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American Television, Talk Shows  
 
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Television talk shows have been for many Americans an embarrassingly guilty pleasure, especially since the genre was for a time a principal purveyor of trash television. These shows frequently specialized in purveying a certain prurient appeal, featuring guests whose shocking revelations of infidelity, promiscuity, kinkiness, and bad behavior of all sorts were abetted by shouted encouragements (or disparagements) from raucous audience members. The result is that they succeeded in shaming all parties involved.

For glbtq people, however, talk shows have been both promising and problematic. Historically, they have been important in bringing glbtq people and issues to public awareness, though these shows, especially in earlier talk show years, have also exploited glbtq people, given voice to anti-gay sentiments, and presented glbtq people as stereotypes and freaks.

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As Larry Gross has observed, in earlier years guests generally had to contend with hostile audiences and they generally found themselves being "explained" by experts. In addition, Gross added, for a long time, talk show producers felt it necessary to balance queer guests with , often clergy members or conservative medical professionals. These "professionals" would provide more than adequate fodder for contentious "debates" that would, almost invariably, escalate into heated (and sometimes violent) confrontations, thereby ensuring higher viewership and ratings for these shows.

Yet in spite of these media minefields, queers continued to make their presence regularly known on talk shows, appearing as guests on both expert-oriented "high-road" shows such as The Phil Donahue Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show as well as on the more sensation-oriented and rowdy, tabloid-type "freak shows" such as Geraldo, the eponymous Sally Jesse Raphael, and the enormously successful (and enormously controversial) Jerry Springer Show.

In fact, as viewing audiences became more sophisticated, gay men and lesbians began appearing as the hosts of their own talk shows, with such personalities as Rosie O'Donnell, Jim Jay Bullock, and Ellen DeGeneres helming popular daytime talk shows. Thus, as Joshua Gamson has noted, talk shows came to provide to sex and gender nonconformists both visibility and voice and, in so doing, helped to redraw the lines between the so-called "normal" and the "abnormal."

Early Incarnations

Participatory talk shows have been in existence since the 1930s and 1940s, with radio shows such as Truth or Consequences, a radio staple from 1950 to 1958, featuring audience members answering questions mailed in by listeners. The show also provided an added bonus that, if the audience member answered the question incorrectly, a gratuitous public humiliation of some sort would ensue.

Television realized quickly the potential of this format and provided shows such as the campy audience participation tearjerker Queen For a Day (1956-1964), which provided women a chance to compete for merchandise prizes by telling emotionally wrenching stories of need, the winner determined by audience response via an applause meter.

Although in the 1950s and 1960s a number of variety talk shows also appeared, these shows were premised on a devotion to light and casual conversation reflecting normative societal values. Hosted by figures as diverse as Gypsy Rose Lee, Dinah Shore, Virginia Graham, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin, these shows usually featured celebrity guests and were essentially daytime versions of The Tonight Show. Not only did they maintain a definite sense of formality and decorum, but little attention was paid to contentious issues of any kind and non-normative presences were not permitted.

The one national talk show host of the period who frequently featured gay men and lesbians was David Susskind, whose show was broadcast by PBS. While Susskind's show was a precursor of every format from Jerry Springer to Charlie Rose, his exposure was limited by virtue of its placement on PBS, whose local affiliates frequently scheduled it late at night. Susskind's homosexual guests were often shot in shadow, sometimes wore masks, were frequently apologetic, and were often subjected to queries that now seem absurd and offensive.

Often, the experiences of gay men and lesbians were countered by "experts," though sometimes the reverse was true as well, as when, in a groundbreaking 1967 episode, Susskind featured anti-gay psychiatrist Lawrence Hatterer facing off with Dick Leitsch, president of New York City's chapter of the Mattachine Society. For all the indignities visited upon his glbt guests, Susskind deserves credit for giving gay men and lesbians a voice. Susskind seemed to showcase gays so frequently that a contemporary cartoon parodied him by drawing a homosexual interviewing a group of David Susskinds.

The real breakthrough in the late 1960s was pioneered by a local television personality in Dayton, Ohio named Phil Donahue. He began actively engaging and encouraging audience questions and participation; and in so doing he created a new talk format that proved amazingly popular. His local show soon went national and spawned a number of imitators and competitors.

Talking Back

While early Phil Donahue shows were concerned primarily with women's issues, he was not afraid to court controversy. Donahue soon began inviting such non-mainstream figures as atheists, feminists, Nazis, and homosexuals to join him in very vocal forums. Donahue pushed the envelope of what was then considered acceptable conversation on television by discussing such taboo topics as condoms, penis size, masturbation, gender reassignment surgery, and, of course, homosexuality.

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