Piers Morgan probably did not need the admonition he got last night from the second guest on his new primetime interview show for CNN.
"I am glad you are confident," Howard Stern, the veteran radio shock jock, tells him, according to a promotional clip. "But, my friend, you have a lot to prove."
It would not be surprising if the former Daily Mirror editor and reality show judge is quivering a little this week. Reviews for his debut performance, taking on Oprah Winfrey for an hour on Monday, were rather ho-hum.
Things were not made easier by CNN itself, which had so relentlessly promoted his debut in recent weeks. Struggling against its main competitors in the United States – Fox News and MSNBC – the network has a great deal riding on the English import they chose to replace Larry King, who held the same slot for decades.
"I am a perfectly badly adjusted British guy," Morgan said to an emotional Winfrey on Monday during a brief discussion about how much therapy each of them had undergone over the years. (Neither has had any.) That he means to play up his Britishness in his new job is fairly obvious. He likened Winfrey to the Queen and said her boyfriend of many years, Stedman Graham, reminded him of the Duke of Edinburgh.
More importantly, Morgan, with his flushed cheeks and eager laugh, apparently hopes to exploit those stereotypes that allegedly set the English apart from Americans, like their willingness to self-flagellate. In general, English people think that teasing is funnier than Americans do. And as Ricky Gervais so skillfully demonstrated as host of the Golden Globes at the weekend, they think it is their civic duty to show Americans why crossing the line is a good thing.
Certainly, Morgan can do the self-deprecation part. The only question that really mattered was the last one he posed to Winfrey. Did he do OK or will he be flayed alive?
"You have been surprising," she responded before the credits began to roll. "Surprisingly bad?" Morgan asked her instantly, unabashedly flaunting his insecurity.
"No, just surprising," she said. It was an enigmatic verdict, but meant as a compliment, she added.
What she probably meant was that while Morgan showed off another great British talent – blurring the line between charming and fawning – he had not been aggressive or even rude with her, which many might have expected. If Gervais and King were each occupying one of Morgan's shoulders on Monday night, his ears were open only to the latter.
This deference may work well with the traditional audience that tuned in to see King. But it is not how Morgan was sold to viewers. He said in promotional trailers that this would be the "dangerous" interview programme where anything would happen. But Morgan the tiger was notably absent with Winfrey as they both purred loudly.
Thus no check was put on the flow of philosophical syrup from Winfrey, who is also launching her own television network, OWN, this month. Her brand is love, she repeated many times, and she wanted all of us to understand the journey that has taken her to this point and how happy it makes her.
"I am profoundly rewarded by this blessing of an experience that I get to have a platform, whether it's The Oprah Winfrey Show or the network we have now created," she said. "Anyone who gets to live their lives on purpose and in alignment with why they really came to the planet to fulfil the great mission for themselves, you just can't ask for better than that." OWN, she added, is "my supreme moment of destiny".
Morgan, it seemed, had jettisoned his gag reflex somewhere over the Atlantic, not blinking even when Winfrey explained that "it's all about opening your heart space so you can love more". And while he had clearly done his research – thus instantly putting himself on a higher plane journalistically from that of his predecessor – he seemed unable to go beyond being impressed by Winfrey and grateful she had agreed to be interviewed by him.
Possibly, it was not smart of him to highlight a moment from an interview she gave last month to Barbara Walters on rival network ABC when asked about rumours about her relationship with her friend Gayle King. He even showed a clip. Look! That was the Winfrey interview you should have watched.
'Sycophantic and childish' – the US press reaction
There is a learning curve to every new job, Oprah Winfrey said during her interview with Piers Morgan, when asked how she rated the first two years of President Barack Obama. But both of them knew they were talking about his new job, too. She might have added: "Don't worry, then, if the reviews tomorrow are harsh." And so, mostly, they were. The critic for New York magazine, Chris Rovzar, went as far as to admit that he almost couldn't last the full hour, thanks to Morgan's unexpectedly saccharin demeanour and one moment had him reaching for the air sickness bag. "His giggling style might have come across as charming... in an interview with someone less intimidating," he said. "Here it made him seem sycophantic and almost childish. When he reached out to her and said: 'Everything you touch turns to gold. Could you touch me?', I almost turned off the television."
The New York Times found a more positive thing to say... sort of: "The plus side of his downer of a first day is that he has nowhere to go but up."
The newspaper asked why CNN had chosen Winfrey as Morgan's first guest when she has been so over-exposed with the launch of her own network.
"Winfrey was probably as open as she's ever been with an interviewer, which is to say, not much," Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly concluded, while eschewing Morgan-bashing and celebrating the contrast between him and his predecessor, Larry King.
"Simply by having facts about his subject at hand and speaking coherently, Morgan aced King on his opening night." The Washington Post moaned: "After all that build-up, Morgan's first show turned out to be a fawning and completely unnecessary interview with a successful businesswoman named Oprah Winfrey. It was a droning, previously recorded hour."
Bryan Lowry of Variety had his own take on Winfrey's remark at the show's close that Morgan's performance had been "surprising". Is that so? "Boring would be more accurate," he lamented.