In the early 1990s, Richard Bey was one of the most recognizable daytime talk show personalities in America as the eponymous host of The Richard Bey Show. The popular show, which included ribald skits cited as a precursor to reality television and programs like The Jersey Shore, was criticized then and now as a harbinger of the degeneration of the medium.
Over a decade and a half after his show was canceled, Bey does not come across as one of the four horsemen of decency in television’s apocalypse. Since the early 2000s Bey, an irrepressible performer who grew up in Far Rockaway and graduated from the Yale School of Drama, has been a political talk radio host, most recently for Sirius Left, and appeared as himself in films like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno and the soon-to-released documentary Évocateur. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme talks with Bey about Sean Hannity, Carmen Electra, Al Sharpton and whether Bey believes that President Bill Clinton really had a hand in shutting down his show.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: At the time when your show was on, it was considered outrageous, but now it almost comes across as tame. What is your place in television history?
Richard Bey:Flip Wilson said to me that one day Oprah was on and she was deriding all of these talk shows that had pushed the envelope and he goes, “What do you think? You had the woman on whose face was eaten by a chimpanzee, and then you pulled the mask off of her. [The Richard Bey Show], you can show it in a church now!” Television has gone so far in that reality. The funny thing is, the talk shows themselves do the same thing over and over again. … the Maury, the Jerry, it’s like if you’ve seen one show… [Laughs] They’ve reached this stasis. They’ve filtered it down to an essence. I don’t know anybody can watch this every day. I don’t know how you could go to work and do the same thing every day. When we did my show, I was always thinking, “How could we make this different, and how can I make this in some way satirical?” I’m not trying to turn it in to an art form or anything, I’m just saying, “How can I make this interesting to me and fun to do so that will be interesting and fun for people to watch?” And then you could watch it on more than one level. When we had the “Miss Big Butt” contest, the thing that started that for me was the Miss America pageant. They were calling it a scholarship pageant, but there was a scandal because one of the contestants had used Scotch tape to tape up her butt cheeks when she was wearing the swimsuit. So I said, “If it’s a scholarship pageant, how come there aren’t any women with gigantic butts on that show? Are you saying they’re not smart? So we’re going to have a pageant just for them.”
C&S: Was this a role you were cast into or was this part of your idea in launching the show?
RB: I started out doing a show called People Are Talking, and in the beginning everyone was doing … a Donahue clone; Maury was doing one, I was doing one, Jerry—believe it or not—was doing a Donahue-style show where you cover news events, you have people was are in the news, you do the homeless, you do “Should English be America’s official language?” … [People Are Talking] was absolutely the best show I’ve ever done in my life, because if it was on the cover of the New York Post or on the cover of the Daily News, we had that guest on the show. These were big names back then, we had Sukhreet Gabel, the mother of the Steinberg baby, and the show was live. … We had Al Sharpton on quite frequently during the Tawana Brawley mess, and he had other people in other civil rights scandals that he brought on—some of them real, some of them … well, I always said to him, “Sometime you bring me a diamond, sometime you bring me a zircon, but I really don’t blame you, I blame the people that buy the zircons: the media that says everything you say is great or everything you say is BS.” Because it isn’t true, you have to examine it. Although [Sharpton] called Jews “diamond merchants,” famously, at one point, he was the diamond merchant—and sometimes he was selling me a phony. … The way that television many times is made—at least daytime television—is some executive is sitting in an office and he’s smoking a cigar and he’s going, “Hey, Paris Hilton, everybody loves her. Let’s give her a talk show!” … But in [the case of The Richard Bey Show], because we were on a local station and because [the ownership of the station] was flipped so many times … they didn’t care what we were doing. … It was like a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland [movie], “Hey, we have a barn! Let’s make it into a theater and put on a show!” … That’s how it was like at Channel 9. You’ll never see that again. There is no more local television that has that kind of spontaneity, creativity—and we were live!
C&S: Do you feel like you are in part responsible for a decline in the quality of television or are you proud of what you spawned at WWOR?
