We were out of work, Lewie and me. Lewie is a housepainter and it was his slow season. I'm a househusband, slinging diapers daily. Lewie, my wife's brother, usually lives with his girlfriend on the south side, but he was staying with us until he finished painting our bedroom. He'd been at our place for a week--staying up late, getting up late, bored in the daytime and wired all night. A little like a baby. Every night when the baby woke me up I could hear faint babble from the TV in Lewie's room, and every afternoon Lewie'd wake me up and tell me and baby about Jenny Jones.
Lewie has been on Oprah's show twice. He counts among his prize possessions photos of himself with her, with Eb from Green Acres, Eddie Munster, Gilligan, the Skipper, and assorted other stars, but he was really overboard with this Jenny Jones. He wandered into the living room one afternoon as usual, but he was strange. "I dreamed about Jenny Jones last night," he said. I wasn't interested. "I dreamed I was painting this old lady's house," he continued. "She lived next door to Jenny Jones, and Jenny Jones saw the job I was doing and hired me to paint her house."
"She was great, man. She was really nice and she paid real good." He sat down, picked up the phone, punched in some numbers, and the next thing I heard, Lewie was telling the same story, but now he was telling it to someone from the Jenny Jones show.
I couldn't believe he'd memorized the number from those ads on TV, but he had. The ads say to come down and be part of the show; a voice-over says, "Express your views!" then an audience member says "He's a pig!" which is followed by a shot of a group of women grunting and then the phone number. Like Oprah and Jerry Springer, the show originates in Chicago. We have the country by the ear here.
"Hey," Lewie told me, with his hand over the receiver, "it's free, and we can go just about any afternoon. What do you think? Should I reserve a ticket for you? Hold on." He spoke back into the phone. "Why do I want to come to the show? Like I told the woman before. It came to me in a dream." That apparently was good enough for them. He turned to me again. "Want to go next Wednesday afternoon?" Talk is cheap, I thought. "Yeah," I said.
I'd watched parts of the Jenny Jones show some five or six times, and though I wasn't a fan, I'd been following her story with interest. First, arriving seemingly out of the blue, she was on in the afternoon. She's been on the road since she was a teenager, first as a drummer in a band, briefly as a backup singer for Wayne Newton. She's been a secretary, a waitress, and a stand-up comic. She gained some notoriety as a comic with a series of shows called "Girls' Night Out," which were for women only. No men or press were admitted. This policy intrigued men and the press everywhere; 20/20 ran a segment on her. After that the offers poured in, and one of them was the talk show.
In its first year the talk show was light and "nice," and she incorporated some stand-up into the show. After some months with that format, the ratings below sea level, she did a pair of shows where she confessed to having had silicone breast implants. The silicone had leaked out, it was causing her horrible problems. The critics called the shows a desperation move; her ratings, however, bounced higher than ever before.
For the second season new producers are brought in from the Phil Donahue show. The stand-up is gone, her time slot is switched to one in the morning, right after Bob Costas, and soon after, Lewie is watching every night.
Leaving the TV on after Costas one night, I watched Jenny Jones do a show with some married couples who included an extra woman in their relationships. Sitting between their wives and their wives' lovers, the husbands of the bisexual women were some of the most happily married men I'd seen on TV. The audience growled and hissed at them; the husbands grinned. The wives yelled back. Jenny Jones acted as both ringleader and onlooker, smiling frequently, either bemusedly or with a kind of mock indignation. I fell asleep before it ended, but I stayed up to watch again the next night.
It was the same every time I watched: triangles of various configurations; but I heard that various other sex themes were explored as well. I heard about them from Lewie, read about them in Robert Feder's column in the Sun-Times, and then, from other friends and relatives. Feder was harsh. He wrote a long list of Jenny Jones's trashiest shows. They included incest confrontations, "sexhibitionists," "torn between three mothers," and amateur home sex videos. They were among Lewie's favorites. Of the folks and friends, not one would admit to watching the show until I'd declared that I had. "Do you think anybody else is watching this?" they'd ask after their secret was out. I bet, I'd say, but they're not telling.
I got my mother-in-law to baby-sit and went with Lewie down to the NBC building on a Wednesday afternoon in early February. I need to get out of the house more, I rationalized. Maybe Jenny will have someone on the panel that I, too, can act superior to. By the time we'd grabbed a last cigarette with the other smokers huddled outside the smoke-free building, there were a hundred people in line ahead of us.
It was almost Valentine's Day, and Lewie had made a valentine for Jenny. Made from red and yellow construction paper, Lewie's valentine was larger than the tablets given to Moses. It expressed Lewie's love for Jenny Jones in a poem he'd written, illustrated by candies. It read, in part:
You're blond, but you're no [Lemonhead],
You're much more of a [Smarty].
