Private Parts is Stern's valentine to his wife, Alison -- and to himself; it functions almost as a propaganda film, his way of proving to the world that he's more than just a walking dick joke. The man who once wished AIDS upon Mark and Brian, his competitors in L.A., and who once begged for longtime rival Don Imus to get cancer and die a horrible death now wants to be liked. He's downright thrilled the film has tested well, that critics have received it warmly during junket interviews.

Meet the new Howard Stern, mensch.
"Well, I am your friend, though," Stern says. "In fact, someone said to me the other day, 'When I met you, I felt like I knew more about you than I do even my own family.' It's true. I am being genuine when I'm on the air, I am telling the truth and letting down my guard for a purpose. I never saw myself as a celebrity, and I'm still not a celebrity in my mind. I look at it like I'm a guy who's just gonna tell you everything that's in my head and stop worrying about image. My image is I'll do that, so if I don't do that I no longer have a career.

"I can't imagine that someone wouldn't feel like they didn't know me. You do know me. You know my every thought. In some ways, you know me better than my wife, because I go home and I lie to my wife sometimes. I talk about my masturbation with you on the air, but when I go home and my wife asks me, 'Do you masturbate?' I go, 'No.' I know I'm playacting in my real life. I know I'm being honest on the radio."

And therein lies the true appeal of the radio program: It's not about the silicone peaks and tawdry valleys. It's about the way Stern has somehow turned his little show into a clubhouse where he and his pals bitch about their wives, whine about their sexual problems, reveal the most intimate parts of their lives without hesitation.

His longtime co-host, "newswoman" Robin Quivers, has yet to live down the revelation, included in her own best-selling book, Quivers: A Life, that her father molested her with "ham hands." Sound-effects wizard Fred Norris' failing relationship with his wife, Allison Furman, whom he met during a Dial-a-Date segment, has become almost weekly fodder. Listeners know how well producer Gary Dell'Abate and his wife, Mary, are doing as they raise their first son, Jackson. And head writer Jackie Martling suffers endless ribbing about the show-biz aspirations of his wife, Nancy, who sells her albums through Martling's own 1-900 line and Internet page.

The Howard Stern show is, for lack of a better description, an unexpurgated soap opera with Stern as the catalyst, his colleagues as his supporting cast. "You know as much about us as you probably know about your friends," says Martling, who began as a once-a-week contributor to Stern's WNBC show. "And I'm not sure Howard thought that would even happen at the beginning."

Stern may well goad women to take off their clothes every morning, checking to see if their breasts are real or implanted, but he and his cronies are the ones who are truly exposed -- naked, if you will -- every single second of every day. But therein lies the great contradiction: You know only what Stern wants you to know. He keeps his most private parts to himself.

"People come up to me all the time and go, 'I'm just like you,' " Stern says. "In fact, when I was talking to directors -- this was before Ivan got involved with Betty, when I was in earlier incarnations of the script -- I would meet with directors, and a guy would come up to me and go, 'I'm just like you.' These guys were not like me, and I get that all the time. You're selective because you still have to entertain, [but] you still have to have your private life."

Howard Stern remains good friends with David Letterman, the first man to expose Stern to an audience outside New York. When Stern was working at WNBC in the mid-'80s, he regularly showed up on Late Night. He was a wacked-out bar mitzvah boy, Jewfro and all, in Hell's Angels garb, and Letterman seemed endlessly amused by Stern's bad-boy rants.

They would often speak on the phone about, among other things, their disdain for NBC and their affection for broadcasting. Letterman had aspired to take the late-night throne from Johnny Carson since he was a kid in Indiana. Stern, by contrast, had been attracted to radio since the days his father, Ben, would drag him from Long Island to New York, where Ben worked as a radio engineer and, later, as a sound technician with such show-biz legends as Don Adams (then the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo) and Wally Cox (Underdog).

This love for the broadcasting tradition is what elevates Stern above the morning-show hacks who glut radio with sophomoric humor that lacks any true intelligence or underlying passion -- just as it's the thing that makes Letterman a superior host to Jay Leno.

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