B y T o m D a n e h y
I'D HOPED TO be able to go through the rest of my life without ever publicly agreeing with anything said by any member of Ronald Reagan's administration. They were, after all a motley collection of scoundrels and quasi-intellectuals--apparently chosen strictly on their ability to be white males--who spent nearly a decade presiding (and gloating) over a national policy of excess and mean-spirited behavior.
One of my least favorite of the bunch is William Bennett, a man who, if life were fair, would have spent his entire adulthood as an obscure professor at an equally obscure backwater college. Unfortunately for us, old Bill was plucked from that obscurity by neoconservative mover and shaker Irving Kristol and went on to become chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities and then Secretary of Education. In the latter post, Bennett was shameless enough to take money for heading a department which he had publicly stated it was his goal to abolish.
After he left the government, he wrote The Book Of Virtues, a runaway best-seller which espoused so-called family values, which as best as one can figure, are the exclusive province of conservative Republicans, which must mean rich, white and on your second wife.
Bennett's name was being bandied about for a time in the crowded field of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, but he pulled back and now seems willing to play the role of gadfly and kingmaker.
He's kept his hand in national affairs, of a sort. He takes potshots at the National Endowment for the Arts, jumps all over rap music and basically scripted Bob Dole's attack on Hollywood. Typical neoconservative bushwah, predictable and unworthy of reasoned response.
Recently, however, he actually took aim at a target deserving of universal disdain: TV Talk Shows. It proves that even disparate philosophies can sometimes intersect (an argument which my daughter's friend Courtney may someday use in an attempt to explain why Hitler was a vegetarian).
Bennett blasted the TV Talk Shows as purveyors of smut, programs falling all over one another in a quest to find a new definition for "lowest common denominator." And you know what? He was right.
These shows are disgusting. They're not entertaining, they're not educational, half the time they're not even factual. (There is a cottage industry of wannabes who are willing to go on TV and admit to any perversion in exchange for air fare, a night's stay in a hotel room and a couple hundred bucks.) Even for those who aren't faking their vulgar behaviors, there is nothing too low for them.
Down at the gym recently we were discussing the Million-Man March, where several hundred thousand African-American men marched on Washington. Someone wondered where all the women were. Well, that's easy, they're all on The Ricki Lake Show, beating each other up.
Despite being an avid (bordering on fanatical) TV watcher, I can honestly say I have never sat through an entire talk show since the old days when Donahue was actually about something. I'm familiar with most of them because I used to watch Talk Soup when Greg Kinnear was on. Still, when I decided to write this, I thought I'd tour the talk-show circuit. Among the worst are:
The Richard Bey Show, which proved two things, the first being that everybody in New York looks like Billy Joel--sort of half-Jewish, half-Italian and half-something else. Even the women look like Billy Joel. The good-looking ones get to look like Ken Wahl. But even that has drawbacks, since they have to be constantly shaving a gap in that one big eyebrow that goes all the way across.
The other thing it proves is that squeezing all those people into such a small space just sucks the pride and dignity out of folks.
The Charles Perez Show, which has more fights per hour than any other show. I'm constantly amazed at the number of women who are willing to throw blows on national TV. And it's usually two heifers wearing too-small mini-skirts duking it out while the guy sits there holding his privates and smiling at his good fortune.
Regis and Kathie Lee. They don't have disgusting guests; I just hate Kathie Lee.
In one day, these were some of the "highlights": On Donahue, husband hires hit man; on Montel Williams, bigoted lovers; on Jerry Springer, two-timing husbands with pregnant girlfriends; on Leeza, nerds who became knockouts; on Geraldo, makeovers for gang members; on Charles Perez, my sister is a hoochie; and Sally Jessy Raphael, husbands who sleep with babysitters. This is all in one day. I didn't know there were that many trailer parks in all of America.
The hosts are often just slightly less stomach-turning than the guests. Geraldo we know about. But look at some of the rest.
Jerry Springer was once mayor of Cincinnati. How did he go from that to dancing with transsexuals on late-night TV? Sally Jessy Raphael claims she hasn't had plastic surgery. Oh please--your face has been lifted so far, that cleft in your chin used to be your navel. Mark Walberg was a member of New Kids On The Block--and he wasn't even the talented one! Jordan Knight was.
Carnie Wilson has a talk show. Hey Carnie, I've been there. You need to take some of the money you got from making gold records with Chynna Phillips (?!) and pay somebody 50 grand to follow you around for a year, slapping Twinkies out of your mouth.
Obviously people watch these things, so the prevailing logic is that you can't blame the networks and affiliates for running them. I disagree; you can and should blame them. Where does it say that TV people can't have standards, that they can't aspire to providing good product, not just popular junk?
I think we should demand standards of decency from TV and a good place to start is with these Talk Shows. Listen, TV people, I want you to clean up this mess right now, so I won't ever have to agree with Bill Bennett again.
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