The Hammerstein Ballroom was originally constructed as an opera house and, in the eyes of founder Oscar Hammerstein, was meant to return a stuffy art form back to the people. On Friday night, a reversal occurred when Howard Stern, the definitive American radio personality for two generations, found his populist form elevated by a staggering stream of boldfaced names who paid tribute to him on the occasion of his 60th birthday.
Hosted and broadcast live via SiriusXM, Stern’s home for the last eight years, the Howard Stern Birthday Bash filled the Ballroom with famous faces and crowded its stage with comedians, musicians, and fellow broadcasters to celebrate Stern’s life and career, which has evolved from the juvenile rabble-rousing of his early terrestrial life to the statelier (but still brutally honest) conversations of the satellite era. Sure, the Wack Pack was in the building, but so was Robert Downey, Jr., Larry King, Barbara Walters, Harvey Weinstein, and Hilary Swank — and that was mostly at one table.
Even as people were still streaming in, Rob Zombie got the evening started on time with a pounding run through “American Nightmare,” the song he contributed to Stern’s 1997 biopic Private Parts. Stern favorite George Takei introduced the guests of honor, including Stern, broadcast partner Robin Quivers, and the evening’s emcee, Jimmy Kimmel. Though the evening was mostly focused on famous friends and former enemies wishing Stern a happy birthday, the musical performances provided the evening’s biggest highlights and surprises.
Johnny Knoxville introduced the Black Keys, who dropped in to shimmy through “Lonely Boy” before their full-length set at nearby Roseland Ballroom later in the evening. Though the VIPs situated on Hammerstein’s floor were often distracted during the proceedings, the Keys inspired quite a few famous people to dance along to their bluesy groove.
Many performers chose to bust out covers of some of Stern’s favorite songs as birthday gifts, which is why John Mayer soloed over Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” during his performance slot (during his introduction, Kimmel noted that Mayer had been busy “f—ing his way through Us Magazine“) and Adam Levine took on Prince’s “Purple Rain” during his time. They were both backed by Train, who served as the house band (they also backed up Jon Bon Jovi on “Wanted Dead or Alive,” during which Train frontman Pat Monahan revealed he sounds more like Bon Jovi than Bon Jovi himself these days) and got a spotlight to themselves when they played “Drive By” and Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” later in the show.
Train got a break during the middle part of the evening when a stream of acoustic performances hit the stage. Fred Armisen showed up to play the Beatles’ “Blackbird” poorly in a strange meta riff, and Sarah Silverman teamed up with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines for an funny, filthy original tune about Stern’s show called “Stop the Clock.” In the unexpected highlight of the evening, Stern favorite Jewel (one of the first things Stern did after his introduction was compliment her breasts) took the stage to play “Silver Nickels and Golden Dimes,” a song Stern wrote when he was in sixth grade. She managed to turn the crude tune into a lovely showstopper, and most everybody in the room — from Stern to Dave Grohl — marveled at the transformation.
Grohl came back later for a chat and a pair of acoustic numbers: “Everlong,” which he first played unplugged on Stern’s show back in 1998 and saw that version become a big modern rock radio hit, and “My Hero,” a tune that Stern loves because it reminds him of his dad. During their conversation, Grohl also mentioned the new Foo Fighters album, which is apparently “massive” and has been under construction for eight months.
Grohl returned for the end of the show to back up Steven Tyler on drums on “Walk This Way,” the second Tyler song of the night (he also played “Dream On”). That also concluded the classic rock portion of the program, which also included John Fogerty cranking out extra-loud versions of “Bad Moon Rising” and “Fortunate Son.”
Though the comedians fared relatively well (Louis C.K. and the tag team of Jeff Ross and Joan Rivers were particularly sharp), some of the best moments were provided by the raucous crowd gathered for the show, many of which were Stern superfans who won their way into the building. They lustily booed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (who was on stage to introduce Jon Bon Jovi), heckled sportscaster Dan Patrick for no apparent reason, went ape when Bryan Cranston started quoting lines from Breaking Bad, and chanted when Stern did vodka shots with Grohl and Jimmy Fallon. The celebrity guests provided plenty of fodder as well: Natalie Maines danced during the Black Keys but didn’t seem to care for Mayer, Whitney Cummings was enamored of Adam Levine, Lena Dunham and Perez Hilton chatted during commercial breaks, and Tracy Morgan, Knoxville, and Downey, Jr. discussed what had to have been something fascinating during a lag in the action.
Fallon also had a good run during a night that saw most every late night host check in: Kimmel was there all night, Fallon had an extended run of impersonations, Seth Meyers busted out some roast jokes, and David Letterman (who doesn’t show up to anything) hit the couch for a 20 minute conversation about his career, his relationship with Jay Leno, and his strange suburban life. It was a bittersweet section of the show: While a handful of comedy nerds (including an awestruck Kimmel) were rapt, the bulk of the crowd checked out of Letterman’s interview despite giving him a standing ovation when he came out. Letterman is one of the last great men left, but most everybody from the VIPs to the rabble was pretty rude to the comedy icon.
Perhaps the most surprising moments of the night came when former Stern enemies showed up (either in person or via video) to tip their hats to him. They included Rosie O’Donnell (who sang a parody of “Summer Nights” that referenced how Stern would constantly call her fat), Kathie Lee Gifford (whose video message included the sign off “Happy Birthday, Motherf—er”), and Lena Dunham (who loved Stern growing up and was vaguely crestfallen when he made fun of her on air after Girls became a hit).
All told, it was a stirring mix of high and low culture, which was a perfect way to celebrate Stern. It was the sort of night where Downey, Jr. could be introduced as “the original Crackhead Bob” and then vow to come on Stern’s show for an interview for every movie he makes from now on, where Stern characters Little Mikey, Psych, and Eli Braden sang a series of filthy tributes to Robin Quivers and it still sounded kind of sweet, where Ryan Phillippe can show up to provide Quivers with a lap dance, and where Kimmel could compare Stern to Picasso and it made perfect sense.
If you missed it, the Howard Stern Birthday Bash will stream for free on Monday morning at 6 a.m.