Back in 1996 I got a phone call from a television producer. His name was Tom Frank, and he wanted to know if I might be interested in hosting a game show. Apparently, my demo reel had made an impression.
“This is quite possibly the worst demo reel I’ve ever seen,” said Tom Frank. “There’s nothing on here but outtakes and mistakes.
“Thanks,” I said. “I try to manage expectations at every turn.” In those days, my demo reel was little more than a random collection of inappropriate moments culled from my years on the graveyard shift at The QVC Cable Shopping Channel.
“Well congratulations,” he said. You’ve managed to make me wonder if you’re stable.”
“You’ll have to hire me to find out,” I said. Tom Frank laughed.
“Would you like to hear about the project first?”
“Please,” I said. “The anticipation is killing me.”
Tom Frank talked fast, and sounded like all producers do when they explain an idea they’ve already explained a thousand times to a thousand people they might never talk to again. The show was called No Relation and the fX Channel had just ordered 40 episodes.
“What’s The fX Channel?” I asked. “Is FOX no longer using vowels?” Tom Frank ignored my question.
“The show works like this. On each episode, a celebrity panel will attempt to determine which member of a close-knit family of five is not really related to the other four. In Round one, our celebrities will question the members of our contestant family individually. In Round 2, they will question the family together, compare notes, and better observe just how well they actually know one another. They will then make their best guess as to which contestant is no relation. Then, the Impostor reveals himself, and brings out the actual family member they’ve been impersonating. ”
“Will there be fabulous prizes?” I asked.
Depends on how many celebrities are fooled. If no one guesses correctly, the Impostor gets a cash prize and the family gets all expense paid trip to a five-star resort in Mexico. What do you think?”
“To tell the truth,” I said, “it sounds like To Tell The Truth.”
“Yeah, well…there’s no such thing as a new idea. But this is a very big deal to the network, and the right Host is really important.”
I’d never hosted a game show before, and no idea if I’d be any good at it. But 40 episodes of anything sounded a lot better than another Time/Life infomercial. And the coffers were not exactly overflowing.
“I’m your man,” I said. “When do I start?”
“I’m not offering you the job,” said Tom Frank. “I’m offering you an audition. Tomorrow afternoon. For the executive producer and the network.”
“What are game show hosts wearing nowadays?
“Wear a sport coat. Slacks. Button-down shirt. No tie.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just gave me the job now?” I asked.
“Honestly,” he said, “I’m not even sure about giving you the address.”
He did though, along with directions. I hadn’t been in LA long, and knew almost nothing about The Valley. Everybody kept telling me to get a Thomas Guide, but I kept forgetting.
The following afternoon I arrived ten minutes early at an office building in downtown Burbank. I parked in a lot near NBC and walked across the street, up some steps, and through some glass doors. In the reception area, a stunning blonde told me to look at her and smile. I’m pretty sure I already was. She took a Polaroid and asked for my resume. Naturally, I didn’t have one.
“Resumes are about the past,” I said. “I prefer to embrace the present, don’t you?” She glanced at me with something that might have been amusement.
“Life can only be understood backwards,” she said, “though it must be lived forwards.” She didn’t seem like a receptionist.
“Nietzsche, right? Or was it Kierkegaard?” She pursed her lips and did something with her left eyebrow.
“A philosopher and a game-show host? Are you sure you’re in the right place?”
“No,” I said. “I’m really not.” She handed me a script.
“Welcome to your present. You may embrace it down the hall, in whatever fashion suits you best.”
She led me to a conference room where a dozen guys were pacing around, memorizing the same copy, muttering to themselves in the same hushed baritone. Button-down shirts, slacks, and sport coats. No ties. We looked like mannequins from the same store. One guy stood out. He was a lot younger than the rest of us. Maybe 24. White teeth, suspicious tan, and so supremely confident that I began to wonder if he already had the gig. He was chatting on his cell phone with his manager who called back every few minutes with another job offer. I remember the way he answered his phone when it rang – “Go for Ryan!”
Every ten minutes or so, the stunning blonde would reappear and lead one of us away. Was this how Bob Barker got started? Waiting for his turn to read two paragraphs of crappy copy. Or Gene Rayburn, or Wink Martindale, or Bill Cullen, or Alex Trebeck? Or the best of the best, Dick Clark? When was the last time Dick Clark had to audition for something?
