I’ve always wondered how people roasting one another truly feel when they are the butt of the joke. So the Howard Stern Show was sort of an enigma to me while I was growing up. About 20 years ago, I briefly hung out with a guy who was one of the show’s writers and on-air personalities. In my limited time in his presence, he seemed as sweet as can be. As soon as he told me he was part of Stern’s crew, I was on high alert for some shrewd, blunt and embarrassingly brash observations. I’m sensitive, but somehow he really took it easy on me. The “persona” I later heard (and saw on the E! show) was far different from the one I had gotten to know.
This was during the 1990s and one of this man’s colleagues was “Stuttering John” Melendez. All I knew about him at the time was that he was one of Howard Stern’s whacky in-studio crew – not to be confused with “the whack pack.” I knew that he began as an intern, intent on working with the legendary Howard Stern and that he went on to acquire a minimum wage salary as an employee of The Howard Stern Show. Successively, yet meagerly, his salary increased and he remained there for 15 years, becoming notorious for his oddball interviews with celebrities. In those, he asked the most impertinent, rude and outrageous questions – sometimes with a stutter. I have to say that the questions he asked would make a non-stutterer stutter.
As a child, one of Melendez’s teacher noted that he had an inclination – and the chutzpah – to ask brazen questions and a tendency to stutter when excited. As Melendez explains in his new book Easy For You To Say, he never imagined that the teacher was somewhat of a clairvoyant. When he began working for Stern, he was determined to keep the OCD that greatly challenged him a secret. Little did he know that the “King of all Media” also struggled with OCD, and to some extent, so did his boss later on at The Tonight Show, Jay Leno.
Easy For You To Say is the story of a boy scarred by the abuse in his home at the hands of his father, how he developed a stutter as a result, but was determined to never acquiesce to the mindset of “I can’t.” From an intern at The Howard Stern Show overly eager to please, to a comedian doing field segments and writing hilarious and ballsy material for show segments, to an announcer and writer for The Tonight Show, John’s story proves that with the mindset to overcome hurdles, there are incredible things one can achieve…..
(Even getting through to the president of the United States by phone – while he’s on Air Force One!)
Following is my interview with the man widely known as “Stuttering John.” If you are a Howard Stern fan, bear in mind that the opinions expressed are John Melendez’s. The perspective shared reflects anecdotes in his new memoir. The answers to my questions are in his own words:
You start out by talking about your OCD. You discuss making Howard’s “potato sandwiches,” how it was a whole complicated ritual of preparing the potatoes from the early morning and later placing slices of turkey between the two potato halves. Then you discuss how certain tasks took a lot of effort and redoing because of your OCD. The origins of your OCD can be traced to when you were a child living with an abusive father. I was curious if your father lived to witness your success.
Oh Yeah! He just passed away two years ago. He would listen to every Howard show and later on, he would tape every Tonight Show. Every time I would wave, he said he would wave back. You see, that was the problem: He could be a really nice guy, but then unpredictably fly off the handle. As a kid, that gives you no security. You don’t know which dad you’re going to get. Coincidentally, I experienced the same with Howard.
When you’re at Howard’s show, you don’t get any accolades. I remember hooking (fellow Stern writer) Benjy Bronk up with my accountant and he was scared to ask for a raise because Howard would get pissed off at him. It was the exact opposite with Jay Leno. There are so many different things about Howard and Jay that indicate they’re almost complete opposites.
I know that you began as an intern, so at what point did Howard start paying you a salary?
In 1988, I was still in NYU and didn’t finish until 1989, so I didn’t get paid for over a year. I didn’t make a dime and I came to Howard and said that I’d have to leave. I just couldn’t afford to be there anymore. That’s when he said that there was the channel 9 show coming up, so then I worked on that show making $750 a week. Shortly after that, I got my first paycheck from K-Rock that Tom Chiusano called a ‘stipend’ and it was 10k per year. The second season of the Channel 9 show, Don the douchebag Buchwald got me 15k. Then Mel Karmazin doubled my salary to 20k. From there, there were normal raise increments. I remember standing behind Gary Dell’Abate at a ‘Best Breast’ contest where there was an appearance fee. I was thinking ‘wow, this is the producer of the biggest radio show and he’s got to do this!’
