BOOTLEG FILES 418: “The Howard Stern Show” (1990-1992 TV comedy program starring Howard Stern).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces of the shows are scattered around YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never made available for commercial home entertainment release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
In putting together this week’s column, I was somewhat worried. I had not seen the episodes of Howard Stern’s television show since it aired two decades ago – I recalled the program as being very funny, but I wondered whether the humor would hold up all of these years later. My fears were totally unjustified – the episodes were just as hilarious as I recalled them.
When Howard Stern became a radio shock-jock sensation in the 1980s, the television industry was uncertain whether it could transfer his unique comic talents to the small screen. In 1987, the Fox Broadcasting Company had a late-night opening when Joan Rivers’ highly publicized talk show fizzled. Fox shot a few pilot episodes with Stern as a talk show host, but the network was hugely disappointed with the results and opted to give the late-night slot to Arsenio Hall.
The fact that Stern constantly ran afoul of the radio industry’s broadcasting parameters scared off programmers at other networks – after all, no one was eager for the FCC to slap them with Stern-induced fines. In 1990, Stern received an unexpected offer from a surprising source: WWOR-TV, an independently-owned station broadcasting on New York City’s Channel 9 and available in other markets as a “superstation.” WWOR offered Stern $10,000 a week to host a weekly one-hour comedy show that would be presented Saturday nights at 11:00 pm.
In many ways, WWOR’s “The Howard Stern Show” was an extension of Stern’s highly successful radio format: Stern and sidekick Robin Quivers would engage in rambling conversations with a bevy of B-list guests and a kooky line-up of program regulars. The chat would inevitably drift into the realm of locker room humor, with plenty of sexual-centric chatter mixed with putdowns and bragging.
But television enabled Stern to show a remarkable sense of visual humor that matched his outrageous raconteur skills. Despite a cheapjack production budget, “The Howard Stern Show” offered a remarkable environment where Stern and his band of mischief-makers created some of the most memorable sequences of 1990s television.
My personal favorite moment involved Stern and Quivers hosting the film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as guest. The segment was visually simple, even primitive: Stern and Quivers sat together opposite Siskel and Ebert for what began as a seemingly benign exchange of opinions on cinema. However, the conversation went wildly off tangent when Stern confirmed that Ebert was dating an African American woman – the host then launched into an extraordinary riff on interracial sexual role playing games, inquiring whether Ebert and his then-girlfriend (later, his wife Chaz) engaged in “master and slave” scenarios. Ebert was visually aghast at the conversation’s focus, and his attempts to turn tables and intellectualize Stern’s sex talk only made the situation worse. Siskel, for his part, clearly caught the joke that Ebert missed and watched with bemusement as his fellow critic became increasingly flustered. Stern capped the moment by having a blonde model in a pink bikini deposit herself on Ebert’s lap – the young babe, clearly sensing the critic’s discomfort at having her as a lap resident, entered the conversation by audibly apologizing to Ebert!
Race and sex was also on tap when Stern parodied Clarence Thomas’ tumultuous Senate confirmation hearings. Wearing blackface make-up and using a voice that was closer to Tim Moore’s Kingfish on “Amos ‘n’ Andy” than to Thomas’ speech, Stern babbled about the “lump on Anita Hill’s breast – that was my thumb!” A white man in drag, playing Thomas’ wife, sat opposite Stern’s version of the Supreme Court nominee, while guest star Robert Vaughn (of all people) could barely keep a straight face while Stern’s Thomas offered porn clips under the guise of Vaughn’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” work.
Exercise guru Richard Simmons was also on the receiving end of Stern’s zany abuse. Stern doctored Simmons’ “Sweating to the Oldies” videos to insert a leather-clad S&M master and a vomiting fat woman into the clips – Simmons looked on in shock and complained that Stern was much nicer to him off-screen. Stern then acknowledged Simmons’ weight-loss clients by pulling out a fishing pole and dangling an oversized bag of potato chips over their heads.
“The Howard Stern Show” also eviscerated pop culture classics. “Homeless Howiewood Squares” pitted teams of supposed homeless people in a “Hollywood Squares” send-up featuring would-be celebrities as a Ku Klux Klan member and a lesbian couple. Game show icons Gene Rayburn and Jaye P. Morgan were in the skit and they happily carried Stern’s off-kilter vibe with racy one-liners. In another show, Stern dressed up as Johnny Carson, using “The Johnny Carstern Show” to present a highly unlikable talk show icon engaging in physical and emotional abuse against his staff and first wife.
Not surprisingly, Stern enjoyed being the center of attention. When Al Lewis turned up in his Grandpa make-up and costume, Stern one-upped him by being made up like the Frankenstein monster and doing funny/nasty imitations of Fred Gwynne. Stern would only cede long stretches of airtime for painful-yet-hilarious segments where Stuttering John’s interviewed bemused celebrities (former Vice President Walter Mondale turned up in one episode). Very occasionally, Stern would park his shtick to allow guest performers a chance in the spotlight (most notably when the Moody Blues were musical guests).
“The Howard Stern Show” debuted on WWOR-TV on July 14, 1990. While critics (not surprisingly) were disturbed by Stern’s humor, New York audiences loved it. The show outranked “Saturday Night Live” in the local ratings when the programs overlapped in the 11:30 pm-to-midnight period. By January 1991, the program was picked up for syndicated release.
However, “The Howard Stern Show” never had a wide distribution – at its peak, it was only syndicated in 65 markets, often in the less-than-stellar post-midnight period. And not everyone shared Stern’s sense of humor. WNPL-TV in Naples, Fla., dropped the show when advertisers responded to viewer complaints about the content – particularly an act known as “The Kielbasa Lady,” in which a woman showed her ability to deep-throat a particularly large sausage.
“The Howard Stern Show” ran two years and chalked up 69 episodes before it was abruptly cancelled. Different reasons for the termination were given: WWOR-TV claimed that it was too expensive to continue the production, even though its ratings were unusually strong, while Stern supposedly insisted the workload between radio and TV became too much too handle.
“The Howard Stern Show” was never repackaged for home entertainment release. Considering the costs in clearing music and performance rights, it is unlikely that it will ever be officially released on DVD or Blu-ray. However, Stern fans have created unauthorized collector-to-collector anthologies with all 69 episodes, while many slices of the show can be easily found on YouTube – thus giving a bootleg-level of immortality to some of the most wonderfully funny television comedy moments ever created.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!