Confession of a TV Talk Show Shrink

A former talk show host talks about his former career as a TV psychologist and the nature of the presentation of realities in talk shows.

By Stuart Fischoff, published on September 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The truth sunk in the day he got a call to mediate couples battling in aboxing ring--dressed in a stripped referee costume: The chief ingredients of TV talk shows are emotion and conflict, and their main purpose is revenge. And now, let's hear it for (former) media psychologist Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.

To audience applause, Geraldo Rivera runs down the center aisle of the studio. Three women are seated next to me on stage, ready to talk, their chests nervously heaving, faces frozen in polite smiles. They listen as Geraldo details their shocking biographies to the audience. My pulse accelerates as Geraldo moves beside me, his hype escalating: "Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a clinical psychologist from Los Angeles, is here to help answer the $64,000 question: Why would a woman marry her rapist?"

Throughout the show, Geraldo tosses questions at me. Whys, whys, and more whys. But I don't know these women. I am armed with only bits and pieces of their self-justifying explanations. People are authorities on women, on marriage, on rape. But no one is an authority on why women marry their rapists.

I offer only general comments, about low self-esteem (it's always about low self-esteem, isn't it?) and about the illusory bond between rape and the romantic myth of being taken because one is so needed, so desirable. "It's not about love and desire," I say. "It's about anger and dominance." My words go past the three women like whistles down a wind. They don't hear me. They can't hear me. They are not there to be helped. They have come to be validated.

The focus shifts. The studio mikes are activated. The tension rises. The women in the audience are openly furious. Validation is not on their agenda. Their questions and accusations speak of betrayal, of pandering to the odious stereotype that women secretly want to be raped. The women on stage try to defend the indefensible. It is a battle they cannot win. It's another rape. Only this time it's by a gang of women people who are angry and want to dominate.

In the show's last segment, Geraldo stands on stage, points to me, and says, "In thirty second or less, Dr. Fischoff, give us your impression of these women."

My mind gulps. "Thirty seconds? Is he kidding?"

No, he's not. My thoughts run wild. "What the hell am I doing here? Open your mouth, say something, something smart, clever, incisive. Don't embarrass yourself."

My mouth starts before I know what I'm going to say. Out spill the words; glib, facile words. I do my job. I perform.

"What the hell was I doing on Geraldo?" I asked myself a few weeks later, after watching a videotape of the show. As an university professor and a clinical psychologist in private practice for over 25 years, appearing on television to discuss the human condition was something I was comfortable with. More accurately, I loved it. Teaching and TV commentary are both performance arts.

Public speaking ranks first among phobias; not every academic nor every psychologist relishes the opportunity to speak to millions of people via the electronic pulpit. But if you like offering insightful bon mots on camera and do it well, you get ample opportunity. The mass media have taken psychologists and their ilk to their collective bosom; we turn up everywhere, on television, in magazines, in newspapers, opining away. And if you live in Los Angeles, one of the top news and media markets given its identification with Hollywood, your media-exposure opportunities are increased to the tenth power.

I began in the 1970s, discussing assertiveness training. Over time, I evolved into what is now officially known as a media psychologist. There is even a division of the American Psychological of the American Psychological Association devoted to media psychology. Media psychologists research and write about the impact of the media on society. Those who can talk easily and succinctly and explain complex social events and psychological issues in non-jargonized language also appear on or in the media themselves.

My love of media exposure notwithstanding, I had adamantly refused to do interviews with tabloid publications like The National Enquirer or such magazines as Hustler. Whatever the merit of a particular article involved, the context of the publication as a whole was off-putting. So when a producer from Geraldo called (she got my name from the public affairs department of the APA), I approached with caution the invitation to appear on the show.

I had done some local talk shows and my experiences on them had been good. But Gerardo was another matter entirely. He epitomized the tabloid format of contemporary talk shows. First there was Donahue. Then there was Oprah. Then there were Geraldo and Sally, and the platform of talk show taste standards collapsed completely.

Despite my misgivings, I went to the show. It was network television. It would be a learning experience.

