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137 Minutes With Carson Daly

Punching in at an ungodly hour with the radio D.J.–late-night host–reality emcee, who doesn’t mind at all.

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Forty-five minutes before the start of his four-hour morning-drive radio show, and less than two and a half hours since his late-night NBC series Last Call, the indefatigable Carson Daly is sitting in a nondescript Los Angeles studio building, sipping from a cup of Coffee Bean. “Early mornings—I’m used to them,” he says as he sits down at his desk, which includes a picture of his girlfriend, Siri Pinter, and their 2-year-old son. “There was a ten-year period where I lived in New York City and early mornings were when I left clubs, strip clubs, or Lord knows what.”

His producer, a trim blonde named Angie, pokes her head in. “Already, you’re talking about strip clubs?”

“Yeah, I don’t waste time,” he says, grinning. “And mind your own fucking business—you’re not so innocent yourself, missy.”

In addition to Last Call, Daly also hosts NBC’s hit singing competition The Voice, which just began its second season; still, he took on the Top 40 radio show on Los Angeles’s 97.1 as a safe bet against the vagaries of working for a broadcast network. “If I could be lucky enough to just have radio as the base for the rest of my life, I could build off that,” he says as the show’s playlist is prepared. “No matter how successful I become, I always look at radio as the only skill set I can really call on. I even know how to operate the boards.”

Success itself is a slippery subject with Daly. He is often peremptorily self-deprecating, the kind of guy likely to retweet his online detractors and then good-naturedly agree with them. Ask him about rising through the ranks at L.A.’s iconic KROQ station—before MTV hired him away from hard rock and made him the unlikely host of the Britney-dominated Total Request Live in 1998—and the 38-year-old will say, “If you’re drug-free and you show up on time, you can excel in radio.” Inquire how NBC chose him for The Voice, and he’ll crack, “I think they dusted me off, to some degree. They found me in the basement and were like, ‘Oh yeah, that .’ 

“NBC’s priorities are Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno, and then there’s me,” Daly says, without any self-pity. He became aware that Last Call was the equivalent of a network afterthought when NBC executives considered pushing Daly’s show off the schedule in a last-ditch effort to keep both Leno and Conan on the air in 2010. “So I just said, ‘Fuck it.’ ”

Since then, he’s eschewed the late-night traditions of a monologue and studio, shooting on location and catching interviews with stars and up-and-comers in their natural habitat. “I love Charlie Rose, I love story­telling, I love documentary filmmaking—so that’s the texture of how the show looks,” he says. In its tenth season, the revamped Last Call has been gaining viewers, though flush is not a word that will ever be associated with it. “We don’t have a wardrobe budget,” he admits. “I change in my car, literally.”

He’s in the unique position, then, of hosting both NBC’s least-promoted show and its highest new priority, but even the success of the latter doesn’t give him too much comfort. “I hope The Voice has a fifteen-year run, don’t get me wrong,” he tells me as he gets ready to head into the recording studio. “But I come from nothing, and maybe it’s the Irish in me, but my attitude is always like, ‘They’ll figure me out soon.’ ”

In the meantime, Daly has been pitching himself to NBC as the network’s in-house music man and embracing his role as an up-for-anything TV personality distinguished by low-key likability and perseverance. Recently, he tells me, he went out to dinner with three others savvy at self-branding: longtime friend Ryan Seacrest, Anderson Cooper, and Kathy Griffin. They ate at New York City’s Crown restaurant, “a boldfaced sort of place,” says Daly, who initially felt like the odd man out. “I walked in, like, looking for an application to bartend there, and then Anderson came in just wearing a white T-shirt, which made me love him.” Still, despite his similarities to Seacrest, Daly draws one dividing line: “I wouldn’t want to be in the Kim Kardashian ­business. They mint money, and Ryan is in that business, and God bless him, his kids will never have to work because of that business. But personally, it’s not my thing.” The former MTV mainstay says he’s never seen a single episode of Jersey Shore.

On air, he chats with Angie about the coming weekend, when he and the Voice judges will be in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl. Several of his colleagues will be performing, but what will his duties be there? “Drinking, essentially,” he deadpans during a commercial break. And that’s fine by him. “The No. 1 question I get from everybody is, ‘How did you make it?’ I’m like, Don’t worry about making it. There is no making it. Just be happy. Otherwise you’re going to be sitting here at 5:15 a.m., when there’s not a writer interviewing you, going, ‘What the fuck is my world all about?’ ”

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