On March 6, 1995, thirty-two-year-old Scott Amedure and his friend Donna Riley arrived at NBC Tower in Chicago to tape an episode of Jenny Jones, a tabloid-style talk show notorious for its lewd combination of tawdry subject matter, incomprehensibly shameless guests, and a live studio audience as rapacious in their delectation of such spectacle as they were eager to express their moral judgment of the participants. One of a smorgasbord of similar shows on the air during the last two decades of the twentieth century, Jenny Jones––along with competitor programs Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and Sally Jesse Raphael, et al.––epitomized a format also known, at least colloquially, as “Trash TV”––the adjective, of course, meant to describe the content of these shows as much as their disposability as cultural artifacts.
The nature of the types of sordid, controversial, or otherwise bizarre situations typically featured on Jenny Jones are reflected in the synopses given, in lieu of formal titles, in the show’s woefully incomplete tv.com archives: “This episode is centered around pregnant women who cheat on their husbands,” or “This episode is centered around men who cheat on their pregnant wives,” or “This episode is centered around elderly strippers,” or “…women who try to retrieve husbands from homosexual affairs,” or “…warring sisters,” or “…breast implants,” etc. In 1995, Scott and Donna traveled almost three hundred miles to appear in an episode called “Same-Sex Secret Crushes,” in which Scott, who was gay, would confess his romantic interest in Donna’s neighbor, twenty-five-year-old Jonathan Schmitz. Jonathan was there also, although how much he knew about the nature of the episode in which he was about to appear remains a contentious matter, as he would later claim that the show’s producers had assured him in advance of the taping that his secret admirer would not be a man.
By the time the taping was finished, Scott would indeed reveal his secret same-sex crush and Jonathan would reveal himself to be straight. Three days later, on March 9, back in Lake Orion, Michigan, Jonathan bought a gun, drove to Scott’s house, and shot him twice in the chest, killing him. The episode never aired (although portions of it have since surfaced on YouTube), and the incident prompted discussions about responsible casting on shows like Jenny Jones and an industry-wide reconsideration of the tactics of so-called “ambush television” of the sort that led, ultimately, to Amedure’s death. It would also spawn four court cases: two criminal trials against Schmitz (an initial conviction on charges of second degree murder was overturned on appeal but ultimately upheld following a retrial, and Schmitz was sentenced to 25-50 years in prison; he was paroled in 2017); a wrongful death suit brought against Jenny Jones as well as its production company, Telepictures (parented by Warner Bros.), which awarded 25 million dollars to Amedure’s family; and the subsequent appeal that overturned that ruling. These court cases too would provide their own spectacle, with thousands tuning in to watch as the proceedings aired live on Court TV. Indeed, in the case of the civil suit brought against the show and its production companies, ratings were so good that counsel for the defense were directed by Warner Bros. executives not to jeopardize the unexpected ratings bonanza by accepting a nearly finalized settlement deal with Amedure’s family. (Warner Bros. was, at the time, part-owner of Court TV.)
The tabloid talk show is as American an invention as the medium that birthed it, and nearly as old. Its earliest incarnation can be traced to the 1960s and the debut of The Phil Donahue Show. A University of Notre Dame grad and former Ohio radio personality, Phil Donahue started one of the nation’s first talk radio shows in 1963. Four years later, in 1967, he took his act to the small screen, where his innovative format and willingness to discuss controversial topics quickly made him a star. In 1970, the show went into national syndication and, by the middle of that decade, had become something of a phenomenon, winning Donahue a slew of daytime Emmys for Best Talk Show Host and gobbling up ratings.
From the beginning, The Phil Donahue Show distinguished itself through its host’s tradition of interacting directly with the studio audience, a tactic which would arguably become his most significant contribution to the genre. The Phil Donahue Show blurred the lines between spectator and participant in a way no show had done before, and this became not only a key component of its appeal but also a significant factor of its success. In an interview with the Television Academy in 2001, Phil Donahue himself drew a correlation between the legendary run of his show and his nontraditional approach to hosting, stating, “There would have been no ‘Donahue’ without that studio audience.” Still, it isn’t fair that that technique alone should own the ranch when it comes to the show’s success. At least a few acres belong to Donahue’s revolutionary investigation of subjects that were shocking at the time or that otherwise lacked representation on broadcast television. Targeted at “women who think,” his very first episode featured an interview with an atheist, which raised the hackles of some conservative watch groups.
