Here's how talk shows can do and be better — from a longtime producer (Op-ed)
Longtime late-night and talk show TV producer Caissie St. Onge takes what she's learned from her 27 years in showbiz and shares her tips on how to "run a show pretty good."
I’ve got a real case of déjà vu!
Since landing an internship at The Late Show With David Letterman in college, then working as his assistant for a few years before becoming an assistant-turned-researcher-turned-writer for all six years of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, followed by a stint as a writer/producer at cult favorite Best Week Ever, then almost a decade as a co-executive producer of Watch What Happens Live! With Andy Cohen, before becoming the executive producer and showrunner of Busy Tonight hosted by Busy Philipps and produced by Tina Fey’s company, Little Stranger, I have watched with great interest the evolution of the entertainment industry. And sometimes, I’ve seen a failure to evolve, and even a tendency to devolve.
It happens year after year in the TV industry. The Chart comes out and tells us that despite all the industry talk about making changes, certain groups of people are still only being hired in dismal numbers to work in TV, especially on late-night and sometimes daytime talk shows. Plenty of articles — and occasionally declarations of change — follow. It’s always a Roman candle of a scandal, burning bright and brief before Other Things happen and it's forgotten until the next Chart comes out. Except, of course, for the people who don't have the luxury of not still smelling the afterburn in the air.
Scarier than the Chart is the Thing. This usually starts as social media scuttlebutt about the Thing that's going on behind the scenes at a beloved daily or nightly show. Then the Thing blows up into a sourced and credible Fuzzbeed article with anonymous firsthand accounts and denials, which can sometimes lead to internal investigations, with resignations and apologies! Campaigns begin to rehab the image of the host and/or show that all of America loved up until days before! Which makes sense, because those shows, for millions of viewers, are like beloved family members they have been inviting into their homes every day for years. If we're being honest, how many of our real relatives would we be happy to have sitting beside us on our sofas every day?
Audiences aren’t the only ones feeling burned by honorary family members. At one of my first jobs in nighttime TV, our fatherly director told me, “Whenever you get hired on a show like this, they tell you how it’s like a big family. And it is. A big dysfunctional family where a lot of people never grow up or move out!” After working most of my career in daily late-night and daytime TV, I’d like to add that I also think it can be like a family, if you’ve ever been a member of a family where some of the kids easily earn a healthy five-figure weekly salary while being brought pricey salads to keep their strength up, while the plucky little cousins — usually the ones who fetch the salads while also juggling 55 hours of other work — sometimes barely crack a grand a week and have to live with more roommates than they have in the Big Brother house. Hell, when I was starting out, I only made a low mid-three figures per week, which I was cool with because I was paying my dues!
But wait: Do families make you pay your dues? Not if they’re healthy. Healthy families expect you to do your best while they nurture you and help you grow into who you’re meant to be. And if every television show doesn’t start doing that for every member of its behind-the-scenes family, we should probably stop using the family metaphor.
The reality is, a job on a daily talk show can be a dream come true while simultaneously being a bit of a nightmare. It’s a grind with long hours where you often sacrifice your personal life — and sometimes your health — and it can take years to move up if you don’t burn out first. I once worked on a show where there was an epidemic of kidney stones because we were all rationing our water intake lest the long walk to the nearest bathroom interrupt our 14-hour workday! But it seemed like a fair tradeoff. We had the promise of a fulfilling creative career with excitement and charming celebrities! In reality, the charming celebrity part only lasts a few minutes a day, while the rest of the time can be pretty grueling work for not a lot of immediate reward. There’s no doubt you have to truly love it in order to be able to endure it. But a lot of people who land what they thought were dream jobs aren’t able to love it, and that should be a bummer to anybody who works in this business.
I’m not talking about any show in particular here. I cannot speak to what has happened on a show where I’ve never been employed and I think it’s unfair to everyone who does work on a show that is currently working through any backstage issues to speculate either way. Whenever these issues arise, I want the same thing: For the truth to prevail and for as many people as possible to be able to return to their jobs, feeling like they’ve been heard and understood and that any workplace changes deemed necessary help that staff and that show continue to grow and evolve past whatever the trouble was. (Full disclosure: Whatever show it is you think I’m talking about, I definitely have friends who work there. Because I have friends who work on every show. That’s just how long I’ve been doing this!)
What I’d like to offer, in the spirit of friendship, is what I’ve learned in my 27 years in showbiz. So, here are my Top 5 Tips on How to Run a Show Pretty Good. (This may seem like very inside baseball advice, but the good news is I’m pretty sure it applies to any business and kinda also just applies to life!)
1. Adjust your goals immediately.
Every TV show has goals. Long-term goals: grow ratings. Shorter-term goals: make sure the show gets on the air every day so fans aren’t seeing a blank screen when they sit down to indulge in an hour of laughter and sparkling celebrity conversation. In this industry, we give a lot of applause to talent and producers announcing their long-term goals to have a “more diverse” team by the year 2037! We have to make our goal of hiring more inclusive teams more short-term. Like, now-ish.
The next time you hire anybody, and not just somebody in an entry-level position, make it somebody who doesn’t look like or think like the majority of the people who already work there. Do that, then don’t stop until the makeup of your staff reflects the audience you are trying to capture, or like the way modern society looks! I promise that your friend from the NBC Page Program who now runs an entire network and wanted you to hire his nephew straight from Princeton will not be that mad, and his nephew will probably be okay too. This is a change you can make today, even as your network is vowing publicly to Commit to a Three-Year Study to Come Up With a Plan.
