Howard Stern's Gary 'Baba Booey' Dell'Abate Has His Own Talking to Do
Baba Booey began as a gag on "The Howard Stern Show," when radio producer Gary Dell'Abate mispronounced the name of the classic cartoon character, Baba Looie. It has since baba-blossomed into pop culture nomenclature.
On the air, Dell'Abate is the butt of more jokes than anyone else in the Stern crew. But off the air, the man the world knows as Baba Booey lives in Connecticut, is married to a woman named Mary and is a devoted father to his two sons, 16-year-old Jackson and 12-year-old Lucas.
His book, "They Call Me Baba Booey," now a New York Times best-seller, has plenty of the famed satellite radio show's humor, but also some surprises. Dell'Abate, 49, who, along with the rest of the Stern cast, seems to embrace a nothing-is-off-limits on-air persona, shares secrets he's never revealed in public, including his mother's battle with mental illness and the toll it took on his family.
The 26-year Stern veteran talked to ParentDish about how he copes with all the abuse he takes on the radio, and how his shock jock boss helped him become a better parent. An edited version of the interview follows.
ParentDish: "They Call Me Baba Booey" starts with your mother entering a mental hospital when you were only 5, and you starting therapy years later. Is that the book you wanted to write?
Gary Dell'Abate: Originally, I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I had an idea for a rock-and-roll trivia book, a book of lists -- the infamous list that Howard hates -- essays, stuff about music. And my book agent said, well, maybe down the road somebody might be interested in that, but the book that you really want to do is whatever your story is. I said, "I don't have a story." And he said, "Everybody has a story."
So I call him the next day (and tell him), "You want to really know what my story is? I had a mom that suffered from mental illness." And he said, "That's a book that will sell." But there was a problem. I didn't say I wanted to put it in a book. So my initial reaction was no.
PD: How did that move to a yes?
PD: I spoke to my wife about it and she said, "Yes, it involves your family, but it's your story, too." I called my brother and he was on board with it. That was encouraging. And then, inevitably, I went to my mother and told her about it. (Getting) my family on board ... took about a month and a half. You'd have to be a terrible person not to check with your family first. I guess people put out books and surprise their family. My brother got the full manuscript before publication. I said, any changes you want to make, make 'em now.
PD: What about your mother, did you send it to her?
GD: Well, my mother's in a nursing home. She's 83 years old. She still totally has her wits about her, (and) it's not like she's going blind, but she can't really read. But I was there last week and I actually read her portions of the book. But I was pretty up front in advance. I told her exactly what I was going to put in.
PD: How did she react?
GD: I said, "Are you OK with that?" And she said, "Yeah." I said, "Are you sure?" She said, "Yeah." I said, "Mom, so, did you think everything went great when we were growing up?" And she goes, "Yeah." Then we both laughed at the same time, because she knew she was, you know, not telling the truth.
PD: There's a quote from your dad in the book where he tells you that your mother's "brain is sick," explaining it to you the way someone would a physical illness. Did that help you deal with what she was going through back then?
GD: (When) I told Howard that story he (said), "Your father probably saved your life. Do you realize for a 5-year-old kid, when your mother's crying all the time, (you think) it must be your fault. And your father telling you that sort of saved your life." I never realized that, because it was so matter of fact at the time. So you're right. Had my father never said anything to me, I'm sure I would have gone a whole different way.
PD: Tell us about your dad.
GD: My dad was a great parent. I aspire to be as good as him. My father always talked to me like I was a person, not a little kid, no matter what age I was. He was always a straight shooter with me. He didn't tell you everything, but (his attitude was), kids are smarter than you think, and if you're up front with them, it's better for everybody in the long run. That's something I try to live by.
Another thing is that my father would have torn the shirt off his back for any of his kids, and that's how I feel, too. To me that seems so obvious -- of course, anybody who's a parent would do that. Then you find out that there's a lot of people whose fathers didn't do that. At all.
PD: To you, it's obvious, but to some people it's not. Does that make you nuts when you see other people not doing right by their kids?
