It’s easy to make fun of Dr. Phil McGraw, the ”Oprah” adept whose own chat-’em-up-and-chew-’em-out afternoon talk show is one of the few recent successes in syndication. Dr. Phil is a daily dose of down-home, pop-psych, rah-rah bushwah, with the rangy, glow-domed Texan dispensing such admonishments as ”Get real!” ”Deal with it!” and ”You either git it or you don’t!”
Or you willfully misunderstand him. David Letterman has been mining comic gold from ”Dr. Phil” for months now, repeatedly insisting that McGraw and Oprah were once married (um, not true), feigning mock indignation at McGraw’s profession (”a dangerous quack”; ”some kind of magician”), and offering the recurring feature ”Dr. Phil’s Words of Wisdom” — out-of-context snippets of quick-draw McGraw assessing his patients (e.g., ”You’re fat, stupid, and a pig”). Dave and Phil recently convened a summit on ”Late Show,” in which it turned out that the two tall skeptics have more in common than Dave would have you think. Both men, heartland straight shooters, have no patience for weasel words or weaselly behavior, and get a rise out of studio audiences by cutting through bull with bluntness. Letterman scorns the hypocrisies of faux-humble actors and politicians; Dr. Phil will bark at a spineless husband who yearns for marital bliss, ”You’re saying ‘At one time, we were really happy.’ But hell, at one time I had hair!”
The rise of 52-year-old Phil coincides with the current popularity in psychology circles of cognitive therapy, which, if I may brutally simplify it, identifies a problem and maps out a strategy that alters a patient’s way of thinking, achieving a specific goal as quickly and efficiently as possible. This method isn’t only a time- and money-saving favorite of our HMO era, it also lends itself to the sound-bite segmentation of an hour with commercials. ”Dr. Phil” just wouldn’t work if the big guy needed an uninterrupted 50-minute hour with some sorry SOB on a couch, mulling over childhood traumas to figure out why he belittles his wife and throws dishes at the wall. (Memo to telegenic Freudians: Sorry, this ain’t no time to launch ”Dr. Sigmund.”)
While it’s obvious Dr. Phil despises the mollycoddling mumbo jumbo of the popular shrinks who’ve preceded him — most notably the PBS murmurings of John Bradshaw, who nurtured your ”inner child” through way too many fund-raising periods — it’s not as though he doesn’t have a vexing vocabulary of his own. Dr. Phil’s own key cant word is ”self” — he talks incessantly about finding ”your authentic self”; his current bestseller is ”Self Matters.” Also, Dr. Phil assigns ”homework”: You go on his show or read his books, and you get assignments for self-improvement — check-off lists to keep you from being a victim or a bully in a relationship. He even fetishizes the simple word ”you,” as in — to pick from a random page of ”Self Matters” — ”Pretend for a moment that you are a business operation called You, Inc.,” and ”You’ve got to know what you believe about your role in the hierarchy of you.” He even told Letterman, ”You are responsible for you.”
Still, in the hierarchy of me — a.k.a. Not You — I find ”Dr. Phil” more watchable than those afternoon courtroom and dating-disaster shows, or Oprah herself, who just doesn’t seem to have her truly benevolent heart in it anymore. Dr. Phil avoids the touchy-feely, promoting the watchy-thinky. A drawling, born entertainer, he guides viewers to realize when they’re being exploited, and takes particular relish in whup-assing men who mess with women’s minds just because they can. (Or as he slicingly summarized the creepy attitude recently, ”’Ah’m feelin’ pretty good, so Ah better git a stick and go poke her.”’) Attempting to help a single woman who said she was trying to extricate herself from an eight-year affair with a married man who repeatedly said he’d leave his wife soon, Phil rolled his eyes at her gullibility and howled, ”Pleeease don’t tell me he’s your soul mate!” Attacking both insincerity and hypocrisy are the good doc’s best traits.
Dr. Phil launched his TV career doing a popular Tuesday guest spot on ”Oprah,” and there were apparently some worries that on his own, without Winfrey’s glowing warmth, he’d come off as coldly harsh. This is the kindest explanation I can muster for the big guy’s signature sign-off, in which he exits the cheering crowd each day hand in hand with his real-life wife. To quote the doc himself, ”What a load of crap!” But with his show now a hit, Dr. Phil’s next challenge will be to avoid becoming the Dr. Joyce Brothers for Gen-Y: an overexposed analyst. He’s already slated to go head-to-headshrink with Kelsey Grammer on ”Frasier” in May, and we all know sitcom cameos are a one-way ticket to the 2005 season of ”The Surreal Life.” Better watch it, Phil, or we’re gonna git a stick and poke ya harder than Dave did.