Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Stern-Portnoy Connection

How radio’s most successful shock jock based his act on one of the funniest novels ever written.



Philip Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint is considered one of the funniest in American literature. The story consists entirely of narrator Alexander Portnoy at his psychiatrist discussing his problems: his doting Jewish mother, the anti-Semitism which he believes surrounds him, his sex life, and so on.

Howard Stern, in addition to seeing his own psychiatrist, vents for four to five hours a day on his radio show, and has for twenty-five years. Stern was a nationally syndicated radio talk show host from the mid-80’s until his departure to Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006. He earned the label “shock jock” for his often sexual and racial humor.



Upon reading this literary classic, I was struck by the sense that perhaps some or most of Stern’s act has been fabricated and based on Philip Roth’s brilliant novel. Stern was fifteen years old when Portnoy was published. As a bright boy growing up Jewish and hoping for a career in comedy, how could Stern not have read this book? And what percentage of his fans even knows it exists?

The interesting thing is that no one cries about being ripped off more than Howard Stern. For almost twenty years Stern has labeled every other deejay in America and abroad as his “clones,” from small-market jocks to stars like Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. Forget that Imus, Steve Dahl, and Dave Rabbit were doing Stern’s type of radio long before he did. Stern has gone so far as to claim that many television shows steal from him. Programs as diverse as MTV Unplugged, The View, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, the entire Reality TV genre, Friends, and Beavis and Butt-head were all somehow taken from Howard Stern’s lofty brain.



It is, however, common knowledge within the radio industry that Stern himself has pilfered a few concepts here and there. It was two disc jockeys in Portland, Maine who first did a bit on the air called “Butt Bongo,” which Stern then started doing on his program and turned it into a successful video called “Butt Bongo Fiesta.” Fartman, for years Stern’s signature, originally appeared on a National Lampoon album in 1979, three years before Howard introduced the character on his show. In his first book, Private Parts, under the chapter heading, “Yes, I am Fartman,” Stern had the nerve to date the character back to his own childhood.

But it is where one would least expect to look, where many a Stern fan would rarely even venture, the literary world, that you will find the greatest example of Howard Stern’s thievery.

I should mention that I have the utmost respect for Howard Stern as a radio personality. I was an avid fan for eight years, from 1996 to 2004. He is indeed something of a pioneer, who, directly or indirectly, influenced many after him, even current shock radio top dogs Opie and Anthony. Stern could even be called a comedic genius who has employed many great comedians over the years, from Billy West to Jackie “the Joke Man” Martling to Artie Lange.





Family and Jewishness

Among Portnoy’s biggest complaints is his family: his doting mother, who checks everything from Alex’s wardrobe and fingernails to his stool; and his yelling, constipated father. “The Jack and Sophie Portnoy Debating Society,” Alex calls them, and the house he grew up in, “that lunatic asylum.”

Stern’s own family has long been fodder for his show. He has told many stories of his father screaming at him (Ben Stern screaming “Shut up! Sit down!” at Howard became very popular when Stern’s film Private Parts was released in 1997), and his mother doting on him to the point of checking his underwear and taking his temperature rectally into his teens. The latter is mentioned in Private Parts.

Like Stern, Alex, a Jew, takes issue with both Gentiles and Jews. About, “that sour grape of a religion,” Portnoy says, “Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew! It is coming out my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass.” A Stern fan could surely imagine this being said by Howard himself.

But Portnoy has little love for non-Jews – “…they know how to go out into the woods with a gun, these geniuses, and kill innocent wild deer…You stupid goyim!” When discussing Christmas and the birth of Christ, Alex wonders, “How can they possibly believe this shit?”

One of the most abundant topics on Stern’s show is anti-Semitism. He has often spoken out against Louis Farrakhan, Mel Gibson and others deemed to be anti-Semites. In 2004 Stern attacked Gibson for the anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ, and called Jay Leno a “lying douche” for not bringing up Gibson during Stern’s appearance on The Tonight Show. In 2001 Stern said his grandfather thought Superman was an anti-Semite, and in 2007 Stern called Don Imus “an anti-Semite and a racist.” Stern has also said that Polish people are “notorious Jew haters.”



There is no lack of Yiddish terms that both Stern and Portnoy use: meshuggeneh, mishegoss, schvartze, shtupping, shmattas, shvantz, and even one of Howard’s favorites, “Kishmir in tuchis.”

“Talk Yiddish? How?” Alex says in Portnoy. “I’ve got twenty-five words to my name – half of them dirty, and the rest mispronounced!” Similarly, you wouldn’t hear Howard use more than this. In 2001, a caller to Stern’s show asked him to define some of the Yiddish terms he often uses. These included schmate (rag), mishkite (an ugly man), and alta cocker (an old man). Stern has talked about how his relatives would speak Yiddish when they visited and he had no idea what they were saying. Yet Stern has even had a category called “Yiddish Sayings” in his “Black Jeopardy” games.

