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Using extensive interviews, hundreds of transcripts, focus-group discussions with viewers, and his own experiences as an audience member, Joshua Gamson argues that talk shows give much-needed, high-impact public visibility to sexual nonconformists while also exacerbating all sorts of political tensions among those becoming visible. With wit and passion, Freaks Talk Back illuminates the joys, dilemmas, and practicalities of media visibility.
"This entertaining, accessible, sobering discussion should make every viewer sit up and ponder the effects and possibilities of America's daily talk-fest with newly sharpened eyes."—Publishers Weekly
"Bold, witty. . . . There's a lot of empirical work behind this deceptively easy read, then, and it allows for the most sophisticated and complex analysis of talk shows yet."—Elayne Rapping, Women's Review of Books
"Funny, well-researched, fully theorized. . . . Engaged and humane scholarship. . . . A pretty inspiring example of what talking back to the mass media can be."—Jesse Berrett, Village Voice
"An extraordinarily well-researched volume, one of the most comprehensive studies of popular media to appear in this decade."—James Ledbetter, Newsday
Former talk show producer Mike Kappas:
As a booker, you're supposed to be there at like five or six in the
morning, reading the papers and calling. So one morning I read in the
New York Times about how in some small town in Texas, four cheerleaders
were kicked off the cheerleading squad because they were all pregnant.
And there was this huge controversy in this town, because it was the
three black girls didn't have abortions, and the one white girl did have
an abortion and she was allowed back on the team. But the school wasn't
giving names, nobody was giving names. But as a booker you're trying to
be a little creative, so what I thought of was, okay, these mothers,
these fathers, they must work somewhere, and I bet they work at a
fast-food restaurant. So I called all the fast-food restaurants in the
area and it turned out the mother of one of the girls worked at the
Dairy Queen, and I got her on the phone that morning, and two hours
later I was on an airplane. Little did I know thatCurrent Affair and
People magazine and The Jerry Springer Show were all following me. It
turns out that she told someone, and they found out what flight I was
on, and they were following me because they knew I had the lead.
And I mean this tiny, podunk, trailer-park town, was all of the sudden
deluged by everybody. The town just had a four-way stop sign, and you
saw all these people and limousines and TV crews. The hotel was like
this dinky hotel that was full to capacity from all media people, and
like the room I was in, the last weekend there was like a trucker brawl
murder. That town was like attacked by sharks, and they didn't know what
hit them. Now I wasn't going to go into the high school and wait outside
their classrooms. That's what they wanted you to do, the producers, they
wanted you to go into the high school. They were on the phone, like,
"Get the biggest limousine you can find, like impress these people with
your money." Montel Williams' producers got a big limousine and paraded
his money around the school.
So anyway I went to the woman's house. She was having second thoughts,
she was all nervous. I was told this woman lives on a big house on the
corner. The house didn't have a screen door, it didn't have a door. I
mean, it was the big house next to all the trailers. It was sad. I had
dinner with them. We got chicken, and there were like cockroaches
walking across my hands as I was sitting on their floor. I finally left
them at 11 o'clock, and I was coming back with my car to pick them up at
six in the morning. I got there at 5:30 in the morning to find Jerry
Springer's people there with a limousine and $1,000, taking them into
the limousine. And they stole my guests. The reason why Jerry Springer
got the interview is because they went into the school and found the
cousin of the girl that I got, and said, "I'll take your cousin and you,
and your boyfriend, and give you money to come on our show." And I never
was so upset in my life. I was shaking. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I
was going to get fucked, I was going to lose my job. And I couldn't
believe it. All of a sudden it wasn't what's the good story, it became
get the booking.
And when you're one of these people, and you've got all that attention,
and all these people, and all this business, you lose your sense of like
what am I doing. It's like you go from never leaving town-like Houston
was the biggest city they ever went to, and some of these people had
never been there-and it's like you're offering them this vision of
grandeur, and it's to exploit them. You tell them what they want to
hear. You lie to them so convincingly.
