It was bad.
I can’t even begin to stress how obscenely painful this edition of Talk Show Graveyard was to write. I tried to put it off. I tried to find ways around it. But there will probably never be a good time to talk about one of the worst talk shows in recent memory, so I might as well get it out of the way sooner rather than later: The Magic Hour, starring Magic Johnson. Yes, THAT Magic Johnson: NBA hall-of-famer, businessman, philanthropist, HIV survivor and activist, and all-around Good Guy. A man so beloved that I feel terrible writing anything negative about him, but here we are.
In case you’re wondering how one of the most beloved athletes in American history managed to host one of the most reviled talk shows… well, here we go. Let’s see if we can learn something useful.
How It Started:
The so-called “urban audience” is famously one of the most under-served groups on late night. After The Arsenio Hall Show ended in 1994, networks and syndication companies scrambled to come up with a replacement. Two shows—Vibe and the Kenan Ivory Wayans Show—competed at first, both starting within a month of each other in 1997 and ending within a month of each other in 1998.
20th Television thought they found the answer: Magic Johnson, apparently.
The Magic Hour was announced as early as August of 1997, and was supposedly waiting for Vibe or the Kenan Ivory Wayans Show to end. When both shows ended, production geared up.
Why Johnson was picked is a mystery to me. In all the research I’ve done for this, I haven’t found one reason for anyone to vouch for this show’s creation during production. It seemingly sprang out of nowhere; there’s no news about contract negotiations or plans. Even beyond that, why Johnson? Sure, he was always a good guest, a respected figure, and a special kind of charismatic, but I haven’t found one quote from an executive or press figure about how Johnson was vetted and/or chosen for this role. He pulled the “I’ve always wanted to be on the other side of the desk” line a few times, but almost every incoming talk show host says that. It’s painfully clear why The Magic Hour ended, but why it began remains a mystery.
The Magic Hour debuted on June 8th, 1998. 20th Television gave it a 13 week commitment.
What It Was Like:
It was bad.
The show followed the familar talk show format to an extent, in the sense that there was an opening segment (not necessarily a monologue), guests, and a musical act. There was no desk; Johnson was fond of joking that they couldn’t find a desk that would fit his legs, but it was all part of an attempt to make things appear more loose and casual. Occasionally, audience members got to ask questions to the stars, which sounds cool until you realize they did that because they couldn’t come up with enough interview questions.
The bandleader was percussionist Sheila E., of Prince collaboration fame. She was the first ever female talk show bandleader, and was one of the few parts of the show who received fairly consistent acclaim, often cited as bringing energy to the place.
Brought in to co-host the show was comedian Craig Shoemaker, a.k.a. The Lovemaster. Shoemaker, fresh off his win of Funniest Male Stand-Up at the American Comedy Awards, was brought in as the comedic foil to Johnson, and was originally less of a sidekick and more of a secondary host. It was Shoemaker who performed the monologue, while Johnson reacted. Comedy credentials aside, Shoemaker was picked in part to appease a more “mainstream” (read: white) audience.
Johnson introduced Shoemaker as the show’s “goofy uncle.” Game six of the 1998 NBA Finals happened the night before the premiere, which Shoemaker called “the worst beating on videotape since Rodney King.” I’d like to remind you that it was a mostly black audience, and the joke elicited the first borderline hostile—or at least shocked—response of the night.
Shoemaker seldom got to tell his own jokes, even though he openly objected to much of the material given to him. The aforementioned Rodney King joke, for example, was not his own creation, and he was not pleased with it. Bad writing and bad chemistry sunk the “secondary host” plan, and on the third episode Shoemaker was removed from the couch during a commercial break and never really sat there again. His role, much to his perpetual frustration, became so fluid and undefined that he “could become the caterer tomorrow…I never even know if I have a job each day.” Years later, he admitted that, at times, he thought the show would be the end of his career.
About three weeks into the show, a frustrated Shoemaker spoke with The Philadelphia Inquirer about the show, calling it an “absolute nightmare,” accused it of stifling his career, and making it abundantly clear he wanted out. He was subsequently fired on July 1st. Comedian and supporting cast member Steve White, best known for having small roles in a few Spike Lee films, was promoted to sidekick for the space of a cup of coffee before they brought in comedian Tommy Davidson to fill the role full time.
The writing staff consisted mainly, if not entirely, of middle aged white men, many of whom were veterans of The Tonight Show—specifically Carson’s Tonight Show, who only knew how to write for a Carson audience. Famed comedy writer Darrell Vickers was one of the high ranking people on staff.
One of Johnson’s more notable problems was diction: he became famous for stumbling over words, which led to many a parody. We’ll get to one of those later.
The show received almost uniformly bad reviews, and we’ll get to that in a bit. But first, let’s see if we can’t find SOMETHING worth watching.
Notable moments include:
– This interview with Mel Gibson before we all hated him, I guess? At about the three minute mark, Gibson tries to teach Johnson how to make Fred Newman-esque mouth noises.
– This interview with Wendy Fitzwilliam, 1998 Miss Universe, if you want to get a sense of how bad it is without someone as charismatic as Mel Gibson to carry the load.
– David Cassidy AKA Keith Partridge performed once, I guess?
– Mike Buffer had a pretty interesting interview. He talks about how he came up with “LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!” and teaches Johnson and Davidson how to do it.
– Okay, I got nothing.
