Inset: I have, in a series of columns, let my mind and keyboard wander across some of the destinations in which I’d experienced some situational sweetness.
Jennifer Hudson is a Chicago-born, gospel-singing church girl who finished seventh on “American Idol”. But she went on to become a worldwide star, winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards. Her first season of hosting a nationwide television chat show, she won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host.
Plus her Hollywood-based, syndicated show was recently renewed for a second season. So Hudson is on her way to succeeding and surpassing another TV-talking Chicagoan named…Oprah.
Front Row Seats for Jennifer Hudson
Hudson has talked about a dream to sing the National Anthem before. Specifically in one of the south sider’s hometown Chicago White Sox baseball games – hopefully in the World Series.
And it was a Jennifer Hudson “double-header” for the studio audience members who’d secured complimentary tickets to attend her talk-show taping at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California.
Simply by choosing and confirming a date on the “Jennifer Hudson Show” website, they were ushered into the lively, interactive experience of watching the award-winning singing star interview celebrities and positive people in the plush TV studio she designed and dubbed the “Happy Place.”
Attendees on most days get to view and participate in two consecutive tapings. These are presented with professionalism and enthusiasm by the show’s energetic, efficient director, stage managers and production team.
The Art of Warming Up a Crowd
Gary Cannon is an affable stand-up comic. He serves as the studio emcee and warms up the audience with instructions and plenty of jokes. After the first show, he explained what was next.
“We are going to feed you lunch in between shows,” Cannon explained to the audience. “Maybe you have heard of Mastro’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills…?”
The audience murmured in anticipation.
“…Well, the lunch will not be from there,” he deadpanned.
“Could y’all bring a sandwich for little ‘ole me?” Jennifer Hudson herself chimed in from the stage. Even when she’s speaking, it sounds like sweet singing. Hers is not false humility. Hudson closes her shows by thanking the viewers for tuning in to “see about ‘lil ‘ole me’.” It’s even written that way on her teleprompter.
Off the air, she also voiced appreciation to the audience for staying for a second performance. This meant 180 people were at the studio from 1 pm until after 6 pm.
Hudson does not take the attendees for granted. Neither do the “Jennifer Hudson Show” audience staff members, who are very proficient and respectful. During the boxed-lunch break TV monitors show previous episodes. Plus there is a small gift shop with very reasonably-priced souvenirs. Although some get a t-shirt tossed to them by Cannon during the commercials. Or win, for instance, flat screen TV’s in on-stage contests.
“A Sandwich for Lil’ ‘Ole Me…”
I brought “Lil’ ‘Ole” Jennifer Hudson more than a sandwich when I recently attended another taping of her show.
Being a native Midwesterner myself, I felt “Mama Hud” might treasure a true “Taste of Chicago” from her Windy City hometown. Lou Malnati’s, Chicago’s traditional-yet-innovative deep-dish-style Chicago pizza maker, shipped a few frozen pizzas in a cooler of dry ice via TasteOfChicago.com.
Also in the gift box was Garrett’s Popcorn in a White Sox-logoed tin canister, with White Sox-decorated cookies. This is another Chicago tradition I thought she’d enjoy knowing she’d love to sing the anthem at a game.
The confirmation email the Jennifer Hudson Show sends when one requests tickets advises that attendees may bring gifts for Hudson. This is somewhat of a rarity for audience shows. Hudson’s team members happily accept the gifts before the show. They then chronicle the names and contact information of those who present them.
The quintessential “taste of home” would prove more meaningful than I had imagined during an eventual conversation I had with Hudson after the shows.
Dancing With the Stars
Part of the unique fun of attending a “JHud” taping is the dance floor. This sits in-between Hudson’s “Happy Place” cushy couch and grand piano on her stage.
During the pre-show warm-up, Cannon coaxes attendees down onto the dance floor to shake and groove to the music pumping through the studio. Meanwhile, the audience members clap, cheer and in my case, laugh.
Another hurried, enthusiastic producer came to my chair and beckoned me to the dance floor. She led me in front of one of the production team’s cameras, which was now pointed at me. Then demanded, “Now dance!” It was not an invitation – it was a command.
I loved the producer’s pointed demeanor and did exactly as I was told…with zero rhythm but lots of shameless energy. Little did I know while stepping lively I was auditioning. Jennifer Hudson herself was watching from backstage via that camera shot.
I would later learn she was selecting four audience members who’d “understood the assignment” and showed up for her television show taping blinged-out in their best fashion. One of the finalists, for instance, was a fellow from Detroit in an all-pink pants, shirt and hat presentation. One woman rocked stop-sign red, knee-length boots, while another woman was draped in an orange business suit.
