Earlier today I came across a blogger with a weekly feature called The Sunday Seven, wherein each Sunday he posts a question for which there can be up to seven answers. He invites people to leave their answers in his comments field, or post them on their own blogs with a link back to him. I always intend to post more often here at C&B, so I say a random guy named Patrick’s Sunday Seven is as good a reason as any to do so.
THIS WEEK’S QUESTION:
Name your seven favorite late-night talk show hosts.
Heh heh… not exactly a matter of earth-shattering importance, is it? Of course, there are plenty of earth-shattering things going on in the news right now without me bringing down the room even more. So here we go:
My Favorite Late-Night Talk Show Hosts
Johnny Carson. It feels a little odd to be putting him on this list of “favorites,” because there were a few things about Johnny that put me off a little. For example, sometimes with the “regular folks” guests (a bird-calling champion, a 90-year-old postmaster, a guy who’d had the hiccups for 30 years, etc) he would make jokes at their expense – just little asides or takes to the audience that struck me as cheap and mean-spirited. That said, there’s no denying the influence The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson had upon television, and the whole entertainment industry. It was the gold standard among late-night talk and variety shows. It was the show to be on, and stop number one for big-name stars with new movies coming out. A Tonight Show booking was the big shot every stand-up comedian hoped for. Indeed, the comedy boom of the 1980′s was composed largely of performers whose names were made when they cracked up Johnny Carson – Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Roseanne Barr, Steven Wright, Ellen DeGeneres, and Drew Carey, to name just a few. It was entertaining and tremendously popular show, and the credit is due mainly to Johnny Carson. Plus, he had the grace to get out while he was still in good form; the same cannot be said of his successor Jay Leno, no matter if he is still ahead of Letterman in the ratings nor how many gazillions of dollars NBC pays him for continuing to suck.
David Letterman. I was a solid fan of Letterman beginning well back in his 12:30AM-after-The-Tonight-Show years. I always cottoned to Dave’s un-slick and un-polished, self-effacing kind of humor. Letterman was a little riskier at 12:30AM than he can be these days in the competitive 11:30PM slot. Back in the day there wasn’t always a top ten list – sometimes they’d instead do an inventively silly segment like “What Object Would You Like to See Dropped Off a Ten-Story Tower?” (As I recall, when viewed from above a load of watermelons look like fireworks going off as they hit the pavement, whereas bowling balls go about 3 stories back upward on the first bounce). I also treasure the memory of Dave looking out a Rockefeller Center window at Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley taping a live program in the plaza below, and then picking up a bullhorn to call out, “Citizens of New York! I am Larry Grossman, president of NBC News. This outdoor broadcast was my idea – and I’m not wearing pants!” I still like Dave, and although I don’t see his show too often anymore, I would credit his show for forming a lot of my comic sensibility when I was a kid.
Conan O’Brien. I’ll further admit that I see Conan’s show even less often than I see Letterman these days. Over the years, I have appreciated the unique flavor of humor his show has established. I don’t know about Conan being a great interviewer or anything, but I imagine he’s more concerned with entertaining his audience than being compared to Barbara Walters. Conan’s show has given the world the comedic masterpiece known as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, which alone would be a worthy legacy. But beyond it all, Conan earned my eternal respect and admiration by having balls enough to tape an entire episode of his show before a live studio audience composed entirely of six-year-olds.
Bill Maher. Speaking of balls… I’m glad that Bill Maher has found the right TV home for himself at HBO. I’ve long been a fan of his comedy, especially because of its challenging and topical nature. Likewise, his show is consistently both substantive via its panel discussions, and funny via its set-piece segments. The odd thing is that even though I mainly agree with Maher politically and philosophically, I’ve become slightly weary of a few of his main beefs. I want to say, “OK, Bill: I get it. I may not necessarily share some your opinions, or share them only to an extent, but I certainly respect them. It’s just… does it really help the situation to mock religious people, married people, or people with children so bitterly?” There absolutely are issues there worth talking about, and worth joking about (of course). But Bill Maher occasionally crosses the line into demagoguery, and the world definitely doesn’t need more of that.
Jon Stewart. I could sit a very long time trying for an original combination of words to praise the brilliance of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. I think if the past five or so years of TV have proven anything, it’s that the satire is mightier than the shout (even in the case of Stephen Colbert’s shouted satire). Aside from how penetratingly funny Jon Stewart routinely is, he can also be more just plain penetrating as an interviewer than anyone on I can think of on TV. I could struggle further to describe what I mean, but it wouldn’t be half as effective as simply posting this clip:
Stephen Colbert. I see Colbert as a separate category because The Colbert Repot really isn’t a talk show as such. The show does always have a guest, but Colbert upends the usual talk-show conceit by interviewing guests in character, the same way he is during the rest of the show. Most guests end up serving mainly as comic foils. Their “interviews” often don’t reveal much about them or their work, but they are quite often hilarious. If anything is consistently revealed by the interviews, it is how the subject reacts to a ludicrous moron who is nonetheless very sure of himself. As a conservative pundit in the O’Reilly/Hannity mold, the Colbert character’s unflagging ideological passion is fueled by pure “truthiness,” the term he famously coined on the first episode. “I love the truth,” he later explained to a guest, “but I hate facts.” The latest challenge for Colbert, it would seem, is to avoid becoming a victim of his own success. By now, almost all of his guests come in knowing what to expect from him and play along. Colbert is a sharp enough improviser to provide a lively exchange anyhow, but it’s hard to escape nostalgia for the days of his sit-downs with congressmen unaware of what they were in for:
Is that still only six? Aw, screw it – I’m going carpal tunnel from how long this post became anyhow.