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WHAT "ELLEN" AND HOWARD STERN HAVE IN COMMON

(Noted radio consultant Mike McVay wrote an article about the "coming out" episode of the TV show, ELLEN. This is Dan O'Day's response to that article.)

Dear Mike....

Re: "OKAY, I'M GAY" in the June MONTHLY MEMO:

I respectfully disagree with the basic conclusions regarding creative choices made by performing artists.

I don't think the ELLEN program should be applauded for its ground-breaking move. I do think ABC/Disney should, because they undoubtedly chose not to buckle in to significant pressure from the "If You're Not Like Me, You'll Burn In Hell" crowd. But I don't believe the goal of that program (and its star, Ellen Degeneres; fortunately I can refer to both as "Ellen") was to break ground and/or make TV history. Rather, Ellen simply performed an artistic act of honest & integrity.

A sitcom named after its star usually reflects a lot of the personality & beliefs of the star. (That is not to suggest that a viewer should assume the TV role and the performer are the same. On TV, Bill Cosby portrayed a patient, kindly father figure. In real life, pretty much everyone agrees he's an overbearing s.o.b.)

Jerry Seinfeld really is a Jewish, New York comedian.

Bill Cosby really is a black American father.

Alf really is a wise-cracking alien....Wait, okay, so maybe there are some exceptions.

For a gay woman starring in an eponymous tv comedy in 1997 NOT to have that key aspect of her life reflected in the program would be intellectually and artistically dishonest. (Our society tends to define its minority groups by their differences from the majority - sexual, racial, religious. This makes such a difference an artificially important one to the individual as well as to society.)

ELLEN didn't "embrace homosexuality" any more THE COSBY SHOW embraced being black. It's who she is.

Ricky Ricardo was Cuban (as was Desi Arnaz). Danny Thomas was Lebanese (on and off-screen). That was who they were.

You ask, "Why (if TV is meant to reflect life) is a national sitcom championing a cause that makes up 5 to 8 percent of the U.S. population?"

The answer is two-fold:

1. Again, it wasn't a "cause" that was championed. It was the desire to be honest with one's audience (and in one's art, if we can find it in our hearts to be generous enough to call TV "art").

2. I wouldn't presume to interpret McLuhan without having read his work, but I'll bet he didn't equate providing "a reflection in the rear view mirror of life" with mirroring only life's most obvious and statistically prevalent components. If that was his message, then why doesn't TV devote a whole lot more time to people flossing their teeth, sleeping, and going to the bathroom?

Does Howard Stern represent the majority or even a large minority of the general public? How many half-Catholic, half-Jewish, overly tall, long-haired, loud-mouthed, wealthy, long-married, 40ish American men whose hobbies are limited to martial arts movies and strip clubs can there BE? (And remember, I like Howard!)

"Ah," the retort might go, "but Howard SAYS the things so many of his listeners think."

First, I don't agree with those who claim that as Howard's key to success. Second, Ellen reflects a point-of-view and value system (both of which, as referred to here, have nothing to do with gender preference) that resonate with HER audience.

The "coming out" episode was the first I'd ever seen of this program, and when it was over I was impressed with how sharp, level-headed, honest and witty her character is - in other words, very much like me. (In addition, we're both attracted to women.)

While it might be true, as you say, that the most successful air talents understand their target listeners and communicate with them, there is one thing that is even more important to long-term success: understanding who THEY are and being willing & able to share key aspects of their personalities with their listeners.

The Howard Stern Show is the single MOST HONEST radio program I've ever heard.

And if Howard one day awakens to discover that all these years his cheap fantasizing about sexy women (or, his sexy fantasizing about cheap women) has been nothing but a desperate attempt to deny a no longer repressed homosexuality, I think it's safe to assume Howard will share THAT with his listeners, too.

© 1997 by Dan O'Day

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