I have an admission to make. I do this at great personal risk and I fully expect friends to disown me. Okay, here goes.
I’ve written before about how I’ve been up late some nights. In that vein, I’ve recently caught pieces of Last Call, Carson Daly’s half-hour show, on after Jimmy Fallon’s incarnation of Late Night. And I have to say, it’s not bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. There’s more, and please don’t banish me from the Internet after I say it: underneath it all, I’ve actually always thought that Daly was a cool guy.
There, I said it. Before you renounce me, give me a chance to make my case.
For something like the first decade of his television life, anything Carson Daly did was something I could not willingly participate in. It was TRL, it was bopper fodder. Daly was stuck shilling a bag of vacuous sounds to teens, peddling shlock to get him his start. (Though, he was fortunate enough to date Jennifer Love-Hewitt in there.) I couldn’t cast my lot with someone who might even just be faking enthusiasm over the Backstreet Boys’ “Shape of my Heart” being number one… again.
Unlike Ryan Seacrest though, who I met once, pre-Idol on this horrible game show Click where he uttered the words “totally stoked” to me, Carson’s actually not a hollow poseur. He got his start in radio, good radio. And he still tracks down obscure, interesting acts.
But Last Call started while he was on TRL, so I couldn’t get behind it. I’d seen snippets of the show sporadically, and it was mediocre. Carson has wit (which I obviously like), but the show felt flat and unnatural. The rare times I was up at 1:35am and caught the show weren’t worth the missed hours of sleep.
Then, something changed. It all started last year. Compelled by the pending expansion of NBC’s late night lineup, Daly and his producers were trying to figure how the show would stand out in a schedule where Jay Leno was going to have a 10pm show, followed by Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show, and then Fallon. This was months before the Conan-Leno fiasco, which shook that up a bit.
The show didn’t have the draw of an earlier, bigger name in the late night daypart. So, Daly and co. turned that shortcoming into a strength. They switched formats for a week in mid-2009, deciding to hit the road and use their airtime as a conduit from which to explore and grant wide exposure to up-and-coming talent. Last Call evolved from a studio gig in New York to an eclectic cultural survey based in LA, Carson’s hometown. The outcome was so refreshing that they never went back.
It’s legit now. For instance, the same week that I listened to the gang on Slate’s Culture Gabfest discuss new pop/soul/hip-hop provocateur Janelle Monáe, she was on Last Call. And while he’s not a comedian, Daly’s become an incisive interviewer. He cuts to the chase deftly now, without having to placate to the banal chit-chat and trappings of having a studio audience. On that front, a few weeks ago I saw him have a frank, raw discussion at some chill lounge with Dr. Drew Pinsky, prodding and psychoanalyzing celebrity addiction from Linday Lohan to Tiger Woods.
Last Call is trying to be cool, so it’s still highly stylized and often overbearing in that regard, but tolerable. E.g., the camera will show a standard head-on shot of Daly introducing a segment, and then, as he continues speaking, cut to a rougher, off-balance black-and-white shot of him in profile, where you can see the first camera operator, too.
They sometimes book a bigger name, but I find the mid-level celebrities and niche personalities more intriguing. Carson interviewed some race car driver a couple months ago and I actually watched. (I really have no interest in NASCAR.) Tuesday he followed around Kim-Marie Penn, a foreigner who came to LA and became a security expert for stars. Letterman’s not booking her, but that didn’t make the piece unwatchable. One of the musical guests this week is called Menomena (great name for a band). They may not ever be nationally popular, but the music was solid.
I’ve caught him interviewing surfers, locally known singer/songwriters, and entertainment icons, like Quincy Jones. This week he had better-than-average discussions with Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men, as well as the filmmakers behind Catfish.
Since they don’t feel like they are on TV in the typical talk show environs, guests are more relaxed and forthcoming. There’s an unexpected parallel to Charlie Rose’s program on PBS here, with his quiet set, sparingly furnished with a simple table and black background. Both men provoke candid and insightful replies from their guests.
Carson skeptics, if you’re still unsure, try thinking about this: “Would I like this if Carson Daly weren’t telling me about it?” If more times than not, you would, then maybe you have to reconsider your thoughts on him.
I don’t end up watching every night, but it’s worth checking to see who is on and DVR-ing, or throwing it on sleep timer as you pass out for the night, because you can watch one segment and get something out of it.
The NBC honchos must have noticed this renaissance of Last Call because in August, it was renewed for a 10th season. Yeah, it’s been flying under the radar for that long. They’re over 1100 episodes in now.