The success of The Phil Donahue Show––rebranded as simply Donahue in 1974––influenced a generation of hosts who sprang up in its wake, and by the 1980s its imitators were legion. In 1983, Sally Jesse Raphael, recognizable by her trademark strawberry bob and oversized red-framed glasses, went on the air to scandalize Regan-era conservatives with her liberal takes on controversial issues from homosexuality to abortion. In 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted, introducing the country to the woman who would become Donahue’s most famous successor.The following year, former 20/20 anchor Geraldo Rivera debuted his eponymous show and quickly set the standard for what would become another salient trope of trash TV: oppositional guests who become violent. In a 1988 episode, Rivera pitted African American rights activist Roy Innis against John Metzger, a white supremacist and the son of Tom Metzger, founder of the infamous white nationalist group the White Aryan Resistance. After Metzger referred to him as an Uncle Tom, among other epithets, Innis attacked Metzger, attempting to strangle him. The ensuing scuffle resulted in thrown chairs and, for Rivera, a broken nose.
But the most momentous year for the genre must be 1991, which saw the first seasons of three shows that are arguably more synonymous with trash TV than Donahue, Raphael, Rivera, and certainly Winfrey, combined: Maury, Jenny Jones, and the godfather, The Jerry Springer Show. If trash tv were a religion, these three shows might comprise its unholy trinity. To degrees far exceeding their competitor programs, these shows stretched the limits of what constituted appropriate content to include not merely the indecent or socially indelicate but also the tacky, tawdry, cheap, and risqué. Whereas Sally, for instance, might invite single mothers onto her show to discuss their nontraditional lifestyle and their struggle to make ends meet, Maury brought them on to solve the mystery of their offspring’s paternity, popularizing the televised DNA test and his revelatory catchphrase, “You ARE the father!” The guests on Geraldo might occasionally insult one another or even overturn a few pieces of the set’s furniture, but on The Jerry Springer Show, the brawling, far from incidental, was in fact the point. An episode simply wasn’t complete unless one guest had physically attacked another over the audience’s mantra-like chanting of the hosts first name. These shows––equal part lawless, decadent, and perverse––pushed the envelope in formerly unimaginable ways, and certain of their predecessors couldn’t match pace. In 1996, after almost thirty years, Donahue went off the air.
For anyone hoping to compile a taxonomy of American talk shows in Donahue’s vein, the list is daunting and includes, in addition to those already mentioned: The Ricki Lake Show, The Montel Williams Show, Dr. Phil, Leeza, and The Marsha Wingfield Show, as well as a variety of 21st century programming including The Steve Wilkos Show (the host of which began his career as the beloved on-set security guard on The Jerry Springer Show) and arbitration-style reality programming like Judge Joe Brown and The People’s Court. Donahue’s fingerprints are all over the genre, even today, when the specific mode he helped pioneer has largely fallen out of fashion. Whenever Ellen DeGeneres begins her show by dancing amongst her audience, or each time Wendy Williams clambers through hers during her “Ask Wendy” segment––each time she refers to them as her “co-hosts” and solicits their opinion on issues mostly pertaining to celebrity gossip during the Hot Topics with which she opens each show––they are playing in Donahue’s shadow. In an interview, Oprah Winfrey once said, “Without Donahue, there would be no me,” and the same might be said generally of what we now recognize as the tabloid talk show.
“Now which of these ways would you choose to reveal your secret crush on someone? A) would you write that person a letter? B) would you tell that person in private in case he rejects you? Or C) would you tell that person that you’re gay and you hope he is too on national television in front of millions of people?” asks Jenny Jones, at the top of “Same-Sex Secret Crushes,” which was meant to appear during the show’s fourth season. Here is Jenny Jones thoroughly in her element, positioned not on the set’s brightly-lit stage but rather amongst her lives tudio audience. This, too, is a trope of the trash TV genre, where hosts often cede the formal stage to their guests (and, occasionally, to the security guards who must rush in, if and when things get physical; there is always on these shows the threat of violence, and the treat is not always empty) and instead spend much of their time roaming the aisles and rows of seats where sit the alternately cheering, jeering, and leering members of the audience. This arrangement serves a few purposes, the most obvious of which may be that it emphasizes the audience’s role in the televisual spectacle. Because Jones––performing here less as a host in the traditional talk television mold and more as a cunning emcee in some vaguely absurdist cabaret––is standing with the crowd, they fill every frame she’s in. The audience knows this, of course, and they behave accordingly: when Jones asks them if they would reveal a secret same-sex crush on national television in front of millions of viewers, a roar rises among them nearly before she has the full sentence out, and the cameras pan dutifully over their boisterous reactions. We see: a woman in a plaid hat, throwing a hand over her own mouth in disbelief; a man in a shirt with a white collar clapping and looking around himself as if he’s never heard anything so ridiculous; another man in a white turtleneck under a black vest shaking his head emphatically, his mouth making the shape of the word “no” several times while behind him, a woman, a green blur of revelry, claps her hands together over head, hollering something inaudible over the crowd’s clamor. If you watched Jenny Jones, you watched as much for the audience as for the guests themselves. Indeed, it was a not uncommon occurrence for members of the audience to become embroiled more influentially in the action, hurling insults at the guests, or even physically sparring with them.
