images of Fran Drescher, Drew Barrymore, Tyra Banks and Kris Jenner on their shows
Collage: VICE. Images, Clockwise from top left: Fox, CBS, The CW, and Fox
Entertainment

The Wildly Mixed Success Rate of the Celebrity-Helmed Talk Show

From Tyra Banks to Fran Drescher to Drew Barrymore, many have tried. Few have succeeded. VICE investigates what makes a star-led talk show actually work.
December 16, 2020, 12:00pm

The day before Halloween, Drew Barrymore slipped into a poofy pink taffeta gown, waved a glittering wand, and cosplayed as Glinda the Good Witch to a virtual audience of disembodied heads on a screen inside her New York talk show studio.

The actress was ostensibly not in character as the Wizard of Oz enchantress throughout the “Drew Scarrymore”-themed episode as she interviewed childhood friend Macaulay Culkin and sobbed at Emily in Paris star Ashley Park singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while dressed as a literal rainbow. Yet, because Barrymore’s own innately saccharine and generous personality—the heartbeat of every episode throughout its four-month run—is that of a very good witch, it’s impossible to know for sure.

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Whatever quirky charms The Drew Barrymore Show originally had were amplified tenfold by the surreality of launching mid-pandemic. Her live daytime show is full of “emotional whiplash,” a chirpily chaotic hour where Emmy winners come to sing to a flower, and out-of-town celebrities appear via barely discernible green screen magic. Every interview devolves into a compliment war, or in the case of Anne Hathaway, the revelation that she and Barrymore are deeply in love with each other and should form a throuple with Hathaway’s husband. Viewers are left enthralled, if a bit stunned, by the absurdity of it all, encapsulated best in Jezebel writer Rich Juzwiak's "Drew Weekly" supercuts and recap column. It highlights "the very special moments of Drew Barrymore’s very special talk show, served sunny-side up (just like how Drew likes it!)."

“I want to high-five all the people that have talk shows, that have planted their flags in the sand,” Barrymore told Collider. “I think there’s enough room for everyone and I can’t wait to support everyone out there. I thank them for welcoming me into this space.”

But the space Barrymore has entered is notoriously hostile. While stand-up comedians like Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, and a slew of late-night Jimmys have found long-running success in the variety talk show format, the history of the genre is littered with the shallow graves of dozens of actors, models, singers, and reality TV personalities who’ve tried and failed at the lucrative gig. Successful and beloved in their other Hollywood iterations (and with the benefit of that pre-existing fan base), celebrities ranging from Magic Johnson to Bonnie Hunt to Harry Connick, Jr. have yet to crack the magic talk show formula. Chevy Chase’s 90s vehicle lasted a mere month. Caroline Rhea and Bethenny Frankel both eked out a season. Queen Latifah attempted The Queen Latifah Show twice, but despite steady ratings from a small but loyal audience, neither version made it past the initial two-year contract.

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For the modern variety talk show format—a host delivers a newsy monologue, occasionally banters with an off-camera producer, politely interviews a parade of celebrity guests, and participates in games, crafts, and other interactive segments—an elusive skill set is required. It’s one that lives and dies on the notion of the host presenting their authentic self and connecting with the audience’s interests while also appearing believably thrilled by whatever new release a guest is there to shill. For celebrities accustomed to keeping a veneer of mystery and promoting their own interests and projects above others’, this can be a challenge.

“The celebrity has to get out of their own way of being a celebrity,” said Corin Nelson, a veteran executive producer who’s worked on celebrity talk shows including The Queen Latifah Show, The Megan Mullally Show, It's On with Alexa Chung, and the pilot of The Drew Barrymore Show. “I know this story very well: There was an unnamed host who at one point was asked to cover the red carpet of something special in a comedic way for their show. And they said, ‘I don't cover the red carpet; I am the red carpet.’ That mindset is a problem.”

