Sherri Shepherd on Ellen, Oprah, Barbara Walters and ‘The View’

Sherri Shepherd has been a stand-up comedian, sitcom star, The View co-host, and now, with her eponymous syndicated talk show Sherri, a leading figure on the daytime TV scene. In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Shepherd opens up about the inspiration and advice she received from Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, and Barbara Walters; how she wants her own show to avoid the types of controversies that still fuel The View; and how she’s learned to handle the inevitable backlash that will come her way.

She also shares some hilarious stories about starting out in stand-up comedy with the Wayans brothers and Jamie Foxx, her memorable guest-starring role on Friends, what it was really like to play Tracy Morgan’s wife on 30 Rock, and how she found out she wasn’t Mindy Kaling’s first choice to play Sen. Evette Chase on The Sex Lives of College Girls.

When I sign onto Zoom for our interview about 10 minutes early, Shepherd is already there, sitting perfectly still in her chair. Her elaborately made-up eyes are closed and I quickly realize that she is asleep. After a few seconds, she stirs and admits that she was taking a quick nap while she waited for me to arrive. “I was gone!” she says with a laugh, eyes now wide open.

It’s hard to blame her. She’s just come from that day’s taping of Sherri, which premiered last September and requires her to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4:45 a.m. “But it’s all good,” she tells me. “I can either be tired because I’m working so hard or tired because I’m just calling my agent all the time going, ‘Nobody’s calling?!’”

In reality, there have been plenty of calls in the nearly 10 years since she left The View, including one to guest-host for and then essentially replace Wendy Williams in the wake of that veteran daytime star’s medical complications last year.

“There is nobody like Wendy Williams,” Shepherd told viewers on the final episode of The Wendy Williams Show last summer. “From her days on the radio to ruling daytime talk for 13 seasons, Wendy earned her title as the queen of all media.” Three months later, Sherri premiered with much of Williams’ staff still in place but with a very different style that aims to emulate more overtly uplifting hosts like Winfrey and DeGeneres. The approach worked—Shepherd was recently rewarded with a two-season renewal through 2025.

“I wanted to bring laughter to daytime and I wanted to bring fun to daytime and I wanted to bring a lightness to daytime, because I felt like we’re all going through so much,” Shepherd says of her foray into the crowded landscape. “And especially on social media, it’s one bad thing after another. You know, somebody got robbed and somebody got killed and your spirit is just comatose with bad news. I just wanted this to be a place where people could escape for one hour a day. So that’s what I’ve always envisioned in my head.”

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.

So you’re stepping into this space after Ellen DeGeneres’ departure. Did you take any specific inspiration from her?

Well, I was a guest on Ellen’s show quite a bit. I used to hold the record for being the most booked guest on her show. And so I knew what I liked and I knew the experience that I had coming on talk shows. The moment you walked on to her talk show, her staff was so kind and nice and you had a good time just walking in. So I knew I wanted to recreate that. In the dressing room, Ellen had so many goodies in her dressing room that made you feel good. The only thing I couldn’t recreate was she had a whole tray of CBD products. They had a bigger budget than Sherri. I’d give you CBD if we could afford it.

Maybe you’ll get there.

That’s one of my goals, to have a tray of CBD products, if you have bad knees or you just want to feel better. But yeah, I would watch a lot of talk shows and be like, I want to do that, I want to make people feel this way.

Given how positive of an experience you had at Ellen, were you surprised at all when you started hearing some of those stories come out about the toxic environment behind the scenes?

I’m just going to say this. With everybody, there’s in front of the camera and behind the camera. I never experienced any of that. Ellen has always been wonderful to me. She’s always been kind and always supportive. That is the Ellen that I know. So I can’t speak to nobody else but what my experience was with Ellen. That’s why I always loved to come back and sit in the chair next to her.

When you see something like that, does it make you think at all about, when you’re putting together your show and putting together a staff, making sure that you don’t have those same kind of stories about you?

Well, I also know there’s the energy behind the scenes. What you’re going to get in front of the camera is a very bubbly Sherri. I’m going to make you feel good. What you’re going to get behind the camera is a more serious Sherri, because it’s a serious business trying to be funny and to craft a really great show. So I always tell people who work with me on a personal basis or on a staff, don’t confuse the two, don’t get it twisted. I’m very serious about what I do. Anybody that interviews with me that wants to work with me, if you’re expecting that girl, you’re in the wrong place. Because when the camera shuts off, I’m very serious about what I need to do. And as a woman, I think they’re very quick to call us the b-word, but I’m very forthcoming, I’m very serious. I’m very determined and I know what I want.

You think men in similarly powerful positions don’t get that same criticism?

No, they don’t! I think people expect it from a man. They expect the level of competition. With women it’s a little bit harder. And I think because I’m a comedian and a stand-up comic, people are a little bit taken aback when they get with me, and they’re like, “You gotta be funny!” Not if you don’t have a check.

When the camera shuts off, I’m very serious about what I need to do. And as a woman, I think they’re very quick to call us the b-word, but I’m very forthcoming, I’m very serious. I’m very determined and I know what I want.

I know someone else you got advice from early on was Oprah Winfrey. How has that manifested in the show, in the work, now that you’ve been doing it for a while?

