Oprah and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy

journalism

TIME: Spectator Column – October 11, 1993

Oprah and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy

Civilians and even celebrities volunteer for public ridicule — that’s entertainment

BACK IN THE GOOD old days of America’s adolescence — that robust, heedless century between the gold rush and World War II — an important sector of show business centered on freaks. Tom Thumb, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, Clicko the Bushman, Charles Tripp the Armless Photographer, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and scores of anonymous wretches abased themselves grotesquely for the amusement and astonishment of paying customers at circuses, carnivals and storefront “dime museums.” However, as the modern forms of popular entertainment arose — radio, television, Madonna — freak shows grew scarce. Geeks disappeared altogether. Show business became sanitized, anodyne. Niceness prevailed.

But no more. This is the new Age of the Geek, postmodern iteration. These days it has become standard for all sorts of people to flaunt not just their physical oddities but their stupidity, vulgarity or sinfulness as well. They volunteer, in exchange for attention or a few bucks, to suffer sneers and outright ridicule, so long as the medium — syndicated talk show, music-video program, film comedy — is sufficiently mass. There are various ways to become momentarily famous, but public mortification has become the easiest by far.

Starting in the 1950s and ’60s, TV game shows (Truth or Consequences, Queen for a Day) and later, talk shows were the pioneering venues, where ritual gawking at the predicaments of strangers was turned into mass-market entertainment. Don Rickles, huge 25 years ago, based his novel act on the ferocious, face-to-face ridicule of unlucky (but willing) members of his audience who happened to have a salient distinguishing feature — dark skin, an accent, some physical anomaly. The seminally abusive Joe Pyne Show appeared at the same time. “I have no respect for anyone who would come on my show,” Pyne once said. Why did they? And why would people agree to be humiliated on the Newlywed Game and the Gong Show? Because shame was becoming anachronistic. Because people took Warhol’s 15-minutes-of-fame line literally. Because show business was reverting atavistically to its sideshow origins.

Today the syndicated daytime talk show is the straight-line mainstream descendant of the odditoriums and dunk-the-fool attractions of a century ago. The glut of programs — Jane Whitney, Montel Williams, Bertice Berry, Richard Bey, Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Maury Povich, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo, Donahue, Oprah — constitutes an ad hoc underbelly network, a virtual round- the-clock pageant of geeks inviting the contempt of viewers without even the old quiz-show promises of kitchen ranges or living-room furniture. A veneer of infotainment earnestness is generally obligatory; if Jo-Jo the Dog- Faced Boy were still around, they’d book him on Donahue, but Phil would ask him about his struggle for self-esteem. And for those with neither the spare time nor the stomach to witness the spectacle in real time, there is Talk Soup on cable TV’s E! channel, an arch digest of the talk shows’ over-the-top moments; it permits us to go slumming and still respect ourselves in the morning. And the talk shows’ stars and producers cooperate in their own lampooning, supplying whatever appalling clips the Talk Soup hipsters request. “They’re getting a lot of promotion,” says Fran Shea of the E! channel. “They understand they may be poked fun at. They get it.”

Self-mortification played for laughs has become so unremarkable that now actual celebrities volunteer for abuse. Howard Stern teases Dick Cavett about his electroshock treatment for depression and Richard Simmons about his poofterishness, but Cavett and Simmons go along. There is now a whole caste of faded performers who find that by playing along with young people’s fond, campy crypto-contempt for them, they can have a kind of celebrity afterburn, a part-time career collaborating with their own snide deconstruction. That explains Robert Goulet’s casting in Bill Murray’s Scrooged, Wayne Newton’s appearance on a Spy magazine TV special and Joe Franklin’s semi-witting self- parody on Late Night with Conan O’Brien last week.

The just-spell-my-name-right mutation of fame pursuit has become operative even at big companies. On Beavis and Butt-head, MTV’s most popular and most excellent show, the cartoon antiheroes relentlessly dismiss videos and performers, usually with a curt “This sucks.” Still, record companies are eager to have their videos rated by Beavis and Butt-head — themselves ghastly freaks presented for our amusement — because the show is hot, and attention is attention. “Bands are perfectly willing to let the characters riff on the videos, even negatively,” says Judy McGrath, MTV’s creative director. “In fact, it’s probably cooler if they think you suck.” On a David Letterman Late Show last week, Beavis and Butt-head were brought on to make it clear they think Letterman sucks. And he loved it.