Published March 1, 1997
The best comment on Howard Stern’s Private Parts came in the New Yorker cartoon that showed one rueful movie-goer saying to the other: “I think I hate liking Howard Stern even more than I liked hating him.” Here he presents himself, with the help of Betty (Brady Bunch) Thomas, as just a good old-fashioned, all-American success story: the man who, when “they” said it couldn’t be done, went ahead and did it. But now, instead of discovering America or inventing the airplane or flying the Atlantic, our hero is saying forbidden words on the air. Well, it’s a sign of the times.
He is also rather like the early Woody Allen of Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, because his film is a procession of gags loosely tied together by their relation to the figure of the paradoxically nebbishy hero. Although the film has a sort of plot in that it purports to be a biopic about Stern, nearly all its energies go into a cinematic re-creation of the radio gags which made Stern famous. In this it is rather a disappointment. Miss Thomas boldly struck out in a new direction in The Brady Bunch and created a model of what such a picture ought to be (given that it has to be at all), but with Private Parts she has contented herself with presenting the familiar Howard to a wider audience. Presumably that’s the way Stern wanted it.
To be fair, the jokes seem to wear well. Although many of them were new to me, I noticed that even long-time Stern devotees who must have heard them many times before were thoroughly delighted with this version of the familiar material. Also like the early Woody Allen (not so much the later one), the guy is funny.
Stern’s innovation is to make his family the subject of much of his humor even though it is not remarkable for good or for ill. The ordinary sex life of himself and wife, in particular, is constantly discussed. The wife, Alison, here played by Mary McCormack (Stern and his sidekicks Robin Quivers and Fred Norris and Jackie Martling all play themselves), must be remarkably patient. We also meet his parents, and it is even more remarkable to reflect that he is still apparently on speaking terms with his father, Ben Stern, who is represented as saying almost nothing to Howard throughout his childhood except to tell him that he is a moron and to shut up. Then, when the young Howard announces that he wants to go into radio the father says, incredulously, “How can you be on the radio? You never say anything.”
There is an excellent performance by Paul Giamatti as Kenny, the program director at WNBC whom Stern called “Pig Vomit” for constantly trying (unsuccessfully) to rein him in. His tormenting of this man — which includes getting his wife on the air and telling her that her husband needs more sex from her because he is getting “bitchy” and must be “backed up” — is thoroughly amusing. So it is when an apoplectic Kenny tells Howard: “You are the anti-Christ!” But that doesn’t alter the fact that Kenny may be right.