Stubbly Daly Goes Nightly

Before NBC yanked the Jan. 8 debut of his new late-night show, Last Call , in a last-minute, fixed-the-next-day contract dispute, before the mega-success of his MTV countdown show, Total Request Live , before his celebrity girlfriends and celebrity-girlfriend breakups, Carson Daly was a guy with nice teeth and a future. Now, with his rabid MTV following, Mr. Daly is a generational mouthpiece, and because of this, NBC has made a substantial investment in him, giving the stubble-cheeked Southern Californian a place in its venerable late-night franchise. Though it’s the sleepy 1:35 a.m. place, it’s clear that the network has big plans for Mr. Daly.

How did Mr. Daly get here? There’s nothing immediately striking about the guy. Blue-eyed, with a waxy, Paul Reubens-like crew cut, Mr. Daly is telegenic but not what you’d call double-take handsome. He can be funny, but he isn’t especially funny, and he’s certainly not a comic. On air, he can be bright, but he doesn’t come off as some genius. He’s enthusiastic but not ebullient, polished but not slick. His interviewing technique, though congenial, is not deft. He kicked off his first Last Call episode by telling guest Alicia Keys, “I think you’re kind of hot.”

No, Mr. Daly, who is 28, made himself a television commodity not by being singular or peculiar, but by being professionally ordinary-a happy traveler navigating a shiny, buff-celebrity universe. Initially, he doesn’t bowl anyone over. This he knows. “I don’t have the kind of personality where I just pop ,” Mr. Daly said the other day.

But Mr. Daly doesn’t have the kind of personality that easily offends, either, and this is why he has prospered in the most amorphous, vanilla of show-business roles: the host. The person Mr. Daly gets compared with most often is not David Letterman or Conan O’Brien, but Dick Clark-and not just because both are affable men who helped sell a lot of records and look like they could run a barber shop. Like Mr. Clark, Mr. Daly is a proximity celebrity-he’s famous for being around the famous. Whether hosting TRL or dating the actresses Jennifer Love Hewitt or Tara Reid, he’s enviably good at being there .

But now Mr. Daly gets his own show, his own chunk of time, on a broadcast network, NBC no less, and he’s expected to be something more than there. A talk show is the ultimate pulpit of the video age; more than a platform to lob softballs to movie stars, it’s a chance to evolve into as close to a fully formed personality as pop culture allows. And so several nights a week from Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Center, Carson Daly, an unlikely network phenom, has an opportunity to impress upon an audience his own worldview-if he’s got one.

TOTAL REQUEST LIVE is, in terms of ratings and revenue, one of the most popular shows in the history of MTV. Shot weekday afternoons in a fishbowl studio two stories above Broadway and 45th Street, the program is essentially an unpaid commercial: 90 minutes of unabashed promotion for pop music, film, television and, of course, MTV itself. TRL’s raison d’être is a countdown of the most requested videos, and in deference to the show’s million-or-so mostly female viewers, it plays out as a hyper-democratic, musical ice-cream social. If the kids want reams of ‘NSYNC videos, they get ‘em.

Mr. Daly, who has hosted the show since 1998, has positioned himself as a neutral party amid TRL’ s hormonal stew. Though he favors hip-hop and harder rock, he hasn’t imposed those preferences on his audience’s higher-fructose tastes.

“I have used my bartender analogy a thousand times,” Mr. Daly said. On TRL , he said, “I’m just a bartender. You want a Cosmopolitan? I don’t want a Cosmopolitan, but I’ll serve it to you with a smile. And I hope you’ll give me a nice tip.”

Of course, Mr. Daly was brought to MTV to be something more than a Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys delivery device. The network had wanted on-air personalities who were better versed in music, and Mr. Daly, a Santa Monica native who had become a star on KROQ, the influential Los Angeles radio station, seemed to fit the bill: He knew his bands, he was young, and he was cute and articulate enough to put on TV.

