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'NightTalk' host John McIntire is peppered and praised by his guests

Wednesday, August 08, 2001

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

He's witty and mischievous and although he's up on local issues, guests say he's more interested in having fun than breaking news.

The host of PCNC's live cable TV talk show, "NightTalk with John McIntire," admits he hasn't burned up the ratings charts since the show premiered in 1996. Airing weeknights from 9 to 10, it's up against some of the best the networks have to offer.

But on Monday at a party and live broadcast from Penn Brewery, North Side, celebrating the show's fifth anniversary, past guests mugging for the cameras said although they didn't always agree with McIntire, appearing on the show was always a fun way to spend an hour.

"NightTalk" host John McIntire makes the rounds at the Penn Brewery, North Side, during a party celebrating his fifth anniversary on PCNC. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

For the former news anchor, it's all about the fun.

"I feel like the shackles are lifted," said McIntire. "There are no restrictions. Being a news anchor, the motto is, 'Don't offend anybody,' [and] you only get to ad lib about 5 percent of the time, unless there's breaking news. Here, it's all ad lib, except for my commentary, which I write, and I'm probably not doing it well if I don't offend somebody."

Even at his nastiest, however, McIntire isn't offending many. Viewership for "NightTalk" is almost off the charts at the low end of the spectrum. In a town where tradition is king, McIntire says he's happy to have a limited audience for a show he says is still in its infancy.

McIntire worked as press secretary to Rhode Island's state treasurer and anchored local news for a half-dozen stations before being plucked from behind a Tulsa news desk by executives at WPXI, the broadcast station that owns PCNC. Entering the market with no local contacts and limited knowledge of Pittsburghers' priorities, insiders say, it took a while for McIntire to find his footing. Viewers began to take notice of the show during frequent interviews with guests involved in the investigation of the death of slain motorist Jonny Gammage.

But unlike the networks' Sunday morning political chat shows, McIntire's take on heavy issues is tempered by his sense of humor.

"I like this [job] because we do serious subjects, but we treat them in a light-hearted manner," said McIntire. "Other shows do one or the other. It's not Comedy Central and not 'Larry King Live.' I think we're pretty unique in that we get to be as irreverent as we want to be."

That irreverence frequently takes the form of ridiculing Republican opinions in tongue-in-cheek verbal slap-down grudge matches with conservative guests. McIntire recalls with a sort of mischievous adolescent glee his incessant interrupting of political consultant Bill Green when the guest was trying to make a point. Sometimes the antics are more risque.

"At the [show's] anniversaries we have parties, sort of a more free-form thing," he said. "One time, I pinched [U.S. Representative] Melissa Hart [R-Bradford Woods] on the butt and pretended it was someone else. That was fun and, hey, she came back on the show later, so I guess it was OK."

Ted Koppel he's not.

Ask about the show's high points, and McIntire says he's been thrilled to have timely, charismatic guests, "somebody you would enjoy talking to at a party."

The lowest point in the show's five years?

"I got sick once at about 8:25, and by 8:30 I was vomiting in the parking lot and went home," he said. "When the guest came in, he found out that he was hosting."

McIntire and part-time associate producer Amy Marshall handle all of the scheduling, writing and organization necessary to get what he calls "this low-rent cable show" on the air. However, the smallness of the operation and limited viewership, McIntire says, give him a larger degree of freedom to revel in his irreverent, wise-cracking public persona.

Off the record, a few guests at the Penn Brewery party admitted that, at times, McIntire got on their nerves, particularly when the sometimes cocky host felt the important news points they were trying to make weren't quite entertaining enough.

On the record, guests said "Big Mac" is "a good guy."

Former Mayor Sophie Masloff came the closest to offering a real critique.

"John McIntire is so uninhibited, and you never know what he's going to do or say. He gets me off guard," she said. "I've been on the show many, many times, and he's said some really outlandish things that I couldn't repeat. It's always great fun."

The invitation-only, open-bar brewery party drew a diverse assortment of former guests and people associated with the show. Politicians Tom Murphy and Cyril Wecht rubbed elbows with entertainer Jim Krenn, promoter Rich Engler and local NAACP president Tim Stevens. Hamming for the live camera were the Pirate Parrot and his friend, a big, walking pierogi. McIntire and a camera crew made the rounds, talking small with local celebrities about the night's only topic of conversation, "NightTalk."

"John's a great guy with a great head of hair," said Emilio from Downtown's Izzazu Salon, so trendy that its stylists don't use last names. "He pays for his own cuts and always wants a mint 'shampage,' " a shampoo and scalp massage.

Hair plugs?

"Absolutely not," said Izzazu's Gino.

Dye job?

"No, no, no," said Emilio. "It's all his and it's all real. What we do is de-densify to take the Jay Leno out of his hair. Leno's out, the Mac is in."

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