Television: Freak Parade

Daytime talk shows are a contemporary carnival.


Bearded ladies. Siamese twins. Men and women who weigh more than 300 pounds each. Tattooed men. These are just a few of the guests to grace the stages of daytime talk shows in recent months. If those examples remind you of a carnival sideshow, there's a reason.

In the 19th century and for the first few decades of this century, carnivals crisscrossed the United States, providing entertainment to people in small towns. Carnivals catered to the dark side of man's need for spectacle by allowing people to escape temporarily from their dull everyday lives into a world that was dark, sleazy, and seemingly dangerous. Of course, the danger wasn't real, and the ultimate lure of the carnival was that you could safely return from its world to your everyday life.

Television and regional amusement parks took their toll on the carnival. Today, the few carnivals in existence are generally sad collections of rickety rides and rigged games. But man's need for dark spectacle hasn't gone away, and a new generation of entrepreneurs has found a way to allow people to experience the vicarious thrill of the dark, the sleazy, and the tawdry—all without leaving the safety of their homes.

The gateways to this dark world are daytime talk shows. Phil Donahue created the mold for this genre, and Oprah Winfrey carried it to perhaps its greatest success. Both their shows are essentially women's magazines on the air, alternating celebrity profiles, services-oriented features, discussion of political issues, and more exploitative episodes. Both mix the tawdry with the serious. Donahue was the man who gave us daytime debates between presidential candidates, and he was also the man who wore a skirt on a show devoted to cross dressing.

However, a new generation of hosts has emerged that trades almost exclusively in the sleaze their audiences demand: Geraldo, Montel, Ricki, Jerry. Their names may not be familiar to you, but they have millions of viewers. Oprah alone is watched by 7 million households each day. Each has managed to recreate the carnival in a contemporary setting.

One of the main attractions of the old carnivals were the "hoochie coochie" dancers. Men would eagerly wait in line, enticed by the talker's promise that these women would "take it off, roll it up, and throw it right at you." This was the origin of modern striptease. Today, the heirs of Little Egypt are a staple on daytime television. In fact, they are so common that producers really have to try to come up with new angles. Male strippers, female strippers, old strippers, grossly overweight strippers, amateur strippers—these are just a few of the variations that I saw on daytime talk shows in just one four-week period. Of course, these people didn't just talk about their profession; they inevitably demonstrated it. While the television viewer could see the naughty bits only in digitized distortions, the live audiences for these shows were treated to an eyeful.

However, most of the strippers on these shows are attractive young women. Given that the audience for daytime talk is also women, this seems like a strange choice of guests. I can only assume that at least some of the women who watch these shows are intrigued by the profession and wonder what it would be like to be a stripper. By presenting these women strippers—indeed, by actually taking their cameras into clubs for performances—talk shows give those women viewers the chance to live out their fantasies vicariously without risking any of the dangers involved. Based upon the comments offered, female audience members generally seem to sympathize with the strippers who appear on these shows, usually defending them against those brought on to attack the profession.

Of course, at times the subject of stripping is simply an excuse for these shows to engage in emotional voyeurism. A perfect example was an episode of Jerry Springer dealing with strippers and family members who disapproved of how they earned their money. Naturally, the strippers couldn't just talk to their parents and siblings; they had to demonstrate their art to them. So while the assembled families and the studio audience watched, the girls stripped naked.

On one side of a split television screen, the home audience saw a lovely young girl strip down to her distorted birthday suit. On the other side, her family, some of them crying, averted their eyes and tried to ignore the hooting and catcalls of the audience.

It was tacky; it was sleazy. It was the perfect daytime moment. Whoever thought of it is a veritable P.T. Barnum of the airwaves. At once, this sordid mess provides the viewer with the voyeuristic thrill of seeing a family conflict that one really shouldn't observe, the vicarious thrill of stripping before an audience, and, ultimately, the confirmation that a dull, "normal" lifestyle is superior to that of the women on the show.

An important part of carnivals was the freak show, an assortment of real and contrived physical oddities: pinheads, fat people, bearded ladies. While the carnival talkers would try to entice people into the sideshow tents with come-ons about the scientific oddities inside, the real lure of these attractions wasn't intellectual curiosity. It was terror and pity. The customer could observe these people and think to himself that no matter how bad his life seemed at times, it could be much, much worse.

