Jay Leno and David Letterman should take lessons from one of the newer talk-show hosts on the block: Isaac Mizrahi. The garrulous fashion designer has been chatting up celebrities on the TV channel Oxygen for nearly three seasons now (new episodes start next week), and with his artfully disheveled hair and artless charm, he has a real way with getting stars to talk about, well, anything.
And do anything -- that may be part of the trick. The star of the 1994 documentary Unzipped, Mizrahi is in constant, fluttery motion -- kvetching, quipping, slobbering over his dog -- and The Isaac Mizrahi Show has the same delightfully hyperactive quality as its host. "Talk is better when you're doing something," he says in the intro to his show. And so his celebrity guests come over to the all-white studio and they do things: Rosie O'Donnell gets a haircut, Natalie Portman helps him wash his dog, Tammy Faye Bakker gives makeup tips. The distractions provide entertainment value and seem to put his friends -- and they do seem more like friends than talk-show guests -- at ease. Freed from that weird desk-y format -- the host hiding his gut behind a giant oak monstrosity, the interviewee carefully crossing her legs with the top leg hovering over the bottom leg so as not to squish and reveal cellulite -- his guests wind up confiding all manner of juicy details.
The host has something to do with it. Mizrahi is always himself: proudly out, fretfully Jewish (while inventing the "Isaac Mizrahi" sandwich at a New York deli, he tries out a peanut butter and pastrami sandwich, lamenting guiltily, "It's very goyishe," before sinking his choppers into it), slightly neurotic and very funny. His celebrity guests always wind up being themselves, too. They forget about trying to be normal, to be down with the people. They reveal their true odd celebrity selves, with their strange diets (Margaret Cho eats "live food") and fancy lives (Rosie O'Donnell recounts with horror her son's reaction to riding a regular plane: "So loud!"; and "Who are all these people?").
Even Mizrahi's appearance is disarming, which is surprising considering his vocation. In the intro to each show, he's wearing a screamingly ugly orange shirt. His outfits during the episodes are similarly odd, lots of short-sleeved polo shirts with the collars turned up, for example. He seems to have the occasional little accessory or outfit that is so ugly -- the white do-rag, the hot-pink cardigan with yellow shirt -- it must be fashionable, in that Sex and the City sort of way.
Like that HBO hit, half the fun of Mizrahi's show is the sex talk. Andy Dick talks about being "trisexual" -- he'll try anything once. Immediately branding himself as the most imperceptive man on earth, Dick expresses surprise that Mizrahi is gay. "I sort of emerged gay," says the host. Rosie O'Donnell speaks about being berated for not coming out, and explains her crush on Tom Cruise: She didn't want to "do the nasty" with him, she wanted him to mow her lawn. Mizrahi, of course, crows that he did have the "nasty" fantasy himself. His unruffled, good-natured openness about sexuality -- his and that of his guests -- is refreshing and effective. By talking about intimacy, Mizrahi manages to create a little more of it in his interactions with guests. He's fulfilling his interviewer mandate but he's also performing a great public service by treating sexuality and queerness as normal, if intriguing, parts of life.
Mizrahi is just as direct about other topics most hosts wouldn't touch. "You had a drug problem and an alcohol problem," he says to Cho, to get her to talk about a dark period in her life. And it works -- this approach free from hemming and hawing, this kind and matter-of-fact acknowledgment of trauma. Cho recounted her childhood shame of her Asian mother; O'Donnell opened up about her depression. "My family's Irish Catholic," she says, by way of explanation. "Ahh," Mizrahi replies. He's the Swiss Army knife of talk-show hosts -- part counselor, part kindergarten teacher, part designer and part entertainer. And he can teach you to knit, too.
Perhaps the show is best summed up by one touchingly comic scene from last year. O'Donnell is getting her haircut, and the stylist is hacking away at her thick mane. She's talking about her kids, how when they came into her life, it was like the moment The Wizard of Oz was transformed from black and white to color. "Color saturated my world," she says. It's an unexpectedly tender moment. The next second, Mizrahi gets all up in her hairdo, O'Donnell's yelling, the stylist is huffing at being bossed around. Mizrahi definitely has heart. But whether Sarah Jessica Parker is letting him feel her breasts to see if they're real (they are), he's adding five slices of bacon to a sandwich, wanting to build the Isaac Mizrahi bridge in Queens, or exclaiming "Faaaabulous!" or "Shut up!" for the millionth time, Mizrahi's a hoot, too.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online.