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Howard Stern On 'Fresh Air': Part 2


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Howard Stern described my interview with him as exhausting. We talked a long time because there was so much to talk about - too much to fit in one show. Yesterday we heard Part 1. Today we have Part 2 of my interview with Howard Stern. The occasion for the interview is the publication of his new book collecting some of his favorite interviews from his Sirius XM radio show. The book is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." Let's pick up where we left off yesterday.

So we were talking about...

HOWARD STERN: Could I say something?


STERN: I love when you say Howard Stern comes again, and I'll tell you why.

GROSS: (Laughter) Tell me why.

STERN: I wanted to write...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STERN: ...A really good book that...

GROSS: Where I could say the title, and it would have dealt two meanings. (Laughter).

STERN: Well, in a way, yes. It definitely has two meanings. Possibly three. But what's really interesting to me is that somehow - I didn't want to imply in the book that somehow the whole show has changed, and you're going to tune in and you're going to hear, you know, this serious broadcast that - blah, blah, blah. We still employ tons of second-grade humor. And "Howard Stern Comes Again" is such a juvenile title. I wanted to make sure we got that in there so - and nothing pleases me more to hear on NPR, "Howard Stern Comes Again."

GROSS: OK. So what you just said. How does it feel to be doing second-grade humor, as you just called it, when you're 65?

STERN: I thought maybe I'd grow out of it, but I haven't. There - I still love fart humor. You know, I was Fartman on MTV. I love...

GROSS: Do you know I have trouble saying that word? Like, (laughter), I find it so interesting that you played this character, Fartman, and I have trouble just even saying the word. I don't know.

STERN: Well, why is that?

GROSS: I don't know.


GROSS: I ask myself that...

STERN: We all do it.

GROSS: ...All the time. The whole thing's embarrassing.

STERN: You know?

GROSS: Yeah.

STERN: Well, that's what I loved about it because it is embarrassing. And to my great shame, even to this day, I can't look at old pictures of me as Fartman. My belly's hanging out.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STERN: My cellulite...

GROSS: Your tuchus is hanging out.

STERN: My tuchus is so filled with cellulite. What was I thinking? You know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

STERN: But yet, what - MTV played that over and over again for years and years. And I - you know, that's the thing; I let it all hang out. And I always made myself the brunt of humor, too. I think that's important. And I think even to this day, the reason people relax with me when I do these interviews in the book and on the radio, they know that I'm willing to go there, too. They know I'm willing to discuss the small size of my penis. They know I'm willing to be Fartman and let my buttocks be out there with the cellulite. You know, I remember the look of disgust that people had for me when they saw that buttocks. Not good.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so...

STERN: But I still - listen...

GROSS: Yeah.

STERN: I still love phony phone calls. We are the major manufacturer at Sirius XM...

GROSS: That's right (laughter).

STERN: ...Of phony phone calls.

GROSS: Well, you know, as somebody in radio, one of the things that I found so kind of educational about your show it's that it was people just talking to each other, like, you and your regulars - you know, Robin and Gary and Fred and the whole crew - just talking to each other about sometimes really trivial things, kind of like office gossip. But you were talking in your own voices. And of course, you're all really smart and funny, so it was, like, lively and interesting. But it showed that you can make anything interesting if you're interesting enough in telling it. And if you were just - sounded like people talking to each other, it could be really gripping, as opposed to sounding like announcers or, like, scripted.

STERN: Well, that's - and that's the weird thing. Back then, people weren't doing that on the radio, which was what - that was the real revolution; people talking like people. And you know, it's funny. Having written this new book as an interview book, people say, well, what are you most proud of on the radio? Well, yeah, I guess I'm most proud of the interviews. I like how it's presented in the book and all that. But really, there are days for me, with the radio show - and now we put the show on three days a week - I'll turn to my people and say - you know, all the people who work with me - and I'll say, look - for the next two weeks or three weeks, don't have any guests.

I need to groove - meaning, I still think my audience appreciates the most, to this day, when I walk in - and yeah, I have an agenda, kind of - but I let things unfold. And it just morphs into this great kind of experience where you're sitting in a room with your friends and being funny. And I have to tell you, the days I know I have a guest coming in, I have knots in my stomach sometimes because I know I'm not going to be doing that thing, that groove.

GROSS: You talk with Jerry Seinfeld in one of your interviews about how...

STERN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...He and you are always constantly thinking in your head, how do I make what's happening now funny for the show?

STERN: Yeah.

GROSS: Or for stage?

STERN: Yeah.

