In a just world, we'd heap the same scorn upon morning-show hosts that we do upon metermaids or ticket scalpers. There is nobody lower on the media food chain, myself included, than the cheery, chippy, well-lacquered yo-yos who blithely jab to their cohorts about weekend plans or the local ballclub, then don a sad-clown face to convey news about overseas bombings. I'm not a spiritual guy, but I have to believe there's a special place in the great beyond reserved for the perkiest such practitioners of this craft, where the sky is always gray and Papa John's makes the pizza.
Then there's Joe Scarborough, a politician and a journalist in his previous lives, who half-sarcastically likens Donald Trump's firing of learned Miss California tart Carrie Prejean to Abraham Lincoln's demotion of Gen. George B. McClellan during the Civil War. He harumphs about police brutality. He harumphs about lunar eclipses. He is to harumphing what Tiny Tim was to the ukulele.
I love Joe Scarborough. I may not agree with him politically, but he's the only TV talking head who seems truly not to give a crap about the conventions of the genre. When one of his co-anchors notes that "The worst of the recession seems to have passed," he booms "Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!" in the background. When Rep. Maxine Waters is announced as an upcoming guest, he chimes in with an enthusiastic "Maxine!" His "I'm stuck here and so are you, so we might as well make the best of it" attitude proves a refreshing antidote to the clenched smiles and meticulously peppy banter of most morning-hour personalities.
I'm not as fond, however, of the show that puts him front and center, MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Currently the buzziest of the morning news shows/gabfests, "Morning Joe" attempts to be simultaneously glib and serious, to chronicle health-insurance reform alongside celebrity offensives. But in doing so, it succeeds at neither, coming across as topically and tonally schizophrenic rather than broadly informed.
My main problem with "Morning Joe" is this: I don't believe for a second that the three central personalities -- Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist -- would ever hang out with one another except under threat of duress. At any given time, they press their agendas without regard to the others on set. Scarborough: "I will spur debate!" Geist: "I will offer a sarcastic counter-tenor!" Brzezinski: "I will scrunch my nose to express disapproval and smirk at the camera as if to quip, 'This f*ckin' guy, huh?'"
Without chemistry between the hosts, any show -- especially one designed to usher viewers into the day with warmth and bonhomie -- is doomed to failure. One pities the other individuals who come and go during the show's three hours, like poor Harold Ford Jr. His manners preclude him from achieving morning-show stardom; you can't succeed in that business unless you learn to speak when not spoken to. Of course, some of the contributors don't do themselves any favors, like the L.A.-based sports guy who hasn't mastered the proper pronunciation of "Chien-Ming Wang."
I also find the show's practiced "We're making this up as we go!!!" air to be as inauthentic as anything that's on TV. Take the opening segment of today's show, for instance. At 6 a.m., Scarborough wasn't wearing a jacket; at 6:03 a.m., he was. A few minutes later, Mika Brzezinski sauntered onto the set with her clippy microphone transmitter thing in one hand and a triumphantly logo'd Starbucks cup in the other (more on that in a bit), as if she'd been stuck behind a jackknifed semi on the interstate. The anchor desk -- itself shaped nontraditionally -- is arranged just so, with newspapers and BlackBerries splashed across its surface. Their desk is totally like your desk, see?
And as much as I appreciate the low-key and likable Geist -- much better in his online "ZeitGeist" video blogs, where he comes across as a more deadpan, less megalomaniacal version of Keith Olbermann -- it's painful to watch "Morning Joe" cram pop-culture references into straight-ahead news segments. I wasn't sure whether to be saddened or confused when NBC D.C. correspondent Chuck Todd, a regular from-afar contributor to "Joe," dropped an "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" reference into an otherwise thoughtful segment about President Barack Obama's plan to effect health-insurance reform.
Meanwhile, about that Starbucks worship: At the start of the month, "Morning Joe" made it official with the coffee giant, which had long benefited from the anchors' eager slurping of its sludge. Now the show is "brewed by Starbucks," a tie-in that's as natural as it is irrelevant. Why would Starbucks pay for what it was already getting for free? Your guess is as good as mine. I only hope the company finds itself ensnared in controversy while the promotional arrangement remains in effect. It'd be entertaining as hell to watch the anchors take tentative sips from their Starbucks cups as they report on an E. coli scare that shut down the store on the corner.
Some time ago, during a debate about the Middle East, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- Mika's pop and a Carter administration policy wonk -- labeled one of Scarborough's opinions "stunningly superficial." That's actually a reasonable description of "Morning Joe" itself. Maybe there's a place for frippery-free morning programming, or maybe there isn't. Rather than trying to straddle the news/entertainment line, "Morning Joe" ought to find out.