The Formula For TV Host Greatness with Comedian Michael Burger
Owen Shapiro 00:04
Welcome to Kino Society with Owen Shapiro. Welcome to Kino Society. In today’s episode, we have Michael Burger, Michael has spent 4000 hours of TV hosting seven television shows across all networks, including the ABCs Mike & Maddie, Iron Chef USA and the iconic game show Match Game. Welcome to Kino Society.
Michael Burger 00:31
Thank you. Nice to be here, Owen How are you?
Owen Shapiro 00:34
Good, good. You All good? What made you want to host television series?
Michael Burger 00:40
Well, I didn’t really know I wanted to do that. I just knew I kind of liked the sound of laughter. And I liked the ability to communicate with somebody really not perfecting that until certainly got older, but I was the guy in the classroom that would pipe up and say something and get a laugh. And I thought, well, this is nice. And then at some point, I realized, Oh, you could get paid to do it.
Owen Shapiro 01:05
So you started off as just a comedian. But what made you want to host television series, though?
Michael Burger 01:12
Well, you know, it was a natural progression. So started out doing stand up, cruise ships initially. And the idea of hosting really fit me fit my personality as you as you know, you’ve done enough interviews now, the idea of chatting with somebody and bringing them out and seeing where that goes. As opposed to acting where it’s scripted. I loved the other side of it was a conversation with somebody. And then game shows were a perfect format. And then obviously talk shows, refined that so that from an early early on, moment for me was, was the direction I wanted to go. I knew hosting more than anything more than stand up. Certainly acting was never on my radar. It was the idea of hosting that. I said, this is something I can do for a living.
Owen Shapiro 02:06
So what do you say that you prefer more improvised comedy or doing more improvised comedy than scripted?
Michael Burger 02:15
Sure, the any great comedy is built on structure. And within that structure, you can improv. So when I, when I did stand up, that was pretty scripted. But there’d be moments where you would play at the audience, which would let you run for a while and see where it goes. Part of my career where I did sitcom warmup, which we can talk about, if you wish, would involve me standing in front of a live studio audience for the five hours it would take to shoot 22 minutes. And you certainly you certainly run a material in that scenario. But what fills that gap, and what fuels that creativity is the improving with the audience, and of course, the actors, and then it takes on a life of its own.
Owen Shapiro 03:02
You didn’t attend any sort of university or school for this?
Michael Burger 03:06
Sure, well, not for that. But all of my schooling for me was just another excuse to work in front of an audience, which happened to be my classmates, or a teacher don’t have to put up with it. So elementary school, junior high school, I quickly learned how to get a laugh in class, or attempt a laugh. I certainly had a built in respect for the teachers in the night, I was raised by a family of teachers, Mom, dad antonopoulos, all taught so I had the respect for him. I figured out where the boundaries were what you could get away with without getting in trouble and yet still move the class along. If If I thought things were dull, I would take it upon myself to take the classroom in a different direction. So there is no formal training other than I did major in communications, I was a radio TV, communications major in college and graduated with that degree. But nothing really prepares you for the real world of, of that industry.
Owen Shapiro 04:06
So other than just being funny what other talents and skills are required for the job.
Michael Burger 04:11
For the job of hosting?
Owen Shapiro 04:13
Well, yeah, just being a television host or generally doing stand up comedy.
Michael Burger 04:21
Well, there’s two very different avenues in that in, in stand up. You observe something that perhaps strikes you funny, and then you refine that and share that with an audience and hopefully they see it the same way you do. It’s it’s seeing the world a little askew, or perhaps saying something, someone has thought but just hasn’t articulated. In the world of stand up. It’s highly prepared and polished. Except for those moments, like I said, where you can go play with an audience and ad lib and improv. But you take somebody like Jerry Seinfeld, who is a master at the economy of the of the word of the phrase, he’ll hone He’ll hone a joke until it’s down to the bare minimum with words to get the life he wants. Hosting is a whole nother muscle. To be a great host, you got to you got to show interest in someone else. It’s not about you, it’s about them. So that idea of making someone else look good for that person having their moment whether you are on a talk show or on a game show is the secret to a successful interview and a good host. And there are masters out there that did that successfully, like a Johnny Carson, who was probably the best at it. So that’s a skill that I continually work on. It’s one that I never gets old. Then when I go out and speak on the corporate world, and I speak to executives and leadership teams on how to motivate employees, and how to get buy in from their team members. That skill, I actually say to them, you should behave like a talk show host because talk show hosts are trained to show interest in other people. That’s the that’s the quickest way to being a good host is make it about someone else.
