Sunday, December 26, 2010

Kevin Pollak's Chat Show

Kevin Pollak's Chat Show has no right to work, something its self-effacing host would probably admit to even before that other self-deprecating maverick of talk shows, Craig Ferguson. A no-budget Internet program featuring the comedian and character actor slumped over a Macbook surfing for questions to ask his guests in interviews that routinely stretch past the two-and-a-half-hour mark? It sounds like the stuff of legendary tragedy: half-hubris, half-midlife crisis, all some strange attempt to get the shot at hosting the Tonight Show that every comic wanted and now no one shall ever have again.

But as I already said, if there's one thing you can't accuse Kevin Pollak of being full of, it's hubris. The KPCS, like Craig Ferguson's equally, wonderfully scattershot network program, thrives on the understanding that everything could fall apart at any second. Pollak and his crew, among whom are his girlfriend Jaime Fox and, bizarrely, Freaks and Geeks alumnus Samm Levine, have been at this show for more than a year and a half now, yet technical problems continue to abound. Mics are turned up, the Macbook doesn't load quickly enough, the live stream drops out. Through it all, Pollak keeps a smile; hell, that smile gets wider when something goes awry.

Surprisingly, however, Pollak does not spend a great deal of time with anything approaching a stand-up routine. Rather than use his skeletal crew to praise himself, he puts out a genuine chat show, one that works as a duologue between the host and his guests. Thus, Pollak's chief inspiration is less King Johnny than Dick Cavett, that laid-back maestro of interviews. Cavett knew how to prepare sufficiently to avoid embarrassment but leave enough unresearched to give his questions a genuine curiosity. Since he retired, Cavett has left a void in the talk show landscape that has only been filled on television by Charlie Rose, who toils away largely unheeded on public broadcasting.

Yet Pollak uses the freeform structure afforded him by the Internet to explore his guests with the same thorough, pleasant tone as Cavett. Whether interviewing comedians, actors, musicians or simply web innovators, Pollak has the intent look of a man who gets to choose his guests himself and doesn't have to book people plugging bad movies with weak anecdotes. The guests all have something going on they'd like to promote, but they figure out early on that the host cares about them, not their movie or album or stand-up appearance. As they sit in the bare studio, darkened to recall Charlie Rose's minimalist setup, the guests initially look around with a hint of nervousness, waiting to be cut off at the five-minute mark to go to commercial, only to realize that it really is all about them, and not in an empty, showbiz way.

One can see why each guest caught Pollak's eye. Impression-heavy comics like Dana Carvey or the legendary voice actors Billy West and John DiMaggio appeal to Pollak's own gift for voices -- he is best known, after all, as the King of Shatner Impersonators -- while character actors such as David Koechner allow him to speak to other comedic supporting players. There is an almost childlike glee in some of these guests, some of them unaccustomed to even getting the five-minute soundbite on Leno or Dave and all bewildered that they can get anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes to speak.

Then there's Pollak, looking every bit as giddy. He has a way of avoiding asking hard questions of private matters while leaving open the tacitly broached subject for the guest to discuss at his or her comfort. Billy West has said a great deal about his abuse as a child, and Pollak never brings it up, but he ingeniously lets West fill in the gaps by asking, "When did you first realize you had a gift?" That pleasant, open-ended question allows West to gently suggest that humor got him through his rough childhood, and that it might have spared him even more nightmares.

Because he does not put anyone on the spot, because he does not bring them there to address a controversy or pander to an audience that can not applaud back, Pollak elicits something rare from his showbiz guests: honesty. Just as Cavett could hold a conversation with those who appeared on his program, Pollak rolls with each answer, actually paying attention and not leaping to the next question on the card. The guests loosen up and trust him for this, and by the end of each segment, if the interview subject wasn't already Pollak's fan, he or she is now.

