Howard Stern is the most misunderstood man in America. Here’s what most folks think he is: sexist, racist, crude, mean-spirited, self-centered, outrageous and egotistical.
He is some of those things, but he’s so much more, as millions of hooked listeners of his Sirius satellite radio show are aware. Stern is 90% known for what happens on his show 10% of the time.
With Stern moonlighting as the new judge on “America’s Got Talent,” the seventh season of which kicks off Monday and Tuesday at 7 p.m. on NBC, here’s what audiences just might find out about Howard: he’s conscientious, funny, charming, a team player. But above all, he’s honest, which is a judge’s top quality. Brutal honesty is the foundation of the Stern empire.
But will he go too far and make, not only children, but women and men cry? “Constructive” and “criticism” have gone together in Stern’s world like “clothed” and “strippers.”
When it was announced in December that the “shock jock” with the Joey Ramone hair would replace Piers Morgan as the show’s third judge (joining Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne) it seemed as if he was brought in to Simon-ize the show, to be the blunt meanie. After all, Simon Cowell’s SYCO Television company co-owns “AGT” with FreemantleMedia. And Stern has talked about how “American Idol” has become boring since Cowell’s departure.
But in the green room of the Long Center, where “AGT” taped auditions for two days in March, Stern said he’s not stepping into a predetermined role. He’s just going to be himself. “It’s natural for me” to evaluate talent, he said. “When I’ve watched the show at home, I was a judge. As long as I’m going to be a judge, why not do it on TV?”
At the tapings thus far, Stern is the unquestionable star of the show, with his fans going berserk when “the King of All Media” walks on stage. They yell “Baba Booey!” and other catchphrases from the radio show and jaw with Stern security chief Ronnie the Limo Driver. The new guy is the ringleader of this circus.
Stern’s overshadowing played out at the Long Center green room, when the judge team broke for a short press conference. I was sitting there by myself, wondering where the rest of the media was, when Stern- who looks taller than 6’5”- entered the room. Without introduction, he sat next to me on the couch.
After complaining about the noise of South by Southwest, which was then-dominating Austin like Stern does “AGT,” Stern went right into interview mode, talking exclusively about “AGT.” Fans of his radio show, many disapproving, know that this has been Stern’s favorite topic since December. “I take this job very seriously,” he said. “These people are coming here and putting it all on the line. I owe it to them to be the absolute best judge I can be.”
Stern was all-business and delivered quotes on his “AGT” experience, while I wrote as fast as I could. “First of all, I’m a fan of the show. I didn’t want to blow it up,” he said. “I wanted to add what I could to it.” This went on for about 10 minutes, as the room filled with a camera crew, makeup personnel, assistants and the like.
Suddenly, everyone in the room started cracking up. I hadn’t realized that, when Stern came into the room, he was followed by Mandel, who sat on the other side of me. So while Howard and I were locked in one-on-one, Mandel sat there, ignored.
“I’ve been answering all your questions,” the shaved-headed comedian said when I finally turned his way. “Why haven’t you been writing down the answers?”
The two judges (Sharon wasn’t up for the interview) couldn’t have been more different, but it was Mandel who was the jokester, while Stern kept a straight face. Both talked about the unescapable music of SXSW, with different takes.
“I saw a concert last night,” Mandel said. “I don’t know who it was, but it was right outside my hotel room. I held up a lighter.”
Stern said on his radio show that he had to switch rooms at the Four Seasons, from a lake view to a city view, because the music outside (which he recorded on his phone and played on the radio) was so loud he couldn’t sleep.
“Howie’s a people person,” said Stern, who came to Austin without wife Beth. “He’ll stay up all night talking to people. He loves everybody and they love him. But when we’re done for the day, I’m beat. I just want to go to my room and relax.”
The pair agreed that what sets “AGT” apart from other talent contests is that it’s not just a singing competition. “This is how show business started, with vaudeville,” said Mandel, who compared the variety of acts on “AGT” to the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Every Sunday night from 1948- 1971, Sullivan introduced such as the Rolling Stones, who might be followed by a puppet act, followed by Steve and Edie, then a plate-spinner.
“Music-only shows are going to go the way of disco balls,” Stern added. “AGT” is the only TV competition open to all ages and all talents.
Still, with the exception of Dallas-raised ventriloquist Terry Fator, who won season two of “AGT,” all past winners have been singers: 11-year-old Bianca Ryan (season one), opera singer Neil Boyd (season three), country singer Kevin Skinner (season four), soul singer Michael Grimm (season five), and Frank Sinatra soundalike Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. last season. Not exactly household names.But Stern said he hopes that will change this year. “The main goal is to find someone who’s going to have a huge career in show business,” he said. He cited a group of contortionists from the Austin audition as having great potential, but didn’t elaborate on what they did. Because results from the show are confidential until they’re aired, Stern said he’s been told not to talk about what happens on the show.
“I will say that the talent level in Austin is the best so far,” Stern said and Mandel agreed. Executive producer Jason Raff said acts who auditioned in Austin came from all over the country, though the majority were from Texas and surrounding states. Acts are competing for a million dollar first prize.
In March, Raff said he didn’t know when scenes from the Austin audition would air, but with a pair of two-hour shows Monday and Tuesday there should be footage from each of the live theater auditions. Austin is one of only five cities- including San Francisco, St. Petersburg, St. Louis and New York- to host auditions in front of the judges. When the show goes live beginning in July, it will take place two nights a week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
The show’s home base relocated from Los Angeles to the New York area this year to accommodate Stern’s radio schedule. Also, Cowell said after last season that the show would be revamped from top to botton in 2012.
The addition of Stern is akin to LeBron James joining the Miami Heat- while remaining a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Stern now plays for two teams and bouncing between “AGT” and his satellite radio show, which is sometimes down to only two live broadcasts a week, has angered some longtime Howardphiles. Even producer/ director Judd Apatow has complained that the constant talk of “AGT” has watered down the radio show.
After being chained to the radio for 30 plus years, constantly thinking about what the listeners want, Stern is doing something he wants to do for his own pleasure. The tortured radio genius said he’s “having a blast” as a TV talent judge.
Producer Raff said the enthusiasm and energy Stern has brought to season seven has been contagious.
“There were some people who wondered (in December) if Howard would be a good fit,” said Raff, acknowledging that Stern has been a polarizing figure.
“If Stern is nasty for the sake of being nasty, the experiment won’t succeed,” the Newark Star-Ledger wrote in December. “Even the typically buoyant support of Osbourne and Mandel won’t be enough to lift such a gloom off the episodes.”
One concern was that the unashamedly self-centered radio personality would overshadow the talent, not to mention the other judges. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Raff. “Howard’s been just great in every way. I think that some people who have a negative opinion (of Stern) will be pleasantly surprised.”
Get ready, America. You’re about to “get” Howard in a big way. You may not fall in love with Howard Stern, but you’ll at least realize that there’s more to the man than porn star interviews, bathroom humor and hair-frying diatribes.