Chowder Head

updated 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS THE NEW HOST OF TALK SOUP, the E! cable channel's daily tongue-in-cheek recap of chat show highlights, John Henson, 27, appreciates a good soundbite. But he can't stand the roar of a power saw pruning a tree outside the living room of his L.A. apartment. Hoping for quiet, he moves to his bedroom. Moments later, the saw buzzes outside that room. "He's following us!" Henson yells. "It's 'Tree Trimmers Who Stalk' on the next Rolanda!"

Someone who tracks gabbers such as Ricki, Geraldo, Jenny and, yes, Rolanda, learns to expect anything. Henson was a relatively obscure stand-up comic when he beat out hundreds of other hopefuls in a talent search last year to replace Greg Kinnear, now on NBC's Later. But he is used to standing out in a crowd. The youngest of five sons born to Joe Henson, a former IBM exec, and his wife, Barbara, an artist, he was so precocious, his parents were advised to take him out of nursery school in Stamford, Conn. "His teacher said, 'He only talks to me,' " recalls Barbara. "She said we were wasting money." Then there's the shock of white hair that Henson has had since birth. "People call me Skunk Boy," he says. "Kids teased him," his mother agrees, "but he enjoyed the attention."

Henson gets plenty of notice now as he tries to create his own Soup recipe—something less laden with cynicism than Kinnear's. One reason: Some shows treated to the former host's wit stopped providing tapes. "We try to be conscious of everyone's feelings, from hosts to panelists," says Henson, whose ratings, E! execs claim, are on a par with Kinnear's. He also politely refuses to choose favorites among the gabmeisters. "I love them all," he says. And some love him. "He's an easygoing, pal-around guy," says talk show host Jerry Springer. "He pokes fun, but he's less cutting." Henson is certainly dedicated. He has no steady love interest and hits the hay by 8 p.m., so he can rise to tape at 4 a.m. and clear the studio for E!'s O.J. Simpson trial coverage. Says Henson: "I haven't gone to bed so early since I wore feety pajamas."

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