GROSS: So that's - that means, I think, that you're always removing yourself from the situation. I mean, that's basically what Jerry Seinfeld says. Actually, what you point out to him, I think, that if you're doing that, you have, like...

STERN: Right.

GROSS: ...One part of yourself in the world, in the moment, and the other part analyzing it and thinking, how do I make this funny tomorrow?

STERN: Yeah, Jerry and I have a fundamental disagreement about this. My whole life has been walking around, and sometimes I'm really there, but most times I'm mining some situation for radio. And my methodology for doing that is, when it hits me - you know, I always have a pad and a pen around. And when it hits me, I then write to one of my producers, Jason Kaplan, and I go, notes for air, and I quickly get this stuff down, and I start to develop what it is I want to talk about.

But as I described in the book, I'm never fully in the moment, and when I point it out to Jerry, Jerry goes, oh, I'm never in the moment; I'm always mining for material. But I said, isn't that terrible? Is - he goes, no, I don't care; I love it. He has no problem with it whatsoever. And I say to him, how can that not affect your life? How does it not affect your relationship with your kids and your wife? And he goes, no - you know, he's fine with that balance or lack of balance.

I know it affected my life and not always in a good way. And I had to learn more balance. I have to tune it out sometimes because I'm telling you - I don't know if this is true of you, Terry, but I have a radio show going on in my head all the time, all the time. I can - I just - I hear it all the time, and I just quickly write it down, and then I go and do it on the air.

GROSS: So what's going through your mind right now?

STERN: Well, I mean, I'm focused on what we're doing, but - and I know when it'll hit me. I'll leave here. I'll go home. I'll do - I do transcendental meditation. I'll be doing it. I'll be getting into it, and then that show's going to start working its way into my head.

GROSS: I'm glad you brought up TM.

STERN: Yeah.

GROSS: Because you've been meditating since you were 18.

STERN: Right.

GROSS: You explained that your mother taught you.

STERN: And it was a profound change with my mother that got me into it. My mother was a depressed woman, suicidal. She had a horrible life, terrible, terrible life. Lost her mother at 9, was sent away from home, her father sent her to - tried to put her in an orphanage, the orphanage was filled, so he found a family to stick them with; it was her and her sister. It was a real saga - really, really bad. And you know, listen - I was raised by a traumatized woman. She had terrible, terrible trauma and overcame a lot in her life, but she became very sad when her sister died, who was really her only family. And she was in her 40s.

And I'd come home from school, and my mother was just distraught. Didn't know what to do with her. I come home from school, and she'd be sobbing. I'm going to go upstairs; I'm going to kill myself. And my father would even say to her, how can we cheer you up? He says, I tell you what - I'll become an alcoholic with you. I understand alcoholics get rid of the - he didn't even know what to do. He would've become an alcoholic for the woman. My parents are very close to one another. He was saying, I'll do anything. But nothing worked.

And I went off to college, and I was worried about her. But she called me on the phone one day, and, like, all of a sudden, I'm talking to, you know, the cheeriest - sounded like a Miss America pageant winner or something. You know, hi, how are you doing? And I'm like, who the hell is this? And she told me she saw the Maharishi on "The Johnny Carson Show." And she went to a TM meeting, and I'm telling you, this was profound change. You can't change like that. And she had tried medication. She had even tried psychotherapy. None of it appealed to her. But this did, and it worked. So I said, how could I not do this? And I'm glad I did.

GROSS: You know, your mother was - or maybe was suicidal; did you ever feel that way yourself?

STERN: I hesitate to say that. But I was pretty down. I've been pretty depressed in my life. And most of that occurred at the time that my marriage fell apart.

GROSS: Right.

STERN: And you know, it was tough. And I was lost, and that's when psychotherapy came into my life. And then...

GROSS: What was it like to have a mother who put the idea of suicide on the table? Do you know - yeah.

STERN: Because, in my family, words meant nothing, that we didn't have real, serious conversation, I thought it was all kind of maybe...

GROSS: Right.

STERN: ...Just for drama.

GROSS: Yeah.

STERN: I didn't know how real it was. You know, again, everything in my family seemed that - the real conversation - you know, sex, we could talk about. Race, we could talk about. Homosexuality, we could talk about. You name it, we could talk about it. But it was always in a joking way. We could talk about the news of the day in a joking way. But to really address something in a serious way, that was difficult.

GROSS: My guest is Howard Stern. His new book of interviews is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Howard Stern. His new book of interviews is called "Howard Stern Comes Again."

I want to play an example of how you draw on your life for your interviews. So what we've just been talking about, your mother's depression, her need to be cheered up - this comes into play in one of my favorite moments of your interviews, and this is with Stephen Colbert from 2015. And you're talking to him about how he lost his father and two of his siblings, two brothers, in a plane crash. And I forget how old he was - 9 maybe? I forget his age.

