SPEND AN hour or so with Bonnie Hunt these days and you come away convinced she's got a daytime talk show inside her head.
The only question now is whether she and her producers can extract and polish that vision within the next three weeks, when "The Bonnie Hunt Show" comes to KNBC-TV Channel 4 and other TV stations nationwide. This is not shaping up to be -- how can we put this? -- another strenuously overproduced TV yakfest. Hunt, the 46-year-old Chicago-born comedian best known for ABC's short-lived sitcom "Life With Bonnie" as well as her work on the family-oriented "Beethoven" and "Cheaper by the Dozen" pictures, is an improv performer by background and inclination. She likes working without a net. It's a style that can yield unexpected triumphs. Or things that go splat.
"Some of the producers say to me, 'We haven't had such a vague outline before,' " Hunt told me last week during a chat in her office at Culver Studios. "And I say, 'It's OK. Let's see what happens.' "
Here's the rundown so far: Hunt will open with a monologue about current events, her life or even what's happening behind the scenes at the show (she doesn't do stand-up, so don't look for jokes). There will be guests, of course. A five-piece house band will provide music. As time goes by she'd like to throw in improv, sketches, that sort of thing. And tons of audience interaction.
"I'll be out in the audience a lot," she said. "I love talking to people and finding out their opinion."
Sounds promisingly Ellen-ish. But can Hunt's notions turn into a show that stands out from the glib, glittering pack? She recognizes daunting odds.
"I don't know if this type of show can work in daytime," she said, adding that she finds much of the current talk genre "panic-ly produced," as if the overseers lived in deathly fear of a viewer being bored for even one microsecond.
"Television has changed a lot," she said with a sigh.
Hard to argue with that. There are so many viewing options flooding the average American home now that confrontational TV personalities seem best-suited to rise above the din (hello, Wendy Williams, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Nancy Grace!). That would appear to put at a disadvantage a quieter, subtler entertainer such as Hunt. Tellingly, Hunt sidestepped a question about current TV hosts she admires and instead gave shout-outs to greats from a long-ago era, before Internet news cycles and celebrity up-skirt photos: Merv Griffin, Phil Donahue, Dinah Shore.
And then remember that syndicated TV likes to eat people with high Q scores for breakfast. Jane Pauley, Martin Short, Tony Danza, Queen Latifah, Caroline Rhea, Megan Mullally: All have been sacrificed on the chat-show altar.
But Telepictures Productions, which also makes "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "The Tyra Banks Show," thinks it's on to something with Hunt, whom the company pursued off and on for 15 years. Some fans have come to know her best through her guest shots on CBS' "Late Show" with her friend David Letterman, where the pair strike up an easy, funny, slightly flirtatious banter. To executives behind "Bonnie Hunt," the message is that the audience likes her best in unscripted, unpredictable settings.
"She probably is the best talk-show guest on television," said Telepictures President Hilary Estey McLoughlin.
"We've had some good success in the marketplace with comedic talent," McLoughlin added, referring to Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell, who hosted a talk show from 1996 to 2002. "The key to all this is making the show an extension of the host's personality. And Bonnie has a strong point of view, a strong sense of who she is."
If Hunt's personality can be captured in the way McLoughlin describes, the new show stands a good chance. By nature, Hunt is about as approachable and down-to-earth as someone with her name on a marquee can be. During our interview she addressed me, diner-waitress-style, as "honey," though we'd never met or spoken before. When one of her producers poked his head in her office to pass along a message, she looked up and deadpanned: "Are you still with the production?" After our talk wrapped up, Hunt walked me down the hall, past an office where executive producer Don Lake was meeting with other top staffers. She introduced me with this line: "He already says we're going to fail."
But for all her gentle wit and affability, she does have strong views, views that have yielded an interesting career, if not always a secure one. She was trained as an oncology nurse (an occupation she returned to after her first sitcom was canceled) and blossomed as a star at Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. But she turned down a shot at instant stardom when producer Lorne Michaels offered her a gig on " Saturday Night Live." Hunt felt the show would have been confining.
"I asked, 'If there's an end of a scene that doesn't feel like it's working, can you improvise?' " she recalled. "And he said, 'Absolutely not.' " She also saw a certain "SNL" gender disparity in the pre- Tina Fey years. "It didn't seem like women's careers were really launched on that show."
In the early '90s, she turned down a role on the hit sitcom "Designing Women" to do "Davis Rules," a comedy with two of her heroes, Jonathan Winters and Audrey Meadows. The show ran just two seasons, but Hunt has no regrets: "It was so worth it."
Hunt blames the 2004 turnover in top management at ABC for the demise of "Life With Bonnie," which lasted two seasons. "Boy, we were really hoping for that third year," she said ruefully.
But it's just possible that Hunt was never really meant to thrive in prime time or late night. It may just be that daytime will turn out to be the appropriate venue for her considerable talents. Certainly that's what Telepictures is hoping.
And if it doesn't work out? "That could very well happen," Hunt said. "But I'll be OK.
"If you can maintain your standards and your integrity and you fail, it's OK. It's when you sell out and you fail that you feel pretty sick inside."
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins @latimes.com.
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