It was. But so is falling off a cliff. Looking at the Geraldo tape, I was embarrassed. Forget what I said about these rapist-marrying women and the neurotic lock in which they were embraced. The words were fine. Doing the show -- that was the embarrashed! I was caught up in the talk show juggernaut that later I would see trap other "experts." Worse, Geraldo's unexpected request to describe these women in 30 seconds put me in the role of shoot-from-the-hip psychologist. I didn't like it. I liked even less my attempt to deliver the goods.

It will get better, I reassured myself. And, in fact, there were times over the course of the numerous daily talk shows when the show's tempo or the host's integrity offered me opportunities. The Montel Williams Show was a prime example. Early in his career, when the show originated in Los Angeles, Montel dealt with such issues as interracial dating, the impact of gangster rap lyrics on society, and parent-child conflicts. Generally these shows were done with a purpose--to educate, not simply titillate. Things got rowdy at times, but Montel never seemed to lose his vision of accomplishing something worthwhile, especially in the arena of race relations.

Unlike Geraldo, Sally, or Oprah, Montel Williams let an expert talk in more than sound bites so that delicate and complicated issues could be explored without sacrificing light for heat. Indeed, after appearing on a show in which I voiced my support of interfacial dating as a way of breaking down racial barriers, people came up to me in stores and restaurants to thank me for making their lives a little easier. Such experiences reinforced my belief that reaching millions of people via the forum may indeed be worth some of the silliness an "expert" occasionally encounters.

But things change. The Montel Williams Show became corrupted by its own modicum of success and its quest for ratings. The day I got a call from one of the show's producer-bookers to mediate battles between couples in a boxing ring while wearing a striped referee costume, I knew the wind had shifted. Montel had joined the talk show circus in earnest.

Before Montel's fall from grace, did I really believe talk shows could be reliable forums for imparting psychological wisdom? For a while I did, so I kept doing them. I was like a pigeon in a Skinner box, pecking away on a schedule of partial reinforcement, convinced that the next peck, the next show, would reward me with the experience of having done something worthwhile.

Then finally, after appearances on Oprah and Sally, the simple, stupid truth of it all sunk in: Talk shows exist to entertain and exploit the exhibitionism of the walking wounded. If you want to explore your problem, you go to counseling. If you want to exhibit your life, attack and humiliate your spouse, or exact revenge for some misdeed, you go on a talk show.

Proof came to me in a phone call late one night. A woman's voice asked if I was the doctor she had seen earlier that day on Oprah. I was.

"Would you help me get on Oprah?" she asked. "I need to talk about how I was sexually abused as a girl by my brother. I told my parents. They never would listen. Now I'm in Seattle, living with a woman. My life is screwed up and I need to get better."

"What about therapy?" I suggested.

"No," she replied, "I must go on Oprah."

"Why Oprah, why a talk show?" I asked. "Surely therapy would be a better place to work out your anger and resentment."

"No," she screamed. "My parents have to pay for what they did, for not believing me, for ruining my life. If I went into therapy, only the therapist would know. If I go on Oprah, millions will. My parents couldn't ignore me then. And their lives would be ruined like mine was."

After that call, I began to turn down most talk show invitations. Most, but not all. Their narcissistic allure still whispered in my ear, albeit more faintly.

Help, I've Tuned In and I Can't Tune Out

Like cancer cells, talk shows multiply. In the 70s there were three. Now there are 20 and counting. They have surpassed soap operas as the number one draw of daytime TV. Their appeal is obvious. These shows are a source of electronic gossip, of safe scandal. They provide endless opportunities to compare one's own life with those on the screen and breathe a superior sigh of relief. If you feel like one of life's ciphers, how uplifting to see people make fools of themselves on talk shows.

Talk shows also offer vicarious revenge. If you seethe inside because you have been betrayed or deeply disappointed in relationships, how pleasured you are by watching infidels try to justify their actions and get clobbered in a pincer movement by guests, hosts, and audiences.

Like the soaps, shopping networks, and endless women-in-jeopardy movies of the week, talk shows owe their popularity primarily to women. They constitute over 70 percent of the viewing audiences.

Talk shows are relationship shows. But because they're steeped in gender stereotypes, they polarize relationships between the sexes. Women come on talk shows mostly to discuss betrayals and victimizations. Women in the audience either attack or embrace. They attack when the women on stage live up to the weaknesses to which they are heir--needing a man to feel legitimate and validated, and sacrificing their dignity on the altar of that need. Women in the audience embrace when the enemy, the male, is on stage betraying the female guests in the same way women in the audience feel they have been betrayed.

