The news that Wendy Williams’ talk show is to end makes official what fans had suspected for months: TV is losing one of its most distinctive talents.
And “talent” is the word that feels right to describe Williams, a former radio DJ who made the leap to daytime in 2008. Her show, defined by its host’s off-the-cuff chatter at the start of every episode, was the opposite of studied. And Williams’ own persona was loose and provocative in ways that felt like the result of an inborn gift for living out loud, an ability to transmit private amusement to an audience of millions. Who could teach a person to act like Williams? And who, but Williams, could be fearless enough to commit so fully to making a career out of idiosyncracy and attitude?
A TV career, that is: Back in her shock-jock era, Williams was known as a hard-nosed interviewer. But on TV, she limited her ire towards people who were not in her line of sight. Her “Hot Topics” saw her lower the boom on whoever in the public eye wasn’t meeting her standard. She knew her own mind with an enviable clarity, and issued pronouncements with ease, if not with kindness. Williams could be raw and, at times, outright offensive. This she carried over from her radio days, along with a sense of herself as something of an outsider. Unlike her contemporaries in the talk space — Ellen DeGeneres, Kelly Clarkson, Drew Barrymore — Williams presented herself as being fundamentally not part of the entertainment industry. And this made her tone a vibrant corrective to the cloying sweetness across the airwaves.
Williams called things as she saw them, but she was no nihilist. Indeed, she was suffused with warmth and affection — for her audience, at least. She had a sort of tacit deal with viewers: She’d let her audience in on exactly what she thought of things as long as they rolled with her lapses — moments of oddity or misstatements or not finding the exact right way to phrase things, but pushing on through. But these made her audience love her all the more: “The Wendy Williams Show” ran on a sense of host and viewers being in on a joke together. Williams gave a sense of confiding in her viewer, a closeness that encouraged those watching to follow her out on a limb, and to treat contorted lines of thought and syntax as part of the Wendy experience. As an interviewer and commentator, Williams was limited in the way normal people are, which became part of the package: She was “real” in a way even entertainers who “keep it real” cannot be. She brought an entire self to the soundstage each day, and willed it through the screen.
Which makes the way the show is ending, with its host entirely absent, all the more baleful. Williams, suffering reported health crises and shrouded by scandal, has been unable to directly address her fans and explain to them what’s going on; guest hosts have handled her show in the interim. TV’s preeminent commenter on celebrity news has been silenced at the moment she became the story. It’s unfortunate to imagine any person with a connection to their audience being denied the opportunity to at least say goodbye on their own terms. But in Williams’ case, that connection is the foundation on which all else rests. Her ability to keep her fans on the hook is what she brings to the table. And she has always done that by keeping the momentum of the conversation going, by plunging forward. But now, the conversation has stopped.
And a different one is cropping up in its place. Williams’ show is to be replaced by a series starring Sherri Shepherd, the amiable and likable former “View” co-host. Shepherd is a more polished broadcaster than Williams ever was. Which means that hour of the day will no longer, for many, be appointment viewing. Williams made riveting viewing out of a twofold process — wondering what she’d say next, and then marveling that the thing she just said was so perfectly in character for a person who could be nothing but herself. Her show was endlessly chaotic. But, as her fans know, it was hers.