Back then, I often thought about Dick Clark when I auditioned for something. About how he made it look so easy. On The Ten-Thousand Dollar Pyramid, he used to lean against the podium while he explained the rules. Not a care in the world. When the prize money grew from $10,000 to $25,000, he didn’t get all ramped up – he got more laid back. Dick Clark hosted like Perry Como sang. Warm, relaxed, with a touch of insouciance. And when the stakes jumped all the way to $100,000, he presided over the game with such nonchalance I thought he might nod off in the final round. I wondered how Dick Clark would handle No Relation?
I was the last to be called. I followed the stunning blonde down a long hallway and up two flights of stairs. It was a pleasant walk. We arrived in a large room with a big sofa angled across from five metal folding chairs. On the sofa sat three “celebrities.” According to their giant name tags, they were Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Shelly Long. In the chairs across from them sat “The Johnson Family,” aka five random production assistants, also with name tags. A video camera was set up at the far end, mounted on a tripod. And behind that, a large monitor, behind which several people huddled and conferred. The suits.
The blonde clipped a microphone to my lapel and whispered “It was Kierkegaard.” I asked what her name was, and she told me. Then a guy who appeared to be 14 years old walked over from behind the camera and introduced himself.
“Ah-ha,” he said. “The guy with the blooper tape.”
“Ah-ha,” I replied, “the guy with two first names.”
Tom Frank said my sport coat was the ugliest thing he had ever seen. I didn’t disagree, but felt compelled to point out that if he were indeed correct – and we were to each remove our respective jackets – my appearance would improve, while his would remain that of a post-pubescent boy. Tom suggested that such observations would provide him with a useful benchmark from which to compare my attitude with that of several hundred “highly-experienced and very respectful candidates who actually seemed to want the job.” I then explained that my “lucky jacket,” unbeknownst to him, had already secured me the role, and that there was nothing that he or his masters could do to alter that which had been pre-ordained.
This continued until someone behind the partition said “let’s move it along.”and Tom Frank said “Action!” At which point I discarded the script I had just memorized, looked straight into the camera, and unleashed my very best Dick Clark.
Hi everyone and welcome to No Relation. Nice to see you again. I’m Mike Rowe and these are The Johnson’s. Well, at least four of them are. One of these people is actually a fraud. An Imposter has assumed the identity of the actual Johnson, who is watching backstage. The job of our celebrity judges is simple – question the Johnson Family, and find out which one of them is…No Relation!
But first, let’s meet our celebrity judges…
We played the game for about twenty minutes. I was initially distracted by the fact that Tom Hanks had a mohawk and Julia Roberts looked a lot like my grandmother. Also confusing was the composition of “The Johnson Family” – two white parents, an Asian daughter, an Hispanic grandmother, and a black son – an unlikely configuration that added a new layer of complexity to the show’s underlying question, “guess which one is not related,” but spoke well of the productions companies commitment to diversity in the workplace. I worked through it though, controlling the conversation, making tasteful jokes when appropriate, and trying to ignore the fact that Shelly Long had managed to gain approximately two hundred pounds. We were rolling along pretty well when Tom Frank said “Cut!” and walked toward me from behind the camera.
“Tell me, is that really a lucky jacket? he said.”
“Don’t know yet.” I said. “I borrowed it from a friend.”
The coat was electric blue, with a slight bias toward periwinkle, and made of the very finest polyester.
“Does your friend work for the circus?”
As I considered my next snappy reply, something really weird happened. Dick Clark stepped out from behind the partition, and said “Hello.”
Every so often, the Universe will behave in a way that leaves me mute. This was one such moment. Apparently, I had conjured Dick Clark out of thin air. There was no other way to explain his sudden presence. One minute, I was consciously channeling a legendary broadcaster, and the next minute, he was standing right in front of me, saying ‘Hello.’ I couldn’t quite square it.
“That was great,” said Dick Clark. “Really nice work.” It occurred to me that I might be hallucinating, but if I was, it was very vivid. The apparition was now walking toward me, holding out its hand, and smiling as it spoke.
“By the way,” it said, “I’m Dick Clark.”
“That is correct!” I said, as if I were still hosting the game.
Dick Clark laughed in a completely warm and genuine way. “Thanks so much for making time to come by. You’re a natural.”
