Alec Baldwin is not always an easy celebrity to be fond of. There’s always the acting work, of course, and 30 Rock is recently-enough departed to elicit a warm glow of remembrance. But Baldwin’s his own worst enemy in many other venues, whether he’s going after paparazzi, throwing temper tantrums on social media in ways that sometimes seem in contradiction of his stated political beliefs, then quitting and rejoining it, not to mention the unfortunate details of his divorce and handling of his custody arrangements that were reported in the press. For all of Baldwin’s gifts, he doesn’t seem to have learned to manage his temper.
And if I thought MSNBC was relying on his temper, or even Baldwin’s outspoken liberalism, for the new talk show that the network confirmed today that Baldwin were host, I’d be worried about the result. But instead, Baldwin’s program, Up Late with Alec Baldwin, will be a talk show. And that’s a genre Baldwin’s demonstrated that he’s very good at during his stint as host of Here’s The Thing, a podcast he’s done in collaboration with WNYC.
Baldwin’s stature meant that he was able to pull an impressive roster of guests to WNYC, from Chris Rock, to Dwight Gooden, to Jill Abramson. And where Baldwin can be combative in other media, on the podcast, he’s thoughtful and curious, quizzing Abramson about her time at the Wall Street Journal and the role of her legal writing experience in her later reporting, or teasing out the differences between Lena Dunham and the character, Hannah Horvath, she plays on her HBO show Girls, and with whom Dunham is frequently conflated. Because of his work in the entertainment industry, Baldwin has a lot of experience he brings usefully to bear in interviews about culture. Where he’s not an expert, he’s curious, as when Baldwin asked Andrew Luck about how studying architecture and the math required for it interacted with his development as a quarterback.
Not only does Baldwin’s experience lend itself well to the format to which he’s assigned, that particular peg in that particular hole is a good expansion of MSNBC’s brand. If MSNBC is supposed to be a smart, enthusiastic place for intelligent analysis and discussion, Baldwin brings a dash of celebrity and sex appeal to that mission. It also expands the network’s coverage of culture, which has cropped up in Rachel Maddow, Melissa Harris-Perry and Chris Hayes’ shows in particular, at a time when Al Jazeera America has entered the market with regular culture segments, and Jeff Zucker, who came up through the entertainment side of NBC and NBC Universal, has taken over CNN. Finally, Baldwin’s likely one of the few figures who has a shot at success going up against Bill Maher in the 10PM Friday timeslot, where his reputation will lure in enough viewers to give his approach to interviewing time to take root. The best possible thing MSNBC could do with Baldwin is to encourage him to replicate his experience on Here’s The Thing as much as possible, and trust that his curiosity will create moments in interviews that will last into the next week’s news cycle.