SCREENING ROOM; the Death of Shame: Pushing the Comedy of Hostility to the Edge

Article excerpt

Comedians are society's therapists, showing us that our embarrassing weaknesses and pathetic neediness are, in fact, universal. Part of what enables most comedians to do their job is that they are as unheroic and funny looking on the outside as we sense ourselves to be on the inside. So we identify with the lost, deadpan Buster Keaton, the downtrodden but poetic tramp Charlie Chaplin, the neurologically challenged Jerry Lewis and even the furry-stuffed-animal Robin Williams, all of whom play innocent losers who can't help but betray an underlying sweetness. (Even the beautiful comic actors, the likes of Cary Grant, Kay Kendall, Kevin Kline and Carole Lombard, are funny because they look heroic but prove to be only human after all.)

Just as heroes represent our ego ideal, clowns act out our self-concept; they display what we feel on the inside. But while we once saw ourselves as sweet but embarrassingly unheroic, that seems to have changed. These days, when some of our most popular comics look into their souls--and ours--they don't find the marshmallow center of unheroic sweetness and shared human vulnerability at all. Instead they find nastiness and the relentless urge to inflict discomfort on anyone who displeases them. They proclaim their rudeness, vulgarity and meanness as emotional honesty, presenting themselves as champions of instant catharsis.

What distinguishes both the most popular figure on screen today, Jim Carrey, and on the air, Howard Stern, is their belief that what unites the human race is not our shared vulnerability but our basic dislike of one another as well as disgust with ourselves. As heroes of vulgar excess, they delight in comedy that levels us most completely by expressing the forbidden but universal: the private body functions we share and hide.

Shock-jock Howard Stern is the court jester of dirty words. Now the hit movie Private Parts , directed by Betty Thomas, has been fashioned from his autobiography. Playing themselves, Stern and his naughty cohorts ask us to congratulate them for overcoming the forces of censorship and saying whatever they want to say over the radio--even politically incorrect racial comments!--even the seven forbidden bathroom words!!--as if celebrating the final victory of the id over the superego.

The movie shows Stern as a homely and gangly kid, who has been told to shut up 50,000 times by his father, has an exceptionally small penis (which obsesses him) and an overwhelming attraction to big-breasted blonds. Determined to be loved and even worshiped, he found early on that he could best get the world's attention by being as outrageous as possible. So he became the disk jockey known as an "obnoxious, racist, sexist brat with the emotional maturity of a 3-year-old." The problem is that now that he has become a total success and the world has met his insatiable need for attention, he is intent on convincing us that his celebrity is doing us some sort of good.

Stern's favorite targets are those puffed up with piety, hypocrisy, hyperdelicate sensibilities or other forms of arrogant moral superiority. He says openly what others think but are too polite to voice: as a guest at Marla's wedding to The Donald, Stern told the press he gave the marriage four months. His goal is merely to get attention, and he will shock us into noticing him just as readily with scatological assaults as with novel sociopolitical insights or his endless self-promotion.

The high points of Stern's career, according to the movie, include giving a caller an orgasm by having her sit on a woofer while he turns up the bass, conducting his show nude with a nude guest, creating sound effects for lesbian pornography, engaging in an on-air fistfight with his boss and describing to his millions of listeners his wife's miscarriage in a toilet bowl. …