home of the Big O


It’s April 1994, and I’m 26 years old and just getting back from the usual afternoon game of hoops at the Lodge. The phone rings and it’s the lady in charge of booking at the Oprah Winfrey Show – she says they’re doing a whole hour on the movie “Reality Bites,” there’s going to be some “stars” there, and they want me – as Official Spokesman of Generation X – to be on the show.

The year previous, we’d put out the 13th-GEN book, and that particular month I was one of sixteen writers that had put together Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation. The book didn’t sell that well, but it was on President Clinton’s booklist, and we had all sorts of great parties when it came out.

So I said yes, and two weeks later they flew me to Chicago and put me up in a swanky hotel. By airtime, it became clear that this show was no longer going to be about “Reality Bites” nor was it going to have Ethan Hawke or Winona Ryder as guests: it was going to be a Baby Boomers vs. Generation X slugfest and whomever had the most snark was destined to win.

The Oprah show, at that point, had two “green rooms” – in one, they stuck a bunch of Baby Boomers in their 40s, and in our dressing room, we had a cool chick from an indie bookstore in Atlanta, a wonderful 25-year-old schoolteacher from Missouri (hello, Melanie Finnell!), a 26-year-old junior exec at American Airlines, a very shy girl that ditched college to be a kayak instructor, and me.

Nervous as hell, we all began to blather at each other, and in the hour leading up to the show, had the best “generational” discussion I’ve ever had – honest, heartbreaking, funny, and precisely the sort of thing that should have taken place in front of the cameras. Obviously, they were keeping us separate from the Boomers so that the fireworks would happen on stage, but the strategy backfired.

The show starts, and those not on stage watched the action on the monitor in the green room. First up: the American Airlines guy had to go head-to-head with some lady who had been in an email war with him for months. Next, the indie bookstore chick had to justify her existence to a “self-made millionaire” in his late 40s whose only expertise seemed to be getting Reagan-era economic facts completely wrong.

Then came the schoolteacher who said she didn’t want to be a schoolteacher anymore, with a round of opprobrium from the audience. Worse yet, the shy kayak instructor basically got booed out of the studio for not “getting a real job.” Leading the charge were two African-American women in the front row, who said their lives had been fraught with hardship, and that all whiny Generation Xers should probably kill themselves and save America the trouble.

I mean, how do you complain about your rotten job, lack of real romance, and pervading depression when there are two ladies who “clean toilets in Toledo” every time you say anything? You can’t, actually.

Finally, they called me out to the stage, along with Susan Mitchell, who edited “The Boomer Report.” All I could think was, “thank God they mentioned my book.” Oprah’s head was very, very large. The lights were amazingly intense, the audience surrounds you like a Roman gladiator amphitheater, and the whole energy of the place is positively nerve-fraying. The last thing the producer tells you before you go on stage is, “You are about to be seen by 10 million people in 43 countries.” I wanted my mommy.

Have you seen the new Harry Potter? That haircut is cool again!

I was hoping that the argument would turn into something intelligent now that us “experts” were on stage – remember, this was days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide – but it only got worse. More name-calling between audience members, silly irrelevant stories about young hardship, sprinkled with a few confusing statistics to keep things misleadingly sociological. Half-baked tangents were swirling around me, the audience was getting riled up, I felt my hair start to get large, the lights pounded… when suddenly Oprah turns to me and says “Ian.” My stomach tightened. “What do you think about all of this?”

And for a split second, I’ve never had less to say in my life. In a mad rush, my brain wanted to say “I think this is the most pathetic argument I’ve ever eavesdropped on in my life,” but I managed to tell them a nice paragraph full of bullshit. Basically that the two generations can’t play tit-for-tat because it’s an argument that nobody ever wins. And that dreams are not transferable across eras – what causes me great pain may seem like a luxury to you, but I still feel pain nonetheless. And that it’s okay to be a kayak instructor.

Oprah said, “I don’t really get what you mean,” then cut to the last commercial. And that was it. There were 40 seconds left in the show, they started playing that Oprah “time’s up” music, and I couldn’t believe it. Oprah herself wondered aloud if they had accomplished anything, and I got the feeling it had been one of their worst, most pointless shows. I buried my head in my hands.