Stern has often lamented that, when he was growing up, everyone in his neighborhood in Roosevelt, New York moved away because of the influx of blacks moving in, but his parents wouldn’t follow. This caused him much angst, perhaps so much that this was something he couldn’t change about himself in his act. For Alex Portnoy’s parents actually did move to Newark from Jersey City because of anti-Semitism, and especially a rash of carved and painted swastikas in the neighborhood in which they lived.

This last point is especially interesting considering how affected Stern claims to have been by living in Roosevelt. Stern’s view of his own family may have been heavily influenced by Roth’s novel. One could even say that many Jewish families are like this. It’s certainly plausible that Stern read this book as a teenager, perhaps while his parents were screaming at each other. Maybe his sister just wasn’t around.



The Physical and Mental

Stern’s two favorite topics for self-deprecation are his nose and his penis, obsessions that mirror Portnoy’s. Discussing his mother, Portnoy says, “Of me, the heir to her long Egyptian nose and clever babbling mouth.” He even thinks of lying to people about his Jewishness (Stern claims to be half Jewish, though both his parents are indeed Jews.), “but how am I going to lie about this fucking nose?” Portnoy says. Callers to Stern’s program often make fun of his “schnoz,” and him being a “big nosed Jew.”

After the nose, it’s Stern’s penis (particularly its small size) which he obsesses about. Portnoy does as well. “I am so small,” he says. “I hardly know what sex I am, or so you would imagine.” He then refers to “that fingertip of a prick that my mother likes to refer to in public as my ‘little thing’.” Stern has, on numerous occasions, referred to himself as being hung “like an acorn,” or “like an elevator button.”

On a couple of occasions in Portnoy, Alex says he doesn’t smoke cigarettes or do drugs and hardly drinks, but he does use the word fuck a lot. When Stern was married he prided himself in his clean off-air persona: no booze, no drugs, in bed by eight o’clock. But, wow, does he too have a filthy mouth!

Alex also goes into how he gets “pee shy,” not being able to go to the bathroom when others are present. Stern has addressed this topic many times. In 1999, and again in 2001, he had Dr. Steven Soifer, author of a book called The Shy Bladder Syndrome, on his show. Stern even used the term “Pee Shy” in his book Miss America to introduce a chapter about longtime cohort Fred Norris.

If Stern talks about something, then hears that another radio personality talked about it in the same way, that host is ripping Stern off. Here you can call it influence, maybe even parallel thinking, but why wouldn’t this ever be the case when Howard is the one being supposedly being ripped off? Surely if a radio host were to discuss his lack of size or pee shyness, Stern would say something like, “I wonder where he got that from.”



Radio

There are passages in Portnoy that may very well directly link the novel to Stern’s career choice. Stern wanted to be on the radio when he was a kid, though, probably not at age five like he has always said. In Portnoy, Alex, a fan of radio shows like Fibber McGee & Molly, writes a radio play. “My radio play is called ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ It is a morality play…whose two major characters are named Prejudice and Tolerance…We pull into a diner in Dover, New Jersey, just as Tolerance begins to defend Negroes for the way they smell.”



Alex delights in listening to “three solid hours of the best line-up of radio entertainment in the world,” including Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Perhaps Stern took this queue from Portnoy: “My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at…Words aren’t only bombs and bullets – no, they’re little gifts, containing meanings.” Portnoy even calls himself “Alexander the King,” perhaps leading to Stern’s referring to himself as “The King of All Media.”

Stern himself, when mentioning old radio, has pointed more to dramas than comedians like Benny and Allen. Surely, though, there has to have been some influence. While Stern hasn’t always shown respect for those who came before him, he has historically accused his contemporaries of plagiarizing from him, even if they were doing shock radio a few years before him. Indeed, this may be defensive paranoia on Stern’s part. Howard, having taken from the likes of National Lampoon and others, would certainly always keep an ear open for even the slightest rehashing of his own material.



Social Conscience

As indicated in the title of Alex’s radio play, he is a very patriotic man. “You name it,” he says, “and if it was in praise of the Stars and Stripes, I knew it word for word!” Stern has always been a patriotic radio host, particularly after 9/11, and has long gone after celebrities he has deemed un-patriotic. Like Alex, and despite his racist and homophobic reputation, Stern has quite a social conscience. Though, Stern and Portnoy both mix it with the ridiculous.

Calling himself, “The Great Emancipator,” Alex vows to free his penis from bondage, “Let my Peter go!” he demands. “My politics,” he says, “descended entirely to my putz.” In addition to his frequent “Black Jeopardy” games, in 1997, when Stern held a “Rap Summit” on his radio show, inviting rappers from both coasts of the country, his staff each took on rap names, with Howard being “Tarzan.”

