Everybody's got a story to tell, right? We all do, for as fortunate as some of us may be, no one gets through life without some measure of heartbreak and difficulty. We often measure character by the way people respond to tragedies in their lives, admiring those who show strength and positivity. Sharing stories of personal challenge is as old as humankind, for it has great use. For the storyteller, there is the opportunity to express strong emotions, to be validated, to gain sympathy and comfort and perhaps desperately needed assistance. For the listeners, we are given the opportunity to show empathy, to understand more about an experience we don't have...or perhaps we do have, and we then can share commonalities. We train our ears to listen and our hearts to open, and if we can, build our own characters by offering help to someone who is in need. But there are other less-altruistic aspects to listening to another person's tale of woe: the baser reflex of gawking at a horror we don't have to deal with, feeling the shock without having to take any consequences, and reveling in the old adage, "Someone's always got it worse."

I was just two-and-a-half when the original long-running (first on radio, then TV) NBC series "Queen For A Day"  went off the air, but the concept certainly remained part of popular culture. Sometimes we little girls would pretend to be "Queen For A Day," dressing up in a paper crown, using a tablecloth for a royal cape, and perhaps a big serving spoon for a scepter. I knew that the "Queen" was all-powerful and that she got all her wishes for a whole day, which seemed like the coolest thing ever. Who wouldn't want to be "Queen For A Day?" What I didn't realize was that it wasn't a typical game show -- it was more a strange combination of "To Tell The Truth," "The Price Is Right," a talk show, and "Peyton Place." A handful of everyday women would appear and tell their (short) stories of hardship to host Jack Bailey, a thin-mustachioed former World's Fair barker, as he would try to keep them moving along in a rather unnaturally cheerful fashion. The studio audience would then at the end of the show clap the loudest for the woman whose sob story seemed most deserving, and she would then be given a bouquet of roses, a crown, and an assortment of the sponsors' kitchen gadgetry as a bonus.

I watched this entire episode from March of 1958 of "Queen For A Day" the other day (one of only eight that remain -- the rest were erased). It was probably the first time I had seen it, for this would not have been a program my mother would have watched. Mired as we have been for years in confessional reality TV and exploitative talk shows and the 15 minutes of fame so many seem to crave, seeing "Queen For A Day" was genuinely an entirely different experience. It is completely bizarre, jumping from a tired-looking, twin-set-wearing mother's stoic plea for a hospital gurney so that her son with polio could go outside for fresh air, to a fashion show of current ladies' styles, to the amazing merits of a deep freezer, to another story of a young mother whose husband was shot and killed in a hunting accident and desperately needed training to be able to get a job to support her daughters.

There are no tears or histrionics or sad, swelling music. What got to me was the contestants' demeanors in the context of the times. In 1958, women's choices in life were still so few. The overwhelming majority married early, had children, and were expected to remain homemakers for the rest of their lives. Whether by choice or default didn't matter much. Women were second-class citizens, and most completely dependent upon their husbands for survival. As much as they try (and succeed) keeping their composure onstage, the "Queen For A Day" contestants seem deeply shamed and depressed, humiliated that they must ask a group of strangers to clap for their awful lives or order to get the gurney or the cosmetology class or wood to build two sets of bunk beds for the 4 little girls who share a bed in their young parents' trailer home. But they ask, because they need better for their children and have nowhere else to turn but a stupid Hollywood TV show.

It made me kind of sick to see the audience clap meter, spectacularly crass and cruel. The winning "Queen" is of course actually the "Queen of Having The Worst Life," and there is not much smiling going on at the end. What in the hell is there to smile about when the only reason you are holding roses and getting a sewing machine and a set of new cookware along with your cosmetology class is that your husband got his head blown off? Congratulations, Queen, the show says, we'll grant your little wish and cheer up, why don't you? What woman wouldn't be thrilled to have all this kitchen crap? Don't you worry your pretty little head about your troubles anymore, dearie -- here's a new sailor-style midi blouse and capri pants! I understand that these were still early days of television and that the sponsors were going to hawk their domestic wares to a captive audience. But it's all still so blind to how crushing it must have been to swallow pride, ask for help, and then not get enough goddamn claps. You go back to your misery, worse off than you were before for asking and being denied, hopes raised and then dashed in front of the world. You go back and your kid is still sick, your life sucks, and you have no way out. And the "Queen?" She's still a second-class citizen, and will remain so after the klieg lights are turned off and the audience files out.

I hope that in October of 1964, perhaps times were changing enough for women that "Queen For A Day" lost its appeal, a relic from a time I'm glad I never had to live through as an adult.

"Queen For A Day," NBC-TV, March 1958 (full episode)