Owen Shapiro 06:18
In terms of your hosting career. What’s an average workday like for you?
Michael Burger 06:24
Well, it really depends on the job. In the world of game shows. Have you ever attended a game show taping?
Owen Shapiro 06:33
I do not believe so. No.
Michael Burger 06:35
Well, you’d know it if you did, because they’re, they’re long. When I shot Match Game, we shot seven episodes a day. Now game shows run pretty true to time you have a fixed amount of questions. There’s an answer, there’s a when there’s a loss, there’s a bonus round, there’s goodbye. So you can cram quite a few of those shows a show like Jeopardy and wheel of fortune to this day. And Match Game when I did it back in the day. We shot seven, we do three, take a lunch break, and then do four more with a separate audience. So two audiences seven shows. And we do that three days in a row. They get 21 shows in the can. And then you take two weeks off to produce the next batch of shows meaning finding more contestants writing new questions, tweaking, and then you do it all over again. So when we shot Match Game, did 135 episodes in a couple of months.
Owen Shapiro 07:31
Oh, that’s quite well, actually.
Michael Burger 07:33
That’s right. Yeah. So it adds up. When I did. talk shows I did Mike and Maddie we did 535 episodes I did home and family. I did 1000 hours with that. That was two hours live a day. So the preparation was a good night’s sleep and being alert in the morning. And being halfway facetious. Because you if you had an author, you’d try to get it. You try to get caught up on their book. you’re interviewing an actor. For me personally, I’d like to do a little research so I know who I’m talking to. And then also just being in the moment, there are so many examples of interviews that went off script if you would, for those curious about how a talk show unfolds, a guest would be pre interviewed the night before, literally a producer would call them up and say what would you like to talk about. And they would hone this six to seven to eight minute interview. And they would work in that a movie, they want to promote a book, whatever their story was. And then the producer of that segment would stand behind the camera with cue cards with bullet points. getting you to really kind of spit out what was already asked. Some of the greatest interviews that I was lucky to be a part of were interviews that went beyond that. They they went from a question that was written to one that was that was improvised. It was it came off the the actor’s mind to go another way. And so we went that way. And that’s where it really gets fun. Because then that comes it comes down to listening. Which which way are we going to take this? Some actors are comfortable with that. Others aren’t others want to kind of stick to the copy.
Owen Shapiro 09:18
What would you say is the most difficult thing about your career?
Michael Burger 09:21
I think many would say, getting the opportunity to work more. You know, I’ve been lucky enough to have a nice run. And at this point, I get to do some fun stuff that I choose to do. But very few of us would would get that long run like a Bob Barker for 30 years on the price or like I said Johnny or Letterman, a show that runs 10 2030 years is the anomaly. I don’t know if you know the statistics, but the union that we belong to Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA. There are 185,000 members of that Union. At any given moment, there’s an 85% unemployment rate, and of the 15% that are lucky enough to work 1% make 100 grand a year or more. So the odds are stacked against you see, you’ve got to be at this for the right reasons. So the challenge for most actors or hosts, is to keep to keep working. That’s why you find other avenues. And in my case, you speaking on the corporate circuit has certainly filled that void for me in a way that I can get my standup in and I can still get the fun of the audience.
Owen Shapiro 10:36
So you mentioned how there are many people that have the same careers or to have the same career that you do. So how do you think you are able to stand apart from the rest?
