Somewhere along the way to the collapse of Western civilization, pioneer shock-jock Howard Stern became a sweet old man, perhaps staving off our multimedia Armageddon. At least that’s the story line presented along with Stern’s canny decision to join — at a reported fee of about $20 million — NBC’s goony amateur performance competition, “America’s Got Talent,” as its newest judge.
Despite the predictable howls of the Parents Television Council, which fruitlessly needled the network to reconsider putting Stern on what some consider a family-friendly variety show, Monday night’s seventh-season premiere was mostly business as usual.
Stern, 58, is hardly the loaded pistol he used to be. By now, his self-deprecating jokes about his gawky looks and the minimal size of his manhood — shtick that Stern brought out during “America’s Got Talent,” early and often, just as he did more than 20 years ago — are as familiar as an uncle’s rehashed routines at the Thanksgiving table. Fartman is just an outrageous memory now.
This mellower Stern came to “America’s Got Talent” as a self-avowed true believer in the show’s hunt for amateurs who have something intangibly winning about their acts. He came to dish out a tiny bit of brutal honesty, but mainly he seemed to want to bask in the show’s trademark combination of awkwardness, ingenuity and love. He hugged everyone he saw. He leaped on stage to hug contestants. He tried to hug his notoriously germaphobic fellow judge, Howie Mandel. He hugged Ozzy Osbourne, the immortal rock legend who is married to Stern’s other fellow judge, the ubiquitous Sharon.
Stern delivered apple-pie pronouncements more typical of presidential candidates. When a dance troupe used glowing costumes and props to simulate dinosaurs and prehistoric plant life, Stern gushed:
“This is going to sound sappy,” he said. “We are the greatest country in the world. You are everything that makes America great.”
He’s been a little lonely, we think. He’s richer than he ever dreamed of. And although he still likes to think of himself as a marginalized provocateur, the fact is that the Howard Stern of the 1980s and ’90s has been fully validated. He poked and prodded America into frank conversations about gender, sex, bodily functions, politics, culture, art. He triumphed over his real and imagined oppressors. He lost nearly 75 percent of his listeners when he left terrestrial syndicated radio for his own gig on satellite radio, meaning that most of us would only ever hear him again when driving rental cars. But he found liberation out there, and an even more loyal audience. He had his cake and ate it, and then smeared the frosting all over Lady Liberty’s decolletage, motorboat-style.
Taking a TV judging job is the new late-career choice for the nation’s celebrity class. Some find themselves underemployed, some need the additional marketing traction and some are just bored. They all need the attention; Stern has famously admitted in the open-therapy session that is his radio show that he has a bottomless need for approval. With Monday’s announcement that Britney Spears is joining Fox’s singing show “The X Factor” as a judge along with Demi Lovato (who, at 19, might consider competition-show judging the same as declaring a major), we should probably brace ourselves for even more amateur talent shows with celebrity panels — the “Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares” of our era.
“America’s Got Talent,” then, is a natural way for Stern to rejoin whatever remains of our sense of mass culture. This is a world of strivers that never stopped dreaming of winning the school talent show. What I like about the show — corny and protracted and needless as it may be — is what Stern seems to like about it, too: Being on TV still matters to a whole lot of everyday people.
The teenage clogging crews, the terrible crooners, the tiny girl scaling her aerial silks, the bad rapping, the magician-stripper, the lady who sings with a dozen cockatiels perched on her shoulders, the guy with the arrow gun shooting at balloons held in his comely companion’s mouth. It’s America winnowed down to its least-shy denizens. A group that would definitely include Howard Stern.
Stern, who replaces (the not-at-all-missed) Piers Morgan on the judge’s panel, hammed it up for the two-hour episode, which began the arduous task of screening contestants in various cities (starting in Los Angeles, then St. Louis), forwarding some on to a semifinal in Las Vegas and delivering the bad news to countless others. Eventually, the show will move into its live phase. It only takes forever — the real hallmark of “America’s Got Talent” is its ability to drag on eternally, as if every last taxpayer and dependent child is going to get a few seconds on the screen.
On Monday’s episode, Stern at times seemed to tread into Mandel’s territory, cracking bad jokes and playfully championing the woefully off-key or insufficiently talented. At other times, Stern seemed to make good on his original billing and namesake — that of a blunt, honest judge.
“Has someone in your life said to you, ‘This isn’t for you?’ ” he asked one singer, whom the audience had already booed. “A parent, maybe?”
“My parents are dead,” the man replied.
“Did they die of embarrassment?” Stern asked.
That’s as tough and unpredictable as our Uncle Howard ever got.
continues Tuesday at 8 p.m. on NBC.