Carson Daly Is TV’s Ultimate Survivor

“I’ve heard this my whole life. ‘What tangible talent does he have?’ The answer is none.”

Daly at MTV studios in 1998. Photo: Dave Allocca/DMIy Images/The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett
Daly at MTV studios in 1998. Photo: Dave Allocca/DMIy Images/The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett

On May 24, after 2,000 episodes, Carson Daly’s late-night show came to an end, and as you read these words, I wonder if you can remember its name. To be fair, late-night shows tend to have sound-alike titles — Late Night, Late Show, Later, The Late Late Show — and Daly’s entry (let’s kill the suspense: It was called Last Call With Carson Daly) was no exception. So you may be surprised to learn that the show aired for 17  straight years in the same time slot with the same host — the longest such run of any contemporary late-night host.

How? Last Call survived in part by changing its form radically over the years in response to budget cuts, cancellation threats, writers’ strikes, network conciliations to higher-profile hosts, and the general ongoing effort to figure out just what exactly a late-night show starring Carson Daly should look like. Last Call premiered in 2002 as a typical studio-bound talk show with a rotating house band. But the studio and the sidekick band proved to be an ill fit. So the show was reconfigured as a sit-down chat show with longer, more intimate interviews. Finally, after 2013, as Daly shuttled between New York and L.A. to host and produce The Voice and co-anchor Today, Last Call was recast as a series of produced segments, with Daly providing pretaped interstitial commentary. All of this was aired, through three presidents, two wars, and one global recession, five nights a week on NBC in the prime viewing slot of 1:30 in the morning.

Daly claims he couldn’t be happier about the show’s relative obscurity, evincing the kind of tireless agreeability that has kept him on television for two decades now. “If you’d told me, ‘We’ll give you a choice: You’re going to have the biggest talk show in the history of mankind and you’ll have it for six years, or you’ll have a show that probably the majority of people aren’t going to know about but we’ll guarantee it will be on for twice as long,’ I would take the latter every time,” he says. At a lounge in the Regency Hotel in New York, from the same seat where his now-wife, food blogger Siri Pinter, sat six years ago when he proposed (it was a hectic day, they were in town for Today and staying at the hotel, and he just needed to get it done), I ask him whether the end of Last Call feels like a victory lap or an Irish wake.

“It’s a huge victory lap. A talk show? First of all, everybody was like, ‘No one ever makes it past MTV,’ ” he says. “Getting the late-night show was another big step, but I’d heard of Magic Johnson and Chevy Chase, and people said this will be another one of those. So just defying those odds, and then having it go on so long, sort of quietly, while America is fast asleep — I feel like I stole something from society. Like they just never saw me coming.” If you didn’t see Carson Daly coming, let’s recall where he was coming from circa 2002. He’d been a DJ at the influential L.A. radio station KROQ credited with, among other things, breaking the band Marilyn Manson. MTV recruited him in 1997 to host a music show called Motel California; that stint went well enough that he was hired as a permanent VJ. When MTV asked him to pitch ideas, he proposed a canny update on American Bandstand that ended up as Total Request Live, a countdown show that played the top-ten requested videos of the day, as requested by viewers, via email or phone.

Premiering in 1998 and filmed in a studio overlooking Times Square, TRL was less a TV show than a televised pep rally and a necessary promotional pit stop for pop stars like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and the Backstreet Boys. Throngs of screaming teens would crowd Times Square to wave at his studio’s windows, and Carson Daly would smile and wave back at the people below. He was an ideal host for the show: seemingly edgy but never threatening; seemingly cool but never intimidating; attractive but not so charismatic that he’d distract from the real attractions. He became a celebrity, but of a particular kind: He was famous for his fame-adjacency (including in his love life; “Page Six” eagerly covered his relationships with Tara Reid and Jennifer Love Hewitt). He had become, in his late 20s, America’s Forever Teenager, a gee-whiz bystander in the Dick Clark mold, at the very last moment when American teenagers were interested in watching the same TV channel to collectively scream at the same thing. He recalls a young girl holding a sign on the street below that seemed to encapsulate his TRL status. The sign read, “Hey Carson, Let Me Up — I Want to Meet Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys.” “Therein lies the relationship between me and the audience,” he says. “They needed me. I was the access point, the portal to their celebrity. I’m not the celebrity per se. I’m a conduit to power — that’s really all I’ve ever done.”

Daly didn’t want to stay forever at MTV, and he’d seen how other VJs got branded as MTV personalities. He had no interest in acting and turned down offers to take a version of TRL to network television. Instead, he went to NBC looking for opportunities, and, he tells me, “they said, ‘The only thing we have available is that, at 1:30 in the morning, we’re running SCTV reruns, and we’d be willing to pull those off the air. But why would you want to be on at 1:30 in the morning?’ ”*

Daly has never been an obvious fit for late night, where the most straightforward path to a host’s chair is a career in stand-up and shows are typically built around a host’s comedic sensibility. You watched Letterman, for instance, both to see Letterman and to see Letterman interacting with whoever was on that night. Daly comes not from comedy but from radio, and to hear him tell it, he has no discernible talents — or at least he’s aware that this is an opinion of him that has long existed in the world. “The most common thing has been people behind closed doors saying, ‘He seems like a nice guy, but what does he really possess?’ ” Daly says. “I’ve heard this my whole life. ‘What tangible talent does he have?’ The answer is none.”

