Bearded ladles. Siamese twins. Men and women who weigh more than 300 pounds each. Tattooed men. These are just a few of the guests to grace the stages of daytime talk shows in recent months. If those examples remind you of a carnival sideshow, there's a reason.
In the 19th century and for the first few decades of this century, carnivals criss-crossed the United States, providing entertainment to people in small towns. Carnivals catered to the dark side of man's need for spectacle by allowing people to escape temporarily from their dull everyday lives into a world that was dark, sleazy, and seemingly dangerous. Of course, the danger wasn't real, and the ultimate lure of the carnival was that you could safely return from its world to your everyday life.
Television and regional amusement parks took their toll on the carnival. Today, the few carnivals in existence are generally sad collections of rickety rides and rigged games. But man's need for dark spectacle hasn't gone away, and a new generation of entrepreneurs has found a way to allow people to experience the vicarious thrill of the dark, the sleazy, and the tawdry - all without leaving the safety of their homes.
The gateways to this dark world are daytime talk shows. Phil Donahue created the mold for this genre, and Oprah Winfrey carried it to perhaps its greatest success. Both their shows are essentially women's magazines on the air, alternating celebrity profiles, services-oriented features, discussion of political issues, and more exploitative episodes. Both mix the tawdry with the serious. Donahue was the man who gave us daytime debates between presidential candidates, and he was also the man who wore a skirt on a show devoted to cross dressing.
However, a new generation of hosts has emerged that trades almost exclusively in the sleaze their audiences demand: Geraldo, Montel, Ricki, Jerry. Their names may not be familiar to you, but they have millions of viewers. Oprah alone is watched by 7 million households each day. Each has managed to recreate the carnival in a contemporary setting.
One of the main attractions of the old carnivals were the "hoochie coochie" dancers. Men would eagerly wait in line, enticed by the talker's promise that these women would "take it off, roll it up, and throw it right at you." This was the origin of modern striptease. Today, the heirs of Little Egypt are a staple on daytime television. In fact, they are so common that producers really have to try to...