The Late Show

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Howard Stern gave a remarkable two-part interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. In terms of cultural encounters, that’s interesting in and of itself.

A good many social conservatives — OK, I’ll own this — have usually found it easier to think of Stern as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. If he was not one of the four horsemen, he was the nearly naked drunken guy dancing with abandon somewhere in the end times parade, much to the delight of those citizens who think of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street as the cultural high point of the year.

Writing in “Prophet of All Media” for Tablet, Liel Leibovitz makes an argument that, like Stern, is provocative. Leibovitz repeatedly compares Stern to Judaism’s prophets, and he begins with an earthy tale straight out of the Talmud about a prostitute who breaks wind and delivers a related prophetic word to her client, a rabbi.

“And it’s just the sort of story that makes the seminal text of Jewish life — often introduced to young yeshiva students as an account of God’s own mind — so transcendent,” he writes. “To imbue humans with wisdom, the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud realized, you need more than just a commandment; if you want humans to listen and learn, you have to embrace all the appetites and the oddities that make them human. Try to talk to us about the labors of redemption, and we might scoff at such haughty moralizing or slink away from the effort it demands. Deliver it in a good yarn about a farting prostitute, and we’re bound to laugh, think, and empathize.”

Much of Leibovitz’s argument continues in this vein, leaving the impression that apart from the occasionally unkind or crude remark, Stern surely joins the farting prostitute in having a heart of gold.

In time, however, Leibovitz reaches the mother lode of his case, with a comparison for all Americans who have set NPR as the first station on the audio devices built into their automobile dashboards. Leibovitz goes so far as to compare Stern to Terry Gross — not by mentioning their most recent interview, but by comparing the cultural effects of their respective style of interviews.

This is very long, but essential. Media professionals, let us attend:

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At this point, why would journalists ignore faith issues in Colbert's life? (updated)

At this point, why would journalists ignore faith issues in Colbert's life? (updated)

As far as I am concerned, there was journalism about comedian Stephen Colbert before the GQ cover story by Joel Lovell -- "The Late, Great Stephen Colbert" -- and then there is journalism on this subject after that piece.

It's not that this was some kind of stunning investigation into Colbert's career, his finances, his alleged politics, etc., etc. It's not even that this story covered totally new material about Colbert's faith and family history.

Trust me. I've had a research folder open on Colbert and Catholicism since 2005 or thereabouts and I've read most of the crucial speeches and interviews in which he talks about his beliefs. I have a pretty big collection of iTunes selections and Comedy Central URLs that feature revealing quips and comments. I've written some columns on this guy and led seminar sessions focusing on the debates about his work.

What made this interview special was the depth of the comments and the way in which they linked the wounds in Colbert's past to the strengths of his comic sensibility today. It was really quite stunning, even for people (I've heard from some) who didn't take Colbert all that seriously in the past. 

After that interview, why would journalists for a major news organization -- The New York Times leaps to mind  -- fail to explore the God questions (and answers) that haunt this guy? In a major magazine feature before his arrival last night on CBS, this is what the Times team offered while trying to talk about the "humanity" that Colbert has hidden in the past:

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