Though my chances may be [Zero]
To take you out to party,
I'm up with you till 2 AM
Every single night,
Sure I've been with other girls
But none were quite as bright . . .
He went on to say his "wallet wasn't [Chunky]," but "here's a [Hundred Grand]." He was keeping it safe inside a brown paper shopping bag.
We were signing the releases they gave us when Lewie called to a guy in the line up ahead. "Hey John!" The guy yelled back "Lewie!" "That's John," Lewie explained, "he's a baseball-card dealer." John noticed Lewie's bag, and said he'd brought a baseball for Jenny to sign." He flipped it in the air. "Cool," Lewie said.
A producer checked out the valentine and said it was "sweet." "It's got four bucks' worth of candy in it," Lewie said. "Can I give it to her before the show?"
"After the show, if she has time."
"I'd like to get a picture with Jenny, too, can I?"
"After the show, if she has time."
As we went into a waiting room, Lewie told me, "They got 12 producers on this show."
"That's a lot of producers," I said. We checked our coats and sat in the back of the room with John and the three other guys with him. They're all from the same neighborhood on the south side as Lewie. South-siders, north-siders, all kinds of people were waiting to see the show. Older couples. Young couples. Groups. Six punk rockers, all with different color hair. A bunch of college girls, all with blond Farrah Fawcett hair. There were more women than men, but not a whole lot more.
John flipped the ball up and down. One of the guys asked, "John, what's that ball worth?"
"It's a real American League ball," he answered. "About 14 bucks."
"What's it gonna be worth after Jenny signs it?"
Lewie broke in, "About $14.50." The guys laughed. "Hey," Lewie observed, "I might be slow, but I ain't stopped."
One of the producers started calling out numbers over a microphone, calling us in. "If you have gum, get rid of it now," he cautioned. "If you're chewing gum on the set, we'll have to throw you out." It was the third and final warning.
We walked in behind the set. "Look at that paint job," Lewie pointed. "There's drips everywhere. I'd definitely do a better job than that." We were separated from John's party. They were directed to seats in the back and we were sent over to the far side. Lewie complained, "They'll never see us on TV here." He put the bag with the valentine down on the floor.
A comedian stood on the stage prepping the crowd, joking with the regulars. He told a guy in a maroon suit, "I'm tired of talking to you. You're here every day. Anybody here from out of town?" Four people in the front cheered and waved. "Where you from?"
They answered consecutively, like chimes, "Milwaukee!" "Wisconsin!" "Dairyland!" And the last one shouted, "We're Cheeseheads!"
Lewie said, "This is gonna be a good one, look at the chairs." Five chairs were lined up. "They're all facing straight out." The comedian gave himself a plug and walked off. Jenny Jones bounced out from the wings.
She looked just like she does on TV. "What do you think of women who sleep with their husband's brothers?" she asked us. Another triangle. "Does this upset you? Yes?" Not much response. "No? I'm going to need your participation right from the start, so help me." She stood in front of our section. "Are you passionate?" she asked. "If you're not passionate, don't waste my time."
"I'm passionate," Lewie said. "I'm Italian." She looked over at him and his shopping bag and didn't answer.
Four women who'd had sex with their brothers-in-law filed onto the stage, followed by a bearded man, who straggled at the end of the line. They took their seats, the lights went up, and Jenny Jones said, "What do you think of women who sleep with their husbands' brothers?" The show had begun.
A heavyset woman in a red sweat suit jumped up in front of us. Jenny rushed over, thrusting her cordless microphone. "That's just wrong," the woman yelled. "How could you do that?" But since no one had told their story yet, the woman in red didn't get much of an argument going. Audience attacks on the panel at the Jenny Jones show can be vicious or baffling, but they have to be personal.
The first woman on the panel told her story and somebody asked the obvious question: Which brother was better in bed? She said neither. She wasn't very bothered by what she'd done. An old woman in the front stood up. "Why are you here?" she asked.
"I don't know if I can tell the truth about this . . . " the woman replied. Another woman in the back stood up and Jenny ran to her.
"Go ahead, tell the truth honey. We're all your friends here." But it was time to go to the break, the light went down, and the question was left dangling.
As the producers ran around the room collecting audience questions for the next segment, Lewie asked, "Hey, why is that woman here? I want to know." He's a big Seinfeld fan too. He asked the producer who'd liked his valentine. "She answered an ad from a commercial we ran on the west coast," she explained. "Maybe she thought she couldn't say it because we flew her out here." She shrugged. "She could have."
An older woman sitting behind us said to the woman with her, "Some people will do anything to be on TV." Then the floor director counted down five seconds, and we were back.
