Tavis Smiley, my favorite talk-show host, presided over his 2,000th episode Friday night on PBS.
It’s a remarkable achievement, in his 10th season, given the range of his guests — actors, politicians, academics, musicians, authors, athletes, CEOs and others. It takes a great deal of preparation, intelligence and curiosity to talk show after show to icons who are so accomplished in their fields.
That, of course, is Smiley’s job.
But what separates him from his peers is Smiley’s generosity of spirit.
He asks good, sharp questions and he allows his guests — and you get the feeling he looks at them as his guests in his home — to speak their minds.
He doesn’t cut them off. He doesn’t look for arguments. He doesn’t ask them “gotcha” questions, in an attempt to extract splashy press-release fodder. He doesn’t need to do that, anyway.
Smiley wants to UNDERSTAND what makes his guests tick, what has made them achieve so much and how they regard themselves. It makes for a lively discourse. He holds conversations, not interviews, not interrogations.There is also a sense of fun — thanks largely to Smiley’s charismatic cackle. He is having the time of his life, and we can enjoy it, too, watching at home on TV.
I know what I’m talking about. I was lucky enough to appear on his show last Oct. 29, to talk about my new book, “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution” (http://jonfriedman.net).
When my publicist at Penguin asked me what I wanted to accomplish in the public-relations, I said I wanted to appear on Tavis Smiley’s show, above all. It’s cool to go on your favorite talk show and sit in that chair, when so many of your favorite people have appeared.
He was as nice and personable off camera as he seems to be when he is doing the show. Plus, you won’t find a more professional, solicitous staff of people than the men and women who work with him.
My favorite Tavis shows feature creative spirits. But there are too many for me to recount here. Recently, I remember special moments with Matt Damon, Don Was, Carole King, Harrison Ford, Ry Cooder, Sally Field and Jeremy irons. And that is scratching the surface.
Who else but Tavis could get Prince to laugh out loud on TV?
Maybe the single most classic moment was when Denzel Washington told the public-broadcasting audience, “Keep the faith” (Smiley’s signature line) — “but send the money!”
When you watch night after night, you’ll notice that Tavis is pleased to showcase people who may not be household names. What matters is that enjoy talking with him, they have something to say and memorable stories to tell. He gets inside people’s heads — on the show and at home.
And one more thing: Tavis always keeps the faith.