an we talk?
Talk shows: better than
a therapist's couch
BY NATALIE Y. MOORE
MERICANS ARE OBSESSED WITH OTHER PEOPLE'S
embarrassments - Hugh Grant, Bob Packwood
and Courtney Love come to mind. We like outra-
geous stories. "We've been through 20 years, at
least, of making an industry of the private lives of
famous people," says talk show host Jerry Springer. "The
talk show simply takes the very same subject matter and
opens it up to regular people."
Students are no exception - they're among the thou-
sands who inundate the various talk shows with letters
and calls promoting their own sounds-too-weird-to-be-
"It's an amazing phenomenon that people would go on
national television and talk about things that you'd think
they'd want to keep to themselves," Springer says. "I'd
never go on my show."
Real life meets
Kenya Mitchell* was sitting in
her dorm room - bored. Mesmer-
ized by the scene on TV, she did
what any wired talk show fan would
do. She escaped the monotony of
college life by calling the Montel
The Southern Illinois U. junior
phoned Montel to share the details
of a tangled love triangle. In simple
terms, Mitchell's boyfriend's ex-girl-
friend didn't quite seem to grasp the
concept of "ex."
The bitter ex-girlfriend slashed
the tires of Mitchell's dad's car, sent
her death threats by mail and con-
Mitchell over the
t e I e p h o n e,
she's a loony tune
and went berserk,"
ers fell in love
with her color-
ful story and
called back the
next day. She
was in the Big
Apple within 24
a cco s m o d a -
tions - with
triangle Montel picking
up the tab.
But Mitchell didn't show tsp
with her boyfriend and his ex in
tow. She recruited two friends to
play the roles.
Tension from the sour relation-
ship was too high for the real
boyfriend and ex to be on the show
with her, Mitchell says. "I would
have gone to jail."
The producers hinted that
Mitchell should save her fiery
words (she called the ex a "bitch"
off the air) - and perhaps a
smack or two for the ex - for on
the air, but she refrained. Mitchell
says she chose her clothes and
words carefully to avoid embar-
rassment or exploitation.
The Montel staff didn't suspect
anything fishy - Mitchell and her
friends pulled off the scam.
But be warned about lying your
way onto atalk show. If the produc-
ers of the Jerry Springer Show find
out that a story is fictitious, it costs
the guest big bucks.
"Guests sign a statement saying
that everything they'll say on the
show will be truthful," Springer
says. "If they lie about anything,
they're liable for the production cost
of the show - which is about
80,000 to 100,000 dollars."
Stressed coeds enjoy 60-minute
sabbaticals from the reality of classes
and exams. It's often a relief to see
that your social woes are nothing
compared with those of the weirdos
on talk shows.
And bizarre topics like "All of
my babies' mothers hate each
other," "Marry me or else" and
"Call me crazy... but I love my
cheatin' man" capture and titillate
the college audience for a few mind-
"We definitely watch talk shows
to make fun of people," says Rachel
Smith, a junior at the U. of Texas,
Austin. "The worst thing that could
possibly happen to me would be
going on a talk show. It would be
Ain't too proud to beg is the
mantra for talk show guests, but
some students say they'd never go
"I wouldn't want the whole
world to know if my girlfriend
dumped me for another guy - or
another girl, for that matter!" says
Billy Menz, also a junior at UT.
Patricia Priest, who earned
her doctorate at the U. of Geor-
gia, wrote her 1992 dissertation
on why people go on talk shows.
She says people enjoy seeing
faults in others.
"It's a lot of fun for college stu-
dents to watch as a group and
ridicule people," she says.
And Priest should know. She
conducted in-depth interviews with
50 former talk show guests, then
published her findings in her new
book, Public Intimacies: Talk Shaw
Participants in Tell-All TV (Hamp-
ton Press, 1995).
"So much of TV is formulaic,"
Priest says. "You never know what's
going to happen on talk shows.
They're choreographed for fireworks."
Just another group
Sone students aren't satisfied
with merely watching the shows.
Dave Alexander, a graduate student
at Western Carolina U., N.C.,
wanted a piece of the action. His
story: His girlfriend regularly
accused him of cheating. He insists
it was just flirting.
Alexander, accompanied by his
ex-girlfriend - she finally broke up
with him - and a friend, flew to
"This isn't brain
surgery- this is
TALK SHOW HOST
New York. It all happened just 24
hours after he left a message on the
Maury Povich Show phone line.
"I expected to be attacked [ver-
bally] by the audience," he says. But
the crowd lent Alexander a sympa-
thetic ear while Povich played dev-
One woman started crying dur-
ing a commercial break, Alexander
recalls, and the producers scrambled
to get the tears on film.
But talk shows aren't all hype
and circumstance. Alexander says
the show provided a venting session
for both himself and his ex-girl-
friend. After leaving New York, they
got back together.
Psychologist Karen Sykes says
going on talk shows is a way for
some people to purify themselves of
their problems. But many go on just
for the glitz.
"The guests are intrigued with
the notoriety of being seen on TV
by millions," Sykes says.
But people aren't necessarily
looking for catharsis. Springer says
talk shows are an extension of our
culture of openness.
"My goal is to have a show that
continues to educate, be open and
have no censorship. It's a forum on
television for people to talk about
things that affect them," Springer
says. "This isn't brain surgery -
this is entertainment."
*Name has been changed
Natalie Y Moore is a sophomore at
Howard U. who usually avoids
A student's bizarre love,
tickled Mantel Williams.
What's Jerry Springer's topic today? Spring
breakers who are obsessed with talk shows?
32 U. Magaziae October 1995