Television: It's a piece of faith-cake

What's the difference between a talk show and a chat show? Nicholas Barber on television and the art of conversation
Roseanne and the Duchess of York have a lot in common. Neither of them uses a surname. Both have had well-publicised divorces and battles with their weight. And they've both just been given talk shows. They do, of course, have their differences. One woman is the most famous stand- up comedienne of her generation and the former star of a long-running, groundbreaking sitcom. The other likes to ski. One, therefore, would seem a lot better suited to presenting a talk show than the other. But in 1998, that's irrelevant. It's life experience that counts, not TV experience.

Sarah says so herself. Her Sky 1 series, Sarah ... Surviving Life, began with her reminding us that in her own life "there's been huge ups, but there's been huge dines". (A Freudian mispronunciation, it seems, of "huge downs". And apparently she wasn't welcoming us to "a brown new series", either. She speaks like she has a mouthful of toes). Thanks to these huge dines, she explained, she can "definitely relate" to her guests' tales of redemption, and this qualifies her to host a talk show. I disagreed. Michael Parkinson's interviews with Richard Burton never depended on Parkie's being able to say, "Yes, I know what you mean, I've been an alcoholic movie star married to Elizabeth Taylor myself." Then I spent a week in front of Roseanne and Sarah and Oprah and Trisha and Ricki and Lowri and Montel and Jerry and Kilroy. And I'm afraid the Duchess may be right. No talent is required.

Sarah ... Surviving Life is, naturally, television at its most insulting. Fergie sits with a row of guests on a curved banquette. This week's topic was Faith, so the guests were Glen Hoddle's healer, a token humanist and various people who believed in the supernatural. One woman had been given a commemorative Mother Theresa magnet by a guardian angel. "It's never been off my fridge," she said. Sarah herself opined that we should take our favourite bits from each religion and mix them together to make our own faith cake - later, she even referred back to "my cake idea" as if it were already on the syllabus of the country's theological colleges. At least the bishop's beliefs had some kind of coherence.

Sarah bore a distressing resemblance to Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights, and her voice, perhaps not entirely co-incidentally, was similar to that of Harry Enfield's Tim Nice-But-Dim. So when she asked the magnet woman, "Were you dead at this stage?" it required considerable faith to accept that the whole programme wasn't a hoax. But its muddled banality wasn't really down to the Duchess. There were too many guests to get more than a soundbite from each, and not enough structure for those bites to constitute a satisfactory meal (or cake). And that would have been true whoever the presenter. Surviving Life wasn't fatuous because Sarah is fatuous, but because that's what talk shows are.

Take Roseanne's, which began its Channel 5 run a fortnight ago. "You never know what to expect on a talk show," she teased in the trailer, "especially when it's mine." She's right. I expected some no-holds-Barred, big-mouthed, cackling controversy - and that wasn't what I got.

The first inklings that something was amiss came from the cosy, sitting- room set. The Connors' house was never like this! And who's that hairsprayed, meekly nodding glamour-puss? That's not Landford Roseanne! That's ... Stepford Roseanne! "You are so awesome!" she honked over and over again at a country chanteuse on Monday, and she meant it. "Awesome" was not a word you'd hear from Landford Roseanne unless she were joking about Dan's carburettor-repair skills.

On Tuesday, a C5 announcer promised that Roseanne would be crossing swords with "the TV judge who's slightly more right-wing than Mussolini". But Roseanne introduced Judge Judy - the mind of Maximum Bob in the body of Joan Rivers - as "one of my heroes", and dished out the kind of merciless cross-examination last seen when Clive James interviewed Elle MacPherson. Sometimes, it was quite fun. But so it should be: there are eight writers listed on the end credits, and with all of those behind her, Fergie could be fun, too.

The talk show, then, is a great leveller. When there's little to choose between the Duchess of York and the Queen of Sitcoms, you know the Q of S is being wasted. It's what I call my piece-of-cake idea.

So as not to offend Parkinson fans, we should emphasise the gulf that divides serious "chat" from idle "talk". The categories are not firmly established, but a talk show usually drifts onscreen after breakfast, at lunchtime or late at night. The titular presenter often has his or her initial in a circle, Superman-style, in the corner of the screen, so you can distinguish between the well-nigh identical formats. There are guests on a stage, and a studio audience (although not in Sarah's case) which is brought into the discussion. And this discussion is usually about some personal sadness. One more hint for spotting this brand of talk show: it's a soul-sapping parade of ignorance, confusion, hatred and misery, as enlightening and cathartic as staring out of the window at a car accident as you drive past.

Several of them boil down to sobbing-and-fighting, i.e. we're invited to watch two or more people get upset with each other. The fluffiest of these is Kilroy. Borrowing Mrs Merton's studio audience, the show amounts to a coffee-morning chin-wag.Trisha is Kilroy with more shouting, and Ricki Lake, being American, is yet more traumatic. Montel Williams, who looks like Errol Brown from Hot Chocolate, doesn't let anyone in his studio unless they've been through immense pain, but he presents himself as a wise counsellor rather than an emotional pornographer. And the notorious Jerry Springer Show stands out from the others in that it realises how crazy it is. Springer - sceptical, wry, with a strangely British sense of humour - is the voice of reason. Not that that's difficult when you hear the voices he's up against. In one episode I counted seven sluts, three ho's, two dogs, two bitches and ten words which were bleeped out. "He's a dog! But I love him!" hollered one sack of trailer-park trash. Jerry frowned. "Why don't you get an Irish Setter?" he enquired. There are rumours that Jerry's woeful guests are actually just actors. I hope the rumours are true.

A few talk shows do without sobbing-and-fighting. Lowri has a stern presenter and research that goes beyond putting up a caption reading, "Do you hate your partner's pet? Ring in." Sarah and Roseanne don't go in for punch- ups either. Deep down, they want to be Oprah Winfrey, who almost - almost - vindicates the genre. She is the only talk show presenter who actually listens to her guests. Sarah, Roseanne and the rest don't seem to want to learn a thing. It's a shame, because they have a lot to learn.