We all know about Jay and Dave — and now Jimmy. They are the princes of late-night television talk shows. Then we have Charlie Rose, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, and Carson Daly as well.
But don't overlook Tavis Smiley, who follows Rose on most PBS stations (Tavis comes on at midnight where I live in New York City, for example). Smiley offers a terrific counter-point to Rose, who specializes in interviewing CEOs and political and public-policy experts. Smiley veers toward entertainment-industry honchos and authors with a sprinkling of academics.
Smiley must be doing something right: Quietly, he has reached the milestone of his 10th anniversary on the air. I appreciate the quick wit and charm of the other guys, but the only late-night show I DVR every night is Smiley's.
So, what is Smiley doing right, exactly. First, he has a special generosity of spirit and it comes across on television. He doesn't feel a need to dominate the half-hour of talk. Smiley doesn't cut off his guests. He asks thoughtful questions — not merely the obvious ones you'd expect to hear to elicit a lot of yuks.
A recent session with film director David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") showed a poignant back story to the highly popular and acclaimed movie, and how Russell's personal experience had an impact on his vision for the Hollywood cinema.
In the hands of another talk-show host, the conversation might have been reduced to a light-hearted chat about Robert DeNiro's eccentricities or how intimidating it might be to direct Travis Bickel on the set.
Smiley also shows sensitivity to people who have interesting stories to tell but aren't on the Hollywood celebrity roadmap. I particularly enjoy his shows with musicians and singers. He invariably brings out the secrets of their creativity by letting them give expansive answers — the talk version of a guitar solo.
Last year, I learned a lot about the life of a musician from watching his interviews with the likes of Ry Cooder and Don Was, well-established figures in the rock and roll industry but hardly household names on the order of, say, James Taylor (who also happens to be one of Smiley's musical icons, as regular viewers of the show recognize by now. I always smile whenever Smiley unabashedly gushes about JT because he is so comfortable about opening up on a national TV show).
It's too bad Tavis never got the opportunity to interview Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, or Otis Redding — now, those would have been lively convos!
Smiley is not slick. He pauses to collect his thoughts during the live interviews. He cackles and engages in self-deprecating humor. He likes to use such words as "navigate" and "reference" as verbs during his questions.
Not that viewers should care but Smiley is as friendly and enthusiastic in person as he is on the program. I was lucky enough to appear on Smiley's show last October to talk about my book "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution."
It was clear that Smiley had prepared for the interview and he actually listened to my comments. Others would have clung to their cue cards and moved robotically from one question to the next. Smiley even threw a curve ball at me when he asked me whether Madonna's hallowed career might be in danger these days. He made me think on my feet. I appreciated the challenge.
Smiley shows his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King by expressing his concerns about the ongoing tragedy of poverty in the United States, and that has no political stripe at all. Smiley cares about the state of the union and if he occasionally uses his show to act as a forum, we are a better society for his interest.
He concludes each show by telling his audience to "Keep the faith" — and he does that — every night.
Jon Friedman writes the Media Web column for MarketWatch.com. Click here to read his latest column. He is also the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution. Click here to order a copy. Read more reports from Jon Friedman — Click Here Now.
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