What happens when you gather five smart, high-powered, funny, self-made women together for lunch at Hotel Bel-Air’s Wolfgang Puck restaurant? You get a lot of laughs and great conversation—especially when the guests in question are the women of CBS’ The Talk. Kate Betts sat down with Julie Chen, Sara Gilbert, Sheryl Underwood, Sharon Osbourne and Aisha Tyler to dish on everything from their greatest achievements to their favorite guests.
Kate Betts: How did the idea for the show come up?
Sara Gilbert: I felt like women needed this sense of connection with girlfriends, which was missing in our culture. The more technological and career-minded people get, it seems like they get further apart. So I wanted the show to serve as a connection for people and feel like we were a group of their girlfriends.
Kate: And then you called Julie?
Sara: It was a dream for me to get Julie involved. With her news background, I knew that she’d be able to be a great leader and moderator on the show, but I also knew that people saw her in a particular way, and it was interesting to see who the person was behind that “Chen-bot.”
Julie Chen: The main thing that appealed to me was, being a new mom, I wanted to talk to other moms about motherhood. That was what the show was supposed to be when Sara first had the idea. Now what appeals to me is this dynamic of having a built-in support system at work where we discuss the fun, dishy things you would talk about with your sister or your best friend. Sharon always says we’re a motley crew, and we are. Who would have guessed to put these five women together? For whatever reason, it works.
Kate: What distinguishes this show from other talk shows?
Sara: We really bring our friendship and our lives to the table, whereas with other shows people talk more about their opinions or their guests’ lives.
Aisha Tyler: There are a lot of representations of women on television where they just aren’t being kind to each other. Female-focused television has become antagonistic—some of the most popular shows are about women competing with each other—and I don’t think there are any shows where the women are as supportive and as kind to each other.
Sharon Osbourne: But we’re also a lot edgier than general-type shows. People tune in to have a good time.
Sheryl Underwood: And we’re smart without beating you over the head with it. We’re all really capable women who juggle—but other women who might be doing the same thing can see what we’re going through without it being patronizing.
Kate: Who’s the dream guest?
Sharon: Shirley MacLaine. She’s such a brilliant actress. When you think of the Rat Pack, and all the amazing phases of her career, there aren’t many women who have had a career like hers.
Julie: I would love for Katie Holmes to come on our show. As a woman who’s gone through quite a journey, being able to give us some insight into why she did what she did, and how she feels about it now.
Sheryl: I wish the Obamas would come on as a couple.
Sharon: I just want them to bring the dog.
Kate: What are the challenges of being a woman in the TV business?
Sharon: You still don’t get paid what the men get paid.
Julie: Oprah did, but that’s because she made her own way.
Aisha: I do think women are doing well on television; I just think what they’re doing well at is not always the best representation of who we are. I love guilty pleasures, and I love shows that are naughty, but in daytime and in talk and in reality, the general tempo for women is fighting over men, fighting over clothes, fighting over money, undermining each other.
Julie: Shows like Real Housewives have set the women’s movement back a lot. Because they take these heightened stereotypical characters, and who knows if the producers are telling them to be more this or that?
Sharon: And the majority of these women don’t know how to make a living. They’re not self-made women. And they have this horrible sense of entitlement—“Don’t you know who my husband is?” I don’t care.
Julie: We’re the exact opposite of everything that people are used to seeing, because we’re all self-made women, we do not fight, we respect each other and we’re very secure in who we are. I think not a lot of women on other shows, whether reality series or another format, are secure in who they are, which is why they act up.
Kate: When did you know that television was your career path?
Sheryl: I would say Def Comedy Jam being on HBO. But this show is really the epitome of what you achieve. Most stand-ups want to be in sitcoms. To me, I’m glad I got this at this time of my life with these women because I can’t act. To be able to state your opinion, get a joke in, hug some very attractive men, eat, and find ou more about yourself and what you can be better at—all of it around this table—that’s when I knew I’d made it.
Sharon: After The Osbournes I got a chat show, which lasted a year, and I thought, “Well, that’s it. I’ll just carry on managing.” And then Simon Cowell called me and asked me to go and do X Factor in England, and four years on that show really was what made me in TV.
Sara: My big break was Roseanne. But I knew before that—I just knew my whole life that I wanted to do this. When I was in elementary school I thought, “They just don’t know I’m famous yet, but this is all happening.” I was so certain that it just had yet to unfold.
