don't belong to Mensa
E! gossip, okay, but no class as a talk show host
By Andrew Wallenstein
In recent interviews, A.J. Benza has made a keen observation about the network he calls home. "E! is the television Liz Smith," says the host of the new talk show "A.J. After Hours" (Thursdays, 10-11 p.m. ET, beginning May 31st).
For those unfamiliar with Smith, she's a veteran syndicated gossip columnist whose coverage of celebrities is so fawning it borders on sex.
Benza's comment reveals the sycophantic streak running through most of E!'s own showbiz-obsessed programming.
There's nothing wrong with that approach. But the bigger question is, where does an unapologetic sleazeball like Benza fit in?
Apparently, it's a question no one at E! has stopped to ponder, now that they've boosted his profile on the network by giving him two separate TV shows to host.
Choosing Benza to narrate the "Mysteries & Scandals" documentary series made sense; his own sordid experience as a no-holds-barred gossip columnist--call him the anti-Smith--is appropriate for a program about the seedy side of Hollywood history.
The most memorable aspect of "M&S" is his patented "Fame, ain't it a bitch" catchphrase delivered on a noir-inspired set resembling a foggy wharf.
But now Benza is becoming a full-fledged star. His recently released biography is being made into a Miramax feature film.
And E! has handed him a second assignment, a mellow talk show which draws a comparison to Hugh Hefner's "Playboy After Dark" due to its setting, a swanky cocktail party in progress.
But the real inspiration is probably E!'s own nightly celebrity confessional featuring the Rev. Howard Stern.
Still, there's a big difference between Stern and Benza. For all his unhealthy fixations on lesbian strippers and drunken midgets, Stern is a lovable teddy bear.
Benza, on the other hand, is slime incarnate. He is a grimy barnacle that has somehow managed to slide up the hull of the S.S. Hollywood and become one of the celebrities he used to malign for a living. Not even Dante could conjure up a level of hell worthy of a New York City tabloid gossipmonger.
So it is with great pleasure that I report that "A.J." is about as compelling a talk show as "The Magic Hour." That was the ill-fated attempt to launch a late-night series featuring basketball star Magic Johnson, who seems like the second coming of Johnny Carson compared to Benza.
The set's relaxed party atmosphere only makes his stiffness in front of the camera more glaring as he struggles to manufacture artificial laughter while bantering with guests.
Benza also might want to check into a charm school before attempting a talk show. When his first guest, singer Luther Vandross, mentioned that Judge Judy was his friend, Benza mindlessly shot back, "I figured you knew Judge [Joe] Brown," referring to another syndicated TV judge.
OK, I see, Vandross must only know African-American judges because he's black, too. What else could Benza have meant making such an inane remark?
It didn't get any better as the evening wore on. Talking to a Victoria's Secret model who has a child, Benza incessantly commented on how amazed he was that this sexy woman was also a mother.
As if he needed to establish his caveman mentality any further, Benza decided to reveal his raging Madonna-whore complex to a national audience.
Making matters worse, lifeless comedic skits are interspersed throughout the program. A cameo by former "Sopranos" star Vincent Pastore goes to waste in the opening skit, where he plays a godfather figure who keeps slapping Benza as he seeks his counsel about hosting the TV show.
If only Pastore could have closed his fist for one strike.
It wouldn't have been funny, but I would have enjoyed it.
June 1, 2001 © 2001 Media Life
-Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for Media Life.
Cover Page | Contact Us