They Call Me Baba Booey, the just released autobiography of Howard Stern Show producer Gary Dell’Abate, reminded me why I love discovering people’s life stories. It’s why I spent my lunch periods in junior high pouring over whatever dusty biographical content the school library offered up, and why I love interviewing people.
I’ve been an on and off listener and fan of The Howard Stern Show since the mid-nineties, and what I always appreciated about the show is its ability to stretch societal boundaries rather than conforming to them. As producer of, and inadvertent radio personality on The Howard Stern Show for the past twenty-seven years, Dell’Abate boasts the famous moniker, Baba Booey; born out of an infamous verbal stumbling on the air, circa July 26, 1990. Dell’Abate notes in his memoir that after a while his nickname “wasn’t about me anymore. It had morphed into being a code for the show, like a battle cry,” further explaining the phrase “Baba Booey” as “a call to action” for Stern Show fans who feel like members of an exclusive sub-culture.
Concerned that people would judge a book by its cover, Dell’Abate bemoans during our conversation, “People are going to think, ‘Howard Stern’s flunky wrote a book. What could it possibly be, some book about jokes?’ The hardest part is going to be getting people to actually open my book to see what it’s really about.”
I was taken aback to hear him refer to himself that way. Jokes aside, Gary Dell’Abate has been instrumental in orchestrating what is arguably the most notable and groundbreaking radio program of the late 20th century; far from flunky status. As a pioneer of a once fledgling satellite radio technology, The Howard Stern Show makes the defiant statement, in the 21st century, that it will continue to set its own standards and practices rather than being bound by mainstream FCC regulations.
In They Call Me Baba Booey, Dell’Abate chronicles growing up with a mother who continually struggled with mental illness, as her husband and three sons were forced to tread lightly around her erratic moods that regularly swung from genial and accommodating to depressed, and sometimes volatile. Yet, Gary asserts that at times his mother displayed great amounts of strength and focus when it came to protecting her family or rallying around a loved one who was in need. According to Dell’Abate’s own recollection of events expressed in his book, it was this strange yin and yang from his childhood that shaped much of his personality and ultimately led him to feel at home producing The Howard Stern Show. The parting statement of his memoir: “Whenever I kiss [my mother] goodbye and walk out the door of her building, I thank God I grew up the way I did. Otherwise you’d be calling someone else Baba Booey.”
Gary and I recently spoke in-depth about the over-the-top raunchy humor that he has diligently produced for Howard Stern for nearly three decades, his personal and familial struggles, and his surprising socio-political views. Ironically, Gary had just come from visiting the catalyst for much of what you’re about to read below, his mother.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: It’s hard doing a full time job and selling a book at the same time (laughs), and I’m actually just coming back from visiting my mother. On this trip there is always a small area where my phone drops out, so I’ll give you a heads up when we’re there. It is literally a 100 yard stretch of road and I’m probably going to lose you at some point…
PR.com (Allison Kugel): At this rate, you’re going to get to that spot on the road before you finish this speech, Gary. Are you there?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: (Laughs.) No, I’m still here, and if I lose you I’ll call you right back.
PR.com: What is a Sicilian guy from the south shore of Long Island doing living in Connecticut?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I ask myself that question often. When we first moved out there, I said to my wife, “The only people that our kids are going to be friends with are the janitor’s kids.” But it turns out that where we live it’s a very Italian area. Some of the names that are common where we live, and my favorite one, is Ciapete. There are tons of Ciapetes and tons of Longos. So it turns out that it is pretty Italian after all.
PR.com: Let me ask you this; are there any Jewish people in the state of Connecticut?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: There are. My son is going to three Bar or Bat Mitzvahs this year.
PR.com: I had a crazy experience in Connecticut not too long ago. I was at an outdoor fair visiting my husband’s relatives and I was playing one of those carnival games at the fair where you pop balloons and win a cheesy stuffed animal. Everything was fine and the guy working the booth seemed cool enough. Then, out of nowhere, he screams out to someone who didn’t want to play the game, “Don’t be such a Jew. You’re Jewing me out of money if you don’t play.” It felt surreal. I threw the cheap looking stuffed animal back in his face, told him to go F himself and vowed never to return to Connecticut.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: What part of Connecticut were you in?
PR.com: I think it might have been Orange, if I’m not mistaken.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: Here’s what I can tell you. You’re Jewish from Long Island, so you know how when you go to upstate New York it’s a little different? Well, when you go to upstate Connecticut it’s a little different (laughs).
PR.com: I remember I actually breathed a sigh of relief when we got over the bridge and I was back in New York.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: Don’t blame that on Connecticut. That’s less of a Connecticut thing and more of a further you get away from New York thing. Westport has a huge Jewish community, but there are some towns that have a [bad] reputation. But I said to my friend Ross who I work with, “There are a lot of Jewish people in my community, but they seem different.” He said, “Yeah, there are New York City Jews, and then there’s every other kind of Jew.” (Laughs.)
