I feel like an antique from The Civil War by daring to ask whether anyone remembers when the "talk show" consisted of David Suskind and Jack Paar engaging in humorous repartee with the famous and infamous of their day? Witticisms then were almost at the expense of the viewer who was more voyeur than participant. There was no audience to speak of, (even though I suspect that there was one hidden somewhere, just out of sight). The concept changed drastically in the 1970s due to the efforts of Mr. Phil Donohue. His days on television may be gone with the wind, but it was he and he alone who elevated the "talk show" to the heights it revels in today. His respect for the words and feelings of the average American housewife actually prompted Gloria Steinem to tell him how much she admired him for that. (She said it right to my face, through the screen, that is.) But where is Phil Donohue today when we need him and how happy would he be with his great idea? My cynical guess is that wherever he is, hes probably not watching talk shows.
Talk shows are like bills and unwelcome relatives. They appear unbidden whether you want them or not. Most channels on any given day of the week carry at least three or four of them. How did they become such an integral part of our every day lives? For the answer and the purposes of this informal discourse I will focus on the success of the more durable ones, leaving the others to fend for themselves in this talk-show-eat-talk-show world of ours. I will highlight Montel Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jesse Rafael, and last (and in this case I really do mean least) Jerry Springer. All these hosts have their own distinct and even charismatic personalities and they all offer a different if not questionable energy. As a person who is home during the day and watches them often, I am almost an expert (albeit a self-appointed one) as to their impact on at least one daily life (my own).
Many topics overlap on all the shows. Whether this has to do with ratings or unimaginative producers, I am not at liberty to say. I myself will not watch another makeover or reunion show, for I find them to be inane, soppy and repetitive. The reunions are forced; sometimes they work and sometimes they dont. Its like that old joke about Columbus discovering America and the native Americans not wanting to be discovered (Flip Wilson, circa 1970). When these dramatic get togethers go wrong, the results can be more than melodramatic; they can be murder. Consider that reunion between two young men on the Jenny Jones show a few years back that resulted in the shooting death of one by the other. (Perhaps they should have killed the producer instead.)
The makeover shows are hackneyed and boring. I cannot understand how the people featured reached adulthood without learning which way their underwear fits, how to comb their hair and put on their socks! (I also wonder about their oral hygiene, but most of the guests on these episodes dont seem to have too many teeth.) The topics that I enjoy are the ones focussing on mysterious disappearances, unsolved murders, family conflicts, dysfunctional parents, and teenagers in crisis and love triangles. Even though these subjects too sometimes overlap on all the shows at times, they at least hold the promise of some drama and possible resolution through proffered psychological help. I wonder though if that ever results in new, improved people who keep their televisions.
Montel Williams cares about the world and what he can do to make it a better place. He inspires all within his orbit, whether they are male, female and any color under the sun, to believe in themselves and their ability to alter the course of their lives. He is a man who has endured a great deal of physical suffering himself which only serves to temper his humanity and his celebrity. His content is usually timely, intelligently presented and thought provoking. He gets very passionate about certain topics; for example, parents who dont assume responsibility for their children and discrimination of all types. He has a winning, dynamic personality, so much so that sometimes his ego invades the screen a little bit. His statement: "speak without offending and listen without defending" has made me stop and think about the words that have come out of my mouth more than once. All in all, he is a positive influence and a man from whom we all can learn.
There is a "down homeness" about Oprah Winfrey that is a big part of her appeal. She is never unreachable for comment or impervious to tears. Oddly too about her, there is always the impression that she might stop by at any time for lunch at your house or you at hers. (Im quite sure the latter isnt possible, but the feeling is there all the same.) Her Angel Network has helped thousands of people in need and her Book Club provides intellectual stimulation, not to mention the stimulation of finances into the pockets of the authors whose books she has chosen. (Note jealousy in tone.) The "Remembering Your Spirit" segment of her show is an inspiration even to someone like myself who is not very spiritual. Often tears roll unexpectedly from my eyes as I hear the people featured tell about how they soared above unspeakable adversity only to emerge victorious. And yet, in the end, the most amazing thing about Oprah Winfrey is that her fame and position connects rather than separates us from her. As I heard her say in a recent interview: "celebrity is wonderful place for a poor black girl child born in Mississippi to be."
Sally Jesse Rafael is a woman with her own unique style. Long known for her red- rimmed glasses, she has carved a niche for herself in daytime television that has been well earned. Articulate and passionate, she brings a particular presence to the screen that makes one stop and listen. She offers help and understanding to all those who need it, but she will take no nonsense from anyone. A battering spouse will never make her cringe at his feet or dare to speak to her in vulgar language. Teenagers who sass their parents never dare to sass her, at least not more than once. She offers the door to anyone who disrespects her and her guests, even if they leave behind an empty chair and an awkward silence. Hers is a "tough love," confrontational approach and it works. The road ahead may not always be a soft and pretty place to fall, but it is backed by her sincere desire to change what is wrong and make it right.
Jerry Springer has single-handedly dragged the word "confrontation" to new lows. He is articulate and highly intelligent, and I used to enjoy his repartee with extremist groups, hit men, cheating spouses and sensation seekers in search of new sensations. That was before his show became The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a peanut gallery for the angry, obsessed and completely nuts! Physical confrontation is not only encouraged but also a big part of the Springer menu. As for me, I would rather watch a boxing match. I cant bear the screaming of former spouses who have been wronged, girlfriends who have been right and ex-Nazis and Ku Kluxers who want people to understand their positions. There is nothing redeeming here, just adults making asses out of themselves and sullying the name of the nice quiet four-legged asses in the world. And yet there are the ratings and the people that support them that keep him on the air. What does that really say about his show and the ratings? That, my friends, is the question (or at least one of them).
Will the talk show ever pass away into the annals of television oblivion? I think not as they do provide a forum of information to people who might not ordinarily have it and valuable insight into what makes some people tick. Thats fine if your purpose is to learn how to detonate a bomb, but for many of these poor souls its too late to teach tick along with tock. The tock either was never there in the first place or got up and went somewhere warmer and less confrontational. And so I leave you, dear reader, with the ultimate whine of the day:
Come back to the five and ten or at least my den, Mr. Donohue, please!
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