Robert’s True Calling

In Features, Magazine, Team Irvine News by RI Magazine

Cloaked as a typical daytime talker, The Robert Irvine Show is driven by the heart of its host, who wants to make a lasting positive impact for as many troubled people as he can.

BY MATT TUTHILL

The steel bay doors of Stage 1 of The Burbank Studios reach from the floor to the ceiling, some two stories high. Jay Leno’s smiling face is still painted on them, right next to The Tonight Show logo towering over the scene below. Security guards are handing out bracelets to crew members and special guests. To say there is some history here is an understatement. Before the stage belonged to Leno, it belonged to Johnny Carson. Now it belongs to Robert Irvine.

The brand new set for The Robert Irvine Show hides Carson’s star, which rests directly beneath its center. It’s so new the smell of freshly cut wood and spackle hangs in the air. The set itself is warmly lit with blue and auburn lights behind panes of glass framed in dark reclaimed wood. Robert strolls onto the gray carpet to his mark. A producer approaches him to fiddle with the microphone on his shirt collar.

She covers the microphone on her headset and listens intently to her earpiece. She takes her hand off and answers, “OK, I’ll ask him.” She looks at Robert. “Do you need to rehearse? Or practice the blocking like we did yesterday?”

Robert considers it for half a moment, then curls his lip. “Nah.”

He cuts a few promos and the stage manager confirms they’ve got what they need. He can go back upstairs to his dressing room. There, over a hot cup of English breakfast tea, he reviews his notes. The show’s executive producer, Andrew Scher, who previously created the daytime talk show The Doctors, enters the room with two segment producers. They discuss the first guests of the day—a mother and daughter who haven’t seen each other in six years.

From the moment The Robert Irvine Show was announced, fans have wondered how the new show fits in for Robert. For starters, it’s not on in prime time and it’s not on Food Network. What’s more, it’s a conflict resolution show not built around cooking or the restaurant business. But die-hard fans of Restaurant: Impossible will realize that it isn’t so much of a sharp right turn as it would seem on paper. The idea for a conflict resolution show wasn’t plucked from thin air; it was born from the same type of segments that gave Restaurant: Impossible its emotional resonance and staying power. (Look no further than this R:I followup on Dodge City Steakhouse, or this one on Joe Willy’s Fish Shack.)

Restaurant: Impossible may have started out as a strict look at correcting menus, décor, and business practices, but it evolved. Because so many restaurants are family owned, failing meant much more than losing money. It meant emotional rifts and dysfunctional relationships that, in turn, exacerbated problems at the family restaurant. To the delight of audiences everywhere in the years that followed, it turned out that Robert was just as good at patching up these personal rifts as he was at knocking some sense into Stage 1 Door a line cook.

So yes, Robert has practice in this area, but he definitely has his work cut out for him on his new show. The first guests carry a level of dysfunction and animosity that easily trump the very worst case he faced on Restaurant: Impossible. As the producers go through their notes with Robert, the group collectively realizes he might have to tag in one of the show’s invited guest psychologists who will be sitting in the audience today. She stays on call for certain episodes to provide a safety net for seriously dire issues, like guests who could potentially do harm to themselves or others.

“If, at any time in the course of the show I feel that they need professional help before we say another word, I can call on that help straight away,” Robert says. “And when they leave, I have the ability to offer counseling services anywhere in the country if I believe that’s what they need. I do not want these people here for spectacle. Yes, it is a TV show that is meant to entertain an audience, but at the end of the day if these people aren’t getting the help they need—if I’m not giving them their very best chance to succeed—then it’s all a waste.”

Later that day Robert will hold true to his promise when he confronts a young man whose controlling behavior toward his girlfriend has gotten out of hand. When the guest tells Robert he’s so angry he doesn’t know what he might do, Robert brings the segment to a swift end and sets him up with an offer of professional help. “You see the news,” Robert says later. “He’s the kind of guy who could wind up on the news. You can’t take any chances with a situation like that.”

To refocus on relatable issues, eight weeks from today the crew will finish work on a new wing for the set—a gym that will allow for segments where Robert trains guests who are struggling with their weight. Soon after that there are plans to add a roll-on kitchen to allow for cooking segments. Robert is aware of early gripes from some fans that he has stepped too far from what he’s best at. He respectfully brushes them aside and reiterates that the show is a work in progress. (You can read his editorial HERE.) When the gym and kitchen become fully integrated into the production process, he says The Robert Irvine Show won’t resemble anything else in the daytime TV landscape. And, in spite of any grumblings, three weeks in the show is thus far a ratings success.

