Earvin "Magic" Johnson is trading showtime for TV Show Time.
The former Los Angeles Laker superstar, who brought an entertaining flair to his 13-year NBA career, is preparing to enter another type of arena - the late-night talk show - as host of "The Magic Hour."Johnson, who has spent the last several years juggling numerous business ventures, including his successful chain of Magic Johnson Theatres in urban communities, is looking at the syndicated talk-variety show as one of his greatest challenges - and one of the most enjoyable.
"This is really a dream come true for me," he said during a recent rehearsal break at Paramount Studios, where the Twentieth Television show is taped. "Whenever I was on other talk shows, I would go home and wonder what it would be like being the one who asked the questions. It's really hard work, but I'm getting more and more comfortable with it."
With "The Magic Hour," Johnson, who retired from the NBA in 1991 after testing positive for HIV, will be increasing his public visibility, which has already gone up dramatically in recent months. Abandoned by advertisers after his health bombshell, Johnson has re-emerged as a celebrity spokesman, doing commercials for American Express and "drink responsibly" spots for Coors.
Twentieth executives approached Johnson last year after they saw him guest on another talk-show pilot. "They said, `Have you ever thought about doing this?' and I couldn't wait to get into it," he recalled.
"The Magic Hour," which premieres Monday, will feature a comedy troupe and a house band fronted by percussionist Sheila E.
Giovanni Brewer, one of the show's three executive producers (besides Johnson), said she feels that Johnson can play in the big leagues with Jay Leno and David Letterman despite his relative inexperience as a master of ceremonies.
"People respond to him in such a strong way, and Magic is so personable - it just comes easy to him," Brewer said. "He really knows how to relate to an audience, and we're going to have him up interacting with the audience quite a lot. Magic can produce such a contagious environment. Everyone loves him."
But Johnson is not taking that charisma for granted. To better prepare for his duties, he has been conducting mock interviews for several months and has taped several run-through programs. He's also gotten some coaching from his good friend and former talk show host Arsenio Hall, and from Leno.
"It's my own personal thing," Johnson explained. "I have a very wicked competitive streak, and this is what I want to do for a very long time. This is what is exciting to me."
The campaign to turn Johnson into late-night's latest star started months ago, with a commercial that played on the scoreboard of the Great Western Forum, home of the Lakers, showing an excited Johnson rushing out to host the show in his Lakers uniform. Buses and billboards for several weeks have shown Johnson smiling at onlookers with the tag-line, "The Grin That Stole Late Night."
Johnson, Brewer and others associated with the show say they realize that "The Magic Hour" is not an automatic slam dunk.
The late-night talk show field has grown even more shaky since two highly touted syndicated shows geared toward young, urban audiences failed to grab audiences after premiering last August to great hoopla and optimism. Both "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show" and "Vibe" fell far short of their goal to capture viewers who had felt abandoned since Hall ended his popular talk fest in 1994. Wayans' show was canceled last March. "Vibe" got off to a rough start with original host Chris Spencer and is still struggling with his replacement, Sinbad.
Some industry insiders have said that "The Magic Hour" show may be tainted by the failure of those previous ventures, but Johnson and his producers are determined to avoid the pitfalls.
"First of all, we're not aiming for a specific audience," he said. "I've always been about all people. I am also not that worried about those other shows. I am different from Keenen and Sinbad. I really don't have that concern. Our show will be for everybody."
On Ch. 13
In Utah, "The Magic Hour" will be seen weeknights at midnight on KSTU-Ch. 13.