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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Is America ready for Alec Baldwin, talk-show host? On Oct. 11, MSNBC will premiere the Friday interview series Up Late With Alec Baldwin. The actor has been boning up on his current events; he’s watching TED talks and poring over several newspapers a day. “Thankfully we’re only doing one show a week,” says Baldwin, 55, who has a staff of eight producers and bookers and a production office at, yes, 30 Rock. His goal is in-depth interviews that also offer some “takeaway” for viewers. MSNBC president Phil Griffin says he had eyed the liberal-leaning actor for years, but negotiations began in earnest in June.
“We’ve never had a pure interview show,” says Griffin. “It almost doesn’t matter who the guest is if you can bring out something that is unique and revealing.” Meanwhile, the exec has asked Baldwin to tone down his famously vitriolic Twitter feed. “He’s a big personality. I have confidence that he’ll be known for his interviews, not for any extraordinary …,” says Griffin, trailing off.
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You had a popular podcast. Why do a talk show?
Let’s face it: This is a very saturated market. It’s something I had tremendous hesitation about and still do. We’re doing longer-format [interviews] with our guests to try to replicate the podcast on TV, but the minute you put a camera on people they become somewhat self-conscious.
How is the preparation going?
It’s been challenging. When I did the podcast for WNYC radio, I’d sit down with somebody and bullshit for an hour and a half, and we’d cut it into a 45-minute podcast. Many were show business people, friends of mine. It’s harder to do [TV] well. This is about research and preparation and getting the most out of our guests.
NBC also was interested. How far did those talks go?
We talked about doing this show on both NBC and MSNBC. And MSNBC was the place that had a slot — they were ready. There was some very loose talk with NBC but nothing serious. They have Jimmy [Fallon] and Seth Meyers. They certainly weren’t ready to talk to me about that.
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What types of guests do you want? Any Republicans?
(Laughs.) I want exciting, fizzy, dynamic people. I want interesting people. I want controversial people. I don’t want to get a bunch of wonks together and just wonk-ify some issue.
Who is your hosting role model?
Dick Cavett had eclecticism to his guest list. And he tried to have a smart conversation, whether the person was the heavyweight champion of the world or one of The Beatles or Gore Vidal. He didn’t talk down to anyone.
Many people blame cable news for debasing political discourse. Now you are part of cable news. Do you agree?
I don’t think of myself as a part of anything, really. The people at MSNBC said, ‘We want you to do something different, with a different tone.’ I think they’re trying to diversify what they have. It’s highly unlikely that it’s going to be me exhorting people at the end of some commentary. The show may change, the show may grow, but we’re not going to do any of that.
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What has Griffin said to you about your Twitter habits?
The thing I like about Phil is, he’s going to tell me exactly what’s on his mind. So if anything happens that Phil is unhappy with, he’ll tell me.
Is anything off-limits for you or MSNBC?
I don’t know; I guess we’re going to find out. It’s a news network, so as long as it’s not indecent, we can say just about anything.
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