Connick looks to Martin for inspiration on new show
NEW YORK – Odd as it seems to take inspiration from a television host legendary for his lack of preparation, Harry Connick, Jr. and the team making his new daytime talk show all cite Dean Martin as a model.
Connick’s show, “Harry,” debuted Monday (check local listings) with Sandra Bullock as the first guest. Amy Adams, Renee Zellweger and Terrence Howard all are scheduled for the first week, along with a few all-star cameos.
Martin, whose prime-time variety show ran on NBC in the late 1960s and 1970s, fostered an air of easy informality in part because the singer had it written into his contract that he only needed to show up when the show was taped each week.
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“Half the fun was watching him read off the prompter,” said Justin Stangel, who produces “Harry” with his brother, Eric, both graduates of David Letterman’s “Late Show.” “He’d laugh, and the audience would laugh, because they knew he knew he had no idea what was coming up next.”
Martin didn’t like the day-to-day grind of making television. Connick doesn’t mind working – he ripped through a series of promotional announcements one afternoon this week at his sprawling new studio on Manhattan’s West Side – but wants to preserve a sense of spontaneity. He dispenses with guest pre-interviews, the chore staff usually does to script out a talk show appearance.
For a recent taping, the show’s lead guest was caught in traffic and late. Instead of waiting, the show began at the appointed hour with the audience in on the running mystery of whether the guest would show up at all.
On another show, Connick noticed a woman sitting where he normally entered the stage and he played off that, inviting her to his piano to sing “Happy Birthday” to her kids at home.
“I live for that,” Connick said. “Some performers might be thrown by that, and I get it. Some of the best performers in the world are thoroughly rehearsed. But I’m exactly the opposite.”
He’s a natural wit, and learned to roll with the punches through dozens of record albums, movies and a judge’s stint on “American Idol.’ Connick once had a concert in rural Pennsylvania where no one showed up, but the promoter made him perform anyway. Word spread, and two people came for the night’s second show.
“I love the feeling of a catastrophe waiting to happen,” he said, “because I’ve been in enough catastrophes to know they’re not really catastrophes.”
The approach is interesting, said David Bianculli, a television historian and author of the upcoming book, “The Platinum Age of Television.” It will become apparent quickly if Connick has the chops to be successful.
“Martin was talented enough to pull it off,” Bianculli said. “It’s one thing to say you want a loose atmosphere. It’s another thing to have the talent to pull it off. It can be very casual and very dull. There are a lot of shows that are a lot of fun for people to do and not so fun for people to watch.”
A more contemporary comparison is “Ellen,” another show that works hard for its looseness. Connick is entering an arena where there’s more failure than success, but is probably the most high-profile new show in syndication this year, said Bill Carroll, an expert in that market for Katz Media.
One early challenge is placement; “Harry” is airing on Fox stations in many big cities and is different from the edgier fare that network’s viewers are more familiar with, he said.
The New Orleans jazzman struck up a friendship with the Stangels through many guest shots on “Late Show.” They initially worked on making a sitcom for Letterman’s production company, turning to a talk show when that fell through.
Connick’s nine-piece band will be regulars on the show. He’ll sing and play often, but not necessarily every day. Musicians certainly are welcome as guests, along with Hollywood actors.
Producers believe the heart of the show will be Connick’s interaction with fans.
They sent a film crew with Connick on a concert tour recently, recording several examples of a segment called “I Got This,” where Connick lends a hand to average folks.
Connick, for one, is ready to have some fun.
“We all feel like this is a nighttime party in the middle of the day,” he said.