Some years ago, I fell seriously ill and had to go to a hospital, where I was fitted out with catheters and intravenous tubing on both arms and could read only with great difficulty. I tried to divert myself with an enormous book on the several generations of a distinguished southern slaveholding family that had passed through various trials during the Civil War, but the weight of the book proved so unmanageable that it constantly fell from my hands.
Television quickly became my “preferred entertainment,” as opinion surveys put it, and indeed I became immoderately drawn to particular programs and series. When I left the hospital, this obsession subsided and I hardly ever watched television. But a second hospital stay last year evoked memories of the earlier one, and I recently decided to spend a day in bed watching all the shows that I used to watch—talk shows, game shows, quiz programs, soap operas, news programs, music videos.
I awoke early, to watch the sensationalist “talk shows” of Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessie Raphael. These shows usually take up a problem—sometimes one that is being widely discussed in the press, such as the trial of Joel Steinberg for murder, but far more often an unusual one like what to do if you discover your husband leads a second life as a transvestite. People who have undergone these experiences then exchange their views with members of the audience and a panel of “experts” on the subject at hand, who are placed on an elevated stage. One should not be encouraged to suppose that these confrontations are courteous guerres des savants, since panelists and members of the audience have been known to express themselves by throwing chairs at one another. This occurred recently on a show devoted to skinheads on Geraldo Rivera’s program: Rivera’s nose was broken in the encounter. It must be said, however, that these shows possess a kind of incorruptible vulgarity that makes them a secret pleasure to watch, however badly they may fail to come up to the standards of even the more intelligent middlebrow talk shows like Donahue.
In the wider sense of the word—a show devoted largely or exclusively to talk between people about some subject—there is indeed a diversity of “talk shows.” It struck me in the hospital that one could easily go through a twenty-hour day listening to nothing but talk shows on television. Nightline and the news program of MacNeil and Lehrer are by far the most distinguished because of their penetrating interviews, both of people in public life and of specialists on issues like the greenhouse effect or the eradication of malaria. Of course what one hears on them is far from the kind of talk one gets on Crossfire, a conversation piece on CNN in which second-rank politicians and opinion experts place themselves in the “cross fire” between the “hosts,” Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden. The latter is an ex-CIA man who once claimed to have had a part in setting up the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He says at the beginning of each program that he represents the “left” against Buchanan, a genuine right-wing adherent whose positions and arguments are usually so unreasonable that one is convinced that if Braden, who seems to think with the speed of a turtle, had a better command of political argument (and of diction: he slurs his words annoyingly), Buchanan would not have been able to acquire such a dominating position on the program. This has indeed become so strong that Braden must discuss at great length and in antagonized tones such stupid convictions of Buchanan’s as the one that AIDS is being spread deliberately by homosexuals who do not use condoms. Sometimes the show consists almost entirely of Braden and Buchanan shouting at each other.
The variety of other talk shows is very great. Much of the Johnny Carson show still consists of chat with entertainers, and now one can turn to his oleaginous new rivals Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall, who discuss show-business news, such as how Barbra Streisand manages her romance with the television star Don Johnson, and to Omar, the Love Doctor, a self-styled “metaphysician,” who answers telephone calls. It was on one of the latter’s shows, I believe, that a man rang up to say that he was a shaman who had been taught about life by a tree. Beginning in the morning one can find several religious programs in which a snappily dressed prophet engages in an interminable colloquy with people who agree with him that God works in mysterious ways and that His work is never over—especially, it seems, in the promotion of political candidates who advocate immediate deployment of SDI, the quashing of Roe v. Wade, and a balanced budget. The political views of some of the preachers on these programs are at times so extreme that they remind one of the Thurber character who called the FBI upon learning that a certain foreign country was bigger than Texas. Emphasis on these views alternates weirdly on some of these programs with feebly sentimental expressions of repentance and religious hymns sung by bespectacled choirboys against a soft background of rock music. (On the day that I saw such a program it was suddenly interrupted by an urgent message from Doris Day about the proper treatment of dogs and cats.)
The odious Morton Downey, Jr., the son of the Irish crooner Morton Downey, and formerly a singer himself, appears late at night. Like Rivera and Raphael, he too takes up some subject or “current event”—usually one, such as a controversy over parole for a murdering rapist, that can be presented even more simplistically than it would be by Rivera or Raphael. And unlike them Downey seems to start shouting almost immediately at his invited guests like a circus barker. He calls his show “combat television” because he feels obliged to force his guests to confront one another in shouting matches about such subjects as whether our participation in the Vietnam War was a mistake or whether blacks deserve “reparations” for their work as slaves. Soon everyone is shouting at everyone else.