They unhooked the mike from my flannel shirt and I wandered off the stage in a daze, very angry, very confused and wondering why they would ship us across America to embarrass us like that in front of 43 other countries. And as us Gen Xers wandered out of the studio together into the cold Chicago wind, we saw the Boomers – including the women who had “cleaned toilets in Toledo” – all drive off in a limo together. The ladies had been a plant.

So we spent the rest of the day walking around downtown Chicago. We felt like we’d been used, like we’d been reduced to the same idiots who sit in those very chairs on stage in years past, the transvestite mothers who eat their children. We’d sold our private moments to Oprah for a chance to suckle at the great giant teat of the American underbelly, and we were all horrified.

Four hours later, we were still doing tequila shots at the hotel bar.

0 thoughts on “home of the Big O

  1. ken

    I appreciate your candor, Ian. Taking the piss out of what was quite possbibly your one and only appearance on Oprah (not saying it won’t happen again, just saying, most of us have *never* been there, with or without a mullet) is a nice move. It would be fun to, at some point, revisit the experience and spin it in the best possible way and make it appear to have been the greatest moment of your adult life short of witnessing Lucy’s birth and getting married. At least for LFMD’s sake.
    For what it’s worth, most of us here in Chicago hate Oprah, just ask Richard Roeper.

  2. Chris M

    Talk show producers Bite. Maybe Oprah could do a show where miserable burned-out producers get screamed at by the guests they ambushed and manipulated over the years. The success of talk shows and these practices must have evolved into reality TV. They all exploit people’s willingness to put themselves at the mercy of the producers because that’s what it takes to be on TV. By the time you figure out what’s going on, almost no one has the good sense or nerve to walk out the door (I wouldn’t either I am sure). By the way, these practices are also routine among the producers of “news” shows that are fronted by “journalists” who happily play along with the lies that get presented as “news.” You know that Oprah was a TV “journalist” before her talk show. Next time you see some big controversy being debated on a TV “news” show, remember those two supposed cleaning ladies in the front row. It’s ok to watch stuff like this, you just can’t believe ANY OF IT.

  3. LFMD

    Um. Errh. Gulp. Hmmm. [Uncomfortable silence] . . . Where’s my Lexapro?
    Did you at least get to visit Julianna H. during your visit to Chicago?

  4. LFMD

    I’m back. Thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate your willingness to revisit a miserable experience for the sake of your blog fans! I think you handled yourself very well, and your insights sounded quite relevant (even though Oprah did not “get” you — sorry, but that made me laugh out loud). If it had been me on the stage, I would have broken out in hives and projectile vomited before I could have uttered a word.
    I think that the producers were to blame for the fiasco. Ambushing folks and making them feel like deer caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic.
    Look at it this way. . . your work and opinion were deemed important enough that you were sought after by Oprah and her producers! That is quite an accomplish in my mind! Your opinions were Oprah-worthy!

  5. Bozoette Mary

    Ian, I think you’re absolutely right. I’m definitely a boomer, and pain and depression do not know from generations or occupations or circumstances.
    But I DID have to walk to school in five feet of snow, uphill both ways.

  6. scruggs

    ouch, I’m sure that was such a let down. Heading to the show thinking here’s some great exposure and a chance to be heard, then it resulting in frustration and angst.
    For what its worth, I was interning in DC the summer of ’93, and I’d always pass a bookstore on the way to the Farragut West stop. They once had a big window display with ya’ll’s book. So at least they cared enough to highlight it.
    My only tv moment was being featured on this show called Scholastic Sports America (hosted by then-unknown Chris Fowler) back during the early ESPN days circa ’87 when they weren’t filling airtime with crappy movies and the like. I cringe when I watch the tape and see my semi-mullet, part down the middle, wings on the sides, hair. Nice.

  7. CL

    Oh, it sounds like you did a good job of representin’, anyway.
    Now you’ll become a tv bigshot of your own and inject your sense of fairness and perspective into the formerly 100% Boomer-occupied medium.

  8. Rich

    I guess what unsettled me the most about reading your story today, Ian, is that I find myself starting to rail at the younger generation (Y) and their acute sense of entitlement. Of course, this is defined to me only by my theatre world, where everything is much closer, and, yes, more dramatic. But that’s how I feel, on the whole.
    I will keep in mind your urge to shout out against the inanity of the situation in which you were placed while forcing yourself to put forth a statement that acually made sense to me, no matter what Oprah says (she may have been thinking about what she was going to eat after taping).
    Okay, now I have to go to the theatre to listen to the 20-somethings bitch about their lack of attainment and everyone else is to blame…

  9. Piglet

    Is it true Oprah and her staff have the power to morph into beetles and eavesdrop on their victims before doing hatchet jobs on them in the media.
    Fake people who clean toilets in Toledo. Ugh. I don’t know whether to go scrub myself now or form a grunge band called the Toilets from Toledo.

