It is a Tuesday in January on a soundstage in Universal City. Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is blaring over a state-of-the-art soundsystem. Everywhere you look, people are smiling—genuinely, deeply, really smiling. Dancing, too. Moments later, a brigade of puppies trot, scoot, and boop their way in. Standing in their midst is Kelly Clarkson, casually crooning along to a few bars of “Doo Wop” as she bends down to scoop a Very Good Boy named Dante.
As Dante licks the chin of the country’s first democratically elected pop superstar and you wonder if you may have died without realizing it, because surely this is what heaven must be like, there’s a little squeal. “Oh!” Clarkson says. “There’s already poop.”
It’s the first day back shooting The Kelly Clarkson Show after the holiday hiatus, and everything about the day’s taping—dog poop included—seems to exemplify the reasons why the talk show has been one of the most successful daytime TV breakthroughs in nearly a decade. There’s cuteness, celebrities, irreverence, people crying, people laughing, unfiltered commentary, and, of course, music, all orbiting in controlled chaos around its steady hand and fearless leader: Kelly Clarkson, very visibly having the time of her life.
“I will smell dog shit this entire show, I don’t care,” she quips to the show’s first guest, Mom star Anna Faris, joining her for a Super Bowl-themed episode that aired the last week of January and featured the array of fluffballs from Animal Planet's popular Puppy Bowl. “It’s like ‘Eau du Kelly Clarkson Show.’”
Moments before, she was marking a run through of the episode’s edition of “Kellyoke,” the wildly popular segment that kicks off each show in which she performs a truncated, expertly sung cover of another artist’s hit, everything from Taylor Swift to Whitney Houston to The White Stripes and even Mr. Rogers.
This one is a change of pace for Clarkson and Kellyoke, as her spin on Foo Fighters’ “All My Life” is the first time she’s taken on something definitively hard rock. That this speedy two-minute rehearsal is the only time she’ll run through the number with the band is all the more astounding, like watching a superhero wield her superpower.
“I don’t feel like it’s about us being nimble as it is just her freakish talent,” Jason Halbert, the show’s music director, says in response to any marveling at how quickly the cover comes together. He knows better than most: he has been working with Clarkson since she was a 20-year-old American Idol winner.
“This song is a little progressive for daytime, but I’m leaning in,” Clarkson jokes. She transitions into a story about getting drunk at dinner a few nights before with some members of the crew after attending the Critics’ Choice Awards, where the show was nominated for Best Talk Show—the only daytime contender on the list.
Then out of the corner of her eye, she spots the tailgating set that’s been erected for the themed episode: collapsible folding chairs set up around tree-stump end tables. She squawks a high-pitched laugh. “This is so white trash, I love it. We’re just missing the Solo cups.” Talking about tailgating leads her into memories of eating from the Sonic drive-thru. “Not that I go to Sonic,” she says, adopting a Valley Girl accent and tossing her hair. “I eat salads.”
Since its launch in September, The Kelly Clarkson Show has been averaging 1.9 million daily viewers, the strongest start for a new daytime talk show in seven years. Among all syndicated talk shows, the series only ranks behind veteran juggernauts Dr. Phil, Live With Kelly and Ryan, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which means it’s bringing in more viewers than the likes of Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz, and Maury.
Part variety show, with its no-brainer embrace of music, and part traditional talk show, the series has already attracted the likes of Tom Hanks, Seth Meyers, and, back in November, Kobe Bryant for surprisingly candid appearances, and produced numerous musical segments outside of Kellyoke that have gone viral. And all of this success is on the back of a singer who doesn’t necessarily have the training and background of a traditional talk-show host, but who has clearly hit on “something” that has clicked at this particular cultural moment.
“She is joy,” says executive producer and showrunner Alex Duda. “She’s like the color yellow.”
The 90-minute January taping unfolds like a distillation of nearly every talking point when it comes to Kelly Clarkson, her talents, and what it is about The Kelly Clarkson Show that has worked.