STERN: Yeah, something like that. Yeah.

GROSS: And so you're asking him about that and what it was like for his mother. So I just want to play a short excerpt of that.

STERN: Sure.


STERN: How did it change...

STEPHEN COLBERT: But the thing...

STERN: ...Your mother? Did she - was she able to have a strong face in front of you, or would she break down a lot?

COLBERT: Both. You know, a little mix of everything. It wasn't - there's no clean description of what life was like.

STERN: Is it difficult for you to be around a crying woman now because of your mother?

COLBERT: Wow, that's deep, man.

STERN: Well, seriously.

COLBERT: Yeah. Deep, Howard.

STERN: Well...

COLBERT: You're getting deep. No, seriously, that's a very deep question, Howard.

STERN: But when women are difficult - because your mom had to be difficult. She was going through a crisis.

COLBERT: Not difficult. But you know...

STERN: Upset.

COLBERT: I think there's no doubt that I do what I do because I wanted to make her happy - no doubt.

STERN: You're used to cheering up a woman.


STERN: Yeah.


STERN: I know of this.

ROBIN QUIVERS: Did you cry? Were you...

COLBERT: Really? Did you cheer up - what?

QUIVERS: Were you able to cry?

COLBERT: No, not publicly.

STERN: Well, speaking of...

COLBERT: But hold on. Wait a second.

STERN: Yeah.

COLBERT: How do you know to ask that question?

STERN: Because I spent many years cheering up your mother, as well. I didn't want to tell you this.


STERN: No, no. What happened - my mother lost her mother when she was 9. And my mother became very depressed when her sister died, and I spent a lot of years trying to cheer up my mother. And I became quite proficient at making her laugh and doing impressions and doing impressions of all the people in her neighborhood. It made her feel - so I - I wonder - and even to this day, when I see a woman in distress, I feel like I have to...


STERN: ...Jump in and solve her problem.

COLBERT: That's not a bad impulse, though.

STERN: Well, it certainly makes for a career. But I mean...


GROSS: I just love hearing how stunned Colbert is when you ask him about, you know, having to cheer up his mother, and if it's hard for him to see women cry because his mother had cried so much.

STERN: Well, I love that moment. I'm so glad you pulled it because I'm proud of that moment. Because only someone who had to cheer up a mother would know to ask that question.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly.

STERN: And you know, again, I've explored the fact that this is a terrible burden on a kid, to have to cheer up a mother. I remember doing, you know, very, very elaborate impressions of all the mothers in the neighborhood. And what I was doing is not only was I doing impressions of them, but I was also ripping them apart, and my mother loved it. Because what it meant was she was the best mother. It meant that when I would sit there and make fun of these other mothers, it meant not only was it funny and not only did it make her cheered up, but what was really cheering her up was, you see? I'm the best mother. And I knew that on some level.

Now, that's too much for a kid to know. So when Colbert - I had to go there with Colbert, and I think what really shocked him is, well, wait a second. Here is Fartman, and all of a sudden, maybe there's something a little deeper behind Fartman, you know? Maybe this guy gets me. And so that's a real moment.

GROSS: I have a question for you about confronting demons. You've talked about - in several of your interviews, about weed and how you can't smoke because it makes you paranoid.

STERN: Right.

GROSS: And you also say in the book that you think LSD triggered your OCD, your obsessive-compulsive disorder.

STERN: Yeah.

GROSS: What are your OCD rituals...

STERN: I took too much. Oh, my God. When I really suffered badly from it, and I still do to a degree, but it's not as bad. But I would - it was magical thinking. It would be - oh, geez. Let's say I was listening to your radio show, and I would be, oh my God, I have to be better than her. So I would tap on the radio three times above where - above the speakers, so that I was better than you. Or like this - it's magical thinking to think that you can - it was my attempt to control the world. And so, you know, this became a thing with me that - and I don't know how it crept up on me. But I would find myself sometimes for, like, an hour, kind of caught up in these rituals. And now I realize they were all about control.

GROSS: So you've talked on the air - recently, too - about the idea of retiring. But you're so obsessive about work, do you worry about how your OCD would respond if there wasn't work to focus on? What would you be obsessing on if you're not obsessing on your show?

STERN: Yeah, I'm kind of afraid of retirement, and then all it is - I think about it, and I want it. It's, like, on any given day, I don't know. And this disturbs me that I don't know myself well enough - that my contract is up in two years with Sirius XM, and I don't really know what it is I want and what I want to do. I know for the next two years, I'm going to be doing this show. And this show provides me with a lot.

