On the coldest day of the year, still recovering from the flu, I would only brave a three-hour round-trip bus ride for two people: Maury Povich and my grandfather. The latter has been dead for seven years, while the former is surprisingly lively for a 70-something. Both men have ingrained within me a lifelong respect for trashy tabloid talk shows.
The Maury Show has been around since 1991, airing episodes like “I’m Sure 1 of These 6 Men Is My Baby’s Father!” “My Five Year Old Weighs 230 Pounds!” and “Are They Jingle Belles or Jingle Boys?” Getting tickets to a taping is easy, but getting to the studio in Stamford, Connecticut proved to be slightly more difficult. I arrived at the bus pickup site (an alley behind an Old Navy near Herald Square) to find an intimidatingly long line of shivering Maury fans. Only two buses were going to Connecticut, and by the time I finally took my seat, at least 20 people had been turned away. When I got a better look at my fellow passengers, I couldn’t help but notice lots of family pairs: siblings, mothers and daughters, even a grandmother and her grandson.
This didn’t come as too much of a surprise: growing up, tabloid talk shows were a fixture at my house. On summer mornings, I watched Maury while my grandpa had his wheat germ. During the school year, I’d come home and watch the final minutes of Jerry Springer while he ate his late lunch. If I finished my homework, we’d watch trashy Spanish talk shows like El Gordo y La Flaca in the evening, though neither of us spoke the language. Maury was our favorite because, unlike Jerry Springer, most of his episodes didn’t end in overturned chairs and punctured windpipes.
When we finally reached the studio, we were corralled into a waiting area known as “Club Maury”: a large open space with strobe lights, several TVs, and a DJ spinning top 40. We bounced around a half-deflated beach ball. Maury clips played on the TVs, and the promise of free pizza kept us more or less at bay. An hour later, however, with no sign of the show starting, we were hungry and restless. Errant cries of “What the fuck, Maury?” were beginning to grow louder.
I waited near a production assistant, who was dishing “the inside dirt” on Maury to two pretty young girls. Apparently, Maury only works for four hours a week; he reads his lines off the teleprompter, then zips off in his Audi R8 before anyone can touch him. The occasional actor is hired, but most of the guests are real, with only slightly exaggerated problems. They have a constant stream of people (primarily from Central Florida, the heart of America's weirdest state) clamoring to be on the show; after all, paternity tests aren’t cheap. None of this insider information was particularly earth-shattering, but I was glad my grandpa wasn't there to hear it.
After 20 cheese pizzas were brought out and promptly eaten, we filed onto the garishly lit set. The audience was thrilled to find out today’s show would feature paternity and lie detector tests. We were meticulously coached to make our reactions as animated as possible. See a picture of a baby? Aww like it’s your own. A babydaddy disowns his kid? Jump out of your seat like you’re on fire. A guest celebrates his newfound freedom? Crip walk right along with him. “If you’re not energetic enough to catch the eye of our cameramen,” the production assistant said, “consider today a failure.”
Maury himself finally appeared, with expected fanfare. He was surprisingly cavalier, holding his guests' arms as they walked onto the stage, chastising a man for calling his partner a “ho,” and generally giving off an air of dignity. The crowd's hammed-up reactions drowned out most of the dialogue. Assistants held up signs that encouraged us to be louder, angrier; they baited us even more during commercial breaks. By the end of the show, my voice was hoarse, and I knew how to Dougie.
The highlight of the night came when we were warned that we were about to see something “shocking — even by Maury standards.” A 26 year-old girl claimed the father of her child was a 74 year-old man, the oldest in Maury history. Perhaps this was why so many families watched the show together: these guests made us look slightly less dysfunctional.
A roar of cheers and boos rang out when the geriatric babydaddy gingerly stepped onto the stage, holding onto a railing for balance. When the results came in and he was indeed the father, I cheered along with everyone else. I sensed my grandfather would have, too.