“I’m Hosting as Fast as I Can”: Lessons Learned from a Master, Tom Bergeron of Dancing With the Stars and America’s Funniest Home Videos


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Last night, I attended a nice panel event at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences celebrating the upcoming 25th season of America’s Funniest Home Videos.  I’ve long admired the show, as there’s very little in the way of family programming that really has something for everyone of every age, and it’s succeeded on every possible level.

When it came time to discuss host Tom Bergeron’s departure and the search for a replacement, Executive Producer Vin Di Bona shared a few things that defined, for him, what made Bergeron such an ideal fit for the show for the last 14 years, really nailing the reason for Bergeron’s specific success with AFV and crystallizing my own thoughts on selecting the right hosts for different types of shows.

My impression has always been that a host (be it in magazine shows, reality shows, or any other corner of the TV universe) is there to facilitate rather than call attention to himself or herself, which is why you seldom see big personalities hosting shows unless they’re participants in the action as judges or adventurers.  Chris Harrison’s a great host for The Bachelor because he doesn’t project a lot of himself into the proceedings and is adept at keeping things moving.   You wouldn’t expect to see him hosting Dirty Jobs (which was reliant on Mike Rowe’s personality and participation) or  No Reservations (which was defined by Anthony Bourdain’s unique voice and perspective), but he’s perfect for a show that’s about other people, interrupted only by the occasional interview or setup.  Last night’s panel moderator, Mario Lopez, succeeds as a host on Extra because you know you like him, but the stories are the focus of whatever he’s sharing.

With America’s Funniest Home Videos, I feel like Bergeron hits a sweet spot between hosting and performing, in that he’s performing (delivering jokes) but in a way that’s shifting the focus away from himself to the action.  The payoff isn’t for his benefit, it’s for the benefit of the then-enhanced clip content.  He’s taking a funny thing and making it funnier without making it about himself… which is exactly what Rowe and Bourdain are masters at, but he differs from a Harrison or a Probst in that being relatable as a human being and getting his personality across is critical to his success.

When you watch shows like “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” you see a bunch of comedians commenting on each clip as it’s run over and over.  What’s happening there is that the joke about the clip becomes the focus of the comic, not the clip itself.  The comic is trying to top the action, and on shows with many comics, it starts to feel like a contest after a while.  Bergeron sets up a clip to maximize the impact of the content, then trails away with a fun piece of commentary.  That’s it.  Yes, it’s largely the effort of the writers that makes this work, but Bergeron… he’s just exactly the right guy for the job.  He’s not a comic, he’s a funny guy who’s there to support the content instead of himself.

This, I think, explains why Tom always balked at the cutesy alliterative copy I sometimes gave him on Dancing With the Stars in the early seasons.  “Tantalizing tangos” and “quintessential quicksteps” were turns of phrase, an idiot writer/producer’s version of showing off (hey, I was only five years into my career and not so nuanced yet) instead of supporting the host’s persona and in turn, enriching the material.  I finally got it in season three, but man, did I get schooled by overhearing him reading my copy in a booth one fateful afternoon.  The man knows what works and what doesn’t, which is why you’ll always hear him referring to himself as a broadcaster… he’s no mere word-repeating puppet, and isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and give you his two cents.

Check the VIDEO around the 8:05 remaining mark (the player counts backwards) to find out what Vin has to say.  Tom’s comment about being the Martin to the video clips’ Lewis a few seconds later is a gem, too.

 

Caucus Foundation Auction Time!


Most of you that follow the blog know that a few times a year the Caucus Foundation holds an auction to help fund its mission, and that usually, I participate in some capacity as a meetup/experience prize.  In the current auction, I’m in twice — once for brunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel and again for a one-hour phone consult.

This particular auction is special, as it’s got some really incredible meet-and greets including:

  • Chuck Fries, Godfather of the Television Movie and one of the few producers to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Culley Bunker, VFX artist whose work is featured in the new Lady Gaga G.U.Y. video and countless other music videos and other projects
  • Marc Fishman, an Emmy-winning Sound Re-Recording Mixer with credits on Bridesmaids and other big films
  • Leslie Brathwaite, the Grammy-winning mix engineer behind Pharrell’s HAPPY and projects for TLC, Jay-Z and too many artists to count
  • Suzanne de Passe, the iconic and influential Motown figure who helped discover the Jackson 5 and has continued on to a wildly successful career in music, film and television
  • Beth Bohn, founder of Beth Bohn Management in LA

Great experiences for a great cause!  Check ‘em out at http://www.charitybuzz.com/support/CaucusFoundation

On Flexibility


When I was young, I wanted to be a cartoonist more than anything.  I went to college, put out a couple of books that only did so-so in the marketplace, and came home one Christmas break to find an offer from an old friend to write a few commercials for Woody Woodpecker’s 50th Anniversary merchandise.  It wasn’t the same as my dream of working in comics, but I thought it might be fun.  It turned out to be quite an adventure and led to writing some regional television.

