“I share a name with Mark Wahlberg and I look like Chris Harrison, so I’m lost in the shuffle of their success,” Mark L. Walberg likes to joke. Despite these notable handicaps, Walberg remains a recognizable TV face, having hosted public television’s Antiques Roadshow for the past ten years. What PBS subscribers may not remember is that Walberg was once Fox’s go-to host for reality shows. The veteran game-and-talk-show host brought us the infamous TV experiment Temptation Island (2001–03), on which couples were separated and tempted to cheat on one another; The Moment of Truth (2008), which allowed contestants to win money by confessing embarrassing secrets; and the final episode of Joe Millionaire (2003), when the “real” Evan Marriott was supposedly revealed. (More on that below.) In connection with our Reality Rumble bracket-style competition, which concludes today, Vulture asked Walberg to share his unique expertise. Here, in his own words (as told to Vulture contributor Gwynne Watkins), is a complete guide to hosting a crazy reality show.
1. Hosting a show like Temptation Island is like being a lawyer. A lawyer never asks a question he doesn’t know the answer to. In that kind of reality show, you’re smart to know the story lines. I would make sure that at the end of the day, when everybody’s going to the bar to have a drink and kind of decompress, I would go and hang out with the segment producers and say, “So, what’s the latest?” You want to get off of whatever prompter or script there might be, and get into really what’s going on, and what’s the drama, what are people yearning for or fighting against?
2. It’s not brain surgery. But one of the things you have to do is suspend your reality and give it the importance it’s supposed to have. I mean, Temptation Island was kitschy and ridiculous, but in the moment, it was really serious to these people. And so to be the host, you kinda gotta go there with them.
3. Sometimes you need to go fishing. Temptation Island was an experiment. It wasn’t even committed to being on the air; it was just cheaper to do the whole series than to do a pilot. So it was pretty free form. When we would do those big, dramatic bonfires, we would have a little meeting beforehand, and I would basically say to the producers, “In a perfect world, what do you hope happens? And I’ll go fishing, and if I get that, that’ll be great, and if not, I’ll get you something else in the boat you can eat.”
4. You know how a masseuse will rub you until your muscles let down, and then they go in? During those bonfires, I would sit there probably for fifteen minutes and talk about the weather while tape was rolling, just until I’d see their guard drop a little bit, and then I’d turn the corner and start asking the questions.
5. Silence is your best trick. If I know somebody is lying, sometimes I’ll let silence be my friend. So in other words, I ask, “Isn’t it true that you texted somebody else before you talked to your girlfriend?” And they go, “No, that’s not true at all.” Sometimes, it works to say, “Okay” and just sit there and not ask another question. And then in the silence, they’re gonna qualify it. “Well, I did, but it wasn’t really that.” And then they start rolling, because the uncomfortable silence always gets filled. The only question is, who flinches first? And often it’s the host is so worried about how he looks on TV, he’s gonna fill it in with these qualifying phrases and stuff that’s really just bullshit, no meat and all cotton candy. But if you’re smart, you don’t say a word, and they will fill it up.
6. The truth will come out one way or another. I can give you an example from Temptation Island. I mean, it’s so silly to talk about like it’s really serious, but, I go, “I’m gonna show you tape of something that went on on the other side of the island with your girlfriend. You can choose to watch it or not, but I have to play it” — which is the moment everybody loved, right? I was the devil. “I just gotta hit the button.” So passive-aggressive. And so I show them the tape, and it’s the tape of his girlfriend in the pool, cuddling with another dude. But it’s a really short tape, and it’s true that anything could have happened, because of course, we take stuff out of context to push their buttons. So I say, “So how do you feel about that?” He goes, “I don’t feel anything because I don’t know what happened and it may not be what it looks to be and I don’t feel anything.” So, okay, legit answer. But I know that’s not the truth. I know that he’s really upset. So I say, “You’re right, it may not be anything. It may be harmless. But if you’re not feeling anything when you look at the tape, that says something about your relationship.” He said, “Well, we’re not criers, Mark. We don’t break down and cry like that.” I said, “I’m not asking you to cry. I’m not getting paid by the tear. I’m just asking you, how do you feel? How do you honestly feel when you see another man’s arms around your girlfriend?” I posed it that way, and he still wouldn’t give me a legit answer. So I said, “Look: You can either tell me how you feel right now, or not tell me and we’ll just shoot you crying on the beach in an hour.” And he was like, “Ha, well, we don’t cry!” And then an hour later, he’s crying on the beach and we shot it.
