“How do you respond to the claim that most people under 30 have a negative, preconceived notion about you?”
Carson Daly, who is 38, visibly winces when I ask this question, as if I've blown cigarette smoke in his eye. It's 11:30 a.m., and we're sitting on a leather couch at an upscale sports bar on Melrose, where Last Call, Daly's late-night show, has just wrapped for the day. (He starts his days even earlier, spinning Top 40 during drive time at KAMP Radio in Culver City.) He wears a Kylesa T-shirt, and his 3-year-old son, Jack, toddles around. Daly runs a hand over his stubbly face. “I guess I just don't give a fuck anymore.”
Born into a lower-middle-class family in Santa Monica, Daly originally wanted to be a professional golfer. “Golf is actually the only really tangible talent I have,” he says. After bouncing around half a dozen radio stations, he landed his gig as host of MTV's TRL in 1998.
That was where he got the reputation as a smiling pretty boy, seemingly typifying everything superficial about the Britney/Limp Bizkit era. But, though punished for our sins, he never really went away, disappearing in 2002 into his Last Call hosting duties on NBC, in the wretched 1:30 a.m. timeslot. “I basically hit rock-bottom right around the late days of TRL when I was dating Tara Reid,” he continues. “We were constantly drunk, and it was just total overindulgence. When I started at NBC, I really got a whole new outlook and finally got healthy.”
In 2009, Daly ditched the monologues and took Last Call out of the studio, adopting a documentary-style format and shooting on location at places like the Viper Room and Hotel Café. The show has gotten good: Who the hell else is booking Japandroids and cult horror director Stuart Gordon on late night? Daly is still a bit like wallpaper on camera — never seeming to raise his voice or ruffle feathers — but that's by design. “I've done my job if my guest comes off looking good. I'm secondary to that.”
Our interview is almost over, but Daly circles back to my initial question, as if it's been nagging at him. “I know that people knock me. I'll read 'You fucking suck' on message boards. [But] I think what I do is not obvious.” Indeed, it's not, but it's also clear that he does it well.
Last Call begins its 11th season tomorrow, Sept. 20 with Greek Week, a collection of performances shot over the summer at the Greek Theater, featuring The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, Atmosphere and Thievery Corporation.