Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Changes at “High Stakes Poker”

High Stakes PokerWas hearing late last week some of those rumors about the upcoming seventh season of “High Stakes Poker,” set to kick off on February 26 -- a Saturday night -- on the Game Show Network. Most concerned a possible host change, with Gabe Kaplan, part of the show since its premiere in 2006, apparently not coming back either for this season or the next.

The guys on Ante Up! floated something about it on their show last week (the 2/3/11 episode). Quoting a “trusty source” -- possibly another ex-HSP host, A.J. Benza, who has been a guest on their show more than once -- they noted that Kaplan had been “fired” and replaced with “another funny a-hole.” (The quote certainly sounds like Benza.) After mentioning that tidbit on the show, they additionally included the news in their show notes afterwards.

Now we know for certain. When the shows begin airing later this month, Kaplan will no longer be at the mic commenting on the action and cracking wise. Rather, Norm MacDonald (“Saturday Night Live,” Dirty Work), another comedian, will be taking over the hosting duties. Kara Scott will be returning as well as a co-host, and apparently for those with 3-D televisions the show will be watchable in that format, too.

MacDonald is in fact a poker player, showing up at small events and satellites in L.A. and at the World Series of Poker over the past few years. He did a turn on an episode of “Celebrity Poker Showdown” once back in 2004. He also was one of the first guests on the Two Plus Two Pokercast back in early 2008 (episode 5), and gave one of the best (and funniest) interviews those guys have ever had on that podcast.

But his poker resume obviously pales in comparison to that of Kaplan, who was there playing at the WSOP way back in the late 1970s. A long-time cash game player (at times for high stakes), Kaplan’s tourney résumé is mighty impressive, too, and certainly helped qualify him for the commentator’s role.

I always enjoyed Kaplan on the show, so like many my initial response to the news that he had been replaced was not positive. Nor was I that enthused by the news that no Full Tilt Poker pros will be on Season 7, either, although I don’t mind seeing new faces. (See Kevmath’s Bluff piece for a full rundown of the players who will be appearing.)

The sorta-surprising news of Kaplan’s “firing” and MacDonald’s stepping in brought a couple of other, similar changes to mind.

Turd Ferguson -- It's a funny nameOne was from back in late 1997 when MacDonald, after having hosted the “Weekend Update” segment on “Saturday Night Live” for four years, was suddenly fired by Don Ohlmeyer, then president of NBC’s West Coast division. While MacDonald frequently appeared in other segments on SNL, including doing a hilariously-half-hearted Burt Reynolds (a.k.a. Turd Ferguson) impersonation on the recurring faux-“Jeopardy” spoof, he was best known on the show for anchoring the “Update” desk.

Somewhat controversial, that, and perhaps made even more memorable by MacDonald’s subsequent appearance as a guest on the “Late Show with David Letterman” on which Letterman offered a lot of pointed commentary about Ohlmeyer.

Kind of a similar scenario, I suppose, though on a smaller scale, with a much-liked host being suddenly yanked. Only this time MacDonald is the one stepping in rather than shipping out.

The other, similar change the story brought to mind was when “Monday Night Football” brought in Dennis Miller -- another comedian and “Weekend Update” alum -- back in 2000 to deliver color commentary.

Miller lasted a couple of seasons on MNF, though his frequent obscure references (a big part of his schtick as a comedian-slash-political commentator) didn’t land that often with the average sports fan and the entire experiment is generally viewed as having failed. In fact, last year TV Guide listed Miller’s stint on MNF among its “25 Biggest TV Blunders.”

Despite the title of the show, the stakes are much, much lower when it comes to “High Stakes Poker” and changes to its cast and format. Not really sure how MacDonald is gonna pull it off, to be honest, though as one of those who enjoys his humor I’m at least curious to watch how he does. And how the new cast of players do as well.

High Stakes Poker, season 7The fact is, while MacDonald’s contributions will most certainly affect the success of the show, it’s the players who matter most. And when it comes to attracting and keeping an audience that extends beyond hardcore poker fans (as GSN obviously wants to do), it’ll be the personalities of the competitors -- and whether they help create and maintain interest -- that’ll determine the show’s fate.

In other words, as much as I like Kaplan as a host, I think replacing Ivey, Dwan, Antonius, and the other Full Tilters will prove much more challenging here than will replacing Mr. Kotter. Here’s hoping all those non-FTPers on the Season 7 line-up -- all great players, obviously -- can prove successful at the game of entertaining, too.

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