His show still launches with the booming metal theme song, “The Great American Nightmare.”
But in the past decade, Howard Stern has developed into the Great American Interviewer.
Of course, the ingredients that have maintained Stern’s status as one of the most successful broadcasters in radio history – the salacious jokes, the detours into bodily function details, the double-entendres (hence, the book’s title) – still maintain prominent status in his thrice-weekly SiriusXM morning show.
Who would want an immaculate Stern, anyway?
But what “Howard Stern Comes Again” underscores for those who might only view him as the prurient Pied Piper of his early career is his evolution from self-absorbed, mean-spirited attack dog to a thoughtful enquirer with genuine interest in his interview subjects.
That the book is a gorgeous compendium – a bit like a mini-coffee table construct – is testament to Stern’s seriousness about the topic. He dedicates the 550-page tome to the hundreds of animals he and wife Beth have rescued since 2008; includes a portrait he painted of Sophia, one of the couple’s former cats; and shares a sweet story about the influence of another rescue feline, Leon Bear, and his influence on Stern’s emotional receptors.
To an extent, to know the Howard Stern of today is to appreciate his compassion for animals and his dedication to psychotherapy.
After a typically forthright and self-deprecating introduction about how his publisher “bamboozled” him into writing another book – his first since 1995’s meh “Miss America” – Stern, 65, details why he decided to exhaust nearly two years of his life into compiling a collection of some of the strongest and most revealing interviews he’s conducted (with a handful of exceptions, they take place after his 2005 arrival at satellite radio, a format ripe for extended questioning).
He also reveals a secret he withheld from his steadfast fans: the real reason he missed a day on the air in 2017 (a first for someone with a notoriously fanatical work ethic). Doctors found what they believed to be a cancerous spot on Stern’s kidney. When presented with the opportunity to move his scheduled afternoon removal surgery to that morning, a panicked Stern grabbed the early slot, even though it meant missing a show.
The spot turned out to be a harmless cyst, but even that exhale didn’t mitigate Stern’s legendary neurosis.
Even though “Howard Stern Comes Again” emphasizes the guests who have sunk into Stern’s studio couch, his voice is always prominent as a narrator and guide through these engrossing dives into the lives of others.
Along with what he considers his favorite interview (Conan O’Brien, followed by Sia), Stern shares transcripts – all preceded by his reflections about the person and the conversation – from prominent celebrities typically reduced to grocery store tabloid covers (Madonna, Kim and Khloe Kardashian, Lady Gaga); to those with whom he’s established relationships (Jimmy Kimmel, Billy Joel, Rosie O’Donnell, a former nemesis, and Joan Rivers, shortly before death); to names who have since courted controversy (Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly).
Stern has always been naturally curious – you don’t spend more than three decades on the air without an interest in people – but what has changed is his ability to listen. And reading these interviews instead of hearing them in their natural habitat elevates the process to a different level of engagement – wanting to guess and hope what Stern will ask next (and this is a guy who isn’t afraid to delve).
Is he going to ask Gwyneth Paltrow about a certain sexual act? Of course, because she was clearly a game participant in the discussion. But he’s also going to gently probe about the loss of her beloved father, and extract a heartbreaking emotional response.
The interspersion of interview snippets with Donald Trump – amusingly titled, “And Now, A Word From Our President,” they include a countdown to Trump’s 2016 election – is both illuminating and unsurprising. Reaching into the archives from 1995 through 2015, Stern explains why Trump was one of his best, most unvarnished guests. Meanwhile, the throwbacks also spotlight how Stern’s beloved radio sidekick, Robin Quivers, was always quick to challenge Trump on his blustery claims of success.
Stern also includes a meaningful chapter on “The Interview That Never Happened,” an unveiling of the failed machinations to get then-presidential-candidate Hillary Clinton on the show. He is convinced that an appearance would have humanized her to his millions of blue-collar fans and possibly helped her win the presidency.
While there is no reasonable way to parse the 1,500-plus interviews Stern said he’s conducted during his time at SiriusXM — plus the thousands of earlier conversations from his terrestrial years — “Howard Stern Comes Again” compiles a laudable overview.
In addition to the full-length dialogues, snippets of interviews regarding specific themes (“Drugs & Sobriety,” “Religion & Spirituality,” “Gone Too Soon” are some topics) pop up throughout from a heady parade of luminaries including Paul McCartney, Bradley Cooper, Lance Armstrong, Jennifer Hudson, Alec Baldwin, Jada Pinkett Smith and Hugh Hefner.
As Stern edges into the twilight of his career – his SiriusXM contract expires in 2020 and he’s been cagey about retirement – it’s time for his legacy to be about more than Fartman and “Butt Bongo Fiesta.”
But this book is more than a coda. It’s the opportunity for Stern to commit to print his regrets, his revelations and his appreciation for his fans and the celebrities who contributed to his evolution.
Finally, Howard Stern is listening.
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