It’s been a big year for Carson Daly. For one thing, his late night talk show, Last Call with Carson Daly, is celebrating its tenth anniversary on NBC. Which is a pretty remarkable feat, not just for surviving ten years but for surviving ten years with almost nobody watching. I know a lot of insomniacs, and they regularly recount their favorite moments from Letterman, Kimmel, Fallon, et al. But not once in the last decade has anybody said to me, “Oh my god, you should’ve seen Last Call last night.” But being largely unnoticed may be Daly’s secret weapon. Who knows what he’s been up to on that show? It airs at the ungodly hour of 1:30am, where it competes with reruns of Cheers and psychic hotline infomercials, so he could be doing anything! When Daly does poke his head out during daylight hours, there’ve been hints that he’s only gotten better (and weirder) with age. At last January’s Golden Globes, he conducted some delightfully daffy interviews on the red carpet, at one point describing the venue as a “celebrity steakhouse.” And then came his recent hosting duties on The Voice, an American Idol-style music contest that’s become this year’s sleeper hit. Daly may not be the most entertaining part of The Voice, but the fact that he’s in any way involved with another hit music show just proves that Ryan Seacrest hasn’t completely co-opted his cultural identity. I called Daly to talk about the season finale of The Voice, which airs next Tuesday, June 28th, on NBC. For a guy I mostly remember introducing boy band videos in the late 90s on MTV’s Total Request Live, he was surprisingly droll and sardonic.
Eric Spitznagel: I’m shocked at how much I enjoy The Voice. I’m not much of a fan of TV singing contests in general.
Carson Daly: Neither am I. When NBC pitched the idea to me, my sentiment was pretty much as earnest as yours. It just didn’t sound like my sort of thing. I know that reality TV has definitely evolved and gotten more interesting over the last few years, but I was still reluctant. And then I watched the original Dutch version, and yadda yadda yadda, I just fell in love with the format.
The format may be different, but it’s the same basic genre as shows like American Idol and the X Factor. It’s still essentially karaoke, right?
Yeah, I’ve heard that before. And I know where you’re coming from. Listen, I’ve devoted my whole life since I was eighteen to a pursuit of music. I started out as a disc jockey. I lived in six cities over six years in a pickup truck. I lived in a Motel 6 when I was twenty years old just so I could be close to music, real music. I’m from the generation that grew up with bands that had to work for their career and had to spend time on the road, had to build a fan base, had to do anything to get signed. So when television became an outlet for bands, I was one of the first in line to be cynical about it because it didn’t feel authentic.
I don’t mean to knock on karaoke. There’s nothing wrong with getting loaded with friends and singing off a teleprompter. When was the last time you drunkenly busted out a little “Don’t Stop Believin’”?
Eric, as sure as I’m talking to you right now, in my life I have never sang a karaoke song.
You’re kidding. Not once?
Nope. Never. But I have friends who go all the time, and I know it’s a lot of fun. But I personally have never gotten up and sang karaoke. It’s kinda not my scene.
What about when you’re alone, in the shower or something? Do you sing at all?
Well sure, I’ll do that. I love the idea of singing, I’m just not very good at it. I can hold a note, and I might surprise you. But no one’s going to turn their chair around on me. I also play guitar, though like with singing, I’m not very good at it. I taught myself how to play with an Eagles Complete songbook, and one of those tablature books that were written for five year olds, where they show you where to put your fingers to do major chords and minor chords. I learned just enough to play a couple of Oasis songs pretty well.
And now I have this wonderful image of you in a skanky Motel 6, which smells like menthol cigarettes and hookers, and you’re siting on the edge of a stained mattress, strumming a cryptic and clumsy “Champagne Supernova” on a battered guitar.
That was about it, yeah. Also, the front door of my room was broken. This Motel 6 was one exit away from Tijuana — in National City, near Chula Vista — so it wasn’t the kinda place you just want to let the neighbors walk in unannounced. So I used to have to reverse my pickup truck so that the bed of my truck butted up against the door so no one would break in. I ended up staying there for several months. That’s some good times right there.
Let’s talk about your new gig on The Voice. Speaking of things that shocked me about this show, I found the judges to be shockingly likable.
Well, I mean no disrespect, but I don’t own a single song by any of them. But put them together on a judges panel and they’re like the cast of Cannonball Run. Are you as surprised as the rest of us?
Well, yes and no. I love them all individually and I know them all personally. But you don’t know what the sum of the parts is going to be on television. I know that’s not really an answer. People have often wrote that I’m lukewarm to everything, that I have a Switzerland-esqueness. That came from TRL, because we were a multi-genre pop culture show. We played Kid Rock and Eminem and Backstreet Boys. And I loved them all equally, the same way I love the judges on this show all equally.
