Over the course of eight years, "The Jason Show" has welcomed Harry Connick Jr., Arsenio Hall and Debbie Gibson. For one episode earlier this summer, the guests were snakes.

As exotic animal expert Emily Roberts introduced her hissing companions, Jason Matheson reacted like any good talk-show host should: He stammered. He screwed up his face like he had just gulped down a rotten egg. He scurried toward an audience member in the front row and plopped down on her lap. When Roberts told him that her python dines on other reptiles, he recoiled.

"How does he feel about talk-show hosts?" he said.

But stroking a slithering creature on live television was nothing compared with the trauma Matheson experienced growing up as a chubby, effeminate kid in Michigan City, Ind.

In junior high, classmates would corner him in the cafeteria and take turns pummeling him while lunch aides just chewed their gum and watched.

"I remember there was one moment when they were beating me that I just got very calm," said Matheson, lounging in a Paul Lynde T-shirt in his North Loop condo that has a fully stocked bar, 85-inch screen TV and hot tub on the deck. "I'm not religious at all but I got a real clear message that said, 'This isn't anything. Your life is going be fine. You're bigger than anything that's happening to you.'"

That vision turned out to be correct. Matheson, who recently turned 49, has become one of the Twin Cities' most prominent media celebrities.

Morning drive

Most weekday mornings, he arrives at the Fox 9 station around 5 to tape his MyTalk (107.1 FM) radio show, "Jason & Alexis," which is required listening for anyone infatuated with the "Real Housewives" and pop divas.

After three hours of live radio, he scoots over to the TV studio down the hall for "The Jason Show," a freewheeling program that owes as much to David Letterman as it does to Oprah Winfrey. When the cameras stop rolling, he dedicates at least a half-hour to chatting with audience members and posing for pictures.

In addition, he's launched Betty & Earl's Biscuits, available in Kowalski's Markets, and does the Disney-centric podcast "Two Fairy Godfathers" with husband Collin Matheson.

"He's on the air more than anybody," said WCCO-TV anchor Amelia Santaniello, who first befriended Matheson when he was an overnight dispatcher at the CBS affiliate. "He's full of life and ambition, but there's a naturalness to him."

Matheson's hard work has paid off. His radio program, which he co-hosts with Alexis Thompson, trails only KS95 (94.5 FM) among women ages 18-plus.

"He's really important," said Dan Seeman, vice president and general manager for Hubbard Radio, which runs the pop-culture station. "Morning drive is when the most amount of ears are available and he sets us up for the rest of the day."

In the Twin Cities, "The Jason Show," which airs at 10 a.m. weekdays on KMSP, Ch. 9, consistently finishes second to "The Price Is Right" and tops ratings for "The View." For the past two years, it has been airing in Seattle, where it's the most watched daytime show on Fox affiliate KZJO-TV. It's also getting a test run in Chicago this summer and will be available to Orlando viewers this fall.

Author Stephanie Hansen has every reason to seethe with jealousy. She lost a daily show at MyTalk in 2006 so executives could make room for Matheson. But over time, she realized that the switch was justified.

"He was just so much better at it," said Hansen, who now makes regular appearances on the "Jason Show" as a food expert and is launching a new show, "Taste Buds," on the Fox Local app this month. "I'm seriously impressed by his ability to move an audience through content, to frame stories so that they have a beginning, middle and end. That's difficult."

Getting under his skin

Matheson has a harder time dealing with the bullies.

He routinely deals with emails and social media comments that can send him into a funk. Two years ago, he found a homophobic threat from a military veteran so disturbing that he seriously thought about quitting.

"It's a real horrible time to be doing a job where you put yourself out there," he said. "I talk about being yourself and putting yourself out there? Then you have people telling you that you're going to hell. Other than being tired, that'll be the thing that makes me want to end one or both of my shows."

The harassment is intense. But Matheson's love for pop culture — and being in the public eye — is stronger.

He got an early jump on "stardom." His mom, Dar Smeal, was profiled in the Michigan City paper for playing up to 44 cards at once during bingo night at the VFW, all while smoking a cigarette. In the story's accompanying picture, you can spot baby Matheson in a bassinet on the table.

"I was the good luck charm," he said.

When he was about 7, his grandparents introduced him to "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." The following mornings, he would climb up on a giant rock in the front yard of their lawn and recite the opening monologue. Later, he'd tape the theme song to Joan Rivers' late-night program and blast it when he burst through his home's screen doors.

