A few Sundays ago the New York Times published a front-page Arts & Leisure profile of Howard Stern wherein the Gray Lady heaped praise on the self-anointed King of All Media. “Mr. Stern [is] one of the most deft and engrossing celebrity interviewers in the business,” wrote David Segal, “and a sought-after stop for stars selling a movie or setting the record straight.” As a twenty-year listener of Stern’s terrific, if once underrated, radio show, the piece felt like a long overdue coronation from the newspaper of record. Even though I was a just teenager when I first became a fan, Stern’s status as a joke in the eyes of Very Serious People frustrated me.

So this subsequent turnabout in critical opinion, which started in earnest when he abandoned terrestrial radio for satellite subscriptions in 2006, has been astonishing. Howard Stern had been branded a mere “shock jock,” perhaps not unfairly, during his rise in the ‘80s. But that oft-repeated slur stuck into the ‘90s and beyond, and was delivered by detractors who only had a cursory familiarity with his four-hour-long daily program (which currently airs three times a week on SiriusXM). A slow trickle of peer endorsements, including hosannas from the likes of Terry Gross and Ira Glass in particular, have imparted public-radio cred to his unruly operation. All the while, A-List guests have eagerly lined up for one-of-a-kind, in depth, interviews.

Glimmers of Stern’s comedic and interrogative brilliance were obvious from his FM-syndication heyday. But the inflection point, his initial foray into the mainstream, was thanks to the cinematic reworking of his bestselling memoir, Private Parts. Directed by Betty Thomas (who’d previously helmed HBO’s excellent adaptation of The Late Shift), and starring a sterling cast of then-unknown actors (Paul Giamatti, Allison Janney, Mary McCormack, and, in a tiny cameo, Edie Falco), Private Parts was a surprisingly good, deceptively important—if ultimately minor—silver-screen sensation. It still, mostly, holds up.

Private Parts winkingly accepts the premise that Stern (portraying himself with a mix of exaggerated self-awareness and sober restraint) is a natural born prankster. Despite being singularly driven with regard to a career in radio, his juvenile stunts drive wedges into his personal and professional relationships. “Most of the things I do are misunderstood,” he says in voiceover late in the film. “Hey, after all, being misunderstood is the fate of all true geniuses, is it not?” Maybe so.

But Howard Stern’s true genius is evident only here and there in Private Parts. The film chronicles his faltering beginnings as an entertainer: from raunchy puppet shows in Long Island retirement centers, to a disastrous stint as a college-radio DJ in Boston. Once Howard is introduced to his soon-to-be wife Alison, who’s played with exceeding patience and grace by Mary McCormack, the film splits in two. We then follow, in tandem, the ups and downs of his life, both romantic and professional.

In real life, Howard and Alison divorced five years after the film’s release, which retroactively sours his repeated proclamations of everlasting devotion. So it goes. Thankfully, Private Parts best endures, not as a romance, but a still-hilarious workplace comedy. Betty Thomas smartly whisks Howard from the piddling broadcast markets of his burgeoning career (Westchester and Hartford) to the major cities of his ascent (Detroit and Washington). It’s in DC where Stern meets his partner in crime, Robin Quivers (also playing herself, with tenderness and ferocity). Here is the film’s true love story.

Once Howard and Robin become an established dynamic duo, Private Parts takes off. It transforms into an Us-Versus-Them struggle, with the “Them” being station management. The comedy they’re fighting for may seem even more offensive and puerile to our modern sensibilities than it did at the time (the gay jokes, in particular, land with a thud). But the general point is clear: this is about artistic freedom, particularly when the material is a dirty (and uproarious) take on the Match Game.

Private Parts ends where it begins, in New York City. The young Howard we saw early on as a tot—visiting a broadcast studio with his father, a radio engineer—has now taken over WNBC’s airwaves, the most prestigious station in the country. He’s conquered his foes, like radio rival Don Imus and Paul Giamatti’s wonderfully bug-eyed Kenny (aka “Pig Vomit”). But Howard Stern’s greatest triumphs, still to come, are not captured in Private Parts. It’s his own worst tendencies that were eventually slayed. “Lesbians equal ratings,” he says, in a eureka moment, midway into the movie. Somehow, he’s found a way to flourish, maybe with a little objectification here and there, but mostly on his own.

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