But in the age of TikTok and Netflix, are talk shows even relevant anymore? Apart from a pandemic reprieve, the all-mighty Nielsen ratings inevitably fall year after year as TV viewers spend more time streaming content (a format that doesn’t work as well for shows meant to be watched day-of) or consuming random clips on their phones (something late night shows have especially tried to tap into but which doesn't necessarily bring in bankable broadcast viewers). Networks have tried looking to social media standouts like Busy Philipps and Lilly Singh to tap into younger audiences and cross-platform appeal. Saturday Night Live even imagined how a Dionne Warwick talk show might play out after the legendary singer’s brutally honest Twitter takes went viral. And increasingly, the culture and inclusivity behind the scenes on talk shows is under as much scrutiny as what’s playing out on camera. See: the tidal wave of allegations against the toxic culture at The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

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For a celebrity talk show to succeed, an entire ecosystem has to align. There has to be network support, audience appeal, and a shift in understanding from the celebrities themselves that, while their name may be at the center of the show, they’ll be working long hours alongside a team with the ultimate goal of making their guests look good.

“I think most celebrities are very attracted to the notion that they get to show up for an hour Monday through Thursday, talk to people, make really great money, and go home,” said Nelson. “I always see celebrities have that realization of, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know it would be so much work.’”

the drew scarrymore show

Drew Barrymore's Halloween episode. Image via CBS

Ricki Lake landed her talk show in 1993, after she agreed to tape a low-budget pilot to make rent. The then 24-year-old actress had numerous on-screen credits, including starring as Tracy Turnblad in John Waters’ Hairspray, but zero experience as an interviewer or stand-up comic— the standard prerequisites for hosting. It didn’t matter. Ricki Lake, aimed at young Gen X adults and featuring a parade of real-life drama, soon surpassed the other conflict TV series dominating daytime, like The Jerry Springer Show and Maury, to become second in the ratings behind only Oprah Winfrey. 

“That was my goal from childhood,” Lake told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “Not to be the smartest or the best cheerleader, but simply to be liked by everyone.”

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Still, Ricki Lake wasn’t of the talk variety ilk we’ve come to expect from celebrities in daytime. Her show’s scandalous entertainment (sample topic: “I’ve Slept With Your Man and I'll Do It Again and Again!”) played out around Lake rather than centering on the host’s sole ability to capture the audience. And when Lake attempted a less-sensational vehicle with 2012’s The Ricki Lake Show, it was canceled after only a season. Oprah, conversely, managed to shift gears from the tabloid talk show format that The Oprah Winfrey Show helped pioneer when it launched in 1986 into inspirational segments and celebrity interviews that, in turn, made the former local news anchor herself into one of the biggest celebrities on the planet.

By the time Ricki Lake ended after 11 seasons, her heir apparent came in the form of Tyra Banks, who already had two seasons of America’s Next Top Model under her belt when The Tyra Banks Show launched in 2005. The idea was that Tyra, with her uncensored personality and flair for drama, would recapture the youth market and propel the genre forward.

“When Ricki Lake went off, Tyra became the perfect voice in daytime. I worked on the pilot show, and I remember doing a segment… where she came out, took off all of her makeup and was like, ‘This is who I am,’” Nelson recalled. “It was like, there you go. You know who Tyra is. You know what she stands for. She’s going to bring something to the segment that others might not. She had a desire to connect and did not let her ego get in the way.”

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Banks has called hosting her talk show “the hardest thing in the world that I have ever done in my life to damn near this day,” and her outlandish (and at times, problematic) stunts like going undercover as an obese woman and a closed set confrontation with Naomi Campbell earned her five seasons, six Daytime Emmys, and a still-dissected 2008 interview with Beyoncé that many joke is the reason the singer stopped doing interviews altogether. 

“I was on the air and off in 16 episodes. That’s not really enough time to change people’s daytime viewing habits.”

Still, five seasons is an eternity for a celebrity show. A decade later, when Khloe Kardashian and Kris Jenner attempted to parlay their own social media followings and built-in stable of potential family guest stars into separate talk show gigs, both women fell prey to the axe within weeks. 

“I think she was pretty uninteresting [on camera],” Fox exec Frank Cicha told The Hollywood Reporter of Jenner when her 2013 talk show ended after just six weeks, adding, “When the camera was on she looked not just like a deer in the headlights, but like a deer that already got hit.”

And yet, Jenner’s show wasn’t a ratings disaster in its short run, and Cicha praised the Kardashian-Jenner matriarch for being a consummate professional and working overtime to promote the show. Rather, he said, it just “wasn’t a show that made sense” for Fox.

