What is required to be a successful late-night talk-show host?
You've got to be somewhat personable and likable. You've got to have a sense of humor. You've got to have the ability to talk to people. You've got to have a sense of timing. You've got to know what is entertaining and what isn't.And, as Jay Leno has proved, it's vital that you have a crack production team around you to fill in the gaps when you fall short in all the other areas.
America's latest late-night host, Magic Johnson, is personable, likable and pleasant. However, the premiere of "The Magic Hour" proved that he has a way to go in all of those other areas.
"The Magic Hour," which airs weeknights at midnight on Ch. 13 locally, opened about as bad as possible - with a lame comedy bit featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger ripping the door off Johnson's dressing room. And it gave Johnson a chance to overact badly.
It would have been better left undone. Just open the show with, "And now, the man of the hour . . . Mmmmmmagic!"
But even then Magic was a bit awkward when he greeted the audience and the viewers. He told us that he was inspired by his first appearance with Johnny Carson. "I've always wanted to try the other side of the desk, but with these legs, they just wouldn't fit." Thus, the couches on the set.
He added that, "I know I'm not a comedian, but I still wanna end your day with a smile." Then he sat down and welcomed his sidekick, Craig Shoemaker, who basically did an opening monologue while Magic sat there and laughed.
This just might work. But Johnson and Shoemaker will have to display more chemistry together to pull it off.
TV situations of this sort are kind of like mail-order weddings, in which the two people have barely met. The marriage may turn out to be great or a total disaster.
And Johnson seemed similarly awkward with his band leader, Sheila E. Their banter was strikingly awkward. This was the best they could manage:
"I'm so happy to be here," Sheila E. said.
"And that dress is great, too," Johnson said.
Johnson may be the nicest, friendliest guy in the world, but chemistry can sometimes take a while to develop. Leno and his first bandleader, Branford Marsalis, never had it. Leno and Kevin Eubanks do much better.
It took David Letterman and Paul Shaffer a while to get things going way back when. And it took Conan O'Brien and Andy Richter more than a few months to develop a good working relationship.
So maybe there's hope for Magic and his sidekicks.
Of course, Johnson has more to work on than just his chemistry with co-stars. He's also not an experienced interviewer, which showed.
Not that he needs to be Mike Wallace. But he might want to watch Letterman or Rosie O'Donnell a bit.
And - shades of Phil Donahue - Magic and Arnold Schwarzenneger took questions from the audience. Not a bad idea, were it not for the fact that the questions were so terrible:
-"Arnold, what's the heaviest thing you've ever lifted?"
- "Have you ever considered changing your name?"
-"If you were in a movie with Arnold, who would play the good guy?"
The responses were even less interesting.
"The Magic Hour" is trying to attract the viewers who once tuned in to see Arsenio Hall in considerable numbers, something neither "Vibe" nor the canceled "Keenen Ivory Wayans Show" has managed to do. And Johnson is certainly the successor to Hall in terms of gushing over his guests.
It was actually more like a mutual admiration society. Magic gushed all over Arnold. Arnold gushed all over Magic. Magic gushed all over Whitney Houston. Whitney gushed all over Magic.
Houston even sang to Magic as they stared into each other's eyes - recalling the painful moment when Goldie Hawn sang to Chevy Chase during the premiere of the latter's talk show, a program that turned out to be perhaps the worst miscalculation in late-night TV history.
(And what was with Arnold? He told Magic, "You look hot, you sexy devil you!" And he later referred to himself as "an international stud." Oh, and we're supposed to believe that Houston's daughter was doing a Stevie Wonder imitation when she was 6 months old?)
What the show really lacked was spontaneity. Everything looked just too planned, too orchestrated.
Like when Houston announced that she is a "famous vacuumer" and there just happened to be a guy with a vacuum nearby ready to bring it onstage.
"The Magic Hour's" best moments came during a pretaped bit, as Johnson went to Mann's Chinese Theater and asked people to audition as screamers for the next Godzilla movie. It was obviously edited - but Magic was charming and funny.
If "The Magic Hour" can capture more of that, it might work.