I was flexible, and it paid off as I discovered a talent for writing in a different medium.

I continued down the path as a writer, found myself an agent, and tried my hand at writing feature screenplays.  A few were well-received, so after I went to film school, I eventually moved to Los Angeles to chase that dream.

Halfway across the country, while watching television in a Texas hotel room, I saw the name of one of the only people I knew in Los Angeles scroll by in the end credits of a show.  By the time I got to California, I had an interesting lead on a job working with him in reality television, where I could be part of something that paid the bills until I managed to sell a screenplay.

Again, I was flexible.  I had no idea where it would lead me, but it sounded like fun.

I found myself enjoying reality television and the stability of the work.  I had the chance to work on a lot of interesting shows at a time when reality was still figuring out its most modern incarnation.  Survivor had made its debut that year, and reality was booming.  I put the traditionally-scripted dream away for a while and chased reality television hard enough to make a name for myself in it.

Guess what?   I had a great time.  A decade and a half later, I’m still having a great time.  I can count myself among the creative teams behind a respectable number of milestone shows in reality television.  I was nominated for an Emmy® in 2009.  I’ve written what some call the definitive text on producing for reality and traveled the world showing people how to tell stories more effectively in a corner of the business often derided for its fast, cheap and noisy approach to entertainment.  Yet, there’s sometimes a “gee whiz, you sold out and abandoned your dream” tone to the way a lot of students and young filmmakers talk to me that continues to drive me nuts.

I have a lot of respect for my friends who write, produce and direct films.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with Guardians of the Galaxy and Super writer/director James Gunn on some of his shorts (as a 1st and 2nd AD), written a short that featured Jenna Fischer and ran on the front page of NBC.com, and had meetings galore on different feature specs of my own.  Its fun, but it’s not my bread and butter… reality is.

I’ve had many years of working 50 weeks strong on reality shows.  For a period recently, I was handling two and three shows at a time during the height of Basketball Wives, Basketball Wives L.A. and the less popular Baseball Wives on VH1.  I should feel bad because my idealized fantasy screenwriting career didn’t take off?  I don’t think so.  With hundreds of hours of finished product all over the marketplace and a number of ratings triumphs to boot, I’ve enjoyed this unexpected twist more than you can imagine.  I’ve worked on shows featuring everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to George Hamilton to Gabrielle Carteris.  I’ve made good friends and worked with a great many of the folks on The Hollywood Reporter’s latest “25 Most Powerful People in Reality Television” list.

I get it.  Movies are cool.  They just are.  It would be fun to say I wrote Iron Man at parties. I have no regrets, though — wonderful things happen when you’re flexible in your career choices and surf new opportunities as they arise.

Heck, some of the best stuff I’ve seen in ages is on the web.  Few things make me laugh as hard as a good Glove and Boots video from Bento Box on YouTube, and surprise — that’s not feature writing, either.  Have a look:

 

All I’m saying is — look around you.  Realize that you can have a lot of fun with the many variations on your “ideal” career.  I’m glad I’ve had an opportunity to make my living as a storyteller… which I might not have if I’d turned up my nose at reality almost fifteen years ago.  I sometimes oversimplify my position by saying that the important thing is that your checks clear… not every project is your dream project, but every time you get paid for lending your creativity to something, it pours a little more water on that seed in your heart that working at a bank or a pallet yard might not.

The important thing is to make stuff and have fun.  Be flexible and enjoy the opportunities as they roll in.

 

Pep Talks with Eddie Pepitone #15: Troy DeVolld


A one-hour podcast with my pal, comedian Eddie Pepitone (late of Conan, Arsenio and the Steven Feinartz documentary THE BITTER BUDDHA) and his wife, Karen Simmons, one of my frequently recurring reality television coworkers.

Topics include reality television, pop surrealists, Allee Willis, Jennifer Pozner, tea at Harrods with my mother, and more.

 

Gardening Your Resume


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A job is a job is a job, unless the job is a non-job in the long run.

What the heck do I mean by that?  Let me explain.

In your early years as a reality television pro, you may be in a position where you have to take what comes. Obviously, you’d rather be on a prestigious network show rather than some deep-cable series about gross-out foods called WHAT DID I JUST EAT, but bills are bills and as long as the checks clear and the money is green, you’re better off working than not.

Once you’re really up and running, though, the shows you take can influence how valuable you seem to prospective employers on first blush.

