The basketball arena and the latenight arena have precious little in common, as a kindly fellow named Earvin (Magic) Johnson quickly discovered this week. The freewheeling spontaneity and confidence he exhibited on the hardwood gives way in “The Magic Hour” to stiff calculation and inflexibility masquerading as improv. Yes, we’re talking about only his first three nights at a new job, but it’s clear that the Magic man has finally found a domain he likely won’t be able to dominate.
Roughly as hip as a lounge act in Laughlin, Nev., “The Magic Hour” isn’t merely “Tonight Show” lite; it’s “Vibe” lite. In watering itself down to appeal to mainstream white folks, the show plays a little bit like celebrity night at the Elks Lodge. Everything is just a tad too upbeat and a lot cornball. And at any given moment, you never know who might break into song, always an unsettling prospect.
“We’re havin’ fun!” Magic intoned repeatedly on Monday night. “You havin’ fun? We’re havin’ fun! How ’bout you, Sheila E.? You havin’ fun?” Bandleader Sheila E. (the “E.” stands for “Excited”): “I am havin’ so much fun!” Well, it’s unanimous then.
What the wit-challenged Johnson, who also co-executive produces, did well during his first three nights in the host’s chair was play his role of Hollywood fawnmeister to perfection. He displayed that trademark wide smile, he chuckled at all the right moments, and he showed that he could admire and flatter with the best of them. It’s obvious that the stars really do love this guy. The problem is, one can’t escape the feeling that Magic isn’t a real talkshow host; he just plays one on TV.
Monday night found an understandably jittery Johnson strutting out to the tuneful strains of the “Are You Ready for Magic?” theme song. He was soon joined by his cloying sidekick, comedian Craig Shoemaker, whose job is evidently to be so dreadfully flat as a banter backboard that the host shines by comparison.
The first-night guests, carefully chosen for their ability to build the host into the second coming of Arsenio, were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Whitney Houston. Schwarzenegger, with no project to promote, opted to sell himself. Houston, the very essence of perkiness, serenaded Magic. But there didn’t appear to be a wet eye in the house.
Things improved somewhat on Tuesday with an uncharacteristically relaxed Harrison Ford, a serenading Tommy Davidson (the songs finally stopped on Wednesday) and Peta Wilson of the USA Network series “La Femme Nikita.” As Wilson entered, the two embraced like long-separated lovers. Magic’s wife, Cookie, could not have been pleased.
Arsenio himself appeared on Wednesday, decked out in Laker warm-ups. “You are the only reason I’m here,” Magic proclaimed to his good friend. Thanks a lot, Arsenio. Michael Douglas also joined Magic in a contrived bit of business shooting hoops in a gym.
While a certain comfort level had set in on “The Magic Hour” by midweek, its obviously heavy scripting (even the questions from the studio audience are planned) left little room for potential fireworks. Rather than evoking any sense of danger, you suspected that at any moment rampant blandness could erupt.
The tone set by the lovely Sheila E. and her tight band is rollicking. And Magic is nothing if not a fun guy to spend time with. But an interviewer he is not. He disarms folks with his charisma and then doesn’t know where to take it. Of course, this shouldn’t be such a huge surprise. Johnson always was a better assist man than a shooter.