Emotional Pornography on the Talk Shows

March 16, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- No one knows exactly why Scott Amedure decided to go courting on the Jenny Jones Show. Why does anyone go on these shows, baring their heart's desires and their life's disappointments to strangers?

''He led a troubled life'' says his brother Frank. Last year, some men had beat him and smashed his truck. Once he was missing for two months. But for whatever reason, on March 6, he decided to expose himself as the ''secret admirer'' of Jonathan Schmitz.

Maybe Mr. Amedure thought that the spotlight would provide a warm glow of safety. Maybe the applause of a studio audience, the recognition of viewers, would provide an understanding venue. Maybe he just thought it would be fun.

Jonathan Schmitz apparently went into this event unaware. He went for the kick of it. For the trip to Chicago, for the chance to be on TV, for the harmless joke of being on a show about secret admirers. Why not?

When he saw his friend Donna Riley in the studio he assumed that she was the one. When it turned out to be Mr. Amedure, the 24-year-old Mr. Schmitz sat politely and said that he was heterosexual and not interested.

In the etiquette of talk shows, the guest is supposed to go along with the joke, to be the life of the surprise party. He doesn't tell them to take the candid camera out of his face. He is a good sport. But three days later, Jonathan Schmitz snapped.

Whether it was homophobia or humiliation, the anxiety of waiting for the show to air or the follow-up note from Mr. Amedure on his door, the Michigan man bought a 12-gauge shotgun and five rounds of ammunition. ''I just walked into his house and killed him,'' he told the 911 operator, ''He was after me day and night.''

This murder sounds like a perverse subject for another talk-show shocker: ''Can A Talk Show Be An Accessory To Murder?'' Or: ''What Happens To The People After The Show Is Over?'' But the shock is that it didn't happen sooner.

Back in 1992, Geraldo once had a father and daughter on his show talking about their incestuous relationship. Later, the father kept calling up and telling the staff that he was thinking about killing his daughter.

Since then, trash TV has expanded enough to turn the daytime schedule into a waste site of abnormality and amorality. Guests arrive, carrying their ex-husbands and excess baggage, their pathos and their problems. Then they are summarily disposed of. We never know what happened to the 12-year-old star of a Gordon Elliott Show entitled, ''My Child is Underaged and Oversexed.'' Or what happened after the reunion staged by Sally Jessy Raphael between four daughters and the father who deserted them 20 years ago.

For that matter, what happened to the wife and the ''other woman'' who met on a Ricki Lake show? And does the gay guest in an earlier Ricki Lake show -- ''Surprise! I Want to Sleep With You'' -- rest easily these days?

If talk shows were old-time carnivals, the ringmasters would have some understanding of their performers, some obligation to their ongoing side show.

But in a world of revolving guests, the talk show's ''guests'' are temps, one-night stands sent back to live their lives as best they can.

Jenny Jones didn't put the shotgun against Scott Amedure's chest. She is a former stand-up comic, and before this murder, she worried about her guests: ''What do we do with the feelings that come up?'' But every host, producer, booker, knows that when you deal in surprise, shame, embarrassment, you may also get rage. When you push people's emotional buttons, someone will eventually explode.

Last fall, Oprah did a two-part show called ''Are Talk Shows Bad?'' At the end of it, she swore off trash as if it were a fat gram and watched her ratings slide. Ricki Lake and Jenny Jones climbed within a rung or two. But Oprah knew best.

Talk shows in the 1990s are like quiz shows in the 1950s. The old quiz shows tricked viewers into believing they were witnessing the real thing, brains in action. The new talk shows trick viewers into believing they are watching real emotions in action. They trick guests with the belief that life and its problems can be resolved in one public hour.

Jenny Jones never knew Scott Amedure's history or Jonathan Schmitz' breaking point. The TV match made between a ''secret admirer'' and the unwilling, unsuspecting, object of his affection was as rigged as any quiz show.

It was rigged against real life. Rigged to treat emotions like entertainment. Rigged to deal with the feelings of strangers, casually, between commercials, with an eye on sweeps week. And now with this gruesome murder, we know that the show was also rigged for disaster.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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