If, as Bette Davis once said, old age is no place for sissies, then the talk show is no place for men. You wonder why men who won't commit, who sleep with their girlfriend's best friend, or who abuse their wives come on such shows to get predictably garroted. From what I've observed, most do it to pacify their partner's desire to simply get on one of the shows.

These men will perform on cue, say dumb things, reveal dumb attitudes about fidelity or inattention to their partner's needs. They get pummeled--but they leave the stage unscathed. For them it's a joke. "I hope you'll get off my back now," I heard one young man say to his girlfriend as they left the stage at the end of the show. She had just ripped him apart on stage but now was all warm and cuddly . . . for the moment.

There are men in the audience, but most are recruited by magazine ads and audience brokers. They sometimes ask questions and make pronouncements, but their hearts aren't in it. That's obvious when you sit on stage and watch them squirm as Oprah or Sally walks by: "Not me, please don't ask me to speak." Women, on the other hand, line up, stand up, raise their hands, shout, "Me, let me speak!" This is their chance to take out a few of the Neanderthal men or viperous women who inhabit every woman's nightmare and probably most women's autobiography of woe.

Circus Gratuitus

Unless they are from Mars or Venus and have never seen these talk shows, never seen the guests behave like Gong Show alumni or the experts pander away their professional prestige to the theatrical demands of the burlesque format, why do people continue to go on them? Why do they risk damaging personal life or professional limb? Because guests and experts alike whisper to themselves, "I can do better." But they don't. Because they can't. The iron-maiden format of the talk show ensures that.

Talk shows occupy two realities. There's the reality of witnessing a talk show on television in the familiar, benign environment of your home--the "passive reality." Then there's the "active reality" of actually being a guest or expert confronted by the kaleidoscope of glaring studio lights, perambulating cameras, charismatic hosts, stares of the studio audiences, and the mesmerizing fact of being on television. Moreover, the studio is far smaller and more intimate in actuality than it appears on television. The sheer psychologically coercive power of the host and of the people in the audience and on stage, in such close proximity, is invisible to the home audience. And its effects cannot be anticipated, only experienced.

Many times before a show, guests have confidently told me they are sure the show will be a positive experience, even when they have painful topics to discuss. But it is precisely the poor control that guests have over the proceedings (or themselves) that makes the unsophisticated, "Look Ma, I'm on TV" guests such attractive prey for the talk show. Once on stage, a guest's self-restraint evaporates in the hot glare of lights.

Media psychologist colleagues have shared with me similar post-show shellshock. They rarely have the chance to say what they thought they would when they agreed to do the show. Being chastened by the host when one's explanations are too prolonged is jolting. The experts find themselves with two choices: be glib or be ignored.

The Acrobatics

Calm intellectual discourse is unwelcome to most talk show viewers--they want action! Emotions and conflict are the two critical ingredients of the talk show recipe. They give it the tang that is so viewer-addictive. Conflict is king! And producers, hosts, and studio audiences use the guests to sow the seeds.

Certainly conflict is the essence of good storytelling. But the conflicts provoked on stage by hosts and studio audiences are the not scripted fictions of a made-for-TV movie. The tumultuous dramas talk show guests enact are their lives, their wounds, the crimes of their hearts and their loins. Unlike actors, talk show guests must ultimately answer for their on-camera confessions when they return to their everyday lives.

It's one thing to recount your troubles and misdeeds to a stranger in a bar. It's quite another to do it in front of 20 million people. But it's the predictable unpredictability of the dirty-linen flaunting that viewers find so irresistible.

The Dancing Bears

My talk show experiences make one thing painfully clear: Most guests are drawn from America's abundant population of have nots. They have not high intelligence. They have not high income. They have not many opportunities. They have not any way to snatch the brief celebrity that television confers except to exhibit themselves. They sell their misery the way hookers sell their bodies.