No sooner had Jenny Jones said, "We're back," than the woman in red jumped up in front of us again, yelling, "It's not right." But again, she didn't really get much of a fight going.
Lewie turned to me, "Hope those cameras are getting us, too." Then one of the four visitors from Wisconsin stood up. She was dressed in a red sweat suit, about the same size as the woman in front of us. She wore a hairstyle similar to the woman in front of us, but she'd accessorized with yellow earrings.
Her tone was conciliatory. She said that she could understand what the women on the panel were going through because she'd married young, and she also had slept with her husband's brother during her marriage. In fact, she'd slept with her husband's brother before she'd slept with her husband.
"What?" Jenny Jones exclaimed.
"That's right," she said. "And now I'm pregnant with my husband's baby." Jenny grabbed her hand and pulled her up onto the stage, saying that she'd never pulled anyone out of the audience before.
"This sounds like a movie of the week," she said.
Our woman in red sweats jumped up again, crossing her arms and shouting, "No way, nuh-uh." But Jenny didn't run over this time.
She sat back down. The show went to break again and stagehands brought out another chair. The woman in red from Wisconsin grinned like a lottery winner. They sat her down and clipped a microphone to her collar and a power pack to her behind. She waved to her friends. The first woman in red folded her arms and shook her head, saying "Now this couldn't be true." She didn't say another word.
It took a long time for the woman from the audience to tell her story, and it was confusing. She'd married at 16 but lived with her mother so she didn't have sex with her husband, but at the age of 24 she did have sex with his brother. Her husband was screwing around with other women and had four kids with them (I think). She was 30 when she'd first gone to bed with him, and she was 37 now, and she was three months pregnant with her husband's child. No one attacked her, but somebody asked her who was better in bed.
During the next break the older women behind us asked Lewie about the valentine. He took it out of the bag. I asked them, "How'd you wind up here?"
"Oh," one said, "we're on a tour, 'My Kind of Town,' or something like that."
"What do you think of the show?" Lewie asked.
"Oh, I don't know. I've never seen it before."
I joked "I'm this guy's brother-in-law, and if he was sleeping with my wife, then we'd have a show!"
"Wouldn't that be incest?" Lewie asked.
The women didn't find it amusing. "Oh, that would be terrible. I couldn't watch that."
I retreated, saying, "There's a fine line between trash and sleaze."
The lights went up. The other woman whispered, "I didn't think there was any difference," but her friend disagreed. "Oh, there is. Sleaze is worse."
Jenny went back to the panel. Another woman told her story, winding up by saying that she thought her three-year-old son was actually her brother-in-law's kid, but her husband didn't know that. Somebody shouted, "He does now," but she claimed he wouldn't see the show. She added that the three-year-old was fine. A woman in front of Lewie clapped loudly. Nobody joined in. During the break she admitted she'd attempted to start a round of inappropriate clapping.
"I've heard it on Oprah," she said. "Someone will start clapping tentatively, like, clap, clap-clap-clap, clap, clap, and sometimes the audience joins in. I call it the 'Oprah clap.'"
In the meantime, Jenny Jones was telling her own story to the audience. "I won $100,000 on Star Search in this outfit. Let me tell you, that's a lot of money to someone earning $200 a week."
"When was that?" she was asked.
"Hey," Lewie said to me, "I'm giving her a Hundred Grand, and I don't even earn a dollar a week."
The third woman on the panel gave her testimony with tears in her eyes. She felt the audience's attacks on the other women were unjust. "I'm only here to tell my husband how much I've suffered because of what I done, and how bad I miss our little boy." She hadn't seen her son in six years. The show, however, was over. No one had an opportunity to attack her. Lewie picked up his valentine. We went up to the stage and he presented it to Jenny.
"I did Oprah twice," he told her. "But you're the best, Jenny."
"That's so sweet," she said.
He said, "Well, you're so nice. Can I have a picture with you?"
"Oh, sure!" She was touched. Several people waited to get her autograph or shake her hand while she posed for pictures with Lewie. He didn't mention his dream. Jenny kissed him on the cheek, then we stood to the side while she autographed John's ball. We joined the line to get our coats.
The woman in red from Wisconsin was telling her story to some people in line. It may be easier to get fame than fortune, but fame has its difficulties. A woman wearing what looked like patent-leather pants walked by, and the guys made animal noises. Lewie remarked, "Those pants might look good, but I bet they start to stink after a while." John showed off his autographed ball. The signature on it was as perfect as a stamp. Lewie asked John if he could get a ride south with him. He was going back to his girlfriend's place. John said OK and punched Lewie's arm. "Hey, Jenny gave you a peck."
"Well," Lewie answered, turning red, "she'd better have. I spent four bucks on that fuckin' candy."