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Mark Davis, Warner Bros.
Bonnie Hunt hosts "The Bonnie Hunt Show." The show premieres today.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Bonnie Hunt has always been a fantastic talk-show guest. How will she do as a talk-show host?

We'll find out this afternoon when "The Bonnie Hunt Show" premieres (2 p.m., Ch. 14).

Hunt has finally given in and agreed to take a seat behind a desk and do a show five days a week.

"I didn't have to do this. (Executive producer) Jim (Paratore)'s been coming to me for about 15 years, actually, with this idea," Hunt told TV critics. "And it's something I've always really wanted to do, but the storyteller in me and the writer in me really wanted to do the other things."

She's starred in three sitcoms, a slew of movies and loads of voices for animated movies. She's a writer and director as well as a comedic actress.

"I've been so fortunate in my career and my own life just to have all these opportunities," Hunt said. "And the talk show has always been one of my favorite formats."

As a matter of fact, her most recent sitcom — the 2002-04 "Life with Bonnie" — cast her as a wife, mother and talk-show host. And the talk-show part of the program, which was largely improvised, was by far the best part of the show.

Hunt and her longtime writing partner, Don Lake, "put the talk-show format in there because it was really something I want to do, but I wanted to try it first to see how it felt. ... Don and I found ourselves, as writers, gravitating more and more to the talk show aspect of the show because it's where we felt more comfortable because of our improvisational backgrounds.

"We met and started at the Second City in Chicago, and we've been trying to get back to that job ever since."

Hunt has at least one thing in common with her pal David Letterman — like him, she's hilarious when she interacts with regular people. She'll have plenty of regular folks on the show. People like her own mother, who's hilarious in commercials she shot with Hunt to promote the show.

"We will have regular people and then the alien life form of celebrities," said Hunt, who welcomes Robin Williams as her first guest.

The show won't be live, but it will be as live as possible. She won't tape a bunch of shows in one day and spread them out over a week; she'll shoot one show a day, five days a week.

"I will do it as if it were a live television show, which is the way I shot a lot of my sitcoms as well," Hunt said. "We didn't spend a lot of time in editing. I think it gives a certain energy if we're going real time for the show."

Because it's a daytime show, "You have to be a little more sensitive," Hunt said. She recalled that her mother rarely had to turn the channel when young Bonnie was in the room during "Dinah Shore" or "Phil Donahue."

"I'm not going to talk about my sex life. I mean, we'd only maybe get half a show out of it," Hunt said.

That self-deprecating humor is part of what makes Hunt so endearing.

"I think Bonnie's completely relatable," said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures, which produces the show. "We think she's like an every woman."

"That means fat," Hunt interjected.

She's certainly not fat, but she's totally relatable. Even in a room full of people interviewing her, Hunt can turn the situation into more of a conversation. And Hunt always seems interested in the guest.

"I do know, for me, as an audience member, one of the things I loved about certain interviewers is when they actually have a genuine interest in the guest," she said. "Whether it's about a movie they're promoting or if it's just a regular, everyday person who is coming on to talk about their own life, I find something compelling and interesting in almost anyone.

"I think that is just part of who I am. I think the most important thing is to be a good listener, because you can tell when somebody is not listening to you when you're a guest. And that's tough."

And she has no intention of making it tough on her guests.

"The first time I was on 'Johnny Carson,' I remember being so scared, but the minute he started talking to me, I felt a little more comfortable because I just knew he was going to take care of me," Hunt said. "Hopefully, I have learned something from watching him for so many years that I can offer that to a guest."

"I'm always amazed with how people open up with Bonnie," Lake said. "And I think it's because of all the characters she'd kind of played over her career."

"I think it's because I look like a cartoon," Hunt said.

Hunt would still fit right in the blue-collar Chicago neighborhood where she grew up in a big family without much money. And she's been making people laugh since she was a kid.

"I don't know if I realized that I was funny, but I realized how healing and important humor was in my childhood," she said. "Everybody knows when you're a struggling family, you don't really know it when you're a kid. But you do know the difference between stress and moments of relief where there's, like, this happiness."

She has clear memories of her late father watching Don Knotts on "The Andy Griffith Show."

"And for just that moment in time, I would see him forget all the pressure and all the problems (and) worries of the day and just really laugh. And I saw how valuable that was," she said.

And she used her sense of humor when she was a nurse working in an oncology ward.

"I saw it heal many patients, even if it was just for the day — a little relief from some physical pain or emotional pain," Hunt said.

One of her oncology patients urged her to go to California and try to make it as a performer.

"I said, 'I can't do that. I'd go there and fail and have to come back and beg for my nursing job and I'd be all humiliated,"' Hunt said. " And he said, 'Bonnie, I only have a few weeks to live. One of my biggest regrets is that I feared failure. So, I want you to promise me that, after I'm gone, you'll go to California and you'll fail many times.'

"We shook hands. And after he passed away, I gave my notice because I gave him my word. And I came out here, and I failed many times. I've learned from all of them and lived through all of them. And they've all made me better at what I do.

"That was a gift that man gave me — a real gift."

She knows that the odds are against any new TV show working, but she's enthusiastic nonetheless.

"I can tell you that I'll do my show from my heart. If it succeeds, that would be unbelievably wonderful," Hunt said. "And if it doesn't, it will still have been done from my heart, and that's a form of success."


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