“It’s over for me, guys,” Artie Lange groaned on his podcast last month. He sounded miserable, woefully depressed, but that’s really just Artie’s brand of humor. He’s the working class Jersey equivalent of Larry David, always quipping at his existential plight, even if that may be nothing more than a petty argument with a cab driver. But Artie is also an addict who has never fully embraced his sobriety. By his own account, he continued to dabble in the years following his suicide attempt in 2010, and his comeback show on Direct TV went out with a heavy lidded, word slurring whimper. Yet within his most recent Fear And Self-Loathing rant, one could detect larger truth: the Stern Effect is over. The money is drying up – during Artie’s heyday on the show, he made millions each year in stand up gigs. And he was not alone: comics, celebrities, and advertisers flocked to the show for access to its loyal audience. Even Howard’s limo driver Ronnie Mund recently managed to organize a short lived traveling road show with C-list comics and a few catchphrases.
What happened to Howard Stern? The King Of All Media’s run was unprecedented. At his mid 90s peak, he was nationally syndicated, with two bestselling books, a feature film, and a campaign for governor of New York. His fans will have different answers for their favorite eras of the show: the late 80s shock jockery, the early 90s with Billy West, or even the first few Sirius years. But the wide range is indicative of his talents, and closer inspection will reveal a stylistically varied career that did not so much change with the times but affected cultural change on its own. Howard was always compelling – it was his job to make you late for your job, sitting in your car through the end of some wild bit.
I was introduced to Stern by my mom, so devoted a fan that she actually owned the rare “50 Ways To Rank Your Mother” LP. I can recall hearing a bit during the AM afternoon show when he called his daughter pretending to be Kermit The Frog. There was probably some innuendo that went over my – and his daughter’s – head but it made me laugh. When Howard moved to KROCK I was a bus stop listener, hearing only bits and pieces of events like the Philadelphia zoo keeper funeral or the origin of Bababooey. When I went off to college I still listened – this, during the era of OJ Simpson and the run for governor of New York, is what many fans consider the high point in show’s history. Gradually I began to drift away from the show’s increasingly puerile humor. Recall the failed CBS late night show from the late 90s and one will notice a rare lapse in the King Of All Media’s judgment: he was trying to put on a raunchy show on censored television, so it came off as juvenile titillation.
Ironically, it was not until Howard was confronted with real censorship on his radio show that he regained his edge. The post 9/11 Bush era ushered in a wave of conservative dogma and war crazy zealotry; only in America might we view the Iraq War and the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl performance as similar moments in a zeitgeist. But Howard’s censorship troubles were not solely limited to the Bush II regime. His own radio empire had expanded and become so entangled with various commercial and corporate interests that it seemed to have forever lost the old freewheeling vibe. In between long blocks of commercials, his interviews and discussions would often seem to jump in time, most annoyingly to a moment of laughter at a joke that was lost to his audience. Clear Channel and the dump button had nearly destroyed the Stern show.
We must understand that one of Howard’s gifts is the pulling back of the curtain in entertainment. “We’ll get to your plugs in a minute,” he would regularly tell a famous guest – the typical song and dance of the entertainment media was not welcomed on his show. His curiosity was more incisive and perverse. Those uncomfortable moments that might have been covered up, whisked away to a commercial break on other shows were the lifeblood of his own brand. His live commercials upended traditional advertising, as he would often just ramble over the provided copy or even debase the product and company itself. But it always worked: Snapple, for just one example, owes a great debt to Howard for his memorable early commercials when they were still a fledgling local enterprise. This was the Stern Effect in action, the power of the show and its fanbase.
So when confronted with a seemingly untenable situation in 2003, imprisoned both by government censorship and his own success, Howard once again managed to turn his troubles into compelling radio. He vehemently turned against the Bush administration, opposing the Iraq War as well. He had embraced the first Gulf War with the giddy excitement of a football fan: “I want my war!” he would shout in the run up to that debacle. Of course, that had been played for humor and could even be seen as a meta-satire of that attitude – the show was actually that deep comedically during that era, with all sorts of levels and in-jokes operating at once. But in 2003 Howard got political for real and it drew me right back in as a fan. He turned his razor sharp, meanspirited focus from other radio DJs to targets like FCC chairman Michael Powell, and later Dick Cheney. It made sense – isn’t the government just the ultimate rival morning zoo? This is not to say that Howard had shifted over to Chomsky or Vidal levels of leftism, but neither would have been out of place as guests during that era and I suspect that Gore Vidal would have enjoyed the perverse roads that such a discussion might have traversed.
The mid-2000s renaissance coincided with the rise of Artie Lange as a major player on the show. He had replaced the beloved Jackie Martling, an affable but mediocre road comic who had found his voice by writing lightning quick lines for Howard during the show. Artie would find his voice too – he was a long time Stern fan and former longshoreman with limited success in television sketch comedy and forgettable films in which he’d hardly distinguished himself. Within a few years on the Stern show, he was headlining comedy tours and even made his own feature film (the similarly forgettable, nigh unwatchable “Artie Lange’s Beer League.”) His success brought out the worst in his self-destructive behavior – booze, whores, and gambling are the holy trinity of the Artie milieu – but his whole persona was seemingly based on that self-destruction. This is a classic psychological trap for addicts, particularly for those who think they’re clever enough to find ways to justify their addiction. Nonetheless Artie provided much of the material and comedic energy for that era.