Talk show tradition is like a limbo bar. The lower it goes, the lower people who follow must go to play the game successfully. Guests will say the most intimate things precisely because they have watched others do it before them. If guests discuss their sex lives, other guests will do the same. If guests attack their spouses, other guests will do the same. And if guests admit to incest, incredibly, other guests will go on to do the same. Like some revivalist tent show, once guests have fallen to the ground, touched by the spirit, speaking in tongues, others will follow, tongues wagging, shame and privacy shunted aside.

Some guests, of course, are more canny, intent on exploiting the exploiters. One woman called after seeing me on a talk show. She told me she had the disease du jour, multiple personality disorder. She wanted to go on The Home Show or Geraldo (she had seen me on both) so she could tell her story and maybe get a producer to option her life for a television movie. She had heard I was also a screenwriter. If I would help her get on, she said, she would let me write the screenplay.

Other guests have humbler exploitative goals--merely to get on a show. For one Oprah show the bookers found four couples who alleged they were struggling with various strains of sexual jealousy. A man and woman in their middle 20s got Oprah's attention. He was an accountant, she a homemaker. She felt jealous all right, but not the kind of jealousy they had promised the booker--"bikini-dad women at work." The wife was jealous of his work, period! Bikini-clad women had nothing to do with it.

When this tidbit of truth finally tumbled out of the wife's mouth, Oprah rendered a sublime imitation of Mount Vesuvius. "This is why you came on the show, to discuss your jealousy over his working long hours to get ahead?" she sputtered with anger--then turned to me. "What do you have to say about that, Dr. Fischoff?"

"About what in particular?" I asked, searching for something to focus on.

"About anything. Just talk," she hissed. So I spoke while Oprah brooded and paced. The housewife was shocked and hurt. "Why was Oprah so upset?" she asked me later. "After all, I just want-ed to get on Oprah. Doesn't everyone?"

Others who grope for air time are not quite as naive. There are a handful of guests, often transvestites or people with multiple personality disorder, who somehow hop from show to show, flaunting their oddities.

The Jeering Crowd

Spectators they are not. If you take the studio audience out of the picture, you take away the talk show spectacle as we know it. The audience provides tribal impact, people provoking people to say and do things they would never say or do unless they were drunk or assured anonymity.

The audience is laced with sharpshooters and soapboxers who all too often use a guest to draw themselves into the limelight, to engage not in dialogue but in inquisition. The more their questions make the guest squirm and lose control, the more powerful the audience members feel. That makes a guest something of a defendant. The audience members are judge and jury. And they will try to take your head off, for they sing the executioner's song.

Audiences may not walk in the studio with their fangs bared, but they are soon salivating vampirically. Before the show goes on they are exhorted by a warm-up staff to "Say what's on your mind," "Don't hold back," "You don't like what they're saying, tell them!" When the guests come on stage and climb out on a ledge, the audience is already whipped up--transformed into a crowd of Manhattan pedestrians, looking skyward, urging the pathetic wackoon the fifteenth-floor window ledge to jump.

As an expert, you sit on stage and feel the negative charges of electricity hurtling out of the audience, enveloping the guests. But your expert status is by no means a safe-house. The audience's opinions are deliberately placed on even footing with those of the expert.

The expert may have the training, the clinical experience, or other bona fides to offer an educated opinion about a topic under discussion. But the audience members come armed with their personal experiences, the equalizing power of the studio mike, and the encouragement of the host to "let it rip." A meeting of the minds it isn't. If you go against the audience's strident opinions, they go against you.

The show was Sally Jessy Raphael The subject: "Men Who Won't Commit." The audience kept spewing questions at the hapless males (are there any other kind on most talk shows?) on the stage. "Immature, immature," yelled women (and some men) in the audience, pointing fingers like Winchester rifles. I jumped in and noted that sometimes women confuse a man's general fear of commitment with an unwillingness to commit to a specific woman. And rather than maturity, it is often social conditioning and other less romantic agendas that compel many women to push for a marriage commitment.

Big mistake! The audience fell on me like children smashing a pinata. I might just as well have accused Mother Teresa of being a transsexual. Sally loved it, of course. What she didn't love was when one of the "uncommitted" proposed marriage on stage and placed an engagement ring on his girlfriend's finger. The exploiters got exploited.

