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TELEVISION : Look at me! I'm a talk show host! : The television landscape is replete with the wreckages of celebs' failed gabfests, yet it hasn't slowed the rush of stars seeking their own shot.

November 15, 2009|Greg Braxton

Magic Johnson, Queen Latifah, Martin Short, John McEnroe, Megan Mullally, Whoopi Goldberg and Tony Danza all have a common talking point. When it came to hosting a television talk show, they walked the walk, but could not talk the talk.

A crew of top comedians -- George Lopez, Wanda Sykes and Mo'Nique -- have just launched talk shows, venturing into a near-saturated field that already includes David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and the struggling Jay Leno, among many others. But as the threesome attempt to establish their own foothold, they have another goal -- avoiding the missteps of previous popular entertainers and sports figures who flopped in making the transition to hosting a gabfest.

The "talk of shame" list includes Roseanne Barr, Michael Eisner, Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers, Lauren Hutton, D.L. Hughley, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Tempestt Bledsoe of "The Cosby Show" and Sinbad. For many of the accomplished stars, it was a career low point. Memories of Chase's highly touted but disastrous bid haunt him so much that he refuses to discuss it.

The PopWatch blog on Entertainment Weekly's website called Mullally's 2006 show "depressingly forced" and a huge step down for the actress who won raves for her role on "Will & Grace." A blog on the Associated Content website ranked talk shows hosted by Latifah, Bledsoe, Wayans and Johnson as among the worst "black talk shows of all time."

Many of the celebrity-hosted series were short-lived and ratings-challenged. Chase's viewership dropped precipitously after the debut of his 1993 nightly Fox show, and McEnroe's 2004 CNBC series twice scored a 0.0 rating. Wayans, the spark behind Fox's landmark "In Living Color," clashed with his creative team during his 1997 syndicated late-night gabfest, threw tantrums and at times refused to come out of his dressing room, said staffers who worked on the show.

Despite the stream of failures, programmers and celebrities are still drawn inexorably to the format. Shows are relatively inexpensive to produce, and comedians such as Leno, Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Craig Ferguson and Ellen DeGeneres make it look almost effortless.

"For the most part, celebrities see how other hosts do this, not realizing how it's incredibly hard to do," said Mort Marcus, a co-president of Debmar-Mercury Co., a production and distribution company involved with several series, including "The Wendy Williams Show," a talk show featuring the New York radio personality that had early struggles but has been gaining momentum in viewership and key female demographics. (Her syndicated show airs during the daytime on Fox and during the evenings on BET.)

Added Debmar-Mercury Co-President Ira Bernstein: "It takes a real specific skill set. The good ones make it look easy."

Fast on their feet

One drawback is the generic nature of the format, which demands various elements -- a monologue, couches or chairs, a live band and banter between the bandleader and host, and taped audience participation bits. But more significant -- and harder to handle for novice hosts -- is their spontaneous nature.

"Doing a live talk show is to work without a script, which is really tricky," said one prominent entertainment publicist who asked not to be identified because many of her clients are booked on talk shows. "Just look at awards shows. You can make preparations for the monologue and give guests a sense of what is going to be asked, but there have to be other things that have to work if those things don't jell. Doing all the preparation and pre-taping won't work if you're not able to work with the moment."

Rick Feldman, president of the National Assn. of Television Programming Executives, said several factors -- the right host, writing and producing expertise, plus a bit of luck -- must be in place for a talk show to catch on: "Sometimes it's just a bad idea, and other times, it's a good idea that is executed badly, marketed badly or airs on the wrong station."

He pointed to Johnson's ill-fated "The Magic Hour" on Fox, which premiered in June 1998, as a prime example of what can go wrong with a popular celebrity who ventures out of his comfort zone to host a talk show. Though the basketball legend was praised for his energy and charisma, critics blasted him for his colloquial grammar and lack of comic timing. Shock-jock Howard Stern was merciless as he ridiculed Johnson's speech mannerisms.

Producers tried to revamp the show, yanking sidekick Craig Shoemaker and bringing in Tommy Davidson of "In Living Color" to increase the comedy quotient. They even invited Stern to the show as a guest. But spiraling ratings led to a cancellation within three months. In a finale moment indicative of the show's fortunes, Johnson grabbed a basketball and attempted a shot to a hoop near the stage. The ball caromed off the rim.

"Fundamentally, a talk show hosted by Magic Johnson was not a good idea," Feldman said. "Magic is wonderful, but that kind of thing is not what he does for a living."

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