First, there’s Kellyoke, easily one of the most celebrated pop culture phenomena to come out of television in the last 12 months. The audience member who requested the Foo Fighters song chokes back tears as she explains, over and over again for practically three minutes, just how much she loves Clarkson—speaking on behalf of what may be the most ecstatic, yet least toxic fanbase in the industry. “Oh my God, I’m not that cool!” Clarkson protests.
Clarkson’s conversation with Faris begins with the two connecting over the pressures of raising kids in Los Angeles, and eventually devolves into yet another gush-fest over the singer-turned-talk-show-host. “You’re just who you are when, with celebrities, there can be such a veneer,” Faris says. “You have stripped away something that is just so important.” In response, Clarkson doubles down on humility: “Oh, I didn’t mean to. There’s no Joan of Arc here. I’m just being me!”
Faris then hits on another major bullet point: how Clarkson manages to be so engaging and on top of her game while juggling so many jobs. The day of this particular taping, Clarkson was simultaneously shooting The Kelly Clarkson Show and The Voice, on which she is a judge, while also rehearsing for her upcoming Las Vegas residency.
It’s a compliment that she once again shrugs off. “My mom said, ‘You’ve always been like this.’ In high school I had like four jobs and I was always doing stuff. Like at school, student council and a musical, or something.”
Their conversation is so free-wheeling that it leads to a showbiz origin story that Clarkson has never shared before, something remarkable given her 18 years in the business, and proving how uniquely suited her candor is for a platform like this.
She talks about playing Millie in a high-school production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and finding her chest voice for the first time mid-song, after spending most of her childhood singing opera. “I felt like I was flying,” she says. Asked by Faris what “chest voice” is, she uses a scene from Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit to illustrate, as if she wasn’t already relatable enough.
As the rest of the taping unfolds, former NFL player Tony Gonzalez comes in and banters with Faris, everyone eats pigs in a blanket and queso dip, and a young female female football player meets her idol, Santia Deck, the first woman to sign a multimillion-dollar deal with a football team. The girl is crying. Anna is crying. Kelly is crying. We’re all crying.
Talk to anyone who works on the show or with Clarkson in any capacity, and they immediately bring up her authenticity, singling it out as the number one reason she’s connected as a TV host.
“Even though she has this voice of an angel and she has this huge talent, she’s one of us,” Duda says. “We chose her. She’s by the people for the people, right? She was our Idol.”
Still, there’s an overpopulated graveyard of celebrities, from journalists to popular actors, who have tried and failed to launch their own talk shows. Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Anderson Cooper, Queen Latifah, Harry Connick Jr.: These are hosts who should have worked on paper, but didn’t. Clarkson, by contrast, is someone who should not necessarily have worked on paper, but who clearly does.
While her stints hosting the Billboard Music Awards and appearances on The Voice were certainly popular with fans, there was no guarantee that her concentrated charm would translate to the rigorous routine of a daily show and its particular demands, being comfortable doing interviews and sharing personal stories among them.
Duda remembers when she and her team were brought in to pitch to Clarkson. They made a word cloud of every kind of topic you could have in daytime, from family and parenting to food and crafts to love, dating, and sex. They asked her to point out which areas she was comfortable with and which places she would never go on TV.
She looked at the word cloud for a minute, taking in all of the topics. “You know something?” she said. “I like every single thing up there. I’m comfortable with all of it.” Duda was skeptical, and asked her to read them again. “Look, there is nothing I’m not comfortable with,” Clarkson said. “I don’t know if that’s bad or not.”
In daytime TV, of course, nothing could be better.
Duda, who had previously worked on Steve Harvey and The Tyra Banks Show, knew that there’s no more mandatory prerequisite for talk-show success than a host who is an open book. But she’s still marveled at the ways in which The Kelly Clarkson Show’s celebrity guests have taken to the singer as a host, and thrived in the group interview format.
“We always say it’s like the best Uber Pool you’ve ever been in, like with the most random, interesting people,” Duda says, pointing to episodes in which Ben Platt and Tyler Perry, as well as Jillian Bell and Chance the Rapper, struck unexpected rapports as proof that the formula works.
For her part, Clarkson says her goal was to make the show different from other talk shows, of course, but also one that guests actually want to appear on—which as a frequent talk-show guest herself, she knows the importance of.