The Ringmaster

You have seen him or her on television a hundred times nurturing those with righteous, sympathetic causes or ripping into the misfits, opportunists, and freaks. Phil? You think you know him. Sally? You think you know her. But you don't. Most hosts's sympathies and concerns are all too often mere contrivances to seduce the guest into self-exposure and beguile the television audience. Sympathy bonds freeze during commercial breaks and reanimate when the taping resumes. Caring? There are rare circumstances of on-camera concerns and off-camera follow-ups. But these tender moments are often later publicly exploited by the shows's spin doctors.

And rarely (Oprah is the occasional exception) is the expert treated any differently. For most talk show hosts, when the show ends, so does the existence of experts. I've been on tabloid (Geraldo, Oprah, Sally) and non-tabloid (Sonya Friedman, Larry King) talk shows dozens of times. Except for Montel, a host has never chatted with me before or after a show. Many colleagues relate similar tales of off-camera invisibility.

Call in the Clowns

Who are the "experts" who appear on these shows? Usually psychologists or, more often, non-Ph.D. psychotherapists who do the talk show circuit regularly because they have a book to sell or a private practice to nurture and can speak in sound bites. Many veterans offer workshops to other psychologists who want to get on television. They even get together to trade war stories and get feedback on a recent "performance."

In theory, the experts could offer sound advice on a show's general topic. They could even offer useful information to the guests. But this is not what generally happens. The "formula" gets in the way. Even experts with the best intentions get caught in the talk-show undertow, the hurried rush to judgment, and do misguided on-air counseling or mediation between warring guests. But that's like singing to a deaf man. Guests are not there to humble themselves and gain therapeutic insight. Not in front of 10 million people. They are there for validation or, like the expert, to get some TV exposure.

So what function do psychological experts serve in actuality? In part, they give the talk show a frisson of legitimacy. But in the main, experts are the laugh track to help audiences identify whom to blame, whom to side with, and who "just doesn't get it." That may not be why the experts think they're there. But that's why they are there.

Some experts will say publicly that, "on balance," talk shows are worthwhile, that they help the viewing public, if not the guests. But for most experts I know, the only "balance" they are thinking about is their own, in the form of self-promotion. The dirty little secret most media psychologists know is that, with rare exceptions, if a psychologist truly wants to educate the public, the last place to do it is on a contemporary tabloid talk show.

The Barker

With very few exceptions, those who book the guests must be con artists and ambulance chasers. They get the names and phone numbers of prospective guests from a variety of sources: viewers who call in response to an announced theme ("If you have had a boyfriend betray you with your best friend, call us"); those who read an ad for prospective guests in the classified section of local newspapers; those who list themselves in publications devoted to specific oddities of human behavior. Or the bookers call psychotherapists or other personal-service specialists and ask them to bring their patients on as guests for particular theme shows. For ethical reasons respectable therapists must refuse such requests; the requests keep coming nonetheless.

The bookers need social misfits to feed the beast. Guests are given no warning that the electrified climate of the set will loosen their tongues and obliterate their self-protective sensibilities. That would spoil the fun.

Prospective guests are offered only a forum for personal advocacy ("obese women deserving love," "transvestites deserving women who understand them") and encouragement to tell all. The promise of an opportunity to meet Phil or Sally, of planes and first-class hotels, and of a night on the town can be very tempting to people who usually have little access to such luxuries.

There are no warnings about surprise guests, as a grandmother discovered on one Montel Williams show on which I was the expert. Thinking she was on stage only to discuss her misgivings about interracial marriages, this grandmother was totally blindsided when the mixed-race grandchild she had refused to see or even acknowledge was brought on stage and placed in her arms. She had no choice but to submit or else be seen as the racist Ice Queen of the century. The gimmick played well to the audience. But the on-stage reunion had little to do with grandmother's off-stage fury about being set up. The staff of the show was subjected to her tirade.

A psychologist or psychotherapist is there to feed the beast as well. When a booker calls, he or she needs to determine whether you can talk without resorting to psychobabble and whether your point of view is compatible with the show's topical focus. A booker once called me to appear on a show to discuss the pain of recovery from repressed memories of sexual abuse. I told her I was unconvinced of the legitimacy of many so-called recovered memories. She thought for a minute, said that wasn't the point of view needed for this particular show, but they were planning another show on "the false memory syndrome," and she would keep me in mind. The sands of principle shift easily.

