Given Stern's reputation, it's easy enough to see how his hiring Takei could have been construed as a "goof." But the real story is actually much more interesting: After being a favorite guest of the show, Takei had earned Stern's respect -- as well as his millions of mostly straight listeners -- for his wit, his candor and, most important, his sense of humor. He was hand-picked by the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" to join the show.
The result? A cultural demystification of gay life that's having a measurable, meaningful effect on a national audience otherwise completely isolated from gay America.
Here's a quick back story on the quirky partnership: During a quick interview to promote a project back in the early '90's, Takei uttered two words that would wind up making him one of the most memorable voices in Stern Show history: "Oh, my."
See, Takei's unique, indelible "real-life" voice bears no resemblance to our syndicated memories of Sulu. As his newest fans, who have discovered him on "Heroes," know, Takei's voice is as iconic as John Wayne's drawl or even Brando's Don Corleone, and his overly precise diction is fascinating to listen to.
The sound effects guy isolated Takei's "Oh, my," and began playing it constantly on the show as a sound bite. If someone said something shocking, boom! You'd hear Takei's voice. If Howard was talking about "pleasuring" himself the night before, it was followed with the "Oh, my" sound bite.
And if someone was making a reference to anything gay, boom! Immediate "Oh, my." (In fact, it has become such an integral part of the Stern consciousness that listeners can identify each other on the street or at parties simply by hearing those two syllables.)
So while the genesis of the Stern/Takei relationship was rooted in typical Stern-style juvenility, it ended up planting a very fruitful seed. After years of being goofed on (and immortalized, and associated with gay issues) via the sound bite, Takei showed he could take a joke. He agreed to go on-air with Stern immediately after he came out publicly as a gay man in 2005. The groundbreaking 20-minute interview was one of Stern's best ever, and Takei proved to be a world-class guest.
Takei discussed his homosexuality with a candor rarely heard in the media. He had already talked a lot to the press that week -- Sulu coming out was big news -- but those interviews were safe and canned. If they revealed anything, it was that the mainstream press, for all its self-reported fairness, still held the topic of homosexuality at arm's length.
Not so with Stern. His interview with Takei was arguably among the most revealing ever with a celebrity coming out. Stern delved deep -- he asked about personal sexual stuff, and Takei answered honestly. For the millions of Stern's straight, largely male listeners, it was the first glimpse into the real life of an adult gay man -- and the impact of those answers was only made stronger by the fact that their hero, Howard Stern, was asking the questions.
Naturally, Howard being Howard, there was some affable goofing. Did George shave down there? Was he a bottom or a top? Had he ever seen Spock's "package"? What about glory holes? But Takei proved a great sport. He could take a joke, had a clear rapport with the guys who who'd ribbed him for years, and could give as good as he got.
As for Howard? He was sold on George Takei, and so were his listeners, who called into the show in droves to tell Stern how cool they thought Takei was, and how much they respected him for coming out so honestly.
"I have never heard, or read, a negative word about George Takei being a guest on the show," says Mark of marksfriggin.com, a hugely popular Web site that has featured daily transcriptions of the Stern Show for over a decade. "It seems like he may be one of those rare guests almost everyone likes. Maybe some people out there don't like him on the show, but I've never heard from one."
Flash forward to January 2006. With the Stern Show's highly publicized move to uncensored Sirius Satellite Radio, he and his on-air crew -- Robin Quivers, Artie Lange, Fred Norris and show producer Gary Dell'Abatte -- were like kids in a candy store. And one of the first changes they made to their inner sanctum was the addition of George Takei. In what might be seen as a symbolic gesture, Takei's distinctive voice was the very first one heard on the "official" launch of the show.
So why would a man like Takei -- a successful actor recognized around the world, living a happy life in L.A. with his partner of over 20 years -- willingly place himself (and frankly, his partner Brad, too) in this unpredictable and potentially dangerous line of fire? And how, many in the gay community wondered, could Takei possibly work with someone like Howard Stern? Would it be worth a backlash?
For Takei, the answer was yes. He had faith in Stern -- and in his intentions. "He strongly believes that people who love each other, care for each other, and take responsibility for each other who happen to be of the same gender are entitled to equal rights," Takei wrote on his blog after the announcement. "Howard Stern is a shock jock because truth naked can be shocking. Some of his humor can be adolescent. So what? We all could use a bit of adolescent giggle from time to time. It's good for us."
Takei did find himself having explain his decision to members of the gay community -- people, uniformly, who didn't listen to the show. "I had to get them to understand that decency comes in many shapes," he told Gay.com. "Some may look down on Howard because of something they've heard, or been told, about Howard, without really knowing who Howard is. He has the guts to stand up for what's right. He has guts. And it's important for people to know that Howard is a decent, fair-minded guy. He has me on the show, and he absolutely allows me to be who I am. In today's media, that really is remarkable."