In an episode from 2001 titled “Mom & I Scam More Than One Guy,” in which mother-daughter duo Heather and Kathy, self-professed experts “in the art of scamming men,” detail their exploits cheating men out of money, cars, dinners, and other valuables, Heather, only fifteen, struts onto the stage wearing knee-high black books, a sparkling pink halter-top, and matching hot pants, her face a shellacked smear of glittered eye-shadow, rouge, and caked-on foundation. While the audience boos her and holds up signs reading “Got No Shame,” one man rises to lean into the microphone Jones so graciously extends to him and suggests that the lanky teenager is “suffering from a disease called No-ass-at-all,” which elicits a renewed round of cheers from the audience. “Fuck you,” Heather snarls back at him, at them, throwing her arms about. “Zip your lips! You just wish you could have this!” she says. “You don’t know me!” she says. A few moments later, when she announces her plans to find a man to pay for the breast implants she needs as an investment in her future (she plans to become a stripper, like her mother), a woman in the audience wonders, into Jones’s ever-ready mic, “Why don’t you find someone to buy a chisel to get that stuff off your face?” “You wish you could have it on your face, bitch!” is Heather’s appropriately nonsensical, childish retort.
When her mother appears, it is in a neon yellow tube dress with a diamond shape cut from the middle, revealing her belly ring. Like her daughter, she clambers across the stage in black patent leather boots, her arms thrown haughtily over her head––her own cheering squad. The garter around one thigh, a bit too on the nose, calls back to the scrunchie ringing one of Heather’s wispy biceps, and the reception she receives is no less hostile than her daughter’s. “I just wanna tell all you guys,” Kathy yells at the audience, “you can all kiss my ass!” The camera cuts between shots of Kathy and Heather and shots of the ravenous audience and shots of Jenny Jones herself, an incongruently calm force amidst the hurl surrounding her, her face slightly dubious, slightly bemused, slightly discerning.
Such is the basic tenor of Jenny Jones. Ostensibly “regular people”––where regular, of course, means people who are not famous, and often poor––are introduced under a sing-songy title that makes idle poetry of whatever socially shameful situation they find themselves in. They are paraded in front of the audience––sometimes literally, as in the case of Kathy and Heather, who were made to cross a long, catwalk-like structure that cut right through the crowd of their detractors on their way to the stage. The audience, unfailingly, is antagonistic. Jenny Jones, far from moderating anything, plays off a brutal interest in her show’s ratings as something like genuine curiosity in peoples’ stories, and she’s good at it. As an interviewer, even when she is properly dismayed by the shenanigans with which she is confronted––such as when Heather discloses that her mother has been teaching her to strip “and to give lap dances” ––she is rarely, herself, judgmental. If you didn’t know that she has a vested interest in her guests’ humiliation, you could be forgiven for mistaking her for an impartial––even trustworthy––presence.
Jenny Jones aired its first episode in 1991, and it is easy to think of it as an indelible product of that decade, in all its paranoid decadence, its excesses and mindless thrills. Watching old episodes, the visuals, too, are all entirely of the 90s––the color stories are all staid and muted, as if everything has been colored using a pack of Crayola Bold markers, except when there’s an unexpected snag of neon, an occasional flash of deep red or feckless blue. Too, the storylines all have the ring of 1990s daytime destitution, and they reflect the moral distance between then and now: a show where a fifteen-year-old girl is body shamed, subjected to overt, public sexual scrutiny, and then released into the care of her obviously negligent mother would never––one hopes––make it onto the air today. Likewise, the central conceit of “Same-Sex Secret Crushes” seems somewhat untenable from the vantage point of an historical position that has seen the overturning of both DOMA and DADT and, for the first time, an openly gay presidential candidate, if only because inherent in the very premise is the idea that there is something shameful about the same-sex part. Depending on whom you believe, Jenny Jones’s producers either lied to Jonathan Schmitz outright, leading him to believe that his admirer was a woman, or they took a position of neither confirmation nor denial. In either case, the hope, surely, was that Jonathan would have some sort of large, adverse reaction to the news. A situation where one person comes out as someone else’s secret admirer and then the two end up together might make for “good TV” according to some measures, but let’s face it: Jenny Jones is not that kind of show. That is, after all, the ambush style that characterizes so much of Jenny Jones’s programming, and the programming of the entire cottage industry of which she was a part: lure ordinary people on the show under one pretense, surprise them with another, and let the cameras roll.
