Joke Man: Life After Howard Stern

An essential component of radio has been lost. Radio was better at comedy than podcasts could ever be because of the installed drama. At the height of radio, let’s call that the ’90s in this case, the personalities behind a radio show played to the audience much like professional wrestlers practice what they call ‘kayfabe,’ meaning that we suspend disbelief in order to engage in the theatrics being performed for us. No show quite understood the complex audience-performer relationship like The Howard Stern Show, a show built on a performative basis of brutal honesty and boundary-pushing comedy that broke all of the very much written and prescribed rules of radio. The show was constantly fined, received every stripe of negative and positive press, and seemed to drive the cultural conversation around entertainment media throughout the whole of the ’90s. A radio show did that. You could not even imagine a podcast creating any kind of mono-cultural conversation at any scale at any point in time. But folks listened to Stern in the morning, brought what they heard with them the rest of the day, and had to talk about it. This often involved the direct inner-personal drama of the show’s cast.

Nobody was ribbed on the show quite as often as Jackie Martling, Howard’s head writer during his greatest moments of popularity. The on-show drama on The Stern Show is always directed inwardly. The best drama was, in fact, not the rabble-rousing media-baiting the show did, but the dynamics of the larger cast and how they grated on each other and so often blew up in spectacular fashion with the tension of live radio spurring them on. Some of the most compelling moments of 1990s radio were created on this show in this way and Jackie the Joke Man was Howard’s number one target.

He makes for an easy target. His gimmick is one-dimensional for sure: he has one of the fastest minds for comedy and endless retention of jokes. Martling’s greatest talent was that he could be fully engaged in the back-and-forth of the wildly fast-paced radio show, all while quickly writing jokes for Howard, and then still exploding with hyena-like laughter in response to his own jokes, like he has just heard them for the first time. The Joke Man and the King of All Media, as Jackie and Howard called themselves, were a formative match for radio dynamics, their relationship playing out in ways that were amusing to the audience but as this documentary reveals, were darker and truer for the people on the butt end of the jokes.

What Joke Man misses most of all is the show itself. It doesn’t have any clips of Martling’s greatest moments in his career. It is a career retrospective without the material meat that someone greatly invested in the subject, such as a loyal listener, would want for the show. Meanwhile, by shying away from or not being able to tap into the resources of Martling’s best work, it’s hard to imagine someone totally new to the subject even getting the point.

You’d almost be better off watching career highlights. Watch a tumultuous confrontation where Howard grills Jackie for a whole hour. This clip will explain everything about the dynamic. There is a great play here, where it’s obvious from the start: this is going to be a long processing of business ethics, done publicly. Howard dresses Jackie down for an entire hour and all the while Jackie continues writing him jokes. That is part of the genius. It is also the darkness of being the third chair on a shock radio program. You are immediately made the target: inside the inner circle but just outside enough to be the target. Watch as the show brings out puppets of their secondary characters, hilarious small versions of Jackie and producer Gary Dell’Abate, and then uses these puppets to mock the staff. Somehow puppets make great radio.

The other notable thing about Jackie Martling, besides the often-amusing live takedowns, is how he left the show. There are several versions of what happened. Jackie was the rare person on radio who asked for more money every year, as the show continued to grow in wealth, and everyone else but Howard’s payroll stayed the same. Eventually, they did not want to match his high demands. The other thing that happens, that the documentary does cover, is this long system of being broken down on air and living and breathing the show, having no separation between show and life, eventually taking its toll. It took the same toll as it took on Artie Lange in his uneven stunt on the Stern show, where he struggled desperately with addiction and the show eventually wore him down until he was using heroin, cocaine, and alcohol before going live on air.

There is a dark side to this entertainment. People who came out of it worse for wear. There is a darkness in the insistence on brutal honesty without regards to human costs. That’s partly what the documentary is about and the other, less surprising, thing it is about is a man who just can’t stop telling jokes. It’s almost become an impulse beyond his control. No matter where he goes and what he does, Jackie would be telling the same jokes. And it’s a way of being. The way this is all cut together, highlighting largely Jackie’s stand-up comedy – he’s just a punchline guy, so it’s just the jokes. Martling always needed his Stern, a counterpoint and give-and-take against his stream of pure comedy and sharp, fast writing. Without a counterweight, it is just a study in how to write a simple joke that always goes over.

Not every documentary benefits the subjects. I don’t feel like Joke Man either expands our relationship to Jackie Martling more than listening to old clips would do or creates any new context by which to understand the comedian by. It’s also too basic in its approach with comedian friends as talking heads who just say the things we are already seeing and anyone would take away about Jackie. The great thing about Jackie’s career is all of the stuff we do not get to see or hear again here. Joke Man flattens out here, not quite invested enough to find new answers and too trusting to let the subject and friends guide the filmmaking without any hard questions or new ideas pressed. A missed opportunity as this whole era of radio deserves more clever documentary and there are more interesting stories to explore here than a basic biography of Jackie after his time on the Stern Show. For fans or newcomers, the same thing has always been true: the best way to experience it is just to listen.


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