BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It was an idea that started way back in the Dark Ages of radio, but a good idea never falters. That’s proven once again as ABC revives the comedy series “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” premiering Sunday.
The format was simple: Encourage youngsters (around 4 to 8) to talk about all kinds of subjects from bowling to bad manners. The outcome was usually hilarious with no one prompting them on the sidelines and with a host who could zig when they zagged (and they often did.)
Art Linkletter introduced the idea on his “House Party” radio show, which ran from 1945 to ’67. When he transplanted it to television in 1952, the segment became a whopping success, enduring for 17 years. Bill Cosby hosted a similar enterprise from 1998 to 2000, and in ABC’s reincarnation, comedian Tiffany Haddish takes the reins.
KID AT HEART
Haddish, 39, claims she’s still a kid at heart and always knew she was destined for the unusual.
“At that time in my life, I knew that I wanted to do something really cool,” she says. “And when people asked me, ‘Tiffany, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I’d be, like, ‘I want to be a horse farmer’ or ‘I want to work in a Snickers factory’ or ‘I want to work in a beef jerky factory.’ And everybody would be, like, ‘Why would you want to do those things?’ and I’m, like, ‘Because my grandma said, “Do what you love.” And I love horses. I love Snickers. I love beef jerky.’ So there you have it.”
The children on the ABC show don’t appear through high-priced Hollywood agents either, says executive producer Eric Schotz. “We’re not looking to get professional kids to come on the show. We’re looking for regular kids, and there are millions of them out there that are not necessarily in Los Angeles,” he says.
“We’ve seen thousands and thousands of kids,” adds producer Jack Martin. “They’re there for the casting call, and then they come back, and we put them in a situation kind of like this — as far as they have to come in and meet with the producers behind a table to make sure they’re prepared to go to the stage. Because the worst thing you want to do is have a kid in a small environment who freezes up and goes out onstage in front of 300 people and just loses it,” he says.
MAKING KIDS FEEL COMFORTABLE
They try to explore the child’s interests, before they go on stage, says Martin. “It’s about 50/50 whether they walk out and we say, ‘Oh, you love baseball?’ ‘Nooooo.’ And that’s where having someone as talented as Tiffany, who can go, ‘All right. Well, I guess we’re NOT talking about baseball. That’s what we were prepped on. What are we talking about today?’ So we have an idea of what we want to talk about. Half the time we just throw it right out the window.”
The spontaneity of the kiddies proves the charm. Haddish says she’s particularly fitted to the job because of her own upbringing. She and her siblings were put in foster care when she was 12 years old because of her mother’s illness. “I always try to look at the brighter side of things,” she says, “and I always felt like, ‘Oh, I’m on an adventure.’
“I was moving from house to house. I was living with strangers and whatnot, and I looked at it as an adventure. I kind of hated it, too. But for my mind, I had to make it, like, ‘This is making me stronger.’ And I was always taught that, too, as a kid — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This is happening for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. Even though you don’t know what it is now, you’ll know later.”
She thinks the experience gave her a special affinity for children.
“I feel like everything that I went through as a child and being in the foster care system, and knowing what it’s like to NOT be heard, and now that I am an adult, I really feel that it’s very important to hear children, to listen to them, to give them a place to talk,” she says.
“I remember being a kid and people saying, ‘Oh, kids should be seen and not heard.’ I do not agree with that at all. I think kids should be seen and they should be heard. If you’re able to talk, you should be heard, period, no matter what you are.”