  10. kjf

    great story (and glad to have verification of oprah’s large noggin – could you see the 2 wigs?) i saw an oprah show a few years ago where she pitted 50 year old feminists against 20 somethings. i tuned in because i think it is interesting how todays young women seem to not really acknowledge their mother’s struggles with equality. but instead it was a screaming match and i turned it off.
    rich – as for those gen y kids – try to understand that they are struggling with the same things ian tried to tell oprah about. same struggle – different approach to finding a solution.

  11. christine

    I remember that Oprah! You brought the video. I watched it in the basement of the Pink Palace in Sandy. God!
    I’m on the older side of your gen, as you know :), and I’ve always been struck at a tendency (that I perceive) of older folks to despise youth. I’ve noticed this for years.
    Last year, I sat at a coffee shop with a hatchet-faced girlfriend in her fur-lined coat, and listened to her verbally slice some teenagers to ribbons. Their crime? Standing around outside the coffee shop, skateboards in hands, flirting, and laughing with each other. I was struck by the white shining skull of her naked envy.
    Sometimes I think the best way to stave off senescence is to adamantly refuse to hate youth. Envy and hatred suck at our life force in a way that viagra and retin-A couldn’t hope to stanch.

  12. CP

    yeah, you and jonathan franzen.
    I sort of like oprah, and can’t help but both admire and be repelled by her. all in all, she’s very interesting to me, a study in contradictions: her personal history in relation to who/what she represents, her charity work in relation to her tax bracket, her promotion of literacy in relation to the literature she actually promotes, the enormous power and influence she wields (her station in society, as it were) in relation to her race/gender, and finally how despite the fact of her having nothing really of import to say (at least as regards her audience, save a few post-holiday gift bag screams of delight and tips on how to put the spice back in your marriage by getting a makeover — one episode I seem to recall watching with my now divorced mom…), people simply WORSHIP this woman like a deity.
    shiva, vishnu, oprah.
    but hey, this is america, she makes good television and is a big fat (no pun intended) star. I get it.
    (delillo has interesting take on her in his play valparaiso.)
    in place of oprah today, I again urge everyone to watch the harold pinter nobel prize acceptance speech. he won it for literature, which as we all know, oprah promotes.
    wheelchair bound, striken with stomach cancer, looking not long for this world, the old dog’s still got some spunk after all.
    (steadman and dr. phil can go jump in a lake.)

  13. J.Boogie

    Why did you refer to the two women as “African-American.” ? Did the two women say they were from Africa? Did the two women have skin darker than yours and you just assumed they had some relation to Africa? How come you didn’t refer to the kayak instructor as European-American?

  14. KTS

    Your experience with Oprah raises a good point about the importance of blogs. (And self-publishing, for that matter.) You’ve managed to create a successful, intelligent blog that gives you a forum where you can speak your mind, and is read by many. And you’re not just preaching to the choir. If you have to depend on the MSM to get your ideas across – unless it is in their financial interest to do so, and even then they’ll probably distort them – you might as well forget about it and beat your head against the green wall. Nonetheless, an invitation to be on Keith Oberman or the Daily Show, would be irresistible. You may be screwed if you do, or screwed if you don’t. Any publicity is good publicity. Argh. Not necessarily.

  15. Why I DO waste my time

    Wow, weak salsa, J. Boogie.
    Really weak 80’s flashback. You might as well argue about the flag-burning amendment or the Japanese buying up the USA or, ye gods, the Commie Threat.
    Knowing that everything you believe will one day bring the same sort of chuckle over its irrelevance that your last comment did must really hurt.
    And who said the kayak instructor was white, anyway?

  16. "Honger"

    I suppose in retrospect two black women sitting in the front row who happen to be harassing you should’ve raised some red flags. What are the odds that they would be seated there instead of 20 rows back 15 seats from the closest aisle?
    Anyway, those were “good times”, don’t you think? At least, I can look back and laugh at the faux-serious life-and-death debates that raged on about the generational warfare. And look where we are now! So funny.


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