The Ascent of Fartman

During the first few minutes of Howard Stern's romp through his inexplicable life, he spells out his mission: Private Parts will both convert the nonbelievers and entertain the cult. Stern wants to give you plenty of hot lesbian action (and freed from FCC restrictions, he takes real pleasure in saying "fuck"), but he also wants you to see how soft and cuddly he is outside the radio studio and in the arms of his wife Alison. He wants you to peek behind the Wizard's curtain, to see the man behind the monster; he doesn't peel back too much, though, just enough to make you feel like you've seen it all.

Howard Stern, you see, is an asshole, and he knows it. Furthermore, he knows you know it. "I really don't know why I step over the line sometimes," he says in the opening moments, narrating off-screen as his pooper-hero character Fartman hangs from the rafters of the MTV Music Video Awards. "I feel like an asshole." And Stern wants you to know he's sorry about it. The man wants to apologize (sort of), to explain (kind of) all those things he says on the radio. "Most things I do are misunderstood," he insists.

Howard Stern wants you to understand him, maybe even to like him. "I want them to love me," Stern says to both his fans and his detractors. "Not the myth -- the man."

And so Private Parts is less about the King of All Media and more about the schmuck who can barely rule his own life; it's more Woody Allen than Fartman, more Jewish-geek-makes-good than superstar-who-wishes-cruel-death-upon-his-rivals. Private Parts reveals the "other" Howard Stern -- the doting husband who would never dream of cheating on supportive, forgiving wife Alison (fictionalized here by Mary McCormack), the father of three, the son who followed in his father's clumsy broadcasting footsteps. After having been reviled for so long as the two-dimensional racist, the drooling letch who can get a woman to strip to her bare essentials and let him spank her, Stern now seeks to be accepted as a guy innocently giggling behind the microphone even as the world sneers in contempt.

The book from which the film takes its name opens with a chapter titled "My Philosophy" ("Lesbians, lesbians, lesbians"), but the movie is less about that brilliant on-air boor and more about the off-air mortal. Warm, kindhearted, thoughtful, and often hilarious, Private Parts depicts a bungling Yberklutz -- the DJ who knocks the needles off records, the college student who couldn't get laid by a blind woman, the unshackled radio star whose on-air mischief causes turmoil at home. It's about the ramifications of being the world's most obnoxious human being, the price paid for saying whatever the hell comes into your head. Stern the humorist speaks before he thinks; Stern the actor worries over every single syllable.

In some ways, Private Parts makes an interesting companion piece to Woody Allen's intimate 1987 Radio Days, which was coated with a golden-toned nostalgic romanticism that's all over Stern's film as well. Early on in Private Parts, Howard's father Ben -- played, appropriately enough, by Richard Portnow, who was in Radio Days and Good Morning, Vietman -- takes his seven-year-old son (Bobby Borriello) down to work, a grand old Manhattan radio station basked in rich hues and deep shadows. There Howard watches as the manic Symphony Sid (Richard Shull, another Radio Days alum) destroys records and curses up a storm off the air. Howard beholds Sid's rampage with wide-eyed affection; he's a kid who has come face to face with his new idol, who has figured out what he wants to be when he grows up.

For decades now Stern has recounted his tales of growing up white in an all-black neighborhood -- most of which end with his getting beaten up. But in the film Stern and director Betty Thomas wrap his teen years in a blanket of warm affection. In one scene a carload of Howard's high school buddies are talking about leaving the neighborhood because of the schvartzes. Stern's mother Ray (Kelly Bishop) shuts them down by shouting at them that she and Howard are "half-Negro." It's not a racial joke, because it's not mean-spirited; it's just part of a kid's coming of age in the Long Island of the 1960s.

In the end, of course, Private Parts is no more "honest" than Madonna's Truth or Dare: Stern, like Madonna, doesn't tell you the entire story, merely the chapters that best suit his agenda. But it's a terrific tale nonetheless -- the story of how a schlub chased his dream (getting on the radio, poor bastard), fell in love with a woman who'd stick with him even as he revealed their most intimate secrets to millions, and became a superstar despite the interference of radio execs who tried to cut his legs out from under him. It's recognizable enough to appeal to those outside the cult, revelatory enough to excite the rabid fans who have heard these stories for years. It's also fascinating enough to make you wonder just where fact, fiction, and revisionist history collide.