What’s more, no matter how firmly you play devil’s advocate with Robert, there is virtually no way to antagonize him. Whatever question you throw at him and however rudely you might phrase it, he has a thoughtful reply—a good quality to have considering his new line of work.

So when he’s alone again in his dressing room, patiently waiting to be called down to the set, and you throw the elephant in the room right at him—“Why should people come here to get your advice? What gives you the right to do this?”—he’s happy to address it, and seems reinvigorated in doing so.

“Life in general has prepared me,” Robert says. “Being in the military, having two kids, being married, being divorced, having parents who divorced and then had a complicated relationship where they stayed together for 50 years without remarrying… Those personal experiences informed the common sense that I have. I learned a lot about what makes people tick. Through my life experience, the most valuable lessons that I learned were about relationships, communication, and how to really listen. And that’s what I’m doing here. It’s systematic listening. You have to get all the information and then you can give advice.

“Look, I know that some people will need a mental health professional and if that’s the case, I’ll offer that. I know that I’m not a psychiatrist, but that’s not always what someone needs. Sometimes it just takes a fresh set of eyes, someone who can look at a situation quickly, sort through the superfluous details, and get to the root of the problem. That is something I’ve been doing for a long time and it does help people. I wouldn’t be doing this show if it didn’t help.”

A network executive from the CW enters the room. He glances at the clothing rack near the window, where a half dozen identical pairs of dark blue jeans rest on hangers next to black and burgundy golf shirts. He howls with laughter.

“This is wardrobe?”

The executive is clearly used to seeing something more elaborate.

“It’s all we could afford,” Robert quips. They laugh for a moment, then Robert adds, “Come on. What did you expect? You should know that’s all I wear.”

They talk for a few minutes and then the executive leaves so Robert can finish his prep.

And then, Robert admits that yes, he is a little nervous.

“I was more nervous yesterday,” he says. “Getting to the gym helped. It is strange being in a place with so much history. Earlier in the day one of the producers showed me a script for Carson they had found buried under a seat upstairs.”

Call time finally comes. Robert hits the elevator and heads downstairs. The live crowd is abuzz. The quick hit of electric guitar intro music blasts through the speakers, Robert walks onstage, and the audience erupts. Then, 10 seconds into Robert’s monologue, producers stop the show. Microphone trouble.

Robert goes backstage and the whole process repeats. Shockingly, it is the only hiccup of the day. The crew is a well-oiled machine. Segments are filmed in real time with very little editing later on. Comparing the final product to what the studio audience sees bears almost no difference.

At the end of Day One there are two episodes in the can. When the crew really finds its groove two weeks later, they’ll film three episodes a day. That allows for nine episodes to film every week; Robert only films the show from Thursday through Saturday, owing to his still packed schedule of live shows, USO tours, and festival appearances.

For the devil’s advocate, this raises one more major question: With nine episodes per week and three to four segments per episode, that means Robert is attempting to solve up to 36 serious, deep-seated issues—in about 20 minutes of stage time apiece. Could this really have a positive impact?

To answer that question, it’s helpful to ask the guests when the glare of the lights has faded from their eyes and they’ve had a while to consider their experience. Almost unbelievably, every guest that day says they loved their experience on the show.

One woman, whose husband used Robert’s stage to reveal that he had been cheating on her, says she does wish that her husband had told her the truth before they had flown to Burbank, but emphatically added that doing the show was the right decision—for one reason only.

“It’s Robert,” she says. “He helped us a lot. He really did. He just… he really, really cares. I don’t know how else to say it. It was amazing.”

Robert says responses like that reaffirm his decision to do the show.

“If people have lost their way, their hope, and there’s nowhere to go, that’s why we’re here,” he says. “If they’re in a relationship that’s failing and eventually they don’t stay together, that’s their choice. But we’ve shown them a way out of their most serious problems. If you come on this stage, one way or another, we are going to get you the help you need.”

The Robert Irvine Show airs Monday through Friday on the CW. Check your local listings. To apply to be on the show, click HERE.

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