Day 208: Hosting TV Talk’s History

originally published July 26, 2012

Hey kids. It’s your Uncle Marty here with a little talk to get you ready for grown-up life. Your parents will handle the important stuff: sex, career, whether it’s okay to ask a woman if she’s pregnant. I’d like to talk to you about talk shows.

You’ve probably seen a few of them. You have probably stayed up late to watch Robert Pattinson get interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel, marveled at a woman’s number of potential baby-daddys on Maury, or paused to consider the transvestite refrigerator salesperson who likes to tickle midgets on Jerry Springer. You may have wondered why these shows exist.

Let me first tell you that Jerry Springer is not a talk show, it is a circus of abstract surrealism, depicting an outlandish freakscape that only exists in the murky recesses of your most hideous nightmares.

Today I’d like to share with you some of the talk show hosts of the past, the men and women who can be blamed for Oprah, Ellen, Letterman, Leno, and the rest of the talk show herd.

This is Phil Donahue. He more or less invented the daytime talk show. Except rather than set up rehearsed stories by visiting celebrities who coincidentally have a movie coming out, Phil talked to regular people about regular things like atheism, spousal abuse and breakdancing, or those magical times when all three of those topics coalesce into one weird evening.

Phil laid down the foundation for Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, then proceeded to get buried under it as Oprah grabbed all the ratings. During one episode, seven audience members fainted. This turned out to be a hoax organized as a protest against low-quality television. It worked – low-quality television has since been completely removed from the airwaves, leaving behind an Eden-esque bliss-hole of eternally-spewing goodness.

Meet Johnny Carson. He was once among the most powerful men in show business. When Johnny hosted the Tonight Show, people actually stayed up to watch it. There was nothing to compete with it; actors and comedians believed their careers could be made or dismantled with a Tonight Show appearance.

When Johnny played Twister with Eva Gabor in 1966, the game subsequently became popular. When Johnny joked about a shortage of toilet paper in 1973, Americans rushed out and bought rolls of it in a panic, causing a legitimate nation-wide crisis. When Johnny invested heavily in a car company, it was a hit. Actually, it was DeLorean, and it was a disaster. But on television, he was pretty much a bankable winner.

This is Ricki Lake. Rumor has it she’s returning to the world of daytime talk shows, so you’ll get to know her soon. She had a Donahue-ish show that ran throughout the 90s, except that while Donahue would be talking to single mothers, Ricki would be prompting a confession of infidelity out of a guy whose wife was secretly watching in a room backstage.

She wasn’t all about the trash topics. Ricki would interview the people we all wanted to know about: women of the KKK, people who live in the subway system under New York City, and pot-smoking hooligans. She tended to skew a younger demographic, and often drifted into Springer-country, except with real humans and a disappointing lack of girl-on-girl shirt-ripping. Ricki once invited Fred Phelps and other members of the degenerate sub-class of nonhumans who call themselves the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps and his son were forcibly removed from the set after having taken over the broadcast with an impassioned sermon about how everyone with AIDS deserved to die.

You’re probably familiar with Chevy Chase from Community, the show that NBC is trying desperately to destroy, or if you are lucky enough to have good parents who raised you right, the Vacation films. What you probably don’t know is that Chase attempted to leap into the late-night talk show fray after Johnny Carson retired in 1992.

Chevy’s show started up during the week in between Letterman’s debut on CBS and Conan O’Brien’s first show on NBC. They taped at what is now known as the Nickelodeon Theater, but what was optimistically then called the Chevy Chase Theater in Hollywood.

The show survived for five weeks. 25 episodes. That’s it.

Geraldo Rivera is still clinging both to his television career and his commitment to sporting a mustache. His talk show, Geraldo, revolutionized and certainly legitimized Trash TV before signing off in 1998.

Geraldo’s most famous talk-show moment (I have to be specific here – his infamous Al Capone’s Vault prime-time special is boob-tube gold in its epic reveal of an empty room) happened less than two months after his first episode. Geraldo wisely stocked his stage with white supremacists, skinheads, as well as black and Jewish activists. A brawl broke out, and Geraldo scored himself a broken nose as well as a mountainous bump in ratings. If you’re at all interested in television history, have a look.

If lung cancer hadn’t claimed the life of Morton Downy Jr., his visage would no doubt be carved into the Mt. Rushmore of Fox News blabbery. Downy was loud, obnoxious, intentionally controversial, and cancelled before his show reached my local market.

The Morton Downy Jr. Show ran between 1987 and 1989. Rather than adopt the traditional talk-show interview role, Downy challenged his guests, which is a nice way to say he tried to piss them off. He smoked constantly on the show and blew his second-hand smoke directly into the faces of guests he didn’t agree with. He allegedly attacked a gay guest on one episode of his show, presumably at some point prior to the episode where Downy introducing the world to his gay, HIV-positive brother.

Downy invited a stripper on as a guest, berated her, called her a slut, pig, hooker, and tramp with STDs, before grinding his pelvis into hers. While being interviewed for the Howard Stern Show, Downy punched Stern correspondent Stuttering John in the face.

TV wasn’t ready for Downy’s extreme brand of insanity, though it seems almost impossible that the show would have trouble surviving today. The novelty wore off and viewership (in the few markets that were willing to chance airing it) dropped off.

There are more, so many more, but I can tell your attention span is slipping and tales of Sally Jesse Raphael or Tom Snyder will probably bore you to sleep. Just remember, you need to support these talk shows. Where else will you see a six-fingered competitive eater who believes she was born a leprechaun? How else will you hear what it was like for Katherine Heigl to work with Ashton Kutcher?

On second thought, maybe you’d be better off watching something else.

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