GD: I don't know that it makes me nuts. It makes me sad. It makes me surprised. I was just watching this great documentary, "Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)" Phenomenal. In the film (they) talk about how he and John Lennon got along so well because both of them had parents who left at a really young age, and Harry Nilsson never got over that. Then, Nilsson got married and had a kid, and literally recreated the entire scenario. How do you do that?
PD: In your case, you feel like you're recreating some of what your dad did ...
GD: Yeah, but in a positive way.
PD: Is there a lot of arguing in your house now, the way there was when you were growing up?
GD: No. We try not to argue in front of our kids, because every time my parents argued it was ... you know. It's emotional.
PD: So there are some things that you keep from your kids.
GD: Sure. Like I said, my father didn't tell me everything. But I'm pretty straight with (my kids).
PD: How do you decide what they should and shouldn't hear?
GD: Well, there's no manual for this. It's just your gut. My younger son asks me a lot of the time about stuff that goes on on the show. And I talk to him about Billy Joel, I talk to him about Jay-Z. But I don't tell him there's strippers and porn stars on. I just say there's a lot of grown-up content on the show, and he seems to accept that.
PD: So, you don't let your kids listen to the show?
PD: Do they hear about it from other people?
GD: No, because on satellite radio it's a little bit more difficult. Listen: My sons could very well be listening to the show when I'm not home. That might be the case. There's only so much you can do. I'm not going to put a lock on the radio. I'm going to trust them.
PD: But they go to school. They must hear things from people there.
GD: (Lucas) is in seventh grade. Most seventh graders aren't listening to our show. And (Jackson) seems to have no interest in listening. He's 16 years old, he's a jock. All he cares about is watching ESPN and tweaking his fantasy football team.
PD: Are parents too protective of kids these days?
GD: Yeah. Especially with language. Here's the thing: I say to my kids, you can't watch this, you can't watch this. Within reason, there are some rules in my house. Then they go to another kid's house, and those rules are broken anyway. We have a running joke that my younger guy is not supposed to be watching "Family Guy." Then I catch him watching it. As long as we have a good relationship, and I can have a conversation with him about it, he's going to be fine. It's not like I left him home alone for five years straight and the only guidance in his life is "Family Guy." The other problem is that it's such a funny show that I come in thinking I'm going to ask him to shut it off and I end up sitting down and watching it with him.
PD: What else do you do with your kids?
GD: I coach my younger son's football team. I coached my older son's football team before that. I help out with the baseball teams. My wife and I are both very, very involved parents.
PD: How do you decide who does what with the kids?
GD: We split it up pretty well. If I had daughters it would be different. But I have sons, so I say, I'm coaching the team, I'll take them to practice. But my wife comes to every game, too. Sometimes I say I'm going to be home late from work, can you take them over to the game and I'll meet you there, you know. We figure it out.
PD: You're a big music lover. Do you share that with your kids?
GD: Oh my God, yeah. We totally do. We're always talking about music. I have a big hard drive with my music on it that's networked. Sometimes Jackson will (ask) what's so special about Steely Dan? And I say go to the hard drive, (listen to) "Aja" and tell me what you think.
PD: Do you think your old-school music is better than today's music?
GD: Well, yeah, but find me the generation who thinks that today's music is better than their generation. Today's music is cruddy. I think the thing that's missing is the diversity in music. We replay Casey Kasem's old shows here at Sirius, and I was listening to a chart (that) ran the gamut. Soul music, R&B, rock-and-roll. What rock is on the charts now of any substance?
PD: Has anything replaced radio for kids today?
GD: The iPod.
PD: But you self-select that music. With radio, you hear things you wouldn't necessarily hear.
GD: Yeah, it's called shuffle. They think that's radio.
PD: You have dinner with your wife and sons every night. Did that happen when you were growing up?
GD: I had dinner with my mother every night. But some nights (my father) got home really late. He just worked a lot. So we would eat at 6 and sometimes he would walk in at 7 and eat by himself.