But from his start on the network, Mr. Daly seemed to cut a different kind of path. Physically, he was a little cleaner around the edges than MTV was used to. There was that retro haircut, and he wore baseball caps backwards and collared shirts over baggy jeans. (His lone nod to generational flair was a single, loop earring.) Performance-wise, his style was as low-key as his clothes; unlike some of his MTV predecessors, he seldom bounced around like a Mazda dealer. He also seemed geographically rootless: Despite the occasional Valley-ism in his syntax-”totally” is one that pops up-it was tough to tell where Mr. Daly was from, unless he said so himself.

It was easy think that Mr. Daly was MTV’s version of the likable square-a purposefully middle-of-the road personality designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. But David Sirulnick, MTV’s executive vice president of news and production, claims that Mr. Daly represents a new breed of 21st-century television personality: the progeny of a cable television–multiplex cinema–Internet generation to which standard segregations of taste-fashion-style no longer apply.

“He is a young man who has grown up with equal parts rap and rock,” Mr. Sirulnick said. “That’s not a racial thing. It’s not an urban-versus-suburban thing. It’s just there. Most of his peers and most young people under the age of, say, 30 now, that’s the way they grew up.” Referring to the divergent tastes of MTV’s audience-the network sees its viewership as an anti-monolith, capable of buying Limp Bizkit as well as Mandy Moore albums-Mr. Sirulnick said: “Carson’s smack in the middle of that. He’s very good at truly being that everyday guy.”

As his profile grew, Mr. Daly retained a kind of dual citizenship, a foot in both celebrity and regular Joe-ness. He was the guy who looked like he worked at a Barnes & Noble who hung out with Kid Rock and joked around with Madonna. He was a guy who’d talk about once considering the priesthood and also painted his fingernails black. He bemoaned his ineptitude with women, but he dated Ms. Love Hewitt and Ms. Reid (he and Ms. Reid, who were engaged to be married, broke it off last year).

But what exactly was Carson Daly as a television entity? The résumé said he was a D.J. who became a V.J. who became a countdown host, but within a year or so on the network, it felt like he was getting paid simply for being, well, Carson Daly. He wasn’t an ex-comic, an ex-model or an ex-jock; he hadn’t toiled in stand-up clubs or writers’ rooms or made a bunch of crappy movies. He introduced videos and pop acts, but he mostly became well known for being himself.

Mr. Daly saw this, too. “My whole career has really been based around not necessarily what I do, but who I am-just kind of as a person, ” he said.

And Carson Daly, the person, of course, is what NBC bought. The network’s idea, more than anything, is to import Mr. Daly’s brand-name recognition and parlay it into the late-night lineup, to satisfy its young late-night audience and the advertisers who sell to them. Needless to say, NBC isn’t chasing an over-40 crowd with Mr. Daly’s hiring. Mr. Daly is the best the network has had to offer in the 1:35 a.m. slot since Bob Costas stopped doing Later, and his chirpy Later successor, Greg Kinnear, quit to make movies.

But Mr. Daly wants to be more than a decent stand-in; he’s eager to show he can do more than music (Mr. Daly also hosts a national weekday morning radio show). He’s quite aware of the MTV’s industry rep as a professional guillotine (“I heard the term ‘career suicide’ for the first year after I got to MTV,” he said.) And yet he knows he cannot simply trade up for fame on a bigger network. He was rather cautious with his first post-MTV step; he repeatedly turned down sitcom and film roles, and prior to his deal with NBC, he had a development deal with CBS that, while resulting in a few special-event hosting opportunities (like a beauty pageant and a David Copperfield special), didn’t evolve into a fitting long-term project. “I don’t think it was a perfect fit,” Mr. Daly said of CBS.

The NBC show is more Mr. Daly’s style-casual, unassuming, a little unformed. Though the network has a long tradition of late-night talent, there has been no effort to wedge the new hire behind a desk or dress him in a double-breasted suit.

“When you go to NBC you start feeling like, ‘Uh-oh, O.K.-do we have to put the jacket on him, do we have to put a buttoned-down shirt on him?’” said David Friedman, one of Last Call ‘s executive producers. “In our test shows we literally dressed him down in a lot of ways to see if we got that note from the West Coast that says, ‘Hey, you guys need to fine-tune his look.’” Mr. Friedman said he and his fellow producers-who also include Lisa Leingang and Guy Oseary-got “not a word” from NBC’s management.

