Anyone who has channel-surfed late at night knows the routine: A famous personality visits a talk show to promote a new movie/album/series. Prompted by a host armed with a blue index card, said celebrity dutifully retells two humorous anecdotes before a clip is played or a song is performed. Break for commercial.
But now Elvis Costello and Sir Elton John will change all that with Spectacle, a new Sundance channel program devised by the longtime friends and hosted by Costello himself. "We focus on people's interest in music or art, their passions, and the things that have stirred their curiosity," says Costello, who splits his time between Vancouver and NYC, where the show is filmed.
Spectacle will be a forum for in-depth dialogue peppered with performance elements, such as Costello dueting with Lou Reed on "Perfect Day." However, guests are not limited to musicians. (Bill Clinton has already taped an episode.) The show has been likened to Inside the Actors Studio, but don't expect Costello to be parodied, à la James Lipton on Saturday Night Live, anytime soon. His interview style is far less sycophantic, and as a respected artist himself, he has a level playing field.
So when musicians are in the hot seat, they open up to Costello about the experiences that have shaped them and often play songs to complement their stories. The format is both intimate and loose, leaving room for plenty of moments that could never have come from a blue index card: well-known Elvis Presley fan Clinton serenaded by a longtime bandmate of the King performing Hank Williams's "You Win Again," or Tony Bennett pulling Costello's wife, jazz musician Diana Krall, out of the audience to accompany him on an unrehearsed rendition of "I've Got the World on a String."
In 2003 Costello filled in on The Late Show while David Letterman was recovering from shingles, which prompted offers from producers eager to capitalize on his quick wit and relaxed, conversational style. But for Costello, "talking in a lighthearted way every night with a revolving cast of people you couldn't be certain that you would particularly want to speak to" didn't exactly appeal. So the goal for Spectacle became to book guests not because they had a project to promote but because they stimulated Costello's curiosity. In other words, to give both guest and host the breathing room to be on a talk show and, well, talk.
"I thought it would be much more useful to speak to people about things they were not generally asked about," says Costello, who has spent most of his life as the interviewee. "I try not to ask questions that I already know the answer to," he explains. "There's not a lot of point to that."