Later, on my way out, I would notice a big sign out front that said Dick Clark Productions. I hadn’t seen it on my way in. And the sad fact was, I had no idea that Dick Clark even owned a production company. I shook his hand, and Dick Clark continued to look at me as though I were not an idiot.
“I’ve seen some of your work,” he said. “Have you hosted a game show before?”
“Actually, no.” I was hoping that Dick Clark didn’t know that I had been thrown out of the home shopping industry a few years ago.
“Tom tells me you were thrown out of the home shopping industry a few years ago,” he said. “What happened?” I cleared my throat and glanced at Tom Frank, who seemed to be enjoying the moment.
“There was a mutual consensus that my skills were…inconsistent with the expectations of that particular genre.” Dick Clark laughed again. “I bet you have some great stories!”
“One or two,” I said. Then another guy stepped out from behind the partition.
“Mike, this is Rich Ross. He calls the shots over at fX.” Rich Ross also looked a lot younger than I would have expected.
“Hi Mike, we’re big fans over at the Network. That was a great audition. We’d love to see you again.” Dick Clark nodded in agreement. “Can you come back in a few days?”
“Sure,” I said. Then Dick Clark stepped a little closer, and lowered his voice slightly. “Can I offer you one bit of advice, Mike?”
“OK,” I said.
“Next time, don’t say hello to everyone.”
I wanted very much to understand what Dick Clark was talking about, but I was still too flummoxed by his magical appearance to absorb his words. My expression must have said as much.
“When you looked into the lens, the very first words out of your mouth were, ‘Hello everyone.’ That’s probably not the best thing to say.”
“No. People don’t see themselves as part of a crowd. They see themselves as individuals. And you are a guest, not a host. They have allowed you into their home. Into their living room. They want a personal connection with someone they can trust. Your job is to be that person. That’s what a good host does. Hell, that’s all a good host does.”
I realized that I was still holding onto Dick’s hand, even though I had stopped shaking it a minute ago. I let it go, and he put it on my shoulder.
“Whenever you talk to the camera, just think about one person. Someone you know. Someone you like. Talk only to them. And if you say “it’s nice to see you again,” make damn sure you mean it.”
“Thanks, Mr. Clark. I’ll do that.”
“You can call me Dick,’ he said. “All my friends do.”
A week later, several interesting things happened. I was called back to audition for No Relation once again. It came down to me and that kid named Ryan, whose last name turned out to be Seacrest. I don’t know if they flipped a coin or what, but somehow or other, I wound up getting the gig. Go figure. From what I’m told, Ryan has since bounced back, and can still be seen hosting some sort of atalent show on one of the major networks. Good for him.
No Relation went into production later that Summer. We shot 40 episodes on the same stage as The Price is Right, and I had the same dressing room as Bob Barker. (Not at the same time, naturally.) We would have shot another season, but unfortunately, the Celebrities on No Relation were so consistently dim-witted that I wound up handing out our entire allotment of Grand Prizes over the first ten episodes, dooming any hope of a second season. Had we not been canceled, No Relation would have no doubt been renamed “Hello Mexico!” since that’s where nearly every contestant wound up going. Unbelievable.
Tom Frank and I became good friends, and remain so to this day. I had dinner with the blonde after my first audition, and we began a relationship that also lasted – coincidentally – about 40 episodes. It too was canceled prematurely.
Rich Ross left fX, and went on to become a legitimate Hollywood power player, making headlines every other week, and enjoying an incredible run at Nikelodeon and The Walt Disney Company. Unfortunately, he also greenlit a rather pricey misfire called John Carter, and is resigning from Disney as I write this. Like Ryan, I suspect Rich will bounce back.
Dick Clark of course, has died, and those who knew him best are mourning his passing. Others are wondering how one person could have had such a massive impact on our culture. And millions who never even met the man are wondering why they miss him. Maybe, it’s because Dick Clark took his own advice. He didn’t try to talk to everyone. Even as millions of people were hanging onto his every word, he was never really broadcasting. He was never really Hosting. He was just talking. As a friend. As a guest. And when he said it was nice to see us, we believed him.
Dick Clark will be remembered for a great many things. Producing No Relation will not be among them. But one thing’s for sure – I’ll never forget the day The World’s Oldest Teenager appeared from thin air to offer me a job, a compliment, and some remarkably good advice. Which I’m honored to pass on today. One person at a time.