I don’t know what possessed me that morning, but I had donned a white suit, over a lime green shirt and a white tie. Plus red shoes and a red and green-striped Gucci scarf draped around my neck. I finished with transitions glasses the bright production lights of the studio caused to automatically darken. In the pre-show, Cannon joked at me for the fashion faux pas of wearing white before Memorial Day.
I was seated near the back of the studio audience theater seats as the show’s “Happy Place” opening theme song started playing. The camera operators had taken their positions but a producer snuck up the aisle and crouched next to me. She rapidly told me, “You’ve been chosen to be in our fashion segment.”
“Wow, okay,” I replied.
“Be ready to walk back and forth like the stage is a fashion show runway and pose. Lots of energy.”
“Got it,” I said, nodding.
“Jennifer is excited,” she assured me.
As I smiled at the notion and nodded that I understood, the producer, about to leave, turned back with a deadly serious expression on her face. They looked me square in the eye and spoke declaratively:
“Don’t let me down!”
Her urgency directed me and encouraged me at the same time. I thought to myself, “Damn, this woman is a superb producer!” She was like a Super Bowl coach sending me into the game.
As the theme music played and Jennifer Hudson took the stage, I had the anticipation adrenaline of the unknown. But the known began to hit me. I was one of about five men in a studio audience full of truly fashionable women.
But What Now?
They were cheering and singing and dancing and clapping as Gary Cannon and “JHud” delighted them along with the prospect of her TV star celebrity guests. Today the guests were “Breaking Bad’s” Giancarlo Esposito and “Talking Dead’s” Chris Hardwick. Ironically, Hardwick also hosted “Talking Saul,” the post-show for “Better Call Saul,” which Esposito also co-starred in.
In that environment, I was about to be pulled from the audience frying pan into the chandeliered fire for my little runway fashion strut.
What would I say? How would I have the nerve to strut on the stage?
In terms of technique, I once found myself standing with former President George W. Bush at a golf course. He’d delivered, in an acceptance speech, the famous line: “I’ve been accused of having ‘swagger’… which in Texas is called: ‘walking.’”
I recall daring to ask the President if he could teach me that swagger.
“No,” he flatly answered.
Maybe I looked startled by his directness, so Bush continued by explaining his verdict. “First of all, you are not from Texas. Secondly, you’re obviously already a grown man.”
On Jennifer Hudson’s runway, I’d have to go it alone and channel some type of moves. As the show opened, I conjured some moves which would be a twisted combination of a high school football grapevine agility drill and Irish dance.
It’s all I had – I’d have to go with it.
I sat, literally, on the edge of my seat waiting, in nervous anticipation, for the “Understood the Assignment” fashion portion of the show. Thankfully for my nerves, it came in the show’s opening segment.
One of the other selected “fashionistas,” a woman, was called down first. This gave me a chance to observe how the bit rolled out.
But then there was no turning back.
Come on Down!
Hudson, dressed in royal purple under a black leather jacket, stood in front of the audience on the dance floor stage. She said into her wireless microphone: “Let’s see who else caught my eye.” She then called my name out like a contestant on “The Price is Right.”
Adrenaline – and the admonition of the producer – propelled me to perform over my skis. I thought back to the enthusiastic manner displayed when actor/director Roberto Benigni jubilantly leaped from his seat to walk flamboyantly atop the chairs down to the stage to accept two Academy Awards for his film “La Vita e Bella.”
Since life, in Jennifer Hudson’s studio, was indeed beautiful, I channel Benigni’s explosion of excitement. I gave Jennifer Hudson and her producer nothing less.
With my hands in the air, I ran down the aisle shouting for joy.
“Oh, I see you, baby,” Hudson called out. “Yes, I do. Yes, I see you. C’mon!”
She laughed and the audience “awwwd” when I put my arms around her in a giant hug and said, “Mama!” (In reference to Hudson calling herself “Mama Hud.”)
Hudson then squealed with surprise and delight. Her knees buckled when I dropped to one knee to kiss her hand.
“I love you!” she called out as the audience cheered. “Bless your heart! You’re so sweet!”
I thanked her and she continued.
“First of all, thank you for coming to see about me,” Hudson said as we stood face-to-face.
“Thank you for letting me in the door in this outfit.” I replied, gesturing to the white suit with my hand.
“Tell me, where are you from?”
“I’m from Michigan,” I answered. “Near Chicago.”
“Come on, Michael Patrick. Tell me what inspired your look?”
An Inspired Proposal
“You inspired me…”
“Listen to this,” she played along, chirping the audience as I continued.
…”Because when one is in the company of royalty you have to jazz it up!”
The audience applauded and Hudson said, “Thank you. I done found me a man of quality!”
“That’s right, I retorted. Will you marry me?”
“Where’s my ring?” Hudson demanded over the now boisterous audience. To which I turned and pleaded: “Somebody lend me a ring!”
