The Good, the Bad . . . the Talk Shows

On "Geraldo" Monday, the topic was "odd couples."

Two by two they stood on the stage--tiny people and huge people, cross-dressers and straight-dressers, the snake lady and the tattoo man--forming a talk-show Noah's Ark.

It was a momentous event, a striking metaphor for what daytime television has become. And for those unable to watch these epics when they air, has E! Entertainment Television got a program for you.

"Talk Soup," a summary of talk shows irreverently hosted by Greg Kinnear, airs at 5 p.m. weekdays and at 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturdays on this relatively obscure cable network, which got famous recently by launching an interview series starring that controversially racy "shock jock" Howard Stern.

"The Oprah Winfrey Show" is the only major daytime talk series that bans "Talk Soup" from using its footage. Not that Winfrey's absence creates a dearth of material.

At 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturday, E! Entertainment Television presents "The Cream of Talk Soup '92," an hour of "highlights" selected by the talk-show hosts themselves. For example, heading Maury Povich's personal highlights is the man who appeared on his show nude. Montel Williams fondly recalls the time he featured members of the white supremacist Aryan Nation group, shrewdly allowing them to pontificate almost at will until, at the end of the hour, he really told them off.

After giving them a national stage.

Jenny Jones recalls the wedding that took place on her show in which the bride and groom--a cross-dressing male--both wore wedding dresses. And Jerry Springer is especially proud of the segment in which he interviewed a married couple who were deeply in love. She was 44, he was 14.

Yes, it doesn't get any better than this. Or does it?

At 5 p.m. Friday, Kinnear presents his own "most memorable moments." They include a woman whose breasts weigh 40 pounds ("Sally Jessy Raphael") and the man who ruined his marriage by sleeping with his brother-in-law ("Geraldo").

Also on the list is the insomniac who requires pain to doze off ("The Jerry Springer Show"), so he uses a lit cigarette to burn himself to sleep. The ever-alert Springer: "I would think that would wake you up."

Enough of the grim stuff, however, and on to the woman who copes with her husband's death by exposing herself to strange men ("Springer") and the tattoo man--the same one featured on Geraldo Rivera's "Odd Couples" segment--who hammered a nail through his tongue ("The Joan Rivers Show").

The ever-maternal Rivers: "Children . . . don't do this at home."

One might argue, indeed, that demonstrating the art of tongue nailing in a time slot available to young kids is indecent and potentially much more harmful to them than, say, the relentless raunchiness of a nationally aired radio program such as Stern's, which is under attack by the Federal Communications Commission for allegedly going beyond the bounds of acceptable taste.

Although "The Howard Stern Interview"--Stern's Friday series on E! Entertainment Television that airs at 7 p.m. and repeats at 10 p.m.--is almost prudish compared with his embattled radio program (which airs on KLSX-FM in Los Angeles), its revolutionary chaos and craziness blasts the cobwebs from an evening talk-show format that (except for David Letterman's NBC series) is now creatively moribund.

ABC's Jeff Greenfield calls him "America's gross national product." And because of Stern's prosecutorial style and predictability--at some point, he will embarrass his guest--he's drawing no major stars. But his opening half-hour with Garry Shandling--in which he focused on Shandling almost as much as himself--was not only incredibly funny, but actually yielded more information than what's available from traditional talk shows. The Shandling half-hour is being rerun Friday.

Moreover, Stern's subsequent shows, with rock great Grace Slick, Joan Rivers and Dick Cavett, have been almost as successful. Maybe it's his meticulously crafted, carefully thought-out questions.

To Rivers: "Do you own a vibrator?"

To Cavett: "You know, you always struck me as being effeminate. Have you ever had homosexuality?"

Or maybe it's Stern's preoccupation with the important issues of the day: Sex, sex and sex.

By the end of his half-hour with Slick, he had played "Butt Bongo" on her and interrogated Slick and her 21-year-old daughter, China, about China's sex life with her goateed boyfriend, who was also on the set.

Stern to Slick: "How do you feel about Satan here having sex with your daughter?"

Slick: "Well. . . . "

Stern to China: "You guys have sex?"

China: "Yeah."

When he wasn't quizzing her about why she had banned his cameras from shooting close-ups of her face, Stern spent most of his half-hour with Rivers grilling her about her sex life with her late husband, Edgar. "Did Edgar tie you up?"

Occasionally, he got serious. "What cup size are you? Are you a B?"

"Yes."

"Yet tonight you appear to be a C."

There's an irresistible pull of gravity to Stern's show. Guests find themselves helplessly falling down a greased slide with him, unable to stop, finally hitting bottom. Those who come away unbruised are those--like Shandling, Slick and Rivers--who don't resist, accept Stern for the self-serving, sometimes mean-spirited rogue that he is and have a good time. And when he's finished with them, they have the relieved look of someone who's played Russian roulette and survived.

For much of his half-hour, Cavett did not appear to be having a good time, and engaged Stern in a duel of quips that he was destined to lose. Stern was immune to Cavett's drollery. Stern insulted him by repeatedly referring to Cavett's numerous canceled series. "I'm gonna attempt to do tonight what nobody has been able to do--make Dick Cavett interesting." He mocked Cavett by painting liver spots on his hands. He relentlessly probed him about his friend, Woody Allen. He criticized the electroshock therapy that Cavett underwent as treatment for his bouts with depression.

Ultimately, Stern decided that Cavett was just too dull for him to continue. "This is the end of the show," he said, when the show was about to end. "I've had enough."

It's a judgment many make about Stern himself. Yet minute for minute, insult for insult, outrage for outrage, there may not be a better half-hour on television.

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