In this Circus Maximus the toothy Downey—who says he is “a big mouth” and often stands at a podium embossed with a drawing of a big mouth—scores easy points by entering these debates at the last minute and yelling down an opponent who is trying to sum up his views. According to a recent report,1 Downey and the “imitation artist” Mark Kostabi had a “brawl” in which they wrestled with each other during the taping of a show of Downey’s titled “Art or Garbage?”; the show’s producer later said that “the fight footage won’t air.” Downey’s act is evidently very different in content and in quality from that of Jack Paar and the other talk-show hosts of earlier television. It often seems that what is considered “talk” has changed: it has become a kind of monologue or joke telling or display of aggression, not an exchange; and one can hardly say that there has been an improvement in the language used by people who appear on talk shows. One contestant on a show I saw said: “We’re reaping the ill wind of drugs”: and she said she “aksed” something of her boss. Even among political commentators we hear such expressions as “eyeball observers” and “at the same token.”
Something vaguely disturbing and at times even repellent about the more popular talk shows occasionally becomes evident. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but no one seems to be thinking about anything. Some members of the audiences ask questions and make comments, but they are exceptions among a larger group that simply sits and applauds everything.
Among the most popular of the morning shows is that of Sally Jessie Raphael. Every day, it seems, she brings on guests of greater curiosity. On one recent show, each member of a group of hideously deformed men and women told of how they overcame the stares of “normal” people; on another show midgets and badly burned or otherwise disfigured people appeared with the same aim. They all seemed, by the way, to be writing books for major publishers.
Schopenhauer remarked that “vulgarity is, like electricity, easily distributed,”2 a thought that kept intruding during my hours watching these talk shows. On one of them, about public relations, I saw a photographer shouting to establish that he was the first to snap Liberace in his death agony as he was taken to the hospital; this evoked in another paparazzo the same point about his pictures of the dying Elvis. All such talk-show guests were greeted with thunderous applause by the studio audience, and in some cases even a standing ovation. Everyone in the audience applauds for everything now (except when they are shouting at one another); it is, I suppose, a way of keeping moving for people who find it difficult to sit still or who are bored with ideas and arguments on those rare occasions when they come up on such talk shows. It must be considered impolite in certain audiences not to applaud. I have seen audiences applaud when people say they have been married for six months; or when they are shown a film of a sea lion successfully mating with another. Audiences applaud when bereft women tell them their husbands have left them for their own daughters or revealed a drug addiction of twenty years. The people being applauded often applaud for themselves, even for their own misfortunes, as did a handicapped prostitute who had been praised for her bravery in explaining why certain men enjoyed her company. There is a device advertised on television that allows one to turn on and off the electrical appliances in one’s house, such as toasters and TV sets, by clapping a certain number of times, according to a code, so that one needn’t wait for the Sally Jessie Raphael show to start clapping and applauding through your day.
It is extraordinary to what lengths “guests” will expose their private lives on these shows. Sally, who is somewhat priggish in manner, might announce to the audience, “I want to introduce you to Janet, who was raped and sodomized by her father in a garage” (prolonged applause). I saw with an accelerating astonishment a program on the Raphael show devoted to the before-and-after condition of women who had radical operations to reduce the size of their breasts and stomach: these women were happy to show how they looked before they underwent their “procedures.”
On another occasion, a bizarre Atlantic City boardwalk performer was wheeled onto the set. She is unable to move at all except to open her mouth and has lain flat upon her stomach on a movable stretcher for many years, and actually raised children in that condition. She apparently makes a fairly sizable income from playing some sort of xylophone with her tongue, and it was indeed the size of this income that became the focus of the program, since someone from the official board that grants licenses to perform on the boardwalk rang up the show to complain at length about the woman’s failure to pay for a license required on the part of the boardwalk she used. It is worth asking why people would undergo the embarrassment and humiliation of achieving Andy Warhol’s fifteen seconds of being famous. How far we have come from William James’s admonitory prediction that the thing to avoid in modern America will be “fame.”
New York Post, March 7, 1989.↩
"Counsels and Maxims," in The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer, translated by T. Bailey Saunders (Willey), p. 67.↩