A good deal of dishonesty is simply built into the way talk shows are
produced. Shows that rely primarily on letters from potential
participants, and "cart calls" requesting guests on a particular topic who
then call in on toll-free lines, are virtually requests for people to mold
themselves in advance. "Half the guests are making up a story just to be
on TV," says the Leeza producer. Although that percentage is rhetorical
rather than literal, the motivation of television exposure, and the
subsequent molding of oneself to the expressed needs of talk show
producers, is commonplace. The guests Patricia Priest calls "moths," those
"lured by the flickering light of the screen" towards their fifteen
minutes, many of whom write letters to talk shows pitching their own story
(another common source of guests), are especially beckoned by the
recruit-by-promo strategy. "If I'm on TV, I'm worthy of something," one
such participant told Priest, for instance, "because there's a lot of
people watching me." Another said she simply wanted to be able to say,
"I'm on television." A viewer like this who wants to be on television, and
who regularly watches talk shows, will not only know the rules of the game
(be lively, have good one-liners, and so on) but can also cast herself in
the advertised role. Much like the game-show-Rolodex producer's "Don't you
want to sleep with such and such?" questioning, this method of recruiting
leads the witnesses. You may not hate your grandmother's new husband that
much, or have that much trouble with the way your wife looks at other
women, but if you want to be on television, but if you want to be on
television, and if Jenny Jones is looking for people who hate their
grandparents' spouses or suspect their wives of being attracted to women,
it is not a huge stretch.
Shows in which guests are pursued (rather than invited to pitch their
stories), on the other hand, place the burden of deception on the
producers, who must persuade these guests to come on the show. Randy
Tanner, a former talk show production-company vice president and
occasional producer, puts it this way.
You do this dance with them in the beginning. It's like, "Oh, you have
obsessive compulsive disorder? I have obsessive compulsive disorder. You
know, I wash my hands uncontrollably. You hate your sister's husband?
You know what, I hate my sister's husband, too. That son-of-a-bitch."
It's like, "Oh, you're a transvestite? You know, once I dressed up in a
dress. I just wanted to see what it felt like and I still kind of like
it. It still kind of turns me on a bit. Yeah, I wear panties underneath
my suit, but don't tell anyone." You're trying to seduce a person who's
on the other end of a telephone. Because if you can get them, that's how
you make your money. And how else are you going to do that other than
trying to make them feel comfortable, trying to make them feel like you
understand, that you're one of them?
"You have to say exactly what they want to hear," says Mike Kappas, who
worked as a talk show booker. "You've got to say whatever it is to get
them on your show." When he saw a story in USA Today about a woman whose
5-year-old daughter was raped by her brand new husband, for instance,
Kappas knew what to do.
You've got somebody on your back saying "Did you make the call? Did you
get the booking?" The story was that during the wedding reception, the
husband took the daughter, now his stepdaughter, upstairs and raped her,
and then told his new bride and the daughter that he was HIV-positive.
And I remember being on the phone with the mother, saying, you know,
"The best thing for you to do is to come on this show and tell your
story," that whole bullshit. It was going to be therapeutic, everybody's
going to learn from it. I'm a good liar. I mean, I was convincing this
woman to talk about the fact that while she was getting married to this
guy, he was upstairs fucking her 5-year-old daughter and giving her HIV.
And I was on the phone going "Why don't you come on our show and talk
about it?" You know, let me exploit you even more. You've been through
hell, come on TV and talk about it. But if you wanted to keep your job,
you had to book it.
That woman did not in the end do the show, but she fit the profile of most
of the other people Kappas pursued: "uneducated, or very, very simply
educated, not very worldly, often a minority"-like the pregnant Texas
cheerleaders pursued by media mobs. In a booking war like that one, even
cash isn't a guarantee that guests will stick with a show. When one show
booked the "spur posse," boys who kept score of their many sexual
conquests, for example, another show stole them, only to have the first
show steal a few of them back. As one staff member who was in on these
negotiations tells it, his show took them for a night on the town, dinner,
and a strip show, and gave them cash; presumably with that cash, some of
the boys hired a prostitute ("they thought it was really cool when they
asked the prostitute to have anal sex cause she wasn't tight enough"), and
ended the evening by "puking and cumming all over their clothes." The
show, in order to retain them and make sure they were presentable on
national television the next day, did the logical thing: they bought them
Of course, in a booking war you are looking at out-and-out purchase rather
than any subtle deception, but the point remains the same: the game of Get
the Guest means that pretty much any strategy goes, including sweet talk
about altruism and fame and panties, flashing wads of cash, providing
vomit-free clothing, and lying.
Excerpted from Freaks Talk Back
by Joshua Gamson
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1. Why I Love Trash
2. The Monster with Two Heads
3. Truths Told in Lies
4. Sitting Ducks and Forbidden Fruits
5. I Want to Be Miss Understood
6. Flaunting It
7. The Tight Rope of Visibility Appendix: Methods Notes Works Cited Index