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.)
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
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
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