She gave me some really good advice and she talked about energy. She said the energy that you put out is what you’re going to get back double from the audience. So I’m really aware of that, of keeping my energy up. At the end of the day, nobody cares if you’re tired, nobody cares if you had a meeting and it went long. Nobody cares if somebody in your family is acting crazy and you’re preoccupied. At the end of the day, they need that energy and they will give you that back. So that is what I learned from her. And also, with the two-year renewal, she said, “Now where are you going to go? You’ve proven what you set out to prove, now how are you going to be better?” I did not think of that.

You were just trying to get through the day, probably.

Yeah! She said, “You’ve proven that you’re funny, you’ve proven that the show is fun, now what are you doing?” And I go, “I’m going to keep being funny…” And she’s like, “No, you’ve got to elevate.” And I was like, “We just got the show!” But it really made me think about, OK, what’s next?

You obviously spent seven years as a co-host on The View and now have been doing this show for a few months. How has the experience been different doing your own show versus what it was like to be at that table with those other women?

Well, number one, I’m able to talk.

You can get a word in!

I’m not arguing with the co-hosts during the commercial break going, “Can you just let me speak, can you not interrupt me?” Because we did have those moments. Or Joy [Behar] going, “You stepped on my joke!” So just knowing that I’m not fighting anybody for air space, it’s different. It’s also different because when I was on The View, I came on and didn’t really know about politics. Now I love talking politics, but this is a politics-free talk show. We don’t do that. It’s just me bringing a good time. I don’t have to find out what other people want at the table. It’s just me. Even when I went back to do the Barbara Walters tribute, I was trying to talk and I remember Lisa Ling grabbed my elbow like, “Cut it, I need to say my thing.” And I was like, oh yeah, I’m back.

What was your relationship like with Barbara Walters, because she did become a real mentor of sorts to you, right?

Yes, she did. She was a big mentor. Barbara was instrumental in me finding my voice. She was instrumental in me being very clear about what I wanted. She taught me how not to take no for an answer and to be curious about people. She taught me to speak up and to get past the fear. She was tough on me. She was really, really tough on me. But I’m glad because it helps me in this area right here.

You’ve talked before about how The View, at times, was a very painful experience because Barbara Walters was so hard on you. How did you manage that at the time? Were you grateful for it then, or has it taken some time for you to realize what it meant?

Oh, no, I wasn’t grateful for it then at all. I was not happy at all. I was like, I can’t cry any more tears. Do you not like me? Every day, you are getting on me for something, lady! So no, I didn’t appreciate it then at all. The last day she left, she put her hand on my face and she said, “I’m the most proud of you. You did the work, you did your homework, you did the research.” And she complimented me and she said, “I love you, dear.” And she stepped in the elevator and I started crying, and as the doors closed she went, “What are you crying for?!” So that’s pretty much our relationship. As I moved forward, I saw that my confidence came from Barbara. I’m not afraid to say no, that came from Barbara. And it really hit home when I found out that she had passed, all the nuggets that I got to have and that I got to be around her for seven seasons.

And she helped you navigate some of your own controversies on the show as well, right? The most famous one being the whole “the world is flat” thing. Are you able to laugh about that now?

Oh my gosh, yes. Because it was during my first few weeks and being so nervous and not listening. That’s what I learned to do: listen. Because I honestly was so zoned out and I’ve got adult ADD. And I was so nervous because Barbara had already told us beforehand, she said, “I want to debate my Christian friend on evolution.” And I don’t debate. So I was already so zoned out, nervous, and scared that I didn’t even hear them ask me, “Do you believe the Earth is round or flat?” I literally was into, “Did I pay the water bill? Who’s picking up my son from preschool?” I was so not present. And I did not know how big The View was. I did not know, internationally, how huge this show was until I got the backlash. And the next day I was in tears, and [Walters] came up to me and said, “I hired you because I know you can do this.” And what I learned from that was to be present, make sure you’re up on your homework. If she wants to debate you, make sure you’re ready to do that. So when I look at it now, I can laugh at it. I wasn’t able to then. But failure is not something that you’ve got to fear. If you fall, you’ve got nowhere to go but up, and that’s what I did. I got on that show when I knew nothing about politics, because I never voted because of the religion I was in. Now I love talking about politics. And I learned that from Barbara.

Failure is not something that you’ve got to fear. If you fall, you’ve got nowhere to go but up, and that’s what I did.

Did you start voting?

That was my first year voting on The View, when Obama ran. We voted and my son had a temper tantrum. We almost voted Republican that particular day, because he was acting up so bad I didn’t know what the heck I was filling out. But yeah, that was my first year voting.

That backlash that you talk about must be very challenging, and it’s sort of constant on that show. There are always people getting outraged about something. What did you learn from that experience of facing that backlash, of getting criticism? Because you have to learn how to deal with it. And maybe it won’t happen on this show, but you never know.

Well, number one, of course it’s going to happen on this show. Because if you’re sailing through life going, “Everybody’s going to love me,” this is not the business you need to be in. But the one thing that I learned from The View was from Joy. She said, “When you open up your mouth, half the world is going to hate what you say.” And I learned from The View that you can’t be apologizing for everything. I remember there were a couple of things that happened and I got a lot of backlash, and I went to [producer] Bill Geddie and Barbara Walters and Barbara said, “If we apologize for everything we said, this will be called ‘The Apology Show.’” So I learned that this too shall pass. It’s on to the next thing. You get another new cycle and people are going to forget what you said. As long as they don’t forget how you made them feel, you’re all right.

Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.

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