Julie: My big break was getting a local news job at WCBS in New York, because it is the number-one market and being there gets you seen by the decision-makers who can propel your career or kill it. It led to my job on The Early Show as the newsreader with Bryant Gumbel.
Aisha: I had a little break and a big break. The little break was Talk Soup, and my big break was Friends. I went from being on a show with a million viewers to being on a show with 25 million viewers. I knew how lucky I was, and I was on the verge of having a mental breakdown for at least the first two weeks I was there.
Kate: What’s your mantra?
Julie: It sounds so hokey, but I do this a couple of times a week: I ask to be a better mother and wife.
Sharon: Mine’s similar. I strive to be a better person and to think before I act and before I say anything.
Aisha: I have two; one is internal and one is external. The internal one is bravery, and I really try to have that govern everything that I do. My external mantra comes from acting. On any show there’s a lot of anxiety right before you walk out on stage. People are flipping out. So I always say to everybody and to myself, “It’s going to go great.” If you believe it’s going to go great, it probably will.
Sheryl: I try to tell people: Be blessed, then go forth and be a blessing to other people. But the biggest thing that has really gotten me further is to ask for forgiveness. It’s easy to say “I’m sorry,” but it takes a big person to say please forgive me.
Kate: What’s the one moment in your career that you’re the most proud of?
Sheryl: The day we took off all our makeup.
Julie: I think the day of my career that I was most proud of started out as the day I originally felt the most ashamed by. My whole career and who I am as a person—you know, my parents are Chinese, so I was trained to not show emotion as a child. And then as a journalist, too. And the day the verdict came down in the Casey Anthony trial, I thought, “Oh, I got this in my back pocket.” This is something I used to do in news all the time. And I broke down on the air, and I felt like a failure. Afterward, my husband told me everyone was coming up to him about what I did. And he said, “I heard it was amazing. You should know that people were glad that you weren’t the Chen-bot; that you showed some emotion.” It taught me to be more human in this job.
Sharon: There’s an award in England that the queen gives out for women, and it’s the best woman in business award. I went to Buckingham Palace, and the queen gave me this award. That was a huge moment for me.
Aisha: I’ve always been an outsider-y kid. And I’ve always felt like an outsider in the business as well. The way that I look and the comedy that I do are kind of incongruous, and I’ve always been told, “You don’t fit in.” This year was such an amazing year because I felt so confident, creatively, and a big part of that was The Talk. But my other show, Archer, won a comedy award this year. The ceremony was in New York; our little show was in the corner, and we all felt like outsiders… and then when I stood up, I realized I knew almost everybody in the room. It was the first time when they felt like peers to me, and not like a club that I was trying to get into.
Sheryl: A proud moment for me is when we got the laugh at the Daytime Emmys. That was hilarious because I think—didn’t you guys rework it?
Julie: We rewrote. Typical us. It was a little irreverent. We went onstage to present and we were so happy to not only get invited to the dance but also be nominated. We decided to address the elephant in the room, and we got up there and said, “We’re a new daytime talk show. We’re called The Talk, but if you haven’t checked it out, let us introduce ourselves. I’m Barbara Walters.” It got a big laugh. And Barbara Walters was sitting there, and she loved it.
Sara: I think mine has to do more with reinvention, because my career started so young. So anytime I do something—it can even be an acting class or be on a show or something—I always feel proud to be doing that. It feels right.
Julie Chen had just given birth to a son in 2009 when her husband—Leslie Moonves, the president and chief executive officer of CBS—came home one day and asked if she was interested in moving from the Early Show, where she had been an anchor for nearly 10 years, to a daytime talk show.
“I needed a lifestyle change,” Chen says. A decade of setting her alarm for three hours of sleep—once, she admits, she set it for just seven minutes—and covering the war in Iraq and conflicts in Kuwait and Qatar was enough. “After that grueling schedule, everything is a piece of cake,” she says, laughing.
So Chen met Sara Gilbert at the Polo Lounge for an iced tea. They did a few tests to try their onscreen chemistry, then shot a pilot. There was only one daytime slot opening on the network and the competition was fierce—other contenders included an Emeril Lagasse cooking show, a Valerie Bertinelli talk show and a game show—but Chen and Gilbert nabbed it.
