Phil Donahue doesn't answer questions. He addresses issues. Answering questions is for us mere mortals. As of this morning, Phil Donahue has been addressing issues on his TV talk show for 20 years, and that's a mess of addressing.
The anniversary will be celebrated with the program's first-ever retrospective (at 9 a.m.on Channel 9). Phil with Spiro Agnew! Phil with Johnny Carson! Phil at the birth of a baby! Phil clomping around on the famous fugitive garbage scow! And of course, Phil talking talking talking, and running up and down the aisles trying to get his studio audience to talk too. Is the caller there? He also invites comments by phone.
If no one in the world could ever be expected to take Phil as seriously as Phil does, that's all right. Let the record show, as Phil himself might say, that for one hour each weekday, on 214 outlets throughout the country, "Donahue" makes television better. He made it a little bit better 20 years ago when he started out, a nerdy brunet, in Dayton.
"It's more fun now than it's ever been," claims Phil, 51, myopic and topped with a fluffy gray mane. But when he began, when he invented this brave new form of group-talk television, Phil had a field unto himself. Now the competition is ferocious, especially from ferocious Oprah Winfrey.
So let's address the issue of how Phil reacted reading all those stories that said Oprah was mopping up the floor with him in the Nielsen ratings.
"Well it energized us," he says, lapsing into the royal plural. "We were spoiled. We had a long time all by ourselves. We are envious of the speed with which she developed the national recognition that it took us 10 years to get, but we don't for a moment deny her that wonderful Cinderella career year that she's had.
"We feel, believe it or not, real good about where we are."
He's so diplomatic. He phrases answers as if he were delivering position papers to the General Assembly. Surely he got a little peeved when Oprah beat him this year in the Emmy awards, then delivered a patronizing speech thanking him for, in effect, paving the way for her?
"I do not think it's useful for me to presume to understand the motives of anybody," says Phil. "Especially it would be wrong, I think, to paint something negative on a commentary which I have to believe was offered with goodwill and honorable purpose, and I wouldn't for a moment want to question her sincerity on that moment."
In other words, sure he was peeved. He was irked. He was plenty steamed. He also declares, not parenthetically, "We are claiming a larger audience than we've ever had watching 'Donahue.' "
Oprah isn't the only competition, though. Not in a country where having one's own talk show is the new equivalent of a second car. In addition to Oprah, the darling of the media, there's Geraldo Rivera, the darling of himself. And the latest entry, a geeky-freaky, lamentably entertaining slugfest out of Secaucus called "The Morton Downey Jr. Show." It gets national exposure on cable via satellite from WWOR in New Jersey.
Downey baits and assails his guests, calls them names like "jerk" and "sleazeball," occasionally has them hauled off the set by security cops (as the crowd cheers), and ended one recent show by wrapping an American flag around his derriere and inviting an Iranian guest to kiss it.
"I promise you I have nothing negative to say about any competitor," Phil says, doling out the cold water again. "I don't think that's a very classy thing to do. I don't think it flatters me. And I want to flatter me."
But surely it must pain him to see his format borrowed and sensationalized. "I've never felt it necessary to bring it to the hysterical proportions of a shouting match, where people get slugged or stomp off," Phil says. "We've never done that. But I honestly believe that television's problem is not controversy, but blandness.
"So if somebody from Secaucus, New Jersey, has a television program in which they're either throwing pies or storming out of the studio, or in the minds of some viewers producing a circus, it may sit easier for other programs to move in that kind of controversial direction."
You'd think the expanding competition would make it harder to do the "Donahue" show. "No, I can't say it does. It's always been tough five days a week. You could find Hitler, and people would want to know who you're going to have tomorrow." The format, Phil thinks, is "the most democratic idea on television. The people who own the airwaves actually get to use them. I'd be happy to plead guilty to the paternity suit. When I look up and see all these other programs, I'm flattered."
