Time to unplug TV’s celeb chat

Talkshow take a tired turn

IN THE MOST RECENT episode of “Sunday Morning Shootout,” Kevin Costner concluded his interview by thanking the AMC show’s hosts — Variety‘s Peter Bart and producer Peter Guber — for “talking movies, and not talking sound bites, and not knowing what we wanted to talk about as we talked about it. It’s kind of refreshing.”

So it’s official: Celebrity chat has become so slick, packaged and overproduced, even celebrities are sick of it.

Everybody knows the drill: Hit mark. Tell one funny story, which the host pretends he hasn’t been prepped to ask about in advance. Show clip of movie. Leave to wild applause.

This is clearly the aspect of “The Tonight Show” that — days short of his 15th anniversary — still interests Jay Leno the least, and David Letterman appears far more engaged when an unusual suspect occupies the seat across from him — say, a political candidate like Rudy Giuliani, who dropped in Monday night. Although Letterman does some of his best desk work during those moments, he also betrayed the canned nature of the segments — producing a picture of the former New York mayor feeding a calf in Iowa before Giuliani finished telling the story. For a second, it seemed as if the Amazing Kreskin had sat in and foreseen the future.

Costner isn’t the only one obviously tired of this routine, and a few programs are attempting to break the pattern, which requires disengaging talkshow appearances from the traditional PR-fueled promotional apparatus and instead exploring whether celebs have anything meaningful to say — knocking them off message, to borrow the political term, long enough to turn them into raw material for less predictable programming.

AS IS FREQUENTLY THE CASE, the British have been ahead of their American brethren in this regard, from hybrid talkshow “The Kumars at No. 42” (which, notably, fizzled before airing when they attempted to create a U.S. version) to “The Graham Norton Show,” which premieres on BBC America in June.

In the premiere of Norton’s latest showcase, Kim Cattrall and Elijah Wood come out together and stay the entire half-hour, without plugging anything at all. Norton, rather, prods them to discuss current events of interest (and ripe for comedy) to him, from Daniel Radcliffe’s nude stage turn in “Equus” to Britney Spears’ apparent meltdown to Ralph Fiennes’ alleged first-class dalliance with a stewardess.

It’s all sassy and frothy, to be sure, but nevertheless that rare program where stars talk about something other than themselves — and don’t look to have been entirely debriefed on where Norton, the merry prankster, is going to lead them.

The U.S. variations on this approach are relatively few, in part because the main practitioners of entertainment talk — particularly in the latenight space — are comics first and broadcasters second. As a consequence, the interviews are often viewed as little more than a necessary evil, as Jon Stewart has confessed — a reliable means to flesh out an hour that can’t reasonably be filled with scripted comedic gems four or five nights a week.

UNLIKE JOHNNY CARSON, moreover, who possessed the supreme confidence to relax and let guests shine or even take over, almost everyone since has been afflicted with a slight case of paranoia, which explains why the breed once called “guest hosts” has become a near-endangered species.

Programs that do allow (or compel) celebrities to stretch past merely peddling their latest book or movie generally abut the political realm, from playing along with Stephen Colbert’s bombastic character on “The Colbert Report” to HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” which situates entertainment figures alongside luminaries from other spheres. Yet while Maher occasionally elicits thought-provoking exchanges, for the most part his guests serve the same purpose as callers in talkradio — providing a handy object for the host to talk at, exhibiting minimal curiosity (in Maher’s case, certainly) regarding opinions beyond his or her own.

Still, once stars begin publicly griping about the banality they endure to sell a movie, it’s a sign the system could use a tune-up. A logical place to start might be to actually try winging a conversation and hope someone says something interesting that — wonder of wonders — isn’t scrawled on a cue card.

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