Getting cozy with Katie

getting-cozy-katie
Katie Couric loses her innocence, innocently. ()
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For any viewers unsure what to think about Katie Couric, host of "Katie," the new syndicated daytime talk show that debuted this Monday, Sept. 10, Sheryl Crow has some suggestions.

Crow isn't just Couric's second guest (following a three-segment interview with "personality" Jessica Simpson), but "a dear friend" of the host and the creator of the show's theme song, "This Day," which Couric loves so much, she gave it to her spin teacher to play during classes. As Crow explained it, writing the song was tough since, "We know Katie, right?"

We do know Katie, don't we? Well, we know her in the way we think we "know" people on television. She's friendly, unpretentious, and upbeat, possessed of a smile so genuine it's been used by the Iraqi Electricity Ministry to explain away blackouts in Baghdad. It's hard to imagine anyone else likable enough to be the face of nationwide infrastructure failure and inspire an Iraqi fruit seller to tell The New York Times' Tim Arango, “It doesn’t give me hope about electricity, but I like to see her beautiful face."

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This is the same woman who greeted viewers every morning for 15 years as co-host of the "Today" show—inspiring millions to get colonoscopies after undergoing the procedure live on air in 2001—and then went on to become a serious evening news anchor at CBS for five years, famously performing another sort of invasive (and equally necessary) probing of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008. Sure, she reportedly made $15 million a year at CBS, but she's so normal, so down to earth. Katie's our friend.

We may think we know Katie, but Crow knows her better, which is why writing a song about her proved difficult. As Crow said: "Words that go with Katie are like 'wicked smart'"—

"Perky?" Couric suggested.

"'Perky!' 'Cute' and 'fun' and also 'credible' and 'empowering.' So I'm thinking how can I write a song that's just totally not Pollyanna with those words? But it wound up being really easy because I kind of wrote it from my perspective, which is we're all in the same boat now. At least all us middle aged women."

Well, that's one way for a show to telegraph its target demographic.

Watching the debut episode of Katie, it's easy to imagine what sort of show viewers will be in for. From the cold open with its echo of the famous "Newhart" dream finale to the controlled, friendly patter of Couric's monologue, during which the host introduced her mother and teenage daughters in the audience and promised to "meet interesting people and talk about things that matter," the whole show has the relaxed, late-afternoon feel of a mom sharing readymade margaritas on the back porch with her girlfriends after a long day of ferrying the kids to soccer practice, bulk shopping at Costco, and reassuring her husband that he doesn't look that bald. There will be no "Soup"-worthy freakouts here, no movie stars jumping on couches, and no surprise paternity tests. In fact, there won't be any surprises at all. It'll just be Katie, America's most professional empathy technician, running out that hour with some dear, dear friends. Pull up a salted glass and listen in, won't you?

It's doubtful that Katie will feature any "gotcha" moments like when Couric asked Sarah Palin what newspapers she reads, an exchange that four years later actually seems like Couric's attempt to help Palin help herself. Had the Alaskan Governor not been so defensive, she might've seen that and not turned the question into exhibit A of the bias of "the lamestream media," but then Couric wouldn't have benefited so much from that interview, as Forbes' Jeff Bercovici showed.

Besides, who wants to call out guests when you can gently flatter them with questions like this one for Jessica Simpson: "How's motherhood?" ("Motherhood is a dream," came the reply.) After talking about weight loss and how mean the tabloids can be, Simpson and Couric ended their interview with an exchange of gifts (shoes for Katie, Katie-branded onesies for Simpson's daughter, Maxwell) and Simpson telling Couric, "Thanks for making me comfortable."

In the end, daytime TV at this level is all about comfort—for the guests, the audience, and the host, whose toothpaste-commercial smile (seriously, Couric has like three thousand teeth and they're all perfect) never betrayed a hint of worry. Matching enormous smiles with Crow, Couric was most clearly at ease, even slipping in a little just-us-girls banter, when she said, "Cheryl and I talk about our love lives together sometimes …. I think we should do 'Sex and the City' for the over-50 set. That would be so entertaining, right?"

Crow seemed a little unsure about that, but it was a telling moment for Katie since there was a surprising amount of innuendo in the first episode, especially coming at 3 p.m. Eastern in New York. After announcing that Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James would be on later this week (a wave of giggles seemed to ripple through the crowd), Couric ended by saying, "They say you never forget your first time …. It was good for me, was it good for you?"

Not a bad joke to end on, even if your teenage daughters are there to witness their mother joke about giving up her daytime-talk maidenhead. But, then, it was a joke made gently, with an enormous smile and all the kindness the Iraqi Electricity Ministry's unofficial spokeswoman could muster. Even when she's being naughty, Katie's pretty damn nice.