2. Stop hiding behind "experience."
Now that we know so much more about how structural racism or sexism or classicism or any other -ism have damaged hiring and advancement in our business, excuses like, “I’d love to hire that person, it’s just that they lack the right experience!” start to stink like rotten fish. If we only ever allow certain people to gain experience, they’ll be the only ones who ever have the Right Experience! Making funny ha ha TV ain’t brain surgery and almost anyone who is interested in becoming good at it probably can. Have you seen TikTok?
Personally, I went from putting myself through an extremely budget college by bathing and feeding the elderly in a nursing home to working as an intern, then assistant, for a very famous talk show host and, skills-wise, it was a fairly lateral move! I was lucky that someone overlooked my total lack of seasoning or educational pedigree and saw my potential, probably assisted by a little old-fashioned white privilege.
You’re the one who has the real opportunity here to do things differently. Need a researcher? Hire someone who did work-study in their school library or worked at a Barnes & Noble when those existed. Lunch is a huge and revered part of working in television. So, when you’re hiring a PA, make an offer to the kid whose last resume entry is their pizza delivery job. I swear to you, you’ll realize how smart this is within 30 minutes or less or this tip is free.
Now that you've made an effort to hire new team members who aren’t necessarily a bunch of white Ivy League executive nephews, you should be all good, right? Not exactly! Have you ever known a couple whose relationship was on the rocks so they tried to save it by having a baby? That’s a lot of responsibility for a baby who is outnumbered in that house by people with terrible ideas. That is far beyond a baby’s pay grade!
Same thing goes for hiring a new associate producer or writer who is a member of any marginalized group and hoping their mere presence can change your already established (and possibly problematic) office culture. It won’t work that way. Worse, chances are if you thought it might, you will then expect that new employee to somehow be responsible for shaping this new better culture that you’ve half-envisioned. But that’s not even close to being in any new staff member’s job description. That’s your job.
One of the ways you can start to change your show’s culture is to empower your team to speak up. How many times have you seen a personality or a politician make a public mea culpa for an insensitive, ignorant gaffe, and even as they’re begging forgiveness, you get the sense that they’re still oblivious as to how they goofed? The more unique voices you incorporate into your team, and the more you empower those people to challenge a word or an idea that could have been expressed better, or often not at all, the greater chance you have of nipping those ignorant boo-boos in the bud. Imagine doing this before your host uses one as an ill-advised punchline on live TV, then has to do a national apology tour or post a cringe-y, late-night Instagram “I’m sorry” video.
I know from way too much personal experience that it takes guts to speak up and be the voice of reason when you know in your bones your boss is about to make a huge mouth mistake on their show. Nobody ever wants to hear it! They roll their eyes and say you’re too politically correct and so sensitive and no fun. What they’re not thinking about at that moment is how un-fun it is to be dragged on Twitter after making a completely avoidable boner that will go viral before they even have a chance to wipe their makeup off when the episode wraps.
I can easily say that in my almost three decades on a talk show floor, I spent a decent portion of that time doing my best to make the person I worked for look smart and charming and not like a giant a-hole who should be canceled. If someone who works for you musters the courage to tell you something sounds bad, it’s because they care more about how you look than how they look to you.
BONUS! Those unique, courageous voices and the brains behind them won’t just make your material more faux pas proof, they’ll also make it fresher, funnier, sharper, and more insightful. They’ll help vanquish lazy, tired, stale-ass tropes and create bits for you that sing! They’ll make your audience feel seen! And it goes so far beyond the jokes. Empower your team to challenge all your old ideas on how shows should be run. If they see something, be the kind of boss they feel safe saying something to.
And if you’re thinking, “But I’m too important and busy to be letting everyone into my office all day telling me stuff!” — first of all, I doubt it. But second of all, if you ARE too busy, maybe that’s a sign that you need better support from the more senior members of your staff, who are probably, in my experience, your best friend from your college improv group and the hilarious guy you sat next to at your first job where you both used to photocopy your butts. We get it: You hired them before you embarked on this more thoughtful journey of self-reflection. But if you can do better, so can they.
5. Act fast.
Congratulations! You’ve assembled a team, a machine, and they are ready to crank out hour after hour of entertaining, unproblematic, refreshing content every week like a squad of talk show Avengers! You’ve trained them. You trust them. They trust you. You’re starting to feel like, dare I say, a family, even though we’ve established that’s not really a healthy metaphor for a professional situation. (But you can’t help it, you’re a softie!)
Now, what do you do if — as happens in some families sometimes, despite all of your best efforts to raise everyone right — you learn that someone has done a Thing? A Thing that someone on your team, in your family, believes is unprofessional or unacceptable or harmful to someone else who works for you.
First, I’m sorry. That sucks.
Second, no matter how much it sucks, you must handle it and you must act fast, even if you really like the person in question and that’s Just How He Is and you know what’s in his heart and that he would never intentionally hurt anyone and it was just a “bad joke” or a one-time Thing. Those excuses shouldn’t fly in a real family and they don’t fly here. You must take the situation seriously, get to the bottom of it, and do whatever it takes to make it as right as you can, even if it means making hard decisions. Your job now is not to worry for Problematic Steve, it's to worry about the people left behind. You have to repair any harm that’s been done to anyone. It should go without saying that this never includes punishing or retaliating against a valued team member for telling the truth. But I’m saying it anyway, just in case.
This is all just scratching the surface of how we can move forward and do better as an industry, but it covers the broadest strokes. And if you feel like your show needs real help, I’m available to consult! But so are a bunch of people who aren’t straight white women, and I’d be happy to give you a great recommendation.
You can hear Caissie St. Onge on the new podcast Busy Philipps Is Doing Her Best, alongside Philipps and writer Shantira Jackson, out now on Apple Podcasts.