Ali Goldstein, MSNBC
Rachel Maddow

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Rachel Maddow launched her surprisingly successful MSNBC show during the last year of the Bush administration and quickly made a name for herself bashing the former president and his would-be successor, John McCain.

But Maddow insists she isn't worried how she'll fill an hour a day, five days a week without George W. Bush to kick around anymore.

"I don't think we are at risk of idiocy going out of fashion in Washington," Maddow said. "So wherever there are bad ideas, I will find ways to make fun of them.

"And sometimes that's going to be bad Democratic ideas. It's going to be bad Republican ideas. It's just going to be bad ideas. So I don't worry about not having George Bush to beat up on anymore."

Maddow has already beaten the odds just by achieving not only success but success on MSNBC. Since the cable network was launched in 1996, it's been a graveyard for people with much higher profiles than hers.

People like Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, John Gibson, Ashleigh Banfield, Mitch Albom, Alan Keyes, Jerry Nachman, Phil Donahue and Michael Savage have all failed on MSNBC.

And Maddow had zero TV experience before she guest-hosted Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" last summer.

"The first time she ever read a teleprompter was last June when we asked her to step in for Keith," said MSNBC president Phil Griffin. "Nobody had kept Keith's numbers when Keith took a day off, because that show is so uniquely Keith. But Rachel did. And after we saw that, it was pretty clear that Rachel would get an audience after Keith."

And that succeeded beyond Griffin's wildest dreams.

"Everything changed," he said. "For the first time in MSNBC history, we had a show that was getting big numbers at 9 o'clock (ET). We had a show that was beating, for the first time in 12-and-a-half years, 'Larry King.' "

"This has been a very fun trip up a very steep learning curve," Maddow said. "Doing TV every day is really hard work, and it is the best job I've ever had by a mile. I'm having the time of my life, and I hope that I get to keep doing this for a long time."

Maddow came to MSNBC from Air America Radio, the liberal counterpart to conservative talk radio.

"Getting that platform gave me a chance to get really good at talk radio," she said. "And I think getting good at talk radio was a great place to prep for being a good guest on TV. And prepping to be a good guest on TV ultimately prepped me to be a good sub-host. And prepping me to be a good sub-host got me to where I am now."

Not only is she clearly having a good time on the air, but Maddow manages to be tough without being strident. She recalls her own experience as the liberal mouthpiece on other shows — an experience she compared to being in a Punch and Judy show.

"It didn't really matter what we were talking about, as long as we were going to fight," she said. "It was sort of boxing masquerading as news."

And she vowed not to repeat that on "The Rachel Maddow Show."

"I certainly have give-and-take with my guests, but it's going to be one-on-one. It's going to be civil," she said. "I'm not going to tell anybody to shut up unless they say something about my mom."

And, whether she's bashing Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush or McCain, Maddow always does it with some degree of humor. She's never going to appeal to the Fox News audience, but she's undeniably entertaining.

"I think her strength is that she takes all this stuff very seriously, and yet she doesn't take herself seriously. And I think that's her strength," Griffin said. "She is so smart, but she enjoys it. She's the only person I know on any news program that will say 'dork' and 'Obama' in the same sentence and pull it off and still be the smartest person talking on TV."

E-mail: [email protected]

Today on TV

Survivor: Tocantins (7 p.m., Ch. 2): Utahn Tyson Apostol plots against another contestant; another castaway is voted out.

Ugly Betty (7 p.m., Ch. 4): Betty and Mark make a surprising discovery when they're examining Mode's finances.

Secrets of the Furious Five (7 p.m., Ch. 5): In this follow-up to the "Kung Fu Panda" movie, Po (voice of Jack Black) teaches a group of eager bunnies from the Valley of Peace.

American Idol (7 p.m., Ch. 13): Tonight three more semifinalists advance to the Final 12 — will Utahn Megan Corkrey be one of the lucky ones?

CSI (8 p.m., Ch. 2): The team investigates three cases at once.

30 Rock (8:30 p.m., Ch. 5): Tracy's interview with Larry King creates a panic.

Eleventh Hour (9 p.m., Ch. 2): A brief thunderstorm kills 30 people.

ER (9 p.m., Ch. 5): Carter discovers it's not easy to jump back into the hospital's routine.

Burn Notice (11 p.m., USA): A woman from Michael's past needs help to recover her kidnapped son.