Richard Simmons is the anti-Jerry Springer. But wait a minute--Leeza Gibbons says she's the anti-Jerry Springer. And so does radio shrink Joy Browne. No, this is not an edition of the game show "To Tell the Truth"--it's Day 1 of the summer TV press tour, which was devoted to syndicated shows.
For the uninitiated, the press tour is that semiannual ritual in which hundreds of reporters descend upon a certain hotel in Pasadena--I won't give the joint a plug because they haven't been able to fix the phone in my room for two days. The reporters spend nearly three weeks at the hotel listening to suits, producers and on-air talent wax eloquent about their new TV programs.
This year's tour kicked off with Richard Simmons. Simmons is really hard to take at 8 a.m. In fact, he's hard not to smack at that hour. His executive producer says he's "like a toddler." Simmons says of his new show, " 'Dream Maker' is 'Touched by an Angel' with gifts."
On each broadcast six to eight lucky little people will have their life's dreams realized, compliments of the perky pixie of the workout set. Dream weddings, workout sessions in the Goodyear blimp, family reunions, blood transfusions, a day off, in vitro fertilization--there's nothing Simmons can't make happen. He even got someone a personal audience with the pope. Granted, she's an 80-year-old nun, but Simmons brought them together. He says he's had an in with the pope since arranging a very private prayer meeting for his own dad.
Simmons has no doubt his show will succeed. He refers to himself as "the new Bob Barker."
"I believe television is ready for a happier show," he gushed. That would be happier than "The Jerry Springer Show," on which, until recently, guests regularly slugged each other with fists or furniture. Simmons never named Springer or his show; he prides himself on never saying a bad word about anybody. But he frequently made references to the "nightmare show"--a show with hatred, anger, bitterness and "where people throw things."
Leeza Gibbons--just plain Leeza to her TV fans--also made thinly veiled references to Springer's show and to "The Jenny Jones Show" during her Q&A session, which immediately followed Simmons's. Those shows fall into the category of "past the point of human dignity," according to a promo for Gibbons's show, which ran for years on NBC but is now going out in syndication after NBC dumped it in favor of a "Today" spinoff.
Asked why people agree to appear on the Springer and Jones shows, Gibbons speculated that they "need to be heard" and "feel suppressed or victimized." Or, she theorized, some of them simply enjoy the attention.
Joy Browne--who's taking what she has learned in 20 years as a radio shrink and bringing it to a new small screen show--had a slightly different read on the folks who agree to be abused on these two well-watched programs. These are people who can't get attention in a positive way so they seek it in a negative one, she said.
In other words--they're like toddlers. Which somehow brings us back to Simmons, who insists his new show is not about him. But by the end of his Q&A, the assembled reporters had learned about his life in excruciating detail: born in New Orleans in 1948, sold pralines on the street to make ends meet, was a "little fatty" of 260 pounds by eighth grade who compensated by becoming a class clown, allows himself five minutes per day for "Valley of the Dolls" negative thoughts--"Why am I not tall, why am I not blond, why don't I have blue eyes, why is my name not Chad?" And Simmons will get to have some of his own dreams fulfilled on his new show. He has submitted a list of them to the producers.
Consider yourself warned, Janet Reno: A lunch date with you is at the top of his list. "I love her!" he gushed.
CAPTION: "I believe television is ready for a happier show," Simmons says.