In the book, you detail some negative experiences with Gary and refer to him (he was known as ‘Baba Booey’) as ‘Baba Backstabber.’ Is there any chance of a reconciliation for the two of you?
I say in the beginning of my book that I love all the guys there. I don’t hate the guy. I don’t hate anybody, but the problem with Gary is that he’s too stupid to understand that a lot of people there, even now, are disgruntled. People would tell me not to trust Gary, that he would be nice to my face, but then bad mouth me when I had my back turned. He was two-faced and God knows, with that face you only need one!
In the book, I give an example of how we were going to do some plugs and we mutually agreed that we would email Howard together about it and say it came from both of us. Then Gary ended up saying that the email was just from me. That was wrong. I had to hear about it from KC…that they were talking about me in the studio.
In the book, it really sounds like an awfully hostile work environment over at The Howard Stern Show.
Comedian Tammy Pescatelli witnessed the dynamics between me and Artie Lange (Artie and I were together at Stern) when I did Artie’s podcast and she said it was like watching two survivors of Auschwitz. We lived through such a toxic environment that it’s like we both have PTSD. It seeps over to the rest of your life.
I’ve been enjoying your podcast (aptly titled The Stuttering John Podcast) since reading the book. I love how you had AJ Benza on because I remember that the two of you had really bad blood. He slapped you and was banned from the studio. How did you two overcome your negative history?
After that incident, he emailed me a long apology letter and I was OK with him. When I was out in LA, I thought it would be cool to have him on my podcast as a guest. He made me slap him back so we would be even.
I saw some of the cringe-worthy interviews that you did. Some made me laugh, but others made me want to hide even though I wasn’t the interview subject! I remember when you asked Raquel Welch about her sagging boobs and she punched you. You talk about that interview in the book and you discuss the interview with Liz Smith and feeling remorseful about that one. Were those questions that were written for you, or did you write those yourself?
Let me address the Liz Smith thing. I never felt so bad after conducting an interview than I did with that one. It was Andrew Dice Clay’s idea to ask “Why are you such a fat cow?” because she had given him a bad review. Howard was like ‘Yeah, ask her that.’ She played along, but I regretted it. The next time we were at an event and she was there, I asked Howard if I could apologize to her. I did and we recorded that. I look back at that and think: it wasn’t a joke, it was an insult. I don’t mind asking Chevy Chase how he picks movie scripts – Does he go ‘eenie meenie mieni moe?’ It’s clever. Or when I asked baseball great Ted Williams ‘Did you ever accidentally fart in the catcher’s face?’ That was crude, but there was a sense of humor to it, whereas the Liz Smith one was mean.
In the beginning, Jackie and Fred were writing the questions and Howard would contribute some too. Then, I started writing some and then it was a pool of a lot of people on the show – Benjy Bronk and everybody. In the beginning, it was Jackie and Fred and I really thank them because they had great questions! They wrote the question for Ringo Starr: ‘What did you do with the money?’ He responded: ‘What money?’ and I answered: ‘The money for singing lessons.’ He said ‘I bought fish and chips.’
I never had a problem asking people questions from a very young age, so this was the perfect job for me!
We learn in this book that you’re a sensitive guy at heart, so is there anyone that you would want to apologize to now for your questions?
I felt bad after asking someone how many times he had seen Haley’s Comet because that was picking on the fact that he was old. Let’s see…I went to an SNL thing that Charles Barkley was hosting. He was doing a Q and A and it was right after Michael Jordan’s dad died tragically in a car accident. There was a ‘joke’ written for me ‘Are you going to ask your dad to stay out of a car?’ I used my discretion and I did NOT ask that! There were times when I would have to make that call.
Other than that, I didn’t ask anybody anything that I would feel bad about. To me, it was like an SNL skit. The celebrities I goofed on would suffer the same way at the hands of other comedians. I always felt it was a comedy bit.
Then after me, as you know, there was Ali G.
Yeah, I was actually thinking about how you were doing your bits before Sacha Baron Cohen came along. Did he ever acknowledge you as some sort of inspiration or talk to you?
