Numerous profiles of Carson Daly recount how he once sought out the counsel of the person he believed to be his guru: the man who put the schlock in New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Dick Clark. Daly, it has repeatedly been said, felt a kinship with Clark: They’ve both presided over popular record-request shows — Clark on American Bandstand, Daly on MTV’s Total Request Live — and both have retained a youthfulness beyond their years. (At 28, Daly has the demeanor of a 21-year-old — a sleepy-eyed cherub who looks as if he’d spent the previous night tossing back boilermakers with Ghostface Killah. Clark, at — what? 128? — has the demeanor of a senior citizen who retains the good sense to look mortified any time Danny Bonaduce advances any opinion whatsoever on women during Clark’s direct-from-hell daytime talk show The Other Half.)

Daly wanted advice from Clark on how to sustain a career once he relinquishes the mighty power vouchsafed to mortals who withstand daily studiofuls of teenagers screaming for (in Clark’s case) Fabian or (in Daly’s case) O-Town. While Clark’s wisdom has never been fully revealed, I doubt he recommended Last Call With Carson Daly, a post-Conan half hour of intimate chat. After all, Clark never made his rep as a hardball interviewer; indeed, as he proved during his recent appearance on the Golden Globes, he tosses softballs such as the one lobbed to Russell Crowe: ”Why do you take such unique roles?”

No, Daly is really sticking his neck out with this new show. He cannot assume that his TRL minions will stay up until 1:35 a.m. on a school night. And he cannot be sure that middle-aged night owls in front of their sets aren’t there pining for the return of Tom Snyder or the undimmed golden boy of this time slot, Bob Costas, whose Later stint from 1988 to ’94 was a haven for intelligent palaver and poker-faced fun. (The cleverest of Daly’s guests thus far, Jon Stewart, poked the armchair he’d sunk into and exclaimed, ”This chair still smells like Costas!”)

It would be easy to make fun of Daly, who spent his first two weeks saying things like ”Have you ever thought about running for politics?” (to Stewart) and who introduced a certain singer-songwriter by yelping ”Show your love for Jewel!” Easy to make fun, but wrong. True, if any MTV personality was going to get this gig, it should have been Kurt Loder, whose combination of articulate wryness and vampiric solemnity is more suited to late-night. But right now, Daly’s got the demographics juice, and don’t let that sappy smile fool you — he knows how to squeeze it.

A true son of SoCal, Daly slouches in his interviewer’s seat or bobs his head when standing behind Alicia Keys’ piano at the moment she breaks into a fluid version of Marvin Gaye’s ”Trouble Man.” His affinity for hip-hop serves him well; he’s the only late-night host who can introduce Sean ”P. Diddy” Combs without smirking. He wants no trouble, man, but he’s not afraid to ask producer/record exec/ex-con Suge Knight whether, as was rumored, he hated the murdered rapper Biggie Smalls.

Daly got no direct answer, and for a few moments, watching Knight drive the interview away from his criminal past and deep into some pro forma obviousness about the importance of owning the rights to your songs, I wondered what some hallowed talk-show men of the past — Dick Cavett, say — might have wrung out of a character like Knight. But then I realized, Cavett or Johnny Carson or Jack Paar probably wouldn’t have fared any better than Daly. Cavett always approached the rock stars of his day — and he had the biggies, like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin — with an air of amused disdain: a Yalie slumming with the hippies.

Daly deals with his guests as an equal, which, depending on the talent of the guest, can make him seem presumptuous but more often makes the interview flow easily. He’s not looking to score points for his own cleverness, but neither does he seem dim. It’s the latter flaw that many snobby anti-TRL viewers have their ears alert to, and so far, Daly has proven his skeptics chumps.

My only bit of advice, Carson? Stop mentioning your breakup with Tara Reid to every other guest. Get over it, dude: She’s doing a National Lampoon movie, while you’re making guest Gwyneth Paltrow giggle at your cheekiness, you lucky monkey.

Last Call with Carson Daly
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