Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity


"An extraordinarily well-researched volume, one of the most comprehensive studies of popular media to appear in this decade."—James Ledbetter, Newsday

"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

This interview took place in 1998.


An interview and excerpt from
Freaks Talk Back
Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity
by Joshua Gamson

An interview with Joshua Gamson

Question: The recent brouhaha about the Jerry Springer Show suggests that we ought to be suspicious about everything portrayed on these tabloid TV talk shows. What do you think? You talked to hundreds of guests, producers, and viewers in your research for this book. How much is staged? What's credible, what isn't?

Joshua Gamson: The short answer is: a lot of it is loosely scripted, and there's plenty of room for fake guests to make it on the air, but the vast majority of guests are "real" people who want to be on television. The producers are very competitive with one another, they have to produce multiple shows a week, they field calls from thousands of prospective guests, and they don't have all that much invested in "the truth." So it's easy enough to fake them out. But from the producers' point of view, the point is less to be credible than to be amusing and at least plausibly true.

Joshua GamsonBut getting all upset about fake guests heads off in the wrong direction. Talk shows live in between "fake" and "real." The producers need things to be predictable; they need to know pretty much how things will play out, so they plan it and script it and coach people. But on the other hand, the talk shows want emotion; so you have to let people depart from the script to get emotion that's spontaneous and real. Producers often rev up their guests; they keep them in separate dressing rooms, tell them how the other person said these awful things about them, encourage them to be aggressive and to get in there and say what they need to say. So in the end, people are playing themselves, extra-big, extra-angry. Fake-real. I think that's some of the appeal. It's real, but it's a show; it's authentic, but it's also a performance.

Question: A vexed venue for the truth. That's the coin of the realm though, isn't it? The host is always asking for the truth, the audience is always asking for the truth, the guests are always claiming they're telling the truth. The third chapter of your book is called "Truths Told in Lies." What's the truth that gets told through the fakery?

Gamson: For sure, one of the main ideological components of talk shows is "truth"—being true to oneself, uncovering the truth, and so on—which is partly because of their roots in therapy-culture and partly because seeking the truth justifies all the constant revelation they thrive on. And, yes, it's a vexed place for almost any truth—except the personal and experiential and emotional. Dispassionate experts don't stand a chance on these shows; they are routinely demolished by people who claim to be speaking the truth of their own experience, to be experts on their own lives. So certain kinds of experiences—well, bits and pieces of experiences told for TV, something resembling the truths of people's lives—that are suppressed elsewhere come through when people tell their own stories.

The other kind of truth that gets told, I think, is a kind of visceral emotional truth that is quite rare in media culture. The authentic—or authentic-seeming—emotional moment is gold for the shows, and they set things up to increase the chances those moments will arise, and often they succeed. You can almost see when a switch is flipped for someone, and suddenly they are in the emotional moment—and of course the camera zooms in. I've seen the pain of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers—and their pride too—come across stronger on talk shows than anywhere else in media culture, which tends to sanitize emotion. I've also seen disgust for gay people—real nasty, nauseated venom—that feels as real as any I've encountered in my life. They're not necessarily pretty, and they don't last long, but these are important little moments of emotional truth.

Question: Pain, pride, and disgust. That sort of recalls the word "freaks" in your book's title. Do you see these shows as exploiting gays, lesbians, bisexuals—or anyone with a "different" sexual preference or lifestyle? Are you offended by how gay people are treated and portrayed on these shows?

Exploitation is the starting point, not the conclusion.


Gamson: Offended and thrilled and disgusted and elated. It's a given that these shows exploit people. I mean, commercial TV, especially "reality" TV, including the news, is about exploiting people for profits. On talk shows it's mainly the "different" who are used to attract an audience which is then sold to advertisers. And of course that often offends me. Nobody gets treated particularly well by the shows, and the way lesbian, transsexual, gay, bisexual people are often set up on talk shows—examples abound in the book—often disturbs and upsets to me. But exploitation is the starting point for me, not the conclusion, partly because so much else is going on at the same time. I'm interested in the fact that exploitation is exactly what has increased the diversity of racial and economic backgrounds of the gay people you see on the screen, for example, or in the fact that anti-gay bigots are turned into "freaks" by the show as well—often in ways that make the sex and gender outsiders look just fine.

Question: Would you be a guest on one of these shows?

Gamson: I wish I were that interesting. I wish my life were dramatic enough to carry a show like that. I wish my life was filled with sexual intrigue and betrayal.

I have to admit, it's a research fantasy, but I probably wouldn't, unless they were going to help me hawk my book, or if it was with a team of people doing a little activist media intervention. No, in the end I guess I'm basically just a middle-class, Midwestern nice Jewish boy at heart. I like my humiliation in private, and I don't really like an audience when I'm upset or angry, and I like time to think before I speak. Well, hold on, maybe a makeover show. "My Professor Dresses Like a Slut!" Or one where I get to be the expert and tell everybody what to think.

Question: And what would you wear?

Gamson: Black t-shirt, jeans, and a tiara.

An excerpt from chapter three:
Texas Cheerleaders and Sickly Posses

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 that Current 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 new clothes.

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.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity by Joshua Gamson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Joshua Gamson
Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity
© 1998, 298 pages, 9 halftones
Cloth $22.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-28064-6
Paper $18.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-28065-3

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Freaks Talk Back.

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