Things weren’t looking too good for Magic Johnson in the summer of 1998. The Magic Hour, Johnson’s late night talk show and 20th Century Fox’s answer to the Late Show with David Letterman and, of course, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, was tanking. Four weeks after its premiere, the show, weighed down by strong competition and Magic’s inexperience, couldn’t withstand the critical beating and steadily declining ratings that terrified affiliates. The Magic Hour had to shake things up and it had to do it fast.
The cards were stacked against Magic from the beginning. The former basketball superstar was admittedly robotic on camera and had neither the standup chops of Jay Leno nor the wry sophistication of David Letterman. He was supposed to be an answer to the old talk show form (laid back, informal, and exciting); instead, he was the antithesis of it. Producers knew Magic’s inexperience would be a hard sell, so they did what any self-respecting TV executive would do: they hid it, cluttering The Magic Hour with distractions. Former Prince protégée and percussionist Sheila E. assumed the role of bandleader, comedian Craig Shoemaker (who would later be fired and replaced by Tommy Davidson) became Magic’s sidekick, and speech coaches taught Magic to relax on the couch and at the mic.
All of this failed to bring in viewers, but it did give a stockpile of ammunition to the show’s most vocal and volatile critic, Howard Stern. Currently the reigning “king of all media,” Stern went for the jugular, attacking everything from Magic’s forced talk show personality to his past personal exploits, including his battle with HIV. Stern’s point asserted that Magic was no Carson, Leno, or Letterman, and, most importantly, Magic was no Stern.
So, less than a month after the show’s premiere, The Magic Hour sought to answer the critics. Magic invited Howard on to the show, and Howard brought everything he had. The result was one of late night’s most bizarre train wrecks, an experiment in social awareness that all but revealed every one of The Magic Hour’s weaknesses: Magic’s inability to connect with his guests and his audience; the show’s insecure comedic presence, both from its host and supporting players; and its failure to define itself as an original voice in late night. Here’s a rundown of the episodes most bizarre moments:
• 1:33: Howard Stern and his band, The Losers, kick things off with a performance of The Surfaris classic song “Wipe Out.” Special accompaniment by Stern on keys, Baba Booey, and two guys farting the drum solo.
• 6:50: Stern sexually harasses Sheila E.
• 7:15: Stern suggests Magic stop talking like “the white man,” proclaims himself “blacker” than Magic.
• 9:10: Stern attempts to guess Sheila E.’s race.
• 13:29 Magic, very awkwardly, describes his mid-80s “booty parties.”
• 14:10 Magic clears his name. Despite what the National Enquirer says, he did not save a “little kid” from drowning in Hawaii, because he cannot swim.
• 14:59 Stern makes his first reference to AIDS; Magic responds with this expression:
• 15:37: Stern laments: “At least you had fun getting AIDS.”
• 18:15: Magic welcomes Stern’s co-host Robin Quivers who immediately denounces The Magic Hour for not paying for her appearance.
• 18:52: Stern points out Drew Carrey in the audience, accuses him of soliciting prostitutes.
• 20:03: Upon seeing Magic’s new co-host, Stern asks, “What happened to the white guy [referring to the recently fired Craig Shoemaker]? If ratings continue to plummet, you going to fire him, too?”
• 25:28: Magic welcomes Playboy Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal; she describes a rash she got while modeling.
• 32:15: Stern asks about Magic’s wife Cookie and if they practice safe sex.
• 35:00: Magic runs out the clock with an 8-minute performance by a visibly angry Sheila E. and her band.
• 38:35: Stern gropes Sheila E. during a drum solo.
Stern’s appearance represents everything a late night show should not be: messy, jarring, and funny for all the wrong reasons. Sent on to help address some of Magic’s issues and pull a publicity stunt that ultimately blew up in Magic Johnson’s face, Stern flipped the script and robbed the show from its host. Stern, proving the point that Magic can’t do late night, trounces the NBA champion, who spends much of the episode trying to regain order.
Magic brought Stern on the show to boost ratings. In return, the show received a slight bump, but ultimately made Magic look really, really foolish. It was eventually canceled in September of 1998. Magic made several disparaging remarks about show business, claiming that the show failed because “black stars think that if they're not on Leno or Letterman, then they're not making it. Their managers and agents keep them off of the black shows. There it is, that's your major problem right there." Stern might have thought otherwise.
Check it out for yourself:
Matt Schimkowitz is writer and TV watcher. Read more at tvsfault.wordpress.com. Follow @borntoslug