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Dr. Phil -- 'Doublewide' -- to focus on obesity

The folksy TV therapist is a good sport about the jokes, and hopes in his second season to help the overweight.

August 22, 2003|Noel Holston | Newsday

The recurring issue of "Dr. Phil" McGraw's second season in syndication is going to be obesity, but who could have blamed him if he had chosen to focus on bullying or teasing instead? He has been like a gift bucket of chum to TV's late-night sharks -- the butt of "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV" skits and endless jokes by Jay Leno and David Letterman, who has been especially pitiless with his "Dr. Phil's Words of Wisdom" moments.

"I guess it's because I have a Southern accent or talk in barnyard bromides," the big Texan told a gathering of reporters recently. "I have been made fun of a lot. And all in all, I have to say I think it's been in pretty good spirit."

Which explains why he went on Letterman's show. Well, that and his unerring nose for publicity.

"He got my name in front of a lot of people, and when I went on the show, my attitude was to just go on and be myself. And if he wanted to be snarky, we could be snarky, and if he didn't, then we didn't. And I have to say, I found Letterman and his entire crew to be totally gracious. He treated me like I was a guest in his own home. I found him to be a very delightful guy, on and off camera. And he's continued to do 'Dr. Phil's Words of Wisdom.' "

He also told reporters that his tennis buddies call him "Doublewide" -- " 'cause I come into the net like a garage door, I guess."

Is it any wonder McGraw has become the best-known therapist on TV this side of "Frasier," where he also made a guest appearance last season? Plain, folksy talk has a long history of going over well on TV. Look at Andy Griffith. Look at the current occupant of the White House.

McGraw is Oprah Winfrey's guru and protege. His appearances over the years on her show -- counseling guests on everything from self-image to fidelity -- were so popular that she helped him launch his own show last fall. With McGraw offering tough, terse advice to guests with personal dilemmas fit for "Maury Povich" or the soaps, "Dr. Phil" quickly became one of the biggest hits in syndication.

McGraw doesn't discount his showmanship. "If I just went on the air and said, 'OK, today we're going over the five points of forgiveness. No. 1 ... 'You know, it's like click, click, click, click, click. They'll be going over to watch a test pattern. But if you can make it entertaining, with compelling stories and all, then I think that people will watch."

But he also said he believes there's "a real void in American society. You go to school and you learn how to read and write and add and subtract, but people really don't teach you life skills. They don't teach you how to choose a mate, how to manage your emotions, how to be a self-starter. They don't teach you a lot of those skills that we really have to have to get by. A very small percentage of people go to therapy. It's expensive. There is a stigma. And I think what we're doing on 'Dr. Phil' is, I think we're bringing people scientifically sound, usable, common-sense information, and we're delivering it to their homes for free every day. I think it's the highest and best use of television, frankly, and I think that's why we've done well."

As noted, obesity will be a recurring topic of the second year of "Dr. Phil," which begins Sept. 15. His sense of public service being multimedia, it's also the subject of his latest book, "The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom" (Free Press), scheduled to come out Sept. 9.

"Overweight is a lifestyle issue," he said. "You have to realign and re-engineer your entire lifestyle in order to change your weight in a lasting and meaningful way. You can go on a diet for six, eight, 10 weeks. You can lose it while you're eating in an artificial sort of way, but when you stop doing that -- and you will -- you're gonna go right back to what you have always done.

"Now, the reason nobody has said this before now is, it doesn't make good marketing," he said. "You know, it's seven pounds in seven days, 30 pounds in 30 days -- quick, easy, eat what you want and lose weight.

"That's a myth. I mean, you would think people would figure that out several billion dollars of wasted effort ago, but I think that it's just not easy to tell people what they don't want to hear."

But he will. This is not Dr. Feel Good we're talking about. This is Dr. Phil.

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