In 1951, a man named Joe Franklin debuted a new television program that would become the forerunner of today’s popular talk shows.
Set against the backdrop of a faux living room, the format was to invite a diverse range of guests to come on the air and informally chat about themselves, allowing viewers to see a different side of their personalities. While the succession of talk shows that followed Franklin’s format were initially aired as late-night entertainment, it was only a matter of time that producers realized there was a vast, untapped market of early-birds and mid-afternoon homemakers and students that would enjoy these off-the-cuff dialogues as well. Not only do many of these programs include live music, audience participation and lively debates but the tabloid aspect has led viewers to realize that no matter how dysfunctional their own lives seem to be, there are individuals who are much, much nuttier.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. What is your favorite talk show and why?
2. Who is your favorite talk show host (and why)?
3. Which of your favorite celebrities would you like to see have his/her own talk show? What would the format be?
4. If you were a talk show host, who would your first three guests be and why?
5. If you could have anyone in the world on your talk show, what is the first question you would ask?
6. If you were a guest on a popular talk show, what would you most like to talk about?
7. Should politicians do comedy talk shows? Why or why not?
Special Note: With the exception of opening monologues, talk shows are unscripted productions. For each of the following exercises, however, you’ll actually be writing out all of the dialogue as a reflection of the participants’ personalities.
SERIOUSLY, GEORGE, WHAT HAPPENED?
There’s no question that Ellen DeGeneres not only knows how to put her guests at ease but also engage in unabashed and spontaneous silliness with them. Through the marvels of time travel, she has managed to book America’s first president, George Washington, on her show and sees this as a great opportunity to finally clear up all those rumors about him cutting down a cherry tree.
Your assignment: Write a three page scene in which Ellen gets George to let his hair down and reveal his mischievous side.
DANGER! LOW-FLYING COUCHES!
The name Jerry Springer most frequently comes to mind in connection with “tabloid TV” – a controversial form of talk show in which ordinary people are invited to confront their demons, rattle a multiplicity of closet skeletons, and engage in shouting matches with one another in front of millions of daytime viewers. It’s also not uncommon for guests to throw things at each other, including the nearest piece of furniture.
Your assignment: Stepmothers typically get short shrift in fairy tales; i.e., Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, The Six Brothers. In your new tabloid talk show, your host (male or female) has invited one of these evil stepmothers to be a guest, then surprises her with an appearance by the adult child/children she wronged. Write a three-page scene of what happens next, including the host’s participation as a mediator/instigator.
WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?
Clerical errors can happen to anyone, even in the booking department of a late-night talk show. Imagine if it happened to Dave Letterman after whipping up a buzz of excitement that his evening’s guest was going to be none other than George Clooney to talk about his latest movie. The curtain parts and out steps…well, a guy who looks absolutely nothing like the famous star. His name, however, is George Cluny who is just as bewildered as Dave about why he has been invited.
Your assignment: Since the show is live and there’s no way to scramble and track down the real George Clooney, Dave decides to just wing it and pretend that everything is perfectly normal. In a five-page scene, let’s find out what the Cluny guy does for a living and how Dave knows all the right questions to draw him out.
“Mime Time Television” is an alternative spin to guests who talk too much. In fact, your talk show host invites guests who don’t say anything at all because they are mimes.
Your assignment: Write a four-page scene in which your host invites a pair of lovebird sweethearts to “talk” about how they first met. While the host can ask questions and then attempt to confirm the answers s/he sees, the mimes must act everything out, including disagreeing with one another.
A number of talk show hosts have had sidekicks to chatter with between guests. Merv Griffin had Arthur Treacher. Johnny Carson bantered with Ed McMahon. Conan O’Brien trades quips with Andy Richter. Sidekicks can even be band leaders like Dave Letterman’s Paul Shaffer, or Geoff Peterson – a robot built by Myth Busters’ Grant Imahara to keep company with Craig Ferguson on the Late, Late Show.
Your Assignment: The role of the talk show sidekick is to complement the star, play the straight man, serve up corny one-liners, keep the patter snappy, and never, ever engage in upstaging tactics to steal the spotlight. But what happens if the sidekick is tired after years of playing second fiddle, being second banana, and assuming the role of second best? Write a two-page film synopsis in which the sidekick conspires to replace the show’s host by any means possible, unaware that there are more obstacles than s/he imagined. The movie can be any genre but cannot utilize more than three sets and six characters.
Between 1977-1981, Steve Allen (the original host of The Tonight Show) launched a creative PBS program called Meeting of Minds in which luminaries from earlier eras – as well as characters from works of fiction – would interact with Steve in a talk-show setting and discuss lively topics of the day. In 1997, The View debuted on ABC with five female co-hosts discussing social and political issues, often leading to fractious debates.
Your assignment: Choose four strong-willed women representing four different periods of world history and determine how they will be costumed for the show. Describe the set in which the show transpires. Next, choose a controversial modern topic that will be the theme of the latest show they are filming. Write a six-page scene in which each woman tries to convince the other three that her particular view is the “right” one.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at [email protected] or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 30 books, 154 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.