"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 28 May 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Shlock Soup



Retirement's always a good way to

rescue a sinking career. When

Phil Donahue, after 7000 shows,

finally gave up the mike last

month, hagiographers everywhere

scrambled to find superlatives

buoyant enough to raise him from

the depths of a cultural

irrelevance into which he'd

lately descended. And, without a

doubt, the old chatterbox

deserved all the praise he got.



"Can we talk?" he asked a nation

29 years ago, and the subsequent

yakfest changed the face of TV

news and laid the groundwork for

the new media industry.

Promiscuously empathetic,

Donahue was the antithesis of

the impartial, dispassionate

anchorman: he got involved with

his audience; he let people tell

their stories in their own

words; his heart stretched like

spandex to embrace every social

injustice his producers threw at




But while Donahue's impact on

what is considered news was

substantial, it was hardly

entirely positive. Ultimately,

his brand of

melodrama-as-journalism proved

to be all too compelling:

Donahue was the sensitive midwife

to the now-adolescent

infotainment industry. Donahue

himself may have been reluctant

to capitalize on this trend -

even in the face of faltering

ratings - but his

less-principled talk show

successors (and to a saddening,

but unsurprising, extent,

standard "news" shows) have

shown no such inhibitions.



While Donahue used individuals to

personalize issues and trends

that had actual cultural

significance - dwarf-tossing,

for example - today's talk shows

generally reflect only the

fallow imaginations of producers

too illiterate to make it as

tabloid scribblers. The daytime

prods dream up lame scenarios,

then troll the nation's bars,

jails, and low-rent shopping

malls to see what freaks they

can round up to play the parts.

If they could only concoct

something truly perverse once in

a while - say, I'm Having a

Secret Affair with my

Volkswagen - the news' loss

would at least be

entertainment's gain.



As it is, talk shows have simply

become arenas of trivial

dysfunction and generic

titillation. And, of course,

tedious moral instruction. Like

churlish dominatrices, Oprah and

Maury and Sally and Ricki tease

shamefaced confessions out of

their sheepish guests, then

scold them for their evil ways.

It's no wonder that cultural

janitor William Bennett launched

a righteously vituperative

attack against talk shows last

fall - all that finger-wagging

tough love Geraldo dishes out

was probably cutting into

Bennett's book sales.



Should Jerry Springer one day

tell a deadbeat dad of seven

that it's perfectly acceptable

to blow the family's food money

on hookers and crack once in a

while, that would be news.

Because that isn't likely to

happen any time soon, the best

claim to investigative

journalism that most talk shows

can currently muster is that

they're a lot like newspaper

advice columns. Without the

quaint sense of discretion that

leads to signatures like Furtive

in Philadelphia, of course...



In the talk show realm, spectacle

is the reward. After all, if

you're broke, addicted, lonely,

and hopeless, can broadcasting

your misery to an audience of

strangers make things any worse?

At least you get noticed. In

fact, your "rich backwoods

accent" or "hip, mean-streets

attitude" might even inspire a

clueless intellectual to write a

cheeky essay about your

"tantalizing tastelessness."



That talk shows now serve as

little more than zoos where

bored suburbanites can safely

observe the colorful customs,

idioms, and costumes of the

trailer park and the 'hood is

perhaps the fact that will haunt

Donahue most in his golden

years. Talk shows may still

provide the disenfranchised with

their best shot at media access,

but these days the end result

looks more like exploitation

than empowerment - somehow, only

creeps, saps, hysterics, and

exhibitionists ever wind up with

any airtime. Dignity just

doesn't play as well.


[Talk Soup]

The creators of Talk Soup learned

that soon enough. When it

debuted in late 1991, Talk Soup

was simply an exercise in

low-budget television,

broadcasting free clips from

talk shows without adding any

editorial spin. But when host

Greg Kinnear started making fun

of the clips he introduced -

pointing out prototypical talk

show gestures like the head bob

and the finger jab in the same

way a sports announcer might

analyze the various elements of

a gymnastics routine - the

program's popularity soared. To

help further "empower" their

guests, hosts like Jerry

Springer and Richard Bey eagerly

courted Kinnear's faux-Letterman



[Night Stand]

The latest entry in the

TV-about-talk-shows genre is

Night Stand. This show dispenses

with the already-suspect notion

that talk shows present real

stories about real people, and

simply gives us the talk show as

sitcom. That Night Stand's

producers decided to erect an

entire show and its companion

website around a dick joke

might have been either

sheer brilliance or utter

stupidity - unfortunately, the

show is almost as painfully bad

as TV can get. Even the Super

'70s CD commercials that

interrupt the show every few

minutes come as a welcome

relief: who could have ever

imagined the joy that could come

from seeing Captain & Tenille?


The problem with Night Stand is

that it gives us all the

burlesque of a typical talk

show, but none of the pathos or

disdain. It strips emotion from

the proceedings, and emotion is

the talk show's stock in trade.


If only all that shouting and

crying could be married once

again to information, talk shows

might return to their glory

days. Perhaps the place for such

a reunion is the Web. If anyone

can resurrect the genre, it's

media critic Jon Katz: haplessly

smitten with the notion that

two-way communication between

producer and consumer is the

best way to make the news a

relevant, substantive, essential

part of people's lives, Katz

holds forth on an almost-daily

basis in HotWired's Netizen.

Technically, he isn't actually

doing a talk show; he simply

writes a column, then augments

it with bulletin board

postings. But he posts so

frequently, it's almost possible

to engage in a real-time

conversation with him. And while

this accelerated format results

in its share of both the

tossed-off and the overwrought,

his general level of commitment

so far has been nostalgically




Indeed, it's sort of like

watching Donahue in his

lesbian-nuns prime.

courtesy of St. Huck