PR.com: Alright, well I had vowed never to return to Connecticut, but maybe I will return now. So let’s talk about the book a little bit. When you were in college at Adelphi you had your own radio show. Did you originally want to be on the radio before becoming a producer for Howard?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I had done some internships at WLIR where I was getting on the radio, going out as a reporter, and getting a little notoriety. So I did want to be on the radio, but I never thought that was actually possible. If you ever googled on YouTube my tape that I made for the girl to take me back, you can hear my horrendous Long Island accent. I lived in Manhattan for ten years and I’ve lived in Connecticut for another fifteen, but I listen to early tapes of myself and I can’t believe it.
PR.com: What’s going on with negotiations to renew the contract with Sirius/XM for The Howard Stern Show?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I have no idea and it’s funny because I never imagined that I would be at this point and still not know the answer. I’m not involved in it in any way. It’s Howard’s deal all the way. So he basically stopped talking about it on the air, and he doesn’t talk to us about it off the air.
PR.com: So Howard is driving the ship. He’ll make the decision as to what he wants to do with the show, and then let everybody know.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: There was a period of time that we weren’t sure that he wanted to continue to work. That was the thing that was really creating more fear, and then he said at the end of the summer, “I’ve thought about it, and I definitely want to continue to do the show. I just don’t know what the best place for me is. I like it here and I would like to work it out here at Sirius.” The good news is he wants to continue to work. We’re all in the hope that whatever he decides to do, we’ll all be a part of it.
PR.com: But isn’t satellite radio the final frontier as far as creative freedom? Where do you go from there?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: It’s interesting, because I was on Letterman on Monday night and he asked me the same question. He said, “Where is Howard going to go? Isn’t he pretty much stuck where he is?” And I said that that’s not true. There’s a lot more ways to deliver content from what there was, even five years ago. You talk about podcasts and people go, “Howard wants to be in podcasts?” But I think people felt that way about satellite radio, but yet, he revamped the technology. So everything from having content streaming through your phone to the form of a podcast to newer cars that are going to be wired with Wi Fi, and you can deliver content that way.
PR.com: Could you ever see yourself doing anything but producing The Howard Stern Show?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I love the job and I think that comes through loud and clear in the book. But at some point I will have to do something different. Two years ago I started going out and meeting different people; not to test the waters, but more to say, “Hey, if Howard decides not to re-sign, what do you think my options are?” I had lunch with this woman who is a producer who said, “Gary, my fear for you is not that you won’t find another job.” She goes, “I have no doubt you will. My fear for you is that you will never find another job that you love as much as this one.” If Howard retires in five years I’m going to continue to work. I’m not going to find another Howard. But will I find someone I like working with as much as Howard? That will be the hard part.
PR.com: There is a huge dichotomy between many of your personal struggles throughout your life and how things are handled on The Howard Stern Show. On the show, you guys take shots at everything, and nothing is off limits. But then in reading your book, it seemed like so many of the things that are made fun of on the show have actually, personally touched you and your family. Issues like mental illness, homosexuality; how did you handle so many of those jokes while you were dealing with some of those personal issues in your own family?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: Everyone has a job and also has to live their real lives. You just do it the best that you can. Everybody has to balance a job and a personal life, but ours is more public.
PR.com: Do you think it gives you some credibility, like, “Hey, if I can laugh at this stuff, anyone should be able to laugh at it and not take it too seriously”?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: When we get a letter where someone says they used to listen to the show but they stopped listening because we made fun of a guy who lost a leg and they thought it wasn’t funny, my response is always that when we joked about the guy who was sick or all of the other things, that was ok. You were fine when we made fun of the Catholics, fine when we goofed on the Hispanics, but you’re mad because we made fun of the Yugoslavians. You know what I mean? Just because it’s the one thing that bothers you, you can’t have it all different ways. So yeah, I‘ve had to understand that just because something affects me doesn’t mean that we can’t still do our job.
PR.com: Was there ever a comedy bit that went too far at your expense, where you wanted to quit and you had to be talked down by someone?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: No. Have we ever joked around with each other, yeah. Has a joke ever gone so far that it’s pissed me off? Sure. Have I ever been close to quitting? Never! You don’t walk into the boxing ring and then go, “Hey, I got hit.” Once you’ve walked into that room you have to have the understanding of what you’re getting into. And everyone is fair game, Howard included. We can bust each other’s balls really bad, but it’s done in a loving way. At the end of the day we all know how we feel about each other. Anyone who walks in, there’s a chance that somebody’s gonna goof on you.