Daytime talk shows have their own version of the freak show. Indeed, on her now-defunct show, Joan Rivers had actual sideshow freaks. These were politically correct "made" freaks (people who had purposefully altered their bodies), not natural ones. The guest who drew the biggest reaction from the audience was a man who lifted heavy weights attached to earrings that pierced various parts of his body. (I've actually seen this guy perform, and I can say that the audience didn't see his most impressive piece of lifting. But there was no way that it could have been shown on television, at least not without some serious digitizing of the screen.)

More often, talk shows will feature people with physical conditions similar to those who were attractions in sideshows. I've seen various shows do episodes on women with facial hair, and the lives of the very large are always a popular topic. One episode of Jerry Springer featured greeting card models who weigh more than 300 pounds. In typical fashion these women were not dressed as they presumably would be in everyday life, but in revealing lingerie. So much the better for gawking, I guess.

Again, the host will set up one of these shows with some remarks about understanding these people, and to their credit, many of the guests on these programs do try to maintain their dignity. The greeting card models seemed a happy, boisterous lot of people. But more often guests are asked to tell tales of discrimination and broken hearts. It's easy to conclude that they were invited on the show so that the audience could feel sorry for them and feel superior to them.

And speaking of feeling superior, how could anyone help but laugh at and feel better than the endless parade of squabbling friends and relatives who pass through these shows? Judging from the looks of guests on some of these shows, you'd think that the producers comb every trailer park and housing project in the nation looking for them. In fact, most are solicited through telephone numbers given during the show: "Are you a white transsexual stripper whose family disapproves of your Latino boyfriend? Call 1-800-IMA FREK."

The guests then are invited on the show, where they battle it out for the amusement of the audience. A typical example was a show hosted by Ricki Lake on the topic of promiscuity. Ricki began by introducing Shannon, a girl who claimed her best friend Keisha sleeps around too much. Amid much whooping from the audience, Shannon detailed her friend's rather colorful sex life: "It ain't like she getting paid."

Then Keisha came out and accused Shannon of being the one who sleeps around too much. They spent an entire segment arguing. After the break Ricki introduces a mutual friend of the two and asked the question everyone in the audience now wanted to know: "Which one is the real slut?" A dramatic pause. The emphatic answer: "Both of them." The audience erupts.

Conflict is a key element on the new breed of talk shows. Physical fights seem to break out on Ricki Lake's show more frequently than at hockey games. These conflicts are not always mere arguments between friends or family members. Often, there are clear-cut good guys whom the audience is supposed to cheer and bad guys whom the audience boos. These episodes resemble the low-brow morality plays of professional wrestling.

Pro wrestling, in fact, had its origins in the carnival. Sometimes the resemblance to pro wrestling is quite pronounced. Daytime talk shows have a fascination with the Ku Klux Klan. It seems a week doesn't go by without one show bringing on members of the Klan to discuss their views on race relations, welfare, abortion, or child rearing. Usually there'll be representatives from some civil rights organization present to offer an opposing view.

The Klansmen look every inch the pro wrestling "heel." They are invariably overweight and have poor skin and a bad haircut. Watching them sitting there in their Klan robes, shouting racial slurs at their opponents as the audience curses them, I always expect these people to pull out a set of brass knuckles and clobber the "babyface" while the host has his back turned.

More often, though, the villains on talk shows are a little more subtle. The audience seems to value family quite a bit because the most common types of villains on these shows are people who pose a threat to the family: child-deserting wives, cheating husbands, and abusive parents.

One typical show was an episode of Jenny Jones where women who date only married men faced off with women whose husbands had left them for other women. The women who dated married men certainly made no attempt to win the audience over. They came in dressed in short skirts or low-cut dresses. They preened; they strutted; they insulted the other guests and the audience members; they bragged about their sexual prowess. "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers himself could not have worked the crowd better.

Why do such people even show up for these shows? It can't be for the money, since guests receive no more than a plane ticket and a night in a nice hotel. After watching countless shows, I've come to the conclusion that these people really think there is nothing wrong with what they do, and they usually seem quite surprised that the audience isn't on their side.

Is the public's appetite for this sleaze unlimited? Probably not. After all, the carnival came around but once a year. With close to two dozen daytime talk shows competing for viewers, people are bound to grow jaded. Last year, Oprah Winfrey, who already had one of the less sleazy shows, began a policy of toning down the tawdry elements. Even her sensational admission to using crack cocaine during the 1980s came in the middle of an "inspirational" program on recovering addicts. The show, which was already the top-rated daytime program, saw its ratings climb. But for those with a taste for the dark side of life, there'll always be a Ricki Lake or a Gordon Elliott.

Contributing Editor Charles Oliver writes for Investor's Business Daily.