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Talk Shows’ Pioneering Women

Four historic female talk show hosts helped shape talk show history


When people think of talk show legends, they often think of the industry's men, like Johnny Carson, Jack Paar and Merv Griffin. But the impact women have had on the format, especially in the last 25 years, has transformed he way talk shows are presented to audiences, especially in daytime television. And with Chelsea Handler's show gaining ground in late night, it won't be long before that male-dominated frontier is conquered as well.

Here are four of the talk show industry's pioneering women:

1. Dinah Shore

Actress Dinah Shore, circa 1992.
Kypros/Getty Images

Dinah Shore is best known for her long career as a singer, actress and variety show host. Her popularity peaked in the 1950s, but in the early 1970s, Shore took on daytime television, hosting not one, but two, talk shows.

Dinah's Place was an early template for modern shows like The Rachael Ray Show or The Martha Stewart Show. The early morning, half-hour program featured celebrity guests who would engage with Shore in an activity. For example, when Ginger Rogers appeared, she didn't dance. Instead she demonstrated her ability to work a pottery wheel. And health and fitness experts were regular guests, serving up advice to viewers on how to eat well and get exercise.

Her second program, Dinah!, more closely followed the talk show format. The competition for her 90-minute talk show? Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, both of whom had well-established shows. The biggest twist for the daytime show was its regular rock star guests, like David Bowie. The bands showed Dinah's appreciation for new musical talent and introduced audiences to performances they might not otherwise see.

2. Joan Rivers

Comedian and Talk Show Host Joan Rivers
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Comedian Joan Rivers was one of the first women to crack through the late night talk show glass ceiling. A frequent guest host for Johnny Carson, many thought Rivers could be the next host of The Tonight Show when Carson announced his retirement from the program.

Instead, Rivers moved to the then relatively new Fox Network in 1986 to take on the male dominated talk show landscape with The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. The move cost her her friendship with Carson, who was reportedly upset that he learned of the program from a Fox press conference and not from Rivers. Rivers claims she tried to tell Carson, but he repeatedly hung up on her. Whatever the case may be, Rivers and Carson never spoke again.

Rivers tenure on the program lasted one season before she was fired by Fox and replaced with a rotating group of talk show hosts. Reportedly, Fox wanted to fire Rivers' husband Edgar Rosenberg from his post as show producer, but Rivers balked. So Fox fired them both.

Rivers would eventually move to daytime television as host of The Joan Rivers Show, which lasted five seasons and earned Rivers an Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host.

3. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey meets her fans in Australia
Getty Images

No one could imagine the impact Oprah Winfrey would have on the talk show world when her program, The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted in 1986. And no one could have predicted Oprah's global impact as her popularity, media philosophy and philanthropy expanded worldwide over the show's 25-year history.

As Oprah took down the daytime competition, including the incredibly popular Donahue , she opened the door for other female talk shows to grab hold of the mic, including Sally Jesse Rafael and Ricki Lake. In fact, in the last 25 years, daytime television is where you will find the majority of female talk show hosts, like Tyra Banks, Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres.

Oprah's popularity has allowed her to expand her television presence to her own network, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

4. Ricki Lake

Talk show host Ricki Lake
20th Century Fox

What sets Ricki Lake apart from the rest is the youthful abandon she brought to daytime television when her show, Ricki Lake, debuted in 1993.

Born Ricki Pamela Lake on Sept. 21, 1968, the talk show host began her career as an actress, working with independent filmmaker John Waters. She's probably best known for her lead role in the original film version of Hairspray.

But at the tender age of 25, Lake launched a daytime talk show aimed at her generation, Generation X. What made the show a hit, however, was its quick turn toward tabloid sensationalism. Usual for the time, Lake's show tackled paternity issues, volatile relationship problems and other over-the-top antics. Guests would erupt into arguments, some were tossed off the program, and the atmosphere would get unusually tense.

The program disappeared from TV lineups in 2004 and Lake returned to acting. But she plans a new program in 2012, The Ricki Lake Show, that hopes to achieve the kind of respect and good work made famous by Oprah.

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