RB: It is what it is. … At one point when the show was over, I had a manager who took me to UTA, which is one of the big agencies, and I walked in and they were clapping each other on the bag and he was congratulating the agent because he had just signed Carmen Electra to a three-project deal and he had all of the trade papers up talking about this deal. … [The agent] told me how much he loved [my] show and we sat down and he asked me to tell him stories of what happened behind the scenes. So at the very end, after we spoke for about a half an hour, he said, “Do you have any questions for me?” And I said, “I just have one question. Would you like to represent me?” And he said, “I don’t think anyone’s going to let you on television any more.” And I said, “What about cable?” He says, “No, I don’t even think cable.” I said, “What about radio?” He said, “Maybe on radio.” And I said, “And the reason they wouldn’t let me on television is because…?” And he went, “Well…” And I went, “Because I lowered the standards of television.” And he said, “Yes! That’s right! You lowered the standards of television.” And I burst out laughing. And he said, “No, no, no, I didn’t mean to offend you! I was trying to tell you the truth!” I said, “No, I just think it’s hilarious! You sign Carmen Electra to a three-picture deal and you’re telling me I lowered the standards of television!” … This is a business. The business of entertainment will go wherever this is a demand by the consumer to see it, and that’s true from Masterpiece Theater to Downton Abbey to Internet porn.
C&S: Jerry Springer has also hosted serious political talk radio, but he’s a former mayor. What did you feel qualified you to discourse on the subject?
RB: Most of the people in talk radio who are the biggest names in the business are not that well versed in politics [and] are not that well educated. … My background would not necessarily promote me as being a political talk show host, but I was always interested in politics and I’ve always followed it very closely. … When I got hired I think they just thought I was going to be this funny, lightweight guy … and it was right after 9/11 when I really started at WABC in New York, and then the [Bush] administration started to sell the war in Iraq, and I would do research five, six hours a day. … The first three things they did to sell the war—Mohamed Atta in Prague, Ansar al-Islam in Northern Iraq and George Bush saying there was an [International Atomic Energy Agency] report that Saddam [Hussein] was six months away from an atom bomb—all of these were either fallacious or such a flimsy stretching of the truth that I said, “My God, this is the best they have?” … There was one newspaper service, the McClatchy group, that actually did great work—it’s the unsung hero of all that—[otherwise] there was no one of the air except for me and Ron Kuby who were telling people that these WMD allegations were bullshit. It was knowable! People would say, “Oh, we didn’t know… Everybody thought…” Well, that’s not true… [Vladimir] Putin didn’t think so. [Jacques] Chirac didn’t think so. The French secret service said he [didn’t] have atomic capability. The aluminum tubes were the same size that he had used before for artillery. There’s no evidence that Atta was in Prague except the flimsiest sighting six months after the fact by a paid informant. The whole thing was garbage! And it was identifiable as garbage, except this country, we wanted somebody to pay for 9/11. … One day Sean Hannity was on the radio—Sean was on right before me and I used the same studio … and he’s a very affable, congenial person, so he was doing it in a nice way, but a listener had called and was telling him something and Sean was saying, “Where did you get that from, some left-wing blog? Oh, come on, you’re making this stuff up!” And then he hung up on the guy and he took a break. And he came out and I said, “Sean, what the guy told you was actually true. I have the AP and the Reuters stories right here and it is factual.” And Sean started laughing and said, “Keep that stuff away from me! I don’t want to see anything that doesn’t support my argument!” So, yeah, was I qualified? I was too qualified.
C&S: Your radio show was canceled after the invasion of Iraq began, which you have connected to your outspoken criticism of the war. You have also maintained that your television show was canceled because of political persecution.