There’s mercifully little video evidence of this show available online, and most of the surviving audio is in various videos of Howard Stern breaking down the show line-by-line. I’m not going to force that on you here, but if you want to sit down and listen to proof of how bad it actually was with Stern and his band of misfits interjecting, knock yourself out. It’s fascinating but exhausting. Now, about Howard Stern….
Stern was far and away the show’s most vocal critic. He has never been a fan of Johnson’s, and took an immediate disdain to The Magic Hour. He would spend each morning dissecting the previous night’s show, mocking Johnson’s delivery, inept interviewing skills, and his lack of chemistry with everyone around him. Shoemaker dreaded his drive to work each morning because he’d hear Stern rip apart what he’d done last night. Somewhere along the line, the producers decided to embrace oblivion and invite Johnson’s harshest critic on the show. That’s where things somehow got even more uncomfortable, which is also the most notable moment on the show. As it turns out, the whole episode is online, and it’s a trainwreck of a caliber I haven’t seen on a talk show before or since.
If you’re pressed for time, you can see part of Stern’s interview here. Despite Johnson’s best efforts (or, more accurately, because of them) Stern absolutely hijacked the show, and seemed to interview Johnson more than Johnson interviewed him. The show starts out with Stern’s band, The Losers, providing a flatulent rendition of “Wipe Out,” and from that point it just goes downhill for Johnson. Stern did everything he could to get under Johnson’s skin, attacking Johnson’s diction and repeatedly asking Johnson about his life before contracting HIV and whether he practices safe sex with his wife. Johnson’s visibly upset for parts of the interview, but he managed to hold his own to an extent. The whole thing’s a mess.
Why It Ended:
I’m pretty sure I made this clear by now, but for good measure: it was bad.
Reviews were instantaneously negative. Nearly every review was identical: Johnson is a charming guy with a winning smile, but he was hopelessly bad interviewer and host who spends more time kissing up to guests than holding a discussion. Also, there was almost always a magic-related pun. The AP said that “[i]f opening night was any sign, Magic Johnson’s new talk show has too few tricks up its sleeve.” They also said Shoemaker “seemed like a pizza delivery guy waiting around for his tip,” which years later he admitted finding hilarious. The Hartford Courant said that “Magic has no moves” and “[h]is line readings are labored, his comedic passes off the mark,” while also noting the “buddy system” he had with his guests. The Free Lance-Star said Johnson was trying too hard and “needs to quit trying to be smooth and back to the basic talk-show training.” The Orlando Sentinel said “The Magic Hour stands as a disastrous example of misguided celebrity chutzpah.” Entertainment Weekly lamented how bland the show was, and how the “edge-free environment” stopped guests from “saying anything interesting.” Variety noted that everything felt scripted, inflexible, and the whole thing felt like “celebrity night at the Elks Lodge.”
There were some who were willing to give him more of a chance—most late night hosts receive bad reviews during their first few weeks, and the aforementioned Keenen Ivory Waynes flopped despite having more experience—but Magic never got much better.
Perhaps the only thing worse than the reviews were the ratings, which in the end are what almost always sink a show. The Stern episode gave a massive boost to the ratings, but they dropped off again quickly thereafter. The show was averaging two million viewers a night and wasn’t showing significant growth, which just isn’t viable for a syndicated talk show. Many stations weren’t ready to pick up such a show for the heavy fall-spring TV season. The show was officially cancelled on August 8th, 1998, two months into his run. Reruns were shown until September 4th.
Years later, Shoemaker indicated that the initial rehearsals for the show were great, but things started sinking because the “suits” started panicking after paying too much attention to surveys and focus groups.
Just about the only person disappointed about its cancellation was, ironically, Shoemaker, but only because he wanted to sue them after he claims he was stiffed on his pay-or-play deal.
A few weeks after the show was cancelled, Johnson gave his first interview regarding the show’s ending. He admitted that he might not have been the right person to host a talk show and that the show got off to a rough start, but thought that he was getting better (he wasn’t) and that adding Davidson “took the show over the top” (he didn’t). He primarily blamed the show’s poor ratings on black celebrities who refused to appear on his show. Johnson claimed their “managers and agents [kept] them off of the black shows” because “black stars think that if they’re not on Leno or Letterman, then they’re not making it.” The collective response to that point (from both professional reviewers and the general viewing public) was that it had less to do with that and more to do with the fact that he wasn’t a good host.
Not long after the show was cancelled, MADtv started a recurring sketch series in which Aries Spears played Johnson trying his hand at different jobs, ranging from teaching children reading to hosting a Kwanzaa special. He would cluelessly bumble through each scenario, struggling to read or string a sentence together, and almost always end with him getting “cancelled.”
This is the part of the article where I usually try to find something salvageable in the wreckage, but I’m admittedly having a hard time finding any kind of diamond in this rough. Even if their shows weren’t great, Joan Rivers was groundbreaking, Alan Thicke was ahead of his time and the show launched his career, Pat Sajak had a series of interesting guests, Jon Stewart went on to The Daily Show. The Magic Hour has no redeeming value, isn’t remembered fondly by anyone involved, and for a long time was a big blemish on the career of one of America’s most universally respected athletes. Johnson aside, it also temporarily stifled Shoemaker’s career.
That said, in the long run, it didn’t hurt Johnson too much. Once the show ended, he used the extra time to devote his energy to his business enterprises. Despite the show being the aforementioned blemish, Johnson has enough goodwill in this world that he’s remembered for more than it. The guy may not be a good talk show host, but he’s still Magic Johnson. You can’t not love him.