Listen to the familiar voice of Maury Povich:
This is Tiffany. In two months, Tiffany is marrying her fiancé, Cornelius. But the results of this lie detector test may stop that wedding dead in its tracks.
This was Season 16, Episode 1 of Maury. Povich was in his Stamford, Connecticut, dressing room. His feet were propped on his desk as if they were still away on summer vacation. Povich read his script in the voice of a local newsman — droll and slightly amused.
Cornelius is a rapper. But Tiffany fears he’s using his studio to lay down a lot more than just tracks. And get this: Tiffany has a very good witness — their neighbor, Candice.
Povich’s eyes moved upward from the travails of Tiffany and Cornelius and focused on his team of producers.
“They’re supposed to get married in November,” said Gloria Harrison-Hall, Episode 1’s producer. “The neighbor said, ‘I don’t want to interfere with your family. But I’ve seen women and it’s been late at night.'”
“Meanwhile,” Povich said, “he’s sleeping with the neighbor.”
“So he says,” Harrison-Hall said, laughing. “Yes.”
“He’s saying he slept with the neighbor … “
“… and he’s going to tell his fiancée this?”
Maury Povich is 74 years old. These are his savvy-veteran years. Back in the 1990s, a bunch of us watched Maury — and Jerry and Montel and Sally Jessy — because we were told they were bringing Western civilization to its knees. We wanted tickets to the apocalypse. These days, nobody much complains about Maury. Season 16, Episodes 1 and 2 seemed like a chance to see how an old friend had ping-ponged back and forth between repute and disrepute, how yesterday’s sleaze king became today’s venerable survivor.
Nowadays, Povich looks different. He used to favor Brioni suits. For the Season 16 opener, he dressed like a Brooklyn dad: a half-zip pullover, Joe’s jeans, and thick glasses. Povich’s set no longer feels like a podiatrist’s waiting room. “It’s more glass- and steel-looking,” said Povich’s director, Adam Sorota. “We want it to be very hip.”
In the ’90s, talk had the unpredictability of fringe theater. You could cruise the dial and find a show like the Springer classic “I Married a Horse.” They don’t marry horses on TV anymore. Or if they did, Maury producers would have polygraph and DNA tests at the ready, so that Povich could turn to the horse at a key moment and declare, “You are the father!” Sixteen years of road tests have made the structure of a Maury episode — if this is the right word — elegant.
Povich was laying out Episode 1. “So Candice is involved all through this, and then he’s going to make this revelation?”
“Yes, while she’s sitting in the front row,” Harrison-Hall said.
“And we put him in the green room with a decoy?” Povich asked. Cornelius, like many Maury guests, had been secretly filmed hitting on a woman who’d been planted by the staff.
Paul Faulhaber, the executive producer, broke in to make sure Povich knew when to introduce the decoy footage: “That’s going to come in … “
” … after the confession and before the lie-detector test,” Povich said. He’d studied his notes.
“Way to start the year off there, Paul,” Povich said. “This can’t be simple. We gotta push the button early.”
Povich read his lines about his guest Keeta, whose husband had been sending explicit text messages to other women, and Carrie, who was married to a philandering MMA fighter, and Erin, who had sequestered her husband in their bedroom with a padlock. The meeting broke after 10 minutes. Povich said, “All right. Let’s do it.” Then he glanced at himself in his three-way mirror and moved toward the stage to begin Season 16.
Is that all the preparation you do?” I asked Povich as I trailed him down the hallway.
“Kind of,” Povich said. The day before he tapes an episode, he reads a thick research packet on the warring parties. Then he meets with producers before the cameras roll. Like his golf buddy, George W. Bush, Povich doesn’t want these briefings to last a second longer than is necessary. Povich prides himself on hoovering up the details of the 30 or 40 guests he has each week. “This show is my Alzheimer’s check,” he said.
Povich walked through a door and entered the Maury set at stage left. The crowd — a mix of very young African Americans and very old Caucasians — chanted “MAU-RY! MAU-RY!” A half-dozen bouncers took up positions around Povich, their torsos leaning forward like stand-up defensive ends. The producer, Gloria Harrison-Hall, took a spot by Camera 1. When a guest said something heelish, Harrison-Hall turned to the audience and opened her mouth in outrage. We said, “Ohhhhh!”
