Just a few minutes remain until The John Kerwin Show starts taping, and announcer Keith Leon is teaching us the art of the double clap. It's a trick that's been used since the dawn of television time, he says, to make the studio audience seem bigger. Instead of clapping at a regular pace, he instructs us to clap rapidly, like we're clapping for two, whenever he holds up the “applause” sign. We practice a few times. He rewards us with fun-size candy bars.
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
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.
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.
help never came through, which is “common here in Hollywood,” Kerwin
says. Still, “that comment and night changed everything.”
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.
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.”
more important,” Kerwin recalls Leno saying, “is developing the show,
and developing your skills as a talk-show host to your maximum
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.
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.
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.”