RB: The day after! This is the story about that, and I’ll try to make it as brief as possible, because this is a book, it’s not an article! … Bill Bennett, Joe Lieberman, Sam Nunn, they all started this thing where they wanted to clean up daytime television. “It’s a cesspool,” they said. They said, “We don’t want censorship. We just want the sponsors to know that they should be exerting some influence on the shows that they are paying for.” Which isn’t censorship? C’mon! And I used to mock it on the air; I’d cry, “Bill Bennett doesn’t like me!” … [As a result of this pressure,] the management would come and they would say, “You can’t have two-piece bathing suits now. … We want you to try different things.” [So] one of the things I tried was, let’s do things that you never see on television. So I picked up the trade papers and one day I read that Gennifer Flowers was booked on [a show] and that she showed up and they told her that they had canceled that show and switched it to another, and they told her to go home, which was strange enough. And then there was another woman … who also claimed to have an affair with Bill Clinton and she was booked on Sally Jessy Raphael and she showed up and they said, “No, we don’t need you anymore.” Now, there’s a ravenous hunger for guests on daytime television. You don’t book people and then tell them to go home. Also, this was a sex scandal! Television loves this kind of stuff, you know, with the president! … So I call up Gennifer Flowers and … she tells me, “Every time I show up somewhere, they tell me it’s been canceled.”… And this was right before the election of 1996 … it’s, like, October 12… And we pretaped that one … so I start the show with an empty audience and I’m walking through all these empty chairs and I say, “There’s no one in my audience today, and that’s going to make some people very happy because they don’t want you to hear what my guest has to say today. But on other hand, if this is on your television set, maybe you should watch because … you’re going to hear things that you’re not going to hear anywhere else. Now you may think that the things that are said here today are true or they’re not true, but you have a right to hear them, and my guest has a right to say them, and she claims that she’s being kept from saying these things in a public forum. My guest is Gennifer Flowers.” … So anyway, the show went through our lawyers and everything. [It was] on a two-week delay. It goes on the air, the phone lines light up—remember, there’s no FOX News at this time, or it had just started—and half the people are going, “God bless you, I’ve never seen anything like this on television.” Half of them going, “God damn you, how can you be saying these things about our president?” It did great ratings. The next day I walk in and I’m told to come to the office and they tell me we’re going out of production as of that day.
C&S: Are you saying that somehow the Clinton administration had a role in shutting down your show?
RB: Not at all. I’m sure that there’s a connection between the show and how it was taken off the air, but I don’t think the White House called up.
C&S: As a native New Yorker, who writes about city and state politics from time to time on your blog—www.richardbey.org—what really interests you about what’s going on right now?
RB: I just read the average rent in Brooklyn now is about $2,700 a month. Part of the time I stay in Astoria and they have apartments [there] for $3,500—in Astoria! I grew up in Queens, and like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, making it was always getting over the bridge and living in Manhattan. And I did that. … I love the city. I love it like you would love a woman. And now when I go to Florida and come back it’s like when you break up with a girlfriend and you see how she’s changed [laughs]. “Wait a second, when I left here, you were Jenny from the block. Now you’re wearing Gucci … and you’re going out to the Hamptons.” That’s how the city is. This has become a theme park for rich people.
C&S: I presume that you’ve been following the mayoral race. The New York that you are talking about is generally ascribed to the Bloomberg era.
RB: Bloomberg has been very successful at doing what he did. Millionaires may soon be [the majority of people] in Manhattan [laughs], but they are not the majority of the people. I don’t know why we haven’t elected a populist candidate. … We seem to always be electing, with the exception of, going back to maybe David Dinkins, people who cater to the oligarchy.
C&S: Do you see any local elected officials who you think are a true voice for populism?
RB: Scott Stringer is great.
C&S: What do you like about Scott Stringer?
RB: I think he’s honest. I think he cares about working class people.
C&S: Next month you appear in the documentary Évocateur, about the late talk show host Morton Downey Jr. What’s your take on him?
RB: Morton and I started at the same time, and he had the fastest rise and the quickest demise of anybody I’ve ever seen anywhere in the business. … I’d look over at his show and I’d go “My God, he’s on the cover of Time magazine … and he’s only been on the air for six months!” And then a year later he’s finished. Now, I’m sure the agent would have said to him, “I don’t think anybody’s going to put you on television again,” but maybe for good reason! And it was also a warning personally not to get involved in that whole trap of “Hey, I’m at the top of my game and this is never going to end and I’m going to party my ass off.” … Some days [Morton] wasn’t even capable [of going on the air]. He was like Denzel Washington in Flight. He wasn’t fit for takeoff. [Laughs] But there was also something about him that I couldn’t help but like in a way … this childlike thing. It was like he had worked all his life to get this, and when he did, he went to the candy store, ate all the candy and then started puking!
C&S: What would you like to be the next chapter in the Richard Bey story?
RB: I often think about the fact that when I die The New York Times obituary—if I may be so rash as to say that I’m going to get one—will say “Richard Bey: Trash TV Host.” And I’m always going, “God, I’d like to do one more thing so that maybe that won’t be the headline!”
Tags: Bill Clinton, Carmen Electra, David Dinkins, Gennifer Flowers, Iraq, Jerry Springer, Morgan Pehme, Morton Downey Jr., Richard Bey, Sally Jessy Raphael, Scott Stringer, Sean Hannity, The Richard Bey Show