Daytime talk in the 21st century is efficient. The Stamford Center for the Arts doesn’t just belong to Povich. Each Monday, Jerry Springer begins taping five shows on the same stage. On Tuesday, Springer surrenders the stage to his old security chief, Steve Wilkos. Wilkos tapes five shows. Povich arrives on Wednesday nights, then steps aside on Thursday for an old Maury regular, Trisha Goddard. You can walk off the Maury set at stage left and find the pole that Springer slides down to begin his show.
Povich brought Tiffany onto the stage. They were holding hands. The Maury show is about helping people. “He deals with serious issues,” Springer told me, “whereas we’re a total circus. There’s no redeeming social value in our show other than craziness.”
Producers think of every Maury segment as a three-act play. Tiffany’s suspicions were the subject of Act I. “We haven’t had sex in over a month,” she complained. Harrison-Hall turned to us with her mouth open and we yelled, “Ohhhhh!” Tiffany’s neighbor, Candice, rose from the front row to say she’d seen women entering Cornelius’s studio at night. We applauded.
After a time, Tiffany’s boyfriend, Cornelius, appeared from backstage. This was Act II. Cornelius wore the expression of a lot of Maury men — guilty but defiant. He found himself confronted not only by Tiffany but by Maury‘s in-house private investigator, Wendy Kleinknecht. Kleinknecht is a tall blonde who looks like Erin Brockovich. She had taped Cornelius with another woman — the decoy. We watched Cornelius ask the decoy, “You want to get fucked tonight?”
This was fun but it could have aired 20 years ago. We’ve seen a thousand talk shows with a thousand Tiffanys and Corneliuses. It’s in Act III that Maury shows how it has mastered the 21st century. What Act III of every Maury segment requires now is a denouement. Reality shows call this moment the “reveal”; Maury producers call it “truth.”
“You’ll see a talk show that’ll do an episode about feuding neighbors,” Faulhaber, the executive producer, explained. “They say, ‘OK, everybody can relate to feuding neighbors.’ They can have people yell and scream. Some people would think that’s good television, but where does it go? There’s no resolution, there’s no conclusion. It’s one of those freshman talk-show mistakes.”
Maury wouldn’t do a feuding-neighbors show unless one neighbor took a lie detector test. The moment of “truth” would come when Povich revealed whether that neighbor had poisoned the other’s grass. Povich and his producers realized the power of such moments sometime around the mid-2000s. These moments make Maury fodder for Vines and YouTube supercuts. They move a segment from an unresolvable adult relationship to a highly resolvable point of fact. “Conflict without truth, to me, is just stupidity,” Faulhaber said.
Cornelius was losing his battle with truth. He’d told a polygraph administrator he hadn’t slept with other women. “The lie detector determined,” Povich said, “that was a lie.”
Cornelius said he hadn’t slept with other women in Tiffany’s bed. “That was a lie,” Povich said.
Ohhhhh! But Cornelius claimed he’d slept with the neighbor, Candice. The allegation just hung there, without the stamp of truth. On Maury, that won’t do. So lie-detector administrator Ralph Barbieri rose from the audience. Barbieri took Candice by the hand and led her to a polygraph machine.
“Before this show is over,” Povich proclaimed, “we will get the whole truth.”
Viewers occasionally respond to the outrageous behavior of Maury guests by wondering if the producers plied them with alcohol before the show. Tiffany and Cornelius, I was assured, didn’t have anything to drink. Why bother? The producers have done this hundreds of times — they knew exactly what Tiffany and Cornelius would say. The last thing they needed was an alcohol-fueled detour. The only surprise of Season 16, Episode 1 came in the fourth and final segment, which featured Keeta and Antonio. Keeta’s Act II was truly piteous. “You are sorry,” Keeta said. “You’re a sorry piece of shit!” Then she burst into tears.
Just as every segment of Maury is divided into a three-act structure, each show starts with the most promising guests, then proceeds to the second-most promising, and so forth. But as Povich marveled later, Keeta was angry. Keeta was real. When this Episode 1 aired three weeks later, I noticed that Keeta had been moved from the fourth slot to the third.
