PASADENA, CA–I didn’t win a car, but I did get touched by Oprah Winfrey.
The daytme talk show Queen and newly minted network mogul gave me the royal tap Thursday night on her way out of her lavish launch party for OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.
I also got the Winfrey wave. Buddy Andy Ryan from the Globe and Mail suggested I take my Flip cam around to the side of the giant party tent erected out on the lawns of the horseshoe gardens at the back of the stately Langham Huntington hotel and grab a shot of Winfrey through the tent’s large clear plastic windows. Winfrey spotted me violating one of several TCA camera edicts and instead of signaling one of her beefy bodyguards to beat me to a pulp gave me a big friendly Oprah wave.
The party came after an afternoon press tour session for OWN that frankly left many reporters numb, disoriented and speechless. After two hours of build up and hype, with appearances by OWN hosts Gayle King and Lisa Ling, Winfrey took the stage wearing a purple blouse and magenta sweater, perfectly coordinated with the rainbow-coloured OWN logo behind her. She said confronting critics was “like being thrown to the wolves” and then gave us a 50 minute clinic on control, using crazy long answers to limit the number of questions in the packed room to six or seven.
Things started innocently enough. Toronto Star wise guy Rob Salem broke the ice by asking if we were all going to get cars. Would have been a nice ice breaker, said Winfrey. Salem was immediately dragged out of the room and tasered to death.
The event turned when velvet voiced TCA veteran Howard Benjamin (“The Interview Factory”) rose to ask a question. His simple query about Oprah’s dreams growing up resulted in a baffling filibuster that Benjamin clocked at 23 minutes and 15 seconds. Others, including HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall (“What’s Alan Watching”), had it at 18:15.
Either way an unofficial TCA record. According to Benjamin, who apparently keeps track of these things, this tops the old mark for press tour windiness set several years ago by the late Lost in Space legend Jonathan Harris. With Will Robinson looking on powerless, flinty ego maniac Harris rambled for 17 minutes.
That was kid stuff for Winfrey. I think it was Benjamin again who said if you wrote down every random empowerment cliche uttered by Winfrey Thursday afternoon you would have enough sayings to fill a 365 day calender.
Without someone like Florida critic Tom Jicha in the room to restore order, helpless critics could do nothing but Twitter. Sepinwall and new Hollywood Reporter addition Tim Goodman (“The Bastard Machine”) led the way. “The Oprah speech was longer than Terriers was on the air” groused Sepinwall. “Still going. This bill will not be passed.” sniped Goodman. “Our long national nightmare is over” (Sepinwall). “I wonder if the OWN staffers are going to hand out loaves and fishes” (Goodman).
Andy Ryan got in on the action. “On today’s Oprah: critics who desperately need a drink.” I couldn’t resist: “Four newspapers folded since Oprah started talking.”
And on it went. Oprah’s monologue read well later in the transcript (although four court reporters gave their lives to get everything down). Winfrey told us all she really ever aspired to originally was to be a substitute morning anchor on Good Morning America. Her agent told her to foget it, there already was a coloured person on network television (Bryant Gumbel). Oprah later fired the agent.
Winfrey was more quotable in the short after scrum, suggesting the days of the softball questions are over in describing her recent first guest encounter with new CNN host Piers Morgan (to air Jan. 17).
To her credit, she came later to the party, walking the red carpet and working the tent. Again the answers came faster in the scrum. Her diamond earrings were so gigantic one of them is being presented as the trophy in the BCU tournament.
I got to ask her a question, but not the one I wanted to ask her. That would have been about Bill Maher’s recent YouTube posting where he showed clips of her rapturous studio audience members swooning and talking in tongues after one of her “favourite things” giveaways. Maher says it is the most disturbing thing he’s ever seen on TV, suggesting Winfrey is fueling our lust for things while talking about her goals of providing more mindful programming. I wanted to ask her if comments like this ever gave her pause. She said several times in the session that she has spent a career learning and listening.
I mentioned this to a critic after Winfrey was whisked away on a cart with a fringe on top and the party was winding down. He suggested that Maher missed the point, that Oprah’s fans are rapturous because they’re physically in the same space as her, that their hysteria has nothing to do with getting stuff. All I know is, after she tapped me on the shoulder on her way back to Olympus or where ever, all my stubborn flu symptoms I’ve been battling for the past three weeks finally disappeared.