For the last month, daytime talk shows have been taking more heat than a man whose wife just walked in on him fondling her two younger sisters. Former secretary of education William Bennett has blasted Montel, Ricki, Jenny, and their single-named colleagues as spreaders of ”cultural pollution.” Oprah herself has urged a talk-show cleanup (except for her own, reformed show, of course). And soap giant Procter & Gamble has pulled its ads — a reported $20 million a year — from some of the dirtiest raunchfests.
Talk about a Tempestt in a teapot! Admittedly, topics like ”My Mom Is Way Too Sexy” won’t win a Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting. But isn’t there something more evil in this world for Bennett to attack? (Like, for instance, The Crew?) And surely Carnie and Jerry don’t signal the demise of Western civilization as we know it. So, in the interest of fair play, EW takes up the underdog’s cause and points out five good things about trash talk shows:
1. They’re Models of Diversity. You want to see democracy in action? Click off C-SPAN and go directly to Ricki Lake. On trash talk shows, anyone, regardless of race, creed, or number of teeth, can ride the national airwaves. All you need is a dysfunction and an immunity to shame. ”You see the whole societal palette,” raves renegade scholar Camille Paglia. ”It’s tremendous.” Not only do the yakfests boast panels heavy with Latinos and African-Americans (unlike prime-time odes to outrageousness like the snow-white Melrose Place), but they also offer an astounding miscellany of physical types. Guests range from mirror crackers to Claudia Schiffer look-alikes, from the rail thin to the frighteningly obese. Again, not your average television. ”You’ll never see a fat Friend on Friends unless it’s as the butt of jokes,” gripes Maryanne Bodolay, spokesperson for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, who notes that even Roseanne has lost weight.
2. They Break New Ground. Critics would have you believe that daytime talk shows are atavistic throwbacks to P.T. Barnum’s freak shows. Wrong. Geraldo and his fellow mike wielders are actually cultural pioneers years ahead of the zeitgeist. Think about it: They gave airtime to cross-dressers long before Patrick Swayze sashayed through To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. They featured exotic dancers far earlier than Showgirls and Demi Moore’s upcoming Striptease. Homosexuality, interracial marriage, child abuse—all were talk staples before they broke into the mainstream. ”The people are first, and the pundits come later,” says host Jerry Springer. ”Our industry will always follow regular people. That’s why talk shows are ahead of the curve.”
3. They’re An American TV Tradition. Poking our noses into other people’s business is right up there with Mom and apple pie. While the British ”relish hearing about the monarchy,” says James Robert Parish, author of Let’s Talk! America’s Favorite Talk Show Hosts, ”in this country, people are more interested in those closer to their own level.” In colonial times, as a recent issue of The Village Voice pointed out, the Puritans held town meetings where sinners were encouraged to fess up publicly. And TV has always patriotically embraced this invasion of privacy (see sidebar, page 44). So why pick on Richard Bey?