In September 2008, Katie Couric did an interview with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in which the candidate struggled to answer questions about policy and newspapers, an interview that shaped perceptions of Palin, informed a defining Saturday Night Live sketch and–love it or hate it–probably proved more influential than any interview by any evening-news anchor since.
In September 2012, on the premiere of Katie, Couric asked Jessica Simpson how she lost the baby weight.
This is where Couric has come in four years, and to her credit, she has a sense of humor about it. The morning anchor turned evening anchor turned daytime host opened her first show with a taped bit, in which she wakes from a fitful sleep believing her move (or ejection) from CBS to daytime was all a dream. It wasn’t, says Matt Lauer, pulling off a sleeping mask and revealing himself in the single bed next to her.
Reintroducing Katie–I could keep journalistically using “Couric,” but the pursuit of Oprah-esque mononymity is what her reinvention is all about–was a big goal of the first episode. The Lauer bit reminded us of her work and TV history; the single bed underscored a biographical point—Katie the widowed single mom, as she talked about in her introduction to the audience.
The first show was bookended a little like a political convention unveiling a candidate: biography, family and endorsements up front, old friends coming out to share the stage at the end. Couric brought out three old junior high pals, with whom she is apparently on good enough terms to joke about their school photo: “Everybody looks like they smelled something bad but you, Barbara. I’m not suggesting something!” And she laced her comfortable pre-show chat with self-deprecating jokes: on the stage set, which brings her very close to the audience, she said, “I’m going to have to shave my legs more often.” (When second guest Sheryl Crow talked about words people associate with Katie, the host volunteered, “Perky!”)
But the heart of the show is the interviews, pitched to use Katie’s skill at charming people into revelation, and far closer to Today show territory than the evening news. Like, second or third hour of the Today show territory. Her interview with Simpson turned into more or less an infomercial for Weight Watchers, for whom Simpson became a paid spokeswoman after the tabloids roasted her for her mom jeans and postpartum weight.
It was a trademark daytime-TV moment: the story of a Woman Who Is Just Like You, except that she’s not at all. Much of Katie’s audience can identify with trying to shed baby weight, not to mention the body-image pressure placed on women. But when Katie asked Simpson, “How do you focus on losing weight and taking care of your baby, because they’re both very demanding jobs, right?” you had to assume that being paid a zillion dollars to lose the weight probably helps. The balancing act continued when Katie brought out Simpson’s Weight Watchers coach, who, Katie said, “helped me lose a few L-B’s as well. She works with plenty of normal people though. Not that we’re not normal, but…”
But! That’s the line Katie will have to dance on to become the Next Whoever Comes After Oprah. One of Oprah’s strengths as a talk-show host was that she didn’t pretend to be normal. (Are any of us?, she might ask.) She wasn’t just like you. She was similar to you. She had past experiences you could relate to. You could imagine having been her friend once, back when.
Katie may not be as successful as Oprah, but she does, whatever you think of this format, seem immediately comfortable in it, cracking unguarded jokes but also owning her celebrity. When she sat down with Sheryl Crow, who wrote her new theme song, it wasn’t as an admirer or an interrogator. (When Crow suggested that a benign brain tumor she had was caused by a cell phone, rest assured, there was no medical-investigation followup.) She talked to her as one celeb to another.
They even exchanged gifts: shoes for Katie, for Crow’s newborn baby, a onesie that read: “When I talk, I’m talking to… Katie.” Like that baby, Katie’s show, like many new talk shows, will probably look much different a year from now. But it’s the core trick she attempted on her first episode—existing at once on the level of her audience and her guests—that will determine if she will be outfitting that baby in designer Katie swag for years to come.