Basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the producers of "The Magic Hour," his syndicated late-night talk show that has faced a torrent of fierce criticism since its June 8 debut, are altering their game plan.
Acknowledging that some of the elements of the series hosted by the former Lakers superstar needed "tweaking," executives of the show have reduced the role of sidekick Craig Shoemaker, increased the interaction between Johnson and music director-bandleader Sheila E., and instituted a format that will feature guests sooner in the hour.
Johnson, meanwhile, says he is getting over his awkwardness and plans to be more spontaneous and relaxed with his hosting duties. In an interview this week, Johnson said he was "like a robot" during the first week, "trying to do everything right. There were so many people in my ear, and I was trying to listen to everyone. Now I'm going to make my show, and have some fun."
He said he received a call this week from "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, who told him that he received the same negative notices when he took over from Johnny Carson. "He told me to hang in there and have fun," Johnson said. "I really appreciated that call. He didn't have to do that."
Since its premiere, "The Magic Hour," which airs locally at 11 p.m. on KTTV-TV Channel 11, has been praised in some corners, with Johnson getting accolades for his energy and charisma.
But the show also has been blasted by reviewers and others who claimed that Johnson was ill-suited to host a talk show. Much of the criticisms have focused on Johnson's colloquial grammar, speech mannerisms and lack of comic timing and show business experience, as well as the show's similarities to other talk shows. Critics also pointed to what they called the overly complimentary tone of the celebrity interviews. Radio "shock jock" Howard Stern has made Johnson's manner of speaking and interview style a daily source of ridicule on his show.
Despite the critical brickbats, Rick Jacobson, president of Twentieth Television, which produces and distributes "The Magic Hour," reaffirmed his commitment to the show and said he was determined to develop the correct creative mix for "The Magic Hour."
"What I like is that Magic gets better every day," he said. "His enthusiasm remains strong. You look at his performance now versus the first few nights, and he's much more improved and relaxed.
"Now it's about putting the pieces together. At the core is a person that America still loves, and would like to see in a comfortable situation."
Jacobson also noted that other talk-show hosts, including Conan O'Brien and David Letterman, received scathing notices during their first weeks, while Whoopi Goldberg, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Sinbad and other more seasoned show business veterans flopped in their talk-show ventures despite having more experience than Johnson.
Jacobson acknowledged that some of the criticism was valid. "The initial reason why we wanted to do a talk show with Earvin is because of his likability and charm. We need to evolve him now into an environment where that can come out. We need to distinguish our show from other talk shows. We need to feature our ensemble cast more than a sidekick."
But Jacobson contended that much of the criticism was overly aggressive: "I'm a little surprised at the personal nature of it. I can understand the criticism that there is little new here. But to make personal attacks about Earvin's speech is unfair, unwarranted and surprising."
Geovanni Brewer, who along with Johnson is one of the show's executive producers, added, "They attacked Earvin so personally and vehemently. It's so viciously unfair and mean-spirited, especially when it came after only three days of shows. Maybe they resent the fact that Earvin is a very lucky guy.
"The ability to deliver entertainment doesn't mean you have to be perfect or flawless," Brewer added. "They've forgotten who Magic Johnson is. He doesn't look or speak or sound like anyone else. That's part of his charm."
Johnson said he was not bothered by the critical assault. "I'm still standing," he said. "That's their opinion. I've already passed my own expectations. I've never been bothered by what people say about me. The critics won't decide how the show will do. The audience will decide."
Much of the most pointed criticism was directed at Shoemaker, who was a late addition to the show as Johnson's sidekick. Observers noted an obvious lack of chemistry between Johnson and Shoemaker, who would tell jokes at the beginning of the show while Johnson fed him straight lines.
Said Brewer: "It was an exercise in chemistry. It cannot be produced or faked. We tried it, and we're moving that situation out of the mix."
Shoemaker will still be involved with the show as part of the ensemble cast, along with comedian Steve White and others who will be added.
Johnson said: "With the show evolving, I knew it would take a little time for Craig and I to jell. It still hasn't come quite yet, but the producers have to make the call. I have to make sure I hit all my marks."
On the other hand, Johnson said he had "great" chemistry with Sheila E., who has been a longtime friend. "It just makes it a lot easier," he said. "We're going to try and bring her more to the forefront."
"The Magic Hour" averaged about 3.2 million viewers per show during the first two weeks in 40 major cities, and is about equal with February ratings for the canceled "Keenen Ivory Wayans" show, which aired on most of the same stations. The show in the past two weeks has attracted 7% of the available audience locally, a decrease of 3% from its premiere week. It has scored particularly well with young male teens and adult males. The top-rated "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," on the other hand, has increased its viewership by 1% over the same period last year.
Jacobson said that "The Magic Hour," which has a 52-week commitment, would evolve during the summer, "and we fully plan to be on for the long term."