7. I guess my whole hosting philosophy comes from being a guy who was afraid he was gonna get beat up in high school. So my sensors of profiling people before they speak are probably keenly aware, because it was my survival instinct in a rough school in South Carolina. If you’re listening closely and you’re paying attention, you can tell very quickly whether someone will be good TV or not.
8. There are two kinds of easy contestants. First, there are the ones who just blab it all out; they’re completely up front and out of the box. Honey Boo Boo is a perfect example. She’s just this kid who is just authentic as the day is long and doesn’t give a darn what you think about her. And that’s shooting fish in a barrel, the greatest thing a host can have. And then there are those people who love to hear themselves talk, and those are great too. If they’re just gonna bullshit you the whole time, you want to let them go there, because we can certainly cut and edit and show you against their truth — how they’re trying to be one thing but they’re really something else. The difficult contestants are the people who are very bright and try to manage their perception. They figured out what the game is, they know what reaction we’re hoping for, and by hook or crook, they’re never gonna give you that reaction. Those are crash and burn situations, and from a host standpoint, I find the best way to deal with it is to call out the truth. Just say, “I think you’re lying.” And in that moment, they have the choice to either lie some more, or get angry, which is also good.
9. Here’s another trick: I would curse while we’re rolling tape. Which they have to cut. The guests know you can’t curse on TV, and it kind of confuses them, so they let their guard down and we start talking. But the tape is still rolling.
10. If guests are feeling too much pressure, open the valve a little. We had some issues with the second season of Temptation Island. There was this distrust and this sort of cynicism — which, by the way, was probably legit — from the contestants, so that they were trying to second guess every move. They were playing a team game against production. And so I had an idea. I showed up to the guys’ resort and just bought everybody a beer. And there were cameras around, but I literally hung out for an hour, had a beer, did not talk about the show, and then I left. And then for an hour afterwards, there was this discussion among them about, What do you think that was about? Is somebody getting voted off? They just went crazy. It was actually a real reaction, and it made a difference.
11. People who are too “handled” will push back. I hosted the follow-up special to Joe Millionaire, which was kind of like what Chris Harrison does with The Bachelor: After the Final Rose. So I was interviewing Evan Marriott, and Fox knew exactly how they wanted this interview to go, where he’s gonna look like this awesome dude. So I’m feeding him just softball questions. And it’s not working. It goes something like this:
Mark Walberg: Are you a romantic guy?
Evan Marriott: Well, whaddaya mean?
Walberg: Well, do you like romance? Do you romance your ladies?
Marriott: You mean do I, like, take ‘em out to eat and stuff? … Sometimes.
Walberg: Because you appear to be a really romantic guy on the show!
Marriott: Yeah, well, all of that’s a lie. Whatever you saw, however they portrayed me is not who I am at all.
Walberg: Okay, so what part of looking like Prince Charming is not you and you would like to dispel? Because we kind of thought you were an awesome dude.
Marriott: Yeah, no. I don’t ride horses. And if you’re talking about going out to eat and stuff with a girl? That’s not me.
So we do the interview for, like, three hours, and every question I ask is like that. He was making up his mind: They’re not gonna put words in my mouth. He’s now a huge star because the show’s a hit, and he’s throwing a little tantrum about how he was portrayed. Because the truth is, from what I understand, if he got hungry or tired, you had to feed him or give him a nap before he could work again. I wasn’t on the set, but apparently, it was not an easy task to keep the Evan Marriott machine rolling. So a week later, we have to do the interview again. And he’s a little more docile and gave the answers that he was supposed to have given in the first place, I guess. But we still had to wait another hour, because when we showed up to shoot, he forgot his socks. And we were trying to match the original interview, so he was told to wear exactly what he did then. I just remember sitting there going, “Okay, I’m just gonna go to craft services for an hour while Mr. Joe Millionaire finds his socks.” Like, my 10-year-old could have done this! I mean, it was comical, and he actually was a gentle, nice guy. But the whole point of the show was that he was going to appear to be one thing, but he’s actually something else! And if he’d have just been that dude, we’d have loved him. If you’re fronting and angry then people just hate you.
