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Interesting article about whether swears (and sex) become passe if not kept in check:

Stern's raunchy debut raises eyebrows, questions

Some wonder if his anything-goes radio show will lose its shock value

By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
January 12, 2006

CHICAGO -- The words tumbled out in a torrent -- vulgar descriptions of body parts, bodily functions and the kinkiest sexual practices.

The speakers seemed to revel in the telling, reiterating the blue phrases like a mantra, then laughing uproariously at each repetition.

But was it funny? Was it supposed to be?

Each listener who tuned in Monday morning to Howard Stern's debut on Sirius Satellite Radio answered those questions individually for humor remains as subjective as any other art form.

Yet to those who work in comedy, Stern -- and those who follow him into the anything-goes realm of satellite radio -- faces a steep artistic challenge.

For if anyone on satellite can say anything, will audiences be amused by streams of profanity for very long?

"My experience is that unless you keep some kind of taboo, you lose the force of any kind of language," said Bernard Sahlins, co-founder of Chicago's long-standing comedy troupe Second City, interviewed before Stern's satellite debut.

"If the language becomes generally broadcast, approved, misused, it becomes meaningless.

"It has neither mystery nor effectiveness."

Though the effectiveness of Stern's freshman show on Sirius is open to debate, any sense of mystery surely was obliterated by the freedom of the medium. Because the Federal Communications Commission does not subject satellite radio to the same indecency regulations as terrestrial broadcasting, Stern and his longtime cast members blared words that would have been bleeped when he was on free radio.

'No teacher, no fun'

In the past, the constant editing of censored words not only left listeners wondering exactly what was being said -- and how outrageous the conversation was becoming -- but also gave Stern something to protest.

He often would rail at length about how his art was being ruined by Clear Channel Communications Inc., which pulled him from several stations last year, and the FCC, which fined the company $1.75 million for violations by him and others.

The protestations brought tension and excitement to the broadcasts, Stern likening himself to Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and other comic geniuses who were punished -- in one way or another -- for violating restrictions of speech that they abhorred.

With Stern and his gang free to speak as if they were broadcasting from a frat house after the beer keg has been drained, the man had no one to complain about and riffed freely in the saltiest terms imaginable. But it would be a stretch to call these soliloquies great art.

"If you look at any of the great comedies, the boundary of what's allowed is what makes it funny," said Mancow Muller, morning host on WKQX-FM.

"The fun for me is upsetting the suits, upsetting the middle management guys.

"All of us jocks are basically class clowns. But if there's no teacher, it's no fun."

As for Stern, "I think he's in a bind now," said veteran comedian Richard Lewis, who appeared frequently on Stern's show on terrestrial radio, in an interview last week.

"He's already shown he has greatness," added Lewis, pointing to Stern's gifts with political and social satire and his virtuosity in defrocking pompous celebrities.

"Short of having just a radio porn movie, how far can he go?"

Pushing the envelope

Quite far, judging by Monday's premiere. In one astonishingly audacious fantasy, an impersonator of David Letterman -- dubbed Evil Dave -- engaged in a phone-sex sketch involving descriptions of Martha Stewart and certain anatomically impossible events.

There's no question, however, that, in the short term, at least, audiences have been intrigued by the possibility of hearing X-rated radio uncensored.

New York-based Sirius announced Jan. 5 that it ended 2005 with more than 3.3 million subscribers, up from 1.1 million a year earlier. The firm gave a great deal of the credit to Stern, rewarding him with 34 million shares of stock worth about $220 million.

Moreover, audiences have been flocking to acquire the equipment needed to receive Stern's satellite signal.

And Stern repeatedly complained on air Monday that potential listeners were having to wait up to nine hours over the weekend to sign up for Sirius accounts.

Yet apart from esthetic debates on the nature of Stern's show, many observers believe that the expressive freedom satellite radio allows ultimately will benefit the art of comedy, as articulated on the airwaves.

"Howard still wants to push the envelope, and more power to him," Tim Clue, a veteran comic and playwright based in Chicago, said last week.

"There used to be a time when there was a vibrancy to (free) radio, but it's just not what it used to be.

"And I think that era is gone because of what has happened to media -- it has become a big corporation.

"Clear Channel never is going to find someone like Stern.

"How are they going to find funny, creative, interesting people if they don't have a format where they have experimentation?

"Howard can chip away at that because, hopefully, he'll create opportunities for other people who might be completely different than him."

Indeed, part of Stern's five-year deal with Sirius specifically involves his bringing other jocks onto Sirius channels.

As his first act, he engaged "Bubba the Love Sponge" (aka Tom Clem), who was fired two years ago by Clear Channel for graphic descriptions of drugs and sex.

It will take a while, however, to see whether the no-holds-barred approach has legs.

"There's only one rule in comedy: Be funny," said veteran comic Tom Dreesen, speaking before Stern went on the air.

"For someone like a Howard Stern, this job could be made in heaven.

"Or it could show that this kind of humor might only be funny because it was forbidden.

"We'll soon find out."

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I've listened all week long and can say that the new show is nothing short of fantastic... it's the EXACT SAME SHOW HE DID BEFORE, except now instead of losing 10 seconds here and there to censors, it's all intact. No longer will **** be called "doody," but they're not taking it overboard. It's just like listening to REGULAR adults talk like REGULAR adults. No more kiddie talk for bodily functions that we all perform on a daily basis.

And the addition of George Takei to the on-air staff is the best thing ever. He departs this week and will occasionally appear live, but he's now the announcer that will be doing a majority of the voice-over work.
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