Desperation is mostly inseparable from masculinity. Men strain for fame, for female attention, for sad, trivial triumphs over one another. We are a people perpetually trying to figure it all out—flexing in the mirror, using lines we've heard before, trying to seem bold and dignified. We're not cowboys or poets. If we are, we wear it as a disguise. Mostly, we are vulnerable and self-conscious and probably masturbating for the third time on a Tuesday afternoon, because we're off work and that Lea Thompson scene in All the Right Moves just came on. We are not men, but almost. Note: columns may also contain William Holden hero worship and meditations on cured meats.
I am standing in dim lights watching a girl dance on a platform like she wants to simultaneously take home every man in the universe and none of them at all. She is by herself; her eyes are closed; she is moving her body like a 90s Microsoft screensaver. She is wearing a black thong, which I can only report because it has ridden well above her hips, and now there it is, just below the lump of stomach fat she most aggressively does not give a fuck about. From this distance the thong is microscopic, and proof that no matter how small your underwear, sometimes there’s just too much ass for your pants to fit anything else.
It is a Wednesday night in early December, and I am waiting in the lobby of the Rich Forum Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut, because I am here to see a taping of Maury, because I am an American, and gawking at the calamitous decisions of strangers is what we do to feel alive. A dance contest has been organized for the audience members who are waiting to be admitted to the studio. There is a DJ, and Maury beer koozies and t-shirts to be given to the top three dancers. The crowd has formed an impenetrable multi-rowed semicircle around the platform. A girl mentions that there was free pizza last time, but there is none tonight, and that is bullshit, because if she had known she would have stopped somewhere on the way. Everything about this moment—witnessing it, participating in it—seems absolutely essential to the lives of everyone involved. Lots of them are recording this on their phones. One of the dance contestants finishes, and the DJ tells everyone to make some noise. Everyone makes some noise.
A tall, slouching security guard named Owen is standing next to me. Owen is completely unresponsive to my questions, because he is watching the girls on stage, and the girls in the crowd, and the girls on their way to the bathroom, and every girl who has ever lived, probably. When he finally acknowledges me, it is only to nudge my shoulder with his and nod toward the platform, so that I will fully appreciate his ability to watch girls. He is squinting and leaning back with his arms crossed. Owen is pretty great at watching girls.
The girl with the black thong will finish in third place, but before the results are even announced she has, without solicitation, begun her routine again. A white woman’s willingness to embarrass herself under neon strobe lights is irrepressible and knows no limits, and never has that been more apparent than it is on this night, which, again, is a Wednesday.
Maury is Church For People Who Have Previously Made a Scene in a Burger King Drive Thru. It is a place where the audience and guests are not only permitted to be rambunctious and incendiary and rude, but where that is celebrated. Everyone is dressed “nicely,” in the sense that something with buttons is “nice” and getting a haircut makes you “presentable.” There are women in shirts that look like they’re made of Oriental rugs, tugging constantly on the fabric of their clothing to hide one area and expose another. There has never in one place been a denser concentration of people whose torsos and limbs are not traditional shapes but just vague, undefined polygons. Thighs morph into back fat; heads appear to sit directly on shoulders like preschool drawings. Men wear gargantuan bubble vests over sweaters, cufflinks on shirts that are untucked, sunglasses indoors, Buffalo Wild Wings t-shirts, jeans that fit so poorly it’s as if the wearer found a spool of denim in a parking lot and assembled them on the drive over. They are people who carry their oddness and defiance of good taste on their shoulders, like a boom box. Maury is, for all its forgery, all its fabrication, a place where these people seem comfortable being the realest, most impulsive, amplified version of themselves.
Behind me sits a short, doughy woman with spiky, dyed-blonde hair that looks like it is made of copper pipe shavings. After nearly every catastrophic bit of information revealed by Maury to the female guests, she laughs until she wheezes, composing herself only when she is on the brink of self-asphyxiation. Every time she sits and stands her stomach brushes against the back of my head. She seems completely undeterred by her reality, which is that of an odd, deranged little woman who has apparently come to Maury, by herself, to laugh until she nearly loses consciousness, at the image of another woman helpless and exposed.
It is the governing principle of the Maury universe: we are an immeasurably flawed people, but there is always someone more abnormal than you are. That is why we’re here, why we’re mocking and shouting. It is why, when the spectacularly round, chubby-cheeked sister of one guest walks off stage, a man in the audience repeatedly MOOS at her until she disappears. Then, at a security member’s request, he does it once more.
