With its latest cast of celebrities from all areas of entertainment and beyond, ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" kicks off season eight tonight with contestants including Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, Olympian Shawn Johnson, rapper Lil' Kim, NFL's Lawrence Taylor and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Host and Emmy-winner Tom Bergeron, who is as jovial and gregarious as he is on the sahow, recently talked to our Jim Halterman about why the show clicks with audiences, what the dangling carrot is for the celebrity contestants and about the stars who will never take the stage as a dancing contestant.
Jim Halterman: Looking over your career, you've really done a little of everything. Was that part of a master plan?
Tom Bergeron: It's true. I've done everything from talk shows, radio shows, "Good Morning America" for a stretch, "America's Funniest Home Videos." My career has had about as much planning as the current government bailout. [Laughs.]
JH: When "Dancing With The Stars" first came around, did you have any idea that it would be so popular?
TB: In all honesty, at most I thought it would be a summer show. It would be something we would do, if the ratings were half-decent, every summer for six-to-eight weeks. Initially, I had to be talked into it by my wife and agent because I was convinced that a celebrity ballroom competition was just a non-starter. Shows you what I know!
JH: What do you think it is about the show that really clicks with audiences?
TB: I can only say what clicked with me when I watched the British show after kvetching about it and everything. [The producers] said to watch about 10 minutes of the DVD and I liked it. I didn't know the stars that they had on the British version but I knew I liked the energy. I love live television so that appealed to me immediately; and then the fact that it was a reality show that didn't involve any backbiting or bug eating or anything like that. It had a real throwback energy to the day of the variety shows that I grew up watching. Everything from "The Hollywood Palace" to any number of variety shows that don't exist on TV anymore. It had a lot of nostalgic appeal and the live TV element and also it had a sense of humor about it. Even the British one; there's a real sense of awareness about the kitsch level that's going on that you can see duplicated in our show but still with great respect and admiration for the efforts of the couples.
JH: One of the things that I love about the show is the unpredictability factor. For example, you have Marie Osmond fainting one season and just about anything that Cloris Leachman did last year. How much of that do you think is the appeal of the show?
TB: I have a book coming out in April ("I'm Hosting As Fast As I Can: Zen And The Art of Staying Sane In Hollywood," out April 7th) and the first line in the introduction says, "Open on Marie Osmond, unconscious at my feet." [Laughs.] So, for me walking out there and not knowing what's going to happen and knowing that we have no second take, that it's live, is a wonderfully focusing energy for me and one of the key reasons that I love the show so much, aside from the people.
JH: One of the elements of the show is the relaunching of a lot of careers that may have been quiet for a while...
TB: ...mine included! [Laughs.]
JH: ...do you think some of those contestants forget that it's a lot of hard work on the show and are just thinking about the attention that they hope the show will bring?
TB: I think the attention is always the carrot on the stick but there's always a stick with it. Initially, it's not an uncommon refrain to hear 'I didn't know it was going to be this hard.' But I think you're right. It relaunches careers or sets careers going in different trajectories that they might have gone but it is tough. I danced only one dance in the second season to see what it was like and it was exhausting. It really was. I didn't do a particularly good job but it was enlightening for me insofar as understanding more than just on an intellectual level.
JH: Do you have a hand in choosing the contestants?
TB: Mercifully, no. But it's not unlike what they used to do when I hosted "Hollywood Squares" where we had those nine boxes to fill and we wanted to get as many different fan bases from music, TV shows, authors, politicians, business people. I don't think we ever went with a Steve Wozniak-type but I think that's a really interesting avenue to go down on this show. Plus, I can get free tech-support! I don't have to go to the Genius Bar anymore. I can just go to his dressing room and say, "Hey, Steve!"
JH: Are there any past contestants who surprised you by how far they went in the competition?
TB: Oh, sure. Definitely. Emmitt Smith went on to win and who knew? And, just in terms of a category of stars, the NFL has turned into a ballroom breeding ground. I never would have guessed that some of our most memorable dancers would come from the National Football League. And then we had Jerry Springer. I remember when I first heard he was cast I went "Oh really? Jerry Springer?" and I fell in love with him like everyone else. He was just wonderful as you got to know that the real, essential Jerry is a such a mensch on the show. And on the other spectrum was Master P. He was a riot but who knew he would last four weeks?
JH: This season has the first married couple among the stars?
TB: Yes with Jewel and her husband, Ty Murray. In terms of romances, we have Julianne Hough and Chuck Wicks, her boyfriend. That could be interesting because unlike Jewel and her husband, who are dancing against each other and that presents its own problems. Julianne and Chuck are dancing with each other. It's almost like there's no neutral corner to go to at the end of the day. I was getting some messages on my Facebook page and they were saying 'It's not fair!' and I said, 'Well, you might be right but not from the perspective you're thinking of.' It might be that they're at a severe disadvantage, particularly Julianne and Chuck. This is a reasonably young romance and it could be a death knell. [Laughs.] Look at last season, how many unexpected physical injuries took place. This could be the season of unexpected emotional injuries. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Following the interview, it was announced that Jewel would be withdrawing from the competition due to a fractured tibia in both legs along with Nancy O'Dell, who suffered a torn meniscus during rehearsals. Replacements will be announced during tonight's season premiere.]
JH: That will be fun to watch. [Laughs.]
TB: Spoken with the sadism of a regular viewer!
JH: There were rumors that Donny Osmond was going to be a contestant but then he wasn't? What happened there?
TB: As far as I know, it was just a rumor. I don't know the extent to which there had been or hadn't been conversations. It certainly sounds like he jumped the gun; I guess he was on Bonnie Hunt's show or something. It wouldn't surprise to see him there in an upcoming season.
JH: You've already said you wouldn't want to be a contestant. How about taking one of the judge's chairs?
TB: Although some might say otherwise, the judges know what they're talking about. Len [Goodman] comes from the world of competitive ballroom and both Bruno [Tonioli] and Carrie Ann [Inaba] are dancers and choreographers and have the eye for that. I...that would just be additional cruel and unusual punishment for the dancers and the stars although I probably would be a pushover.
JH: The show is so successful and done so much for the celebrity contestants. Is there anybody that the show has not been able to get to appear?
TB: I'm sure there are a lot of people that they would like to get but, for whatever reason, be it due to scheduling or someone just isn't interested. I know we've pursued William Shatner a couple of times and I've always been hopeful. Henry Winkler, who is a good buddy of mine, said 'no way.' He'll never do it. And for all the reasons you'd think. It's exhausting. It's a real challenge. Some people are comfortable enough that they don't need to put themselves through that. It's either a challenge for you that's enticing or it isn't, like everything else. Some people like to mountain climb and I can think of nothing I'd least rather due but for them it's fascinating to be in the mountains. I think there are a number of notable people that we'd love to get on the show but they'd just prefer to be viewers. William Shatner has told me that he and his wife Elizabeth both love it and watch it avidly. As for being on it, nope.
"Dancing With The Stars" premieres its new crop of celebrity dancers tonight with a two-hour episode on ABC at 8:00/7:00c.