Monday, June 07, 2010

The Best Talk Show Not on TV

Last week, I watched Ellen DeGeneres chat up Scottish actor Gerard "Call Me Gerry" Butler (the show was a re-run; the film Butler was hawking, "The Bounty Hunter," has long since slunk out of theaters on a tide of bad reviews). The surprisingly charming Butler was recounting a recent trip to Iceland, in which he and a pal camped out atop a glacier in the glow of the Northern Lights. It sounded amazing and I couldn't wait to hear more. But DeGeneres was only interested in whether Butler was or wasn't dating then co-star Jennifer Aniston. So after a few polite "uh-huhs" she cut off all the nattering about Iceland and interjected, "So, were there any women there?" I flipped the channel to "Jeopardy."

DeGeneres, like most hosts of celeb talk shows, is a comedian. She has no formal training in reporting or interviewing, which is an actual skill. And it shows. (Craig Ferguson is the rare exception in this stilted format and has a Peabody to prove it.)

I was reminded of this on Friday, at The Interview Show, a little local gem hosted by Mark Bazer, a journalist and syndicated columnist. On the first Friday of every month, Bazer gathers an eclectic line-up of Chicagoans (or folks with Chicago ties)--musicians, actors, designers, chefs, athletes, authors, politicians--and puts on the finest not-quite-late-night talk show around. Maybe it's because he has weeks, not hours of advance notice, but Bazer always comes uber-prepared. He's read the book, seen the play, eaten at the restaurant. And done a boatload of background research that goes beyond "look at this goofy photo of you when you were in high school." He has a list of questions, but those are just starting points; he gives the conversation room to breathe, lets it take its natural twists and turns, and, gasp, follows up on interesting revelations.

His most recent show included the god of Chicago chefs, Charlie Trotter; actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts; and former Cubs player-turned-author Doug Glanville. Where his network (and cable) brethren might fawn over such illustrious subjects, Bazer pulled no punches. Trotter was once named the second-meanest person in Chicago--with Michael Jordan, the former #1 no longer in town, did that elevate Trotter to top meanie?

The results were often meandering, but largely enlightening. Who knew that Trotter, Chicago's king of fine dining, was once an avid beer can collector? Glanville illuminated what really goes in those infamous baseball pile-ups: not much. No one wants to risk an injury by punching someone else.

Glanville, in particular, sparkled under Bazer's guidance. The two held one of the most measured, reasonable discussions I've heard on the subject of steroids. Free of the hyperbole and rhetoric that's the bread and butter of sports talk radio, Glanville explained the mindset of his juiced-up counterparts (clearly clean himself, Glanville looked slight as a cyclist), driven largely by fear--the daily fear that big league players have of losing their job, not just to the young hotshot in the minors but to the guy next to them on the bench. And Bazer listened.

It made me wonder, what if all talk shows were hosted by people skilled in the art of interviewing? And why aren't they?


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