Maurice (like “Morris”) Povich was born into respectability. Some of his earliest memories are of sitting in darkened press boxes while his dad, the legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, tapped out lines like, “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
At first, Povich wanted to play it straight. He wanted to be a network anchor. There were early signs that his broadcast destiny lay outside the mainstream. For Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, Povich was assigned to cover the neo-Nazis protesting off to the side. But Povich got on local TV and began paying his dues. He hosted the 10 p.m. news on WTTG in Washington and a Morning Joe–style chat show called Panorama. His future wife, Connie Chung, was the station’s secretary.
“The other day, Connie was getting out some old tapes of the 1976 Republican Convention,” Povich said. “I was working for Metromedia, which became Fox. I was on the convention floor. I’m telling you, I was good. I was a good news guy. I’d forgotten.”
“But I was always kind of off the rails,” he continued. “I never, ever read the teleprompter exactly as written. News directors went nuts.” One day, Povich went on Panorama and said, “I’m a little hungover.”
The networks never called. Povich bounced from Washington to Chicago to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Philadelphia. Then he wound up back in Washington hosting Panorama. He was 47 years old. ”I thought I was finished,” Povich said. He figured no network would honor both his skill as a newsman and his urge to lift a finger to “respectable” discourse. Then Rupert Murdoch called.
Povich later remembered Murdoch for the “ambiguous expression on his face that he wore like an escape clause.” Murdoch offered Povich a national news magazine called A Current Affair. What’s the gist of it? Povich asked.
“You’ll work it out,” Murdoch said.
Povich was assigned to a team of Australian producers. They were contemptuous of any reporter who wouldn’t knock on a grieving widow’s door. (They accused such wusses of “knocking on the grass.”) When A Current Affair couldn’t book the principal from a big news story — and it rarely could — the Aussies would scream, “Get the cousin!” The show was crude and unpolished. “Sometimes the producer would run down with a newspaper and have Maury read stuff, because we were short,” said John Tomlin, a supervising producer.
Just like that, Povich was no longer the bad boy of local news. He was a straight man, dialing back the Aussie bloodlust. After a segment on A Current Affair, Povich would often cock an eyebrow or even apologize for the segment on the air. Correspondent Steve McPartlin said, “In real TV — which is not what we were doing — the producer who puts that piece together gets his panties in a wad because the anchorman said, ‘That was stupid.’ But we never did that. Because we knew what we were doing was insane. It was not that rock-jaw, eyes-into-the-camera news show. Maury realized that.”
A Current Affair‘s first big break was the Baby M story. It’s now recognizable as the first Maury paternity show. A wealthy East Coast couple had hired a surrogate mother to have their baby; the mother wanted to keep the child for herself. Povich couldn’t snag an interview with the surrogate.
Povich had a brainstorm: “We could give only her side … We wouldn’t have to water it down with the usual he-said/she-said bullshit.” He scored the interview. In A Current Affair‘s willingness to pick a side, in its crude-but-snappy production, and in its skill at whizzing past Eastern elites and crash-landing in Middle America, you can now glimpse the blueprints for Fox News. As Povich once put it, “We were Iowa’s 60 Minutes.”
By 1991, a funny thing happened to Povich. A Current Affair‘s techniques had been pirated by “respectable” network fare like 20/20 and 48 Hours. When Povich left for his talk show, following in the footsteps of Phil Donahue, he was no longer a hell-raiser. He was seen as a trusted elder.
“He is very paternal,” said Brian Unger, who worked as a field producer for Povich and later became a correspondent on The Daily Show. “I think that quality comes through in his television personality. He’s going to get to the bottom of it. He’s going to do it in a fair way with a sense of humor. And he’s not going to judge anyone. Maybe that’s what he is: He’s everybody’s daytime dad.”
Maury is the father!
Just a footnote on the last show,” Paul Faulhaber told Povich. “Cornelius had a moment of honesty backstage.”
A few minutes had passed since the end of Season 16, Episode 1 of Maury. Povich and his producers were back in his dressing room preparing for Episode 2.
“What did he admit?” Povich asked.
“Cornelius admitted that he had lied about sleeping with Candice,” Faulhaber said. “He wanted her out of the picture. Candice was quote-unquote ‘blowing up his spot.'” The producers, of course, had captured the admission on camera.