Watching "Dallas" while eating takeout food from Long John Silver's was a Friday night ritual. When Matheson recalled meeting star Larry Hagman years later, he lit up like a Catholic would after getting blessed by the pope.

"I thought, 'If I were those people on TV, I'd be popular,'" he said as his dogs Dexter and Mr. Big scampered through the kitchen. "Then people would like me. I wouldn't be so alone."

Matheson was an only child with few close friends until his junior year of high school. He was never close to his father, a professional truck driver who died in 2003. But he was tight with the rest of his family.

Betty & Earl Biscuits are inspired by a recipe from his grandfather, who baked for coal miners in the morning and ran moonshine in the afternoon. He speaks lovingly of his mom, who he helped move to Burnsville during the pandemic. He calls her current home "retirement Knots Landing" where she takes every opportunity she can to boast about her son to fellow residents.

Feeling Minnesota

Matheson didn't have any ties to the Twin Cities but after graduating from Columbia College in Chicago he drove up on a whim to check it out and decided to make the move. At age 22, he snagged a job monitoring police scanners at WCCO after charming the TV station's managing editor, Marian Davey, with anecdotes about working as a server at Red Lobster. Davey is now KMSP-TV's general manager, which makes her the key executive behind "The Jason Show."

Davey wasn't the only power broker who saw something special in Matheson. Ted Canova was news director at WCCO and KMSP, which Matheson jumped to in 2000 to produce "The Buzz With Robyne Robinson." Canova realized that Matheson was more valuable in front of the camera than behind it, anointing him to be a key player in the station's strategy to be lighter and more irreverent than its competitors.

"Jason was like a Special Forces person," said Canova, who is now a podcast consultant based in Boston. "He was sort of like the kid in those old cereal commercials. 'Let's get Mikey! He likes it!'"

In 2009, Matheson got promoted to co-anchor the station's morning show, sharing the desk with Keith Marler and Alix Kendall.

Kendall recalls a lot of laughter, especially when they were visited by comic Norm Macdonald, whom she called "wonderfully weird."

"Jason was the best of the three of us at poking at him," she said. "It made for great television."

Matheson's wit is the driving force behind "The Jason Show." He barely relies on the teleprompter, which gives him freedom to engage with guests and shoot deadpan expressions into the camera.

Fox corporate execs were so excited about his prospects that his show was tested in such major cities as Los Angeles, Dallas and Phoenix in the summers of 2016 and 2017. It didn't work.

Matheson said that version of the show suffered from too much scrutiny and interference.

"There were a lot of people who came in to help that ended up removing Jason from 'The Jason Show,'" he said. "That made us into a lifestyle show and that's not what we are. I don't care about crafts and shopping tips."

Doing it his way

Matheson likes to keep things intimate.

On weekday mornings, he arrives at the station with coffee from Starbucks for executive producer Jeff Orcutt, who has cut up watermelon for him the previous night. Matheson personally handles most of the sound bites for the radio show, which he does in a T-shirt and shorts from a closet-sized studio. He's surrounded by pictures of favorite things — "The Lion King," Katie Couric, "Juno" — with a "Dallas"-themed blanket covering his bare legs.

The TV show's production meetings are short, sweet and sassy. Planning takes a back seat to streaming behind-the-scenes footage in which Matheson and his team gently roast one another.

He seems to relish the fact that the show doesn't attract big-name celebrities. He was practically giddy as he described a planned segment in which staff members would dress up as mascots and race around the KMSP parking lot.

"I can't get Julia Roberts, but I sure as hell can put intern Mason in a chicken suit," he said.

The hands-on approach can be time-consuming. In 2021, he became part owner of Lush Lounge & Theatre, a gay-friendly hangout in northeast Minneapolis. He is no longer involved in the club. But friends worry about him overextending himself.

"He works hard, and at times he's stretched thin," Seeman said. "But I think he's got a real good balance now."

Matheson re-energizes himself by making roughly six trips a year to Disney World. He knows the staff so well that two of the kingdom's bartenders recently crashed at his Minneapolis home. The centerpiece of his TV room is a Darth Vader mask he bought during one of his visits after one too many vodka sodas.

"He's not the center of attention at Disney World," said Collin Matheson, Jason's husband of nearly nine years. "He doesn't have to take pictures with anyone. He can just go, relax and enjoy himself."

Matheson wouldn't balk if his show takes off in Chicago — and the rest of the country. But national fame is no longer a top priority. He can even imagine himself stepping away from the spotlight in the next 10 years.

"I eventually want to land my plane," he said, unable to resist one last reference to his favorite TV show. "I hope to build my replica of Southfork and die there. "