PD: But your mom always cooked, even if she was depressed.
GD: Always. That's like therapy for an Italian woman. I think it was really an inbred thing. She would say, "No matter how bad I feel, I have to put food on the table."
PD: Is the Stern show like a family, and do you think about your own experiences with your family when you deal with the craziness on the air?
GD: We are like a family and some of the dysfunction is like my family. But we all get along pretty well. The difference between (the Stern show) and, say, my mom, is that everybody on the show is pretty reasonable off the air.
PD: Is what we hear on the air real?
GD: Oh, sure.
PD: How do you keep that separate? You seem to have an amazingly thick skin. How do you do take that abuse on the air and then just go talk to everybody like nothing happened?
GD: Because if you stop and hold a grudge you can't do your job. Howard and I will have an argument (on the air). He'll be pissed at me, or I'll be pissed at him, or we'll be pissed at each other. We'll go to break and I'll walk in and say, "OK. Up next is Billy Joel." You can't stop and hold a grudge, you're never going to get anything done. I just say, it happened. I've just got to bury it and move on.
PD: You say in the acknowledgments that Howard taught you how to respect people and how to be a good dad. What did you mean by that?
GD: Howard has always treated people with respect. He was never one of those people who said, "I'm a big star, there's a limo driver, don't respect him." For him, it's the opposite. He would say, "that limo driver works so hard, hardly makes any money, I have so much respect for him." And, in parenting, too, especially when it comes to the show, sort of the balance of ... I'm not going to get too deep into it because they're personal conversations, but the balance of being in the public eye, people recognizing you, people maybe knowing about the content of the show and how to deal with your kids on that level. He gave me a lot of really sound advice.
PD: So you have conversations about your personal life off the air?
GD: Sure. In fact, the last four years in a row, my wife and I have been invited to his house out East, and sometimes it's just the four of us, and we have tons of conversations.
I've had a great life. I have it better than Howard in a way -- I'm a B celebrity who works for an A celebrity. I can go out, I can go to a baseball game. Howard can't go to a baseball game and just walk around. I can. I just get a lot of, "Hey, Baba Booey!" but it's all with love and good-natured fun.
PD: In the book, you say, "You're not a man until your dad dies." What does that mean?
GD: That was a quote I heard after Tiger Woods' father died. I thought it was really trite and stupid. But after my father died (in 2006) I totally understood it. (Your dad) is always there for you to lean on, there's always somebody older than you that you trust, he's probably the most trusted male figure in your life. And, when they're gone, you really are on your own.
I can't tell you how many times after my father passed away that I picked up the phone to talk about the Jets game or the Mets game or something I wanted to bounce off of him. We didn't talk every day, we'd usually talk once a week. But sometimes I would think, "Oh, I've got to give my dad a call and ask him about this" and then I'd say, "Oh, I forgot." And so not having that figure in your life ... So many people use their fathers as a sounding board. Now that person doesn't exist anymore. No matter how many friends you have, you'll never have that person. Now it's all on you. You're one of the men in the family.
PD: Would your father have waited to be served the first piece of chicken? (Note: Dell'Abate once said on the air that his children get first dibs on the food when the family sits down to eat, something Stern continues to tease him about.)
GD: I don't know the answer to that because we ate together so rarely. I don't remember. I guess my father got served first.
PD: Does it annoy you, waiting to be served while your kids get to eat first?
GD: It annoys me a little bit. I still have a little bit of old-school Italian in me.
PD: So why do you let them do that?
GD: Because it's not that big a deal. It's not like I'm going to put my fist down and argue about it. It's one of those things that sort of annoyed me in my head. It didn't mean that much to me.
PD: Sounds like that's your life attitude: "Hey, I'm going to let this go."
GD: If it means enough to me, then I'll say something. I'm not looking for confrontation, oddly, even though this is where I work.
PD: You seem to deal with confrontation very well. Some people who come from families where there was a lot of conflict avoid it like the plague and don't deal with it well. But you do.
GD: I guess I'm good at it. (Laughs.)
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.