For several episodes, Cee Lo has worn the same Misfits t-shirt. Does he really listen to the Misfits?
I honestly couldn’t tell you. I know that when we sit around in what we call our trailer village in the Warner Brothers lot, where it sometimes feels like we’re camping, Cee Lo and I will bullshit about music, and he has very eclectic tastes. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he was a big Misfits fan, though I’ve never asked him directly. He listens to my iPod all the time and I have everything from the Stooges to Ben Harper to Kings of Leon.
Do me a favor. During the live season finale, when you guys are hanging out in the green room, just casually mention to him, “I was listening to ‘Last Caress’ the other day. Awesome song, right?”
See if he bites on it?
I’m just curious. You know how sometimes you see a guy with a Ramones t-shirt and you’re like, “Hey, somebody’s been to Target.”
No, Cee Lo’s not that guy. He’s definitely not that guy. He did not go to Target or a vintage shop on Melrose and get a Misfits shirt. He never struck me as the kind of guy who’d be like, “I don’t know who these guys are but the shirt looks kinda cool.” He is as credible as they come, from my experience.
Speaking of the Misfits, why didn’t you pick Danzig to be a judge on the show?
Oh dude, you’re talking my language now. Are you kidding me? If I had any say in it, he’d be up there. Where is Glenn these days? That’s the real question.
I have no idea. My hope is that he’s touring Indian casinos and blowing minds.
Yeah, yeah, that could be true. [Laughs.] That’s funny. You know, it’s weird that you’d mention Danzig. I had a dream last night, and this is no joke. My girlfriend is like a die-hard foodie, so we were watching the finale of Top Chef Masters. And when I fell asleep, I dreamt that The Voice had done so well that we were shooting a spin-off for NBC called The Voice Masters. And it was our coaches with twenty-five famous singers from the last three decades. They kept coming out for the blind auditions but nobody was turning their chair around for them. Glenn Danzig was there, and Lionel Richie, and Natalie Merchant. All of these famous, amazing singers, and none of them were being picked.
And The Voice Masters is not already in the works at NBC why exactly?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. I woke up thinking, “That was either the most fucked up dream I’ve ever had or something I should be pitching to Mark Burnett immediately.”
I should tell you that my only goal for this interview is to get you to say “Hey Ryan Seacrest, how you like me now, bitch?”
No, unfortunately I would never say that. That’s just not my lingo.
You can leave the “bitch” part out. It’s really the “how you like me now” part that matters.
Everybody wants to start a feud between us. And if there was even a spark of a fire there, I would play into it. But it’s sort of a dead end. I actually like Ryan. I think he’s an excellent TV host. We’re friendly with each other.
Friendly as in you socialize with him? Does he ever call you and say, “Hey, I have a free hour. Wanna go get a spray tan and a Tab?”
Sure, sure. We’ve had dinner recently. We try to get together over New Year’s Eve. I know his family well and I think the world of them. I like my show more than his, but that’s about as aggressive as I’ll get. I’ll take The Voice to a street fight with his show any day.
Do you pay attention to the ratings for The Voice?
Yes, of course, absolutely. I wait anxiously for them.
And you’ve never been tempted to call Ryan’s cellphone in the middle of the night and tell him the ratings and mutter menacingly “You can run but you can’t hide?”
Not even once. I know it’s a competition, but there’s plenty of room for everybody. The best analogy for these types of shows is sports. There’s the NFL and the NBA and the NHL and Major League Baseball. You have all of these different games and formats and sometimes they overlap. It’s the same thing with singer contest shows. We’re similar to Idol, but it’s like baseball and football. You can enjoy them both. And as far as the similarities between Ryan and myself, I know we have a lot in common. We both have New Year’s Eve shows and radio shows and we host singing contests on television. But at the end of the day, I’m a music guy. That’s really the chief difference between us. Music is what motivates me. It’s what I’m all about. But I don’t think Ryan is really a music guy.
I can’t imagine him in a dirty motel room just outside Tijuana, smelling like whisky and desperation, trying to teach himself how to play “Witchy Woman” on the guitar.
Well, I don’t know. Maybe. [Laughs.] Have a beer with him and have a beer with me, and you’ll see there are quite a few differences.
Do you get sentimental about Total Request Live the way some of us get sentimental about college?
Oh for sure. Because it was my college. I went to junior college here in Palm Springs, where I am right now, to play professional golf. And then I met Jimmy Kimmel, and he took my life from an aspiring golf professional to the radio route, which led me to where I am today. When I think about my time at MTV, I wasn’t somebody trying to parlay his success into something bigger. I was just a guy having a run of good luck at the craps table and I was going to keep playing till I crapped out.
