Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A tale of two talk show hosts

At 11.30 pm or thereabouts I can be found clutching the remote and flicking restlessly between two talk shows: the Late Show with David Letterman and the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Could there be two TV hosts further apart in style and, well, substance? I could write a book on the glaring contrasts between them.

I have to admit at the outset that I have developed a little girly crush on Ellen. This woman is so often surrounded by stereotypically boosted Hollywood beauties and it’s to her credit that she’s never succumbed to the standard look, by getting a nose job for example.

But away from the overly ravishing, she really is quite beautiful herself, with huge, deep-set eyes, a strong chin and a cute, engaging smile. Her cheeks glow with the kind of good health only the super-rich can aspire to: she probably has her own in-house macrobiotic chef and yoga instructor (she’s talked about how practising yoga has helped her slow down, and she's also a vegan).

Despite my crush the show itself doesn’t grab me (except for the beginning bit which I’ll describe shortly). It’s full of inane games played by excitable audience members, and quirky guests who demonstrate their unusual skills. The whole thing is a weird combination of embodied 1980s feminism, quiz show hysteria and celebrity self-congratulation – tempered, thank god, by DeGeneres’s ability to make fun of herself (which the more famous Oprah could benefit from). The whole look of the set is light and minimalist – it’s probably played as a daytime show in the US.

There’s no doubt that in a country crippled by homophobic religiosity, DeGeneres, an out lesbian, is a phenomenon. The audience adores her, and no, they’re not all bulldykes in motorcycle leathers, just average, mostly heterosexual women with mortgages, as well as a few men. I didn’t realise the extent of her popularity until she had Portia De Rossi, her spouse, on the show (not literally of course).

Portia (who was another pleasant surprise: gangly, shy and skittish, and they sang ‘I got you babe’ at the end) complained that on their honeymoon, fans were constantly greeting DeGeneres while having no idea who Portia was.

DeGeneres has graced a bevy of magazine covers, including Ladies Home Journal, People and W (the headline was 'Ellen: America's Unlikely New It Girl) and last year signed a $1 million advertising deal with Cover Girl.

So what’s the secret of Ellen’s popularity (somehow you want to call her Ellen and not DeGeneres)? One reason might be her style. She dresses in a deliberately non-feminine way: not all that butch though, more androgynous, owing much to the Annie Hall phenomenon of the mid-seventies. She favours loose, comfortable-looking but perfectly fitted and styled pants, loosely fitting vests or beautifully cut jackets over unstructured but expensive-looking shirts that she doesn’t tuck in, and sneakers.

I have a probably unprovable hypothesis about the appeal to heterosexual/femme women of this type of androgyny. Almost all girls start out being boyish and then have to give up their tomboy selves to become women. They therefore find androgynous women attractive because they’re reminded of the part of themselves they’ve lost.

But of course the clothing’s only relevant to the extent that it expresses the inner woman. DeGeneres is fun loving, winning, warm, witty, quick. Celebrities, it is said, sell images of themselves. DeGeneres is no exception – her down-to-earth warmth and chumminess are nothing less than a brand – but perhaps that brand happens to be more in sync with the reality than, say, the personality of Oprah Winfrey. She exudes warmth rather than just putting it on. To tell you the truth, I don’t find her screamingly funny, but her wit is quick and sure and she’s constantly coming up with fast one-liners.

Now, I just need to quickly explain what I love about the beginning of the show. It always includes DeGeneres dancing among the audience members. She shimmies up the stairs of the seating area, down one of the rows, and back down to the set, before limbo-ing over (if that’s possible) the coffee table in front of her seat and settling herself down in it.

When she starts dancing the audience gets up and dances in their places and she has a brief boogie with one or two as she goes past (eliciting screams of excitement). I’ve never seen her style of dancing before and it’s hard to explain but it involves swinging each shoulder forward alternately while her hands are on her thighs, and gives new meaning to the word cute. When Portia came on the show she danced in the same way, but more awkwardly: my guess is she’s copied DeGeneres because she found her dance style so endearing.

This little ritual reminds me of nothing so much as the way, at the few women’s collective meetings I attended in the mid-1980s, everyone would get up halfway through the meeting to have a good stretch. It was a reminder not to forget your body, not to be too abstract about life.

Of course the show will not make the world safe for women, or men for that matter. In a recession-ravaged USA, DeGeneres plays Lady Bountiful, changing the world one mortgage-stressed audience member at a time. The presents for winners of the kooky games are extremely generous: gift vouchers worth thousands of dollars, exotic holidays. To that extent DeGeneres is pushing the virtues of materialism and luck as much as any TV show host.

David Letterman couldn’t be more different. Even the set is different: much darker colour scheme, blown-up image of Manhattan at night as a backdrop, and Letterman sitting behind a desk instead of a coffee table.

The first time I tuned in I wondered what people saw in him. He seemed slightly bored with the whole process, as if he’d been doing it too long. Crusty, rude, dry, he doesn’t even pretend to be anything but jaded and cynical. A comedian like DeGeneres, he’s extremely quick with the one-liners.

The weird thing is if you’re desperate enough to watch (and there’s nothing else decent on at that hour besides DeGeneres) you get used to his personality, just as you put up with the unwelcome quirks of colleagues and family members. In fact the dryness and world-weariness are welcome in the often saccharine world of US entertainment. (The word on the street is that what charm there is in Letterman’s persona gets turned off during ad breaks. At least his world-weariness is genuine.)

I freely admit that Letterman’s segments are marginally funnier than DeGeneres’s. A segment that recently got the chop for obvious reasons was ‘Great moments in presidential speeches’; this played clips from old, truly great presidential speeches followed by a humorous gaffe by George Bush. (Letterman’s hatred of Bush is one of his redeeming features.) I also have to admit that sometimes at least, Letterman’s guests are often more high profile than those of DeGeneres and the interviews slightly more in-depth (if that term can ever apply to a talk show interview).

But something I never get used to is the man’s brazen sexism. Last night he made a horrible joke about Pamela Anderson, comparing her to a caravan that sleeps four. But he’s just as awful with his female guests, at least the ones wearing skimpy evening dresses (and that means most of them). He kisses their hands in an icky way and sometimes expresses his desire for them – yuk. During an interview with one lissome guest, I could hardly believe it when he claimed to be getting distracted by her attractive legs.

There’s a double standard here of course. Letterman is allowed to slobber over his guests while DeGeneres must be clean, girl-next-door, strictly chummy. She freely talks about Portia, and the joys of marriage, which is nice. But if she actually expressed lesbian desire, told one of her female guests she had a crush on her, what would the consequences be for her career? (She told Paul Rudd recently she’d had a ‘safe crush’ on him in the past – what could be safer than the crush of a married lesbian on a man)?

But perhaps the point is that we don’t want our female talk show hosts to be like Letterman. The goal of equality is not for women to be as misogynistic and sexist as patriarchal men. We want an alternative. I think DeGeneres knows this. I can’t help thinking that a combination of the two shows, with a slightly edgier DeGeneres asking more incisive questions, ditching the silly games and bringing in some less puerile humour, would be perfect.

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