The ex tough guy of the tabloids livens up summer TV, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
June 06, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Gossip AJ Benza gets macho on E!

Did you think Must See TV ended when rerun season began? Check out the E! channel’s newest offering: ”AJ After Hours” (Thursdays, 10 p.m.) starring AJ Benza, the man who put macho into the gossip column trade — and tell me whether you think Must See is sleeping.

When he wrote for the New York Daily News, Benza’s items were big on attitude, if short on scoops. Benza’s trick was to make you believe he was a scrapper, a New York street kid who fought for every tidbit about Barbra Streisand or David Schwimmer, as opposed to all those other pantywaist columnists who let the items come to them. It was bull image making, but it distinguished him from the pack: His dark good looks got him on E!’s gossip roundup show in the mid ’90s, and now, those attributes plus an increase in his leather jacket allowance has snagged him his own show. (His memoir, ”Fame, Ain’t It a Bitch,” was scooped up by Talk Miramax books, and may be made into a feature film.)

Premiering last week, the first edition of ”AJ After Hours” was 60 minutes of manliness. His greeting to Victoria’s Secret model Frederique, who gave birth 11 months ago? ”Looka dat — someone’s mutha!” (AJ pronounced himself jealous of the baby who breastfeeds from such a babe.) Another guest, former New Kids on the Block member Joey McIntyre, was met with ”C’mon ya big lug” hugs and playful punches to the solar plexus. (Subtext: You gotta be in shape to be interviewed by AJ!)

With McIntyre and the night’s biggest name, ”A Knight’s Tale”’s Heath Ledger, Benza’s interviewing style consists of a lot of ”You look great!”s and variations on, ”Gee, it must be great to be famous.” (Actually, McIntyre got off a good line: When Benza asked the inevitable question about a New Kids reunion tour — well, inevitable in AJ Benza’s universe — McIntyre said, ”You know how the Eagles called their reunion tour ‘When Hell Freezes Over’? I always wanted to call ours ‘Worse Things Have Happened.”’ Yo, I LOVE this guy!)

”AJ After Hours,” set in various locations including a Manhattan loft and a nightclub, is, as its name suggests, half Benza and half Hugh Hefner (the bunny man used to call his ’60s TV show ”Playboy After Dark”). It’s retro sexist, it’s contempo goofy, it’s hairier than ”The Man Show.” And on summer Thursdays, which would you rather watch, this or an ”ER” rerun?