Both characters fancy themselves, in an exaggeratedly humorous fashion, to be like a pseudo-Lincoln: Stern referring to himself as Tarzan, in control of the Black population; Portnoy draws a parallel between Blacks and his own genitalia. Stern might have learned from Roth how to combine his social conscience with the absurd, whether it’s sex or what some might find racist.



Shock

As on Stern’s radio show, there is no shortage of shock in Portnoy. There is a whole chapter, titled “Wacking Off,” devoted to Alex’s excessive masturbation, something Howard often speaks of himself. Alex, like Howard, discusses his bathroom wiping techniques, another favorite topic of Stern’s. “I wipe until that little orifice of mine is red as a raspberry,” Alex says. There are numerous examples of Stern discussing wiping techniques on his show, from excessive versus proper wiping to using baby wipes for avoiding hemorrhoids.

Portnoy imagines that “the sluttiest-looking slut in the chorus line” pours maple syrup and, “licks it from [his] tender balls.” When Portnoy farts in the bathtub, “she kneels naked on the tile floor…and kisses the bubbles.” Farts are a part of Stern’s legacy, and there was an amusing bathtub scene in his movie.

Alex also asks a friend, “Tell me what it was like when she did it…What about her tits? What about her nipples?…Tell me everything there is to tell about pubic hairs and the way they smell…” This sounds like Stern talking to a caller. Sexual fantasy and description have long been a huge part of Stern’s show.



Shock existed in literature long before Portnoy. One need only look at James Joyce’s Ulysses or Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer for that. Stern has long prided himself on “introducing” shocking talk to radio and television; though, you can indeed find examples of FCC fines for radio crudeness going as far back as the early 70s. Stern has claimed that nobody said “penis” on television until he came along. One can nitpick about this, as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, at least, was using this word during Howard‘s early days in radio. Television, perhaps, hasn’t been ready for this word until very recently. According to the Parents Television Council, viewers didn’t hear a toilet flush on TV until All in the Family; the word “condom” was even spoken in primetime until Cagney & Lacey; and the words “screw” and “piss” didn’t make it until 1994. This certainly wasn’t all Stern’s doing.



The Monkey

In Portnoy, Alex introduces us to a character he calls, “The Monkey,” a female friend who speaks, “high-fashioned Italian,” and is his, “old pal and partner in crime.” Just thinking of her, Alex says, “gives me a hard-on on the spot!” But, “The sex-crazed bitch is out of her mind!”

We learn that The Monkey is from West Virginia and had an abusive father. Now, reader, this is going to sound racist, but it is in keeping with Stern’s “shock jock” label. The Monkey in Stern’s life could be one of two people. It could be producer Gary Dell’Abate, of Italian decent, who is often referred to as a monkey on Howard’s show. A more fitting answer, however, would be sidekick Robin Quivers. Quivers is Stern’s “partner in crime.” There is often sexual tension between the two, and she has been referred to as “crazy” on the show. Not only that, but Quivers, while not from West Virginia, is from Baltimore, and also had an abusive father.



With the character “The Monkey,” the similarities become uncanny. Leave the rest maybe to parallel thinking or unconscious borrowing, but here Stern has hand-chosen for himself a character from this very novel, and not once even mentioned the book on his program.


“Stern”

The juxtaposition of these two entities becomes downright spooky in the last third on Portnoy. Coincidentally perhaps, within the last hundred pages of the book, Roth uses the word “stern” a number of times. Parts of the details of one of The Monkey’s fantasies are boys seeking admission to West Point, and the ones selected are those “able to maintain a stern and dignified soldierly bearing…”

Alex, in another section, fears being accosted by a gang of anti-Semites while he stands, “wearing a stern expression on [his] pale face.” He also speaks of a woman who “used [his] name as a stern teacher would.”

Finally, Alex refers to being, “one happy yiddel down there in Washington, a little Stern gang of my own (capitalization of Stern is in the book).” Before landing in New York, Stern did his show in Washington. Robin Quivers and Fred Norris were part of his “little Stern gang.”




So there you have it. Could Stern, who labels disc jockeys across America “Howard Stern clones,” be a hypocrite and thief himself? If you know Stern, you may see the parallels. You may find these parallels coincidental, even ridiculous and far-fetched. Surely many Jewish families are like this, and surely vulgarity predates Portnoy, you may say. But they are certainly no more ridiculous than a man claiming that anyone talking freely on the radio or television is stealing from him. It’s definitely no more absurd than Stern saying no one had musicians perform acoustically in a studio before he did.

If I may recommend a book to you, read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Read it in Howard Stern’s voice if you know his program.

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