And so began Takei's -- and Stern's -- unforeseen (and presumably unintentional) path to encouraging tolerance within what Takei refers to as the "large, truly decent and fair-minded Middle America" that is Stern's audience.
But this is, after all, the Stern Show -- and there were times where the gay jokes have pushed the envelope.
One early test of the boundaries of taste was a game in which George was asked to feel inside a cast member's uncircumcised pouch to identify the object hidden in it. (Quick note for those unfamiliar with the Stern Show: These antics go on regularly with straight cast members, even when Takei is not a guest. And I dare anyone to not be glued to the TV when watching this segment on Howard TV On Demand -- you can't look away. For the record, it was an AA battery.)
The other cast members refused, vocal in their disgust, but George was game, and approached it as any other challenge. But this time, it went too far: His boyfriend Brad took offense, and the fallout was significant.
But the most interesting part of the stunt was this: George and Brad's fight became the topic du jour, and the fact that the disagreement was over "Guess What's in Sal's Pouch" became secondary. Howard and his cohorts discussed George and Brad's disagreement as they would any couple's problems, sympathizing at having been in similar positions with their own partners when participating in "questionable" antics on the show. Make no mistake, there were plenty of gay jokes along the way -- but there was no disguising the fact that they considered George and Brad's relationship problems as valid as each other's.
"My husband has never understood my friendships with my gay friends," Stern listener Katherine Fallon told Gay.com. "But he's a huge Stern fan, and I can actually see a major shift in his tolerance toward gays with George always on the show and talking about Brad, and getting the respect of Howard and Artie."
This comes as no surprise to Takei. "I get e-mails from people all the time saying, 'you know, I'm a decent guy, I'm straight, male, married with children, but I'm all for equality,'" Takei told Gay.com. "I think Howard's contributed enormously to our being able to reach that large, decent, fair-minded Middle America."
While George's mere presence is clearly having a positive effect on listeners, his real work is done on a more individual level through his friendship with Artie Lange, one of Stern's famous on-air personalities. Lange is a hugely successful New Jersey comic/actor with a fanatical blue-collar fan base. He's also a self-proclaimed homophobe who doesn't bat an eye at dropping the word "fag."
Lange is also very vocal in his distaste for some of the show's gayer stunts -- not because they're crass or homophobic, but because they're gay at all. He also doesn't seem to enjoy the fact that these stunts consistently pull in the highest ratings on Howard TV. The few times I've been offended by the use of the word "fag" on the Stern Show always seem to be when Artie says it: Unlike the others, Artie's words sometimes have a ring of conviction, of true intolerance, maybe even of hate.
Yet, of all the cast members Takei could have taken up with, it's Artie he took under his wing. Their relationship has become one of the show's more fascinating developments. In what is still referred to as their first date, Lange and Takei went to the Guggenheim together one day, and they've been hanging out ever since. Takei even refers to Lange as his "Cuddly Muffin."
When you consider that this is the same guy who freaked out on the "Queer Eye" guys' visit just three years ago, it's clear that Artie's comfort level with interacting with a gay man has gone through the roof.
"I'm not sure what to think of Artie's behavior," says Mark of Mark's Friggin. "He may come off as a homophobe on the show, but he seems to genuinely like George. Maybe he's more tolerant than he wants us to believe. Maybe he's playing it up for his old friends from Union, New Jersey, who think he should be homophobic."
And that is what's at stake here for George. Recognizing the power of media to change a collective perspective, he has made it his personal mission to change the mind of one boozy, outspoken comic with legions of fans. By making Artie his special case, George insists that Artie (and Artie's fans, and the show's listeners) accept his sexuality.
It's an aggressive move, if you think about it. George is unapologetic, and will not let Artie off the hook for insensitive epithets or careless jokes. In doing so, he's proven himself an agent of change. He's either revealed Artie to be more open-minded than he generally acts, or he's broadened Artie's heretofore-narrow opinions. Either way, if we can accept that George's presence can make an impact on someone like Artie, we can extrapolate the impact he's having on millions of listeners who -- like Artie -- have probably never had a consistent gay presence in their lives.
Takei definitely feels an outpouring of support from his new fans. "A lot of Howard Stern's listeners have written me saying that they never really thought about the issue of gay rights before," he told TV Guide, "but that, after having heard me speak on it, they now support equality for gays and lesbians."
Whether you love Howard Stern or hate him, there is no denying his influence. And the mere fact that the most popular radio program of the past 20 years has a proud, out gay man sharing his life with a national and largely straight audience is something of a cultural watershed.
What Takei is doing is currently unrivaled in popular media, and he does so without reservation. But mostly, it's his ability to laugh at the absurd -- whether straight, gay or something else -- that endears him to the audience, and proves that not everything about being gay has to be politicized. Sometimes it's just about having a good time, and George Takei is having the time of his life.
By Jenny Stewart
Originally Published 2008, PlanetOut.com, Gay.com