Jan 23, 2011

American Way: Brit shtick of Piers Morgan gets him into trouble on CNN

Piers Morgan interviews Oprah
Piers Morgan interviews Oprah on CNN
He is brash, arrogant, overbearing and insufferably pleased with himself. No one except him thought he could achieve what he has done since he was humiliatingly sacked a few years ago. Money and fame are now his and he’s lording it over the erstwhile doubters.
In many ways, Piers Morgan, who took over the Larry King slot on CNN last week, is much more American than British. Whereas Brits view Morgan’s approach to life as unspeakably vulgar and resent his success, the American response to such a character tends to be: “Good on him!”

Personally, I can’t help liking Morgan. He is unencumbered by any British snootiness or small-mindedness and if there’s an arena suited to his style then surely America is it.
So it’s been curious that Morgan’s game plan for conquering America seems to be to adopt the persona of a cheeky chappie Brit, chortling as he probes people’s love lives. There are frequent references to cricket, and the Royal family (not to mention beer and spanking) and offers of wagers in “British pounds”.
The ratings for his Monday opening night with Oprah were an impressive 2.1 million viewers. By Thursday, however, Morgan was down to half that.
Among the critics, the reaction has been mixed at best. “Morgan is a dandy, he fiddles with his cuff links and smirks in a promo spot,” wrote Ken Hoffman of the Houston Chronicle.
“I’m a fancy boy, and I love everything British, even their horrible food. But I’m uncomfortable watching Morgan trying to get his guests to be randy. That’s British for dirty. It’s just a waste of an hour that could be great.”
Setting aside his comic misuse of the words “fancy” and “randy” (randy guests really would be something), Hoffman has a point. In coming to the US and seeking to play by British rules, there’s an inevitable cultural friction.
It was painful to watch Condoleezza Rice, former US Secretary of State, cringe when Morgan asked her: “Are you high maintenance?” She’d already been put off by being told that “you are and remain one of the most eligible women in Washington”. She responded: “Well, actually I live in California now.”
The biggest cringe of the night, however, came when Morgan revealed that he had never heard of famous Southern dish. “You don’t know what gumbo is?” Rice wondered. “Go to New Orleans, they’ll tell you.”
Larry King, pushing 80 and seeming much older, had become an embarrassment by the end of his tenure. He was famous for being married many times, knowing almost nothing about his guests and lobbing softball questions.
With CNN’s ratings in steep and possibly terminal decline, hiring Morgan was a throw of the dice, just like the network’s decision to bring on as co-host of a discussion programme Eliot Spitzer, who was forced to resign as New York governor after his $1,000-an-hour call girl habit was exposed.
Morgan promised to be unpredictable and to ask the questions “everyone in America is thinking” but thus far he’s not delivering on either promise as he pulls his punches in an attempt to woo big name guests.
Oprah, who mocked Morgan’s accent and use of the word “properly”, played along with his egotism (though not without condescension) but mostly took the opportunity to promote her new television network, managing to mention it several dozen times.
George Clooney only wanted to talk about the Sudan and dripped with disdain when Morgan limbered up to ask a question his guest was clearly never going to answer by stating that he had “never gone down the aisle”.
The actor responded icily: “I hate to blow your whole news story, but I was married.” When the inevitable question about remarriage did come, Clooney sighed and said: “Here we go. You waited to the last segment to pull it off.” Morgan promptly surrendered and said he didn’t have to answer.
Morgan was most at ease with Reading’s own Ricky Gervais and this week promises cosy chats with two more fellow countrymen, Rod Stewart and Colin Firth. But he’ll soon need to crack some Americans.
Already now, Morgan must already be sensing that he’s in for a rough ride. His relative unfamiliarity with America shows, and there are alarming gaps in his interview research. He needs to rethink his combination of King-style softballs and prurient lines of inquiry. A live show rather than pre-taping would make things spark more.
It’s too soon to write Morgan off (some are giving him no more than six months), not least because he has that other American quality of being able to learn from his mistakes and readjust. The first step to doing that would be to drop the Brit shtick.

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