Screengrab courtesy holymaurymotherofgod.tumblr
Before Maury appears, a producer describes for the audience a few generic scenarios, and what its corresponding reactions should be. “Let me see your face if you’re shocked; if you’re sad; if you’re pissed; if you see a cute baby on the screen; if someone says, ‘Those aren’t sex scratches, I have eczema!’” He rehearses them all, the heartened awwwws and scandalous ooohhhhhs and I’m-not-gonna-take-this-from-you-anymore triumphant applause, until the entire audience is synchronized and at a volume that matches the hypothetical .wav file on the MAURY RESPONSE soundboard.
During the taping of each segment, another producer buzzes around one of the cameras, holding a clipboard and wearing a pair of headphones, deliriously imploring the crowd to respond, pantomiming the desired reaction, doing it as explosively as one possibly could without making a sound. She is communicating in emojis, a language immediately familiar to the audience. We are a people who respond to spectacle, because it makes us feel like we are a part of something. Something ostensibly SAD happened, so you should feel SAD. People are happy to be a part of the SADNESS, as long as it is not their sadness, as long as there is detachment. Periodically, the producer will write all-caps commands or brief clarifications in black marker on rectangular white signs. (A selection: “HUGE REACTION,” “MORE ENERGY,” “THEY ARE LESBIANS.”) There are no commercial breaks, no time dedicated to generating anticipation, just something being mechanically and blatantly produced, contrivance humming along on a conveyor belt in the shape of an overweight white woman flailing at her boyfriend’s new girlfriend. We are enraptured by this manipulation, but that’s kind of why we’re here.
Maury himself is just an instrument. He behaves like he has been configured specifically to accommodate our short attention spans and our desire to interpret only Emphatic Gestures and nothing more subtle than chairs getting knocked over. He varies from Stern Inquisition to Glee to Vindication to tossed-off We’ll Be Right Backs. Everything is an affectation. He is not the god of the Maury universe but rather an inane thought bubble that hovers above the head of his show’s guests. YOU'VE GOT TO FEEL BETRAYED, RIGHT? The skin on his face looks permanently constricted, like a pile of wet, knotted laundry, like years of pretending to be dismayed has made his face stay this way. He is extraordinarily skilled at beginning and then abruptly halting his fake laughs, contorting his face and his voice. He never at any point seems to communicate on a level beyond basic narration. Solemnly crossing his arms, putting his glasses on as he prepares to read test results, letting his mouth hang wide open.
Gif courtesy holymaurymotherofgod.tumblr
At the end of one cheating-themed segment, a female guest, who ran backstage after learning that her boyfriend had been unfaithful to her, unexpectedly returns. She walks down the entrance ramp, looking sad and confused and starkly alone, no cameramen following her, no applause, no empowering music. The audience laughs, like, umm, what are YOU doing here? The producers do the same, and then direct her to leave the set. Maury just stands there, half-smiling, wondering why this human didn’t evaporate like the others. She is still sad, but they don’t need her to be sad anymore. They don’t need her for anything. So she turns around and leaves again. She is gone. Heartbreak is painful, but this is television, and eventually that’s all the time we have for today.
During a paternity segment a 53-year-old man named Leonard, who is roughly the size and shape of a vending machine, stomps onto the stage, slightly bent at the waist and perpetually fixing his pants. He tells his 26-year-old girlfriend, “SIT DOWN; THIS MY TIME.” He is wearing a shiny crucifix, baggy jeans, and a suit jacket that, as he walks and his hunch becomes more pronounced, almost reaches his knees. His voice sounds like Tom Waits hyperventilating. He insists that he is too old to impregnate a woman, but his girlfriend counters that he isn’t too old to be getting that pussy, which is fair logic. She has already had ten children, she claims, and Leonard suspects one of her ex-boyfriends could be the father. Maury reads the results of the blood test, which confirm that Leonard is the father. Then, instead of despair, Leonard instantly executes a series of inexplicably athletic pelvic thrusts all over the stage, and then into the audience, up the tiers where the seats are, thrusting as he does that too. Leonard very nearly becomes the first person to ever impregnate gravity.
Leonard’s celebration is preposterous, but that, in itself, makes it as unequivocally Maury as anything could ever be. It is a show that condenses a relationship into eight minutes, eight minutes into a blood test, a blood test into a reaction, into Leonard having violent sex with this fleeting, never-again chance at mattering, to strangers, at any cost. We are a culture that traffics in Likes, in Attention, even if it evaporates on a Tumblr page that scrolls infinitely. In 2013, our legacies are only as long as .gifs.
Gif courtesy holymaurymotherofgod.tumblr