12. When the show is evil, you need to be the humanity. When you look at Moment of Truth, the concept is abhorrent! It’s horrible! And the same thing with Temptation Island. There were two ways to play that show. You could have played Temptation Island as a single-dude host saying, “I’m gonna do everything I can to get you guys laid.” But I’m a married guy and I was older than them. So my take on it was, “Be careful what you wish for.” In hosting Moment of Truth, if I wanted to celebrate liars and be that evil dude — which, by the way, the press called me anyway — I could have done that. But I decided to do everything through the filter of, “Who are we to judge?” What that show explores is the gap between what you think is true and what is true about you. Because we all revise our history. The only thing I’d say to the guests before we went on the air is, “Look, whatever it is you want to get out of this show, I want to help you get there. So if it’s money, let’s get you money. If it’s about saying something that’s difficult to say, then let me help you say it. If it’s about stopping before you say it, then let’s stop the show.”
13. If you keep telling people not to go forward, they will continue to go forward. On Moment of Truth, I would say stuff like, “Don’t make me read this next question. You’ve heard what the possible questions are. This is the one you probably were hoping we weren’t gonna ask, and I’m about to ask it, so you can stop now.” And so by being that guy, it’s almost like I’m not an advocate for the show, I’m an advocate for you. I’m trying to get you out of this with your life intact. So then they felt comfortable enough to keep going, even though I was saying “please don’t make me read it.”
14. I need to think like a viewer. The host is a proxy for the viewer, right? Most of the people watching Moment of Truth at home were not scandalous people, and yet everyone can relate to having some sort of secret they don’t want everybody to know. In the first episode we ever did, I asked a contestant the question, “Do you really care about global warming?” And she goes, “No, I really don’t.” And the audience does this big boo and hiss, and I’m supposed to go to break at this point. Now, I have a choice as a host to either say to the guest, “How could you not care about the environment?” or reprimand the audience for booing. And I didn’t do any of that. I let it die down, and I said, “Okay, well, that’s the correct answer and good for you. But hold on, before we go to break, audience: raise your hand if you drive an SUV.” Eighty percent of the audience raised their hand and I said, “We’ll be right back.” And I felt like that’s all we needed to say, right?
15. I’m grateful that I’ve pretty much only had positive reactions when I run into guests from my shows. And I think a lot of that is because, even on the controversial shows, I’ve done my best to present what they’re in for as honestly as I can. I’ve never had the experience of anyone going, “Hey, I was on that show and you ruined my life.”
16. There is a true belief that no matter what you do on television, your life’s better because you’re on television. For me, that’s never really added up. As you can see, I’ve been on TV for 26 years, and I’m probably the least famous guy who’s been on TV every week for 20 years. My wife looks at me like, You’re an idiot. You’re supposed to play the game a little bit better than you play. And she’s right.
17. On Antiques Roadshow, as in other reality shows, I’m talking to people who are not television people, who are on TV, and trying to make them comfortable. When tape rolls, the appraisers sometimes feel they have to make it “television,” when we need them to be real. So I always say to them, “Talk until you don’t have something to say, and then be quiet and I’ll ask you a question, and then it will be easy.” And you can just see all of their energy let out; they get normal again and it’s easier for them. The best hosts you don’t notice unless you need them. I guess I’ve done well on that front!
18. The bottom line here is, I really love television. I love all of it — scripted, nonscripted, reality, crazy, whatever. I enjoy the process and I enjoy the people involved. And everybody has their way of doing it, and everybody has their reason for being on it. And at the end of the day, all I hope for is that the viewer has been entertained, and the people who are on the show got whatever it was they wanted out of the process. Because what I really wanted out of the process was a job.