Michael Burger 10:49
Well I think my career is pretty unique there, I don’t think there are many that have been lucky enough to have my career. So seven shows is a pretty nice bit of luck. The there are stand ups, who will just do stand up from day one to till they’re done. I never got into the sitcom world as an actor, but I certainly hung around that long enough doing sitcom warmup. And I think, to remain successful or necessary in the business, you got to do a couple things, you got to do your homework, you got to show up on time, you got to be somebody that others want to hang out with, it’s really not that difficult. Just be nice to people on the way up on the way down and keep innovating. Keep inventing, keep honing your craft. Again, it’s another message both whether you’re in broadcasting or any line of work. You got to adapt, you got to you got to keep leveraging into what the public is telling you, a buddy of mine that I wrote my first book with Ross shaffers got the greatest line about adapting and it’s this. If you don’t like change, you’re probably going to hate extinction. And I think that’s an overlay for any business. From what I’ve said so far. Does any of that resonate with you? Have you found in your line of work? Have you found interviewing people that? Is it different than what you thought? Do you do you find yourself continually working at that process? Is it as easy or is it more difficult?
Owen Shapiro 12:33
Yeah, it’s it gets slightly easier each time, I’d say because at the same time, it’s challenging to think up questions while people are talking.
Michael Burger 12:45
Wait, you’re not you’re not supposed to think about questions, whether it’s blogging, you’re supposed to be listening to it. That’s the that’s the fun part, because it’ll take you in a completely different direction. I I noticed in your background that you you’re a cinephile. And you, you, I get the feeling that you love everything about this business, right. Yeah, I do. Yeah. So I mean, that I think that interest in that industry, the interest you have in these people that you interview, were, obviously the key to your six key to success. And to keep you I guess, keep you engaged. I assume you’re not burned out yet. Right? You’re still having fun with us.
Owen Shapiro 13:26
Yeah, I’m not burnt out. Yeah.
Michael Burger 13:29
Yeah. But like any professional, well, I should to speak for me. I love the challenge of something new. Again, on the corporate market. When somebody comes to me and wants me to speak to the group, I deep dive and find out everything there is to know about that company. I just spoke to the National Association of Automobile Dealers, and I’m a car guy. So I learned everything there is to know about that world of cars and selling it. And that to me, was so interesting. So my job changes whether I’m doing a commercial or whether it’s lucky enough to be part of a television show. I think the newness of it, and not knowing what’s coming for me is what keeps it fresh. Keeps it fun.
Owen Shapiro 14:10
So yeah, he also mentioned that you had other careers like with cars and real estate. Do you think that’s helps your entertainment career at all?
Michael Burger 14:20
Well, let’s say the cars have been a passion. That’s just pure indulgent, that’s just fun. So I would collect and restore and sell and have some fun with that. Not on the scale of it, Jay lead or Seinfeld, but in my own world. I’ve always loved cars. had fun doing that the real estate world. I kind of was forced into when I first started in this business, whether it’s telling jokes are wanting to be a host. My dad said Son you need a backup plan. That’s why I want to do what I’m doing because you I know you do what you need a backup plan. Well, I don’t want to be distracted. I kind of liked the show. Yeah, I know you do, but you need a backup plan. But all right, what do I do? Go get your real estate license. So I got my real estate license and didn’t do anything with it for decades, because I really wanted this other career. And as it turns out, my dad was right. When, when I had more free time than I knew what to do with I started flipping homes. And I think, to your question, there is an overlay between the world of real estate, and in the world of broadcasting and television and hosting, because again, it’s about the client, it’s about the other person, it’s quite a bit of creativity in the selling or flipping a home. There’s a there’s attention to detail. And there is trying to figure out what that buyer needs or wants. So I think they dovetail nicely. Again, it’s about it’s about the person you’re dealing with. I’ve got a friend of mine that started in the real estate business when I did and she’s still in it, she had no designs on getting an any other professional like I did. And I think her career is fascinating, because she never feels she’s successful yet she is she always feels she has to keep working at it. She’s thinks it can go away in a heartbeat. And yet, we were just talking about this the other day, because the real estate market has exploded. And I said, Do you get the feeling that if you backed off your advertising or your marketing, that people would not use you anymore as an agent? She said, Well, she goes when I do occasionally back off to kind of get that work, life balance. She goes by reputation keeps me top of mind for a while. So I think the longer you stay in the business, whether it’s the one I’m in the one she’s in, if you treat people nicely, if you’re good at what you do, and you’re consistent, then you’re going to stick around.
