Here's a question for Carson Daly: Why should we stay up late?

Times Staff Writer

A little more than a year ago, "Last Call With Carson Daly" landed on NBC's late-night landscape with a thud. When viewers tuned in for the premiere, a rerun of "SCTV" greeted them, thanks to a last-minute contract dispute between Daly and the network. When viewers finally saw "Last Call" the next night, a fair number of them already were longing for Ed Grimley.

Critics derided Daly's background as a DJ for KROQ-FM and as host of MTV's "Total Request Live," trying to discredit him as appealing only to teeny-boppers. More important, they assailed his lack of interviewing skills.

Though the former criticism is more reverse ageism than anything, the latter was and still is sadly true. At 1:30 a.m. weeknights, Daly's show is in a time slot that once was occupied by Bob Costas. Maybe it's not fair to compare him with Costas -- and it's certainly not fair to compare him with another Carson who dominated late night on NBC.

"Last Call" has a simple, laid-back format -- a half-hour Mondays through Thursdays, and an hour on Fridays. No opening monologue. No house band. No couch and desk; just two chairs and a coffee table. Daly brings out one guest (or two to three on Fridays), usually an entertainment figure, and they talk.

Refreshingly, the interviews tend not to center on the actor or musician's latest project, though plugs are the point here as with every other talk show. Occasionally, Daly and his guest might participate in some wacky stunt, such as last week when he and actor Ashton Kutcher attempted to bowl over towers of full champagne flutes.

If the guest doesn't sing or rap or play an instrument, there's a musical performer at the end. And that's it, show's over, time to go to bed (or watch the repeat of that night's "Leno").

Despite a year's worth of experience under his belt, Daly still struggles mightily to ask interesting questions. In fact, a lot of them aren't even questions, but mere statements, often about himself. When Daly and a guest know each other, this can work surprisingly well -- but it's usually up to the guest to carry the show. When they don't, it's an awkward mess.

Fortunately for NBC, Daly knows a lot of people.

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