Dr. Walter E. Brackelmanns, the television shrink, says there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who will go on his nationally syndicated talk show, "Couples," and those who won't.
So far, he's had no trouble finding the first kind. Especially in southern California.
"We do weed out people who are emotionally disturbed," he says, in town to promote the L.A.-based program, which does for psychiatry what "The People's Court" does for jurisprudence.
The show is the 1980s version of "The Newlywed Game." Couples come on and rip the comforters off their connubial bliss, blabbing about personal problems once confined to the privacy of cocktail parties or, in extreme cases, a marriage counselor's office. It's embarrassing. Distasteful. Vulgar exhibitionism of the worst sort. In other words, all the main ingredients for boffo television.
"We tried not to make it a sideshow," Brackelmanns says. In fact, the therapist said, he would not have agreed to host the show--seen locally Monday through Friday at 11:30 p.m. on Channel 9--unless it was committed to upholding "the dignity of man."
But Brackelmanns' tray table may not be in the upright position. Assaulting the dignity of man--and wife--seems to be the very point of the show.
Take Glenda and Michael. She's a nude dancer. He's worried because all his friends go into the club to watch his wife gyrate stark naked. She doesn't understand why hubby's upset.
Take Len and Cookie. She left him after he had an affair. They went over the sordid details while Brackelmanns--wearing his official Phil Donahue "Help Me Out Here" silver bouffant hairdo--listened sympathetically. Len and Cookie held hands on the show, just like all the couples are told to. ("It seemed such a nice touch.") Two days after appearing on "Couples," says Brackelmanns, Len packed up and left Cookie.
Then there's Milt and Miriam, Karen and Terry, Brenda and Vick, Phyllis and Allen (whose on-air session was a two Kleenexer) and an elderly spouse who complained that her septuagenarian husband--who would have gone to his grave with his secret intact--was clumsy in the foreplay department.
One segment mercifully spared from the viewing public was a gay couple who went into excruciating detail about their sexual problems. "It just didn't look right," the doctor says.
"I feel like a pioneer," Brackelmanns says. "We're reaching a population of people who would not be reached by anyone else in the mental health field . All the problems are very interesting, exciting, dynamic."
However, the family therapist admits that in a single one-hour session (edited for television down to 30 minutes) he can be viewed as a quick fix artist. How much does he actually help these couples? "Not very much," he says. "I do help delineate the problems, point out what the fundamental issues are." But the tendency to see therapy as a one-hour instant cure, he says, "is one of the problems."
Brackelmanns says he originally wanted to devote four or five shows to one couple, but was overruled by the producers. "Nobody would watch," he says. "People would lose interest."
One of the main complaints about the show, he says, is his grammar.
"I always say feeling badly, instead of feeling bad."
Other examples of Brackelspeak: People are not selfish, they are "self- oriented." Feelings are to be "tapped into." And the 49-year-old therapist--happily married himself, he says, and pulling in a six-figure salary--is not ambitious. He's a "multi-interested" person.
"I'm also a ham."
Brackelmanns, a Georgetown University graduate with a thriving private practice who teaches at UCLA in his spare time, grew up poor in Brooklyn and vowed that "one day it would be different."
He tells a story that illustrates what made Walter want to win.
"It brings tears to my eyes," he says. As a child, he joined the Boy Scouts, but he never had enough pocket money for the things Boy Scouts need. One day the head of his group called all the boys together in a circle. He went around the circle, saying which boy owed how much money. "Then he put a chair in the middle and told me to sit in it. He said I owed more money than any other Boy Scout." It was $5.
Tears well up in his eyes.
"The humiliation," he says.
Now, he says, people recognize him on the street, ask for his autograph, tell him how wonderful he is. And if "Couples" is ever canceled, he says, he feels the idea of video-shrink will flourish.
"I hope 100 more Walter Brackelmanns come along," he says.