I am a Howard Stern fan. The name on my Safeway card is Nina Bababooey so that when I check out, the cashier is forced to say thank you Ms. Bababooey. I went to a taping of America’s Got Talent just to see Howard Stern. I sat with complete strangers where we immediately bonded and shouted as loud as we could, “F Jackie” and “four inches is fine.” Stern made me a Lady Gaga fan and periodically makes me cry on my way to work when he and Robin talk about her struggles with cancer and the genuine affection they have for one another. How did someone who identifies as a militant Disabled feminist become such a stern fan? You mean the answer isn’t obvious? Let me explain.
It all started in the late 1980s. I was in high school. I was a weird girl. It wasn’t because I had a learning disability and stuttered. It was because I was into unusual things that not even my unusual peers were into. I loved comedy. The men I were in love with were all stand up comedians with my biggest crush being Barry Sobel, a stand up comedian who got his start in San Francisco and appeared on the Tonight Show. Not surprisingly, I was the only girl at school writing, “I <3 Barry Sobel” on my binders. My high school years were spent taping comedy from HBO half hour comedy specials, watching SNL and listening to the Alex Bennett show where local comedians from the San Francisco Bay Area appeared, many who I am happy to say I have been able to work with. My role models for women were Laverne DeFazio, not Madonna or Debbie Gibson. The one piece missing for me was someone to look up to who had a disability similar to mine.
When I was nine years old I saw my first person, other than me, who stuttered. It was Raider’s cornerback Lester Hayes. He had an amazing game where he did something amazing and then he was interviewed, and that was the amazing part for me. My dad shouted at me, “look at the TV!” Lester Hayes was being interviewed and stuttered! Instead of pride, I thought to myself, “tomorrow at school everyone is going to make fun of him.” I found out the next day that no one cared. Your accolades overshadow your disabilities. As cool as it was to see someone stutter on TV, I didn’t relate much to him. I didn’t care much for sports, as much as the Raiders were thrusted upon me (my brother saw my dad cry at an exhibition game when the then LA Raiders returned for one night to play the 49ers at the Oakland Coliseum). A male football player didn’t really do it for me. There was also country singer Mel Tillis who I love now because of his songwriting and music, but as many times as I saw Cannonball Run as a young girl, I just couldn’t relate to him. I spent the remainder of my childhood identifying most with Porky Pig and the occasional badly acted stutterers on shows like Small Wonder where someone who stutters appeared for one very special episode.
One night when I was about 15 years old I saw him. I was watching a show from a New York station on my local cable channel. It was Howard Stern’s Channel 9 show. The show was funny, but what stuck out to me was a guy on it who stuttered. He interviewed people, asking them horrible things. They both reacted to his speech as well as the awful things he asked. The reactions were reactions that I knew way too well and had never seen this level of my experience reflected on TV. The person doing the interviews was “Stuttering John” [Melendez]. There was a very, very, very small window of time when Stuttering John was cute and he entered my life at exactly that time. He was no Barry Sobel, but he was cute and he stuttered. Stern, Fred (writer on the show) and others made fun of John, but it didn’t feel horrible. It wasn’t like he was a victim in being made fun of, instead it felt like inclusion. It would have been weird for them to give him a pass and not make fun of his speech. If Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’abate was made fun of because of his teeth and looking like Oates (from Hall and Oates), then John’s stuttering was fair game. That’s right, the first time I saw someone on TV who stuttered who I could relate to was being made fun of on the Howard Stern show. Since he was a recurring character, unlike the numerous other one time characters with a disability, I was able to watch every week, looking forward to someone who talked like me on TV.
Seeing Stuttering John helped me with my own my stuttering. It was the first time that I saw someone be dysfluent and it was ok, in fact even celebrated (ok, made fun of but he was part of the joke). He purged people’s attitudes about stuttering. I remember the day I started hating Chevy Chase. It was when he was on the Tonight Show and he commented on Raquel Welch punching Stuttering John. He asked if the punch cured his stuttering. Thanks Chevy, we really want to connect violence toward stutterers with fluency. I don’t care if National Lampoon’s Vacation is a great movie and that you were one of the first cast of Not Ready for Prime Time Players. You are on my shit list Chevy Chase. You can thank Stuttering John for that.
The relationship with the Howard Stern show began then. I have been listening ever since. About ten years after I found the channel 9 show, Stern had another stuttering first for me. He had on a young woman who sold hot dogs out of a cart in a bikini. She also stuttered and her name was Nina (that’s my name in case you didn’t know). It was actually the first time on TV I saw a woman who stuttered (I was about 23 years old). More men than women stutter (1:4 ratio in adults), so the representation of women who stutter is small, plus I don’t think the media represents us. I sometimes think that if you have more than one identity TV executives think people’s heads will explode so representations of stuttering are usually white men. We almost had an Asian American female who stuttered on Glee but she was faking it on the show (Glee, you are also on my shit list). So seeing Nina the hot, hot dog girl was a big deal for me. There was misinformation in the interview, like Stern saying that stuttering is a psychological problem. He is wrong, it is neurological. But I was able to see a woman on TV who talked like me and even stuttered on “Nina”.
Many see Howard Stern through a sexist, ableist (that is the term for abled bodied bias) lens. They hear snippets of the show that then color their entire perception of the show and Stern. He makes fun of people with disabilities, but they are also on the show and represent holistic experiences of life. They have sex, they can be assholes, they experience more than just being inspirational images to abled bodied people (the predominant image in our media). On the topic of sexism and Stern, I have mixed feelings. It seems like much of the sexism now is represented in the cast of players like Ronnie the Limo Driver who objectifies women but is criticized for it. This is different from Stern’s more shock-jock persona of the 1980s. I have seen Stern and the people on his show change. They acknowledge the language of the disability community (and sometimes integrate it into their speech). I have also seen the impact that this level of visibility has had.
Many times I’m asked, after I get off stage from doing stand up, “Can I ask you a personal question?” Most other situations this is bound to be something awful about curing my stuttering, but when it comes from a Stern fan, they respectfully ask, “Have you ever considered contacting the Howard Stern Show?” We immediately bond. They have already met someone who stutters because of the Stern show, so they already know how to react (and often how not to react) to my speech. I am thankful to Stern for including people like me. Of course, I don’t speak for all people who stutter. Some might be extremely offended in Fred mocking Stuttering John’s speech, but for me, when there is genuine love for one another some making fun is ok, because it can express affection (perhaps it is an Italian thing). It is why my good friends in comedy can mock me all they want but if you are not friends with me, and we don’t have love, then you will be on my shit list with Chevy Chase and the producers of Glee.
Finding people who can fulfill your need to identify when you are a person with a disability can be difficult. Sure, I would love to have had other options to find my identity as a woman who stutters, but they were not available. As I always like to emphasize, when a Disabled feminist says the only place she saw herself reflected was on the Howard Stern show, you know there is great room for the media to improve.
In case you can relate to a Football player who stutters, here you go: http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-films-americas-game/09000d5d8008cd0c/America-s-Game-1980-Raiders