you want to hear more, listen to Howard call me an “asshole” and “douchebag” on my podcast, The Soup Bowl.