“I definitely wanted to involve music and wanted to create an environment where everyone from every walk of life felt included and comfortable to really open up,” she says. In reference to that particular taping, which had the young athlete mingling with Anna Faris and Tony Gonzalez, she says “having celebrities and non-celebrities on the show was important to me.”
That there would be music in a Kelly Clarkson TV show was a foregone conclusion. That it would prove to be this popular—and this much of a production—was a bit of a surprise.
Halbert, who serves as Clarkson’s music director on tour in addition to his duties at the talk show, estimates he and his band arrange over 120 music cues each week. That includes Kellyoke, for which there are usually six different songs every week.
A few days before taping, Halbert starts working on condensing a song to the 90-second version that’s performed on the show, a difficult task with songs like “All My Life,” in which there are few pop elements. With about four days to go, Clarkson approves a key. The next time she hears the song is tape day, when Halbert sends her an arrangement to listen to while getting hair and makeup done. Then there’s only one run-through on stage and Clarkson films it.
The Kellyoke concept was born out of Clarkson’s popular habit of performing covers on tour. But while that would amount to about 30 to 40 covers a year, Halbert estimates he’s now arranging something like 180 covers per season.
He’s also responsible for the musical identity of the show, leading a house band that plays in and out of commercial breaks, for example. Even that was a learning curve.
He remembers the third week of the show, when the band was primed to play jaunty transition music out of an interview segment until he noticed that, because of the nature of the interview, everyone on stage, Clarkson included, was crying. The music he had planned would have been woefully inappropriate. In seconds, he scrambled to compose something more somber, rallying the band together over an earpiece and executing it perfectly.
“We’re really working it out in response to the guests,” Halbert says, following Clarkson’s example of dismissing awe and credit for the level of difficulty being executed every day.
To Clarkson, the transition from singer to talk-show host isn’t as big a deal to her as pundits seem to make it. “Honestly, it doesn’t feel much different than what I do on tour,” she says. “I mean, on the road I sing different covers all the time. I also have special guests and talk to them sometimes, and I’m always engaging with the audience because they’re a part of the show on either the road or on set. I love people, music, and having a good time so basically I just make sure that’s the vibe we have in whatever setting we’re in.”
That whole idea of a “vibe,” as ambiguous as it is, might be the exact reason Clarkson and her team is pulling this off.
There’s an idea of joy that permeates everything Kelly Clarkson Show, from the host’s infectious personality to the people working behind the scenes to the content it produces and even the lobby you walk through to get to the studio: a wall of sunflowers, a hanging birdcage chair, doors painted to look like the entrance to a farmhouse barn, bright colors, and boho chic furniture everywhere, like an Anthropologie pop-up in Universal City. Joanna Gaines would be proud.
That palpable joy is a powerful thing these days. Being a refuge from the darker, upsetting issues of the world certainly plays into why people like the show so much. Yet it also hints at something deeper: Not ignorance of those realities, but a refreshing perspective with which we trust the show’s host to engage with them.
“One of the things Kelly and I talked about from day one was being an antidote to that darkness, being about connection and positivity and bringing people together when things are moving in the opposite direction,” Duda says, shaking her head with a bit of a laughing sigh. “I still have faith in humanity that people want positivity.”
But she also points to Clarkson’s stint hosting the Billboard Music Awards in 2018, which aired the day after the mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas that killed 10 people. Addressing the audience in tears, she said the producers wanted her to open the show with a moment of silence.
“I’m so sick of moments of silence,” she said instead. “It’s not working... obviously. So why don’t we not do a moment of silence? Why don’t we do a moment of action? Why don’t we do a moment of change? Why don’t we change what’s happening, because it’s horrible.”
Her emotional plea for gun control proved affecting, and was a reassuring example to Duda that Clarkson would be equipped to address issues pertaining to the world outside of the show’s sunny bubble when the occasion merits it—filtered through that particular way of Clarkson’s that resonates so deeply with people.
The significance of her position is not lost on the host, either. In fact, Clarkson states it rather simply: “This is definitely the most important job I think I’ve ever had.”