I have been a fan of Howard Stern for over 35 years, going back to the days of afternoon drive time on WNBC. I still listen to the show on Sirius-XM and while the show isn’t as good as its prime (I say it was 1990-2000), it’s still the best show on radio.
While I’m still a fan, I’m also a realist and the reality is that despite what everyone says, Howard really isn’t good at interviewing anymore. The great interviews that you hear on the show today are really dependent on who the guest is. An Alec Baldwin interview is always great because Alec is a terrific guest who doesn’t censor himself. The same is with Tracy Morgan, as well as Paul McCartney. When Howard bring on a Gwyneth Paltrow or a Madonna on the air, the interviews aren’t very good because those guests are reserved and watch what they say. Howard sticks to an interview formula that has the same basic questions as Howard often, interrupting the guests to add his experiences with his parents, his sister, his children, and therapy. Howard often forgets that he’s doing the interviewing and he’s not the guest.
It wasn’t always like this, the interviews Howard does now have been hampered by political correctness and by his desire to change his image that has allowed him to book guests that would have never done his show in its prime: Paul McCartney, Madonna. Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Neil Young, and Robert Plant. The reason that A-list celebrity guests avoiding the show in its prime because it was so outrageous and Howard was so good at questioning, celebrities would often say things that they would regret later such as the time when New York Giant Jeremy Shockey saying he’d have a problem with playing with a gay teammate. The old Stern interviews would have Howard asking fairly uncensored questions as well as humorous questions that Jackie “The Jokeman” Martling would write and it also included Fred Norris’ amazing sound drops. A big fun part of the interview that is also missing are the questions from the audience. Often a member of the audience would ask an improper question that Howard would feign outrage over and then repeat the question because he wanted the answer. Eliminating the jokes, sound drops, and audience questions have eliminated the fun from the interviews. In the prime days, the quality of Howard’s guest list was less than A (Pat Cooper will always be B company), but the interviews of Gilbert Gottfried, Joan Rivers, Pat Cooper, and Richard Belzer are better than what Howard is producing today.
One of the examples where Howard is awful at interviewing was the Jane Fonda interview. Whether you think Jane was a traitor or not for visiting Hanoi, North Vietnam during the Vietnam War is your opinion, it’s still a wonderful topic for an interviewer to bring up. Yet as soon as she got into the studio, Howard told Jane she was his hero and that what she did in North Vietnam took a lot of courage. I don’t remember Barbara Walters ever lauding her subject when the interview started, what Howard did was take a lot of air out of an interview that would have been more compelling.
So today, we don’t get a spontaneous and funny interview. We only get a good interview dependent on the guest and there have been a lot of turkeys as guests, A-list or not.