Howard Stern makes his debut Monday night as a judge on NBC’s "America's Got Talent," in what might seem to some the oddest turn in a serpentine, 35-year mad comic dash through the show business maze.
The move, though, is a natural for a groundbreaking (and shaking) entertainer who has carved a career out of judging others. Still, for the jester who long ago crowned himself the King of All Media, the success of his stint on "AGT" depends on whether he can pull off the toughest juggling act of his public life.
Stern's challenge is to wield his blunt brand of sarcasm wisely so that his fans still love him (and not accuse him of selling out) while others learn to love to hate him (and not simply cringe when they see him) – a tack that worked well for years for the far less witty Simon Cowell.
We're betting Stern is smart enough to recognize that the panel in front of a studio audience and millions of TV viewers is a far different perch than his clubby radio studio. On "AGT," Stern will be a major attraction, but he's not the star of the show. He's sharing the spotlight not only with rival outsized personalities Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel, but with a bevy of performing hopefuls of various talent levels – and ages. As we've seen with “American Idol,” the long-term success of TV competition programs depend far more on the quality of the performers than the star power of the panelists.
Stern is a seasoned broadcaster who, little doubt, will control his cruder impulses and not cause any FCC trouble for “AGT.” But his crueler tendencies could prove more difficult to keep in check, especially as he tries to play to the crowd.
He needs to particularly watch his tone when evaluating the youngest of contestants, whose presence marks perhaps the biggest departure for Stern. On his radio show, the in-person recipients of his legendary tongue-lashings are his hired lackeys, seasoned entertainers playing along with the joke or wannabes who arrive willingly to endure humiliation for exposure on what can turn into, at times, a hilarious freak show.
Stern knows some are expecting the worst from him as he replaces Piers Morgan on "AGT". He’s also confident of what he brings to the judges' table. "I'm a compassionate person," he said recently on the “Today” show. "But there's also honesty. I'm an honest judge, and that's what I think America needs. No more of this kind of, 'Oh, I think everyone's wonderful.' Everyone can't be wonderful."
The “AGT” gig bodes to be the most meta media experience yet for Stern, whose career built on unfiltered, often stream-of-conscious honesty has spanned radio (terrestrial and satellite), TV, books, movies and the Internet. After all, he's long hosted his own perverse talent contests within his own program – "Butt Bongo" anyone? And the Reality TV genre – including its talent show subset – has provided much fodder for his morning rants in recent years.
Sure, Howard Stern’s got talent – and he knows it when he sees it. But for all the critiques Stern will offer in the weeks to come, the audience ultimately will judge whether his turn on "AGT” is his crowning achievement or the beginning of the end of his reign.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.