In 2006, the Stern show moved to Sirius satellite radio. Howard, shrewd as ever, played this move up as something akin to the signing of the 13th Amendment, a momentous occasion for free speech and more importantly, the show itself. Though he never quite delivered on the radio revolution as promised, he was still as sharp and witty as ever, and the seemingly random addition of George Takei as a semi-regular was an example of Howard’s genius. But he was no longer the wild shock jock of the earlier years, nor did he even seem fully committed to some of the raunchier antics of the new show. Into this breach stepped Artie, and to a lesser extent Sal Governale and Richard Christy, the twisted comedy team who were also raised on the Stern aesthetic. In this sense, the show’s evolution worked: the wild antics remained, and Howard was able to step back and simply react. Thus Artie’s addiction troubles and erratic behavior became a centerpiece for the show. In 2008, after a near overdose caused him to miss a Comedy Central roast, Artie recounted his harrowing story with characteristic humor, such as the moment when he was considering calling a pharmacy for advice: “Let’s just say, and I’m pulling this scenario out of the air, that a guy’s been doing heroin for three days and then takes a Subutex. What would you hypothetically tell that guy?” But these sort of setbacks and outbursts became commonplace: Artie would throw items across the studio during on-air arguments and even attacked his assistant in an infamous moment that caused him to briefly quit the show. But he always came back, even if he never seemed to be getting much better. For an addict, doing nothing will result in continued decline – there is no status quo. On his last show in late 2009, Artie sounded awful, slurring words and interrupting conversations. A few days later, Howard quietly and cryptically announced what many fans heard as a suspension. Then came the horrific news that Artie had tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself.
We must not underestimate the importance of this moment in Stern show history. As fans we were rocked by the news; I can only imagine what Howard, who often admitted that he spent many of his own therapy sessions talking about Artie, must have been feeling. If he needed any incentive to change the direction of the show, to ease back from the hyperpersonal content upon which he’d built his legacy, here it was. Other characters – Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf and more recently Eric the Midget – have passed on to the great wack pack in the sky, but Artie was different. Was the show responsible? No – Artie was an addict who failed to address his problems and got consumed by the attending clouds of guilt and frustration. The show was perhaps culpable in the sense that it gave him a platform in which his erratic behavior could be justified and even applauded. But would anyone have otherwise cared that much for the plight of a former Mad TV fat guy and character actor? Respectfully, no. But to Stern fans, he’s family.
In 2012, Howard joined the likes of Howie Mandel as judge for America’s Got Talent. This was a major miscalculation. We might even consider the phrase jump the shark, which is particularly appropriate since its creator John Hein has been the Sirius show wrap up host for the satellite run. Howard’s presence has done little to stall the ratings decline of the show nor has he distinguished himself in its staid format. On the single episode I watched, Howard appeared tentative and even awkward. But worse than that, he has actually been respectful of the show and its audience. Why? The show is awful, pedestrian, the antithesis of Stern humor. He may feel that he started the reality and talent show wave in media but he would be wrong in this instance – AGT is the Gong Show, not the Stern Show. The only interesting moment to come out of this AGT debacle has been a funny on air argument with his hapless driver and bodyguard Ronnie, who caused a ruckus backstage at one taping by faking a fight with a producer – “Why can’t you be more like those big black security guys!” Howard screamed at him.
Howard also lost a major lawsuit against Sirius/XM in 2013, a fiasco that may have seemed contractually sound to his camp but came off as petty and ill-conceived. Perhaps Howard, like the rest of us, was just generally bitter with satellite radio. That whole business has been a series of follies: multi-million dollar contracts for celebrities with minimal content, technical problems, a merger with rival XM in attempt to salvage losses. There was no revolution. The reality is that the talent and infrastructure of terrestrial radio fled that sinking ship to satellite, resulting in a product that is nothing more than the same bland corporate entertainment with a few f-words here and there. Howard was wrong about the future of radio. At the time of his move to satellite, the idea of internet radio was limited but now the podcast is becoming the relevant vehicle of choice. Comedians like Joe Rogan and even exiled Sirius/XM talent like Anthony Cumia have found independent success free from the restrictions and censorship of other media.
So The Howard Stern Show is clearly in decline. Cohost Robin Quivers suffered through a recent bout of endometrial cancer, and her health for the past few years has been so poor that she has performed her duties from home. This has affected their chemistry, and surely has played a role in Howard’s waning interest in the show. Many other staff members have either defected or been fired, and there is an air of tepid insularity to the show that had been built upon the antics and personalities of the crew. I might also suggest that Howard’s years of therapy have commingled awkwardly with his open history of blabbered transgressions. We have all aired opinions and attitudes in the past that we later look upon contemptuously, but consider that Howard’s outbursts have been public for the world’s stage, aimed viciously at rivals, co-workers, celebrities. He has recently made peace with previous – and deserved – targets like Rosie O’Donnell, apologized to Kathie Lee Gifford, rescinded criticisms of Lena Dunham. Is this some calculated effort to clean his image? Surely not – I submit that Howard is riddled with guilt and hyperaware of his own insecurities that had once driven him to stomp the world on radio. Nonetheless, Howard Stern will be fine, even if the show will likely be over at the end of the year. He has his money, his younger wife, his chess, and perhaps it will be a relief to finally be free of the pressures of the crown.
As for Artie Lange, he appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast last week in distressingly poor condition. Not only was he nodding and slurring his words, but his references suggested an ongoing battle with his demons. Once an addict has reached that low point, the shame of the addiction becomes its bitter fuel and the climb to sobriety appears to be impossible. But as fans, we continue to root for Artie. He’s still genuinely funny – remembering the frustrations of listening to a Giants game on the radio with a thousand dollar bet in the balance (“Touchdown! No! I can’t see… here’s a word from Toyota.”) We won’t give up on Artie. We never give up on an addict, but hope that he doesn’t give up on himself.