Howard Stern Has Matured into One of the Best Interviewers in Broadcasting History

How the 'King of All Media' became the king of the interview

Howard Stern interviews

Illustration by Dan Redding

Mention the name Howard Stern and most people will think: shock jock, fart jokes, strippers. The reputation is fair, considering that the self-annointed ‘King of All Media’ has spent decades building his brand of crass humor. But in his later years, Stern (now 62) has evolved into the king of something new: he is one of the most thoughtful and revealing interviewers in broadcast history.

Last week, The New York Times published a profile of Stern that investigates the broadcast legend’s evolution as interview host. The piece describes Stern’s show as a place where celebrities can reveal their inner selves during interviews (Conan O’Brien discussed his depression, Jon Goodman confessed to showing up drunk to the set of The Big Lebowski) or even ‘move the needle’ of the cultural zeitgeist. Stern’s maturation is credited, in part, to decades of work in therapy and Stern’s 2008 marriage to Beth Ostrosky Stern (the animal rights advocate seems to have softened Stern’s heart).

For years, Stern has been vocal about his quest to break free of his assorted neuroses in therapy. Speaking on air sometime during the 2000s, Stern said, “If I played a tape of me in my psychiatrist’s office, your head would blow up! I’m as screwy as they come.” He described his father’s disregard for him during his youth as “part of the picture” of his anxieties (a soundbite of Ben Stern’s admonishment of his young son – “Shut up! Sit down!” – is a regular part of the show’s palette of samples and sound effects). Stern fans will be highly familiar with the host’s oft-described anxieties, including his tendency to overwork himself, his relationship with his parents, and his fraught relationship with his own body (ranging from struggles with weight loss to incessant jokes about his penis size). According to the Times article, Stern has cut back on a psychoanalysis schedule that once included an ambitious commitment of four times a week.

Stern’s work on his own mind has resulted in an interview host who is remarkably deft at probing the inner thoughts of those who sit on his couch. Stern’s studio has become very much a space for therapy. Guests regularly allow their host to get their guards down despite untold thousands of listeners. Comedian Amy Schumer told the Times, “even though it’s being broadcast, it feels super intimate and protected, even though you definitely aren’t.” In recent years, Stern’s reputation for excellent interviews has yielded revealing conversations with a bevy of stars including Paul McCartney, Jim Carrey, and Brian Cranston (occasionally, Stern goes on a spree, and seems to welcome a new highest-caliber interview subject each day). His 2015 interview with Paul McCartney was remarkably well-researched and thorough; the host briskly led McCartney through Beatles history (discussing Yoko, the Rolling Stones, the “bigger than Jesus” incident) while occasionally pausing to praise McCartney’s accomplishments (when Stern credited McCartney for inventing heavy metal, the Beatle politely declined credit before acquiescing, “I’d go for that.”).

Stern’s work in therapy has resulted in an interview host who is remarkably deft at probing the inner thoughts of those who sit on his couch.

Stern’s show seemed to turn a corner when troubled cohost Artie Lange left the show in 2009. For the first time, Stern decided not to fill the “Jackie chair” that had served as home to Stern’s comedic sidekicks (the role was first occupied by Jackie ‘The Joke Man’ Martling, then by Lange, who replaced Martling in 2001). The decision changed the tone of the show by eliminating the requirement of overt punchlines. The burden of filling countless of hours of airtime now fell primarily on the shoulders of Stern and news anchor Robin Quivers, who typically serves as the ‘straight woman’ counterpart to Stern’s buffoonery. Stern seems to have used his expanded interview sessions as centerpieces of the show’s matured, post-Lange era.

As an interviewer, Stern’s level of nuance and expertise is matched only by Terry Gross of NPR. During her years of tenure as the host of Fresh Air, Gross has proved herself an intrepid, unflappable interviewer. These broadcasters need to be adept at probing their guest’s emotions – and also navigating their way through the challenging exchanges that sometimes come as a result. Gross showed her impeccable skill in handling challenging moments during a memorable 2013 interview with Quentin Tarantino. After probing Tarantino about the nature of film violence, the director bristled and became somewhat hostile. “You sound annoyed,” said Gross, calmly acknowledging the impasse. “Yeah,” replied Tarantino, “I’m really annoyed.” Gross calmly provided the guest an opportunity to express his frustration (“I’ve been asked this question for twenty years…. And my answer is the same”) and what could’ve been a ruinous exchange instead gave way to further conversation.

As for Howard Stern, the radio legend seems to be using the second half of his career to reveal that his skills as a broadcaster possess much more depth than his doubters may have imagined. But ask any Stern superfan, and they’ll tell you they knew their hero had it in him all along.

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