THE NATIONAL FREAK SHOW

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Feeling sorry for yourself? How would you like to be Geraldo Rivera?

I've known Geraldo since his superb early reporting and effective muck-raking as a young lawyer-turned-TV journalist on New York's "Eyewitness News" at WABC-TV. He's a streetwise reporter and an intelligent fellow with an all-too-human appreciation of his own considerable talents which leads him on occasion to look slightly foolish.

Al Capone's vault, anyone?

But while I may be a bit offput by such capering, America seems to love it. Geraldo has an impressive Q rating, his own show or several of them, and makes (I'd reckon) millions of dollars every year doing what he does best, which is television. This is Geraldo's time, Geraldo's place.

I understand all this. The man is rich and famous. What I don't understand about Geraldo is how he can get out of bed every morning fully aware of the sort of monstrous people he's going to have to confront on his very own show in just a few hours. Is Geraldo a drinker? Does he take tranquilizers? How else do you face a morning of such alarm that even the bloody British Museum has lost its charm?

Geraldo's is of course only one of a number of shows featuring America's dysfunctional. We have Montel Williams and Jenny Jones and Sally Jessy and Ricki Lake and Richard Bey and Charles Perez and Jerry Springer and Maury and they are all intelligent and educated people dealing with weirdos.

But Geraldo is surely the king of the national freak show.

If you drool, have attempted to eat your parents, possess a third arm growing mysteriously out of your back, if you sleep wrapped in barbed wire and rob church poorboxes, if you are hooked on drinking ink or sniffing inner soles, then you are Geraldo Rivera's meat. The Geraldo show would have rejected as boring the Hunchback of Notre Dame in favor of a gent who's invented a new line of sandpaper-lined underpants.

But if you marry bigamously and both spouses are willing to come on and testify to their happiness, if you collect hairshirts once worn by Rasputin, if you have been abducted by a flying saucer or raise tarantulas or weigh 600 pounds or have the entire New Testament tattooed on your chest, if you have documentary evidence Hitler and FDR are alive and living in Argentina where, every Thursday night, they meet to play pinochle, call Geraldo's screener. If by any chance there's an opening in that day's lineup of lesbian nuns, reformed drug dealers who've found Jesus, people who train dancing hamsters, and grannies with pierced body parts, you may have a shot.

Remember, this is an intelligent and calculating man who knows precisely what he's doing and hasn't simply drifted into this shadow land of slobs and whackos the way a Mort Downey Jr. might have done. The other day the TV page ad for the Geraldo show read: "Underage, Oversexed, Out of Control," with a photo of a grinning Geraldo and the reminder, "Geraldo today 4:00." I leave it to you to fantasize what he and his guests discuss in the Green Room.

For me the best part of the Geraldo show comes at the end, the sort of "pray along with Rev. Pat Robertson bit." It is a wonderfully uplifting, even sacred moment, a requisite few seconds of piety, when the nutcases have screamed and cursed and belabored each other for 59 minutes, are now urged by Geraldo, his head bowed in solemnity, to pray together and vow to reform.

It is a soaring moment in television and one which never fails deeply to move me. Except on those occasions when the geeks rise up, bursting from their chairs to demolish the studio and set upon their host, intent on boxing his ears for having dared to empathize with their troubles.

But while it's easy to put the knock on Geraldo Rivera (as he again heads for the bank), it seems to me the man is simply tapping into what is increasingly a new American mainstream. There might be an argument to be made it is Geraldo who understands us best and is only reflecting through his daily show an accurate portrait of a country and a people as the third millenium nears. Consider a few recent events and the likelihood of things to come:

Al D'Amato is now the ethical conscience of the United States Senate....by early next year O.J. could conceivably be playing in the Hope and at Pebble Beach, appearing on Letterman and writing his best seller....the "Extra" television show and Playgirl magazine both feature Kato Kaelin....The Berkshire Eagle, that fine Pittsfield newspaper, is sold to people who praise its editorial talents and then sack much of its staff ....Strawberry is playing major league baseball while under house arrest....on one weekend most of the men who would be president kneel at the feet of Ross Perot. On the next they are thumping Bibles with the best of them at the Christian Coalition, which bars the one Jew in the field.

President Bush goes to China and sides with Beijing's official thugs against American women and then it's off to Japan to shill for the Rev. Moon at a big rally....Deion Sanders will be paid $25 million to play football....half of the U. of Nebraska's championship backfield is under arrest....the Colorado Rockies might actually win a pennant.....Roseanne is helping guest-edit The New Yorker....a new study says coffee is OK for us.....Heidi Fleiss is going to jail; Charlie Sheen gets married.....the Dow made a new record high.....Costner spent $175 million to make a movie and no one got arrested for larceny.....Courtney Love still has custody of the kid.....Michael Jackson flies off to Euro Disney accompanied by two little boys.....Ivana wants to be an ambassador.....a tribe of Native Americans announces it doesn't want a casino.....Marcia Clark was shocked, shocked! to find out Furhman was a Nazi.

When I was a little kid they took us to the Coney Island freak show to gaze in horror at someone called "Zip, What Is It?" You don't have to go to Coney any more; just buy a paper, turn on the tube, read a magazine. They're all around us.

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