“So that’s going to be the denouement,” Povich said.
Season 16, Episode 2 of Maury was a paternity show. Maury started doing paternity shows about a decade ago. The ratings were higher than all the other shows. Now, two or three episodes a week are devoted to paternity. The staff gets about 100 calls a week from viewers asking Povich to divine the parentage of their children. According to Faulhaber, about 80 of these 100 respondents won’t be compelling enough to be on TV. Another 10 will be compelling but won’t have the stories to match. The final 10 will be potential guests for Maury.
Quirea, Antywine, and Regis had made the cut. Quirea (pronounced like “Kira”) and Antywine (like “Antoine”) had produced a cherubic 3-year-old named Antywine Jr. Or so Antywine Sr. thought. Quirea informed him that he might not be the dad. She suspected that Regis, Antywine’s best friend, might be the dad. But she didn’t tell Antywine that. Like the rest of us, maybe Quirea had seen so many talk shows that she was saving the revelation for Maury.
“So Regis thinks he’s the father?” Povich asked.
“Regis always thought there was a chance,” said Christine Ponzi, a producer.
“Does the kid look like Regis?”
“It’s weird, because Antywine and Regis kind of look alike.”
Quirea’s story would be the subject of Act I. Regis, the best friend, would be introduced to start Act II, before being bundled offstage so that Antywine could come out unaware.
“Switch-a-rooni,” Faulhaber said.
Povich glanced at his script. “Is it An-ton or An-twan?”
“It’s An-twan,” Ponzi said.
(Povich: “I learned a long time ago that I like to pronounce the names correctly, the way people pronounce their names. I think that’s a matter of respect. Even though they call me ‘Murray.'”)
Of Quirea and Regis, Povich asked: “How many times did they sleep together?”
“Oh, it was more than once,” said Ponzi. “It went on for years.”
Of Quirea and Antywine, Povich asked: “They’re together?”
“Yeah, they were supposed to get married,” Ponzi said. “After this happened a month ago, he’s like, ‘Oh, no.’ He’s the one who called the show.”
Satisfied, Povich flipped the pages of his script and read his next promo: “This is Kristina. When Kristina met this man Dale at McDonald’s three years ago, she admits there was an instant attraction … “
Back in the 1990s, America’s self-appointed values czars looked at daytime talk and imagined it had come straight from hell. But this wasn’t exactly true. There were several eras of talk, just as there were several eras of Povich.
“Believe it or not, I think the ’90s were more pristine,” Povich said. Indeed, when they started out, Maury and Jerry and Montel and Sally Jessy dreamed big. They wanted to talk about lesbian love triangles one day and glasnost the next. “We were all imitating Donahue,” said Richard Bey, who hosted a talk show until 1996.
“I went to Waco, Texas, for the Branch Davidians,” Povich said. “I used to delve into politics a little bit. I did some Michael Jackson stuff. I did a show with Cher. I did a lot of what I guess would be called tame things.”
Cher and the Branch Davidians made for tamer TV, but The Maury Povich Show was hard to follow. A channel-surfer didn’t know what to expect from one day to the next. In 1998, when Povich moved from Paramount to Studios USA, he transformed from what his staff calls “news Maury” to “relationship Maury.” Within a few years, a typical episode was titled, “Who’s the Daddy? Me … Or My Teen Son!”
That sparked a yelp from Joe Lieberman and William Bennett, two moral brawlers who denounced talk as “cultural rot.” It’s easy to laugh at Joe and Bill now. But in a previous campaign, they’d convinced Time Warner to sell off its stake in Interscope Records because the label produced gangsta rap. “People said, ‘You gotta shame the executives,'” said Bey. “People would go up to Barry Diller at parties. That was part of the technique.”
Springer absorbed the bulk of the criticism. “I didn’t agree with it, but I certainly could see why they were coming after me,” he said. Ironically, Povich’s news background — the disreputable reputability he’d built up on A Current Affair — made him a target. In 2002, USA Today declared: “Povich’s talk show is, without a doubt, the worst thing on television. Period.”
