SO PAULO, BRAZIL — It's as if David Letterman, Ted Koppel, John Grisham, and Art Buchwald were rolled into one. Jo Soares is the king of Brazilian late-night television, the nation's most-watched news interviewer, the author of Brazil's No. 1 best-selling novel, and a weekly columnist for a leading newsmagazine.
Mr. Soares, who is known affectionately as o gordo (the fat man) for his hefty physique, also hosts a radio jazz program and sells out most concert appearances. Last year, the comic some call the "Minister of Humor" filled Rio's 4,000-seat Metropolitan Theatre for 25 consecutive performances.
"Everybody is dying of envy of the fat man," wrote Joao Luiz De Albuquerque, a television critic for the Rio daily, Jornal do Brasil.
Just as David Letterman and Jay Leno have become a late-night habit for TV viewers in the United States, "Jo Soares: Eleven-Thirty" attracts about 10 million viewers nightly, or roughly 1 out of 15 Brazilians. In Sao Paulo, South America's largest city, an amazing 65 percent of all upper-income late-night watchers tune in to Soares, according to the polling group Datafolha.
Soares's appeal is obvious. He constantly belittles politicians, fads, his own weight - which rises and falls with periodic diets - and has the uncanny ability to make Brazilians laugh at their nation's woes.
After then-President Itamar Franco embarrassed the nation by being photographed next to a RIo carnival performer wearing a short skirt and no panties, Soares asked the lingerie-workers' union to reassure the nation that there was no shortage of underwear.
Soares concedes that his show is influenced by his American idols: Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Steve Allen. He opens each program with a short monologue and often banters with his band leader.
But unlike his North American counterparts, Soares mixes entertainment with serious news, and usually does his own translating when interviewing foreign guests. He speaks five languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, and English.
As a result, guests range from actor Jack Palance and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1992, Pedro Collor de Mello shocked Brazilians by telling Soares that his brother, then-President Fernando Collor de Mello, was "a crook." President Collor later became the first Latin American leader to be impeached for corruption.
Soares has also given the nation's poor a rare public forum. On occasion, he has asked the homeless, slum dwellers, and shoeshine boys to relate their existence to a nationwide audience.
"We do not live in a social democracy, and opportunities are not open for all," Soares notes in reference to Brazil's dubious distinction of being the country with the widest income gap.
While most TV critics here laud his show, there are those who say the program has its share of off nights. "Sometimes it looks like Jo's mind is somewhere else: on stage at the Metropolitan, at home drooling over [jazz pianist Thelonious] Monk, or having a relapse in front of an open refrigerator," Mr. Albuquerque wrote.
Soares began his show-business career in 1958 as a writer for the now-defunct TV Rio. In the 1960s, he moved to TV Globo, Brazil's biggest network, and soon became a star on the comedy show "Planet of the Humans." This was followed by his own prime-time show, "Long Live the Fat Man," where he created more than 200 sketch characters for a weekly audience estimated at 70 million.
Like many Brazilian entertainers, Soares ran into problems with censorship during the nation's military dictatorship. During those years (1964-85), hundreds of plays were banned and scores of movies, records, books, and periodicals were prohibited from reaching the public.
"It was terrible to work like that," Soares remembers. "You never knew when they [military censors] would call you in."
On one occasion, he was reprimanded for saying bunda, Portuguese slang for backside, in a nightclub act. He agreed never to utter the word again. In his next performance, however, he enticed half the audience to yell "bund!" and the other half, "da!"
In 1975, he turned to film and wrote, directed, and starred in "The Father of the People," (O Pai do Povo) a comedy about a fictitious Latin American country called "Savageland" (Silvestria). It is ruled by "El Magnifico Contreras" (played by Soares), a maniac with a penchant for white-linen suits.
Because of an unexplained freak of nature, the world's male population has been rendered sterile. Humanity is on the verge of extinction, and there is only one male left in the entire world with the power to procreate: a humble Savageland peasant. The crazy but cagey El Magnifico loses no time in paying off his nation's national debt by exporting the world's only fertile man.
