"Gabba gabba/ We accept you/ We accept you/ One of us." — The Ramones, "Pinhead"
NEW YORK — It's not every day that you see a crackhead walking the red carpet.
OK, on second thought, it's not every day that you see a professional crackhead walking the red carpet. But there was Crackhead Bob, flanked by Jeff the Drunk, High Pitch Eric, Gary the Retard, Elephant Boy and a gaggle of oddballs and curiosities as the Howard Stern Film Festival unfurled its banner for one night only in the heart of midtown Manhattan on Thursday. And at the center of it all, there was Howard Stern, beaming like a proud papa (or perhaps Dr. Moreau) as his self-styled "revolution" reached again into fresh terrain.
"We've had 3.5 million people make the jump to satellite so far," Stern said on the red carpet at New York's Hudson Theater. "What could be more gratifying than that?"
Undoubtedly, two dedicated satellite channels and your own on-demand television network feels kind of nice. Your very own film festival with an avalanche of listener-produced films (more than 2,200 in all, according to Stern) jockeying for a spot in the final nine probably provides a bit of validation too (or perhaps vindication for the often revenge-minded Stern).
It's fitting that Stern's affair took place as Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival unspooled just a few miles away in downtown Manhattan. There, Oscar winners and A-listers rubbed elbows while eagerly awaited films were screened for the first time. At Stern's fete, a man in a dingy clown suit shouted obscenities from the audience during lulls between films. "This is clearly the more prestigious event," Stern's largely silent sidekick Fred Norris quipped on the red carpet.
"The Tribeca Film Festival is over," Stern added. "People want access. The Tribeca Film Festival is too commercial. This is the one where the next great comedy directors will be discovered. This is good for New York, and it's good for the listeners. They get to come down here, participate, make creative films, and all the films are about me. What better topic is there?"
Others had a different take. "The main difference between this and the Tribeca Film Festival is that our films suck," barked Stern sidekick Artie Lange, who admitted that he prepped for his role as the night's MC by downing shots of whiskey at a nearby barbecue joint.
Lange, Norris and the rest of Stern's core crew (newswoman and sidekick Robin Quivers and long-suffering producer Gary "Bababooey" Dell'Abate) may not be Tribeca material, but they are royalty in the Stern universe. They inspire Web sites, tattoos and, on this night, short films. They also served as the evening's judges, combing through thousands of fan-produced entries to settle on the night's nine finalists.
For the final round, the group came dangerously close to upping its credibility by bringing in film critic Richard Roeper (of "Ebert & Roeper"), director Todd Phillips ("Old School," "Road Trip") and actor/comedian Richard Belzer ("Law & Order," "Homicide: Life on the Street") to round out the panel of judges.
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But the night's real stars were the filmmakers, all longtime Stern fans finding inspiration in the embattled jock. The shorts (clocking in at less than five minutes, per contest rules) proved to be more polished and more diverse than most might have expected. It's not surprising that a few set new lows in gross-out humor (two men communicate only through flatulence, a man is murdered while masturbating, and a puppet exposes himself to a group of children), but others took their love of Stern into fresh territory.
Chris Pitchford's "Trapped in the Attic" found an obsessed fan forcing his victims to help out in Stern show re-enactments that would make Rupert Pupkin queasy, while Lee Vehe's "Stern's Revenge" shows the jock finally taking a bit of long-promised retribution against one of his radio rivals. Meanwhile, Matt Street went the documentary route with a riotous "Super Size Me"-like short in which he creates a female online persona and woos a Stern show cast member, only to reveal his manhood during a private webcam chat.
But after the parade of flatulence, masturbation and sodomy gags, it was perhaps the night's most shocking entry — a warm imagining of childhood versions of Howard, Fred and Robin meeting on the ham radio airwaves more than 40 years ago — that took the night's top prize. Director Scott Masterson's "Radio Play" managed to earn laughs, a few watery eyes and a standing ovation during its brief runtime. It also earned the aspiring filmmaker from Massachusetts more than $35,000 in cash and film gear.
Masterson won kudos from Roeper, Phillips and the entire panel of judges for his pacing, technical proficiency and masterful handling of the film's child actors, but it may have been his simple crystallization of all things Stern that earned him first place. This was not your average freak show — Stern events never are. The objects of curiosity and ridicule aren't separated from the audience; they are the audience. The freaks aren't just on the stage; they are all around us — hell, they are us. This is, of course, seemingly Stern's chief appeal.
In a way, we're all weirdoes, and no one knows that better than King Howard the Weird. As quick to self-flagellate as he is to self-congratulate, Stern is flawed, weak, neurotic, needy, scared, insecure and, most importantly, proud of it. He's an outsider who's managed to build a safe haven for his fellow social refugees where the mockery flows freely and evenly, all are included, and no one is spared.
It's that spirit that Masterson captured with his vision of an 8-year-old Stern sitting alone in his room, reaching out across the empty airwaves and finding two other awkward souls to join him for a little while. Of course, Howard's grown since then (as has his audience), but he remains ever the outcast — one of us, it seems.
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