“Go make me happy now,” Hudson said. “Walk the runway for me.”
The thumping studio music pumped on and I enacted my preposterous runway walk with my arms sweeping as the lights flashed and Hudson encouraged me. “Yeah! You gonna give them a twirl? That’s right! Now come on! Work it!”
Once again Hudson’s cheerleader-style speaking sounded like singing.
Riding the tide, I made a dramatic move of ripping my glasses off and sliding my hands down my body as I passed Hudson on my way back to the other side of the stage.
“Thank you,” she said between her apparently amused, high-pitched laughing. “Thank you! Give him a hand, y’all!”
That’s when I took off my Gucci scarf and swung it above my head.
“Yes!” she called out. “There you go! There you go! There you go!”
As I reached my seat, Hudson, from the stage, called out to me, then looked into the camera: “You’ve got to give me some life, sir! He did that! See that’s a man of quality right there. He knows what he’s talking about. You can come to my happy place any time you are ready!”
The camera cut to me back in my seat nodding and smiling.
Post Show Photo Opp and Candid Chat
After the bright lights, music, mayhem and performance art that is the Jennifer Hudson Show subsided, the producers kindly invited me to stick around for a photo with Jennifer at the now more darkened, quiet, living room-style stage.
“All this is not easy,” I said, knowing that the commitment to a daily talk show, for someone like her used to picking and choosing gig-style concerts, movies and appearances, is an adjustment. “You must be working endlessly.”
“I am either here or at home,” she agreed.
I knew Hudson was being modest because a multi-platform star like her, and a parent, has countless other demands, big and small, on her time, career efforts, and responsibilities.
“I’ve been hosting a radio talk show for 17 years. What you’ve done in 100 shows is remarkable,” I expressed to Hudson. “What you’ve done here in 100 shows is remarkable.”
“Am I doing alright?” Hudson asked. Were she not so genuine I would have presumed her question was polite false modesty and rhetorical. But beyond the second-season renewal, Image Award and multiple other award nominations, I sensed that Hudson, as a performer, would want to master her new craft.
And with an army of professional producers and crew working on her show, I imagine, as a rookie host, she felt some responsibility to them. Every member of her team I met, including Gary Cannon, seemed supremely happy in their work and motivated.
Let’s Talk Talk, Then
“Am I doing alright?” leaned back into Hudson’s “lil’ ol her” image. I would never be so presumptuous as to offer advice to a wildly successful performer and businesswoman such as Hudson, but she made me feel comfortable in answering her honestly.
It was not as if I were offering dancing or singing advice, thank God. But as a talk show host, I was, in a small sense, a colleague of hers, and though I’d only met her briefly a few times, I sincerely cared about her success in this venture.
“I like how you are not afraid to ask the short question,” I said.
She seemed intrigued by this level of “talk technique.”
“Some interviewers ask long questions to show off what they know and how much research they did,” I explained. “This leaves the guest very little to reveal in response. Larry King was very good with the short question. And I notice you are, too.”
I didn’t want to take too much time so I then congratulated her on her show being renewed for a second season and smiled saying:” Oprah who!?”
She demurred a little at that notion. But I do believe that Hudson’s personal story of success, faith and endurance gives her a depth far beyond the showing of celebrity baby pictures and audience game show bits necessary on a “happy place” show like hers.
Hudson’s first season began with a face-to-face reckoning for Simon Cowell, the “American Idol” judge who’d doubted her chops at the start of her career. The season concluded with an interview with U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris. See what I mean by Hudson coming a long way in 100 shows. She opened by acknowledging her past…and then rocketed to her own new heights. I am eager to see where her arc goes next.
Hudson’s is a soul that can, with a daily talk show, have a now even bigger impact on her viewers and the world. Jennifer Hudson is on her way to being the Oprah of her time…with the talent, sincerity and genuine joy to create an even more expansive ripple.
Though tragedy and personal issues managed to find her, the Goddess of Disney Cruise Lines and woman who played The Queen of Soul remains a respected showbusiness untouchable. I hope she knows that’s what I meant when, before we parted, I told her:
“The world needs more ‘good guys’ to finish first. You are an example of that and an inspiration to others.”
As we parted I thought I’d ask “Mama Hud” for some advice in return. I told her I’d just moved from Michigan to California and was living in Beverly Hills.
“You’re a Midwesterner like me,” I reminded her. “Any advice on how to acclimate to life in ‘La La Land?’”
That’s when I experienced “Mama Hud’s” mothering instinct. Hudson took my question very seriously. She looked me in the eye and told me, “I still haven’t acclimated to life here!”
“It’s important to remember who you are and bring elements of that with you.”
In case you think Gospel-singing Jennifer Hudson has “gone Hollywood,” guess again.
She’s just conquered Hollywood!
Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]