'DWTS' host shy off-camera

'Dancing With the Stars' host Tom Bergeron (left) is shown with actress Florence Henderson and professional dance partner Corky Ballas.

BURBANK, Calif. -- He's probably the most visible host on television, but Tom Bergeron, ringmaster of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and "America's Funniest Home Videos," never gets nervous before a show.

"I feel like I have bedroom slippers on," he says, seated on a brown leather couch at the Disney Studios here.

"I get nervous at a neighborhood cocktail party. I'm not good. My wife is wonderful. She can make 40 new friends inside of an hour, and I'll get a sweaty upper lip and start getting really uncomfortable. And people will think, 'He's a snob.' But the truth is my wiring is backwards. Twenty-million people on camera, live TV? Perfectly fine. Cocktail party in a small room with 30 people? I'm looking for the exit."

A loner as a kid ("and probably still am"), Bergeron finds himself doing something you can't really train for, that's absent from job descriptions and is impossible to find in the classifieds.

How he got there is a puzzle to Bergeron himself. "Radio was my dream," he says. "I loved improv work on stage, and I loved radio, but television was something that I didn't really have any thoughts of being in. It happened by accident. It happened because radio shows I was doing in New Hampshire years later got the attention of people working in television in Boston. And so they were calling me to come audition for things, and that's how that started."

Bergeron, who's been married to his wife, Lois, for 28 years and is the father of two college-age daughters, tried many coats before he found a fit. His first foray into TV was a magazine show in New Hampshire on Public Television, he recalls.

Then he presided over a kids' show called "Superkids" in Boston and a midday talk show, "People are Talking," for six years.

But he didn't think any further than broadcasting. "OK, now I'm suddenly in television -- let's see where this will go. And happily I'm married to somebody who was a producer-director herself. ... I remember when I was offered a job to host a morning show on FX when FX cable first launched in '94. It would've meant leaving the Boston area, where we'd spent years and where the girls were born. Lois said, 'Well, let's treat it like a one-year experiment. Let's roll the dice. If we don't like it, we'll come back.' That experiment started 16 years ago, and it keeps going."

A few more morning shows and then Bergeron was on his way to L.A. to emcee "Hollywood Squares."

"I think there's an important time in your career when you embrace whatever ability you have and finally embrace the fact that you enjoy it," he says.

"I wasn't doing that as much in the early years for the radio stuff I did, because it came too easily. But later in New Hampshire in the early '80s, I was working at a radio station there where I had very supportive management, did a late-night show where they gave me enough rope to hang myself, and it just all kind of worked.

"It was comedy-oriented, improv-oriented. I'd have musicians come in and perform live and make crazy phone calls all over the world. It was then when I said, 'It's OK, you can really enjoy what you do, and work doesn't have to be a slog.' "

Still, all his training was on-the-job. Most people would be surprised that Bergeron studied mime with Tony Montanaro, who, in turn, had learned from the great Marcel Marceau.

"Because I loved silent film comedy, so in addition to doing radio, I studied and performed as a mime. A friend said, 'It's weird, because when we can see you we can't hear you, and when we hear you we can't see you.' But Tony really was instrumental in broadening my outlook on what stage was, what improv was. The idea of grounding yourself in the moment of your performance and finding impulses and inspirations for things, that's carried on in my work ever since."

What Bergeron especially loves about his job is the challenge of conquering the unexpected. "I love being aware of and awake to the present moment. That's what I look forward to most on 'Dancing With the Stars,' going out there and trusting there will be opportunities in the air, that I can take care of the practical elements of hosting a show, which is to get to the commercials and to get all the elements going the way they should," he says.

"But the real pleasure for me is what can you add to it, what kind of spin -- comic or otherwise can you bring to it that is really going to be reactive to what's happening at the moment."