As it turns out, the segment is rather unexciting, at least by the show’s standards. Jones is as impassive and business casual as ever in a shoulder-padded yellow blazer over a shirt striped with muted hues of orange that mimic the color scheme of her drab soundstage, her blond hair styled conservatively about her face. “I’d like you now to meet Donna and Scott,” she says, gesticulating with one hand and grasping a microphone and a bundle of notecards in the other. Donna’s long, curly brown hair tumbles over the shoulders of her red sweater as she smiles not quite into the camera, her eyes roving instead over the audience, taking everything in. It’s clear that she is delighted by the proceedings, thrilled to be a part of all of it, but of course, of all those involved––Scott, Jonathan, even Jenny Jones––the stakes are lowest for Donna, who is a necessary but minor character, merely the connective thread between Scott, a longtime friend, and Jonathan, her neighbor and sometimes-handyman. Donna has nothing to gain, really, should Scott’s confession lead to romance, and nothing to lose should Jonathan reject Scott’s overtures––at least not according to any expected or predictable outcome. Next to her, Scott, with far more chips on the table, seems ambivalent, equivocal, as if he isn’t so sure anymore whether this is a good idea, a wary, even skeptical smile barely parting his lips. In his lap, one of his hands grasps the other.
“Donna has been helping Scott pursue his secret crush on Jon,” Jones says. “Jon’s backstage, he can’t hear us. Um, how bad’s the crush?” she asks. Jones is successful because she treats seriously what her surroundings––the canned, cheap-looking soundstage, the frenzied and outspoken audience, the darting troupe of camera men––refuse to, and speaking to Scott she is as forthright and interested as a therapist, or an anthropologist. “Tell me about the first time you met him. Where was he?” she asks.
“Well, basically, he was under a car, working on her break line,” Scott says, gesturing to Donna.
“And that was your first time? What was your first impression?” Jones implores him.
“Um…Well, I only saw the lower half of him, so you can imagine,” Scott says, eliciting a smattering of applause and a round of low, faintly scandalized “oohs” from the audience. He’s allusive and indirect, answering with a cagey, “Yeah, I’ve had a couple, yeah,” when Jones asks him if he’s had any fantasies about Jonathan.
“When he was under the car you had a fantasy about him,” prompts Jones.
“Yeah, something to do with like, brake oil lines snapping…” says Scott, not finishing his thought. The audience is titillated but it isn’t enough for Jenny Jones, and she works hard to perform the delicate trick of leading Scott toward the revelations that are almost certainly detailed on her notecards in a way that feels organic and unplanned. “You have another one that involves––you were in a hammock or something?” says Jones, as if she can’t quite remember. “Tell us about that fantasy.”
“I got a pretty big hammock in my yard, and, yeah,” Scott says, haltingly, as if deliberating the various pros and cons of divulging this information. “Yeah, I thought about tying him up in my hammock and, um…”
“And?” prods Jones, over the rising murmur of her audience’s excitement.
“Well, it entails like, whipped cream and champagne, stuff like that,” Scott confesses.
The audience: that chorus of “oohs,” of laughter and somewhat inimical applause, and a single voice, somehow, rising above it all, bleating out “ooh la la!”
From the start, one gets the feeling that Scott has lost some nerve he might have shown in earlier production meetings, where the vague outline of a fantasy involving “whipped cream and champagne, stuff like that” might have been imbued with more detail––something television-worthy. On screen, though, he projects a sudden reluctance, as if, presented with the reality of the cameras and the live studio audience, the bright studio lights and, maybe, the ream of release forms he’d had to sign when he arrived at the studio, he’s having second thoughts. Would he confess a secret same-sex crush, as Jones said, on national TV, in front of millions of people? He says “um” a lot, and it doesn’t seem to be because he isn’t sure what to say but rather that’s he’s trying to buy time. He stammers under Jones’s inquisitions, as if the situation is moving a pace or two faster than he is.