It wasn’t an obvious win for either of them. Gilbert thought of herself as more of an actress than a daytime host, and Chen had spent her career reporting news in front of a camera. After graduating from the University of Southern California she landed a desk assistant job at ABC News in Los Angeles, then became a reporter at WDTN-TV Dayton before joining CBS News in New York. While her experience hosting Big Brother took her one step away from hard news, switching to a chatty, personal format was challenging. “I like it,” admits Chen, “but I had to learn how to have more opinions, how to be less of a Chen-bot on air.”
She has also embraced social media. As the host of Big Brother she joined Twitter, and this season began tweeting for The Talk, too. “It’s a powerful thing that can’t be ignored if you’re in this business,” she says. Chen likes reading the comments and learning about her viewers. “We learn a lot; we get different points of view.” Which, naturally, adds to the conversation.
Heart and Soul
It’s a typical morning in The Talk’s green room, and Sheryl Underwood is rushing around looking for the wardrobe assistant to help her find a better bra—preferably one that can hold a BLT. Underwood, a stand-up comedian as well as a host, is working on a joke for today’s episode. The news that bacon might be rationed has inspired a gag that will have Sheryl hoarding a huge plate of the stuff. As Julie Chen recounts a childhood memory about her love of BLTs, Underwood will whip a sandwich out of her bra and offer it to her.
“Usually we will talk about ideas with the producers at the 8 a.m. meeting,” Underwood explains. “They’ll come up with a concept and then I’ll beat out the comedy.” It’s a process Underwood has been refining her whole life. “My dad could tell the best stories. If you couldn’t get a good laugh, you couldn’t survive in our house.” Underwood put her comedic talent to work in college, when she began padding her term papers with humor. Her professors would give her a better grade simply because she made them laugh. “‘This really deserves a D,’ they’d say,” Underwood recalls, “‘but I’ll give you a C.’”
When she joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1981, Underwood used humor to get her through. The experience, in turn, gave her the kind of focus and perseverance necessary to survive in show business. “I learned how to take direction without taking offense,” she says.
Underwood, who grew up in a Midwestern inner city, draws on her urban Southern background for her work. Her first big break came in college, when she drove from Los Angeles to New York to try out for HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, but missed the audition and ended up landing a gig at the Uptown Comedy Club. She eventually broke into Def Comedy and hosted her own show, Comic View, and created and produced the talk show Holla for BET. In addition to The Talk, Underwood is a weekly contributor to the Steve Harvey Morning Show and hosts The Sheryl Underwood Show on Jamie Foxx’s The Foxxhole on SiriusXM radio. She has appeared in films like Bulworth, I Got the Hook-Up and Beauty Shop.
After a 25-year career in comedy, Underwood says it’s her co-hosting spot on The Talk that has given her the courage to really push her comedic skills. She recalls the no-makeup episode (“Never let Sara [Gilbert] come up with an idea!”) and the time she allowed Dr. Oz to weigh her on the show. “These ladies make me secure enough to take risks,” she says. “In comedy you can hide behind the jokes, but here I have pushed myself to conquer my fears.”
Gilbert Grows Up
When Sara Gilbert had her second child five years ago, she felt so isolated and overwhelmed by motherhood that she founded a “mommy group” where she could meet with friends and talk about mom issues. From chat about diapers, naps and preschool applications, Gilbert had a brainstorm, an idea for a daytime talk show focusing on the personal issues and emotional topics that often arise at impromptu gatherings on the playground.
“I’ve said it so many times,” says Gilbert, who is perhaps best known for her role as Darlene Conner in the hit series Roseanne. “It was almost too easy—everything just fell into place after I realized that what people needed was a place to sit and connect to other people.” The first host Gilbert reached out to was former Early Show anchor and Big Brother host Julie Chen—also a new mother at the time. After Chen signed on to the show, the rest of the casting fell into place.
The Talk has evolved into more than just kid-friendly stuff, of course, but the emotional bent of the talk show remains.
“It’s always personal,” says Gilbert. “What’s exciting about live television is that you never know what is going to happen each day.” She was surprised that all five hosts agreed to appear on a recent episode without professional hair or makeup and wearing just a towel or a bathrobe. “I’ve always wanted to strip the show down and show people who we really are,” she says, “but I wasn’t sure my co-hosts would agree to do it. That’s what is so amazing about them.”
Although Gilbert’s résumé boasts an endless list of television, feature film and stage credits, including guest-starring roles on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, a starring role in Twins, and recurring roles in The Class and ER, she still finds the talk show format the most challenging. “The hardest part about it is that you want to do a good job, but if you’re not in the mood, you have to really work through that. It’s a skill and I’m getting better at it. I don’t think anybody would think of me as a host.” Now they do.