The truly lunatic approaches can't last, Donahue suggests. "You can't do it five days a week," he says. "You just cannot jump out of a cake, pour gasoline over yourself and set yourself on fire five days a week." Donahue's crack staff, mostly women, manages an agreeable mix of the serious and the frivolous, though Phil is always serious.
"If you do the Persian Gulf Monday, it would be great to have Robin Williams on Tuesday," Phil philosophizes. He also says, "We do the Persian Gulf. We sneak it in between the male strippers." Yes, male strippers. Phil defends even that. "We're fascinated by the response of the women in the audience. Maybe it's an interesting study in human behavior."
And then again maybe it's a cheap ploy to hype the ratings. "These shows do draw a bigger crowd than the Persian Gulf," allows Phil. So, no doubt, do the transsexuals, the bisexuals and the wife swappers. But many viewers have had their first exposure to topics like agoraphobia, Alzheimer's disease, bulimia, anorexia, child abuse and innumerable others via the Donahue show.
Among the very serious shows he's done was a week in the Soviet Union. Among those he apparently won't be doing is a pair of shows featuring all the Democratic presidential candidates, then a pair spotlighting the Republicans. Phil says he would have introduced the groups, then ducked out and let them run the show themselves, with no moderator.
"I was offering them a media-less media event," he says. But acceptances were slow in coming, refusals quick, with Michael Dukakis leading in the latter, he says. "It looked to me like they were afraid of each other. Not all, but most, declined."
He's also had a devil of a time getting Ronald Reagan's appointees to appear: "The Reagan Cabinet has not been available to me." Donahue pursued Caspar Weinberger personally, spotting him in Chicago when he appeared on a local news program there. "I followed him out the door, with a guy saying, 'Write a letter.' I said, 'I did write a letter!' "
George Bush did the show, but that was it for the Reaganauts. "If these people can handle Sam Donaldson, they can handle me," Phil says. "I think they're anxious about the audience. I don't think they like the studio audience. I don't know what other explanation there can be."
Maybe they feel Phil is just too sensitive. At some point he became known as America's most sensitive guy. Then he took a well-reported poke at a heckler in an airport, while traveling with wife Marlo Thomas, and it appeared the era of the sensitive guy was over.
"The last thing you want to do is appear to be anxious about being called a wimp," notes Phil, quicker than you can say how's-that-again? "A wimp is a man who is afraid of being called a wimp. And 'wimp' is something males gave to themselves. The people who use it bespeak in my opinion an unbecoming insecurity. All that matters is what I know."
Now we, meaning I, make a big mistake. We ask Phil if he isn't worried about becoming a BIG FAT CLICHE. Here is his answer.
"If that would happen, there's really not much I can do about it. When you're on the air as much as I am, it's pretty hard to hide. You can't fake it 230 times a year. You cannot be a mechanical man walking down the center of every issue, never revealing how you feel. And certainly over the years, I've had my share of dirty names, and when they pass them out, I'll take 'liberal.' And we've also taken our hits. I mean, you really do get to say that the host is full of baloney.
"And a lot of people have.
"And those have been some of our better shows.
"And if you don't pout and you understand that deciding what's on the airwaves is not a right, it's a privilege, that you're speaking to or trying to attract a very fickle audience, that you're up against a visually exciting program that's giving away $100,000, that you've got all these competitive pressures, and if you can walk through this 230 times a year and still keep your soul by doing programs that really matter, kick some tires, then I think over the long term you're going to avoid being thought of as, what do you want to say, transient. Or a cliche'."
On second thought, maybe it's just a mite too late to worry about becoming a cliche'. Still, there's only one Phil. Even if at times it seems like there're about 417. How many more years of "Donahue"? Phil's contract is up for renewal in 1990. "Whether we go to 25 is something I'd have to decide then. I'm not being cute. I just honestly don't know."
For now he's the proverbial pig in slop. "I can't imagine living in a time when there are more issues than there are today," Phil exults. No rest for the blabby. Is the caller there?