PR.com: All of the absurdity and the crass humor on the show, what does it give people? What does it provide to people in their lives?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I could even argue the fact that the humor is crass. What is somebody’s definition of crass? That’s what we always used to say when we were getting hounded by the FCC. They would bring up community standards, and we would say that different communities have different standards. I’m sure the standards in New York City are much different from the standards in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But at the end of the day, what people get out of the show is that it makes them laugh, that it’s different, and that it’s honest. They feel like when they’re listening to the show that it’s almost like a reality show. They feel like they know us and they like being a part of our family. I can’t tell you how many times, and this will happen in front of my kids which makes me proud, where someone will come up to me and go, “I have an hour and a half commute to and from work every day, and I couldn’t get through it without you guys.” That makes me feel good. We’re not curing cancer, but people say that we make them happy.
PR.com: Do your sons ever ask you details about your job? How do you explain the radio show to them?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I’ll tell them that we do a talk show and there are a lot of celebrity guests, and we cover a lot of stuff that is really more meant for grownups. My older son is sixteen today, and my younger son turns thirteen in a couple weeks. So at some point I can talk to them more like grownups. My older son seems to have zero interest in the show, and my younger son seems to be fascinated. But we’re clear that it’s not meant for kids, just like there are movies we don’t let them watch and TV shows we don’t let them watch.
PR.com: Why do you think that over the years so many girls have wanted to come on the show and subject themselves to such scrutiny?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I don’t know the answer to that. I think that coming on The Howard Stern Show and getting naked, it’s sort of like a badge of honor, like a rite of passage for some people. They just think it’s funny. There was a period of time where we were giving away breast implants a lot, and I still keep a file of potential candidates, people who wrote to us asking for free breast implants. It crosses racial lines, [economic] lines. I’ve gotten letters from girls who want to be strippers and I’ve gotten letters from lawyers. And I think that’s funny! They all want boobs.
PR.com: But did anybody ever want a penile implant?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: No, but I think that has to do more with the fact that it probably doesn’t work. If somebody created a penile implant that worked really well then people would probably be calling me and asking me for one.
PR.com: Or maybe men just aren’t interested.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: No, they are interested, but now they have Viagra. Who needs an implant? Just take a pill.
PR.com: That’s true, but then it doesn’t go down for four hours sometimes, right?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I’ve never gotten that far.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I’ve never taken it.
PR.com: That was a trick question.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: You almost got me (laughs).
PR.com: Are you following the New York Governor race at all?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: A little bit, of course. I always follow any funny race that creates and generates news, and where people make fools of themselves.
PR.com: What are your thoughts on the political process in general? Are you into it, or are you kind of jaded by the whole thing?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: No, I’m very into it and I’m involved with politics up where I live. I still believe in it. My mom is in a nursing home and I just double checked to make sure that she is going to be able to get an absentee ballot. She still likes to vote. People take it for granted. Having the ability to vote, first of all, is a right that half the world doesn’t have. The other thing is, if you want to sit and bitch and complain, then vote. And if you want to say, “I don’t vote because it doesn’t matter anyway,” I say that’s a huge cop-out.
PR.com: How do you think the fan base from The Howard Stern Show is going to react to some of the more intimate details in your book, like the story of your brother Steven being gay, passing away from AIDS years ago, and how all of that affected your life?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I think that people are going to be very interested in it. I’ve never shied away from talking about it, and everyone on the show knows that I had a brother who died of AIDS. They just don’t know all the details. Where else would I be able to tell the whole story from A to Z? On The Howard Stern Show I couldn’t sit down for half an hour and [describe] how it all went down. When I wrote this book I wanted to tell that story so that people just understood a little bit more about me and what I went through.
PR.com: Do you think Stern Show listeners are more liberal, more conservative, more open minded, close minded? What do you think their overall consensus is with the topic of gay rights and things of that nature?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I think that our show is really a mixed bag. Everybody is represented. But listen, I don’t know that if I didn’t have a brother who was gay and who got sick that my attitude would have become so politically correct. But I was affected by it. And that’s what happens when people who are affected tell their story; sometimes other people listen. I’m not preaching. I didn’t write this book hoping it will change people’s minds about gay people and about AIDS. It may or may not. I’m just saying, “Here is my story. Here’s how it works for me.”
PR.com: The other day I was talking with my husband and the topic of gay people in the military came up. I fully support gay rights, I treat everyone with respect, but I do have some trouble understanding it since obviously I don't know what it's like. And I think that’s a pretty common feeling.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: David Brenner once said something really interesting on the air. He said, “I support gays. They have the right to do what they do. But when I see them kiss I get a weird feeling.” And he goes, “But that’s not their fault. That’s my fault. That’s just the way I was raised.” We grew up in a different time. My brother was sick and he passed away twenty years ago this January; so go back twenty or twenty-five years. When I think about it, the change and the attitude towards gays is dramatic. When my brother was sick with AIDS people were scared to be around him, and it wasn’t something you would tell people right off the bat. It was a different time.
