The John Kerwin Show, the Long-Running, Late-Night Talk Show You've Never Heard of
|Photo by Lucie Aleks.|
|Host John Kerwin with Brandi Glanville|
The audience could use the help: It's an enthusiastic bunch, but small. Just a few rows of seats are crammed into the tiny Encino studio, every one of them filled.
Tonight marks the 100th episode of this little-but-mighty late-night program, which has chugged along under the radar for the last 10 years. The John Kerwin Show has everything all the other late-night shows have: the fake-skyline backdrop, the monologue, the sideshow band, the prop mic on the interview desk. Everything but the big budget and booming ratings. New episodes tape just once every five weeks and air on the tiny Jewish Life TV network (JLTV). The show's staff is unpaid.
Kerwin, the 39-year-old comedian and emcee who hosts the show, employs some entry-level newbies looking to gain television experience, but others on his staff are longtime professionals. Some are between gigs; others simply like working with him. Kerwin's director, Rudy Milanovich, has been with him a whopping seven years. Writer Marvin Silbermintz, who's been with him since 2008, worked on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno for 17 years. Don Sweeney, associate producer, has worked on The Tonight Show, The Howie Mandel Show and The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show.
In the audience tonight, a former associate producer is seated behind me, waving and smiling at her old friends. Kerwin recognizes her and lights up, then graciously greets the crowd.
Later, I ask him with a chuckle how he manages to find such talent without being able to offer financial reward. He doesn't chuckle back. Without a note of humility, he says, "I think it's because I'm so dedicated, and so passionate about [the show]. I think that's what I attract."
Kerwin's career as a talk-show host began, indirectly, because of Jerry Seinfeld. Circa 2001, Kerwin was emceeing at the Improv in Hollywood when Seinfeld came in to do a set. During Kerwin's introduction, he asked Seinfeld how much his watch cost. "From the stage, it looked like he had a can of tuna fish on his wrist," Kerwin recalls.
Seinfeld replied, "Well, I'll tell you how much this is if you tell me how much that piece of shit you're wearing is." The two switched watches and made a shtick of it -- Kerwin falling over because the watch was so heavy, Seinfeld saying his skin was turning green, that he was developing some kind of eczema. The audience loved it.
Afterward a producer came up to Kerwin and said, "I don't know if you know this, but you're a late-night talk-show host," and offered his help.
"As soon as I heard that, it was like the sun came out of the clouds," Kerwin says.
That help never came through, which is "common here in Hollywood," Kerwin says. Still, "that comment and night changed everything."
Kerwin read up on public access television, became an intern on other shows and then started his own. In late 2010, JLTV offered him a spot, and the show became nationally syndicated.
The newest episode folds into a mix of repeats that airs twice a week, bringing in an estimated quarter-million viewers per month. (Episodes also have garnered 2 million total views on YouTube.) That may seem meager next to, say, Jay Leno's reported 3 million to 4 million nightly viewers, but Kerwin's underground following is strong. The Tonight Show's official Twitter account has 24,000 followers -- 16,000 fewer than Kerwin's show.
Tonight, Brandi Glanville from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is Kerwin's guest. He asks her how being on reality TV has changed her life. "Oh, gosh," Glanville says, "I have a DVD coming out, I have a book coming out, I have a diet supplement coming out, I have a Skinnygirl line of drinks... ."
Glanville is spoofing the entrepreneurial pursuits of her fellow Housewives. Kerwin is fooled.
"I'm just kidding," she says, doubling over, "I don't have anything." The audience claps and laughs. Smiling, Kerwin says, "You know, in 10 years, I think you're the first person that got me."
Kerwin had a choice between Glanville and Taylor Armstrong to be his guest. Most other hosts likely would have chosen Armstrong. She's the bigger star, and with her husband's recent suicide and the subsequent revelation of his abuse of her, she's also the bigger story. But Kerwin wanted to keep the show fun, and he thought Glanville would match his comedy style better.
Kerwin also was following the advice of friend and mentor Leno, who once told Kerwin not to worry about the "level of guest."
"What's more important," Kerwin recalls Leno saying, "is developing the show, and developing your skills as a talk-show host to your maximum potential."
Which is not to say some big names haven't graced Kerwin's set: Jonathan Winters, Cloris Leachman, Antonio Sabato Jr. and Bruce Dern. Glanville is in talks to return.
BET expressed interest in picking up the show, though that deal didn't pan out. Recently Kerwin has opened communication with Syfy. He'd be willing to adjust his show to fit a niche network, he says. What he won't do, it seems, is settle for being the permanent underdog.
"We're trying to compete with the best talk shows in late night," he says. "Watching the presidential campaigns, it's not that different. We're campaigning for the best show in America. We're fighting for this."Follow me on Twitter at @myso_callife, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.