Magic Johnson: No Magic in Late Night Show
Nice-guy talk-show hosts Johnson and Howie Mandel grin and bore us
It was a windbreaking—if not groundbreaking—moment in television history: Three people passed gas into microphones as Howard Stern’s band, the Losers, played ”Wipeout” on Magic Johnson’s late-night talk show, The Magic Hour (syndicated, check local listings). Believe it or not, it felt like a breath of fresh air, compared to the painfully bland proceedings previously seen on Magic.
What hath Rosie O’Donnell wrought? Ever since Newsweek dubbed her ”the Queen of Nice,” she has been credited with ushering in a benign tone to a talk-show world dominated by the unlikable likes of Jerry Springer. But O’Donnell didn’t succeed because she’s nice (just ask Donny Osmond and Whitney Houston, recipients of her on-air ire). She succeeded because she’s funny, a lesson lost on Johnson, who seems more interested in smiling and seeming like a good guy than in doing anything remotely entertaining.
The same holds true for Howie Mandel, whose new daytime talker, The Howie Mandel Show (syndicated, check local listings), debuted a few weeks after Magic. The prop comic and St. Elsewhere vet can’t seem to decide if he wants to be Ed Sullivan, Leeza Gibbons, or Merv Griffin, as his program desperately mixes novelty acts (watermelon-seed spitters) and parenting advice (potty-training tips) with toothless celebrity chat.
Neither Mandel nor Johnson dares to discuss anything more controversial than the weather in L.A. They apparently think the words el Niño are inherently hilarious. Magic occasionally turns over the monologue to stand-up comic Steve White, who at least seems willing to dirty his hands with political material, unlike the retired NBA superstar.
Both hosts also kiss up to their guests incessantly (Johnson to Kenny G: ”You are so awesome, so cool, so smooth”; Mandel on Clint Black: ”He’s a friend, a fabulous singer, and a fabulous guy”). Mandel seems obsessed with telling people how good they smell—all those years of blowing up surgical gloves with his nose must’ve heightened that particular sense.
In such an edge-free environment, it’s nearly impossible to get stars to say anything interesting. Kelsey Grammer, Veronica Webb, and Little Richard all recently appeared on both shows and were allowed to repeat the same boring stories. Even sewer-mouthed rebel Dennis Miller was reduced to telling airplane jokes and referring to the toilet as ”the loo” on Howie.
Perhaps Mandel and Johnson think they’re taking a lesson from Jay Leno, who shamelessly sucks up to his celebrity guests — and who has surpassed sourpuss David Letterman in the late-night ratings. If so, they’re missing the point. Leno didn’t gain momentum by being a nice guy; he did it by exploiting the O.J. Simpson case for cheap yuks (remember the Dancing Itos?).
Magic and Howie have taken on a slightly meaner tone recently, maybe because they’ve been struggling in the ratings. Johnson attempted to counterattack Stern (who has slammed Magic repeatedly on his radio show), but he’s not nearly as quick with his wits on a talk show as he was with his feet on a basketball court. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my name was mentioned derisively on an episode of Howie by Veronica’s Closet star Dan Cortese (whom I’ve slammed repeatedly in EW). After I began work on this article, I was asked to participate in the segment and declined, but I assure you, this incident in no way affected my opinion of Howie. I still think it stinks.