In 1988, Soares left TV Globo, by then the world's fourth-largest network. He says he was tired of the constant squabbles with Globo executives over his brand of humor. He moved to the smaller Brazilian broadcasting system (SBT), where he was promised total freedom to create his nightly talk show.
By one account, Globo executives now call Soares "the whale that got away."
As for his home life, Soares lives with his third wife, Flavia, in a luxury apartment in an upscale Sao Paulo neighborhood.
When not taping his show or on tour, Soares spends much of his time in his wood-paneled study, surrounded by some 2,000 books. He reads voraciously: nonfiction in the afternoon and fiction at night.
For this interview, Soares wears a T-shirt with his novel's title - "Xango of Baker Street" - emblazoned across it, blue jeans, a gold Cartier watch, and a diamond stud in his right ear. He negotiates by phone the novel's translation rights for England, Germany, France, and Argentina. Soares says he is amazed by the novel's success. Since its release last October, "Xango" has sold 250,000 copies, a remarkable feat in a country with a small book market. Several Hollywood agents are considering the movie rights, he says.
A historical novel of sorts, set in 1886 Rio de Janeiro, it's a mystery about a stolen Stradivarius violin and a serial killer, who murders young women and leaves a violin string by each body. The French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who is performing in Brazil, advises Emperor Pedro II to seek the aid of her friend, the English supersleuth Sherlock Holmes.
Soares says the idea for the book came after he read about Bernhardt's three visits to Brazil. To make the Brazilian imperial era come to life, he hired two researchers. To remain faithful to the fictional character created by Arthur Conan Doyle, he read the entire Sherlock Holmes oeuvre.
Undoubtedly, the book's appeal to Brazilians is the transformation of Sherlock Holmes, who becomes fascinated with the tropics. In short time, he is speaking a passable Portuguese, shunning hot English tea for cold coconut water, and eating spicy food preferred by slaves. (Slavery wasn't banned in Brazil until 1888.) Even the proper Dr. Watson takes to wearing a leather cowboy hat and peasant sandals.
Soares already at work on a second novel that will cover the period between 1914 and 1954, ending with the suicide of Brazilian President Getulio Vargas.
Soares sees little difference between a Brazilian and American sense of humor. When David Letterman, seen nightly on Brazilian cable TV, jokes about local issues, "we don't understand," he says. "But when he sends his mother to the Olympics," as he did in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, "it's fantastic."
WHAT BRAZILIANS WATCH ON TV
Brazilians own more television sets than refrigerators and watch more television than do people in the United States, an average of seven hours a day. A visitor can quickly see why. Brazilian television is slick and attractive.
On "You Decide," an interactive show, viewers are asked to phone in their preferred ending. (During the 1994 World Cup soccer championship, they opted to send a soccer-crazed young man to the United States to watch the national team, even though it meant leaving his bride at the altar.)
"Night Stick and Planet," a kind of Saturday Night Live, regularly lampoons Brazil's politicians.
Then there are the unconventional news shows. Each weeknight, Boris Casoy, the polemic anchor of the Brazilian broadcasting system (SBT) interrupts his narration of the news to turn to the camera and rail against government corruption and empty promises, lambasting policymakers as "shameful" and calling Brazil the "paradise of impunity." Mr. Casoy's trademark rage makes him a kind of tropical Howard Beale, the newscaster in the 1976 film "Network."
"Here and Now" reporters follow cops on the beat and firemen on rescue missions, intercede for customers who have been swindled by shopkeepers, and interview criminals holding hostages as a bargaining chip with the police.
Their cinema-verite style has won them a following of 17 million nightly viewers.
But the most watched programs are TV Globo's "telenovelas," the well-crafted Portuguese-language soap operas that can capture up to 70 percent of Brazil's viewers during prime-time hours.
Rede Globo, the world's fourth-largest network, attracts the nation's best writers, actors, and directors. Each night they put together three lavishly produced dramas, which often use special effects, on-location scenery, and can cost up to $100,000 per one-hour episode.
Globo soaps are sold to 68 nations, earning the station $25 million in overseas profits. Even Fidel Castro Ruz is a fan. Several years ago, he gave Globo telenovela stars a hero's welcome in Havana.