Friends and colleagues warned me against agreeing to appear on the Dr. Phil show. But my client wanted to go. The client asked me to come along, to make sure things did not go horribly wrong. So I put on a good suit, brushed my hair and drove to the site of the interview.
It’s quite a production, actually. The client’s home was transformed. There were wires and technicians everywhere. All must be made ready for the appearance of a man even his closest staffers refer to as “Dr. Phil.” Soon enough, the great man arrived. We were all whisked out of sight and out of mind so he could be filmed, walking with my client.
I’m not much of a fan of daytime television, which has more to do with a hectic schedule than taste. To this day, I’ve never seen the Dr. Phil show. When friends have teased that I should have a show of my own, I’ve laughed. I confess, there’s more than a little envy in my apparent mirth. Hell, I can with the opine with the best of them. Why not a show, “Ask Your Lawyer”? I’m ready, Hollywood; ready to be discovered.
But what I lack was apparent soon enough during the interview with Dr. Phil.
I’ve observed enough prime-time interviews now to know the formula for ratings success: provoke emotion. How do you do that? Research your subject well before the interview. Know the topics that make him or her uneasy. Then, when the cameras are rolling, make eye contact with the client, and ask the drama-laden questions in slow, simple, declarative sentences. Then shut up. Let silence do your work, as the person interviewed begins to dissolve. A good interviewer focuses on the subject’s eyes. Do they flit from side to side as the emotional gravy zone is approached? Will you get to “Eureka!”, the magic zone where tears flow and you can play the white knight of the handkerchief?
Dr. Phil, whose real name is Phil McGraw, has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from North Texas University. He was quick to tell me that he worked 15 years as a jury consultant, a fact that continues to fall flat on my ears. Memo to the doctor: While you were standing in the shadows advising lawyers, I was in the well of the court, actually trying the cases. Don’t go to a gym and tell a seasoned fighter about all your bouts as a shadow boxer.
Things got tense during the interview when I tried to ward off questions I did not want the client to answer. Dr. Phil was apparently pissed. I wasn’t in a ring-kissing frame of mind. “Here, do you want to see my interview notes,” he said, dramatically sliding a briefing book in my direction. “No,” I replied. I just wanted limits respected. This was when I was lectured on his years of jury consulting, the impotent counseling a Lothario. “Well, I guess we’ll just end the interview,” he said, snapping shut his book.
“It’s your show,” I replied.
“You’re right, it is,” he said.
In the meantime, the client, mortified by my temper tantrum, went ahead and answered the question, doing a fine job, too, I might add. Dr. Phil looked at me with triumph in his eyes, although he seemed a little subdued thereafter.
In spite of my cynicism, I found that I almost liked the man as I watched him. Yes, there is plenty about him that is caricature. But I suppose all of us are in the end reduced to our methods, the things that work best in the performance of our day-to-day roles. Dr. Phil is a good interviewer. If he is not a subtle intellect, I suspect that is in part a function of the medium on which he performs. He’s pitching an audience with lots of time on their hands. Many of his viewers have nothing better to do than spin the dial on their television set for a reason.
At one point during the interview, a stray animal wandered into the room. I almost quipped: “Why, there’s Oprah!” Then I recalled that Oprah and Dr. Phil are friends. She hired his firm as consultant in a lawsuit she successfully defended. Soon he was a guest on her show, then he had a weekly spot, now he has a show all his own. He’s become an industry, a brand all his own. He owes it all to Oprah.
I doubt I’ll be invited back to spend time with the good doctor. I fled the set as soon as I was sure my client was safe, not lingering to say farewell. As I pulled away, I watched all the technicians, cameramen, a sound crew, producers, even an apparent caterer. All this to await the pregnant pause, the quivering lip, the moment of personal drama that might move a viewer to tears. The interview must have cost a fortune to produce.
Dr. Phil? Been there, done that. But what is it, exactly, that I have done? I can’t quite say, and, in truth, I don’t feel altogether proud of my appearance or my performance. That’s not an uncommon feeling after dancing with the stars of daytime television. I say I am not buying what Dr. Phil is selling, but there I was sitting on his set, and here I am writing about him. I’m buying all right. Just call me a sucker. I’m told there’s one born every minute•