November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

FOR A FEW HOURS ON THE AFTERNOON of Thurs., Oct. 31, Jenny Jones took the stand in a courtroom in Pontiac, Mich. This was, in a sense, a nightmarish reversal of her awn. Jenny Jones Show—the host on display in a guest’s chair without a script. Looking somber but not unduly so (and appropriately de-glammed, as if her makeup person had quit before finishing the job), Jones seemed to sleepwalk through questions about her program. Apparently your average Russian czar was better informed about the condition of the serfs than Jones is about the show that bears her name.

Jones’s testimony did not, in all fairness, have much legal relevance to the murder case at hand, in which 26-year-old Jon Schmitz, a waiter, admits to having shot and killed bartender Scott Amedure, an acquaintance, three days after the two returned home to Detroit from their March 6, 1995, appearance on Jones in Chicago. Her producers have already admitted that, for an episode on secret same-sex crushes, they had recruited Amedure to confess his romantic aspirations to Schmitz—that is, to emotionally ambush Schmitz, who hadn’t been told that his admirer was a man.

Jones, practicing what in White House scandals is called deniability, explained from the stand that the only information she usually receives is what is contained in a folder of background material prepared by her staff and often presented to her just before airtime. She did not come off as terribly on the ball. Asked whether she thought Schmitz, who is heterosexual (and, according to his family, manic-depressive), should have been informed of his admirer’s gender, she answered, with an impressive degree of moral obtuseness, no, “because [the show] was based on the premise of his surprise.” Asked if she had any special talents as a host, she responded, “It may be questionable.”

This is one point on which Jones is being too hard on herself. A former backup singer for Wayne Newton and the 1986 first-prize winner in a Star Search comedy competition, she is as qualified to run a talk show as Oprah, Kathie Lee or, of late, RuPaul. However, it would be overreaching to treat Jones’s court appearance—which, under the circumstances, was more freakish than historic—as a symbolic trial of all talk TV hosts. It’s too late: The widely deplored sensationalism of talk shows began to grow tamer last June with the instant success of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, which is as sugar-dusted as a doughnut shop. Now Charles Perez, the male Ricki Lake, is gone; Geraldo Rivera is more prominent as a commentator on the O.J. Simpson case; and Oprah devotes one show a month to book chat. Of course this does not mean that talk shows are now worthy of taking on Voltaire. Jones, whose ratings have remained steady since the killing, recently hosted a titillating but inane episode titled “Sexy, Single and Ready to Mingle.”

Jones’s testimony, broadcast on Court TV and then replayed on news outlets everywhere, made for much worthier television than her own show. I liked the way her sad, tired face lit up, fleetingly, when she testified that her employees simply call her Jenny.

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