Magic Johnson can laugh now about 'The Magic Hour'
Magic Johnson seems to be everywhere these days, moving faster than he ever did when he was a superstar with the Los Angeles Lakers. He's the head of a huge business empire pumping millions of dollars into inner-city neighborhoods, he's a regular analyst on broadcast of NBA games, and he's the subject of an upcoming Broadway musical about his rivalry with Larry Bird.
A documentary about Johnson's earth-shattering 1991 announcement that he was retiring from basketball after being diagnosed with the HIV virus is scheduled to premiere next month on ESPN. And in June, Johnson is set to launch his own TV network, Aspire, which will be targeted to African Americans and focus on what he calls "positive and uplifting images."
The planned June 30 launch of Aspire lands almost exactly on the anniversary of one of Johnson's last -- and most infamous -- TV projects: "The Magic Hour," a late-night syndicated talk show that premiered with great hoopla in June 1998 only to be yanked less than two months later after harsh reviews and low ratings.
It's obvious now that the failure of "The Magic Hour" is less than a blip on Johnson's resume, particularly with his current success and multitude of projects. And he's already made assurances that "The Magic Hour" is history and will not be resurrected on Aspire.
"'The Magic Hour' is long gone," he said with his trademark hearty laugh during a recent phone interview. "That's as far as it goes."
To be sure, Johnson is only one of a host of celebrities who could walk the walk but couldn't talk the talk when it came to hosting a talk show. Queen Latifah, Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, George Lopez, Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers and numerous others stumbled in the talk-show arena.
And "The Magic Hour" premiered during a particularly difficult year for talk shows, especially those that attempted to emulate the success of "The Arsenio Hall Show," which left the air in 1994 after five seasons. "Vibe" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show" also met quick ends.
During the short run of the show, Johnson came under intense criticism for his diction and his lack of show-business experience and smoothness during interviews and comedy bits. Still, Johnson always remained upbeat and positive despite the torrent of barbs.
"I know who I am," he said following the taping of his final show on Aug. 7, 1998. "When you know who you are and you like you, then you don't worry about that. They want you to get mad, they want you to attack them, come back. I don't do that because I'm happy with me."
He added, "I've got too many things going for me. I enjoy what I'm doing and what I'm going to do. The show fulfilled a small part of my life. The other things I do are much bigger -- what I do in the inner city.
"And how many times do you see an ex-athlete hosting a show?" he said. "This may be the only time." He erupted into his trademark laugh: "I made a little history. I'm happy about that."
-- Greg Braxton
Photo: Howard Stern is interviewed by Magic Johnson on "The Magic Hour." Credit: Kevin Winter / Associated Press.