“There are things that I won’t do on the radio,” shock jock Howard Stern once said, “I mean, the next logical question is, ‘What won’t you do?’ I say, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got to find out when you’re on the air’.” There is an inherent hazard to this notion that Stern is also quick to recognise: “I’m on the air five hours, and I blurt out anything in my head. Dangerous? Maybe.”
When it comes to the origin of his feud with Dolly Parton you can swap that ‘Dangerous? Maybe’ for a ‘Dangerous? Definitely’ and then some. Worse still, the wildly offensive outburst was not something that merely popped into his head unfiltered in a grasp for content or on the spur of the moment, it was a pre-recorded orchestrated attack that he openly considered, and then decided to broadcast.
Naturally, offence is Stern’s schtick, it comes with the territory of being a shock jock, but on this occasion, he even seemed to go one step beyond that, dropping the jock and entering the territory of offensive schoolyard fodder. The skit in question saw Stern and his team recut excepts from Dolly Parton’s audiobook, My Life and Other Unfinished Business, into racially charged, and sexually vulgar slander against Parton and a range of other celebrities mentioned in her book.
Parton responded to hearing the clip by stating: “I have never been so shocked, hurt and humiliated in all my life. I cannot believe what Howard Stern has done to me. In a blue million years, I would never have such vulgar things come out of my mouth. They have done editing or some sort of trickery to make this horrible, horrible thing.”
While the editing is self-apparent thusly it is clear that the content has nothing to do with Parton herself, it was nevertheless damaging and distressing for her to have her name associated with racially aggravated humour – including multiple uses of the n-word – and paedophilic acts measured against her friends and other innocent parties.
At the time, Parton was 63 years old, and she commented: “If there was ever going to be a lawsuit, it’s going to be over this.” While it seems that no lawsuit was filed regarding the matter, Parton was certainly distressed by the incident and told her fans, “Please accept my apology for them and certainly know I had nothing to do with this.”
Stern, however, never fully openly apologised. Albeit it has since been speculated that Parton may have been one of the people he mentioned reaching out to personally to express his regret in his 2019 memoir. Instead, at the time he merely commented: “It’s an absurd bit… It’s obviously parody and it’s funny as hell.” Indeed, it is true that it is obviously a skit, but does that excuse the content itself?
Well, reams have been written on the subject of offence in comedy, but on this occasion, there is very little moral ambiguity when it comes to condemning Stern’s crass collection of hackneyed clips at the expense of others. This isn’t a new woke debate or the death of comedy. Even in 1600s, Matthew Henry was making applicable comments: “Those that have so much power over others as to be able to oppress them have seldom so much over themselves as not to oppress.”
In other words, we get it, Howard Stern, it was an absurd bit, and it’s subverting the clean image of Parton, but with such a vast platform would it not have been better to avoid the obvious offence that would be caused by uncontextualized racism and comments about sexual abuse and sensor yourself for a moment to rearrange the clips in some other absurdist way that didn’t perpetuate vehicles of oppression.
All that being said, it is also pertinent to add that this was in the past and has since been addressed, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t learn something from it and that it should be dismissed as revisionist.
You can listen to the offensive sketch below, but please note that discretion is advised owing to the racist language and paedophilic reference made within the clip.