In Which We Fondly Recall the Innocence of Howard Stern’s TV Variety Show

Some of you may justly be wondering….Howard Stern? What angle could this old school show biz blog have to explore on the topic of a contemporary radio shock jock? Well, younger people may not be as inclined to be bewildered. Howard’s been broadcasting for nearly 50 years and is nearing 70 years of age. Kids know that he’s old, somewhere behind the sunglasses and underneath the Marie Antoinette ringlets. In fact, in ways that surely will dismay many of a certain age — his rocker trappings have become SIGNIFIERS of old age. Are you a macho rock and roll dude? Yeah? What chiropractor do you go to? Kids probably think of Howard the way we thought of Joe Franklin, Joey Adams, Paul Harvey, people like that. Still, he is contemporary. Go to Youtube and type his name. The top clips will be from today or yesterday.

BUT… I did think of a wonderful moment in Stern’s long career that answers our needs, and that’s his TV variety program The Howard Stern Show, which aired from 1990 to 1992. Yes, my friends, I’m sorry to inform you that that was THIRTY years ago. Howard has had many TV programs over the years, but usually they have consisted of someone turning on a video camera and taping him doing his radio show. What was wonderful, even ground-breaking, about this particular program is that it was a marriage of his own sensibility and a television variety format, meaning comedy sketches, recurring bits, special guests, and entertainment segments.

That description may sound “ho hum” but only if you gloss over the bit about Stern’s sensibility. I have never seen a show like it before or since. The photo above may tell you what you need to know. It was a like a mash-up of MTV, professional wrestling, public access, porn…and mainstream variety shows. The show reminded me a lot of the programming they were doing on the then-new Fox Network, which was making a name for itself with extreme programming, from Married…with Children to The Simpsons to Vince McMahon’s XFL. Stern’s show would have been a good match for Fox, but this show was actually produced at WWOR Channel 9 in Secaucus and syndicated nationally. Fans still refer to it as “the Channel 9 show”.

Secaucus is just across the Hudson from NYC, so we think of it as one of our local channels here. This means that, as with all local NYC tv stations, a show produced there can gets lots of major guests, although typically there was a freak show element to Stern’s booking. In addition to sidekicks and regulars from his radio show like Robin Quivers, Jackie The Joke Man” Martling, and impressionist/voice over artist Billy West, the show also featured stars and pseudo-stars like Joan Rivers (after her ill-fated Fox talk show), Chevy Chase (before his ill-fated Fox talk show), Al Sharpton (before he rehabilitated his image on MSNBC), The Ramones, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Kirkland, Jessica Hahn, Richard Simmons, Frank Stallone, Judy Tenuta, Juicy Jaye P. Morgan, Joe Piscopo, Todd Bridges, Gilbert Gottfried, Sam Kinnison, Marilyn Michaels, Al Lewis, Dr. Ruth, David Peel etc etc. They weren’t all outre, either. Tony Bennett was on. Eddie Murphy! Al Roker! By God, Walter Cronkite!

Really, Howard had just about everybody on the show, scores of celebrities, and they were generally pretty good sports because…they had to be. The sketches and bits really pushed the envelope on tastelessness in case you haven’t guessed, with recurring segments like Homeless Howiewood Squares (with real homeless people), The Lesbian Dating Game (back when the concept of “lesbianism” was widely considered much more titillating or controversial or outrageous or what have you), and Hooker Howiewood Squares (the lack of imagination was part of the point). Guests might include, oh, “KKK Guy” or “Crackhead Bob”. It all seems so wholesome and innocent now.

I kid, of course. Something happened to the direction of the culture since then, early in the new century. Believe it or not, there are ways in which the past 20 years, at least in terms of entertainment, have seemed much tamer, much safer, more timid than they were in the ’90s. It was very much about going too far, for too far seemed the only place left to go. The zeitgeist very much influenced the Surf Reality scene I was part of towards the end of the decade (though I was handily the most culturally conservative producer there though even I also presented freaks and strippers). Almost instantly everything changed in the new century, especially after September 11. Then came a long period of fear and sorrow and intense longing for emotional comfort rather than outrageousness. And that’s about when the city was invaded by all of these clean-cut excessively groomed, polite dandies from middle America, people whose laptops weren’t covered with Goth decals, people who assumed that New York had ALWAYS been full of 7-11s.

I surprise myself this morning in missing aspects of that grittier time. At the time, my attitude about The Howard Stern Show was “I’m not sure what I think yet”. But of course we could afford to wait and see back then. “KKK Guy” was just one freak on The Howard Stern Show — not, like, one third of the whole country. (Or so we thought). Just now I went on Youtube, which has a lot of the Channel 9 show available. The first clip I came to? Howard in blackface and an Afro wig as “Clarence Thomas“, being interviewed by the thoroughly black Robin Quivers. Was it a simpler time? A worse one? A time that planted the seeds for our own? Was that the “freedom to laugh again” everyone claims to want to regain so badly? And can we pick and choose the parts of history that we miss?

I have my own personal answers — yours are for you to figure out.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous