Helen A.S. Popkin Gets It

Stolen from msnbc.msn.com:

Howard Sterns Sirius question is answered
Whether radio is worth around 43 cents a day was resolutely answered on Sept. 21, 2006, 256 days after “The Howard Stern Show” made its move to subscription-based Sirius Satellite Radio. Thats the day the show’s comedy writer/sidekick Artie Lange copped to snorting smack.

Langes spontaneous heroin admission wasnt the most shocking or outrageous event on The Howard Stern Show since its Jan. 9, 2006, Sirius premiere. Out of range from the Federal Communication Commissions jurisdiction, the Stern Show is now free from the astronomical indecency fines that haunted its last years on terrestrial radio. Puerile and sexually charged bits now rock the content with impunity.

During the first Sirius year, comedy writer Richard Christy had his genitals waxed on air, his howls and shrieks delighting the Stern cast and audience. Porn star Jenna Jameson inaugurated the in-studio Sybian, a saddle-like sex toy since utilized by many female guests including Blue Iris, a geriatric sex star in her own right. And Stern Show wack packers Crazy Alice and Elegant Elliot Offen phoned in their weekly football picks, spewing expletives and insults with every call.

Compared to such antics, Langes confession is tame. His substance abuse problems were never a secret. Hilarious anecdotes such as scoring cocaine in full pig makeup while on the cast of Foxs MadTV, or his accidental hookup with a prostitute, are Stern Show staples, repeatedly referenced since Lange replaced Jackie Martling on Sterns cast in 2001. But Langes confession to recent heroin use while in Sterns employ, seemingly a surprise to even Stern, was different.

Very little is sacred on The Howard Stern Show. Every in-house conflict or personal issue warrants full audience disclosure. No doubt many that followed Stern to Sirius are there for Jameson and her peers or the in-depth discussions on bodily functions. But to echo pretty much every highfalutin Stern proponent ever its this intangible community that makes the Stern Show great. Its what copycat shock jocks cant duplicate. Allowed to bloom beyond terrestrial confines, The Howard Stern Show is arguably the best radio on the airwaves and possibly the best its ever been.

Radio revelation
Lange’s slip comes during a segment in which three homeless men compete for the saddest life story. The winner gets a lap dance from a couple of strippers. Its a fairly standard bit. Stern and cast question the contestants. Lange is particularly empathetic to a 21-year-old heroin addict. The kids got a $120-a-day habit. On occasion, the kid has turned to prostitution. His parents have given up on him and hes very worried about his future.

Lange asks if the kid has tried Subutext, a prescription drug that stops heroin cravings. Yeah, the kid says, until he lost his insurance. And then Lange comes out with it: If you guys agree not to grill me on it, I actually have those pills … .

Lange reveals the pill bottle. Co-host Robin Quivers sums up the studios surprise: Wait a minute! and What the hell are you doing?

Lange: Its a long story, lets not get into it.

Stern: Maybe you need the lap dance.

There’s laughter. The subject is momentarily dropped. The pills are not shared. The game continues. The winner (not the heroin addict) receives his lap dance. Hilarity ensues. Break.

Stern: Im still trying to figure out how Artie has those heroin pills.”

Quivers: And were going to get to the bottom of that.

And they do. I remember you said this to me one time, Lange says to Stern. You know how something pops in your head and you want to be honest because you know its so entertaining and interesting and then you just blurt something out . Lange spills it all. How he fell back into the habit while doing a stand-up tour; the shows he missed in 2005; the withdrawal sickness; and the toll it took on his family and girlfriend.

There are moments Lange chokes, falls silent, or mumbles its something he shouldnt have said. Quivers asks how they can help. Stern says hell share a worse revelation: Now that hes 52, his pants are constantly urine-stained from dribbles. Sound guy Fred Norris plays Steppenwolfs The Pusher. Stern groans, saying its like the time he overdosed on acid and his friend kept playing the Grateful Dead. They try to make Lange laugh. They tell him it only matters that hes OK now. And they never stop asking questions.
Humanity among the fart jokes
Langes story wasnt crass or pornographic. It also wasnt anything youre likely to hear on radio or most other entertainment forums. Between contrived reality TV and soulless celebrities unable to admit their flaws even as they issue fake apologies, popular culture is starved for humanity. Seriously, kids. Langes confession, even the running joke its become on the Stern Show, is real. Its human.

Its true, Sterns audience is about a third of what he commanded on terrestrial radio. Whether the majority can ever wrap their heads around paying for something theyre used to getting for free remains to be seen. Its still early in the day for satellite radio. But any questions or criticisms surrounding Sterns decision to move are now moot. No matter the loss, no matter the cost, the creative freedom is worth it.

Again, to echo the highfalutin, its not about the cuss words or the poopy talk. Its the freedom to swear, or rather not prescreen every syllable before its said, thats blown Stern’s show wide open. Between the vomit fetishists and unbleeped fart jokes, real life has room to spread out and tell its story. And thats interesting and entertaining.

Helen Popkin listens to Howard on her Sirius boombox from her Bronx home.

2006 MSNBC Interactive

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