PBS talkshow host Tavis Smiley believes that it’s his ability to ease guests — many of them reclusive celebrities and high-profile political figures not easily given over to self-revelation — into unexpurgated, candid conversation that has propelled him to become a latenight viewing staple.
“I love meeting people,” he says. “There’s nothing quite like having someone on your show that you admire, revere and adore and then actually getting to excavate a conversation with them on air.”
It’s Smiley’s casual yet insightful hosting approach, to which he refers as “organic conversation,” that he credits for the success of his eponymous latenight chatfest as it hits its 1,000th episode.
Where other hosts conduct “structured, scripted interviews,” relying on blue cards with questions prepped by show producers to navigate discussions, Smiley conducts his one-on-ones with an open-minded nonchalance, often letting his guests — an eclectic collection that has included everyone from poet Maya Angelou to Israeli hip-hop artist Miri Ben-Ari — lead the way.
Growing up poor in rural Indiana, Smiley himself talked his way into several early career-launching positions, including a hard-fought college internship with Tom Bradley, the first (and to date only) African-American mayor of Los Angeles. He later convinced an AM radio station to broadcast a 60-second show called “The Smiley Report,” a forum for bare-bones black community issues.
In 1996, after additional hosting stints on FM, cable TV and local L.A. affiliate KABC, Smiley scored his own show on BET called “BET Tonight With Tavis Smiley,” on which Bill Clinton famously gave his first post-Monica Lewinsky interview. In 2004, Smiley landed on PBS.
“I try not to conduct interviews,” explains Smiley of his natural and intuitive style, for which he prepares by doing extensive background exploration. “Rather, I do my research on the guest and then find one lead question to get the conversation started.”
More important than talking to guests, asserts Smiley, is listening to them.
“Nine times out of 10, if you follow the guest by listening generously, then you find their sweet spot,” he points out. “There’s a flow to it, and they start to open up because you’re not forcing them to answer questions.”
Adds exec producer Neal Kendall, “On many of the other latenight shows, the interviews seem to be canned and predictable. Conversely, we don’t do pre-interviews for our guests. We wanted to create a different kind of show that’s a really unique blend of current events, pop culture and entertainment.”
Yet while Smiley has most definitely minted his own unique hosting style, he often looks to other accomplished broadcast journalists for inspiration,
including Diane Sawyer, Bob Costas and fellow PBS latenight roundtable beacon Charlie Rose.
“Charlie Rose is about as prepared as you can be for his conversations,” Smiley praises. “What I
take from Charlie Rose is what it means to be prepared.”
While certain critics might consider Rose Smiley’s competition in the latenight ratings, the self-made host doesn’t see it that way.
“If you live by the numbers, you die by the numbers,” notes Smiley, prone to such aphoristic slogans. “For starters, Charlie has been on the air for a lot longer than I have. He passed 1,000 shows a long time ago. But for five years, our show has had nothing but steady growth in every demographic arena.
“I look very different than most people on television who do what I do. It takes a long time to be appreciated when you are organically different. To come from relative obscurity and have the masses turned on by that, that’s even more exciting.”
As for what lies ahead, Smiley, who has never signed a multiyear deal with any network throughout his career, remains philosophically reflective.
“I’ve never planned my life out more than one year at a time,” he informs. “Every year I spend a good part of my birthday establishing goals I’ve completed and then thinking about the goals I want to accomplish in the year to come. I just figure that I’ve been blessed with another year and on that day I like to sit back and assess how I’m living my life and how to adjust to certain changes. I never know what the plan for next year is until then. All I know is that I want to get the most that I can out of my life.”
What: “Tavis Smiley” 1,000th episode
When: Check local listings, PBS
Who: Memorable guests from prior shows