PR.com: I know this wasn’t what you were trying to do, but in reading your book I actually gained a little bit more of an understanding.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: Gay people are a part of our culture, and you can’t just be dismissive of it. 60 Minutes did a great piece on gays in the military. In the Israeli army it’s totally accepted and they followed this soldier around who is one of the most decorated soldiers in the history of the Israeli army, and openly gay. It doesn’t appear to be an issue for anybody. Just like anything else, probably how it was in the south to let black people drink out of a white water fountain, it will seem weird for a while and then as time goes on it’s just not weird anymore.
PR.com: What does confuse me is some of the flip flopping we see in the media. Like Anne Heche who used to be gay and now she’s into guys. Does it come down to genetics or experimentation?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: That’s my running joke. How come when a woman sleeps with another woman, she’s experimenting, but when a guy sleeps with another guy, he’s fucking gay (laughs). That’s a double standard.
PR.com: It’s a total double standard. But women have so many double standards to deal with. We’ll throw a few your way.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: That’s ok.
PR.com: Tell me about your involvement with The Life BEAT organization.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: After my brother died I was reeling from it, and it took me some time, but I knew that I wanted to get involved with an organization. It was after I saw the movie Philadelphia, it was really a changing moment. It’s not the greatest movie in the world, but somebody had made a movie with major Hollywood A-list talent who were willing to talk about the subject. After I saw the movie I said to my friend, “We’ve got to do something.” We started looking for groups to work with and I found Life BEAT.
PR.com: They provide musical talent to perform for people who are living with HIV and AIDS?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: That’s a small portion of what we do. We’re more about education and prevention. We’re not looking for a cure. We are trying to assist people living with AIDS every day. And we’re about education and prevention for people who don’t have AIDS. We also go to concerts; we’ve been on tour with Ozzfest and a variety of bands. We go on tours and set up tables, and to everybody who comes by we give out literature and free condoms. We talk about getting tested, about being safe, and we try to talk to teenagers and explain to them that when you drink and take drugs you tend to make choices that you wouldn’t make otherwise. So it’s a lot of that.
PR.com: You’re very different from how I thought you would be before reading your book, and before speaking with you.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: I’m really happy with the book that I wrote, and I think that if I can get somebody to open it, then I’m in good shape. I‘m glad that you got that out of it, because that was sort of the point of [writing] it.
PR.com: I really didn’t know much about you. I chalked you up to being Baba Booey from The Howard Stern Show who loves low brow humor and T&A, and who lives for the show. I really had no idea you were even settled into suburban family life. You’ve had a lot of personal trials and tribulations, and you also have a whole life outside of that business.
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: One of my favorite things is, I just did David Letterman on Monday night and I got emails and phone calls from everybody from a guy I went to grammar school with, to people like John Stamos and Jeff Probst (Emmy Award-winning host of Survivor) telling me how great I was. And then by Tuesday afternoon I’m out coaching my younger son’s football team, and nobody’s seen it and nobody cares. And I love that to some people I’m Gary from The Howard Stern Show, but to a lot of people I’m coach, or Mr. Dell’Abate. I’ve got a foot in both worlds and it’s definitely ideal.
PR.com: I read something online that I need to ask you about. There was a headline that read, “Baba Booey Snubbed By Morning Talk Show Circuit.” And the article said that some of the morning talk shows are scared to have you on because of your affiliation with The Howard Stern Show. Is there any truth to that?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: That’s funny. I wonder who wrote that. I just found out that I’m getting on The Today Show. The Today Show is huge. I’m probably going to be on CBS’s The Early Show, and those are two of the more important shows. After The Today Show, I can die and go to heaven! Part of the bigger issue is that there are a lot of morning shows I can’t do because I work on a morning show.
PR.com: Does anyone call you Baba Booey when you’re not on the air?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: If I’m walking around, like if I’m in the supermarket and I run into someone who’s a fan of the show, they’ll go, “Hey Baba Booey! What’s up?” But my wife doesn’t go, “Oooh, Baba Booey…”
PR.com: And she doesn’t call you Baba Booey when you’re having sex or anything like that?
Gary Dell’Abate, Baba Booey: (Laughs.) No, no no!
PR.com: Alright, well thank goodness for that.
Gary Dell’Abate: That would just be crazy.
Gary Dell’Abate’s memoir, “They Call Me Baba Booey,” is available at bookstores nationwide and at Amazon.com.
Visit Gary Dell’Abate at bababooey.com and follow him on Twitter @robertabooey.