Carson Daly is in the unique position of hosting both NBC’s least-promoted show — his late-night series Last Call With Carson Daly, now in its tenth season — and its new highest priority, the blockbuster music competition The Voice. Still, even the success of the latter doesn’t give him too much comfort, since the self-deprecating Daly is always readying himself for the next necessary hustle. We recently met up with Daly before the crack of dawn (in addition to all those other gigs, he also hosts a four-hour drive-time radio show on L.A.'s 97.1 station) to talk about the unlikely arc of his career, his strip-club-studded stint hosting Total Request Live for MTV, and his recent dinner with Ryan Seacrest, Anderson Cooper, and Kathy Griffin.
Tell me why you wanted to return to radio when you’ve already got two big gigs.
Well, I got offered the opportunity to. It’s my first trade. I wake up at the crack of dawn to do it, and I do it with a lot of pride and a lot of respect. If I could be lucky enough to just have radio as the base for the rest of my life, I could build off that. No matter how successful I become, I always look at radio as the only skill set I can really call on. I even know how to operate the boards.
You talk about job security, but you host NBC’s No. 1 show right now.
But that’s fucking year to year. The Voice is an anomaly. I mean, that’s great, but you can’t live your life in this business buying into that. I hope the The Voice has a fifteen-year run, don’t get me wrong. But I come from nothing, and maybe it’s the Irish in me, but my attitude is always like, "They’ll figure me out soon. Always assume the worst, and hope for the best." That’s like my living motto.
How is The Voice different in season two?
You should’ve seen the auditions this year. Dude, "adorkable" was the theme. It was these lovable, nerdy chicks with ukuleles singing Nicki Minaj.
How did you end up hosting The Voice in the first place?
I think they sort of dusted me off, to some degree. They found me in the basement and were like, "Oh, yeah, that." I was pitching to them a bunch. I feel like I’ve been like beating down the NBC door for a long time. I’ve had my beacon out there, just constantly hustling for ideas.
What’s the juxtaposition like, hosting NBC's biggest series to producing Last Call, where you're practically autonomous?
It’s really great because it feels like I get to yin and yang it. Selfishly, it’s job security. Getting back to that, I keep it simple: I don’t drink the Kool-aid, and I’m going to stay working. But it’s the best of both worlds because I think when The Voice took off, a lot of the people on my late-night show thought, Oh, boy. There goes Carson. And one of the things I was quick to reassure everyone in late night was to remind them of my loyalty. We have a small fucking crew. A very small crew. We’ve got, arguably, really a dozen of people that are the nuts and bolts that make that show, and I wanted to assure them all, like, “Don’t think I’m that guy — that now that I’m on prime time, I'm leaving." The budget thing is crazy on Last Call. We don’t have a wardrobe budget. I change in my car, literally. On The Voice, I was wearing a zip-up that looked just like this, it might have been cashmere, and one of the guys on Last Call was moving a tag and it said $256. He was like, “Holy shit. You realize we don’t even have a budget for wardrobe and you’re just wearing this?" So all the goodies from The Voice spill over and I get to use some of those assets, whether they're physical or political, to help strengthen and bolster the late-night show. It’s enabled me to breathe life back into the late-night show, and in return, they asked me to do the Golden Globes preshow, which is another show I probably wouldn’t normally do. I mean, I’m not a big fan of the red carpet.
I saw you brought a flask to that.
Oh, yeah. On Twitter? Oh, God yeah. There's a long five hours of doing nothing before the show.
How much do you prefer the new, changed format of Last Call? It doesn't look anything like a traditional talk show anymore.
I love it. Look, NBC’s late-night priorities are Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno, and then there’s me. I’ve sort of been there for a while, but I like what we’ve become. I never felt really comfortable before, and I think it was quite obvious if you watched the other version of my late-night show. Standing and doing the monologue, the unnatural conversation necessarily, the couch and the desk — it felt like I was acting. And then I almost lost the show during the late-night wars, and I was so scared to make any changes with it because I just didn’t want to lose my job. I thought I could just continue to pull it off. And then finally when they called me and said, "You may be pushed off the schedule," I realized how vulnerable I was.
Who made that call to you?
