The talk show couch as public confessional

When the Emmys are broadcast Sunday evening, there should be a special prime-time award honoring talk shows &

not the hosts, but their sofas.

The talk show couch is a wholly contrived setting &

as artificial as any sitcom soundstage &

masquerading as a public confessional. Celebrities, politicians and the infamous settle onto the sofa &

or club chair &

to seek redemption and adulation. Guests are prepped with talking points or witty anecdotes. They are sprayed with foundation, powdered and set down in front of a studio audience that has been primed to exude enthusiasm and to laugh on cue.

And yet, there is this strange belief that on the couch, sincerity prevails, that these thoroughly engineered conversations are true and raw. There will be no hyperbole, obfuscation or baldfaced lies.

Don't audiences notice that just as some actor begins telling a spur-of-the-moment story about his recent holiday that the director just happens to have a few snapshots from that vacation ready to flash onscreen?

Consumers of celebrity news are rightfully cynical about stories in tabloid magazines. Articles in the mainstream media are viewed with healthy suspicion. And yet, the chatter spewed from a talk show sofa is considered courageous and earnest. It reveals some vital "truth" about the person. Celebrities, it seems, are never more self-aware and self-effacing than when talking about their new fragrance on "Ellen."

Oprah Winfrey is to blame for all of this. Other talk show hosts came before her, including such giants as Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue. Others have cushy chairs. But Winfrey, who premiered her 22nd season Monday by taking her show from Chicago to New York and taping two shows at Madison Square Garden, has polished the illusion of talk show sincerity to a brilliant gloss. As she reveals intimate details of her life to her audience &

from her struggles with weight to having been sexually abused &

there is the assumption that her guests, settling into one of her leather armchairs, will be as forthright as the host. Viewers come to the "Oprah" show seeking a deeper truth than is available elsewhere.

Winfrey's guests don't have to get emotionally naked, but they must play the most genuine version of themselves possible. Only occasionally do her guests reveal anything particularly startling, as when Tom Cruise &

unplugged and unhinged &

jumped up and down on a sofa declaring himself in love.

Sitting on the "Oprah" stage, admitting to being overweight &

as Kirstie Alley did &

is akin to baring your soul and putting your entire medical dossier online. On the talk show sofa, small details become emblematic of something larger. A quaint story about the death of one's first dog becomes a metaphor for one's humanity. As Winfrey might say, "The death of Fido made you feel what?"

The casual, cuddly nature of the setting implies sincerity. Starlets love to tuck their legs underneath them when they sit on the sofa. Informality reads as unscripted and unfiltered conversation. Whatever they're saying, it must be true.

Is it any wonder that politicians like the warm embrace of the talk show sofa? Fred Thompson announced his presidential candidacy on "The Tonight Show." He dismissed the Republican debate, which he was missing that night, by saying it was a lot harder to get on "The Tonight Show" than to get into a presidential debate. Anyone can spout public-policy sound bites; not everyone can get folksy with Jay Leno and let drop some myth-building detail: He made the decision to run sitting around his kitchen table, he said. Possibly there was a fresh-baked apple pie cooling on the windowsill and hummingbirds circling overhead?

The talk show sofa, by the way, is altogether different from those swivel chairs and desk chairs favored on "Meet the Press," "This Week" and "Charlie Rose." In those cases, it's not the seating but the table that counts. And it always seems to be a large polished wooden table, the sort of furniture that might be found in a college classroom and around which everyone gathers for heady debates and intellectual one-upmanship. A table implies a possible interrogation, a demand for facts. A table places distance between the interviewer and the subject.

A sofa means that you get to talk about your feelings. Facts can be manipulated and spun. You can accuse someone of having their facts wrong. No one can declare someone's feelings wrong. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his gubernatorial run from the Leno couch. He felt he had something to contribute. Who could argue with that?

"The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" pretend to be fact-based shows, and so the hosts interview their guests across a large "news" table. But that's part of the joke. In temperament, they're part of the talk show genre. And that's why John Edwards announced his candidacy for the 2000 presidential election on "The Daily Show" and members of Congress are scrambling to chat with Stephen Colbert.

The implication is that the hosts, Jon Stewart and Colbert, are the discerning jesters. They make fun of politicians, their stilted speeches and their double talk. They joke about the lack of truth-telling by those in power. So only a salt-of-the-earth politician, someone who gets the jokes and is prepared to tell the truth, would get to appear. The chuckles and the knowing laughter create the illusion that a facade has been dropped and the guests are letting the audience know how they really feel. Minus a podium, a bank of microphones and a row of staffers standing in the background, the politician's laughter is taken as more authentic and illustrative of some wiser, kinder, more reasonable self.

The talk show sofa is as much a performance venue as a proscenium stage. The "actors" are playing themselves. And sometimes, a warm, fuzzy and prepackaged dog story can be as revealing as a cold fact. The willingness to tell a scripted joke or to play the fool can add nuance to what's already known about a person's character and personality. But to believe that talk show intimacy is a more genuine, uncensored form of truth is to transform honesty into nothing more than an act.

Share This Story