For all the bluster, the anti-talk crusade fizzled. In 1999, Springer cameras demurely turned away from on-set fights. Now, Springer shows the fights again. Only Oprah Winfrey rejected the “relationship” show. “She looked at me,” Povich remembered, “and said, ‘You can do it. I’m not doing it.’ I said, ‘I have no problem doing it. I have no problem doing it because this is part of society.'”
Critics said Povich used his guests — many of whom are African Americans — for cheap entertainment. “I say, ‘OK, you can think what you want.’ But I think we’ve made a difference in people’s lives some of the time. Not for all the guests. Maybe not even the majority. But for some. I’ll take that trade in terms of being accused of exploitation.” Springer, who like Povich did a tour on local TV, said, “I used to exploit people, but that’s when I was doing the news.”
In the late ’90s, daytime talk was the most outrageous thing on television. But pay-cable series and reality TV have long since stolen the mantle. (Once upon a time, Snooki would have been a promising first-segment guest on Maury.) So Povich changed his approach again. In its 16th season, Maury has become very, very simple. Nearly every episode can be boiled down to a single word. Lie. Baby. Affair. “When you get all classic, Shakespearean themes — love, hate, betrayal, lust — you have a chance of capturing an audience,” Povich said.
The paternity show was Povich’s simplest idea yet. Acts I and II are virtually identical to a lie-detector show. The Act III denouement comes via a report from the DNA Diagnostics Center instead of the polygraph. Faulhaber calls these results “DNA truth.”
Povich doesn’t know the DNA results before he reads them to the audience. But he — and we — know what will happen on a paternity show. We know the women will compare the alleged father’s picture to the child’s picture on a video board. If the man is not the father, he will do an end zone dance; the woman will flop onto a backstage couch. If the man is the father, the couple will make common cause to raise the child together. This is the new respectability of Maury: We watch not to be shocked but to be soothed. “I liken it to a Billy Joel concert,” Faulhaber said. “No one wants to go to a Billy Joel concert and hear all-new songs. You want to hear the hits.”
Povich was lured back to respectable fare once, in 2006, to host an MSNBC show called Weekends With Maury and Connie. “Because he was so busy, we would have production meetings in his office,” said Lizz Winstead, who was executive producer. “We’d be talking about rogue states, and you could hear fighting in the hallway about who’s the daddy of the baby.” Weekends was canceled after six months.
He said: “I’ve had so-called legitimate news friends of mine say, ‘You know, Maury, you were a great newsman. You were a great anchor. You could have gone back and done great stuff.’ I say, ‘I am doing great stuff. I’m fine with myself. I have no qualms with how everything turned out.'”
No waking nightmares? I asked.
“No,” Povich said. “No. I sleep well at night, and my wife gives me great comfort. Ha ha ha … “
For Season 16, Episode 2 of Maury, Povich traded his half-zip for a V-neck sweater. He took Quirea by the hand and led her out to the stage.
When Regis entered to surprise Antywine, Povich’s security team leaped onstage for one of the few times all night. But Maury doesn’t permit fighting. An audience that wanted fisticuffs would have to come back Monday to see a taping of Springer.
Povich was handed the DNA results by his producer, Christine Ponzi. Antywine Jr.’s smiling face was on the video board above him. Povich paused dramatically and then addressed Regis, the best friend: “When it comes to 3-year-old Antywine Jr., Regis … you are not the father!”
Regis jumped and pumped his fist. “Thank you!”
Povich then turned to Antywine: “When it comes to 3-year-old Antywine Jr.” — Povich always repeats the full phrase, the daytime-talk equivalent of a drum roll — “Antywine … you are the father!” Antywine Jr.’s birthright was restored. The crowd gave a standing ovation for truth. Then Antywine and Regis were hustled off to make room for the next couple, Crystal and Buster.
Season 16, Episodes 1 and 2 of Maury were in the can. Episodes 3 and 4 were scheduled to tape the next morning at 10:30. Povich tapes Maury two days a week. He works 26 weeks per year. His salary is … well, not long ago, Povich was playing golf with Gary McCord, a CBS analyst. McCord was trying to distract Povich. “Maury,” he said, “I’ve watched your show. I wouldn’t do that show for $5 million a year.”
This is Maury. He gave the most respectable answer he could. He turned to McCord and said, “Neither would I!”