On a recent episode of The Talk, co-host Aisha Tyler found herself inside a plastic booth. The statuesque Tyler, dressed in an apron and jeans, frantically grabbed at dollar bills fluttering around in the manufactured wind, trying to stuff them into her pockets. She was competing against the show’s guest, Joshua Morrow of The Young and the Restless, to see how much money she could win for a lucky viewer. “I could see how someone might have a psychotic break doing that,” Tyler laughs.
Very little seems to faze Tyler, an award-winning actress and stand-up comic, who joined the show as a co-host last year. In fact, her career has been built on taking risks. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1992, she planned to study law, but the prospect of becoming an attorney felt deeply unfulfilling. So one night Tyler ventured over to open-mike night at Holy City Zoo, a famous club in her hometown of San Francisco.
“I didn’t think I was good. But one laugh and it’s like a drug—you’re hooked,” she remembers. She’s been doing stand-up ever since, traveling on weekends for gigs at clubs and theaters around the country.
Tyler’s big break in television came in 2001, when she was hired to host Talk Soup on the E! network, She then moved into movies and TV series—appearing on Friends, co-starring with Jennifer Love Hewitt in the CBS hit Ghost Whisperer, and landing roles on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and 24. In 2009 she went back to comedy with a one-hour Comedy Central special, Aisha Tyler Is Lit: Live at the Fillmore. In addition to her Talk gig, Tyler voices the character of Lana Kane on the animated series Archer.
During last year’s hiatus, Tyler created her own podcast, Girl on Guy, where she interviews artists, athletes and writers about everything from video games, comic books and small-batch booze. “It’s really fun, so unfettered,” Tyler says. “I wanted to do something for myself. I get to create an experience for my fans.” And her fans have responded: Girl on Guy is the No. 2 comedy podcast on iTunes.
In her upcoming book, Self-Inflicted Wounds, Tyler explores the benefits of failure in a series of essays. “I wanted to address this idea of failure and how you should fail,” she says. “That’s how you succeed.” Judging from Tyler’s résumé, success is something she knows a lot about.
The Osbourne Identity
Nine years ago when Sharon Osbourne’s daytime talk show was canceled, she thought she was done with television for good. “It’s so hard to do,” she says now, reflecting from the green room of CBS’ daytime series The Talk. “It’s a huge load to carry a talk show on your own, so when I was approached to do this one, I thought it would be really great.”
In many ways, being a part of a group has given her greater freedom than she had on her own. As the wild card on The Talk, Osbourne keeps the producers—and her co-hosts—on their toes with her often brutally honest repartee. Last summer she broke down on the air, sobbing while she talked about her son’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. More recently, she elicited hysterical laughter from the audience when she asked Mentalist actor Simon Baker if she could lick him. “For me, the conversation has to be organic,” she says. “I’m not really good at the tennis game. I can’t look at notes.”
This may come as a surprise, considering Osbourne’s long career in television. She was a judge on America’s Got Talent from 2007 to 2012, and was also on the original British version of The X Factor with Simon Cowell. Her big television break came when she created the smash hit reality show The Osbournes, an idea she had after watching her husband and kids on MTV Cribs. “When it became the most requested show of the year I just said, ‘Let’s do a long version of Cribs,’ ” Osbourne remembers. The Osbournes went on to win an Emmy for best reality show in 2002.
The daughter of music manager and concert promoter Don Arden, Osbourne got her start in the music business managing some of rock’s most famous bands, including Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra and The Smashing Pumpkins. Multitalented, she has also created and produced Ozzfest, the biggest hard rock festival in America, and is author of two best-sellers, Revenge and Sharon Osbourne Extreme: My Autobiography. After battling colon cancer, she founded the Sharon Osbourne Colon Cancer Foundation.
Needless to say, balance is a topic that comes up often around the table at The Talk and Osbourne, like many other working women, finds it a daunting subject. “Something always suffers,” she says, referring to the “having it all” axiom. “What suffered for me was my family. I never make a dinner. My social life suffers, too. I can’t remember the last time I met friends. What the hell am I doing living to work?”
With that, Osbourne makes a vow to spend more time with her friends and family. “I’m not a young aspiring actress,” she says with a wink. “I’ve got to get balance right.”
Originally published in Watch! magazine, April 2013