Of course, Scott’s hesitation might stem as much from the prospect of coming out about his feelings for Jonathan to Jonathan as it does from doing so within the milieu in which he now finds himself. Although 1995 was only a little more than generation ago, public sentiment regarding homosexuality has changed drastically. It’s easy to recognize how this cultural shift is reflected in the handling of LGBTQ characters and subjects on television today, in our post-Ryan Murphy, post-Orange Is the New Black world, but the landscape twenty-five years ago was another thing entirely. For context, it’s worth noting that Scott’s appearance on Jenny Jones occurred a full two years before Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom alter-ego Ellen Morgan famously came out on primetime, giving the genre its first gay lead character. (The show was cancelled the following year.) Will & Grace was more successful, maybe because it lacked the bait-and-switch essence of Ellen’s late-stage reveal, but it didn’t premier until 1998. Meanwhile, other mainstream shows, like the massively successful Friends, featured a distinctly 90s-style “wokeness” where homosexuality (and a host of other themes) was concerned, one that required that any representation of gay characters (or even the specter of homosexuality in the abstract) be accompanied by a regressive, knee-jerk homophobia. Even when attempts at incorporating homosexuality into storylines were backed by more genuine impulses, such as the now-forgotten, Charles S. Dutton-led sitcom Roc, whichfeatured what many critics consider to be network television’s first same-sex marriage in a 1991 episode titled “Can’t Help Loving That Man,” and ABC’s single season of the drama My So-Called Life, from 1994, which featured among its supporting characters Ricky Vasquez, a queer teen who struggles with abuse and homelessness, tended to treat homosexuality as a problem to be dealt with instead of a viable life experience to be explored. In other words, homosexuality occupied a peculiar, bifurcated position in the American zeitgeist of the 1990s, especially on TV, where it was occasionally an integrated part of the narratives of some stories and often the reliable butt of so many now-cringy jokes in others. On Friends, for instance,the vaguely homoerotic undertones of the close relationships between the (straight) male characters––particularly between roommates Joey Tribbiani and Chandler Bing––were as frequently plundered for comic material that now seems awkward and dated as were situational gags involving the series’ many gay satellite characters, such as Ross’s ex-wife, who left him for a woman, or Chandler’s father, who came out as homosexual when Chandler was still young.
Tabloid-style talk shows like Jenny Jones often performed both tricks at once, giving over their screen time to a variety of members of the LGBTQ community and allowing them, as much as is possible within the form, to speak for themselves, while quite literally laughing in their faces, or worse. The Queer Encyclopedia of Film and Television notes that Jenny Jones and other shows “are significant because they at once make sexual and gender nonconformity public and visible while providing venues for the societal anxieties and hostilities that sexual and gender nonconformists evoke.” With the studio audience so central to the conceit of these shows, those anxieties and hostilities often take center stage. It is unlikely Scott didn’t know this, if only because it is unlikely that Scott wasn’t acquainted with the show. Guests of Jenny Jones frequently began as viewers, lured onto the show by its capricious promise of notoriety and the casting calls that played at the beginning or end of commercial breaks. (“If you’re upset because your teen daughter is obsessed with having sex, please call 312-836-9453,” intones one such notice that appears during the “Mom & I Scam More Than One Guy” episode.) In other words, appearing on Jenny Jones was rarely something you stumbled into accidentally; nor was it the sort of situation where producers were out actively scouting potential guests; rather, you submitted yourself. You called the number on the bottom of your screen because the ad wondering if you or anyone you knew were fostering a secret same-sex crush seemed to speak directly to you, was in fact too prescient to be ignored. Indeed, in the crude democracy of tabloid television, the truest sign of fandom might be a willingness to throw oneself into the fray, to sacrifice oneself on the altar of public scrutiny in service of good TV. As a guest told Jenny in an episode from the show’s seventh season, “Everyone should come at least one time and make an ass of themselves on your show.”
