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Magic Johnson, Playing Defense

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 16, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Magic "I'm not going to change late-night," the new talk host says. (Michael Caulfield/Reuters)
HOLLYWOOD—It's impossible not to like Earvin "Magic" Johnson. That dazzling smile. That natural grace. That noble manner. That generous spirit. The courage in the face of HIV.

But after only a week on the air, the signs around "The Magic Hour" – Johnson's heavily pumped, celebrity-stuffed "60 smiles an hour" foray into television entertainment – are distinctly unfriendly. With strong numbers its first night out, the Fox-produced syndicated show immediately dropped to a mediocre rating for the rest of the week, averaging 3.5 million viewers, as opposed to 5 million for CBS's David Letterman and nearly 9 million for NBC's Jay Leno.

Reviews, even from those with evident affection for the former basketball superstar, were scathing.

On Friday, the Los Angeles Times called Johnson "totally unqualified" to host a talk show, adding that he was not only "unclever, unwitty and often visibly uncomfortable in this venue but also earns the booby-prize for attaining no performance or interviewing skills in his long preparation for going against network heavies Jay Leno and David Letterman."


Earlier that week the Hollywood Reporter noted, "The hard reality is that Magic Johnson, known for his warmth, sincerity and social conscience, was unable to become Magic Johnson, dominant host and late-night presence. . . . He kept getting eclipsed by his guests and by sidekick Craig Shoemaker."

And this newspaper offered, "We don't really need another late-night talk show even if it were great, which 'Magic Hour' definitely isn't." The Post added, " 'The Magic Hour' will have to get much, much better if it's going to last, and if Johnson really is going to end viewers' days with a smile and not just a druggy, numbed-out stare."

Adding insult to injury, radio raunch king Howard Stern has taken to playing recorded bits from "The Magic Hour" on his show, and mocking it as a new "Amos 'n' Andy."

After weeks of softball promotion on daytime talk shows, Johnson's team is going directly into a defensive crouch. "He's improving every day," protests executive producer Lon Rosen. "People are excited to do the show. They're excited to meet Earvin – hey, they're going to be nice. Harrison Ford came backstage after the show and said, 'I had a good time; I felt comfortable. I'll come back.' That's really great."

Publicist Stacy Luchs grumbles: "It's really unfair to judge the show after just a few days."

Still, Johnson himself ("Earvin" to those who know him, "Magic" to everybody else) looks distinctly unruffled, relaxing after his taping on Thursday. "I was uneasy the first night. I was nervous Tuesday, better Wednesday. I felt really good today," he explains, his polka-dot tie loosened, his cuffs open in an office overflowing with balloons and fruit baskets from well-wishers. "I'm getting into the flow. I'm making more suggestions."

And the critics? "I don't worry about that," he says. "History's not on our side – that's fine. I'm not going to change late-night. But I'm gonna make a run for it anyway."

A Pitched Battle

Late-night television is a dogfight. Johnson has chosen to pit himself against the two veterans in the arena, Leno and Letterman. His show is pitched to a broad audience, booking A-list guests – besides Ahnold and Harrison last week, Whitney Houston, Michael Douglas, Gloria Estefan, Gillian Anderson and Samuel L. Jackson. The banter is celebrity to celebrity, with the guests asking Johnson as many questions as he asks them, and the audience participating with even more obsequious queries. (To Schwarzenegger: "How do you remain such a regular guy?") Johnson skips a monologue, playing the affable straight man to sidekick Shoemaker's one-liners.

He tries where others have very conspicuously – and very recently – failed. The latest to get the ax is "Vibe," a show wooing a hip, African American audience. It was launched last August, switched hosts in October and limped all spring toward the inevitable. It was canceled a week ago, the day "The Magic Hour" debuted. Not, perhaps, the best of omens.

"Vibe" host Sinbad and Chris Spencer before him went the way of Keenen Ivory Wayans (his show lasted three months), who went the way of Stephanie Miller (13 weeks), who went the way of Chevy Chase (six weeks), who went the way of Arsenio Hall, an erstwhile success who flamed out after five years when he shot beyond his core urban audience.

The ghosts of late-night shows past haunt the "Magic Hour" production offices on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. Upstairs there are still pictures of Wayans pinned to bulletin boards. "Arsenio" was recorded on the very same soundstage.

But in hallowed Hollywood fashion, executives from Twentieth Television, the division of Fox that owns the show, and "Magic Hour" producers are convinced their venture will be different. "Those shows didn't succeed because they didn't capture enough audience. They weren't inclusive," Rosen says. "What people want at night is not a lot of music. Comedy is important. The guests are important. Music is not so important." (Curiously, "The Magic Hour" had three musical guests in its first week.)