My college experience was smoking way too much weed and having a lot of irresponsible casual sex. Was that pretty much what TRL was like of you?
Well, I never smoked that much weed. But it was a time when I felt like I was getting away with something. I always thought that MTV was going to figure out eventually that I didn’t know what I was doing and fire me. So I was like, I’m going to play hard and enjoy every second of this, because there’s a really great chance I’m going to be a 35 year old bartender someday, and I want to look back and go, “I had the world by the balls for about six years.”
You must have some insane war stories. What’s one of your favorites? Tell me a rock n’ roll tale where things got broken and feeling got hurt and somebody took a shit in the punchbowl.
I have like a thousand of those. But there’s one murky memory that does stick out. For a long time, Kurt Loder was the only one allowed to smoke in the MTV studios. Cause he was the fucking man and he could do whatever he wanted. But when TRL became a hit, all of a sudden I had that power too. I don’t smoke anymore, but in those days I was smoking a lot. So one day Johnny Depp comes in for an interview and he wants to sneak outside for a smoke. And I said to him, “Fuck that, you don’t have to go outside, come to my dressing room.” I’m untouchable, nobody’s going to tell me and Johnny Depp not to smoke.
That’s how an intern gets cut.
[Laughs.] Exactly, right. And that inflated sense of power was part of the fun of that moment. I go to offer him a Marlboro Light and he shakes me off. He pulls out of his pocket this beautiful bag of tobacco, from lord knows what fucking country, and he takes out rolling papers and rolls us both a cigarette as he’s talking. It was just masterful. He hands one to me, I light it up, and we smoke these elegant cigarettes until the room is just filled with blue smoke. And then I left and went out to the studio and in front of screaming teenagers said, “Here’s Britney Spears at number ten,” and that was my day. It was such a weird juxtaposition.
Now you’re hosting Last Call, which is in its tenth year. Does it blow your mind that you’ve been doing the show for a decade?
What blows my mind is that we have more viewers this year by a lot. We’re up 20%. I didn’t really set out in this business with the goal of being the next late night guy. I tried hiring writers and doing the comedy thing. But finally I just said, “Fuck it, let’s get out of the studio.” Remember that Dave Attell show, Insomniac? That was my main inspiration. We’re on at 1:30 in the morning, and at 1:30 I want to be in a bar. I want to have real conversations. I don’t want to ask how their summer went, cause then you get their pre-planned story about falling off a jet ski and it’s so route and by the numbers. Jimmy Kimmel and Letterman and Leno, they do that better than me. What can I do? What do I know? I know drinking beer, and I know great cool spots in LA, and I know great unsigned artists and young musicians.
Because you’re on at 1:30, can you get away with pretty much anything? The FCC can’t be watching, right?
The FCC is asleep like everybody else.
Have you ever been tempted to find out if that’s really true? “Let’s do a week of full frontal interviews and see if they’re paying attention.”
I could’ve done that, yeah. We haven’t obviously, but we probably could’ve. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even think about that. I don’t think about stunts or trying to do something outrageous to get ratings. We don’t even play the game anymore of, “Hey, can we get Ryan Reynolds for Green Lantern?” Because we know the answer is no. We’re almost like an NPR now. We’re very niche. We’re like a rock n’ roll This American Life, where we tell stories about people doing some really cool stuff. Not long ago, we did a whole thing on David Lynch and his transcendental medicine. It was just fucking trippy and cool.
I have a huge respect for you after what happened recently with Britney Spears. Her publicists made some bizarre demands of you before they’d agree to an interview, and you responded on Twitter by saying “F THAT!” In hindsight, do you have any regrets?
Oh my god, no, not at all. I really do feel like I’m master of my domain now.
In the Seinfeld sense?
[Laughs.] No, in the sense that I don’t need to be pushed around. Had that incident happened five or ten years ago, I probably would have been shaking in my pants. Her fans jumped down my throat after I Tweeted about her. I’ve never dealt with such a negative, hostile backlash. But I could care less. I know exactly what went down, and there’s no way in god’s green earth that I’m going to surrender tapes of an interview to Britney’s management so they could edit it and then tell me when or if I could air it.
We’ve all been there, brother. I could name names, McCarthy style.
I’m sure you could. It was so over the top fucking crazy that I wrote… well, you read it. I said, “Fuck that.” And I’d say that if Britney Spears was on the phone right now. It’s just not going to happen. We’re in such a transparent age, and yet nobody wants to be accountable for who the fuck they really are. It’s crazy to me.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but I would totally open mouth kiss you right now.
[Laughs.] I understand. This business can be very frustrating.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)