Yet Last Call With Carson Daly was born. And reborn. And reborn again. Then very nearly canceled several times, most notably in 2008, when Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien were wrestling over The Tonight Show. One proposed solution was to push everyone — Leno, Conan, and Jimmy Fallon, then host of Late Night — later. But that would push Last Call right off the schedule’s edge: NBC affiliates had a contractual obligation to air Poker After Dark at 2 a.m. “I got this call from Rick Ludwin, the head of late night at NBC,” recalls Daly, “and he said, ‘I’ve got to be honest with you. We’ve got some issues. The network’s in a dispute with Conan and Jay, who are feuding over the Tonight Show. In one of the scenarios we’ve put on the table, it’s a time-slot thing, and it’s possible Last Call will just go away all together.’” Daly, who has been open about his struggles with anxiety, recalls thinking at the brink of the show’s cancellation, after he’d just bought a house in Malibu (two houses, actually; it was a teardown project) and his now-wife was pregnant, “Fuck, what did I do? I’m going to be homeless with my wife and a little baby on Hollywood Boulevard. And I deserve it.

But Conan blinked, Leno won Tonight, and Last Call survived to see another decade. In 2010, Stewart Bailey, a former Daily Show producer, came aboard to help reimagine the show — this time spotlighting acts Daly found interesting. Talent spotting turned out to be a real strength for Daly, obscured on TRL by the fact that he was playing your requests, not his. On Last Call, Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar, and the Killers all made their U.S. TV debuts. “It felt like a college film that never lost its funding,” says Bailey of the show’s latter incarnation. “Our wardrobe budget was $50 a year because every year we’d just buy Carson a new hoodie.”

“The best way to describe it is: Let’s say you live in a really big house, and that represents the network,” Daly says. “When we moved into this house with this big, giant family, I was like, ‘I’ll take the shitty little room in the basement that has a half-bath,’ while everybody else scattered for the bedrooms in the nicest parts of the house. Through the years, my room never got redone — but I had a fucking room. I had skin in the game.” Seventeen years later, Last Call With Carson Daly could just as well have been titled Last Laugh.

In 2015, Vanity Fair did a photo shoot featuring ten late-night hosts as a celebration of the medium’s ascendancy. The most-remarked-upon aspect of the photo: It was all dudes. The second-most? It was almost entirely white dudes. Even so, Carson Daly didn’t make the cut.

By that point, Daly had already joined Today, thus completing the logical evolution from affable afternoon VJ to affable early-morning co-host. His initial role on Today, at age 40, was to be the show’s social-media liaison, reporting from the Orange Room, where viewers could interact with him on Facebook and Twitter, which is sort of the early-21st-century equivalent of hosting TRL. From the beginning, Daly has been savvy enough to recognize an opportunity in that slim space between celebrity and civilian; the value in being the person who gets to do the things we wish we could do and stand next to the people we wish we could meet. If TRL’s obvious antecedent is American Bandstand, Carson Daly’s is Dick Clark, even though Generation X likely never felt it needed a Dick Clark. (Oddly, it wound up with two: Daly and Ryan Seacrest.)

When Daly was still in his 20s and just starting out in his career, he wangled a meeting with Clark. “I asked him, ‘How did you do this so long? How can I stay in this fight?’” says Daly. “He told me, ‘Work hard. People think this shit’s easy — it’s not.’ Then he told me: ‘Being likable is everything. I’d rather be likable than talented.’ That one stuck with me. Because I thought, I can be that.

Whereas once you’d find him in Times Square in front of a backdrop of screaming teenagers, now you’ll find him outside Rockefeller Center in front of a backdrop of screaming middle-aged Midwesterners. America grew up, sort of, and so did Daly, sort of. “Oh my God, it’s the same,” he says of Today. “It’s literally TRL for grown-ups. It plays to this tiny skill set I have. It’s a perfect place for me.” He still hosts The Voice, for which he won an Emmy, which means he shuttles from coast to coast every week. “People probably think I’m in a fancy hotel or taking a private jet, and I’m on a goddamn red-eye,” he says. “I’m hustling. This shit is a hustle.”

Last Call’s time slot will go to a new show called (here’s the sound-alike name again) A Little Late, hosted by Canadian YouTube star Lilly Singh. Her channel has over 14 million subscribers, which is roughly 13 million more people than watched Last Call on a typical night. Daly’s happy to pass the baton. “She’s popular. She’s talented. She comes with a bag of tricks,” he says. As for Daly, he’s got Today and The Voice. He’s maybe cooking up a reality show with his wife. He co-hosts a podcast for the Golf channel with pro golfer Rory McIlroy. “Someone just wrote to me on Twitter about it,” Daly says. “They wrote, ‘Shut the hell up. I came into this because you have incredible access to Rory McIlroy, the No. 4 golfer in the world, so do me a favor and shut the fuck up.’ ” As always, Daly is open to viewer feedback. “I wrote back, ‘A hundred percent.’ It’s a good note. I should remember — that’s my role.”

*A version of this article appears in the June 10, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

*This article has been updated to clarify that NBC and MTV are not part of the same corporate entity.

Carson Daly Is TV’s Ultimate Survivor