Tuned In

A Diner, But No Grilling, on Alec Baldwin’s MSNBC Debut

Baldwin's first interview with a candidate he supported was not exactly aggressive. But Up Late has potential as a relaxed chaser to caffeinated cable news

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Up Late with Alec Baldwin, which debuted Friday night on MSNBC, sat the host and his guest—New York City mayoral candidate Bill De Blasio—in a diner scene right out of Edward Hopper‘s “Nighthawks.” There was a padded corner booth and coffee mugs, but no fries, no burgers, not so much as a mini-tower of plastic jelly cups.

But it was the interview, not the lack of food, that definitively showed that there was no grilling going on in this diner.

Baldwin, hair spiked into a kind of Statue of Liberty corona, promised viewers something different for a cable-news program: an hourlong talk with a single guest that would be “more conversation than interview, more personal than promotional.” The result was a change of pace, a nightcap–or maybe a cup of Sleepytime tea–after a day of caffeinated cable news, a format with potential and pitfalls.

The promise of Up Late is that it could give guests a format to relax and let down the constant guard of on-message TV interviewing. Baldwin, who endorsed De Blasio* early in the mayor’s race, didn’t pound every hot-button of the race so far—De Blasio’s 1980s Sandinista sympathies, what to do about pending union contracts—so he mostly avoided the canned, defensive answers we’re used to hearing from candidates.

Instead, he approached policy at right angles, asking how job creation fit into De Blasio’s priorities, why there should be subsidies for living in super-expensive Manhattan rather than the cheaper outer boroughs, how a mayor should balance NYC’s need for Wall Street money with the toll profit motives take on jobs and wages. (The most uncomfortable exchange came when Baldwin asked if the candidate would legalize marijuana; De Blasio demurred that he  supported decriminalizing the display of small amount but didn’t know enough to say more than that.)

Over the hour, the conversation turned into more of a celebration, with Baldwin asking the progressive—already in front of the friendliest possible MSNBC audience—to essentially repeat his campaign platform at length and share warm personal stories: “What do you think it is about you that your wife loves?” he asked at one point. (This after a self-involved digression in which Baldwin, remarried to a yoga instructor after an earlier marriage to Kim Basinger, mused that God sent him women earlier in life to “study” and prepare him for “the one.”) It was “personal,” but if it wasn’t also “promotional,” I’m not sure what is.

The gentle, thoughtful tone of the show may have come to a surprise to viewers who mainly know Baldwin from 30 Rock, Glengarry Glen Ross, or his voicemail messages. But it was no surprise to listeners of his excellent public radio show, Here’s the Thing, which focuses on artists and performers. Bringing a Tom Snyder-esque model to today’s TV could do cable news a world of good, but the De Blasio interview also suggested some kinks to work out in applying it to politics. We don’t need one more Sunday-talk-style arena, and there’s an argument that a friendly conversation can be more revealing than an inquisition. But you can avoid the gotcha game without running a mutual-congratulation society.

Baldwin’s a talented talker, though, so I’m hoping he can find that balance—and, maybe, encourage other cable shows to experiment with dialing down their metabolism and letting a conversation run for a while. Whatever’s in those coffee cups, I wouldn’t mind slipping it into a few other cable hosts’ mugs.

*As I’ve written before, I believe in disclosure when writing about elections that I’m voting in. Like Baldwin, I plan on voting for De Blasio in the general election; I voted for one of his less-successful opponents, Sal Albanese, in the primary.