Oprah Talks to Phil Donahue
Oprah: Over the years, you've probably heard me say that I wouldn't have my career as I know it if it weren't for you. Did you know you were paving the way for a black woman?
Phil: I have to be honest—we were so busy trying to keep the feather in the air that the last thing we worried about was other people's careers. We started locally in Dayton with two cameras and no stars—we could only afford to fly in two guests a week. We had no couches, no announcers, no band and folding chairs, no jokes. I wasn't saying, "Come on down!" We knew we were visually dull, so we had to go to issues—that's what made us alive.
Oprah: You invented the one-topic format while doing what I believe all social justice does: allow people to see that they aren't alone.
Phil: The show became a place where women discussed issues that didn't naturally come up, and certainly not in mixed company. Much of what we talked about on the air is what women had been talking about in ladies' rooms.
Oprah: It was on your show that I first heard anyone discuss water retention from the pill!
Phil: I'd be sitting there with a doctor, and a woman would call in about an itch! I didn't want to breathe—I was waiting for it to be over. It's difficult to appreciate how antiseptic the daytime schedule was then. There were the soaps and game shows and Monty Hall giving away $5,000 to a woman dressed like a chicken-salad sandwich. And there I was, next to an ob-gyn, with women talking about bloating. We finally had to do a show called "Doctors Who Hate Donahue," because for the first time, women were challenging their physicians.
Oprah: You were the first to recognize that women had concerns that no one else in television acknowledged. Was that conscious?
Phil: I'd like you to think I'm a visionary, but no. The people around me who were making decisions about who we had on the show were women. It was a woman's idea to do a show about male strippers. Before that show, I thought, "Where are we gonna put their microphones?" I was honestly afraid, as you might expect most men would be. I stood in the audience, and these guys who probably did six hours in the gym every day came out. The audience went bonkers. Your grandmother screamed, your baby sister screamed, your mother screamed. They screamed with nervousness, with delight, with a feeling of naughtiness. I started complaining less about the ideas women brought me. When we looked up, we discovered we were doing something nobody else was, all because we had no stars.
Oprah: Because you couldn't get Phyllis Diller.
Phil: Right. We once had on the guy from Dayton who invented the pop-top beer can. At the time, there was a crisis because people were stepping on the pop-tops on beaches, so he had to go back to the drawing board.