CARSON DALY knows exactly where he’ll be one week from tonight, zipped into a parka and patrolling the happy chaos of Times Square. It will be the fourth outing for his New Year’s Eve special on NBC at 11:35 p.m., and to help celebrate, the host has tapped pop singers Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz.
That’s what the nationwide TV audience will see, anyway, but this time around the behind-the-scenes story involving Daly is a lot more complicated -- and dramatic -- than usual. The New Year’s NBC shindig, a leaner rival to ABC’s more elaborate war horse, “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” serves as an opportunity to put behind him the events of the last few weeks, which have been among the roughest of the 34-year-old broadcaster’s career.
When he announced late last month that he would return to his 1:35 a.m. show on NBC, “Last Call With Carson Daly,” without his writing staff and thus in defiance of the Writers Guild of America strike, Daly got locked up in the media’s pillory, characterized by critics as a labor-busting network lackey.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Daly said at a hotel near his home in Santa Monica last week in his first interview since the dust-up. “After the first punch, I just turned really everything off. I tried to stop paying attention to it.”
That proved hard. After NBC announced his return to the air, the guild issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” and “appalled” by Daly’s behavior. A group of hecklers -- presumably writers on strike -- noisily disrupted a “Last Call” taping. But what really stung Daly is that someone leaked to the website TheSmokingGun.com an e-mail he’d written to family and friends asking them to contribute jokes for a strike-related comedy bit. (“It was 100% in no way a solicitation of submissions, which is how it was positioned online, as some sort of a ‘hotline,’ ” he said. “It was for ‘knock, knock’ jokes from my dad’s golfing buddies, and I was gonna make fun of them.”)
Since all this broke, of course, network late-night hosts Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, as well as Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, have all announced plans to return next month. But Daly took by far the biggest hit, at least in part because he went first among his nighttime colleagues.
Of course, it also doesn’t help that because Daly, a former KROQ DJ who shot to prominence on MTV’s “TRL,” is not a comic by trade. He finds it harder to laugh off the incongruities of the strike, as Stewart and Colbert did in a joint statement last week commenting on their return. (“We would like to express our ambivalence, but without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence,” the pair said.)
For a guy who’s built his entire broadcasting persona around a kind of well-scrubbed, All-American affability, it’s been a devastating turn of events, although Daly’s trying hard to stay focused on the New Year’s show and beyond.
“I couldn’t wait to get on the air my first night to just talk,” he said. “It felt like people were drawing their own conclusions. And the biggest thing that bothered me was that people thought I had a choice . . . as if I wanted to come back, and come back without my writers.
“An ultimatum was put in front of me,” he added. “It was, ‘Put a new show on Dec. 3 or 75 people are fired. What’s your answer?’ ” He quickly decided that he couldn’t live with the notion of putting loyal staffers out of work. Daly said he’d heard from a couple of his striking writers, who were “very supportive” of his decision.
Daly offered a similar rationale on his first show back, when he told the studio audience that he didn’t want to do the show without his writers but felt he had to in order to save the jobs of staff members. “None of this was written, clearly,” he joked, alluding to his monologue.
On a more practical level, because “Last Call” is only half an hour and depends heavily on celebrity interviews and musical acts, Daly figured the show would not be as challenging to produce without writers as other late-night programs that rely more on skits and other written material. But he’s still been forced to improvise; last week, he filled time with an artist who did a manic, impromptu painting to a medley of Guns N’ Roses tunes.
Asked who at NBC delivered the ultimatum, Daly replied that it was his “immediate bosses” but declined to be more specific. Attempts to obtain comment from the network through an NBC spokeswoman were unsuccessful.
Whatever the network was thinking, it’s clear “Last Call” is caught up in larger shifts affecting late-night TV. NBC recently reaffirmed that O’Brien will take over “Tonight” from Leno in 2009, which will leave the 12:35 a.m. slot in need of a new host.
As incumbent talent, Daly would seem to be in the mix, but talent agents have been busy stumping for their own candidates. And a contender for that time period can come out of nowhere, as O’Brien, a previously obscure writer on “Saturday Night Live,” proved when he took over “Late Night” in 1993.
“Of course I would like to be considered,” Daly said about moving to the earlier slot, “but given the current situation with the strike, we’re not really thinking about it right now.”
After spending the Christmas holiday with family, Daly will head to New York for final preparations for the holiday special, officially dubbed “NBC’s New Year’s Eve With Carson Daly, Presented by Chevy.” As usual, he plays down any notion of a rivalry with “Rockin’ Eve,” which will again be co-hosted by Clark and “American Idol’s” Ryan Seacrest and will feature pop acts such as Fergie, Akon and the Plain White T’s.
“Sensibility-wise, we’re a little bit different anyway,” Daly said of the ABC show, which runs for more than three hours, compared with NBC’s hourlong special. “They tend to go after a little bit more of the teen Top 40 acts.”
Daly notes that he actually started covering New Year’s while still at MTV and has come to view the event as a personal tradition. This year, his chores may take on added significance; one can’t help but get the sense that in many ways Daly won’t be sorry to say so long to 2007.
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org