No, you don't have to shave your head, sleep with your daughter's boyfriend or befriend space aliens to get on a talk show. I've appeared on more than 250 television shows and I've never had to compromise myself. I've felt like smacking another guest or two, but I never did anything odd or unusual, and yet I keep being asked hack as a favored guest.
I am a stand-up comic (there are thousands). I am also a lecturer (interesting), an author (millions of 'em) and "The Guinness Book of World Records' Fastest-talking Female" (Ah ha! - only one of them!) Bingo. So do you have to break a world record to get invited on a talk show? No, but you have to have something that makes you stand out, something that you are an expert at. You need a hook. That hook will get you on the show, and then you can promote your product.
My hook has led me to read popular song lyrics on Total Request Live on MTV, where they also promoted a book of mine, teach kids how to speed talk on the New Mickey Mouse Show (which led to other bookings) and order the entire left side of a Chinese menu in less than 20 seconds on The Late Show with David Letterman (which became a great promotional piece for my corporate package).
But what if you don't have a specialty? Make one up. There has to be something that you know a lot about or can at least talk about with interest. I have also been on TV discussing topics such as blondes vs. brunettes, single moms vs. single dads, mothers against porn on the Internet, and traveling moms and their kids. Why do I do it? Because it's exposure, because I get paid since I'm in the union, and because I can talk passionately about these topics while making them fun.
The very first talk show I was on was The Joe Franklin Show. I went on as the creator of the Pet Flea. Determined to get on television, I sat home one night and sewed hundreds of tiny fleas out of red fuzzy cloth. I stuck them in a matchbox, made up an authenticity certificate and decided to sell Pet Fleas at the Flea Market. I called up The Joe Franklin Show and pitched my idea. After many attempts and hearing some Lurch sound-alike say "My friend, my friend, call back Monday at 2," "Call back Tuesday at 4:17," I finally got through and was booked on the show with Jackie Mason. I was nervous, my fleas were calm, but I had a great time. From then on I was hooked.
After doing talk shows for 20 years I can say there are five main ingredients to being a great talk show guest:
1. Attitude - Be opinionated but not conceited.
2. Humor - Joke around a lot. Everyone likes to laugh; this usually gives you the upper edge.
3. Be a Perceived Expert - Know your subject. Memorize three key points that you want to bring out.
4. Packaging - It's not so much what you sell but how you sell it. There are millions of sex therapists but only one Dr. Ruth.
5. Remember the rule of "Yes and.... "
"Yes and... " is a producer's or talk show host's dream. Who wants to hear a bunch of one-word answers? That's like a root canal at the dentist - very painful. If you are asked a simple question like, "Is it true you see dead people?" Don't just say "yes" period. Say "Yes, and I've had a lot of crazy experiences." This leads the host to ask more questions and makes for a better interview. You can entertain with your personality; you don't have to smack someone on the head with a chair or sleep with a cannibal to get attention.
Whatever your topic, have the craziest stories ready. Nice is boring. Ordinary is boring. Think ratings, think entertainment, think "this is my 15 minutes of fame; don't screw it up." Be alert, look at the camera, debate with other guests, laugh and smile a lot. Think that you are just talking to a bunch of friends around the house, never mind that millions of people are watching you.
Also be polite but aggressive. Don't cross talk, but make sure you are not just warming up a chair. In other words, don't wait until spoken to. After you have finished your segment, if you are part of a panel, chime in every now and then. When I did the Sally Jesse Rafael Show the first time, I was on a segment called Blondes vs. Brunettes. One blonde on the panel said, "I lost weight because I became a blonde." I nearly gagged at this statement. I said "Really? If it were that simple Weight Watchers would hand everybody a bottle of dye and say 'See ya in the morning.' The audience went wild with applause. You don't need a sailor's mouth to get your message across. Do you sit around your kitchen table and only speak when spoken to? If you do I'd like to send my kid to your house for a week. This is showbiz.
So how do you get on a talk show? Have your agent call or call the show yourself. Tell them in one paragraph what you do that makes you special. Tell them your topic or suggest one. If you are outgoing and articulate, then the talk shows will want you. They need you! They have 52 weeks of annual programming to fill, and you can be part of it. Just get your act together and take it on the show.