So comfortable does everyone become than many lightly spar with him. Neil Patrick Harris can jovially trip him up for his syntax, while Kevin Smith says what was on a lot of people's minds when he, with mock interventionist concern, leaned in and begged the constantly be-fedora'd Pollak, "Stop with the fucking hats." It's a banter not even Craig Ferguson achieves, and when Ferguson came on the show, there was a mutual recognition of respect between them. Each sees potential in the other that just does not exist in other talk shows. Even Conan gets by on his writing charm, not his rapport with the vast majority of his guests.

The KPCS should also be required viewing -- as if anyone needed to be forced to watch it -- for those interested in the effect of the Internet on artistic entrepreneurship. Its conception came when Pollak met Jason Calacanis, who reported on the dot-com boom during its height and later became a Web entrepreneur in his own right. After Calacanis told him about the potential of Twitter and video-streaming sites like Ustream, Pollak devised the idea for his own chat show, which Calacanis agreed to produce. Many of the invited guests are pioneers in Web marketing, such as Felicia Day, who inked a landmark deal with Microsoft for her webcom The Guild that proved an important step in monetizing micro-budget Web content (she also, of course, starred in Joss Whedon's online mega-hit Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). Chris Hardwick, host of the "Nerdist" podcast, also comes on to geek out for 140 minutes. Even the people who just know their way around a Twitter account have something to say about promotion in the age of the Internet.

The power of the artist to serve as his own marketer is, of course, one of the main reasons Kevin Pollak's Chat Show managed to swell from an underwhelming number of viewers for the pilot to a profile on the front page of the Los Angeles Times a mere three months later. Pollak loves to joke about his character actor credentials -- he can connect himself to anyone else in Hollywood in half the steps one needs for Kevin Bacon -- but where one might originally have chalked up his ability to land some impressive guests from him collecting all the favors he amassed as a guy who'd show up for a few lines here and there, I wonder if guests come on now because they've heard about the show and are chomping at the bit to participate. Maybe they just want to take part in the glorious absurdity that is the Larry King Game, in which players put on a terrible King voice (the badness is a requirement) and toss out revealing "insights" into King's life before throwing to some vulgar town name. Who the hell wouldn't want to play that game?

I have not managed to watch every episode of Kevin Pollak's Chat Show -- I've yet to even see Andy Richter's appearance, despite my abiding love for all things Conan -- but I've never once caught the host bored. Even when he sets up his interview with Leonard Maltin with a minutes-long screed against film criticism as the guest can only sit by and laugh helplessly, Pollak then turns and treats Maltin with respect and admiration for the next two hours, and if he still dismisses criticism at large, he's clearly won over by Maltin's honesty and enthusiasm for the art. It's one of the many pleasures of the show, a chance to see Pollak both curmudgeonly and welcoming, and if Pollak gets across some not-undeserved slams at critics for being dismissive and haughty, Maltin can provide a counterpoint of a young boy who fell in love with the cinema and devoted his life to spreading that love. At last, we hear both views at once, not the rantings of the wounded artist or the even worse whines of the self-justifying critic; instead, there is the simplest yet most revealing of things: a chat.

I don't know how long Pollak intends on following this bit of whimsy, but I hope he never tires of it. Freed of commercial obligation and note-making executives, Kevin Pollak's Chat Show is one of the most refreshing and revealing celebrity talk shows I've ever heard. As with Conan, Pollak has the reverence for the old school and the desire to the push the boundaries. But where Conan devoted everything to get the Tonight Show, Pollak made his own path, and as dynamic and satisfying as his show is in its own right, what it says about the potential of moving everything about the entertainment industry -- even that which some dismiss as pablum -- online. Pollak was amazed that he landed the L.A. Times when he held up a copy a year and a half ago, but why wouldn't a major Los Angeles paper write about him? In his own way, Larry King Game, hats and all, Pollak could help change Hollywood's landscape. When you look at it like that, the fact that it's entertaining as hell almost seems a sidenote.


  1. What a perfect description of the show. And it remains true today.
    Sad that no one else commented.

  2. I'm really late to the party.....just started watching it a few days ago on hulu plus......but boy am I glad I found it ! So I searched to see what others were saying about it and found this piece. Fine job sir.

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