If you lived in Chicago in the mid to late 1990s youhad to attend at least one taping of one of the talk shows that were at that time being produced in the city. You just had to go, there was not even a choice. It would have been like being in London and not stopping by Big Ben, or being in Paris and not hitting up the Eiffel Tower. One simply did it, no questions asked.
Oprah Winfrey, of course, was the big dog on the block and, by far, hers was the most popular show to attend. (And this was even before she starting giving away cars and stuff.) But also in production at the same time, and considerably easier to get into, were Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, and later the short-lived Danny Bonaduce and Bertice Berry.
I lived in Chicago in the late ‘90s. My inaugural talk show experience was Jenny Jones. And, though I was just in the audience (not a “guest”), it was, nevertheless, an afternoon to remember.
Jones, a former stand-up comic and Star Search winner, began her show in 1991. Originally, it was billed as a lighthearted alternative to the heavy emotions and topics of Phil Donahue and fellow Windy City-ite Oprah, but halfway through its poorly-rated first season the show took a major turn when Jones, on air, revealed the details of her own botched breast implant surgery. Suddenly, ratings shot up. Soon, new producers were brought in and the show’s earlier comedic elements and warmhearted human-interest stories got chucked out. Replacing them were more exploitative fare—relationship confrontations, family dysfunction, and all sorts of angry dynamics.
The new formula must have worked; Jones would see her program renewed again and again. She would be on the air until 2003.
Getting “tickets” to the Jones show was only a matter of calling a number and getting your name on a list. Attendance cost nothing; that’s my kind of deal. Once signed up, we did eventually get mailed a sheet of paper telling us when and where to show up and other basic particulars (no logo T-shirts!). We were also informed that we would have to go through a metal detector before our entrance to the studio and to be prepared accordingly.
At the time, Jenny Jones’ producers (Warner Bros. Television) were renting studios at the NBC Tower in downtown Chicago. As its name says, the Tower was home of the Peacock’s affiliate in the city, WMAQ. With the exception of Oprah, who eventually built her own studio and complex, all the other Chicago-based, nationally-syndicated shows rented space from various local stations. Jerry Springer was also taped at WMAQ on days when Jenny Jones wasn’t being shot; Bertice would rent space from PBS station WTTW.
At the show, once we passed through security, we were seated in the brightly lit and colorfully painted studio/set (that looked smaller than it did on TV). And frankly, once inside, I stuck out like a sore thumb. First, I had to attend alone when a friend bailed on me at the last minute. That got me seated in the show’s front row, a short row of only three chairs (the “cheap seats”?). I shared that front corner with a couple who came together; I felt like so much “filler.” Second, I was in a suit and the dress code of Jenny Jones was decidedly more casual than that.
Not long after being seated, a second-rate refuge from the local Chicago comedy scene came out to give us the lowdown on the taping and to “warm us up.” He seemed like a poor man’s Bob Saget and, thankfully, did very few jokes as he proceeded to tell us how we had to have a lot of energy when the camera was on and how much we were going to like Jenny once we got to “meet” her.
Through a side entrance we finally got the first glimpse of our host. Jenny hung back in the corridor for a while, studiously looking down at a podium that held some notes and papers. She was slim, made-up and wonderfully coiffed. (She sported her bob cut at this time.) Jones has the distinction of not only looking extraordinarily good for her age (she was close to 50 at the time) but also being much prettier (truly) in person than she appears on TV. As Jones stood there, a woman was still fussing with her hair as Jones kept studying. An unknown man—I assume one of her senior producers—stood to her side and never stopped talking in her ear, presumably still prepping her for that day’s show.
Finally, Jenny was introduced to us. She came out, smiled and gave a minimal bow.
At the time of my attendance, Jones and her show were just starting to weather the storm brought about by their earlier infamous hidden crush show, the only talk show episode in history to eventually end in homicide. Despite the murder and the resulting controversy, Jones’ show stayed on the air and in production. She didn’t seem to be the victim of any large public backlash either. Certainly those of us in her audience that day didn’t hold anything against her, we gave her a resounding ovation when she appeared. If anyone was holding a grudge, or holding Jones responsible for that tragedy, they weren’t letting it show. (And, for the record, I never thought her show was to blame in that killing. Television had been embarrassing people on the air one way or another for decades, this guy wasn’t so special or so victimized. The only person/people responsible in that murder, was the guy who pulled the trigger.)
Jones spent little time with the audience and barely interacted with us. At the end of the taping she just said good-bye and thanks and vanished. No hanging out and shaking hands with everyone as Oprah (usually) quite famously did.
Before the cameras rolled though, Jenny did thank us for coming and asked us if any of us had “VIP” tickets. I did not. Apparently, so-called “VIP” tickets were issued to people who had been in the audience before and been brave enough to ask a question (or, more than likely, make a statement). Those with VIP ticks were immediately reseated, moved up or moved to the end of their row, to encourage them, one assumed, to be so bold again.
