The first thing you notice about going the Maury Povich show is how very little goes into the set.
It's located in an old hotel on 33rd Street, where the bathroom is public and frequented by the homeless. The set is absolute crap: cardboard walls, cheap chairs, and a box of Kleenex on a table. A trashy electronic remix of Rhianna's "Umbrella" played on a loop. We sat in folding chairs arranged haphazardly around the set.
Maury came out to adoring fanfare. Unlike most TV hosts, he is completely in touch with why his audience loves him. They want hugs. He gives hugs. They want to tell their most hilariously trashy secrets to a 69 year old guy in a black turtleneck. He wants to hear them. He loves that they love him and loves that they love him in the way that they do. He spits out aphorisms like "When times are good, I'll have a Forty Ounce."
My show's theme was a common one: Baby Mama Drama, aka "You are NOT the father!"
At first the show was off-putting. I mean, we're talking lowest common denominator of American pop culture. Real people come to this show, all of them poor rural whites or poor urban blacks, to have their problems quickly addressed and dismissed by a rich, skinny, old white guy who married Connie Chung and whose dad wrote for the Washington Post for seven decades and who may or may not have access to real DNA testing equipment.
They're sobbing, these real people, and surely they aren't completely faking their sorrow. Surely a woman who doesn't know the biological father of her son is upset about that. They're airing their dirty laundry on television, and though they undoubtedly wouldn't have signed up for this show if they were camera shy, when they're proven wrong it can't be a good experience.
There's a pattern on the show, weird in its regularity. When Maury delivers his dramatic catchphrase, when he triumphantly shouts "You are NOT the father!", the most offended party always runs from the room. The person is usually a woman who mistakenly thought she'd finally pinned down the right man. She collapses somewhere in the hallway. As she sprints, a cameraman follows, and we see the action on TV. Maury jogs over and tries to console her, but he has to keep the show moving. This is what always happens. They always run from the stage, though they always break down before they leave the cameras' range.
As this same story repeated itself in rapid succession, always the same except the characters, my arms slowly uncrossed. Maybe it was the frequency of insane revelation that sobered me to the ludicrousness of what was before me. You see, in the course of about forty-five minutes we saw probably a dozen paternity cases. Each time, we heard those same five words.
(Note I didn't add the music here. I just needed the clip.)
In between guests, audience members rushed on stage to dance with Maury, to hug him, to get a friend to take a picture of them on the set.
This is what warmed me to the show:
A woman struts onto the stage, dressed to impress. Her name is Fo'eva. (Maury: "Or, as I call her, 'Forever'. But she says it's Fo'eva.")
Fo'eva has two kids, Eternity and Christopher. Her newest is a boy named Sincere. This is her seventh time on the show. Each appearance was to prove paternity. Two of those prior times were to test the that of a man named Terrance. Both were negative. He's on the show today to test his DNA against Sincere.
Terrance is announced and comes out with his arms spread wide. The crowd loves him and he loves the way the crowd loves him. He and Fo'eva spar the way you'd expect:
T: Fo'eva, get it through your head that there's no way I'm any of these babies' father! I'm never gonna get with your skanky ass!
F: As soon as we left last show, you were all up in this coochie! You're messed up.
T: Your shoes are messed up!
According to Terrance's timeline, he and Fo'eva didn't have sex anywhere near the time to get her pregnant, so she wasn't on the show for truth and child support, but to smear him. She didn't deny that.
When the time came, and Maury told Terrance he still was no father, Terrance got up, gleeful and proud. He ran up and down the aisles, high fiving people who had been, I guess, rooting against his fatherhood. Everyone but Fo'eva was cheering and laughing. The audience, Maury, and even I was overwhelmed by the situation. Terrance had won. For the third time, Terrance had won. And somehow, so had we all.
I still don't really understand what's going on with people in these shows. Is everyone on it so desperate for a paternity test that the only reason they come on the show because they can't afford one at home? I sincerely doubt that. Are people there actors, either duping Maury's staff or in their employ, and relishing their few minutes on national television but free from any actual baby mama drama? I sincerely doubt that, too. They cry too well and they never break the fourth wall with a snicker.
When women ran down the hallway, sobbing at news that they still can't tell their kids who their real father is, their mics usually stayed clipped to their shirts and their weeping and moaning carried through the loudspeakers for a disconcertingly long time. There's some complex emotion going on with these guests. It's related to the utter trashiness of some of our pop culture, but it would be wrong to chalk it up as just garbage and dismiss it wholesale. I honestly don't get what's going on there, and if I did, I think I'd understand America better.
Anyway. On to the end.
After the first segment of the show, Maury addressed us. "We've got a whole 'nother show of Baby Mama Drama coming up next. But in the meantime, we're going to take you outside, feed you, and bring you back in!" We cheered. God, did we love Maury. The most entertaining show I'd seen, a cultural riddle, free lunch, and more!
Staff members escorted us outside. Why did we need to leave the building? we wondered. There was a line stretching out the door, where people were waiting to see the show we'd just left. Did we have to get back in line? "Yeah, you've got to get in the back; these people have been waiting. We can't promise seats."
No seats? Then where's that free pizza?
"Pizza? What are you talking about?" said the guard. He closed the door in my face.
Maury, you slick bastard.