Perhaps it is in the spirit of good citizenry, then, that Scott continues, despite his apparent reservations. The audience, in any case, is uncharacteristically amiable, and soon Scott begins to settle into his surroundings, loosening. To say he seems altogether more comfortable as the segment progresses is not quite accurate; rather, he seems to lean into the joke––for there is undoubtedly something farcical and deeply camp about all of this. This is certainly not lost on Scott, a fact highlighted by his kitschy quips about hammocks and whipped cream and epitomized by the image of the coveted Jonathan, half-under Donna’s car, shirtless and drenched in car oil. It is as if Scott has figured out a way to inhabit the joke with a certain degree of agency. His answers to Jones’s questions become increasingly wry, if no more self-assured. He responds in the affirmative when Jones asks if Jonathan knows that Scott is gay, and when she asks if Jonathan is also homosexual, it is Scott’s glib “Anything’s possible” that tickles the audience over Donna’s quick and unequivocal “No.” When Jones asks Scott to share exactly what it is about Jonathan he finds so attractive, he answers, “Um, he’s got a cute little hard body, you know. One you just want to pick up and put in your curio cabinet, you know? Dust him off once in a while. He’s just a tiny little cute thing. He’s gorgeous.” Many gay men might recognize this trick, and the aplomb with which Scott performs it for Jenny’s cameras: if you can speak from inside the joke, it is difficult to be totally the object of its ridicule. This might be the key difference between the representation offered by the daytime talk shows of the 1990s and the mainstream programming of the same era, where the in-on-the-joke positions are always-already occupied by the status quo.
“Let’s get Jon out here to see who has the crush on him!”
Enter, then, Jon, stage left. In a striped Nehru shirt, pleated slacks, and loafers, he strides quickly across a brief riser before joining Donna and Scott where they are seated near the center of the stage. He greets Donna with a hug and a light, brotherly kiss on her cheek. When he reaches out to shake Scott’s hand there is an awkward moment as Scott tries to make it an embrace, pulling Jonathan close and throwing an arm around his neck. Jonathan’s resistance to this is evident from the angle he tries to maintain, turned slightly away from Scott, and from the way that Scott grasps him. For a moment, Scott burrows his face into the dip where Jonathan’s neck meets his shoulder. Whatever is said between the two of them is inaudible over the cheering, clapping crowd.
Jonathan, it should be noted, is not the “tiny little thing” Scott described only moments earlier. He is not tall of stature, but neither is he a slight presence. He has a wrestler’s sturdy build, muscular and compact. In close ups, he is mostly chin and jaw muscle, the rest of his features puckering at the center of his face, like a button in the middle of a pillow. The banded collar of his shirt is snug around his neck, the uppermost button straining perceptibly below the moving point of his Adam’s apple. He’s clean shaven, his thick hair parted down the middle, cut short around the sides and slightly longer on top. He takes the open chair next to Scott’s. A long shot discloses their proximity, and Scott’s legs spread so wide his left knee grazes Jonathan’s, or appears to.
“Hi, Jon,” says Jones. “Did you think Donna had the crush on you?”
“Did I? No, we’re good friends,” he says. Like Scott, his hands are folded in his lap.
“Well, guess what,” says Jones, “it’s Scott who has the crush on you.”
At the moment of this reveal, the camera is zoomed rather close on Jonathan, his wide shoulders and game, smiling face filling the frame. He looks to his right, but it is not clear whether he is looking at Scott or Donna or both. “You lied to me!” he exclaims, and though there is laughter in his voice, there is not quite surprise. Jones spends the next few minutes filling Jonathan in on what transpired before he joined his friends on stage. She mentions the hammock, the whipped cream, the “under-the-car fantasy,” all of which Jonathan takes, or appears to take, with surprising grace. His grin is sheepish, not threatening; his eyebrows arc with surprise but not necessarily revulsion when Jones details Scott’s lust. When Jones asks about his “status,” Jonathan admits that he isn’t currently seeing anyone but that he is “definitely heterosexual, I guess you could say.” He appears awkward, but not volatile. Nothing about his composure suggests the time bomb that, maybe, began ticking at just this moment.
“Did you have any idea that he liked you this much?” asks Jones. He did not, although, he says, Donna had previously shared that Scott found him attractive after their first meeting, which he says was flattering.
“You thought it was flattering,” interjects Jones, “but there’s no way?”
“No, no,” says Jonathan.
At the end of the segment, before the commercial break, a title card appears on the screen: “3% of men report having sexual fantasies about their best friend of the same sex.”
In the 911 call Jonathan Schmitz placed in the moments after he killed Scott Amedure he is distraught and inconsolable. “I think I just shot a man,” he says.
“Ok,” says the calm, almost motherly voice of the operator. “Calm down, okay?”
“I think I just shot this guy!” Jonathan cries, his voice pitched to the frequency of anguish.