The less experienced you are as an expert, the easier it is to be misled by bookers. If you tell them that you don't want to be part of a circus, that you need to be able to seriously explore the topic, they tell you they agree and that their show is different. But if you watch an episode of the show before deciding, most of the time you realize you have been lied to.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out why. Their show is a circus because circuses get ratings. In March, the Jenny Jones Show garnered some unplanned publicity when, a few days after their appearance on the show, one guest shot another. The alleged murderer had been asked to appear on a show about secret admirers. Unaware that the show's real theme was about men who have secret crushes on men, he obliged. To his shock, a neighbor appeared with his heart on his sleeve. Three days later the admiring neighbor was found dead and the homophobic guest surrendered to police. The next week, the show's ratings jumped 16 percent.

Sweeping Up

Do guests go on, do their strip show, and walk off into the sunlight? Some apparently do. According to published research, few will admit to being devastated by an appearance. Unless it becomes the first round in a lawsuit. Montel Williams encountered that surprise after he ambushed (yet) another reluctant guest with the revelation that her boyfriend had been sleeping with her sister. She subsequently sued the show for pain and suffering.

I was contacted by her attorney to review a tape of that show. I was asked to judge whether the woman did indeed seem caught off guard and traumatized by her sister's betrayal. I was also asked to prepare for possible expert testimony regarding such matters as springing cruel surprises on guests. The woman later collected an undisclosed sum in an out-of-court settlement.

There are less extreme instances, of course. But even then, most guests will simply say it was an experience, it was somewhat disappointing, or that they had to do it to help correct a terrible social prejudice--even if it was a wretched forum in which to do it. Such benign public admissions may be misleading.

After one Sally focusing on "women with bad reputations," I uncomfortably shared an airport limo with one of the guests. She had just been shredded by the audience and the host. Nor did my on-air comments validate her self-abusive lifestyle. She insisted the experience was wonderful. "I was on Sally," she gushed. Denial insulates one from regret and humiliation.

Denial insulates, that is, unless your parents saw you on Geraldo and heard--for the first time--that your husband is the man who raped you on your second date. Then things don't go so well. Or unless your son saw you on Sally and learned that you habitually go to neighboring towns on the weekends, end up in bars doing stripteases, and go home with strangers. Guests quickly learn that they paid a big price for their brief stab at celebrity.

I have unsettling concerns about the people who volunteer as guests on talk shows. You might argue that if guests want to go on, let them. If they get burned, that's the price their choice exacted. No one held a gun to their heads.

True. But it is equally true that people don't always have the sophistication to make the right choices or grasp the consequences of their decisions. I would argue that until people fully understand the risks of parading their life-flaws for a few moments of cheap celebrity, until they understand that a talk show exerts an intoxicating pull on self-divulgence they can't grasp sitting at home wishing for a chance to get on Geraldo, then they are far less responsible for the degrading spectacle than are the savvy producers of the talk shows.

Circus freak shows are no longer the cruel attraction they once were. As a society we have become more sensitive to the feelings of "freaks" and to the dehumanizing stigma the term implies. We have also come to roundly condemn the promoters who exploited freaks for profit. Perhaps guests on these televised freak shows should be accorded the same compassion and the shows's producers the same condemnation. If I had understood this earlier in my talk show career, I would have dropped it sooner.

Will television talk shows run their course? Will producers be brought to their senses and pull back from the class warfare of the haves exploiting the have not exhibitionists for the amusement of voyeuristic audiences? Not until shame and privacy reassert themselves in the pantheon of social values. The "I am victim, hear me whine" chorus has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of chanters to parade across television screens and inspire fascination in viewers.

In time, I learned that I could exercise more control over what I said instead of obligingly feeding the beast. But controlling my presentation was just not enough. My presence still legitimized the circus. In the end, there was no way I could further delude myself into believing I was serving any informative function for audiences or guests. The forces at work are simply too powerful. The talk show circus will no doubt continue, but with one less clown.

PHOTO (COLOR): Stephen DeSilva and Phil Donahue

PHOTO (COLOR): Guests in talk shows

PHOTO (COLOR): Sally Jessy Raphael with a guest

PHOTOS (COLOR): Guests in Geraldo