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Nate Berkus: Learning on the job

The Oprah Winfrey-approved interior designer-turned-daytime star had plenty of lessons to learn while hosting the first season of ”The Nate Berkus Show.” Now in season 2, he looks back on a few of his rookie mistakes

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Truth: Oprah made it look way easier than it is. Hosting a talk show involves nuances I didn’t think about when I started: You’re the emcee, moderator, facilitator, and ambassador. It’s like trying to throw a dinner party every day — where the conversation flows, the food isn’t burnt, everyone leaves feeling satisfied, and the table settings and the menu all work out with perfect timing. It’s a bear. I learned a lot during the first year of The Nate Berkus Show. Such as…

It’s tough being the new kid on the block
The first year is like freshman year in college; you’re the ”new kid” and have to prove yourself all over again. It’s like I was a senior at Oprah High and then tried to find all new friends. At Harpo I felt I had it down, production was smooth, and I knew all my producers for almost 10 years — that’s 10 years of sharing bad dating stories and tears over breakups with a bloomin’ onion on the table. A new show brings new habits, too. I’m thrilled to report I gained the ”freshman 15.” In the second season, I don’t eat everything from the cooking segments.

Say what you are really thinking
A rule I live by that I have carried with me since working retail as a teenager: Don’t say it if it’s not true. You can sell a customer unflattering pants they don’t look good in by telling them, ”Those jeans make you look thin.” But the minute a friend tells them the truth, they won’t be back to see you. Ever. The same rule applies to hosting a show. The audience wants the real deal. Betraying that isn’t an option. Oh, and believe me: When I stand next to chef Curtis Stone at 5’8” tall, he makes me look a foot shorter on camera. I look like a child next to him. I can’t pretend the audience isn’t thinking what I’m feeling. It’s my job to say what you’re all thinking, all the time.

Make it clear and concise
I know that I’m a talker…which is essential for a host. But I was more used to a relaxed dinner-vibe setting for a real heart-to-heart conversation. You can’t do that on a talk show. You have less than an hour to get it all in, and sometimes only three minutes. Now I approach the conversation as most approach their work email — by the time I say, ”We’ll be right back,” all bases must be covered and everyone needs to get what they tuned in for.

Keep smiling
This lesson took me back to my fifth-grade picture day, when the photographer said, ”Don’t give me a fake smile. Smile for real.” I was 11 and hated the sweater my mom made me wear, so it was rough, but I knew I needed to smile. After all, this photo would be in my grandmother’s wallet. Week 1 as a talk-show host, you get hit over the head with the fact that nothing insincere reads well on the show. People want real. So show up and share your true self…and be happy you weren’t forced to wear the itchy sweater your mom laid out across your bed.

Don’t forget to listen
This one seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget when a segment is complicated. Listening, instead of talking, is the most important rule — and this applies to my guests, to the producers, and to the audience. It has made me a better friend, brother, and son. I’ve learned how to just let things happen, mistakes and all. Six weeks into my second season, I’m having even more fun, and I hope the audience is too.