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The Harvey Updyke Show

You there... in the elephant hat... what's your story?

Perhaps the saddest chapter in the Harvey Updyke saga occurred when he made his most recent phone call to the Paul Finebaum show about a month before he was scheduled to go on trial.  The call was not only pointless but also self-destructive: It cost Updyke his high-profile pro bono attorney, Glennon Threatt.

You can still hear the call on Finebaum’s show; he seems to run it daily.  Updyke is near tears as he apologizes to the Auburn nation and asks their forgiveness (without admitting guilt).  The call is pathetic to the point of tragedy.  As I said, you can hear it daily on Finebaum, because to him, it’s great radio.

The obvious question is, Why does Updyke keep doing this?  His first call to Finebaum was an act of rage, a means of turning his hatred of Auburn into something we could feel.  But that set something into motion that has fueled continued interviews and two additional phone calls.

To answer that question, we can turn to research into another area: talk shows of the Springer variety.  Specifically, the work of sociologist Laura Grindstaff, author of The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows.

Grindstaff worked on two talk shows as part of a study.  Her book looks at the whole package — staff, guests, experts, audience, etc. — but her chapter on the people who appear is both perceptive and applicable to the Updyke situation.  Sports talk radio at times follows the same template that TV talk set in the 1990s — people willing to embarrass themselves and an audience anxious to watch them, or listen to them, do it.

But the question is, why?  Why, Harvey, why?

Guests on these shows are “ordinary people,” not celebrities or politicians.  And when they talk about their experiences, the show is looking not only for information, but also raw emotion  — whether it’s rage (Updyke Call 1) or sorrow (Updyke Call 3).  The producers are looking for the “money shot” — a term borrowed from film pornography, according to Grindstaff.

The talk show production staff interviewed by Grindstaff claimed that they were not looking for low-income, lower-class guests.  They were looking for deviant behaviors, and the lower-class people simply were more willing to talk about it on television than middle-class people.

So what do we know about these “uneducated people who just want their fifteen minutes of fame,” as one producer described them to Grindstaff?  An earlier book on talk shows, by Patricia Priest, categorized them as evangelicals (promoting a cause), moths (seeking TV fame), plaintiffs (pleading their case), and marketers (hawking a book).

Most of the guests in the Springer-verse seem drawn to the attention of television and are willing to embarrass themselves for whatever fame or notoriety they can gain.

Of course, Finebaum has true sports experts as guests.  His cast of regular callers — Tammy, Legend, I-Man, etc. — differs from the talk-show guests. I can’t speak to their socioeconomic status; suffice it to say that they don’t seem to be calling from the executive suite.  At this point, it should be said that Danny Sheridan appears to be evolving into a mutant hybrid of the two categories.

Instead of a nationwide one-shot, however, they are a sustained force of characters. And some seem to gain the fame that Springer’s guests seek, turning their notoriety into personal appearances and other perks.

Updyke’s situation is as unique as his crime.  He does seem to be drawn to the flame of attention, if not for the healthiest of reasons.  He also has his plaintiff’s side, pleading not only for understanding, but also for acceptance among the Bama fans whose fellowship he seeks.

Sadly, however, his calls, like his alleged tree poisoning, have a tinge of the “uh-oh.”  My Ph.D. is not in psychology, but to all involved, something seems seriously off with this guy.  To paraphrase Kelly Jolley’s column on the topic for The War Eagle Reader, he is not crazy because he is a Bama fan.  He is crazy because he is crazy.

The result is that he provides tailor-made content for sports talk radio. While there is sadness, though perhaps not pity, while listening to his calls, there is also a gnawing sense of futility.  Is this really necessary?  What does it accomplish, besides drawing in listeners?

And with his latest lawyer switch delaying his trial, he has the freedom, literally, to call Finebaum.  Heck, he could even do Springer.  He would fit right in.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.

Related: First mention of Paul Finebaum in Alabama sports media was in 1977 Plainsman story on Toomer’s Corner.

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