By Tammy Daniels
09:13PM / Friday, January 23, 2015
Williamstown native Jay Montepare is hosting 'Ellen's Design Challenge' beginning this Monday at 9 p.m. on HGTV.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Reality competition stars demonstrate their skills to become "top" in their fields.
But Jay Montepare's "dream job" is helping to nudge the latest reality group through the trials and tribulations of furniture design.
The Mount Greylock Regional High School graduate is the host of "Ellen's Design Challenge" that debuts Monday, Jan. 26, at 9 p.m. on HGTV.
"This job is kind of a dream job," he said, speaking last week from Los Angeles. "It incorporates a lot of my passions. It was just really lot of fun and I got to work with amazing creative designers ... and this afforded me the opportunity to work with some of the biggest household-name designers in the industry."
It also brought him into the orbit of comedian and talk show host Ellen Degeneres, who is producing the series through her A Very Good Production company and with A. Smith & Co., producers of such fare as "Hell's Kitchen" and "American Ninja Warrior."
"I was really excited because Ellen Degeneres was behind this and she is one of the most powerful, and one of the kindest and most interesting persons to work with," he said.
"Also, she's hilarious."
The six-week series will feature six furniture designers who, with the help of some well-known HGTV carpenters, will create unique pieces within 24 to 48 hours for judging. The last one standing will win $100,000 from Wayfair.com and have their work featured in HGTV Magazine. Montepare described the furniture as functional art and "show-stopping pieces."
The six competitors are Carley Eisenberg of Boone, N.C.; Gaspar de Jesus and Leslie Shapiro Joyal, both of Los Angeles; Tim McClellan, Durango, Colo.; Mark Moskovitz, Cleveland; and Katie Stout, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Montepare's main focus has been standup comedy — he's performed in the Berkshires — but he's branched out into acting and television hosting. He also has a background in design and carpentry, partly through his own properties and partly through working with his father, James Montepare, who owns the antiques part of Berkshire Emporium & Antiques on Main Street in North Adams.
"So it was kind of kismet, it was kind of perfect being a host, being a comic and also having an interest in design and carpentry — all those worlds kind of collided," he said.
In fact, he was home in Williamstown last year when the call came that the production company was interested in making him an offer.
"It was just kind of perfect because I had immersed myself in that world anyway," he said.
Montepare said he learned a lot from the six designers, and from Dwell Editor in Chief Amanda Dameron and Wayfair Executive Creative Director Christiane Lemieux, the two main judges during the series. He also was able to spend time with the leadership team at HGTV and the two production companies, as well as some Warner Bros. executives.
"It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life," he said.
Montepare shared some his experiences on the show and in his career with us.
How did you get involved in a furniture competition show?
I've been doing hosting stuff for awhile ... [including some pilots that didn't get picked up, like "Dick Clark's Bloopers"]
They were looking for somebody who knew about [design] work, knew about construction. My dad owns Berkshire Emporium & Antiques ... so I've been helping him a lot whenever I've been home. ... I've been refinishing a lot of furniture myself here and I had designed three apartments on my property by doing some pretty interesting things.
What is your role on the show?
What my role was essentially was to facilitate the show. ... I greet the contestants, I tell them about the challenges, give them the guidelines of each challenge and then my job was basically to help facilitate telling the story about the build. ... I go around to each designer, find out what material they're using, what they're plan is, I would see any problems I thought might arise and ask them about that, if they had thought about that and how they would remedy that.
Ellen Degeneres' love for well-crafted furniture inspired her new series.
Do you give them a "make it work" moment?
The hammer it out moment, I guess. (He laughs.)
... As the show progressed you would learn what the judges' likes and dislikes were, and I would help the contestants address those needs [by reminding them of past responses] ... I was also in charge of the clock ... I would be there to throw a spin on the challenge halfway through the competition. Then I became the facilitator for the judging.
How much interaction did you have with Ellen?
This is Ellen's show. She is a major part of every episode. It was an unbelievable honor to work with one of the greatest comic hosts in the world.