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In fact, the marriage of network (or syndicate group) and host is as important as whatever actual content and persona the celebrity is providing. If the executive powers that be are on the fence about a star or their potential in the space, it’s unlikely the show will be given a chance to thrive.

By 2010, Fran Drescher had already dominated the network TV landscape with The Nanny and been open about her cancer battle and past trauma. So when she got her talk show, or “tawk show,” as it was often dubbed, it seemed like a natural fit for someone committed to putting it all out there and connecting with others. From her past role as an executive producer on The Nanny, Drescher was used to coordinating with staff, running meetings, and putting in the work beyond her time on camera, but the switch from celebrity interviewee to interviewer was a challenge.

“I had experience being an unmasked personality with something to say. What I had to learn how to do was be a better listener,” Drescher told VICE. “When you’re an interviewer, you may know the answer, but you have to frame it as a question, and you have to learn along with your audience.”

As part of that standard three-week trial run from Fox that syndicated her show in several local markets to test the waters, Drescher had little time to prove herself when the show premiered the day after Thanksgiving 2010. Despite delighting audiences with appearances by Mr. Sheffield and C.C. Babcock, The Fran Drescher Show was canceled by Christmas.

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“I felt like I could be in that space and really bring something fresh and interesting to it,” said Drescher, who currently stars in Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup. “I don’t, however, think that I ended up putting the concept with the right group or even the right network. And for that reason, I was on the air and off in 16 episodes. That’s not really enough time to change people’s daytime viewing habits.”

Kelly Clarkson's seen on a recent Christmas episode

Image via NBC

As social media increasingly took over our lives, it was only natural that networks began to mine those platforms for standout, relatable celebrities to become talk show hosts, like YouTube creators Lilly Singh and Grace Helbig. In the dawn of Instagram Stories, one sweaty face stood out: Busy Philipps, who’d become a daily fixture on Instagram, documenting her saturated trampoline workouts for her then roughly 1 million followers.

After shooting a 2017 sitcom pilot with Tina Fey that failed to get picked up, Philipps reached a breaking point with the emotional rollercoaster of acting projects and sought more stability via a talk show produced by Fey. Rather than go the daytime route as most celebrities do, Philipps opted to carve out space in the overwhelmingly male-dominated late night arena with E!’s Busy Tonight, a show that could serve as a sort of Mr. Rogers-esque happy place for adult women with the added bonus of cocktails.

“They had bought the show because of who she was—and then they were like, ‘But by the way, we might not like who you are that much.’”

“When you start to look at the details, it’s infuriating because it’s like, do women stop existing at 11 p.m.? Do women not watch television at 11 p.m.? It was very eye-opening,” said showrunner Caissie St. Onge, who had previously worked on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, noting that at the time, “Puppets had hosted as many late night shows as women, and puppets and women were being beaten by men named James.” The additions of Singh and comedian Amber Ruffin, a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, have since shifted the balance.

Banking on Philipps’ ability to connect with her audience, Busy Tonight saw the actress speak frankly about her abortion and her period, and she often appeared in repose wearing her favorite, cozy Natalie Martin dress, dubbed "Mr. Nightgown." But after premiering the series in a 11 p.m. slot, E! moved it to 10 p.m. where the ratings slumped. Soon, St. Onge said, she began to receive a flurry of notes from the network, not about the content of the show, but critiquing Philipps personally. Everything from “what she does with her eyes” to “what her voice sounds like, the way she walked out of the door, and if she touched her hair too much.”

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“It was putting her right back in the place where she turned to Instagram in the first place to get away from some casting person saying like, ‘Oh, what are we going to do about your mole?’” St. Onge said. “It was a really weird thing because they had bought the show because of who she was—and then they were like, ‘But by the way, we might not like who you are that much.’”

Notably, St. Onge said, at the time that Philipps’ viral abortion segment ran, “We were 99 percent sure that the show wasn’t coming back anyway. So we didn’t ask. I think if we had asked for permission, rather than gone with, ‘Well, let’s do it and apologize later,’ they might have tried to convince us not to say anything.”

