I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Reality TV Times a Million: Queen for a Day

by Whitney Weiss
Nov. 11, 2013

There's a national tendency to look back on the past as though there was something superior and ultimately classier about decades gone, especially when compared to the orgiastic bottom-feeding frenzy that is culture today. This is also true in the world of television. And while our times certainly offer up the finest in exploitation, garish oversharing, and invasive skewering of personal lives sprinkled between thinly-veiled advertising, that's nothing new. And that's got nothing on Queen For a Day.

Born on the radio in 1945, Queen For a Day quickly turned into what was then one of the most successful television shows of its time. It might not be entirely accurate to describe this particular program as what ushered in the world of reality television from which we now cannot escape, but it had might as well have. Queen For A Day started out occupying a half-hour slot in 1956, and when it finally went off the air in 1964, it was a bloated 45 minutes of commercials, fur-trimmed capes, and tears.

Tears were the major component on Queen For a Day. The studio audience would cry, those at home would cry, but no one would cry as much as those four women contestants, particularly during the interview portion of the show. Because to win Queen For a Day, one had to have the absolute saddest story imaginable. Dead husbands, paralyzed husbands, missing husbands, personal misfortune and disfigurement, sick kids, special-needs kids, kids at war, insufficient funds, no funds…each woman dished her own laundry list of woe, with the slick bastard Jack Bailey, who was responsible for hosting, asking slimy follow-up questions that usually just made the ladies sob harder.

Since this was a time before the viewing public felt conditioned in a subconscious way to know how to respond to being on camera, these weren't performances by nubile young things attempting to gain sympathy. It was usually a beaten-down looking woman whose exhaustion was palpable through the screen as she slowly told her story of indescribable unhappiness. It only made things worse when she was plucked from her seat after judging (the audience clapped loudest for the saddest story) and then got draped in a sable-trimmed red velvet robe, handed a bouquet of roses, and had a crown plopped on her head. Prizes usually started with unlimited TV dinners for a whole year, and ended with an exciting household appliance. And whatever the original wish happened to be (a wheelchair, diaper service, an end to bill collectors bothering Mr. Queen For a Day), well that, too, would be granted.

While this may sound incredibly heinous (one well-known television writer dubbed it "only of the most ghastly shows ever produced"), like so many other chunks of culture, Queen For a Day has a camp value that cannot be overestimated. Whether it's the selling of Ex-Lax amid the tears of the downtrodden or the stiffly grinning host pressing a potential Queen for more sordid details of her child's illness and death, one thing is certain: some things were definitely not classier back in the day.

Whitney Weiss lives in Buenos Aires, where she DJs, throws a party called Father Figures, and is one-half of a band that bridges the gap between Snap! and Quad City DJs. If you want to hear what she's up to, you should visit soundcloud.com/djwhitneyweiss.