Also before the show started, we were informed of that day’s topic. It was a carefully-calculated one, perfect for some would-be verbal explosions—“Moms Confront the Boys Who Dumped Their Teen-Age Daughters!” I could easily visualize it sprawled in giant letters across the TV at the beginning of the finished show.
Five green upholstered chairs with wooden arms sat on the stage in front of us and were soon filled with that day’s “special guests” who came out single file, quietly, almost solemnly. Various sets of mother-daughter combos and solo nincompoop boys would take their place on the stage, in those chairs, throughout that day’s taping.
The experience of watching live an actual talk show taping is, in the vernacular of reality TV, quite surreal. Once the actual taping started, we were quickly off! We had barely begun before old arguments and personal information from those on stage quickly vomited forth. The rapidity of disclosure was mind splitting. One minute we, the audience, are out in the hall milling about, the next we are sitting only a few feet from a small group of total strangers who then proceeded to spill their guts all over the place. One girl on the stage had a baby (who, thankfully, wasn’t on stage) with one of the boys also seated there; he was, of course, denying paternity. Another girl on stage had attempted suicide after being “dumped” by one of the boys there that day to be “confronted.”
I kept looking to my fellow audience members to see if they found this whole thing as odd as I did, but if anyone else in the audience was bothered by this spectacle, they weren’t letting it show.
Audiences at home never know of the circus-like atmosphere that exist in studios during the taping of any “live” show; so much is going on, so much is distracting. Often audience noise (clapping, shouting) is still going on even as the host is speaking; guests on stage speak out of turn; it seems like a loud, near free-for-all. Interestingly as well, during each of the “live” segments of Jones, a producer (I assume) stood to the side of the set, off camera, and held a stack of blank cue cards. Occasionally, he’d scribble (very quickly) something on one of them and flash it to Jenny. “Why?” was one such scrawled message after one guest uttered some puny assertion. I couldn’t help but start to feel for Jenny, constantly outshouted by her audience and not even trusted by own her bosses to ask the right questions of her guests.
As interesting and surreal as the actual show parts were, the in between happenings were just as memorable. Every time we went to a “commercial break,” Jones retreated to the same corner she had come out of for a hair and make-up touch-up and more conferring with a senior producer. The producers seemed quite animated, bordering on angry, either fired up or attempting to fire up Jones.
While that went on at the side, a small group of youthful looking other producers or producer assistants, swarmed into the audience. One slick looking young man with a wispy mustache and clashing prints roamed the audience trolling for questions. He carried around a clip board with him and hurriedly scribbled too. Sometimes he seemed a little leading with his responses. When the woman on the end of my aisle said she wondered what the relationship was like between the young boyfriend and the mom, Wispy ‘Stache repeated back, “You want to know if the mom had the hots for the guy?”
At this same time, other producers or assistants took to the stage to talk “privately” with their onstage guests. Usually, they pulled them out of their seats and over to a corner of the stage—the better, I assumed, to incite them, rev them up for whatever conversation and accusations that were going to fly in the next segment. One girl producer/PA (I don’t know how else to describe her) made quite the impression. She appeared very young, just barely out of college, I would guess. She was wearing the then very in-fashion “baby doll” look. She had on a black, crushed velvet slip dress, quite short with buckles on each shoulder. Underneath, she wore a crisp white, short-sleeve blouse and a pair of white nurse’s hose. To finish it off, she sported black Mary Janes. Watching her “prep” and goad and prompt her guests at each break, I couldn’t help but think that that very young women had probably spent more thinking about her outfit that day than she did the emotions and well-being of her TV subjects.
Along with the swirl of producers, a phalanx of security guards—big guys in suits and conspicuously carrying walkie-talkies—also came out to stand in front of the remaining guests on the stage. If there were going to be any Jerry Springer-esque hi-jinks and fisticuffs, it was going to have to be saved for actual air.
Jenny Jones herself proved that she always had her eye on so-called “good TV” during one break when one of the teen girls on stage began to quietly tear up. Jenny was concerned. She asked the girl, in front of everyone, if she was “okay.” Of course, Jones waited until we were back from commercial and the tape was rolling before she actually inquired of the girl. Way to save it for the camera, Jenny.
During my Chicago residency, I also attended two tapings of the legendary Oprah Winfrey Show. In some ways, Winfrey’s tapings were just as frenetic. There is just so much that goes into making a professional hour of daily television. But Winfrey certainly didn’t have the gaggle of producers hovering around her at every minute. And due to the fact that the shows I attended were largely celebrity driven, not built around interpersonal issues, one couldn’t quite ascertain how much (if anything) might be going on behind the scenes to create those big TV moments.
I live on the East Coast now, far from any daytime talkfests and their rabid hosts and equally frothy audiences. I haven’t sat in the audience of a show for at least 10 years. I guess Jenny and Oprah were memorable enough. But why do I have a feeling that if I went today to a production of Maury or Jerry or Trisha or Steve Wilkos, nothing would have changed?