When you’re plotting out a career, my advice is:

  • Don’t just work on one kind of show forever.  Switch it up.  Docusoap, Reality-competition, DIY, whatever.  It increases your chances of getting hired down the line because no one will look at your resume and say “Yeah, but she only does DIY shows.”
  • Gather some broadcast network credits.   There’s still a prestige associated with doing a show for ABC, CBS, FOX or NBC that makes your resume seem weightier. Just after my exit from BASKETBALL WIVES, I took a short run on HOLLYWOOD GAME NIGHT to pep up my resume.  The show was for NBC and with Jane Lynch hosting and Sean Hayes producing, I felt pretty sure that even though the position wasn’t going to be terribly story rich, it would at least net me a more current broadcast network credit than DANCING WITH THE STARS, which I’d been away from for going on 15 seasons.  Plus, I was able to add a game show to my resume and demonstrate my versatility on paper.  For the record, I have actually been in the room with an exec as he looked over a great story person I’d wanted to bring on and listened to him dismiss the gal by saying “Meh, not enough hits.”  Even if a network show bombs, it’s a bigger show in the eyes of some employers because it probably got more promotion and has more name recognition.
  • Take a promising show over the big paycheck sometimes.  We all want a nicer car, but if you pass up a network offer to take a basic cable show over a $200/wk difference in pay, I’d think that foolish — UNLESS, of course, the basic cable show seems to show real promise and offer a chance to do great work. I passed on a third season of DANCING WITH THE STARS to take FLIPPING OUT for Authentic/Bravo because the idea sounded cool.  The work I did on that show is something I’m genuinely proud of, and as hard as it was to leave a top network show behind, it was the right move for me at the time.

You’re Not Going to Make It.


You read that right.  YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT.

Of course, you COULD add an “UNLESS” to the end of that.  And you have to make your own UNLESSes.

Here are some serving suggestions:

UNLESS you lose that fantasy of what working in film and television is like and make an informed decision based on what it means to pursue a career in some of the most exclusionary professions on earth.

UNLESS you are able to cultivate emotional maturity.

UNLESS you are willing to invest the time it takes to develop your craft.

UNLESS you learn the invaluable lesson that being a decent human being might even get you more work than being especially talented.

UNLESS you are willing to invest the time to get to know who the players are and stay current.  You can’t do business in 2014 like it’s still 1988.

UNLESS you understand that you have to, as Sam Kinison said, “Move where the food is.”

UNLESS you understand enough about yourself to know what’s driving you.  If it’s primarily fame, money and awards, get really big in any other industry and then put your own face on bus benches and billboards.

UNLESS you can learn to be as happy for others when they advance as you would hope they would be for you.

UNLESS you understand that MAKING IT is not a thing.  MAKING IT is a movable abstract that will make you miserable.  Celebrate along the way, don’t wait.

I know.  This entry’s more abstract than most.   I’m just feeling it today.

By realitytvtroy

Full Sail Hall of Fame Week


Taking a few days off from agonizing over my next gig to return to Full Sail University for their 5th Annual Hall of Fame celebration.  I look forward to meeting with and speaking to the next round of grads, and especially to a Thursday lecture on what comes after you hit stride and your career stabilizes with fellow 2010 inductee Leslie Brathwaite, whose work with Pharrell Williams has been running on a loop in my brain for months.

Quick Plugs for Good Reads


Hi, all.  I don’t usually do a lot of stumping here for anything other than the TV Writers Summit and Writers Store/Screenwriters University classes, but had a few things I wanted to mention here in the way of books that you should check out.

First of all, you can always find out about content from MY publisher as it’s released by just friending the MWP page on Facebook here:  https://www.facebook.com/mwpfilmbooks

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Ross Brown’s CREATING YOUR OWN TV SERIES FOR THE INTERNET has just released its second edition, and I’m quite anxious to dig into it.  As this is the direction a lot of content production and distribution seems to be headed, it’s better to board that train earlier than later.  I’ve been in talks recently on web-based content, myself, so friends — it’s happening.

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While not an MWP title, Chad Gervich’s HOW TO MANAGE YOUR AGENT has been out since before the holidays and deserves to be mentioned.  Actually, it deserves to be held aloft over your head as you charge down Sunset Boulevard shouting, “I finally know what I’m doing!”  This book, as far as I’m concerned, is a must-have for anyone who has or is seeking representation.  Buy, read, love.

EDITED TO ADD: Joke and Biagio (whom I absolutely adore) have a 40 minute podcast featuring Chad and discussing the book HERE.  Thanks to regular reader Jack Decker for the tipoff!

Pro Tip: How NOT to look for work.


Notice, I didn’t title this entry “How to NOT look for work,” as that’s a completely different tray of fudge.  Nay, nay.  This is “How NOT to look for work, as in, “Hey, bub, you’re doing it wrong.”

