Getting a new TV show on the air isn’t easy. Best-selling author Kelly Corrigan, whose PBS interview show, Tell Me More With Kelly Corrigan, premieres Monday (9 p.m., WHYY12), thought hers might never happen.
“There have been many, many times when I’ve gotten off the phone and gone downstairs to the kitchen to report to my husband or my kids, ‘It’s over,' she said. The show grew from the success of segments she’d filmed for PBS NewsHour projects Brief but Spectacular and That Moment When. “As soon as COVID hit, it seemed absurd.”
Yet “here we are, and we actually got all the way to Montgomery, Ala., to shoot with [lawyer and justice activist, and author of Just Mercy] Bryan Stevenson. And then we got to L.A. and shot James Corden one day and Jen Garner the next day. And nobody got sick, thank God.” (The production has followed industry protocols, which included testing for everyone involved, she said.)
"And we have these three episodes — they’re super, these people. If you have the right guests, there’s really nothing to it. You just clear out and let them talk. Just make sure you don’t have anything in your teeth.”
Corrigan, 53, lives Northern California, but as fans of her four best-selling memoirs know, many of her stories begin in the house in Villanova where she grew up. She graduated from Radnor (“the best school that I’m aware of”) in 1985. In June, she gave the keynote address — remotely — at the school’s Class of 2020 graduation.
On Tuesday, Corrigan also launches a new weekly podcast, Kelly Corrigan Wonders, in which she’ll explore one question a month, with a different guest each week, “so we’ll really get to the bottom of things.”
We spoke with her about failure and rejection making the best stories, overcoming self-consciousness, and what she inherited from her late father. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Corrigan will also talk with Ellen Gray on Inquirer LIVE at 4:15 p.m. on Oct. 14 about her PBS series and her podcast, along with her personal journey to becoming a writer. Register for the virtual event at inquirer.com/CorriganEvent, then join us for an intimate conversation, plus a chance to ask Corrigan a question during the Q&A session. The link to watch will be shared with registrants the morning of the event.
How did you decide to use the title of your most recent book, “Tell Me More,” for the show?
We had tried a bunch of different titles. And they [PBS] came back and said, "Would you ever consider Tell Me More? And I said, “Of course.” Once you labor over a book title for a year, you just want to use it as much as possible. And it feels really true to me. I am a person who wants to know more.
Your books are, in a sense, interviews with yourself, and you dig pretty deeply into how you became the person you are. Do you see any relationship between that and interviewing others about their lives?
The thing you learn as you do book tours with memoirs is that it’s quickly apparent that you’re going to have to go way past the superficial to make it worth people’s time. Nobody needs to come to a bookstore to hear you read about what a pain in the neck it is to get your flat tire fixed. My job is to get past the obvious and into stuff that’s truly useful.
Do you ever get self-conscious about sharing?
When I was in my 20s, I got really obsessed with population. And I got my head around the 6 billion, 7 billion, 8 billion people on earth idea. And it just has had such a huge impact on me. I don’t feel that self-conscious because I don’t think it matters what I reveal about me because I don’t think I really matter. Especially right now, when you’re looking at global pandemic, economic and environmental collapse and, hopefully, a total reset of civil rights in America, it just cannot possibly matter whether I tell you that I weigh 156 pounds or not.
The stories you tell about yourself aren’t always flattering. Are you kinder to your interviewees?
I’m not unkind to myself. I mean, that’s the connective tissue of life, right? All the failure and rejection. Those are the best stories I’ve got. And those are the best stories everyone’s got. [In the Oct. 12 episode], you’re going to hear James Corden say how unbelievably grateful he is, for the many, many years of utter rejection.
How did you choose the people you interviewed for “Tell Me More”?
We didn’t want all Hollywood celebrities and we only wanted Hollywood celebrities who were willing to talk about life in America today. It’s me and my guest looking out together rather than me digging into their career highlights. With Jen [Garner] we talked more about rural poverty and raising children and her life as a single mom than we did about any particular movie she’s been in or winning the Golden Globe [for Alias].
Can we talk about your glasses? I feel as if Tina Fey has made TV safe for women who can’t be bothered with contacts.
I don’t think I’ve had my contacts in five years. I can’t stand them anymore. I don’t know what happened to my eyes, but I can’t tolerate them. So if you’ve ever seen me without glasses, it was only for like an hour.
The biggest thing was, was I going to get some kind of weird haircut on my deck before doing these interviews because I have crazy overgrown COVID hair? How much hairspray are we going to put on this mop?
I just sprayed it down, baby. You could’ve bounced a quarter off my head.
In “Tell Me More,” you ask your interview subjects to designate a “plus-two” — two people they know, and whom they admire and respect. Why?
I’ve always felt like people never look more beautiful than when they’re talking about someone they love. I love rehearsal dinners, because I love hearing people give toasts. And so we were almost trying to capture that feeling of showering somebody with admiration and gratitude, in these very short segments.
The other thing that’s really important to me about it is that I am very against the classic American narrative of the lone achiever. I really want to promote the indisputable idea that any achievement is the outcome of a thousand moments of grace and opportunity. A little luck and teamwork.
So who would your plus-twos be?
There’s this friend of mine, Ariel Trost. We have kids in the same grade. And she’s deeply sane, and so loving. She gives me a lot of confidence. I run a lot of ideas past her. And I feel like if she nods in a certain way, or jumps in with me, that it’s a good idea. She’s a very savvy media consumer. But more than that, she’s like a true intellectual. If she finds something interesting, it just gives me tremendous confidence to keep pursuing it.
And then, my dad. I mean, he’s not here anymore. [George “Greenie” Corrigan’s bladder cancer diagnosis, along with Kelly Corrigan’s own bout with breast cancer, inspired her first book, The Middle Place. He died in 2015.] But he just made the world such a personal place.
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I feel like I don’t even have a professional side. Like I’m entirely porous. And I think I get that from him, like there’s just no reason that a business meeting can’t be full of joy and connection. And there’s no reason that every conversation you have can’t be uplifting and sincere or earnest.
And he was one of the world’s great listeners. He had sort of endless curiosity about other people. And that’s a pretty good way to go through the world, and pretty rare.
Tell Me More With Kelly Corrigan. 9 p.m. Monday, WHYY12.