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They Get Passing Grades at Talk-Show U : Television: Oprah Winfrey is a model for Bertice Berry and the inspiration for Ricki Lake, both of whom offer enough of a twist on the talk formula to succeed.

January 18, 1994|HARRIET WINSLOW | THE WASHINGTON POST

Just when you think TV has more talk shows than it can hold, along comes a new crop of Donahue-Winfrey wanna-bes, trying to talk you into watching them.

This season's freshmen included two newcomers with enough of a twist on the talk formula to earn passing grades with a large enough segment of the audience.

What makes "The Bertice Berry Show" and "Ricki Lake" successful?

In some respects, Winfrey is a model for Berry, a 33-year-old black woman with a complicated domestic life. But Winfrey is also the inspiration for white actress Ricki Lake, whose venture into talk for the 18-34 set makes her the genre's youngest host, at 25.

As a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" years ago, Lake revealed her dream: to host her own talk show. Then, before Lake's first show aired in September, Winfrey called her with encouragement.

"Ricki Lake" is produced by former Fox programming head Garth Ancier, syndicated by Columbia Pictures Television and offers topics such as "I Can't Live Down My Bad Reputation" and "The Search for America's Sexiest Twins." (The show airs in L.A. weekdays at 5 p.m. on KCOP-TV Channel 13.)

The show is "more about relationship issues," said Lake, "always taken from the younger person's perspective." In a recent show, she said, "we basically auctioned off men for dates, for charity, and women in the audience went bananas. Those kinds of shows are just not done."

The actress-turned-host was discovered by Baltimore director John Waters and starred in his campy 1988 movie "Hairspray." She also stars in an upcoming spring release, "Serial Mom," with Kathleen Turner, as well as a yet-to-be-released Tim Burton fantasy, "Cabin Boy." Fans of ABC's defunct series "China Beach" may recognize her for her Doughnut Dolly role.

The critics cheered when her show was launched in September. "I don't think we got a bad review," she said. "I was kind of nervous, thinking, 'Oh no, another talk show--they (critics) are going to kill us.' But really the public and the people who watch us every day seem to like what we're doing, and I couldn't ask for more."

Perhaps viewers relate to Lake's successful weight reduction, as they may with Winfrey's. "I think that's part of (the appeal)," said Lake, who has shrunk herself by about 125 pounds.

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Berry does not share Winfrey's and Lake's ongoing struggles with their physiques; Berry's battle was to overcome an impoverished upbringing.

Raised in Delaware by her single mother, Berry is the sixth of seven children and now calls Chicago home after six years of working there. She is still close to her family, especially her mother.

In addition to her mother's influence, Berry said she also identified with the Protestant work ethic when she read about it. "I've always known that if you want something, you have to work a lot." She has worked from age 12, starting with house cleaning. "Cleaning enables you to be creative . . . at the end of the day to say, 'Wow, I did that.' "

Berry was determined to go to college. The first in her family to do so, she graduated magna cum laude from Jacksonville University on scholarship, then earned a doctorate in sociology at Kent State.

Now, after years of combining lecturing with stand-up comedy, Berry puts in full days producing "The Bertice Berry Show" out of her Chicago studio (the show airs in L.A. weekdays at 10 a.m. on KTTV-TV Channel 11). She is also guardian of one sister's children, ages 8, 2 and 8 months.

"I probably get to bed at 12, but we stay at the office until around 11. But I have a second apartment near the studio, where my sister and my other sister's three kids are--I just got custody. My older sister's helping. We also have two other people come in."

"The Bertice Berry Show," syndicated by Twentieth Television and produced by Bonnie Kaplan, received mixed reviews when it premiered. Topics can range from how parents cope with teens to people who were visited by angels.

Berry was philosophical about her reviews. "I think it's interesting that I'm reading that these new shows are not very impressive. But I remember that the other shows took a while to get the numbers we're getting."

Berry wants to reach a variety of viewers, she said, both to entertain and inform. And if the show's topic of the day is not earth-changing, it will be "at least something to feel better for a moment."

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