And especially on those days that I'm just riffing on the radio and I'm getting out my thoughts and I'm able to make people laugh - I mean, you know, at the end of the day, no matter what I did in my career, no matter what you might think of me, I wanted an audience to love me and to laugh along with me and have a great ride and be just part of a scene that just was a lot of fun. That was my intent - to entertain. And so if I walk away from that, what would that look like?

You know, I woke up the other day. I was angry about something. I can't even tell you what it was. But I - you know, I had a whole point of view. And I said, oh, I've got the show today. I'm going to go do a whole bunch of material on this. That's a tremendous outlet. Now, if that's gone, you know, my poor wife - is she going to sit there and listen to me rant and rave and carry on? I - you know, I - she's going to probably quiet me down. So I don't know. I don't know what it would look like without that. But I - at some point, I have to hang it up.

GROSS: One of the things you reveal in your book is that the big sick day that you took, you know...

STERN: Yeah.

GROSS: You actually had a really big health scare. You'd had low white blood cell count that turned out to be from eating too much fish and having too much mercury in your system - less fish, better blood cell count. That - but in the process of checking all that out, you had a body scan. And there's a little shadow on your kidney, so you had to check that out and have exploratory surgery.

Everything was fine, but it gave you a lot of chance to contemplate, like, what if it wasn't fine? What if you had cancer? What if the end was near? I mean, it was a cyst. Took a year to recover from the surgery and really feel like you'd fully gotten back to yourself - so do you feel like that made you think more about like, gee, what if I were dying? Like, what am I really afraid of or not afraid of about what that would mean?

STERN: Oh, my God. That's why I wrote the book. I really - I did not react well being told by a doctor that, 95% chance, you have cancer. I freaked out. And you want to know how unrealistic, again, and unprepared I am for life. I somehow assume, because my parents are 96 and 91 and have experienced very good health, that I'm entitled to this, that nothing bad should happen to me, which is, again, a ridiculous notion. But, man, if that doesn't rock your reality and get you into a frame of mind where, like - wow. How much time do I have left? And what is it I'm really trying to accomplish with that time?

GROSS: Are you afraid about death or afraid about suffering before death?

STERN: I think now it's more about the suffering before death. Boy, are we dark today, huh?

GROSS: Yeah (laughter). You know, I think you are really dark, you know?

STERN: I am.

GROSS: That beneath all your humor is, like - your therapist said, beneath your humor is sadness. And I think beneath your humor is a lot of real darkness. And I think that's part of what a lot of us respond to, not - it's not just, like, the shock of what you're saying. It's, like, the darkness and how deep you go with that darkness in plumbing your own depth.

STERN: That's what I think people like in terms - and that's what I was trying to describe to you with trying to unleash your id, whether it's about women or about, you know, myself and myself in terms of my own image or whatever or the experiences I've had in my life where people are just, you know, mean and downright - you know, whatever it is, there is that darkness. I mean, you should interview my wife. I mean, she can tell you what it's like to live with me.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

STERN: It's not a picnic, and she knows it.

GROSS: You - with you and a lot of cats (laughter).

STERN: Oh, my God. My wife is the opposite of me. She is light and bright. There's, like, a glow in the room. And it's - I love her for being such a bright light, but I am dark. And I think what audiences responded to is that I was willing to unlock it in front of them and pull my pants down, so to speak, and show it to them.

GROSS: Well, kind of almost literally (laughter).

STERN: I did it literally, although not all the way.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, I'm going to let you go 'cause I know you got to go. It's been...

STERN: Well, a pleasure.

GROSS: ...Really, really wonderful to talk with you. I want to thank you for staying in radio all of these years and not using radio just as a stepping stone to TV or movies. You've turned down so many offers, and you've stayed in radio. You've done a lot of, like, kind of pioneering work in radio. And thank you. As a radio person, thank you for staying in radio...

STERN: Oh, thank you for saying that.

GROSS: ...And for acknowledging, like, the greatness of radio.

STERN: I love radio. Radio is the best. And that's it. We'll end on that. Radio is great.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, thank...

STERN: And thank you.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

STERN: I think you're a terrific interviewer. And thank you for giving me access to your audience, which, you know - like I said, that's a good audience.

GROSS: My interview with Howard Stern was recorded Friday. If you missed part one of the interview, which we broadcast yesterday, you can listen on our podcast. Howard Stern's new book of interviews is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." After we take a short break, we'll remember Doris Day and listen back to my interview with her. She died Monday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.