By Caryn James | James on Screens January 18, 2011 at 5:19AM
After rivers of annoying self-promotion, Piers Morgan Tonight finally arrived on CNN to replace Larry King, and while there’s not a lot you can learn from one episode – especially when the guest is the thoroughly atypical Oprah Winfrey -- here’s what I do know. Piers was much less smarmy than his endless braggadocio had led me to expect.
What we saw in the heavily edited hour, whittled down from two, were a couple of master interviewers giving great performances, Playful Oprah vs. Game Piers. (He has already established his brand to the point where calling him Morgan sounds weird.)
The interview was friendly and incredibly meta, with Oprah calling attention to his questions, complimenting him on some – which doesn’t mean she actually answered them. Was the hour revealing? Not in any factual way, but it was fascinating to watch them bat the conversation back and forth
“Do you like being famous?” he asked and she said, “It’s a provocative question, I’ll give you that.” Then, like a shrewd politician, she turned it around to answer in a way that was totally on her message, not his: “I am a Negro, formerly, born in 1954 in Mississippi in a time when it was an apartheid state,” she told him, and said she’s always aware that her fame is a miracle built on the accomplishments of others.
“If you’re honest,” Piers said to Oprah, she’d admit that Obama might not have been elected without her endorsement. In a flash she jumped in to catch that, “If you’re honest” and laughed, “I know that trick.” Of course she didn’t claim credit for the election.
“If you’re honest, though” he tried again (it seemed like a nervous tic the second time) “Where do you think he’s been disappointing?” and she said, “I don’t think he’s been disappointing.”
Here she is talking about having her heart broken. The content is not so interesting, but the way she teases Piers and plays with the question is:
He handled the serious turns well. She has talked before about being promiscuous and pregnant at 14 with a baby who died soon after birth, but Piers gently pressed her enough so she spoke very specifically about her suicidal thoughts at the time.
All that editing was pretty frustrating though. Oprah said that if she fails to book a big guest she figures that’s the way it was meant to be, and Piers said – it was his toughest moment -- “That’s easy for you to say, that’s because you always win.” Then they cut to a commercial! I wanted to hear how she responded, because of course he was right. Some people, like Jon Stewart, post full interviews on line, but so far Piers’ site has self-serving videos, like the one in which Condoleezza Rice (his guest on Wednesday) says he was a tough interviewer. We’ll be the judges of that.
Known in Britain as a former tabloid editor and TV interviewer, in the U.S. Piers is famous for lightweight gigs, as a judge on America’s Got Talent, and as a winner on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. Anyone who can do business with Donald Trump seems smarmy by association, and I’m not convinced yet that the congenial, well-prepared Piers of the Oprah interview is a permanent replacement for the off-putting egotist of the pre-show hype. He ended the Oprah interview by asking, “How’d I do?” Oh, no, it’s not all going to be about him, is it? (Her answer was a mild, “Surprising, and that’s good.” Maybe she was through playing.)
As for the future, tomorrow’s guest is Howard Stern, and I can’t make myself care about what he has to say, but I’ll give the Condoleezza Rice interview a try and if Piers doesn’t ask anything substantive fast, I’m gone. I’m intrigued to see what happens Thursday with Ricky Gervais, booked before his instant-legend stint as Golden Globes host, and Friday with George Clooney and his Dad, Nick.
If I were an optimist, I’d say the real Piers turned out to be better than the pre-series self-promoter; since I’m not an optimist, let’s see.