Even though Steve Wilkos’ daily talk show is now its eighth season (airing at 10 a.m. weekdays, WCIU-Channel 26), the former longtime Chicago Police officer still can’t believe showhas lasted so long.
The Chicago native — who found fame as the security guy on Jerry Springer’s show when it taped in Chicago— laughs when he thinks back to the early days of “The Steve Wilkos Show.”
“To be honest, the first year I hated doing my show. I wanted to go back on ‘Springer.’ Was I grateful for the opportunity? Yes, but that existence of hoping to be picked up for the next season was brutal,” said Wilkos, calling recently from Connecticut, where he now tapes his show. “Those first couple of years, you’re so busy trying to keep the show on the air, you don’t get to enjoy doing the show. Now it’s a total pleasure.
“That first year, I went from being a second banana on that speeding train [‘The Jerry Springer Show’] that was not slowing down, to going on a show and hosting it myself — that was so much incredibly hard work. We didn’t know what we were doing. I was traveling all the time to promote the show. It was rough.
“I remember thinking, why do I need this? I was on a popular show — ‘Springer’ — with no pressure!”
Of course, that pressure has dissipated a lot in recent years, as Wilkos’ daily chatfest has been extended into 2018.
“Back when we started, I never thought I’d have that kind of security,” added Wilkos.
Alot has been written about Wilkos and the chair-throwing he’s done on his show — as he verbally tosses difficult or problematic guests off his stage.He laughs it off.
“When we did our 1,000th show, they actually went through and counted how many chairs I had thrown on the air. That was a year ago, and at that time it was 43 chairs…43 chairs on 1,000shows. That’s not too bad.”
Wilkos admitted he was a“terrible” host that first year. “I was produced in a way that I always had to exhibit so much high energy. I had no levels. I yelled for an hour and that was it. You look at that first year, and I know my wife feels the same way. We don’t like to air them [in reruns]. I kind of wish they would disappear. No nuance to those shows. It was me screaming at you. No empathy, no caring for anybody. It was all, ‘You’re bad. Get off my stage!’ ”
The biggest change for the show came when his wife, Rachelle, took over as his executive producer.“She just told me, ‘Be yourself. Be the cop that you were’ ”—referring to the dozen years he was on the Chicago force. He saidbeing a police officer did require him to be tough, but “there were also people who really needed my help and I’d go out and find their kids or get their car back, or whatever it was.”
One of the things that amazes Wilkos is how he — a relative unknown — has succeeded in national syndicationwhile so many more famous folks’ efforts have failed.
“People with big names like Katie Couric, Jeff Probst, Ricki Lakehave all come and gone in the last few years. Millions of dollars invested in the sets and the hosts, and they failed,” said Wilkos. “Nothing against Ricki Lake or Arsenio Hall or all these well-known people, but I do wonder — what’s with all the retreads?
“Why can’t TV come up with people like me, someone new? Maybe if they’d take a chance on an unknown, they’d have better luck — and without the big risks and investments.”
As for Springer, Wilkos understandably counts him among his best friends and will be forever grateful to the veteran TV personality for giving him his big break.
“Without Jerry, I wouldn’t have my wife, I wouldn’t have my children. By being on his show, that obviously changed my life. Without Jerry, I would probably still be pushing a Chicago squad [car] around the streets!”