[Former NBC executive] Rick Ludwin. He called me and said, "There’s a scenario in play here that should Conan make a decision to move The Tonight Show, it would just push you off the schedule." And I just looked at it like, I’m only as secure as the day is long at this point, and I’m not really happy doing the show this way. So I just said, "Fuck it, if I’m only going to be on for another two weeks or a month, I really want to enjoy the shooting. I want to enjoy what I do." And we just started going out of studio, and we kind of adopted this "No desk, no tie, no rules” sort of mantra, and I got the right staff in place. I said, "I love 'This American Life,' I love Charlie Rose, I love storytelling, I love documentary filmmaking" — so that’s the texture of how the show looks. I love music, but I’m like, “Why am I fighting for Kings of Leon when they come to L.A.?” They’re going to do Jimmy Kimmel, they’re not going to do me. But I love giving new bands a shot.
Are you close with Jimmy Fallon?
I always loved Jimmy. He's such a nice guy. He used to make fun of me on SNL, and I was always so stoked by it. Our offices were close to each other, and he used to come in my office and play me his comedy CDs and he would do "me" to me. I would say, “Take off the glasses. I don’t wear glasses," and we’d workshop this whole thing where he’d call me a tool. I don’t know. I just love him. My mom and Jimmy Fallon’s mom are really close.
You recently went out to dinner with Ryan Seacrest, Anderson Cooper, and Kathy Griffin.
That was fun. Ryan and I have been friends for a long time, and the press assumes that there’s some competitive spirit there, but not at all. Ryan and I try to get together every year to have a drink around New Year's Eve because it’s the only time that we’re both around, and then this year, I thought we should try to get the other [New Year's Eve] hosts and make this a host thing, so we asked Anderson and Kathy and they said yes. And it was great.
Where was it?
This place called Crown in New York, a kind of swanky, maybe semi-private kind of place. It’s a place I never would’ve known existed, and it’s a place where Ryan probably eats there every night. It’s really exclusive and I’m sure Simon Cowell eats there — a boldfaced sort of place. I walked in, like, looking for an application to bartend there, and then Anderson came in just wearing a white T-shirt, which made me love him. I got to sit next to Anderson, who I had never met, and he just bought a firehouse in New York and he was telling all these cool stories about renovating it. We really had a great dinner, and Ryan was great. He was a gracious host; he picked up the bill. It was a fun dinner that I think we’ll try to do every year, and we just got to laugh and bullshit and talk.
You talk to me like you're the odd man out in that crowd, but did you ever feel like an insider? When you hosted TRL and you were dating starlets, you didn't feel on top of the world?
Not really, no. It felt like such a lifestyle. I was a theology major, and I come from a deeper-rooted place, so I see the context of success in a much different way than the average celebrity. So, no, for me it was a lifestyle. TRL was my twenties, and I felt like I was living it on television. Kid Rock and I were really close at the time, and we had a moment at Scores, at a strip club — me, Kid Rock, and Lars [Ulrich], the drummer from Metallica — and like, the minute we walked in and sat down, the D.J. played "Enter Sandman." And the girls are dancing on the main stage and we’re just drinking, hanging out, and then that song ended and then she played a Kid Rock song, and then a Metallica song, and then a Kid Rock song, and then a Metallica song. And [Kid Rock] was just looking at us like, "Can you fucking believe this?" It was kind of one of those moments where you do take it in. But other than that, I come from a family that constantly reminds me of the priorities of life.
Do you watch any of the new MTV shows?
No. I’ve never seen Jersey Shore. That’s not to knock it, it’s just not what I watch.
As a guy who saw a lot of musicians minted through music videos, what do you make of Lana Del Rey?
This Lana del Rey thing is so interesting because you can rise to fame through YouTube, but it’s dangerous. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. We’ve come back to this Gladiator thing, where the audience is so powerful, and if they do this [a thumbs-up] or this [a thumbs-down] ...
Although sometimes when they give you a thumbs-down, it makes you more famous.
That’s true, too. Do you want to be famous for that? I wouldn’t want to be in the Kim Kardashian business. They mint money, but do you want to be in that business?
Well, Ryan Seacrest is in that business.
Ryan is in it, and God bless him. His kids will never have to work because of that business, but personally, I don’t choose to be in that business. It’s not my thing. It’s not my world.
So do you feel like you've made it where you want to be?
The number one question I get from anybody is, "How did you make it?" I’m like, "Don’t worry about making it. There is no making it. Just be happy." Otherwise you’re going to be sitting here at 5:15 a.m., when there’s not a cool writer here interviewing you, going, "What the fuck is my world all about?"