That actually pissed me off. He was on The Tonight Show and didn’t even acknowledge me. To be quite honest, he seemed very arrogant when he was on the show. I also feel like Triumph the insult dog is my whole gig with a puppet and I never got acknowledgement for that. I am not expecting a thank you, but it would have been nice with Sacha if he had come over to acknowledge me.
Some of the stories of what you endured at The Howard Stern Show were pretty shocking. One incident you detailed was about how coworkers brought in your bottle of Prozac from your house – Then you were grilled about it on air. The other story was about Howard saying you weren’t fit to be a father and that your (now ex) wife should abort the baby. Then later, he said it to her while she was very pregnant!
The Prozac one embarrassed the hell out of me. I was so caught off guard that I used the excuse that it helped me to play guitar better. I was too afraid to say that it was because I had OCD. Who knew Howard was also suffering from OCD at the time?! I felt betrayed by the guys I was renting my place to, but that was the nature of the show.
Aborting the kid – That’s the definition of a bully and in any normal circumstance, I would have beaten the shit out of the person who said that. But it was Howard and he was my boss. I had to just take it unless I had another job lined up. It’s like when I was a kid – I couldn’t leave the house because of what my dad did. I was stuck there.
When I met my wife, I said ‘I have to get out of the show. I can’t relive these bad memories of my childhood.’ Who knew it would take another 10 years after that?
One of my biggest triumphs, when people ask me, is not the Crazy Cabbie fight they’re expecting me to tell, but walking into Tom Chiusano’s office and giving my 2 weeks’ notice. I told him I was going to be the announcer on The Tonight Show and with me being a stutterer, he looked at me, paused and said ‘no way.’
The exhilaration I felt is unexplainable. As you see in the book, management thought that Howard had made me and that I wouldn’t be able to do anything outside of the show. Here I was, a known stutterer, going off to become the announcer at the most popular late night show.
The impression I got from the book is that Howard is stingy, petty and against his employees having outside work projects. Do you think there is any chance of him reading your book and extending an olive branch, wanting to bury the hatchet?
He won’t read it! He’ll have Gary read it and he might have his lawyers read it. The problem is two tiered though when it comes to legal: Everything in there is the truth and there is not one lie. I have an incredible memory that is spot on, so there’s not a chance anything is made up. The other thing is that if he sues me, there’s not much to take! What is he going to get from me?
Quite honestly, if he did, it would only promote the book because…think of all the people who would then want to read it and see what he was mad about. He’s smart enough to know that too, which is why he ignored Artie’s book and Jackie’s book. KC’s book is out now and he won’t want to inadvertently promote that either.
With mine, I didn’t hold back and that’s the thing that Jay Leno wrote in his review. I’m unfiltered, much like the old Howard. I tell it like it is. The format of Howard’s show now is totally different – I know because of the many people I’m in touch with. There’s a red flag list of things and people they cannot mention.
I just wish Howard, like Jay, would look out for his employees more. There was an engineer whose wife had cancer and Howard really could have helped out there – Jay has helped out numerous employees with health or family health expenses – and Howard really did not treat this engineer who had been his loyal servant for 30 years well. I have so many sources that I feel like Carl Bernstein. I’ve spoken about this more in depth on my podcast.
I mention in the book that when Howard walks down the hallway, no staffer is allowed to talk to him and when this engineer did and it was about his wife’s health and the expense of treatments, Howard said ‘You know you’re not allowed to talk to me.’
You used to drive to work with Jackie Martling and you had great times with him, but you also describe him as moody. Then you talk about the intense mood swings of Artie Lange.
It was wild. I could show you some of the texts from Artie. There would be one ‘I love you. You’re like a brother.’ Then 2 days later: ‘I’m a better comedian than you.’ He would suddenly go off on me and I’d be stunned and then a week later, it was ‘Hey man, I love you. Don’t listen to the last text.’ I’ll only pray for him because he’s got a big heart, but drugs were really a big problem.
You also describe how you and your ex-wife Suzanna used to hang out with Bruce Jenner and Kris, and that it was Suzanna who suggested the family do a reality show after witnessing how they all hung out. Has she ever been credited for what is now Keeping Up With the Kardashians?