Owen Shapiro 16:52
You’re not interested in staying in one business though, right? You like to hop around between industries.
Michael Burger 16:59
It’s sort of the the necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. So I do kind of like the variety of it. But if you’re asking me would I like to host a game show for the next 1520 years? I’d say Yeah, sure. I’m not not doing this because someone has an asked what I did Match Game and we did a year and a half, I could have done that. I’d be doing it today, if they still wanted us. We we were a syndicated show, meaning you went on in different markets at different times. So in some cities, we were opposite. Oprah, which was not helpful. When we did the morning talk show we were an ABC show. And when ABC was bought out, we were the victim of that. So I’ve done some shows that could have run, but circumstances out over control. Like everybody has a story about their show coming and going. But a long winded way to answer your question is sure if it’s a fun show you nobody wants to quit you. You want to keep doing it. I’ve had a blast with the shows up like enough dose.
Owen Shapiro 18:05
A while back, you mentioned that you want it to host and do comedy for a long time. So any particular influences on that?
Michael Burger 18:15
Yeah, I’m of that age group where I would stay up to watch Johnny Carson and I would stay up to see Don Rickles and I would stay up to see Jonathan Winters. Are you familiar with Jonathan Winters?
Owen Shapiro 18:26
Sounds familiar. I’m not Oh, yeah.
Michael Burger 18:28
Well, he’s, he’s the most respective comedian ever to stand on stage. He was the greatest improv, Robin Williams idolized Jonathan Winters. So idolizing Jonathan Winters and then getting a chance to work with him on a sitcom where I was doing the sitcom warm up, and he was the actor. I got to meet him for the first time and ad lib with him. And I, you know, I don’t know how to describe it. Other than, you know, if you’re a baseball fan, it’s like taking a taking a pitch from Kershaw. If you’re a NASCAR fan, it’s like driving the circuit with Kyle Busch, or Richard Petty, it’s the best of the best of the best. So I get to meet him. And we do 26 episodes together. And then when Mike and Maddy, my ABC talk show hit the air, I got a chance to interview him. And he used to come on The Tonight Show and bring a box of hats. And Johnny would give him a hat and Jonathan Winters would put the hat on and just ad lib a character. So cut to must have been 15 years since that happened. He sits down and I give him a box of hats and we create that moment all over again. And it’s surreal to think that I’m now sitting where Johnny sat doing this with a guy that I still respected. It’s one of those moments you’ll never forget for me in the business. You know, when I first started doing talk shows, I couldn’t believe that we had a finish in like six minutes. In a talk show scenario. You get six to seven minutes. That’s the length of a segment. And then they go to commercial. And I thought, well, how in the world am I going to talk to someone for seven minutes, I have too much to ask. And you, you, you start training yourself to be concise. And again, that person has been pre interviewed. So all of those answers are already there. So you can kind of follow a roadmap. But as I was saying, before, the fun of it is taking it in a different direction. Robert Gula was one of the all time great singers, Broadway stars was on our show. And they had pre interviewed him the night before, and had an arc of questions. And during the interview, he goes off the script, and he’s talking about his relationship with his dad. Now the producer that had interviewed him, is waving this cue card for me to catch. And notice the questions that I haven’t asked yet. What she was missing was this powerful story that Robert boulais felt comfortable enough to tell which was on his father’s deathbed. He brought his son close to him and whispered in his ear, son, you’re meant to sing do that. I mean, it was I got chills. I got chills thinking about it now. And this line producer didn’t hear that, because she was so concerned that the question wasn’t asked, that was posed in the pre interview. That’s a perfect example of a line of questions that come up organically out of that conversation, which, to me, it’s just, it’s so interesting, where people will sometimes take a conversation. But in a, in a world of a talk show, you have a finite amount of time, you just can’t sit there for hours and chat, they have a show to produce, you know, we’d have 12 segments, sometimes over the course of an hour, they got to stay on time, and still make it interesting and still find a way to get something out of someone.
Owen Shapiro 22:00
Yeah, I definitely understand that.
