Stern’s Not-so-Private Parting

You can hear the fans lamenting all over town: the post-separation Howard just isn’t as funny. When Stern announced last week the dissolution of his 21-year-old marriage to Alison, listeners expected him to confront it on the air. Since he always thrived on making his private life a part of the show (complaining about infrequent sex and mocking his small penis), it would have been hypocritical to avoid the subject of his separation.

So he took calls from disappointed fans, trashed a supportive letter from Kathie Lee Gifford, and explained why the marriage failed (he was a miserable workaholic). But it hasn’t worked.

Maybe some listeners feel they are seeing a truer, more vulnerable side of him (I haven’t found any) – but others sense a deep discomfort beneath the surface, and the beginning of a permanent decline in the show’s quality.

Chris, a 27-year-old whose mother turned him onto the Stern show, says Howard’s now got what he calls ‘false energy.’ “This woman called up saying that whenever she and her boyfriend fought she took refuge in the fact that Howard and Alison stayed together, but now she felt hopeless. Howard said, ‘I’d really like to get together with you and discuss that over dinner.’ He’s trying to call attention to the fact that he’s single in an attempt to diffuse all the attention toward his single status, but it feels forced.

Joan, a “30something” television director, says the first sign of trouble on the show was that Howard called in sick immediately after announcing the separation. “I feel it was a fake sick,” she says. “And when he came back he was more nasty than usual, in a juvenile ‘Beavis and Butthead’-like way, and not funny. He made some racial cracks and it seemed like even Robin was angry. His new personality as a single man may not be a personality he feels comfortable with. Suddenly he has a license to live out all his sexual fantasies but I don’t think that’s what he actually wants.”

And if it is what Howard wants and he begins to date supermodels, the same male fans that once egged him on may suddenly find him less appealing. As Chris put it, “It used to be that you knew at the end of his show he’d get in his limo, drive back to Long Island, lock himself in the basement and watch ‘Babylon 5′ reruns all day. Now some woman might wait for him in the green room and they might go back to the penthouse and have sex. And that’s no fun unless I’m doing it too.”

Of course, the real question is, aren’t all these distraught fans just a tiny bit naïve? What if Stern has already slept with other women, even while he and Alison were together — and all his protestations to the contrary were merely political posturing? But ask diehard listeners and they refuse to believe he’s cheated. Judy, Chris’ mother, says if she thought Howard had ever been faithful to Alison she “would have stopped listening long ago.”

Now that he’s single, she may stop — for reasons very different from her son’s. “I don’t like some of the raunchy humor,” she says, “but I accepted it because I thought deep down that wasn’t him. If he starts living out the persona he presents, he’ll lose me.” What’s worse, she says, is that “some of the stupid fanatic guys who call in may end up leaving their wives.”

When Ingmar Bergman’s miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, depicting the gradual dissolution of a marriage, was broadcast on Swedish television in the 1970s, the Swedish divorce rate soared. Stern’s appeal is so widespread and his fans so loyal and idolatrous that his separation may have a similar mass effect.

But even if listeners can separate his angst from their own, they may still be less inclined to tune in. Stern is beginning to sound like Lenny Bruce late in his career, who became unbearable to watch because his obscenity trials were all he could talk about onstage. A Stern listener called in recently and said, “Good luck with Alison.” Stern responded morosely, “Everybody’s got advice for me, love advice. I hate love advice. I hate love, period… I’m out of the love business. Ya dig? I’m out of the love business.” It was ideal, almost too ideal, material for a dark Bergmanesque relationship drama. It just remains to be seen whether listeners can bear to hear it on their morning drive.