Twentieth Television President Rick Jacobson believes in Johnson. "People think he can't talk. He's just a jock. You have to be a comedian. But Keenen was a great stand-up comic, and his show didn't work," he says, prowling the set after Monday's taping. "What we loved about Earvin was his warmth. He's an American icon. What makes shows successful is the host's likability. If he can come out and be himself, if the public accepts him, we'll be here for a long time." Then his gaze wanders to the middle distance and he shuffles off – "Does anyone have a cell phone?"

The big question, of course, is why an American superstar who has already conquered the world of basketball, successfully moved into the business world, who doesn't need the money, who courageously announced his HIV infection and has kept the deadly disease at bay, would set foot in such treacherous terrain.

Who needs the aggravation?

At the question, the 38-year-old mogul settles his large frame way back in his chair and smiles from ear to ear. "That's what I've been about, though," he says. "Not doing what everybody else does. Not doing the easy thing. Not taking the easy way out. I've been about that my whole life." His eyes twinkle in a youthful, unlined face. Johnson is undergoing drug therapy against HIV and works out for two hours every day, and is the absolute image of vibrant health. He oozes – no, he could never ooze – he emanates charm, naturally. "Challenges – I love challenges. I love when people say you can't do it. 'Okay – well then, let's go.' You don't worry about things like" – he pauses – "the goodwill and all of that. . . . If the show gets canceled tomorrow, my life is not going to change. I'm going to continue on. There will be other challenges, and other things to do."

He goes on. "I'm a worker. That's who I am. That's what I am. I was working every single day – sometimes six days a week, with my companies. To work five days a week for another 15 years, whatever it is, I can look forward to that." A pause. "If this doesn't work, I'm going to be working, doing something else every day because that's what's in me. My dad instilled that in me. I'm not going to change."

Johnson's vast accomplishments to date argue even more persuasively than he does. He grew up in a modest home in Lansing, Mich., and rose to fame during a dazzling, 13-year career in the NBA, leading the L.A. Lakers to five championships and winning three Most Valued Player awards.

He left the Lakers in 1991 after testing positive for HIV, and launched the Magic Johnson Foundation to raise money for AIDS research. Then he went into business, opening a chain of movie theaters in under-served, inner-city neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston and Detroit (there are two planned for the Washington area) and buying part ownership of the Lakers. As part of plans to develop urban shopping centers – what he calls "giving back to the community" – he has joint ventures with Starbucks and T.G.I. Friday's restaurants.

By all accounts, Johnson has devoted the same energies to transforming himself into a talk show host, undergoing months of speech and interview training from Hollywood's top coaches, including help from Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall. The result has no doubt contributed to his slow-paced, deliberate delivery onscreen. But it's also part of what critics are pointing to as a stiff, rehearsed and – so far – not terribly entertaining posture.

As the Hollywood Reporter put it: "Magic (the spontaneous, quick-witted, sparkling kind) is what is needed if 'The Magic Hour' . . . is to stay alive."

But the true test lies ahead. "I want to see this show in about four weeks, when he's shot through all his A-list guests, when he's listened to that idiot comedian every night for a month and when he is starting to ask himself why he started to do this show in first place. That's when this show is going to be fun to watch," cracks Aaron Barnhart, TV critic at the Kansas City Star and scientific interpreter of late night television in his Internet magazine, Late Show News.

He adds, "Magic has got train-wreck potential. It's that bad."

Full-Court Press

Last Wednesday night, Earvin Johnson was lying in bed with his wife, Cookie, pondering his first three days as a talk show host. He had just finished watching the third telecast, with Douglas, Hall and Estefan; he'd read the early reviews. He was not satisfied.

The next day he went to play basketball at UCLA, working out some interview questions on the court. He decided not to listen to his producers, not to go down a list of prepared questions. He'd just do what felt natural.

The telecast that night went much better, from the banter with Samuel Jackson to an actual ad-lib with Suzanne Somers to an animated interview with young Laker Kobe Bryant. It was far from perfect – more inane question from the audience (to Somers: "Is your personal favorite the Thighmaster or Buttmaster?") and Kenny G touting President Clinton's saxophone abilities, but Johnson was visibly less cardboard than earlier in the week.

Can he improve fast enough to make a difference? That remains to be seen.

Afterward, he breathes deep in his office, flush with the accolades of his staff as he walked off the set: "Great show, Earvin!" "Awesome!" "Best show yet!" Everyone here desperately longs for success; their jobs are riding on the grade of Johnson's learning curve. But nobody wants it as much as Earvin Johnson himself. "I'm not quite relaxed all the way yet," he admits. "I was less rehearsed today. I let it flow." He pauses. "And that's what I'm gonna do from now on."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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