I’m not a media critic, and I don’t read media criticism, but I’m guessing that many people have dissected the popular appeal of Dexter & Howard Stern over the years. As a big fan of both, I thought I’d take a swing not only at explaining their general appeal on a psychosocial level, but also at trying to sell you on why I believe they make us better people.
When a person finds out you’re a Stern fan, or a fan of Dexter, their eyebrows go up (it’s slightly less controversial to like Dexter than Stern though; something to think about). You immediately feel the need to apologize, or explain why you would be attracted to figures that are so stigmatizing. Stern is funny, Dexter is well written. Both are true. But I think it goes deeper.
In Dexter, we have a character who hacks people up in his spare time while he tries to keep the façade of a normal life. This is appealing because there are uncomfortable things in all of our lives that we try to keep hid while outwardly maintaining normalcy. We may not all have literal bodies to hide, or an appetite for killing human beings, but we do have appetites that we have either been told or decided we are not supposed to have, and we are good at hiding the evidence that they exist. Dexter is cathartic in that sense. He also gives us hope, because he is indulging in his darker impulses and still functioning in society. Dexter doesn’t feel guilty about what he does. He knows that it would be bad news for him if he was found out, so he takes care to conceal his nocturnal hobbies. But he understands what he is. We should be so lucky as to recognize our darkness as clearly as he does. When it comes to self awareness, Dexter is a hero.
And then there’s Howard. I love Howard. After I listen to the Howard Stern show, I feel cleansed. I feel joyful. Howard Stern is no serial killer, yet he makes people even more uncomfortable than Dexter does. Why? Well, probably because he’s a real man. But that’s not the worst of it; Howard Stern is an honest man. He—like Dexter—is aware of his darkness. He’s also aware that much of what we have collectively deemed to call ‘darkness’ is not actually dark at all. Much of what we call darkness is simply human nature. It can be funny and it can be strange, but it’s not dark. Howard is moral hero because he embraces his darkness publicly, and calls bullshit on the diet darkness of the surface world. Howard doesn’t keep his worlds separate the way Dexter does. His are both in plain view, as ours should be.
When we repress things, we hurt ourselves and others. It’s only when we really look into who we are, what we do, and why we do it, that we can be healthy. You are not healthy if you pretend you have no problems. You’re also not healthy if you think it is a problem to be who you are. Steven Pinker just wrote a pretty good book called ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ that makes the case that mankind has become less violent over time. I believe that if this trend continues, it will be in part because we have cathartic icons like Dexter, and aspirational icons like Howard Stern to look towards in our culture. In these two phenomena, we see our society looking at itself, and recognizing things about itself that it could not have in past decades. In these two characters we are permitted to sigh from deep within our beings. Dexter and Howard help us know ourselves, and people who know themselves are more likely to contribute positively to the world they live in.