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CNBC hopes McEnroe is an ace

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. -- In a cable TV world where a host's ability often seems measured in volume, who better to hire than John McEnroe?

You cannot be serious!

Yes, we are. The former tennis bad boy is now a talk-show host, but he's not shouting.

"McEnroe," which debuts on CNBC Wednesday at 10 p.m., will be a cosmopolitan mix of topical guests, music, art, sports, and a lot of comedy. In test runs, the program's eclectic mix of guests feels like an expanded version of the second half of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."

He may even do a monologue.

"I'm not at the point in my life where I want to be really serious," said McEnroe, 45, who strummed a guitar in a recent conversation on his show's set, still under construction. "At this point, I want to have more fun."

McEnroe's sidekick is former VH1 video jock John Fugelsang. One of the show's featured elements is the "Mac Attack," where Fugelsang peppers McEnroe with rapid-fire questions.

A comic bit with potential involved a multiple-choice test for viewers on the common side effects of much-advertised prescription drugs.

It felt surprising not only because it was counter to type -- the fixed image of McEnroe as an on-court ranter -- but because CNBC initially positioned "McEnroe" as a counterpoint to Dennis Miller's political talk show that precedes it each night.

For those keeping score at home: CNBC's prime-time features a comedian who wants to be a right-wing politician and an ex-jock who wants to be a comedian.

The network is in the process of reconstructing a prime-time lineup that's been in shambles since Geraldo Rivera left for Fox News Channel in 2001. CNBC's daytime business audience flees at night, so management is trying new things to entice viewers.

Miller's average viewership of 236,000 through June is a 19 percent increase from the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. CNBC doesn't have much to lose in McEnroe's time slot: the current business program is averaging 189,000 viewers this year.

CNBC is still looking to fill the 8 p.m. time slot. Until then, it will be part of NBC's formidable promotion machine, airing reruns of "The Apprentice" and "Meet the Press" this fall.

"I think people will see that we're in the process of building a lineup and we're not done yet," said Pamela Thomas-Graham, CNBC's chief executive.

She was attracted to McEnroe's personality. He's been branching out into entertainment as a much-praised tennis commentator and as host for a short-lived ABC game show, "The Chair."

"It's a good thing to be self-deprecating and have a sense of humor," McEnroe said. "Hopefully, that will be something they see that they didn't expect. I didn't show it very well when I was playing, that's for sure. But I'm able to show it when I'm in a different environment."

He's hardly shied away from his short-fuse image, titling his autobiography "You Cannot Be Serious" and portraying himself in the movies, "Anger Management" and "Mr. Deeds."

Age has matured, if not mellowed, him, he said.

He occasionally finds himself losing control in relatively meaningless senior tennis matches, even when winning or losing meant little to his paycheck.

"I think, `What am I doing this for? There's no reason to do it. Why am I freaking out?' " he said. "Some of it is that people expect it. But some of it is that I've genuinely gone over the edge."

The dinner table is loud at the McEnroe home. He has custody of his three children with actress Tatum O'Neal. His wife, rock singer Patty Smyth, also has a child from a previous relationship. They have two kids with each other.

That sounds like a sitcom or, in this era, a reality show.

"I say no one could ever top Ozzy's first year," he said, "so don't even bother trying."

A recently registered Democrat, McEnroe wore a John Kerry button on his jeans jacket lapel. He wants politicians as guests -- he admires Senator John McCain -- but McEnroe will leave the pontificating to his 10 p.m. competitors, Greta Van Susteren and Aaron Brown."I'm expecting to get thrown darts and (having people say) `What's he doing?"' he said. "And in the process get better, because I don't think it's that easy. But I'd like to think I have the right attitude about it. I have the energy for it. I feel like I'm young at heart and, to me, that's half the battle."

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