I have to apologize to everyone out there that we came up with the idea.
My wife would drive out there and write the treatments of the shows with Kris. Then Kris wouldn’t give her a producer credit or a salary. I mean, they’re living in mansions and I’m doing the Chuckle Hut in Indiana. Suzanna finally confronted Kris, but she responded that Kim had the same idea. It’s a load of horse shit!
Despicable people are despicable. She would put down Bruce and really be abusive to him. He wanted to come out as being transgender years prior, but Kris wouldn’t let him. She’s just a horrible person and that’s what you’ll get in this book. I call people out.
You do that with Chelsea Handler as well. You mention how you first met her on a plane ride and she saw you pop a Xanax. She asked you what it was and if she could have one and you gave it to her. Then when she became famous she acted like she didn’t know you.
She had met me and my wife and ignored us at a party. She also ignored a man who had kick-started her career. She turned her back and it was really despicable behavior. I call out Jimmy Kimmel in my book because Jay was so nice to him and promoted him despite them having competing time slots. Then Jimmy Kimmel went on to stab Jay in the back.
The original title of the Chelsea Handler chapter was going to be ‘Bitch from Beyond.’ I changed it to ‘Nice is a Four Letter Word.’
People frequently ask if you regret leaving Howard. In the book it’s pretty clear that you wanted to leave for a really long time and you were offered a major salary increase and promotion from Tonight. You couldn’t have envisioned what would happen to Jay’s show at that time. What is your best answer to that question that you keep getting?
I can only say that people who say that don’t know that most of us at Howard’s show couldn’t wait to get out. I also was making a very small amount of money and Tonight quadrupled that. I went to NYU for film and television because I wanted to produce and write. To write for the number one late night talk show in the world was an honor. Jay would tell me what a good job I was doing. I had so many great opportunities there and got a chance to make Barack Obama laugh.
On top of all that, what people don’t understand is that I have two pensions because of that career move. When you write for Howard, you’re not in the writer’s guild and you’re not getting any pensions.
I’m sure that taught you what type of boss you aspire to be. I know you do the podcast and you do standup comedy, but what other things put you in a ‘boss’ position? How does your work background affect how you are as a boss and a mentor?
I was in charge of writing the Kareem Abdul Jabbar roast and I’m still friends with all of the people I managed during that time. Any time I’m given the opportunity to be a boss, like when I was an EP on the Stephanie Miller Show, I’m always nice and I say ‘thank you.’ I let people know when they’re doing a good job. I always try to be more of a Jay Leno boss than a Howard Stern boss.
I have to ask you about the epic Donald Trump prank, when you were put through to the president while he was on Air Force One. You got through by pretending to be Senator Bob Menendez. Are you experiencing any current legal or other repercussions currently from that? You write in your book that you were visited by Secret Service agents the next day. Then you add that you ended up hiring Michael Avenatti as your attorney. I know you mentioned you were slapped with a huge IRS tax bill right after that too.
Avenatti initially told me to stop doing my shows and said ‘You don’t want to poke the bear.’ That’s how I came up with this TV show I’m shopping around called Poke the Bear. The idea is that if you have a problem with someone, say a politician, I’ll go and confront them and ask them those questions that you have. That’s what I was actually trying to do with Trump. It may have seemed like a goof and a prank but when I got on the phone with him, I asked questions that reflected real concerns I had and that was my goal. After that call, I laid low and then the Omarosa thing happened and the press shifted their focus from that.
My call to Trump is now long forgotten. It did point out how disorganized this administration is that this stuttering idiot gets on the phone and within minutes, he’s given the location of the president. I’m surprised they didn’t give me longitude and latitude coordinates. As part of their ‘security,’ they called me back to ask how I could be calling from an 818 area code and not the New Jersey number they had. I said I was on vacation and that totally cleared me!
Then Jared Kushner called within an hour to see what I wanted to discuss with Donald, and then I get the call from Donald. He’s giving me the date he’s going to release the Supreme Court Justice information. On that call, I don’t sound senatorial. I sound janitorial.
