By Tom Gliatto
October 11, 2004 12:00 PM

Several Saturdays ago something strange, new and disturbing sneaked up on Carson Daly. He woke up that morning with nothing scheduled. The calendar was blank. No urgent messages on the cell phone. “It was the first day I can remember in years where literally there was not one thing to do,” says the host of NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly, “and I had no idea what to do with myself. I almost packed a bag and went to the airport to fly somewhere—because driving to the airport to fly somewhere is all I do.”

Fortunately, by the time Monday rolled round, his day was once again happily crammed with the business of being Carson Daly: The morning kicks off with a radio countdown show, Carson Daly’s Most Requested, and the evening peaks with the 7:30 p.m. taping of his two-year-old Last Call (it just airs at 1:35 a.m.), which lately has started attracting as many 18-to 34-year-olds as David Letterman’s show, which airs two hours earlier. In between he’s fielding calls and taking meetings about his record label, 456 Entertainment, and his production company, which will handle New Year’s festivities for NBC this year. “I think that it’s sometimes harder than if I was chopping down trees every day,” says Daly, 31. The pay’s better, though. He currently rakes in an estimated $7 million a year, more than three times what he earned back when he was the boyish yet indisputably phat host of MTV’s TRL. “People used to refer to me as just ‘MTV,'” says Daly, who was a 24-year-old radio personality from L.A. when he landed his first MTV gig in 1997. “Like, ‘Hey! There’s MTV! It wasn’t even like ‘the MTV guy!’ So I feel very proud that I put myself on some new paths. I feel like I’ve survived. There’s a [veejay] stigma that I’ve always been aware of.”

In fact, there probably isn’t another MTV host who has gone so far so fast and managed, say his friends, to change so little. Then, as now, “he always loved music and wanted the new albums,” says Jimmy Kimmel, an old friend from the L.A. radio scene (whose own late-night talk show on ABC doesn’t do as well with young viewers as Daly’s). “And he liked to hang out and play golf and have a couple of beers.”

He’s not allergic to parties by any means, but moving from his 20s into his 30s, “my life is in a much better place,” he says. “Last year in the Hamptons I went out a lot, and I was in the papers all the time, going to Puffy’s birthday party. This year I was in my house. I was barbecuing.”

Alone? Daly has been virtually mum about his private life since he and party-girl actress Tara Reid canceled their wedding plans in 2001 (he’d previously dated another high-profile name, Jennifer Love Hewitt). “We were young and we had a great time, and I have no regrets,” he says. For the past year, he has been dating a New York woman, Katie Shnay, 22, but he’s reluctant to discuss her. “[With Tara], you know, my personal life was everywhere, and I’m really now reserving the right to keep it private,” he says. “I’m very happy.”

And determined not to make any more tabloid headlines. “If I were ever going to have my Behind the Music bad moment, it would have happened,” he says. “It’s just solid right now.”

Tom Gliatto. Mark Dagostino in New York City