Talk-show chemistry put in a class by itself

Regis Philbin likes to tell the story of an astrologer, who assured him that he would become a household name, but not for 20 years.

Luckily for Philbin, that was 20 years ago and thanks to six years of “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” his name is now known in enough households to make the show a resounding hit.

Oprah Winfrey, on the other hand, was a smash success from the moment her talk show went on the air nationally in September 1986.

It’s called chemistry.

Some talk show hosts are born with it and some grow into it. But the genre’s producers say you can’t have a hit show without it. The only question is: How do you create it?

“That’s the world’s toughest question because it is unaccountable,” says Michael Gelman, executive producer of “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.””It’s something that either happens, or it doesn’t.”

Gelman says it’s essential to start with people who have the ability to be themselves on the air. “That is very rare, and that’s what we have with Regis and Kathie Lee,” he says. “Each of them can, in a way, turn off the camera in their own minds so they’re able to be themselves and act naturally on camera.”

That, he says, sparks the chemistry.

Michael King, president of King World, which will introduce “The Les Brown Show” this fall to join its established hit “Oprah,” is very down to earth about the right ingredients for talk-show chemistry.

“It starts with the host or hostess,” he says. “Then you need a terrific production team and a great distribution company.”

Martin Berman, executive producer of “Geraldo,” says that talk-shows are host-driven when they first start but then they become topic-driven. “When we’re head-to-head with ‘Oprah’ and ‘Donahue,’ ” he says, “the best

show wins.”

Berman says that the four leaders, Oprah, Donahue, Sally Jesse and Geraldo, all have different qualities. “That’s why they can all be successful,” he says. “Oprah is sort of the big sister. Donahue is the older brother or father-figure. Geraldo’s maybe the brash young brother. All the hosts have a very distinct personality, and the audience knows that and comes to expect it.”

Talk-show hosts must have special qualities, Berman insists.

It doesn’t hurt for a host to have overcome hardship. “When I first saw Sally Jesse, I thought that she had lived a lot. Not in years, but she had been through a lot,” says Burt Dubrow, her executive producer. “A talk-show host has to have been through something. You can’t talk to people who have any kind of problems, and not have had some yourself.”

There is more than one element to the chemistry, observes Herman Rush, executive producer of “The Montel Williams Show.”

“Chemistry with the audience, the viewer, is inbred charisma,” Rush says. “Not everybody has it. Those that do can achieve stardom, whether it’s a talk-show host or Frank Sinatra. Chemistry with guests comes from professionalism, from experience.”

Montel Williams was a navy officer for many years and a motivational speaker heavily involved with high-school and college kids. “That gave him the professionalism to develop and expand the kind of chemistry you need with both the in-house audience and the guests,” Rush says. “One is professionalism, the other’s a charisma that I’m not sure you can develop. You’re born with it.”

Joan Rivers’ secret, says her executive producer, Larry Ferber, is that she has the ability to listen.

“If you really watch hosts, a lot of them will always be looking for the next question rather than really listening to what the guest is saying,” says Ferber. “Obviously, she’s very funny too, but one thing people don’t talk about much is that Joan is very smart.”

Comedy works for Jenny Jones, who was also a comedian before becoming a talk-show host. “The chemistry that makes Jenny work is without a doubt her sense of humor,” says Ed Glavin, who, with wife and partner Debby Harwick Glavin , left Donahue to be Jones’ co-executiveproducers.

“Her timing surprises us.” When the Glavins were approached about producing “Jenny Jones,” they monitored the show and were not pleased. “We did not like her show last year,” Glavin says. “We had no desire to do a variety show or a magazine show, or do demos in Jenny’s Kitchen or Jenny’s Gym, which is what they were doing.”

The Glavins were only interested if Jones would do a single-issue show. That was agreed and

this season, the format has changed.

“My personal feeling is that she has resurrected herself over the past three months,” Glavin says. “She’s really re-created herself. She is having so much more fun now. She takes the show in directions that surprise us.”

Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson, executive producer of “Vicki!” with former actress/comedienne Vicki Lawrence, insists the secret to talk-show chemistry is a smart host.

“The first thing you’ve got to have is someone with brains,” she says. “That sounds like stating the obvious but we have all seen examples where they took a host who was good at doing something else, maybe a game show, and put them in a talk show and it didn’t work. There has to be that ability to be quick-witted and to think on their feet.”

Alspaugh-Jackson is also a believer in distinct personalities.

“Donahue revolutionized things with his passion and pro-active stance on things,” she says.

“Oprah revolutionized things with her empathy for women and the underdog, and by being able to delve into personal issues. Vicki is really the first host I’ve seen who has smarts and great comic ability and timing. She blows us away every day with unscripted stuff she comes out with up there on the stage.”

More syndicated talk shows join the fray next year and their producers each hope they’ve found the secret to chemistry. Steve Clements, executive producer of “Bertice Berry,” declares: “It couldn’t be more perfect. I’ve got a person with tremendous stage presence, she’s a tremendous comedienne, and she has a great amount of knowledge in all areas.”

Alan Perris, of Columbia Pictures Television Distribution, which is syndicating “Ricki,” says it was Ricki Lake’s personality that impressed him. “Her energy level, her warmth and her intelligence. She jumps out at you,” he says.

Les Brown, a successful motivational speaker, is joining the talk-show universe next fall. King World president Michael King, syndicating the show, says: “We think he’s got an incredibly dynamic personality. He’s got all the ingredients to be a major star.”

Brown, who came from a poor community in Florida, is a self-educated and self-made success as a radio broadcaster, Ohio state legislator and national speaker.

Of course, chemistry comes in all shapes and sizes. Maria Bianco, one of Rush Limbaugh’s producers, says that when the radio personality, whose TV talk show debuted last fall, gets in front of an audience, he turns into an entertainer.

“He’s passionate about what he believes in so he comes across as a very genuine person,” Bianco says. “He’s a conservative with a sense of humor. People like him. He gets in front of an audience and he entertains. What they say about him being a harmless fuzzball? He is.”

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