Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Oprah Land

Okay, I'll admit it. I had fun at Oprah today. I liken the entire surreal experience to attending the taping of the Bozo Show on WGN at age 5. Big differences abound between the two shows in terms of audience demographic (think endless estrogen compared to gobs of children, with the boundless energy more or less the same), guest stars (here Kate Winslet in person, with Leo di Caprio and Mickey Rourke via Skype clearly outweighing Bozo's weird clown sidekick), and in the take home prize. We Oprah attendees went home with a copy of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (the book on which the movie starring Winslet is based), while at Bozo a package of Twinkies was thrust into my eager hands at the exit. Comparing the two shows, I have to say that the Twinkies rank higher. My mom was a health enthusiast ahead of the curve, so for me the Twinkies equated getting the golden ticket.

And let's not forget the considerable contrast in host. Bozo and Oprah, how can you compare? Both have reputations for big hair, admirable confidence, and talents in keeping their audiences on their toes. And both exhibit elements of the television bizarre. At Oprah what struck me was the dividing line between audience and TV land. After striding on stage, Oprah took her place at her throne, making remarks to the audience like, "Don't be nervous," and to her right-hand man, "What do I have, like twenty seconds?" When the taping started she became a difference person. A TV person talking to the camera as if we the audience didn't exist. Yet when you watch the show it appears that host and audience are seamlessly interwoven. This paradoxical aspect of TV is admirably examined in Being There, the 1979 film by Hal Asby (the same director who created the cult classic Harold and Maude). In the film Peter Sellers plays Chance, a simpleton who serendipitously earns TV fame by uttering straightforward observations misunderstood as profound wisdom.

TV makes things appear larger than they are. I suppose this is the central issue with Oprah and everyone in TV land (especially talk shows). Elementary yet understood as grandiose. Oprah told Kate Winslet, "I love that you have real breasts," a statement most women in America eat up, because A) they cannot afford or B) do not wish to have silicone slabs stuffed into their breasts. Yet because she says this on TV and she's Oprah, it's a "wow" moment. It's Oprah wisdom. This is not to say that despite being a TV God Oprah isn't an interesting person. The TV queen was actually a great deal more fun when the show was over and she chatted up the audience. She made off-the-cuff remarks like, "Because that's what white people do," and used the expression "crazy-ass." Someone with their wits about them in the audience asked for her top movies of all time, to which Oprah replied, quick as a flash: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Midnight Cowboy, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Not what I expected to hear, because Oprah's so mainstream and overshadowed by her own image of megalomania.

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