This show was a big production, there was a lot of people behind it, a lot of money into this. This is the biggest production value show on HGTV right now. It's going to be the most exciting show on HGTV.
Let's start from the beginning. How did you get into comedy?
I use watch to "Bill Cosby: Himself" and "Louie Anderson Live at the Guthrie."
[On a trip with his grandparents and brother to Cape Cod] I remember I did Bill Cosby's dentist routine from the back seat. I was doing an impression of him and I had his routine down word for word. My grandparents were laughing so hard they started crying. My grandfather had to pull over because he couldn't see the road anymore. They were just dying.
[Watching Cosby and Anderson] I was so amazed that one person could kind of control an entire audience of thousands of people, [have them] waiting on their every word.... I thought of these people as superhuman. I couldn't believe someone could do this. After making my grandparents laugh so hard, I thought maybe I can do something like this.
That time he almost became a ball player
We won the gold medal in the Baystate Games in my junior year ... We beat Drury my sophomore year at Greylock, which was one of the most exciting moments of my life at the time. So baseball kind of took over my life. ... I had invitational tryouts for the White Sox and the Kansas City Royals at one point, and I played in the Clark Griffith League in college (then a leading wooden bat league).
[During a game] I was cracking up everybody on the team. My coach got so pissed off at me, he turned to me and said, "Montepare you want to be a f--- clown go be a f--- clown."
So I decided to go be a f--- clown.
That time he was into medieval literature
When college ended, I was a English major with a medieval literature focus. I started getting into creative of writing and moved to Boston, which seemed to be the mecca of standup comedy. I took creative writing at Emerson and did standup. [Author and instructor Scott Campbell wrote him a recommendation for graduate writing programs.] But I just couldn't get in. Basically he said I was a wild card when it came to being an actual writer, but what he did know was that my presence in the room was always amazing ... I definitely had a gift for spoken word and storytelling — but not on the page.
[Montepare began doing a weekly half-hour comedy sketch with a friend then decided to move to Los Angeles, where he took acting and hosting classes. He's done about 30 national commercial campaigns, some small TV roles and performed for the troops in Japan.]
My career has kind of being throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what stuck. For some reason, I always knew that hosting was going to be the thing that propelled my career. And it did.
I see you were in a movie ("Walk of Shame") last year with Elizabeth Banks of Pittsfield. The movie didn't do well but did you get to reminisce about the Berkshires?
No, but something did happen that I guess was kind of funny. [Montepare and his wife, actress and writer Elizabeth Chomko, both got called to audition for the film.]
That day on the audition, we ended up meeting at the casting agency at the same time. They put us together not knowing we were married. We're sitting there in the waiting room, talking and goofing around and they call her in first. They said to her, "Wow, you seem to be really getting along with Jay." She said, "well yeah, he's my husband." They had no idea. So they had us audition the scene together ... It turned out they booked us to be in the same scene together.
It was a very small part, but we ended up shooting our very first major movie together. Which is like literally one in a million million chance of happening. [They played Female Blooper Anchor #5 and Male Blooper Anchor #3]
[Banks] seems really cool and I wish we had done it but no, it wasn't with her. But our little bit introduces her character and we speak to her via satellite ... but we never talked to her.
I like competition shows that actually show the creating, not the fake drama. What is this show like?
The designers on this show are unbelievable. ... But unless you're one of the big, big names you're kind of unknown. That's one of the reasons why Ellen did this show. She recognizes the skill and the talent and the hard work that all these people put in. ... Ellen wanted to give these fantastically, incredibly talented, creative designers the opportunity for the world to see just how great they were. ...
Like a lot of shows on HGTV, just watching this show will help you realize that there are a lot of things you can do that aren't traditional that really will allow you to have a wow piece of furniture in your house. And the great thing about this, we're following these guys from inception of design all the way through the creative process.
You're not just learning about furniture, you're learning a lot about how furniture is made, all the thought that goes into a piece of furniture.