“The Last Donahue Show”
By Walker Percy
from “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book”, 1983
The Donahue Show is in progress on what appears at first to be an ordinary weekday morning.
The theme of this morning’s show is Donahue’s favourite, sex, the extraordinary variety of sexual behaviour – “Sexual preference”, as Donahue would call it – in the country and the embattled attitudes toward it. Although Donohue has been accused of appealing to prurient interest, with a sharp eye cocked on the ratings, he defends himself by saying that he presents these controversial matters in “a mature and tasteful manner” – which he often does. It should also be noted in Donohue’s defense that the high ratings of these sex-talk shows are nothing more nor less than index of the public’s intense interest in such matters.
The guests today are:
Bill, a homosexual and habitué of Buena Vista Park in San Francisco
All, a heterosexual businessman, married, and a connoisseur of the lunch-hour liaison
Penny, a pregnant fourteen-year-old
Dr. Joyce Friday, a well-known talk-show sex therapist, or in media jargon: a psych jockey
Bill’s Story: Yes, I’m gay, and yes, I cruise Buena Vista. Yes, I’ve probably had over five hundred encounters with lovers, though I didn’t keep count. So what? Whose business is it? I’m gainfully employed by a savings-and-loan company, am a trustworthy employee, and do an honest day’s work. My recreation is Buena Vista Park and the strangers I meet there. I don’t molest children, rape women, snatch purses. I contribute to United Way. Such encounters that I do have are by mutual consent and therefore nobody’s business – except my steady live-in friend’s. Naturally he’s upset, but that’s our problem.
Donahue: (striding up and down, mike in hand, boyishly inarticulate): C’mon, Bill. What about the kids who might see you? You know what I mean. I mean – (Opens his free hand to the audience, soliciting their understanding)
Bill: Kids don’t see me. Nobody sees me.
Donahue (coming close, on the attack but good-naturedly, spoofing himself as a prosecutor): Say, Bill. I’ve always been curious. Is there some sort of signal? I mean, how do you and the other guy know – help me out –
Bill: Eye contact, or we show a bit of handkerchief her. (Demonstrates)
Studio Audience: (Laughter)
Donahue (shrugging [Don’t blame me, folks], pushes up nose-bridge of glasses, swings mike over to Dr. J.F. without looking at her): How about it, Doc?
Dr. J.F. (in her not-mincing-words voice): I think Bill’s behaviour is immature and depersonalizing. (Applause from audience) I think he ought to return to his steady live-in friend and work out a mature, creative relationship. You might be interested to know that studies have shown that stable gay couples are more creative then straights. (applause again, but more tentative)
Donahue (eyes slightly rolled back, swings mike to Bill): How about it, Bill?
Bill: Yeah, right. But I still cruise Buena Vista.
For a start, before looking at Bill's "problem", it’s worth pointing out that not only does this accurately criticise this type of TV talk show when they were relatively new, but it is also quite accurately and viciously parodic of Phil Donahue himself.
The general intent is to satirise complacently, selfish sexual satiation. This is implicit in the first half of the sketch, and is then made explicit in the second half, when characters appear who condemn the morals and manners of the show’s guests in Southern gentlemanly terms (such Percy himself possessed), but it’s such a weird science-fictional apocalypse that it rather undermines their (and Percy’s) criticisms. Not that I object to incursions of looniness, it just works against the subtlety of the first half of Percy’s satire. Apparently this conclusion stems from Percy’s low-key TV addiction, keeping the TV on around the clock so he would "know if the world suddenly comes to an end", and if so then why couldn’t it be revealed on “Donahue”.
Percy’s book, “Lost in the Cosmos”, criticises the emergent “Me Generation” and the effect of its belief that self-help seminars and self-expression will be the solution to their and the world’s ills. Openness about homosexuality is part of this new social trend, hence Bill’s appearance at the beginning of the sketch. Just enough shock, but also acceptance of shock to make Percy’s point. Bill can appear and defend his sexual behaviour, not just his right to be gay, because that was the tenor of the times. Whether Percy himself agrees, is another matter. Percy does not actually condemn the characters out of their own mouths, but establishes enough details for his readers to come to a measured decision. Bill is not just a caricature, and is actually much more ambiguous than you might expect. For good or ill, Bill’s realistic argument that his expression of his homosexuality is just part of the workaday American life is actually part of Percy’s larger attack on the current nature of that American life.
But for all that, and either way, it’s still a sketch about a man defending his right to rampantly cottage