Howard Stern can talk. This new book shows he’s also a good listener
Nobody but Howard Stern could have gotten Harvey Weinstein to lie quite as brazenly as he does in Stern’s encyclopedic new interview collection. That’s because nobody else would have asked such nervy questions. Interviewing Weinstein in 2014, Stern goes right for the actresses and the casting couch, riffing on some of his standard motifs as he asks about actresses who might want to work for Weinstein: “You can’t walk into the room, pull your pants off and say, ‘OK, honey, let’s talk ...” Can you?
“I hate to disappoint you,” fibs Weinstein, whose MO was allegedly much less cordial. Pressed further, he insists: “It’s really nothing. Nope.” Strike 3 comes when Stern forces Weinstein to talk about his “solid” marriage (“Sex with her must be through the roof”) to the wife who has since divorced him.
You can find this and a lot more like it in “Howard Stern Comes Again,” Stern’s hefty all-star tutorial on the art of the interview, which draws on his work over the past two decades. For anyone who still thinks of Stern as a jokey voyeur, overgrown teenager and smutmeister, he would like you to know how much he’s evolved. He’s become more sensitive. He’s in therapy, to the point where it becomes a constant refrain. He feels his subjects’ pain. Which might be problematic if he weren’t still such a sharp, funny, conversational sparring partner.
Bragging rights for “Howard Stern Comes Again” really do go to Donald Trump, who is far and away its most arresting subject. Stern has interviewed him many times, and the conversations leap out as if in neon. Some have already been well publicized, as when Trump remarked that dating in the age of AIDS was his personal Vietnam. But there’s so much more. His extreme richness; his treatment of the “girls” he dates; his easily debunked lies; his excitement about hot new projects (Trump World magazine, Trump University): All are matters of record here. And the transcript of his 2001 radio brawl with gossip columnist A.J. Benza, with Stern presiding “like Solomon,” must be read to be believed. Trump: “I won your girlfriend, A.J. You know it.” Benza: “He sends things to her, newspaper clippings with him mentioned, circles his name and writes ‘billionaire.’ You have no idea. He’s out of his mind.”
It matters a lot how this handsomely produced, notably well-edited book is ingested. I don’t recommend reading it straight through. That will make it seem long and repetitive, with Stern frequently hitting on his favorite themes — which is to say, the ones that have the most to do with him. He likes asking about masturbation, money, making it big and psychotherapy, all of which demonstrate more narcissism than curiosity. It’s much better to pick the book up and choose interview subjects at random. And don’t do it on the basis of your pre-existing interest in the person. Vincent Gallo, one of the most loathed people in filmmaking, gives one of the best interviews here.
The real standouts are people who are thrown off guard by the fact that Stern has found out so much about them. As he says in the introduction, doing your homework is essential to winning people over — and to pushing them toward places where they wouldn’t otherwise go. One case in point is Gwyneth Paltrow, whose section of the book is almost certain to change your impression of her, no matter what it was in the first place. Interviewing her in 2015, Stern gets her going by knowing which roles she turned down (“Titanic”?) and playing to her seldom-seen sense of humor, which turns out to be as good as his. He also brings her back to the days when she was nobody, Brad Pitt was a huge catch and their falling in love on the set of “Seven” changed her status. As ancient history, it’s adorable.
Paltrow’s helpful hint on how to quiet an obstreperous husband will be one of the book’s big takeaways, even though these radio interviews aren’t technically news. But the noisy parts aren’t what matters. It’s the intimacy Stern establishes with his subjects that makes this collection worthwhile, as when Jon Stewart opens up about the father who abandoned his family. The stories Stern elicits are astonishing. When Stewart was 17, seven years after the split, the two met for a monthly visit and Stewart’s father asked, “What do you think about if I got remarried?” When teenage Jon said he wouldn’t object, his father replied: “Um, I got married and I have a 2-year-old.”
Stern is no stranger to thin ice. On multiple occasions here, he asks a white person whether he or she would have sex with a black person. It’s unfortunate if authentic that these queries remained in the book’s otherwise slimmed-down transcripts. And even for his most ardent fans, his ways of talking about girls and hotness may no longer be part of his charm. (In the Trump interviews, he constantly wanted to know whether the future first lady was naked. Trump was willing to answer, but he was also notably protective of her from the start.)
Stern has said that his 2015 Conan O’Brien interview is his favorite. Maybe that’s because it describes O’Brien’s crushing disappointment at not landing the “Tonight Show” hosting job and his reasons for staying at NBC anyway — but the choice says more about interviewer than interviewee. Look for standouts with Ozzy Osbourne, Joan Rivers, Courtney Love, Gallo, Michael J. Fox and Lady Gaga, for starters. And look for the one that isn’t here. The book includes a brief chapter on Hillary Clinton, who was wooed by Stern but was, he says, too afraid to face his questioning. Had she done so and revealed a softer, more likable side, she might have won the election. Or at least that is what Howard Stern thinks about “The Howard Stern Show.”
“Howard Stern Comes Again”
By Howard Stern
549 pages. Simon & Schuster. $35.