“Okay, why did you do that?” asks the operator, but it’s less as if she’s seeking some sort of logic and more as if Schmitz is a child who has confessed to some youthful misdemeanor––a candy bar pilfered casually from a supermarket impulse rack, or a fight in the schoolyard––and it is her responsibility to make sure he grasps the appropriate lesson.
“Because he fucking picked me up on national TV and he’s a homosexual!” Schmitz wails.
At his criminal trial, Jonathan’s attorneys couched their defense in an argument of diminished capacity. A diminished capacity defense is similar to but distinguished from an insanity defense in that the latter attempts to relieve the defendant of culpability while the former merely seeks a lesser conviction––and, by extension, a more lenient sentence. Whereas insanity defenses, when argued successfully, tend to result in verdicts of not guilty by virtue of, diminished capacity defenses, on the other hand, recognize the defendant’s guilt, just not their intentionality. In Jonathan’s case, the goal was never exoneration; instead, his lawyers hoped that by proving to the jury that Jonathan was mentally incapable of forming intent to kill Scott––that it was a spontaneous, unpredictable action––they could have his charges reduced from first to second-degree murder. In the end, it worked.
The trial revealed Jonathan’s long history of poor mental health and his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Prone to rash, reckless decisions and dark bouts of depression, Jonathan was an apparently histrionic guy who built alters to ex-girlfriends in his living room and was known to lock himself in closets, literally nailing the door shut from the inside. Given this history, the defense argued that the peculiar chain of events that culminated in Scott’s death––the ambush Jonathan had suffered on Jenny Jones, the betrayal he’d felt had been perpetrated against him by Scott and Donna (“We’re good friends,” he’d said of her, during the taping), and what he described as Scott’s unrelenting stalking of him when they all returned from Chicago––had triggered in Jonathan symptoms of the bipolar disorder he would later be diagnosed with, as well as the “psychological effects of untreated Graves’ disease.”
Jonathan’s eventual conviction on charges of second-degree murder is interesting because the charge describes, principally, an act that lacks premeditation. A conviction on charges of second-degree murder suggests that although at the precise moment that Jonathan shot Scott (twice) he fully intended to kill him, up until that very moment, he hadn’t any true plan to take Scott’s life. This ruling seems ignorant of significant particulars of the event in question, namely that, before arriving at Scott’s trailer, Jonathan had driven to his bank to make a cash withdrawal, then to a firearms supplier where he bought a 12-gauge pump action shotgun, then to another location where he purchased ammunition. It’s also suspiciously ignorant of the detail that Jonathan, after approaching Scott’s front door, went back to his own car to retrieve the shotgun. More interesting, however, is how coyly the defense nods to another well-worn judicial tactic often employed in cases where an ostensibly heterosexual man stands accused of murdering a homosexual or otherwise sexually- or gender-nonconforming person: the so-called gay panic defense. In legal terms, the gay panic defense holds that a defendant acted violently in direct response to unwanted same-sex sexual advances. As a legal strategy, the gay panic defense (alternately: trans panic, LGBTQ panic) has proven somewhat unreliable, and much of the legal community have adopted views that consider its use unethical; as of 2019, seventeen states have passed legislation banning gay panic defenses. Jonathan’s lawyers were wise to downplay this aspect of the story in their arguments, insisting on Jonathan’s general feelings of betrayal and the ways in which the stress of the situation may have compounded his underlying psychological issues, which gingerly sidesteps the issue of sexuality. It also helpfully avoids the question the prosecution would have seized on, which is why Jonathan waited three days to kill Scott, as immediacy is often a key component in deciding gay panic defenses.
No matter how much Jonathan’s attorneys might have hoped to avoid too frank allusions to gay panic defenses in their own strategy, the diminished capacity argument carries the implication nevertheless, and the issue was continually revisited, not only in Jonathan’s criminal trials but also in the civil suit brought against Jenny Jones, et al. In fact, the idea that Jonathan suffered an episode of panic related to Scott’s propositions was integral in that case, which argued, in essence, that the show and its production companies were responsible for Scott Amedure’s death because they had not done their due diligence in vetting Jonathan as a guest and because they should have known that the situation they exposed him to could lead to the eventual tragic outcome. Geoffrey Fieger, the attorney who represented the Amedure family in the civil case, convincingly laid the blame directly at Jenny Jones’s feet, stating in a later interview that Jonathan had in the past exhibited a “propensity for violence” and that “the show lit the fuse. Within one week, Scott Amedure was dead of a gunshot wound to the chest because the minute Jonathan Schmitz left that show, he got crazier and crazier and crazier and crazier, and he identified the source of his belief that the whole world would now consider him to be gay as Scott Amedure. And he killed him. He walked up to his door, pointed a gun at his chest, he didn’t say word, and blew him away.” Fieger’s assessment certainly jives with Jonathan’s own reasoning when the 911 operator asked him directly, only minutes after he’d pulled the trigger: “Because he picked me up on national TV and he’s a homosexual.” But it too ignores what seem like relevant details, such as the note Scott left on Jonathan’s car hours before Jonathan killed him, which read, “If you ever want to get it off, I’m only one who has the right tool.” Curiously, it also leaves out Jonathan’s trip to his car to retrieve the weapon. However, it convinced the first jury, who found in favor of the Amedure’s family and awarded them twenty million dollars––even if that verdict was overturned on appeal.