Playing himself in the movie, Howard Stern is a brilliant Howard Stern, but what the hell else could he be? A bad Howard Stern? No -- he has worn the role for years now on the radio and, if you believe him, at home. Private Parts is intriguing because you're taking Stern at his word: "This is how my life happened." This is no mere biopic but an icon laying claim to his image, reshaping his life -- paring it down to make it even larger. He blurs the line between what's "real" and what's film fiction, so much so that there are likely some among the cult who will think McCormack is Alison Stern. Listeners to the show might conclude that even Stern seems to be confused these days.

And that's because he has infused Private Parts with the sort of real emotion that's intentionally missing from the radio show, which is built upon a weird hate-hate relationship between Stern and his cronies. (They include Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Jackie Martling, and Gary Dell'Abate -- all of whom play themselves in the movie.) Take the infamous miscarriage bit from Stern's days at DC-101 in Washington, D.C. The bit itself has become the stuff of Stern show legend -- Stern, delivering the weather as "God," mocks the jock Stern's inability to properly impregnate his wife: "A real man would have done it right the first time!" But in the film Stern allows the audience to stick around during the commercial break that follows the skit -- when Howard looks vaguely uncomfortable about what he's done. He knows he has screwed up.

Making the scene that much more effective are the two that bookend it: The night before Stern does the routine, he and Alison laugh about the miscarriage; he suggests they take pictures of the bloody toilet and send them to their parents: "We'll call him Clumpy," he says, cheering up his weepy wife. Then, immediately following the routine, Alison castigates her husband for being such an insensitive son of a bitch. "I can't even look at you," she howls through rolling tears and clenched fists, and suddenly you realize this isn't a radio bit any more. It's disturbingly real -- a moment that happened in this couple's life, the kind most would never survive.

Private Parts is also a savvy insider's look into the seedy, backwoods world of radio where Stern cut his teeth -- a road that stretched from Boston University's campus radio station through Hartford, Connecticut, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., and ended (in the film at least) at WNBC in New York City. It's an industry Stern loves but also detests, and one that similarly abhors Stern but needs him desperately -- without him, Stern figures, radio's nothing but static and small talk.

Director Thomas, who rose to fame on NBC's Hill Street Blues, now revels in sticking it to her former employer. Here, as in her made-for-HBO The Late Shift (which documented the late-night wars between David Letterman and Jay Leno), Thomas depicts NBC executives as cowards and buffoons. They want Stern for his ratings but dislike the way he attracts that audience; just as they thought they could screw with Letterman, tying him to a contract that was more like a cross, the NBC honchos use Stern's binding pact with the network to keep him in line. They can't fire him, but they can fuck with him enough to get him to quit. It's a nice touch that Letterman -- who despised The Late Shift, mocking it endlessly on his own TV show -- appears in a brief clip, re-creating the old Late Night set and sharing with Stern his hatred for the NBC pinheads.

The NBC execs (played by, among others, Reni Santoni, who had a similar role in The Late Shift, and Robert Altman regular Michael Murphy) set out to tame Stern. One NBC exec, whom Stern refers to in the film as "Pig Vomit" (Paul Giamatti), is a bug-eyed hillbilly who seems at once power-mad and woefully lost in the jungle of Manhattan, and he makes it his God-given mission to break Stern. He introduces Howard to his hated rival Don Imus, teaches him how to sing the WNBC call letters, gets the engineer to cut off the broadcast when Stern goes too far. As Stern's archenemy, Giamatti is a mess of jittery mannerisms -- a man too weak to survive Stern's onslaught, too stubborn to admit he's making the biggest mistake of life. And yet Giamatti is the only guy in the movie who can hold his own with the larger-than-life Stern: One's a madman, the other's a lunatic -- you decide which is which.

In her review of Radio Days, Pauline Kael suggested that Allen's theme is one of fading memory: "Will our fame last?" is what the radio stars seem to ask themselves and their audience; will they live on after chat has turned to static? Stern has, rather shrewdly, built for himself a film that suggests he's more than just a radio guy -- he's bigger than that. And so he has written himself the ultimate love song, carved the ultimate statue of himself. No one will ever forget Howard Stern. He won't let them.

Private Parts.
Written by Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko; directed by Betty Thomas; with Howard Stern, Mary McCormack, Robin Quivers, Paul Giamatti, Fred Norris, and Richard Portnow.

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