Booking guests for a right-brain morning show is a little understood art that I’ve had lots of time to practice, because between KTLA and E! News Live, GMA Sunday and World News Now, I’ve pretty much had every notable name in Hollywood & New York in studio, on-set for interviews. And let me go on record as saying – best celebrity guest – appearance after appearance – hands down, Richard Simmons. I would book Richard Simmons over, say, Nicole Kidman, every time – hand to god. Let me explain.
First, the only way to do nearly any celebrity interview, in my opinion, is in the “gang bang” style. That’s when all your on-set talent join in on the interview. In the case of (the original) KTLA Morning News, that would be Sam, Mark, Carlos & Barbara all closing in on one guest. The interview is transformed into a conversation when five people are talking freely. It’s not a question/ answer/ question/ answer tennis match between a host and a guest. And in the KTLMN’s case, there was always the wild card – Mark Kriski – who would stop the show with some outrageous, out-of-the-blue question that would totally un-arm the guest and usually get them to play along.
Case in point – Colin Powell, the Chairman of The Joint Chiefs of Staff during the gulf war. We interviewed Mr. Powell around 1992 or 1993. If I recall correctly, he was plugging a book and came to KTLA because we were, by far, the station with the largest reach in Los Angeles. This was early on so we kind of just decided to experiment with all four talent joining Mr. Powell in this discussion. Carlos and Barbara led with questions about the war, his military career, his job with Ronald Reagan as National Security Advisor… all that stuff that set up who he was and what he had done for our country. Then, as if right on cue, when the interview could have started to become boring if we continued down this path, Mark chimes in…
“Regular or Extra Crispy?”, Mark asked.
Mr. Powell sat there dumbfounded for a fraction of a second, wondering how the conversation could go from him being a National Security Advisor to his favorite form of KFC. But you could almost instantly see the second when he “got it”, and replied without hesitation,
“Well, Extra Crispy, of course”.
With that, everyone broke into a round of genuine, hysterical laughter. It was one of those “memorable moments” that consultants are always telling you to create in their show critique memos. It was an incredible risk on Mark’s part because there was just no telling how Mr. Powell would react. But with risk comes reward. I don’t think the interview was recoverable after that. And that’s a good thing, because for the remaining time we spent with Mr. Powell, it was a fun, lighthearted, engaging conversation. He got what he wanted – to plug his book – and we got what we wanted – an amazing, unpredictable interview with a world leader – but in our own KTLAMN style. And the bottom line for me is, it’s not about Mr Powell looking good, it’s about my hosts looking good. They sailed through a memorable interview that elevates them as personalities in the eyes of the viewers. That’s what it’s about, Preppy.
Which brings me to Richard Simmons. Richard “gets it”, big time. He doesn’t need to be produced. When he’s “on”, he’s the Energizer Bunny. Once, during an interview with Howie Mandell, while Sam, Carlos & Michele are chatting with him, Richard, who was scheduled to appear on the show in a later segment, just kinda crashes the set. It wasn’t planned or set-up, it just happened. And it was great television. Following that, during the break, our stage manager Neil S. Levine, who by now had become a character on the show, begins to sing an impromptu, made-up song about how he caught his lover with Richard Simmons. Richard returns from the green room “enraged”. You can script that kind of stuff.
Those kinds of moments are priceless. Sam’s uncontrollable and genuine laugh when Howie says he doesn’t want Richard following him is pure TV gold. Genuine laughs are the best TV ever. You can’t fake it.
My interview-booking analogy is Nicole Kidman. Now, I have nothing against Nicole. She’s a nice woman, sweet, beautiful, but, I’m sorry, a dull interview. But the EP’s of the 3 network morning shows would sell their grandmother’s souls to book a star like Nicole Kidman on their shows. Why? She’s A-list, absolutely. But she brings nothing to the show. She doesn’t engage your host(s), she’s completely predictable and the interview will be exactly what you expect it to be. No one has to step out of their comfort zone during an interview with Nicole Kidman. And that’s why the morning network shows are so tired. They’re comfortable. Richard, on the other hand, is a wild card. Who knows what the hell is going to happen when you set him loose in your studio. That’s morning television. That’s taking risks. And that’s how you book and produce morning interviews – by booking the right guest and letting whatever’s going to happen, happen.