Gay panic defenses are problematic for a number of reasons, chief among them being the position inherent to their logic that same-sex sexual attraction in and of itself is capable of provoking violence, especially murder. They take a perversely literal approach to homophobia, where homosexuality is capable of instilling actual, palpable fear, and push victim blaming to absurd extremes. On the other hand, insofar as they are almost exclusively claimed by heterosexual men, they raise interesting questions about the limits and precarious nature of American masculinity. The more salient question, then, might not be whether there is any efficacy to these types of defenses, but how can the mere prospect of homosexuality inspire such life-or-death fear?
And yet, none of this seems to truly get at Jonathan’s motivations. His behavior in the episode is nonchalant enough that it is difficult to imagine the violence that lay in wait. Were those harmless, jokey fantasies that Scott confessed on the show really so revolting or unsettling to Jonathan as to lead him to murder? And did Jenny Jones indeed light the fuse? When she testified at the civil trial, Jones denied responsibility for the incident, stating that nothing about Jonathan’s behavior while he was in her presence indicated the terrifying actions he would soon commit. She also denied allegations that her producers had provided Jonathan, Scott, and Donna with alcohol in the green room prior to filming, and, further, denied that her producers had intentionally mislead Jonathan into believing that his secret admirer would be a woman. Also relevant to the case were questions about what happened immediately following the filming. Afterward, Jonathan, Scott and Donna were gifted a tab at the hotel bar where the show had put them up, and Scott’s mother would later testify that Scott told her that he and Jonathan had had sex that night. (This was never corroborated by Jonathan.) Further complicating matters was a spontaneous declaration made by Scott’s roommate to the paramedics that they should “be careful” because Scott was HIV positive––a fact which, according to some version of events, Scott disclosed to Jonathan only after they had had sex.
In considering the murder of Scott Amedure and all that lead up to it, one is confounded by the sheer amount of threads to follow, the endless lines of questioning that seem, when first taken up, to be headed somewhere significant but which, inevitably, arrive at the same unsatisfying conclusions. Perhaps there are no satisfying conclusions. Perhaps any attempts to impose a coherent, logical narrative to the story are bound to result in failure.
What remains compelling about the incident, however, is its ongoingness, and how that ongoingness stems from a now effectively defunct television genre, one that was always at least ostensibly disposable. In a 2017 interview taped shortly after Jonathan’s release on parole, Scott’s brother, Frank Amedure, Jr., sobs into the camera. “I hope you’re sorry” is his message for Jonathan. “We won’t ever be the same,” he says, his face streamed with tears.
Things would never the same for Jonathan either, or for his family, who were hounded by cameras immediately following Jonathan’s release. “How does it feel to be free?” a camera man from The Daily Mail asks, approaching Jonathan as he crosses the parking lot of a strip mall in Pontiac, Michigan, with his family, after what was likely his first meal on the outside in almost twenty years.
“Fuck off! Get away from us!” says one of Jonathan’s relatives, a woman in a flower-printed shirt and a pink sweater. She swipes at the camera, trying to knock it to the ground, destroy it.
“Do you have anything to say to Scott’s family?” the camera man persists.
“Do you want me to call the police?” a white-haired woman says, probably Jonathan’s mother.
The camera man says, “I have a right to be here.”
For his part, Jonathan does not interact with the reporter. Instead, the brim of a white baseball cap pulled low over his face, he climbs into the passenger seat of a waiting SUV and closes the door. For a moment, a glare of sun across the window obscures his image, but when the camera man repositions himself, there he is again, slightly smiling, waving at the relative who is standing outside the car, drowning out the reporter’s repeated “Do you have anything to say to Scott’s family?” with her own shouts of “Love you! Love you!”