Michael Burger 22:04
Give me the challenge of being on point, right and ending. If you said to me, right now we have to end in five minutes, and you had all these other things to ask, you’d really have to start making some choices on what, what would work and that finite amount of time. So for me, when I started out, I thought, well, this, I don’t how this seems This is tough. I mean, how do you pull that off? And of course, you pull it off by, you know, people, helping you and people, you know, doing these pre interviews, and you you start to trust that, oh, the process works.
Owen Shapiro 22:36
So what’s your favorite thing that you’ve been in? Well, with respect to what in television, I’d say.
Michael Burger 22:44
Well, yeah, cuz they all there’s so many facets of of one’s career that all have their fun, you know, hosting Match Game, I’m literally on the stage that they would tape the prices right? on. And I was literally in the dressing room with Bob Barker would get dressed. It was it was his dressing room, his stage. And then when they weren’t taping we would come in so I was how was on hallowed ground there. So that was pretty unique at the end of a taping, a buddy of mine, who was the announcer and I would walk into the parking lot. And we’d look at that CBS logo and think, you know, we’re living the dream here. This is, you know, you never want this to end. So that was pretty heady stuff. The talk show format was great, because you got to meet some of your idols. Like I said, I’ve met presidents, I’ve met people that they I’ve got to know and become friends with some actors that you never want to meet again and others you couldn’t get enough of the world of stand up when I first started out, doing stand up comedy on cruise ships, I thought was the biggest deal in the world. Because all of a sudden, I have an audience that’s sitting there, and they’re listening. And there was a band behind that would play you on and they were dancers that opened the show and usually a singer that would come on after and then they would bring out the comedian. I couldn’t believe that I was in showbiz. In reality, they I was just on a boat going down to Mexico and back, but to me, it felt like now I’ve done something with my career as small scale as it was, you know, that was that was probably the that moment where you feel Oh, man, I guess at the moment I’ve made the right career choice. We’ll see where it goes.
Owen Shapiro 24:33
So it’s about time to wrap things up. actually speaking of as we said before, like with your saying that often it talk shows are cut short. But yeah, we’re also on a time limit here, though much looser time limit. So what would you say to someone who wants to enter the world of television.
Michael Burger 25:00
Well you know, it’s really got to be something that you’re you’re doing for yourself that you have a skill that you think fits that craft that world because I think there in the world of instant celebrity that we have now, you could post a YouTube video or a tik tok video and all of a sudden you’re famous for a moment. So the world of showbiz has been blurred by access to being on the air or on someone’s phone. But that’s not acting. That’s not a career. That’s a tick tock moment. So you have to decide, you know, what would you like to do, you know, if you if you’d like to be an actor, and then in the same way, a doctor would study to become a doctor, you do the same thing, you take acting lessons, and you’d work at your craft. And if that’s something that moves you, and you’ve you feel it’s you being the best, you could be the coin of race, then then I say, go do it. But don’t think that it’s something you just fall into, or just happens because, like any successful person, they they put the work in. And it’s it’s gratifying if it works, but just know that don’t, don’t do it to be famous. Don’t do it to make the money. Do it because you love to do it.
Owen Shapiro 26:21
How can my listeners find and connect with you?
Michael Burger 26:26
Well if you go to Michaelburger.com, so literally my name. I’ve got a site there where I kind of keep people posted on what’s up. And as I said, I’m, I work a lot more now in the corporate world. So a company will hire me to come in and, and consult and entertain and do that. And then the television stuff is all on the back burner. So I may or may not be back on the year. sooner than later, you’d be the stuff you never talk about until it actually happens. So I have got nothing to direct them to it though it is far as broadcast, but I pop up here in their own.
Owen Shapiro 27:04
Thank you so much for being here today. And also thank you for your advice. Very, very helpful.
Michael Burger 27:11
Oh, I I’m I’m always impressed and hopefully encouraging to people that that have a passion for it. And clearly you do and that love for it. I think the love of love for we’ll keep you engaged and hopefully you’re having fun with it. And I certainly wish you the best and keep doing it for that reason. Keep doing it because you love it.
Owen Shapiro 27:34
Thanks. And don’t that’s all for today. Don’t forget, you can subscribe to Kino Society on iTunes and Spotify.
Michael Burger 27:42
Have a good afternoon Owen and thanks nice chatting with you.