Running on a treadmill in his home in New York, Carson Daly, now a 42-year-old father of three with (count 'em) three different NBC hosting gigs, seems too busy to play the self-promotion game.
“We're closer to an infomercial now than an actual late-night show,” he says, referring candidly to his nearly forgotten 1:35 a.m. series, Last Call With Carson Daly. “Most people don't even know Last Call is still on the air.”
Since debuting on NBC in 2002, Last Call has outlived its own life expectancy by at least a decade. Daly is now late night's longest-running host, presiding over more than 1,600 episodes. A byproduct of Daly's zenith as moderator of shrieking teens on MTV's Total Request Live, Last Call has survived for 14 seasons by evolving into something unique on late-night TV: an open-format showcase for entertainers, particularly musicians, operating at the fringes of the mainstream.
It's the only late-night show that eschews comic monologues and sketches, a studio audience and rehearsed deskside chitchat. It moved from New York to L.A. in 2005 and now occupies a ramshackle office building near an outdoor mall in Glendale. There's no comedy writing team or glossy studio — just 23 staffers creating what Daly describes as “rock & roll Nightline.”
Unlike anything else on late-night TV, Last Call is edited into 30 minutes of pieced-together concert footage and interviews shot at locations all over L.A., from local bars and concert venues to boutique hotels and interviewees' homes. The result feels like a hybrid between low-budget documentary and homemade YouTube show, in which Daly is barely visible.
“I can't remember the last time I did an interview,” he says. Beginning in 2010, he began to remove himself from doing on-camera interviews with guests.
The format change was forced on the show amid network budget cuts in 2009. But it brought a sigh of relief to the show's producers — and to Daly himself, who also hosts The Voice and The Today Show's “digital studio” but realized early on that he wasn't a stand-up comedian. “It just wasn't me,” he says. “I felt like I was playing the part of a late-night host.”
“We were told that if we wanted to survive, we had to get rid of the studio,” says Davis Powers, 36, the show's music booker since 2010, who began his career as a music coordinator in the early years of Jimmy Kimmel Live! Because Last Call is the most cost-effective show on NBC, Powers is given the freedom to focus on underground artists in his own backyard, including L.A. garage-punk fixture Colleen Green, who made her late-night debut on Last Call last November.
“A lot of people have come up to me at shows or electronically communicated to me that they had never heard of me before seeing me on the show,” Green says. “And now they're fans.” (Despite having such a low profile that Daly was snubbed from appearing in Vanity Fair's recent cover story on late-night hosts, Last Call's audience remains strong for its time slot — more than 800,000 nightly viewers, according to the latest Nielsen ratings.)
“Take the tape of your appearance on Last Call and go to Fallon
Perhaps because of its unusual format, Last Call often doesn't get credit for its adventurous bookings. According to Powers, both FIDLAR and Kendrick Lamar made their late-night debuts on Last Call in 2012, but various music blogs later credited other hosts (Kimmel and Fallon, respectively) with giving the artists their first TV exposure.
“Apparently, it's up to them to decide what constitutes a 'late-night TV debut,'” Powers grumbles. His boss doesn't give a shit: “Take the tape of your appearance on Last Call and go to Fallon,” Daly says. “I don't care. Our show just fills the void of being the stepping stone for these artists.”
Despite the lack of recognition, Last Call continues to push local bands. “I was like, fuck it, why compete with New York to try to book all these big bands?” Daly says. “Musically, it became about embracing L.A.”
Powers, whom Daly describes as his “lieutenant,” has always had tastes that race ahead of his peers in the competitive world of late-night music booking. His first booking on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, in 2005, was a then-obscure harpist named Joanna Newsom.
“I did not want to do it,” admits Scott Igoe, Kimmel's music booker and Powers' former boss. “I didn't get it, but Davis told me she was super-interesting and special. I think it was a year later that Pitchfork called and asked us why we had booked her, because nobody did that. I told them it was all Davis.”
A self-described former “punk-rock kid” from Colorado who now lives in Pasadena, Powers sits down at his desk to check emails from managers and publicists pitching their latest acts (and reply to a message from Stooges guitarist James Williamson about a planned fishing trip). “About 80 percent of the bands out there come to us first,” he says. “So I get about 200 emails a day.”
Over the course of a season, Powers has the responsibility of booking about 70 bands, a process that usually involves painstaking negotiations within a budget he describes as a “fraction” of other late-night shows. To keep things organized, he keeps a giant bulletin board covered in index cards listing bands like local garage rockers Cherry Glazerr, who recently made their late-night debut on Last Call.
Before Powers arrived in 2010, Last Call's musical vision was more a holdover from Daly's MTV days; with the host's involvement, it booked the late-night TV debuts for pop acts including Katy Perry and Maroon 5. But Daly was open to taking things in another direction, and soon the show was helping to break relatively unknown L.A. garage acts such as Deap Vally and Tijuana Panthers. Other notable local acts to make their late-night debut on Last Call include The Growlers, White Fence and Bleached.
The show has helped to further careers. When rapper Freddie Gibbs appeared on Last Call in June 2014, his performance was seen by Young Jeezy, who then signed Gibbs to his label. For Powers, it's all part of his job of being “A&R on TV.”
The defining moment for the show's new identity happened at the Last Call showcase at South by Southwest in 2012. San Francisco shredders Thee Oh Sees were taping their late-night debut, and at one point during their set, the band invited Daly to sit in on drums. Daly, for the first time in years, looked as if he was part of the now. “People didn't know how to process that,” Powers says.
“That's just me,” Daly says. “Of all the things I do, I'm the most proud of Last Call because it's the closest to who I really am. … Its new incarnation has allowed people to see that.”