In its current form, Last Call begins with a quick montage of nighttime Manhattan-there’s a shot of a woman smoking, as if to hint that things might get a little frisky-and when the lights come up, Mr. Daly is in 8H, also the home of Saturday Night Live , sitting beside his guest in a pair of thick-armed club chairs that appear stolen from Restoration Hardware. There’s a studio audience, but they’re not the kind of screaming Mimis who show up for TRL . There’s no monologue, either. Mr. Daly begins with a quick joke and leaps right into talking to his guest.

On week one, Last Call ‘s guests-Ms. Keys, Gwyneth Paltrow and notorious hip-hop producer Suge Knight, fresh from the big house-were solid, three bookings that Jay Leno or Mr. Letterman would be happy to get. And Mr. Daly sure seemed to be happy. Though he tried to depart from the standard Q. and A. track-he nudged Ms. Paltrow about her naughty-girl rep, and asked Ms. Keys, who was seated at a piano, to play something that sounded “horny”-he made it clear that he’s going to be Carson, the Friendly Host. Mr. Knight’s two-night interrogation yielded some red meat but wasn’t exactly 60 Minutes ; Mr. Daly began by asking the convicted felon if he was “scared” in prison. (Imagine Ed Bradley kicking off with that one.)

And though the Last Call Carson Daly is a more mature version than the MTV one, there are, indeed, some flashes of the TRL persona. Mr. Daly bobbed his head up and down like a sideman when Ms. Keys worked her fingers up and down the piano, and when he asked Ms. Paltrow, “Did you ever get busted for drinking and smoking chronic?” it was a certifiable squirm-in-your-seat moment. (Responded Ms. Paltrow, rather savvily: “What’s chronic ?”)

Of course, it’s too early to judge what Last Call will eventually become. Bob Costas is quick to remind people that the critically praised Later didn’t find its legs until at least six months into its run. “By definition, if a show like this is going to be successful, it doesn’t come out and overwhelm you all at once,” Mr. Costas said. Mr. Daly and Mr. Friedman refuse to set a timetable for when the show will be grooving; both speak of wanting Last Call ‘s evolution to be “organic,” and Mr. Daly noted that he turned down oodles of press prior to launch.

All of which, of course, makes the Jan. 8 mishegoss with the Last Call ‘s debut rather ironic. Concerned over NBC’s intention to rebroadcast episodes of Last Call on other channels, Mr. Daly had held out signing a contract up until the night his show was set to air. When the contract wasn’t signed at 1:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Jan. 8, NBC went to a repeat of SCTV instead. The contract squawk was settled the next afternoon (Mr. Daly signed, and NBC retained its rebroadcasting right), but any hope of a stealthy word-of-mouth rise for Last Call was history. Said Mr. Daly: “So much for flying under the radar.”

But big whoop-it had to happen sometime; Mr. Daly doesn’t intend to be at MTV forever. Asked how long he sees himself staying at the music network, he said: “Hopefully 18 months.” Did he see himself doing anything with MTV after that? “I would imagine so,” Mr. Daly said. “They are such family to me. Maybe I’ll do some specials.”

But Mr. Daly now sees an opportunity to be something else. In the wee small hours of late-night television, he has a chance to prove himself beyond the ephemera of teen trend making, to become something more than the voice who launched a thousand J. Lo videos. He said he wanted to have guests on from politics and public service; he enthused about Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer, whom he called “someone I’m dying to have on the show.”

And though he doesn’t come out directly and say so, thus begins a generational spokesperson’s quest be taken seriously, to repackage his product-himself-for a second, mass distribution. And you get the feeling it’s still a little unreal to him.

“I never planned to do any of this,” Mr. Daly said. “I just have to preface with that. I’m not, like, somebody who auditioned for this. I never wanted to be famous, or an actor, or none of that.”

Said Carson Daly: ” I wanted to play professional golf.”