I’m pissed because I’ve had numerous conversations with Bob Menendez’s assistant. He could at least be a guest on my podcast and he hasn’t done it. The Trump phone call, with the exception of me getting in a ‘Babooey to you all’ at the end, is completely straight questions. I really wanted answers because I want there to be an end to putting children in cages. I wanted a more moderate Supreme Court Justice pick. From the start, my goal was to have a conversation with the president about issues that mattered to me.
In your book, you talk about how kids are off limits for goofs and I totally agree with that, especially considering how far certain radio personalities can go.
Anthony Cumia (of Opie and Anthony fame) – I did his show 10 times and each time, they told me that I was the best guest and got the best critique of any guest. As soon as he hired Artie though, it got bad. It got to this point that Anthony would post pictures of my kids and goof on my kids. My oldest is transgender and Anthony wrote something about how bad of a parent I must be that my kid needs attention by cutting off boobs. Then he posted a picture of my really sweet daughter Lily, said something about her having big teeth and that Bababooey must be her father.
His followers started tweeting pictures of my kids and then changing my daughter’s picture to make her look uglier. It got to this point that my kids were getting picked on and my ex-wife called me. We had to have an attorney send Anthony a Cease and Desist letter. Even the mob knows: You don’t go after kids.
When I listened to your podcast, you mentioned that people hate when you bash Trump, but since I’m on the same side as you politically, I am cool with it.
It’s so strange to see that it seems as if 90 percent of Howard’s old listeners are white supremacists! (Laughs) Whenever I tweet about Trump, I lose about 10 followers. It’s so weird to me that Howard has such a right wing base.
I loved the story about the boy Conroy who took your advice about stuttering and grew up to be so confident. Tell me about the work you do now to help kids who stutter.
I mentored several kids. I occasionally send out a tweet to all my followers and say ‘if you have a kid who stutters, I will gladly help.’ One time, these parents sent me a bottle of Dom after I helped their kid. I also was a keynote speaker at a national convention in Chicago. I will do anything I can. I tell kids who stutter that it’s not about who you are, but what you do. Getting to be the announcer at The Tonight Show is inspirational to stutterers everywhere. That’s why it really hurt when Howard was a judge on America’s Got Talent and he told a stuttering comic ‘You’re an inspiration.’ My oldest son called me and said ‘I can’t believe that Howard just said that.’ Then Artie Lange called and said the same thing.
Instead of telling me I was an inspiration when I became an announcer, he chose to bash me. I truly believe – and therapists would agree – that Howard got so mad when I was on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here not because I missed work, but because I got critical acclaim from all the media outlets. The response was ‘hey, John is actually a nice guy!’ Even Gary emailed me because I came across so well. I think that bothered Howard who always wanted that national acceptance. I think my theory was proven correct by him doing America’s Got Talent.
Now that Howard’s show is on Sirius and we’re in the ultra PC age of 2018, the show has changed a lot. Do you ever listen?
When it switched over to Sirius, I wasn’t going to pay to hear myself bashed. I do know that now he has a list of celebrities he can’t bash – There’s Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s part of the ‘red flag list’ I talk about in my book.
There are people who are banned from the show because they went on to do other things and that’s another complete hypocrisy. Howard would always talk about how it was ridiculous that Johnny Carson banned Joan Rivers because she wanted to do another show. Howard has done the same thing.
Today, he’s gone down in listeners by becoming someone he and the listeners once hated.
I’m wondering if they will try to dispute points in your book on Howard’s show or argue about it.
Howard is going to want this book to go away. He’s not going to talk about it because that would result in people buying it. All of the stories in the book have been corroborated and there are witnesses to almost everything.
I am in touch with people from there and I was told that every staff member was instructed to create 10 fake Twitter accounts to solicit guests. A photo of that slide was sent to me. It’s so sad and so not who the old Howard was!
I will say that when I first heard Howard was mad at me, I called him and he said ‘I’m not mad. I should have made you an offer to be in the studio in Jackie’s chair.’ Then I was bashed on the air again. However, if THAT Howard – the one who said those kind words on the phone – had been the Howard I worked with for all those years, maybe I wouldn’t have left.