It was a sweltering June day in Hollywood when I found myself in a studio, with people who could not be more excited to be in front of hot lights.
It was very air conditioned in the studio, I should point out, but everyone was buzzing with excitement. Something rare was happening — all four of the hosts for Turner Classic Movies were in the same city, in the same building, in the same room at the same time, talking to each other, on camera.
Ben Mankiewicz, Alicia Malone, Eddie Muller, and Dave Karger are the faces of TCM, introducing and wrapping up screenings of some of the best movies ever made. More than simply throwing to a movie, the hosts of the cable network have built a community around watching these classic films, and have become companions the viewing audience loves spending time with. This isn’t something that happens on TV anymore.
Nerdist was honored to get to spend the afternoon with the four hosts, and discuss how they all came to be part of the TCM community. The key, it turns out, is the key to all the best experiences, work or otherwise: just be yourself.
[brightcove video_id=”5813842365001″ brightcove_account_id=”3653334524001″ brightcove_player_id=”rJs2ZD8x”]
“I was a failure on television until I figured out that the only thing that works is myself,” Mankiewicz added. “I got out to LA, I auditioned for 100 different shows — talk shows, game shows, news shows. And you know, I didn’t get any of them.” Mankiewicz has been at TCM since 2003, and has the distinction of being the very second host hired after the late Robert Osborne, in many ways still the network’s face, who hosted solo from ’94 to ’03. So imagine being the new kid in town. “I got this job through luck,” he continued. “They wanted to bring in a host on the weekends, somebody who wasn’t Robert, and somebody younger. So, their idea at the time was that that host would lead a conversation.”
Mankiewicz explained it was going to be more of a talk show scenario, with a host, experts, and possibly people who made the films talking about the movies. “I went in there and I did really well, and they kept moving me like, ‘okay now you’re the expert, now you’re the host,’ and I did it with everybody. Then like six or eight weeks later, they’re like, ‘yeah, that’s too hard, and we’re not gonna do that. We’re just gonna do what Robert did and intro movies on the weekends, we can’t possibly book that every week.’ And then I get the job. But if they hadn’t had that first thing, I don’t think I would have made the first cut. I mean, they did the thing that I’m good at, right?”
“I’ve worked at many different places where the focus has not been at all on classic film,” explained Malone, a newer addition to the channel whom many of you know from her extensive work on the internet. “I’ve done my best to sneak it in where I could, but the feedback I would get all the time is ‘you’re too old-fashioned, and you don’t fit in with what we’re trying to do and classic films don’t get clicks.’ I was always like, ‘no, they’re classic for a reason; everyone will love them if we can just show them a way in.’ I always felt like a square peg in a round hole, and now that I’m at TCM I feel like I’ve found my place, I found my people.”
“I have the Oscars to thank for this job,” explained Karger who, like Malone, is a relatively recent TCM hire. “For fifteen years at Entertainment Weekly when I was a writer there I was very much focused on the Oscar season, for six months out of the year, that was my job. Through that I guest hosted with Robert in 2007 for 31 days of Oscar.” That’s right; Karger began appearing on TCM over 10 years ago, and he still considers himself the new guy. “It’s a legacy that Robert started, and that Ben and Eddie have continued, that Alicia and I feel like we’re gonna try our best not to mess it up”
Noir Alley host Muller, dubbed by crime writer James Ellroy as “the Czar of Noir” for his love, knowledge, and passion for the Film Noir genre, never started out trying to host television. “I’m a journalist really by trade, or a writer, or now I say just storyteller. The only time I’m really 100% calm is when I am either on stage or in front of the camera.” He explained a calm washes over him when he’s introducing a movie, and that comes through for fans of TCM. Most of the time…
“I had somebody the other day on social media write something negatively about me,” Muller remembered. “They said, ‘I think that guy is really full of himself.’ And I thought to myself like what does that mean, when you’re full of yourself? And I decided it means when you know what you’re talking about and you act on it.” He continued, he’s glad nobody asked him to host TCM 20 years ago, because wouldn’t be nearly as good at it as he feels he is now. “I’ve got a lot more experience now that allows me to be full of myself.”
And it’s this ability to feel like they’re having fun, talking about movies, that have endeared the TCM fans to the hosts in relatively short order. “I feel like I can be myself,” Malone explained, “and that it’s celebrated, and people want to know what I think about the film, and they want to know all of the tiny little bits of useless knowledge from that classic film that I have amassed over a lifetime of watching these movies.”
“That’s something I’m trying to do more of as well,” Karger added, “because I think that’s what the audience does want to know. If they’re getting to know us, they want to know what really gets us excited.” Some of the most ardent fans of TCM already did know them. “I had a crazy experience one time,” Karger explained, “where my old piano teacher who I hadn’t talked to in a long time called me because she was visiting her mom, who loves TCM, always has it on. And so my old piano teacher walked into the room, and her mom was watching, and I guess my intro was on, and my old teacher went, ‘That’s Dave, that’s my old student!’ And then so she called me, and it was this great way to like reconnect, thanks to TCM and her mom’s allegiance and loyalty to the channel.”
“I get so many nice emails from a variety of people,” Malone explained of the kindness of the TCM community, “some who have said, ‘I’ve been a fan of yours since the early days of you being on YouTube and it’s great to see now on TCM.’ And people always write to me saying, ‘you’re so enthusiastic about films.’ It’s like, because I really am! I’m really loving every second of this.”
Mankiewicz summed up the entire thing very well: “I think the audience that watches is an audience that, in life, is craving authenticity.” He said, with a world as fractious and wildly fake, it’s nice to be the keepers of the past. “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know what the past holds, and that’s what this place is.”
TCM kicks off its Summer Under the Stars series on Wednesday, August 1, with Frank Sinatra, and it continues every day with a different marathon of movies featuring a different Hollywood legend, including Barbra Streisand, Harold Lloyd, Lupe Velez, and Marcello Mastroianni.
Images: Turner Classic Movies