Mike Fleming

It wasn’t too much of a surprise to see Howard Stern return for another season of America’s Got Talent. His new deal ensures NBC returns with its book-end of Howies, Stern on one side and Howie Mandel on the other. It has been obvious to listeners that Stern so loves his judgeship that his return was inevitable, and the salary upwards of $15 million doesn’t hurt. It’s too bad Sharon Osbourne left; the three had instant chemistry rivaled only by the singer-star mentors of The Voice, a show that has a better premise than all of those other wannabe talent parades (I am excluding the fledling Killer Karaoke from consideration; even though it has the most outlandish singing format I’ve ever seen, I fear it’s inevitable somebody will die and that show goes bye bye).

Related: Howard Stern To Return To ‘America’s Got Talent’

What I wonder is, can Stern still hang on to any semblance of his rebel identity, as he continues to veer toward the mainstream? Will he continue to varnish off so much of the old rough edges that he’ll become like everybody else, and stop saying the hard things that people are thinking but no one but him dared utter? And do I have any right to expect him to remain that rebel, just so I don’t have to be reminded that his longtime listeners make our own own inevitable concessions to aging on a daily basis?

If you listen carefully to Stern’s recent radio interviews, you can tell he gets a bit irked when cool outsiders like Kid Rock say he sold out to the Man when he was announced as judge of a network TV talent show. Stung by the accusation he might not no longer be part of the outsider brethren, Stern gave his rote explanation: He loved the talent show and found himself critiquing contestants while sitting home with wife Beth. Since he was behaving like a judge, why not get paid for it? Stern talks endlessly about his obsession with online “babysitter porn”; just because you like to watch something doesn’t mean you have to get involved in the production.

For decades, I’ve observed Stern’s evolution, from the humorous self-tortured rebel to a Hamptons social scene staple who mended fences with longtime favorite punching bags like Rosie O’Donnell and Chevy Chase. Stern’s strong stance for tolerance even led him to soften his critiques on Ellen DeGeneres, particularly after he sided with her when the dopes at One Million Moms tried to get JC Penney to drop her from its commercials because she is openly gay. His only real punching bags anymore are Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno.

What does the re-up mean to Stern’s radio fans? For sure, it’ll be another year of Stern wearing them out with complaints about the Jersey commute to details of his John Varvatos wardrobe. Don’t expect celebs loyal to the show to complain: Judd Apatow took a beating for a Twitter post that begged Stern to stop with the AGT talk. Apatow was forced to apologize after Stern went after the director with a vengeance, attacking the self indulgent nature of some of his recent films. Stern talks about his life, and AGT will remain a big part of it.

For me, when Stern becomes pals with Oprah and Leno, that’ll be when the last rough edge will have been varnished off, and it will be another reason to feel old. I don’t know if other listeners my age feel this way, but a daily dose of Stern’s inappropriate adolescent humor allows this 52-year-old guy to maintain some lingering illusion of the vigor of youth that fades when the fossilizing begins.

Stern has every right to evolve and feather his nest, but I selfishly long for the guy whose antics got him fired all over the place; who once held a pay per view talent contest where a scantily clad woman gargled live maggots; and who once trussed up a TV talk show host on live TV, silenced him with S&M garb right out of a Tarantino movie, and then took over the broadcast. But as a loyal listener, I have to add that Stern’s evolution isn’t all bad. He has developed into a gifted interviewer of celebs to the point he is head and shoulders above any TV counterpart, even at 60 Minutes. And his Sirius XM show is still the funniest thing on radio, by a mile and a half.