Abrams celebrates the legacy of America’s most beloved talk-show host with this week’s release of The Oprah Winfrey Show: Reflections on an American Legacy. Nonfiction author Deborah Davis, whose friends describe her beat as “the rich and the dead,” was tapped to write the 25-year retrospective. Tip Sheet spoke to her over the phone this week about condensing 25 years of television history into a six-month whirlwind of viewing, researching, and writing.
How did you get the call?
It was literally out of the blue. I was finishing up a book on one of those incredible deadlines that leave you in messy clothes and eating too much junk food, and I was approached by Abrams to take over this project on the legacy of the Oprah Winfrey Show. And I was just kind of amazed. At first it felt great, to be the custodian of such an important story—important as in everybody has an opinion about Oprah, about the show. Then it became clear that everyone knew a lot more about her than me.
Tell us what the research process was like.
Immersing myself in research is always the most fun step, when you can actually get to know your subject, get to have your honeymoon with your material. Normally, I would be studying in musty libraries, but this research involved sitting down and looking at 25 years worth of shows, and looking at them in a dedicated and analytical way. Though I’m not from Mars, I actually had not seen many episodes. People in my house
Everyone in the project put their hand over their mouths and laughed when I said I was going to watch every show—it was on 5 days a week for 25 years, so that wasn’t reasonable. What happened instead was I watched the top 20 or 30 shows from each year, a mixture of the most groundbreaking, memorable, and top rated. That began last March, so when I say it was a condensed process, I mean condensed.
So what kind of toll did that take?
It was fascinating. I’d say that for 20 hours a day I was all Oprah all the time. I couldn’t stop! I watched on a portable DVD player, on a computer, in bed at night. I just turned into a maniac. I laughed and I cried, sometimes at the same time. It was really a revelatory experience for me. Though it was hell while it was happening, it really did become a complete experience. I was just swept away emotionally, like everyone else. And it was simultaneous with the show going off the air, so I was also living the frenzy like millions of other fans: “Will the world come to an end after the last show?” I really understood the hole it would leave.
What do you think the Oprah Winfrey Show’s ultimate value is?
It was like Oprah University—every day brought a new lesson: Anna Karenina or how to find the perfect bra or the legacy of the Freedom Riders. Every single day there was something to learn, and the impact was transformative. I think people really changed and grew because of this show. And I got transformed just like everyone else. I’m really a pretty cynical person, somebody who wouldn’t get sentimental about a topic like this. And I really became such a believer so quickly. I started walking around making all these Oprah-inspired pronouncements—Life never gives you anything you can’t handle—and I really meant it! I became a more empathetic, better informed person, directly as a result.
Made any big life changes inspired by Oprah?
She did a show on puppy mills, where she said that after her eyes were opened to the plight of abused, homeless dogs, she was a changed woman, and promised all her pets would come from shelters. It had never occurred to me to get a pet from a shelter, I just went out and bought a dog. My dog died a couple weeks ago, and with Oprah’s voice in my ear, I went on Petfinder.com and discovered a little poodle who was found in a Petco parking lot under a car. Two days later, she was mine.
What other material did you get to examine?
The letters: Oprah got thousands of emails and letters a week. And they’re so personal! “Dear Oprah, I never read a book before, but I’m so proud of myself because I just read Anna Karenina.” “Dear Oprah, I didn’t know the signs of a heart attack in women were different from in men, and your show saved my life.” “Dear Oprah, I thought that all men hit their wives.” One of the things that I really came to understand is that she was her audience. She eliminated the line between the viewer and the host. And that intimacy was such a gift to have: she was in your living room, she was holding your hand and telling you things that would help you. She didn’t keep the better life to herself.
Some of the letters just made you weep, others were very funny, but they were all so conversational, it was like someone writing to their best friend. She’s a mother, she’s a mentor, she’s a friend, she’s an advocate.
How was Oprah as an interview subject?
It’s always amazing to be in her presence. I spent a lot of time in the office, I spoke with everyone from producers to the security guard, but I didn’t actually need Oprah to write this story, so she was not a primary source. I was at one of the shows and Chris Rock was the guest, and it was so interesting to hear her making jokes at her own expense, about her fortune. She’s very disarming. If she’s telling you something, it’s because she believes it.
How in the world are you going to top this project?
I just don’t know. I have a book coming out in May, it’s called Guest of Honor, about the first time a black man had dinner at the White House, the Booker T. Washington-Theodore Roosevelt dinner that absolutely changed how black people were perceived in America. It caused a huge scandal, and for the very first time, people had to have an opinion about whether or not a black man should eat somewhere. It’s a wonderful moment in history. The funny thing is, all I was is to go on Oprah to plug it. And there is no Oprah!
Though Davis doesn’t know the particulars of Abrams’s marketing plan—“I just go where I’m told”—you should expect to see her pretty much everywhere over the next few weeks.