Skip to content

Outburst 23: All I Really Need to Know I Learned Watching Talk Shows

Introduction

Most of what I really need to know about how to live, what to do, and how to be, I learned watching Sally, Ricki, Maury, Jerry, Rosie, Montel, and Oprah. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there on the television tube. These are the things I learned: Share everything including your spouse. Don’t play fair, hit people. Put things back when you feel like it. Never clean up your own mess. Take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry even if you don’t mean it. Wash your hands after you have dressed up as a transsexual. Flush any illegal substances or weapons down the toilet. Stale cookies and spoilt milk are good for you everyday—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Live an unbalanced, chaotic, immoral, and ridiculous life. Only learn, think, draw, paint, sing, dance, play, and work when the spotlight appears, cameras are on, and a host is standing in front of you with a microphone.

Show And Tell

In media culture, holding the microphone and the spotlight are a complicated sort of power, not only because people grab them back from you but because they are never really yours. If you speak, you must prepare to be used. The voice that comes out is not quite yours: It is like listening to yourself on tape (a bit deeper and more clipped) or to a version dubbed by your twin. It is you and it is not you. The troubling question, for the silenced and the heard alike, is whether the line is indeed walkable. These shows are a typical mess, with guests yelling and audiences hooting at the best one-liners, but the virulence with which the guests can be attacked is both typical of these shows and stunning. Some find themselves ready to join in the cheering/chanting of the rowdy and out of control audiences. Here, norm becomes the freak and the freak becomes the norm.

Daytime Exposure

There are millions of dysfunctional (abnormal or impaired) families out there. They may be on magazine covers (Globe and The Inquirer), but they are also appearing frequently on daytime television talk shows. This may be your prerogative if you prefer to watch people more miserable than yourself. The talk shows can be a dangerous place to speak and a difficult place to get heard. The “ambush” of guests with surprises is fast becoming a talk show staple. Those associated with the business choose to do this because it “does so much for the energy of the show.” When booking the guests, they’re thinking, “how much confrontation can this person provide us?” The more confrontation, the better. They want people just this side of a fistfight.

Headliners

A recent list of talk show highlights include mothers who committed murder, spouses who cheat, children confronting parents about their unfaithful ways, and guests who are in love with their own looks. Sally Jessy Raphael wants to know what it’s like to pass as a different sex. Montel wants to support you in your battle against gay bashing. Ricki Lake wants to get you a date. Oprah Winfrey wants you to love without lying. Most of all, they all want you to talk about it publicly, just at a time when everyone else wants you not to. They are interested, if not precisely in “reality,” at least not (with possible exceptions) in fictional accounts. This is the only spot in the mainstream to speak on your own terms or to hear others speaking for themselves. Sally Jessy asks a cheating husband, “Feel bad?” Montel asks the girl who stole her best friend’s boyfriend, “Any sense of remorse?” The expectation is that the sinner, so heckled, will see her way to reform. And indeed, a Sally Jessy update found “boy crazy,” who’d been a guest only weeks ago, now dressed in school girlish plaid, claimed her “attitude [had] changed” thanks to the therapy dispensed on the show.

Money Talks

There are over 20 syndicated talk shows competing for audiences. Shows that trade in confrontation and surprise (Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer) are edging out the milder, topical programs (Oprah, Rosie). Although Winfrey is still number one, with an estimated 9.4 million viewers, her ratings have declined significantly over the years. Unquestionably, “exploitalk” is winning out, and the prize is big: A successful talk show, relatively cheap to produce, can reportedly make more than $50 million a year in profits. The programs are quite profitable for their owners, bringing in plenty of advertising dollars from the likes of Ford, General Electric, and Archer-Daniels-Midland. They are extraordinarily profitable for the superstars of talk: Oprah Winfrey, who owns her syndicated show, could buy and sell her competitors several times over. Her net worth is roughly $340 million. The talk show world bestows all sorts of additional financial rewards (magazine issues, conferences, and guest speaker spot fees).

Why?

These shows wouldn’t exist if people didn’t watch them. Not everyone is glued to PBS. But it beats me why people want to air their dysfunctions on television and before an audience of voyeurs. The folks generally are paid nothing more than travel and hotel expenses, unless their name is John Bobbitt or Kato Kaelin then those amounts are not disclosed. Psychiatrists suggest some people will do anything to get on television. They compare it with the bond that they establish with patients that frees them up to talk about anything. Talk-show guests feel it’s the only time in their lives people are interested in what they have to say. They feel noticed and important. This is class exploitation, pure and simple. Talk shows take advantage of these naïve and emotionally weak people. What next, “homeless people so hungry they eat their own scabs”? Or would the next step be to pay people outright to submit to public humiliation? For $50 would you confess to adultery in your wife’s presence? For $500 would you reveal your 13-year-old’s girlish secrets on Ricki Lake? If you were poor enough, you might.

Conclusion

Remember that book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK! Everything you need to know is there somewhere, except for obscene curse words. The Golden Rule—treat others the way you would like to be treated (disrespected, humiliated, and degraded). If you take any one of those lessons you learned watching talk shows and apply them to your family, life, work, government, or world, you will avoid destruction. No matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together with the family members and close friends who betray you and stab you in the back—on the next Montel Williams’ Show.

Author: Cherry Marie Williams has a Master’s degree in Multicultural/Bilingual Education. She is a primary teacher hoping to teach and travel overseas. Wherever she’s at, she always finds time in her day to watch and enjoy her favorite talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Published inOutbursts
© 2000, Journal of Mundane Behavior. Permission to link to this site is granted. All copyright permission and reproduction requests beyond "fair use" must be approved jointly by Journal of Mundane Behavior and the individual author, and should be directed to the managing editor.