Jan Kraus - host of phenomenal 'late night' show

This edition of Czechs Today looks at the work of a man known to most movie and theatre-goers and certainly most TV viewers in the Czech Republic: none other than actor, publicist, and talk show host Jan Kraus. It has been almost a year since Kraus launched the Czech TV late night show called "Uvolnete se, prosim" - translated roughly as "Loosen up, please!". The show successfully introduced - for the first time in the Czech Republic - the 'night show' format so well-known and perfected in the US. And, "Uvolnete se, prosim..." has taken off: there are now legions of fans who swear by it. Like his counterparts abroad, hosts like Conan O'Brian and David Letterman, Jan Kraus has eked out a special place on TV.

Andrej Halada is a journalist and editor for the Czech weekly Reflex magazine:

"Uvolnete se, prosim got off to a phenomenal start at the beginning of this year, though recently the show has faced some competition from incoming reality shows. But, anyone who has watched Kraus has to recognise its quality: it's a format we haven't really seen here before and Kraus is the perfect man for the job. Funny, spontaneous, and quick. But, then, he has to be: this type of show lives or dies by the capabilities of its host."

Jan Kraus, of course, is no stranger to broadcasting: for years he has been a household name, with an acting career spanning back to his first role as a child actor in the 50s. He then appeared in numerous films including the cult fairy tale "The Girl on the Broom" about a Czech witch, and Zdenek Sirovy's seminal "Black Barons" from the early 90s. In terms of TV he has also had a lot of experience, co-hosting, for example, "From the Lives of Animals" set in a real veterinary clinic. There, he joined a professional vet to comment the plights of furry friends. From proverbial fur ball incidents to parrots with hiccups to snakes with fevers - I'm embellishing - but you get the picture: Kraus was in his element.

On his new show he is equally convincing. His humour is smart, hard-hitting, and most importantly, irreverent. During interviews he often fixes guests with a trademark fish-eye stare and sardonic expression. But, he is quick to break into smiles, and his characteristic deadpan easily gives way to laughter in most situations. Andrej Halada again:

"It's not really about the 'smirk', that's not it. It's Kraus' reaction-time. He is able to improvise immediately to what his guests are saying. His little jokes or comments are funny and above all they are smart. The audience appreciates it."

A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet with Jan Kraus on the set of "Uvolnete se, prosim" - the Ponec Theatre where the show is taped. He described the programme as something of a high-wire act, most of all because he never "overly" prepares for interviews in advance.

"When we meet beforehand I say hello and I thank them for coming and tell them it'll be a friendly interview. Sometimes I don't even see them afterwards, because it takes me so long to get from backstage. The room to manoeuvre one gets without preparing everything point-by-point is very liberating. Preparing the interview beforehand kills your natural curiosity. We've tried to do it differently. Why not just talk with your guests and just see where it goes? Of course, you never forget the person is sitting right there, and you have an audience before you, so the pressure can be enormous. But, an authentic interview is worth it."

If "keeping it real" is important, than equally important for Kraus and his team is avoiding a mistake made by many other Czech shows that continually troop out the "usual suspects" in other words famous people ad nauseum. "Uvolnete se, prosim", by contrast, keeps a very unusual guest list.

"We decided we wanted to get real people in - people you never see on TV and that has been continually important. You get a totally different picture of the country when you get lesser-known people in. A baker fighting against daylight savings time. A witch who teaches you how to influence men. Often people like that are often far more interesting than 'celebrities' only interested in themselves, or their new CDs."

Most of the times, the gamble pays off.

"Of course things don't always work out quite the way you expect, someone is not as communicative or is less interesting than they first seemed. But it can't be boring. It can be interesting, it can be serious, but boring is equal to death. Sometimes, though I tell myself, yeah, well, he's boring!"

But, long-time Kraus collaborator Simona Mataskova, responsible for booking the guests, says that the programme is usually both exciting and fun to produce.

"I put together the guests and put together details and imagine what the show will be like. But, after that I can only watch as Jan takes over. 90 percent of the time everything works and I enjoy the programme enormously, along with the theatre audience that brings in so much energy and life. "

The guests on "Uvolnete" do of course include many famous people: politicians, musicians, actresses and sports figures, but always there are faces far less known. A recent guest, for example, was a man who runs a Hanzel and Gretel theme park. Another, better-known figure who appeared was a patriarch of the Hussite Church - in a now legendary interview. His 'meditations' on a hen - or rather on hen soup - during Lent had the studio audience, as well as Kraus, in stitches.

Patriarch: "Five days before [the end of Lent] I buy a frozen chicken which I choose very carefully..."

JK: "I'm sure you do! I would too. I'd buy a swan!" {laughter, audience claps}

On the day that I visited, the list of guests was equally eclectic: a former Playboy playmate; a young man who had impersonated a government official and travelled the world; a home brewer convinced he had hit upon the perfect lager... but who later admitted under Kraus' niggling questions that he regularly drinks bottled beer.

Again, a lot of laughs.

Can Kraus keep up the brilliant pace? Reflex's Andrej Halada once again:

"Right now the programme is perfect and has all the right elements, but of course already there are questions over how long the show can last. In my opinion it might not go on quite the same way as some might think. Right now Jan Kraus is able to make people laugh, sometimes or even often at his guests' expense. But, otherwise we don't really learn all that much. At some point the programme may be forced to adapt to deeper levels - in order to go beyond the 'one note' where Kraus pokes fun at his guests. It' a brilliant 'note' but going beyond may be the next step."

At the Ponec Theatre the director calls for a last rehearsal and the crew and staff take to their stations. The band breaks into the programme's opening number onstage. In a few hours the theatre will be full and Kraus will sit down once again at the set, this time with his real guests and not just smiling stand-ins. But, even now, Kraus says a word or two and the stand-ins laugh, as they sit on Kraus' velvet couch. In a few hours time, it'll be the real thing.