After six months, the series was canceled. Philipps has said she was “blindsided,” and St. Onge said she was told by E! that the ratings simply weren’t showing enough growth. “When they first moved the show’s time slot [and the ratings dipped], they told us, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint,’” she said. “Well, it turns out that it was a sprint.”

Busy with Tina Fey

Image via E!

One of the biggest celebrity successes in recent years has come in the form of Kelly Clarkson, whose daytime talk show debuted in 2019 to stellar ratings and has continued to perform more than 200 episodes later in its second season. To outsiders, Clarkson may not have seemed the obvious fit. What would a singer scourged from the depths of the American Idol audition line know about hosting a national talk show? A lot, it turned out. In addition to her down-to-earth Texas roots, relaxed interviewing style, and a musical background that allows her to begin every episode of The Kelly Clarkson Show with a mini “Kellyoke” concert, NBC smartly primed their viewers to recognize Clarkson as a host and respected network talent on The Voice and the Billboard Music Awards. Crucially, she received that all-important network vote-of-confidence that Drescher and St. Onge felt their shows lacked.

“Kelly Clarkson was a really brilliant move,” said Nelson. “She’s someone who NBC really embraced and is, I think, one of the few that could really work in daytime because she’s so likable. And she works really hard.”

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While Clarkson's show provides a burst of youthful energy, and most of the staff are themselves millennials and Gen Z, it’s worth remembering that the average age of daytime viewers is still 50-plus. 

“Whenever I am starting a show in daytime, I always bring my staff together and tell them to think about Betty, our typical daytime viewer watching that show and say, ‘She’s 53 years old, and she’s looking at the show and saying, ‘What’s in it for me?’” said Nelson. “The answer with Kelly Clarkson is that she’s going to entertain me for an hour of my day. I don’t have to worry about anything else. I’m gonna watch her do karaoke to a song that I grew up with, or see her do something really heartwarming for someone else.”

Clarkson managed the trifecta so few celebrities can. She achieved that broad network support, brought something new and unexpected to the genre, and possessed the drive to work to make her show a ratings hit. 

Barrymore, unfortunately, hasn't quite achieved the same success yet, at least on paper, and her show's longevity is uncertain in a still ratings-focused world. A look at the syndicated talk show ratings for the week of November 22, for example, saw Clarkson pull an average of 1.353 million viewers, while Barrymore managed just 683,000 across the same number of stations, putting her also behind Tamron Hall, Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz, and The Wendy Williams Show. And Barrymore's modest numbers have presumably benefitted from the homebound nature of 2020, which grants her fever dream vibes the ability to be seen—and posted about—by a younger demo who normally wouldn’t be home to watch daytime. As Carrie Wittmer noted on The Ringer, “The pandemic has changed the way people consume entertainment, and what they can watch. I, for example, never would have become The Drew Barrymore Show’s no. 1 stan before the pandemic because I am, in regular times, not home at 9 a.m.”

But the future of celebrity talk shows, in general, is anyone’s guess. To increase a star’s chances of success, Nelson believes a joint hosting gig makes the most sense. “It’s the kiss of death to put them out there alone,” she said. “The clever move for a talk show would be what is the new Kelly and Ryan? Or maybe it’s a husband and wife with a unique point of view, where there's banter and chemistry like Mika and Joe on Morning Joe.”

Rather than wade into that uncertainty, many celebrities are opting for the far easier gig of hosting game shows, an expanding genre they may have previously snubbed. Unlike talk shows, which rely on the relevancy of daily news, game shows allow hosts to bank multiple episodes a day and turn a few weeks of filming into months of content. Jane Lynch, Alec Baldwin, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Foxx, and Dax Shepard have all jumped on that train. And when their game shows inevitably end, the cancelation isn’t as likely to be seen as an affront to their personal brand.

St. Onge, who has since re-teamed with Philipps and Busy Tonight writer Shantira Jackson on the Busy Philipps Is Doing Her Best podcast, envisions a cross-platform approach that moves beyond traditional metrics. “It’s always all about money,” said St. Onge. “So maybe it’s networks figuring out that Nielsen ratings are an outdated measure of success and finding a way to take advantage of when Drew Barrymore goes viral for, like, eating lasagna out of a fanny pack or whatever she's doing. You have to find a way to get the jump on that.”

Follow Ashley Spencer on Twitter.