First Person

Howard Stern kept me sane


In 1991, something went very wrong with every inch of my body. It started with a flu that was going around Cal State Long Beach. One February afternoon, I was stuck sitting next to a guy who loosed big, wet, sloppy coughs through the entire class. I got sick a few days later. It seemed like a perfectly average flu, and I figured I'd get better in a week. But months went by, and I just kept getting sicker and sicker. That was 15 years ago, and I've never really been well since.

I get diseases you've never heard of. I get diseases you're not supposed to get until you're 65. Some days it hurts to walk, some days it hurts to pee, but pretty much every day it hurts to do something. I've been checked out by dozens of doctors, but they've never worked out what's wrong with me, let alone how to fix it.

I've become accustomed to being sick all the time, but then it was a terrifyingly new experience. I was such a relentless downer I drove all my friends away. I pulled out of CSULB and spent my days visiting doctors and nights trying to get my mind off my imminent demise. I watched bad movies on late-night TV, I went for long drives to nowhere, but mostly I just spun the radio dial in a futile effort to find something I could stand listening to. Each night, after KPFK's hippie whining became too tedious to bear and KROQ had played "Right Here, Right Now" so many times I wanted to jam one of my Ramones LPs down the Swedish Eagle's throat, I'd end up switching to Art Bell's UFO conspiracy madness until the sun came up. These were desperate times.

And then, at 3 a.m. on July 21, 1991, I heard the first Southern California broadcast of Howard Stern's syndicated radio show.

*   *   *

I'd first encountered Stern, in the late '80s, when, one night flipping the television, I stumbled across some bimbos in bikinis washing a car on channel 9. The segment ended, and suddenly we were in a poorly lit studio where this storky guy with a comically hideous Louis the XIV hairdo and his giggly co-hostess were making fun of homeless people. They would show clips of these crusty bums babbling to the camera, and then the make jokes about the homeless people's filthy clothes and general craziness. It was nauseatingly cruel, and I thought these two were the vilest creatures I'd ever seen or heard.

I still thought Stern was scum on July 21, 1991, but I started listening because I had absolutely nothing else to do. By the end of that show, I'd become a fan. I still remember what turned me around: it was Stern's interview with enervating actor/comedian(?) Sinbad. Stern tore Sinbad into bloody chunks by relentlessly praising him for being a family-friendly, "non-threatening" black guy, essentially calling Sinbad an Uncle Tom without ever quite calling him an Uncle Tom. The segment was a little masterpiece of hilarious mindfuckery, leaving Sinbad in the untenable position of trying to prove his street cred. Attacking homeless people was one thing, but I figured anybody who could make compelling radio out of an interview with Sinbad was a talent worth my attention.

Stern took the indefensible shit that flashes through your mind—Retarded people should be put out of their misery!—and articulated it in ways you hated yourself for laughing at. His withering, comic honesty extended to his own life, as he bemoaned his diminutive penis, bitched about his wife and kids, and quizzed his parents about their bedroom habits. I soon realized Stern—unlike KPFK, or KROQ, or Art Bell—was worth my interest pretty much every time I turned on his show. Stern talked to me like a grown-up at a time when it was difficult to find anybody to talk to at all.

*   *   *

Before Stern, I'd been suffering from an insomnia that sometimes kept me awake for days. I'd pop extra-strength Sominex and then lay in bed staring at the ceiling, my teeth gritting against the pain of that night's symptoms as little demons gathered around to whisper in my ear that my life was a joke and I'd be dead soon. I started listening to Stern's show as a comforting murmur when I was going to bed, the volume just loud enough to confuse and sometimes even drown out my demons. It was harder to process what a joke my own life was when my subconscious was busy being filled with Stern's jokes instead. On those dark nights where 3 a.m. otherwise would've seemed like it would go on forever, Stern's voice was a gift.

Still, 1991 was a cursed year. So cursed that I just assumed 1992 would be better. It wasn't. I was sick as ever, but now I was working crappy minimum-wage jobs, which I'd inevitably get fired from for taking too many sick days. That April, my dog died the same week my longtime girlfriend dumped me. That June, I briefly found a new girlfriend, and I remember my anxiety as I told her of my Stern fandom. It was like I was confessing to having genital warts or something. She would've been happier with the warts.

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