• Image about elvis-costello-elvis-presley-sir-elton-john-bill-clinton-americanway

No stranger to being the interviewee, Elvis Costello is switching things up on his new show, where he’ll be the one asking the questions.

ELVIS COSTELLO makes for the perfect talk-show host simply because he isn’t one by trade, and what a refreshing qualification for the gig that is these days. With entertainment-tube talkers locked on autopilot, audiences have become immune to the perfectly choreographed chatter of giggly guests and the hosts who enable their image-building babble. Any spontaneity is a revelation.

As host of the new Sundance Channel program Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …, which will air through March, the legendary musician has created a forum for in-depth dialogue rather than a platform for star-making diatribes. Spectacle strikes an Inside the Actors Studio vibe sans any hint of pretentious overindulgence. The show’s laid-back, intimate atmosphere is the kind that often unearths intriguing situations; during their taped appearances, guests, including Lou Reed and even saxophonist and former president Bill Clinton, have opened up about the experiences that have shaped their lives and their music.

“It’s not a show about trying to uncover some deep, dark secret somebody’s got hidden,” Costello explains. “Rather, [it’s] their opportunity to talk about some things they don’t get to talk about in the regular showbiz interview.”

Legendary showman Sir Elton John, one of Spectacle’s producers, has also popped by the set -- not to promote an album but to speak at length about other people’s music. Costello remembers looking out the corner of his eye at the studio audience and seeing people surprised by the honesty and modesty Sir Elton was showing, not the flamboyance people are used to seeing. “It was about what really is within him, which is his love of music,” Costello says.

Costello considers the show’s looseness as an invitation to guests to do whatever comes to mind. Each segment begins with a performance that’s either a song by the guest or connected to him or her in some way. Episodes have showcased Clinton being serenaded by a longtime bandmate of Elvis Presley and Tony Bennett plucking Costello’s wife, jazz musician Diana Krall, out of the audience for a rendition of “I’ve Got the World on a String.”

“What we see in these conversations is Elvis doing a fantastically revealing conversation … kind of a peer-to-peer conversation,” says another of Spectacle’s producers, Martin Katz. “In the Elton interview, they ask each other questions about the nature of the change to their own personas, about Elton becoming Elton and Elvis becoming Elvis. And there’s nothing like it.”

Indeed, Spectacle is more about mature retrospection than young-adult looniness, the latter of which is often typical of late-night TV. Costello has a smooth Charlie Rose–like style; he is relaxed without being sleep-inducing and chatty without talking over his guests. Producer Stephen Warden got the idea to have Costello host his own show after seeing his masterful turn as a guest host of Late Show with David Letterman. “The lightbulb went off -- like, he can do that too?” Warden says. “It was impressive.”

Costello’s experience on Late Show taught him valuable lessons that he’s able to put to good use on Spectacle. Kim Cattrall, for instance, showed up as a version of her Sex and the City character, and she and Costello spent most of their time flirting. “It was funny,” Costello says, “but not very real.”

On Spectacle, “the conversations will be real,” he promises. And in the primped, polished, pampered world of Hollywood, real is quite a refreshing change.

Hosts with the Most

Elvis Costello proves to be a perfectly capable emcee on his new show, Spectacle. We break down his competition.

We’d most want to be interviewed by: Ellen DeGeneres. She just wants to dance.

We wouldn’t want to be interviewed by: Oprah Winfrey. She answers most of her own questions.

Host with no clue: Regis Philbin. But he’s been doing it for so long, we let it slide.

Most astute host: The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. When things get bad, he knows that satire is the only way to stay sane.

Most underrated interviewer: Kelly Ripa. No, really.

Overrated interviewers: The women from The View.