I’ve been wrapped out of the series I was recently working on and have been looking for work the last few weeks.  I usually land somewhere else quickly, so I haven’t been too balled up about it.  The interviews keep coming, and I hope to have some solid offers over the next week or so.

You may be a master job hunter, but on the off chance that you’re not, I thought I’d share with you a few things that could keep you from finding YOUR next gig.

THE EMAIL BLAST

Thanks for the hugely impersonal email that doesn’t even start with my name in it and also compromises my email address to everyone else you know because you don’t know the difference between cc’ing and bcc’ing the entire Realityverse.  I was wondering how you were, as I haven’t heard from you in a couple of years, and at least now I know that you are looking for work.  I might have had you on my mind last week while I was helping a buddy staff her show if you’d been doing your contact maintenance and dropped me a congrats on Hollywood Game Night or the last season of Basketball Wives just as I did for you for your last shows, giving you a quick shout-out on facebook and linking to your new season tease.  I might have thought, “You know who’s really been thoughtful and encouraging?  You.  Maybe I should bring your name up.”

People you only hear from when they’re on the hunt or need something are usually a real drag.

PLAY THE DESPERATION CARD

I see in your email blast that you are “desperate” to find something.  Including this word in your email is the professional equivalent of sending someone a picture of a dog that is about to be put down if “someone” doesn’t step up and adopt it.  Not only do I feel like I’m letting you down, I’m feeling like maybe there’s some weird thing going on with you that’s been keeping you from finding something.  Like maybe you’ve developed a penchant for showing up to work drunk forty five minutes late while wearing a lampshade and word has gotten around to everyone but me.  I understand the concept of being desperate to find a new gig, but telegraphing it in a query is a mistake.  It also tells me that I can take advantage of you and lowball on the rate offered, because, well, you’re desperate!

MAKE DEMANDS IN THE INITIAL QUERY

Let’s go to the other side of the spectrum.  You’re not desperate.  You’re confident and firm as a rock on what you’ll consider.  Your email says “Supervising Story Producer or above, must pay at least $2500/wk.”

Now, look… I have a rate.  I don’t like to work for less than that rate.  I also have a certain title that I’d prefer to have.  But I never open with demands as that’s something I discuss once I’ve got the potential employer on the phone.

You need to make what you need to make.  I get it.  And sure, I’ll turn down stuff if the rate is insulting or if the title’s too cruddy for the amount of work/responsibility, but right now you’re unemployed and should be taking the meetings, considering offers as they’re made, not just telling me flat-out that you’d rather sit at home than take anything less than you usually do.  What if the salary cap I’ve been given to work with is $2400/wk?  I might call, but I’d be less inclined to if you “must” make $2500.

Does it matter to you THAT much if I can get you your rate but not the title?  Plus, if I have $2750 a week in my budget to bring you on and you say “must pay at least $2500 a week,” you just saved me $250.

DON’T BOTHER TO LEARN ANYTHING ABOUT THE PERSON/COMPANY

So someone you email blasted couldn’t find you a gig but passed your resume on to someone else.   And you managed to get an interview for the job.  Nothing impresses like not giving enough of a damn to Google your potential employer in order to sound like someone who’s paying attention to the industry.

There’s an old business adage that says that people love to hear the sound of their own name.   Imagine how different meeting someone would be if you could walk in and say, “Pleased to meet you.  I watched a few episodes of your show online last night, and it looks like a lot of fun.”

THE IMPOSSIBLE / IMPROBABLE SALARY

So the meeting goes well and it’s time to talk about an offer.  What’s your rate?

If you give out an inflated quote, it’s not only going to put you at the bottom to the list of similarly qualified people, it’s also going to brand you a liar if the line producer calls your last employer and finds out you were making $500 a week less than you said you were in the interview.  Yes, this happens all the time, and yes, it’s legal for a potential employer to call a previous one about your salary history.

A side note on salary: I once took a short job at just over half my rate and with a lesser title during a brief period in which I really needed to keep the money coming in, and not only did I survive, but the show was an enormous hit, the producers felt like I was doing them a favor, and the whole thing kicked a few more doors open for me.

GOOD LUCK

Even the worst conversations with a potential employer, the kind who offers well below industry standard or have reputations for high turnover, should end with a graceful “Sorry we couldn’t work it out.  Keep me in mind down the road if you have anything we might be able to work together on, though.”  A bad offer is no reason to burn the house down, and that person you just spoke to on the phone about the position might be a week away from deciding to move on to another company.  Don’t get haughty or show how insulted you are by an unacceptable offer, as it serves nothing but your ego and no one learns from it.  Be gracious and hope they’ll think of you when they’re doing something with a real budget later.