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Whether radio is worth around 43 cents a day was resolutely answered on Sept. 21, 2006, 256 days after "The Howard Stern Show" made its move to subscription-based Sirius Satellite Radio. That’s the day the show's comedy writer/sidekick Artie Lange copped to snorting smack.
Lange’s spontaneous heroin admission wasn’t the most shocking or outrageous event on “The Howard Stern Show” since its Jan. 9, 2006, Sirius premiere. Out of range from the Federal Communication Commission’s jurisdiction, the “Stern Show” is now free from the astronomical indecency fines that haunted its last years on terrestrial radio. Puerile and sexually charged bits now rock the content with impunity.
During the first Sirius year, comedy writer Richard Christy had his genitals waxed on air, his howls and shrieks delighting the Stern cast and audience. Porn star Jenna Jameson inaugurated the in-studio Sybian, a saddle-like sex toy since utilized by many female guests — including Blue Iris, a geriatric sex star in her own right. And “Stern Show” wack packers “Crazy” Alice and “Elegant” Elliot Offen phoned in their weekly football picks, spewing expletives and insults with every call.
Compared to such antics, Lange’s confession is tame. His substance abuse problems were never a secret. Hilarious anecdotes such as scoring cocaine in full pig makeup while on the cast of Fox’s “MadTV,” or his accidental hookup with a prostitute, are “Stern Show” staples, repeatedly referenced since Lange replaced Jackie Martling on Stern’s cast in 2001. But Lange’s confession to recent heroin use while in Stern’s employ, seemingly a surprise to even Stern, was different.
Very little is sacred on “The Howard Stern Show.” Every in-house conflict or personal issue warrants full audience disclosure. No doubt many that followed Stern to Sirius are there for Jameson and her peers or the in-depth discussions on bodily functions. But to echo pretty much every highfalutin Stern proponent ever – it’s this intangible community that makes the “Stern Show” great. It’s what copycat shock jocks can’t duplicate. Allowed to bloom beyond terrestrial confines, “The Howard Stern Show” is arguably the best radio on the airwaves and possibly the best it’s ever been.
Lange's slip comes during a segment in which three homeless men compete for the saddest life story. The winner gets a lap dance from a couple of strippers. It’s a fairly standard bit. Stern and cast question the contestants. Lange is particularly empathetic to a 21-year-old heroin addict. The kid’s got a $120-a-day habit. On occasion, the kid has turned to prostitution. His parents have given up on him and he’s very worried about his future.
Lange asks if the kid has tried Subutext, a prescription drug that stops heroin cravings. Yeah, the kid says, until he lost his insurance. And then Lange comes out with it: “If you guys agree not to grill me on it, I actually have those pills ... .”
Lange reveals the pill bottle. Co-host Robin Quivers sums up the studio’s surprise: “Wait a minute!” and “What the hell are you doing?”
Lange: “It’s a long story, let’s not get into it.”
Stern: “Maybe you need the lap dance.”
There's laughter. The subject is momentarily dropped. The pills are not shared. The game continues. The winner (not the heroin addict) receives his lap dance. Hilarity ensues. Break.
Stern: “I’m still trying to figure out how Artie has those heroin pills."
Quivers: “And we’re going to get to the bottom of that.”
And they do. “I remember you said this to me one time,” Lange says to Stern. “You know how something pops in your head and you want to be honest because you know it’s so entertaining and interesting and then you just blurt something out … .” Lange spills it all. How he fell back into the habit while doing a stand-up tour; the shows he missed in 2005; the withdrawal sickness; and the toll it took on his family and girlfriend.
There are moments Lange chokes, falls silent, or mumbles it’s something he shouldn’t have said. Quivers asks how they can help. Stern says he’ll share a worse revelation: Now that he’s 52, his pants are constantly urine-stained from dribbles. Sound guy Fred Norris plays Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher.” Stern groans, saying it’s like the time he overdosed on acid and his friend kept playing the Grateful Dead. They try to make Lange laugh. They tell him it only matters that he’s OK now. And they never stop asking questions.
Humanity among the fart jokesLange’s story wasn’t crass or pornographic. It also wasn’t anything you’re likely to hear on radio or most other entertainment forums. Between contrived reality TV and soulless celebrities unable to admit their flaws even as they issue fake apologies, popular culture is starved for humanity. Seriously, kids. Lange’s confession, even the running joke it’s become on the “Stern Show,” is real. It’s human.
It’s true, Stern’s audience is about a third of what he commanded on terrestrial radio. Whether the majority can ever wrap their heads around paying for something they’re used to getting for free remains to be seen. It’s still early in the day for satellite radio. But any questions or criticisms surrounding Stern’s decision to move are now moot. No matter the loss, no matter the cost, the creative freedom is worth it.
Again, to echo the highfalutin, it’s not about the cuss words or the poopy talk. It’s the freedom to swear, or rather not prescreen every syllable before it’s said, that’s blown Stern's show wide open. Between the vomit fetishists and unbleeped fart jokes, real life has room to spread out and tell its story. And that’s interesting and entertaining.
Helen Popkin listens to Howard on her Sirius boombox from her Bronx home.