During any given weekday, you’ll find more television talk shows than you can watch in a 24-hour span — more than 24 in fact, from Queen Latifah to The Doctors, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil, from The Talk to The Chew to The View.
And there is no shortage of notable failures in this genre. In 2013 alone, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and Rosie O’Donnell were among those whose shows were canceled.
So what led Michael Berrin, better known as Serch, to leave his family and music production business in Orlando to come back temporarily to New York to create his eponymous show, which debuted nationally — seen in Philadelphia on WPHL-17 — on Jan. 6?
The soft-spoken Serch says he couldn’t refuse the opportunity to perform tikkun olam on both an individual and a grand scale with a show whose mission statement is “helping real people with real issues.” He says that after his VH1 shows — he was the host of The White Rapper Show in 2007, as well as Miss Rap Supreme in 2009 — he was approached by Jim Paratore, who created Ellen, TMZ and The People’s Court. “He really saw something in me,” he recalls.
What Paratore, who died in 2012, saw in Serch was the same thing as anyone who has seen him on television or heard him interact with callers on his top-rated radio show in Detroit a few years ago: a genuine interest in and concern for people, regardless of age, race, religion or any other demographic.
“I’m using my experiences as a father, as an artist and as a young man with years of therapy to give that information to people who may not have had the same luxuries that I had,” says Serch, the 46-year-old product of a Conservative Jewish household in Far Rockaway. “You can only learn from someone who has experience in life. I have it, both the good and the bad, and they both come into play when you watch the show.”
Serch has been in the public eye for almost 25 years. He first achieved fame as part of the multiracial rap group Third Bass, where he became known as MC Serch, one of the first white rappers. (His stage name was given to him in high school, the result of his always asking questions during and after school.) The group’s premiere release, The Cactus Album, drew widespread acclaim in 1989, and continues to be referenced by hip-hop performers. He also had a successful solo career in the early 1990s with a Billboard No. 1 rap hit in “Here It Comes.” And his production company, Serchlite, has discovered and produced rap and hip-hop performers for years, including Nas’ seminal releases, Illmatic and It Is Written.
He says that getting involved with other people’s problems comes naturally, thanks to his life experiences.
“From as early as I can remember, my parents talked about helping others,” he recalls. “The concept of tzedakah in my house was not just about financial tzedakah; it was about the whole concept of charity, of giving of yourself, your time, your knowledge, your effort, and letting it come back to you, reaping those benefits.” His parents didn’t just talk about getting involved. His mother marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Ala., held leadership roles in community organizations in New York and worked for civil rights for decades, and his father served for a time as president of the Far Rockaway Jewish Community Council. Aside from a period in the 1980s, when he became a Muslim, Serch says he has been involved in the Conservative movement, whether it is volunteering on a monthly basis at his Orlando-area synagogue or helping make a minyan at an Upper East Side shul during his recent stint in New York.
“I was a practicing Muslim for five years,” Serch says. But during the holiday season of 1990, his wife wanted to put a Christmas tree up in their house. “I told her she could put a holiday bush up, but we had to light the candles as well. Doing the brachot, I felt a pain in my chest — I got the spark back.” He told his wife, now an executive at Disney World, that he wanted to live a Jewish life with a Jewish wife. She converted and their three children have been raised Jewish as well.
Serch says the main objective of his talk show “is to take everything my parents taught me — the good, bad and indifferent — and use this platform I’ve been given by CBS, by Tribune Broadcasting and, in a lot of ways, by Hashem, to benefit those who don’t have the ability to benefit themselves.”
Among the topics the show will cover during its three-week tryout on WPHL and seven other stations in major markets: a woman who must come to terms with the death of her sister whom she had not spoken to in years; a morbidly obese man’s attempts to change his ways; and a young mother who has lost her children due to her drug use.
While the topics certainly seem tabloid-ready, the show is more focused on social work than camera-friendly histrionics. Serch emphasizes that the work that continues after the closing credits is just as crucial to the show’s success as what goes on in front of the cameras. “We want to be able to go beyond the 45 minutes” of the show “and beyond the week’s prep. That’s the important part of this — that we create a social network, a community that talks to each other through chat rooms and with therapists and counselors who will help people once the show is off the air.”
When asked if he has been influenced by any of his predecessors, Serch goes back to the golden age of talk shows for inspiration. “I watched Sally Jessy Raphael and Montel Williams, and, like every other person on Earth, I watched Oprah,” he says. “But I really draw from Phil Donahue’s show. I loved how he interacted with his audience” — Donahue was famous for constantly seeking audience input during his shows — “and I will turn to my audience and say, ‘Is this connecting with anyone?’ ”
As he waits to see if his show is picked up for a full season, Serch keeps himself busy with his production company, raising three teenaged children and staying involved with charity work like Rock and Rap It Up. He is on the board of directors of the organization, which collects leftover food from live events, such as concerts and professional sporting events, and then donates it to homeless shelters.
While his decades in the entertainment industry have taught him that it is impossible to predict what will resonate with the public, Serch says he feels that making this talk show is the culmination of a lifetime spent trying to change people’s lives.
“I don’t know if I have ever talked about this before,” he says, “but when I was younger,
I wanted to be a rabbi, to be a cantor, to go to theological school. I really wanted to have a congregation and to be about service to others. Now, my congregation is different. It is non-traditional, and it is much bigger than I ever anticipated.”