If anyone ever had to play Howard Stern in a cartoon, Alan Alda is the man. Stern and Alda have the same projecting deep voice with just a hint of an east-coast accent. It’s eerie. But I digress already.
Private Parts is a typical rags-to-riches story. It tells the life of Howard Stern from cowed kid to troubled teen to Number One in New York. Along the way he gets married, finds the perfect co-hosts and pisses off his bosses and their advertisers while pumping his show’s ever-growing ratings.
The story is told (mostly) chronologically, but it plays more like a series of comic bits threaded together. There’s not much overarching plot or conflict, but structuring and pacing the movie this way was the right decision. There is some growth in Stern’s character, but that’s not what’s interesting about the man. What’s interesting is the funny stuff he does on the air, and there’s no overarching coherence to any of that.
Private Parts handles this problem of realism very well. When a movie is based on actual people, sometimes it’s distracting when you don’t know what’s true and what was made up for the movie. Just rent an Oliver Stone movie (JFK, The Doors, Nixon) if you doubt me. Private Parts tells you right out that it could be lying at any time.
There are documentary aspects to the movie, intermixed with standard, staged movie drama, along with Stern the man’s voiceover for Stern the character. In addition, some characters are played by actors, while others are played by the “real” people. Early on, the movie shows us Stern’s childhood while in voiceover, Stern describes his parents as very restrictive. The movie cuts to a shot of his parents (played by Richard Portnow and Kelly Bishop — thanks to Evan Mair for the correction), denying everything we just saw on screen. Either his parents are lying or Stern the narrator is (along with the action on-screen). The drama and “reality” are mixed together and you shouldn’t necessarily believe everything you see.
Again, this was the right decision for the movie because it allows more funny stuff to happen without raising the distracting questions of reality. A young starlet invites Stern to have his way with her in a bathtub. First, it seems unlikely it would happen to an admittedly ugly man like Stern; it seems much more likely that he’s trying to impress the Stern-worshippers in the audience. Then, when he turns her down (sort of), it seems much more likely that he’s trying to impress the other half of the audience. Maybe what’s on screen is all true, but because the movie plays loose with the facts anyway, it doesn’t matter. It’s a funny bit that adds to the movie.
After the movie, I liked Howard Stern. He comes off as a fun, likeable, good guy. A little more thought reveals how well made and well publicized this movie is. I don’t know if I’d really like the real Howard Stern, but by playing up the character Stern’s devotion to his wife and setting up straw-man detractors for him to knock down, he becomes not just the hero of the movie, but a hero
By playing “match game” with his co-hosts, he gets the “contestants” to say “pussy” and “cock” on the air by having them complete the phrases _____ Willow and ____-a-Doodle-Doo. In the context of an irrational, unfair, red-faced, prig of a program director sworn to the task of keeping Stern reined in, this is a very funny and satisfying bit. Try to imagine the same bit without that straw-man context, though, and four adults giggling at the words “cock” and “pussy” is almost sad.
The publicity plays on Stern’s reputation as a vulgar, obscene, despicable fellow. Stern himself bragged to several critics about how successful the movie was with test audiences, even with those who say they don’t like Howard Stern. One ad for the movie even says “the most shocking thing about this movie is how much people love it.” But really, by building up this bad-boy aura about Stern, the publicists are also setting up their own straw men for the public to knock down when they see the movie, by finding the movie’s radio bits more amusing than offensive and by finding character Stern to be a loving family man.
The movie and the publicity are manipulative and the movie lies to the audience, but in the case of Private Parts, it’s all in the name of making a better movie. I found it enjoyable and funny, and I found myself liking Howard Stern. The movie says Stern is not only successful, he’s as a decent family man, too. Who could possibly dislike such an American figure?
Not me. Even if he’s lying.