Monday, May 10, 1999

Just Reflecting on a Job Well Done

Boy, talk about life imitating art. This past year basketball lost Michael Jordan, hockey lost Wayne Gretzky, football lost John Elway, and baseball lost Bob Tewksbury. And now TV has suffered just a major a loss as any of those. Gone is one of the few talk show hosts skilled in the art of conversation, Tom Snyder.

Snyder could be verbose and he could also be a skillful communicator. His reputation probably never recovered from Dan Ackroyd's wicked parody on Saturday Nite Live which was deadly accurate with its depiction of Tom's unique style. Still Snyder was the consummate broadcaster, endlessly entertaining. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Snyder's longevity on television was that he didn't really have a schtick. Ackroyd based his impersonation on Snyder's booming laugh and chain smoking theatrics. But Snyder long ago gave up smoking and just because a guy likes to chortle doesn't make him a TV personality. Tom was a talk show host that loved the art of talking.

It was sad to see Tom decide to step down from his four year stint on the Late Late Show, the show that followed David Letterman. He was the perfect act to follow Letterman not being a comedian, and yet matching Dave's love of broadcasting. As big of fan of Letterman as I am, I'm not sure his influence over television, and in our culture has necessarily been a good thing. Sarcasm and celebrity mockery was along long before Dave of course, but ever since his show hit the airwaves nearly twenty years ago, all that have followed have incorporated bits of his act into their own shows. Snyder's was one of the few talk shows that truly was unique and it was unique because it simply relied on the art of conversation for its success.

It was hard to appreciate Tom's skill until a guest host (and he had two in the four years, Jon Stewart and Martin Mull) sat in for him. Both Stewart and Mull are sharp and witty but both had a difficult time doing what Tom did night in and night out, sitting alone in a studio chatting first to just the camera, and then later with a single guest and callers to the show. Every night we got to hear about Tom's mom, and his dog Oliver, and his granddaughter and the mundane day to day events of his life, yet like the best conversationalists, he made it all seem interesting somehow.

Tom's replacement on the Late Late Show, Craig Kilborn, is the polar opposite meaning he often can be more Letterman like than Dave himself. The best thing one can say after watching the first few weeks of Kilborn is how quickly his show got off the ground and running. Unlike another Letterman disciple, Conan O'Brien, Kilborn was at ease immediately and his program seemed well crafted from the very first show. It undoubtedly has a lot to do with Kilborn having established himself on ESPN and the Comedy Channel before moving to CBS. Although I never saw his show on the Comedy Channel, from what I have heard, the CBS version is nearly identical, incorporating such bits as "Five Questions," "A Moment for Us," and "In the News." Kilborn's comfort in some ways works against him as his smoothness can seem too slick, his confidence borders on smugness.

Still, there already have been some memorable moments including a genuinely funny interview with Janene Garfeolo, and nice moments with Shirley Manson ("do your fans really understand the 'angst' in your songs or are they really just losers?"), Jeff Goldblum and Jon Lovitz. Kilborn's humor often seems a tad sophomoric, and his interviewing style is to go after a laugh no matter the guest. Still some of his quips are clever, and the show exudes an energy reminiscent of Letterman's NBC show (we're on late we can do whatever we want to do)...

The key to Johnny Carson's king of late night longevity and appeal was his charm and ease. Johnny was like a friend at the end of the day, no matter how tired you were, no matter what kind of day you had, Johnny was worth turning on for a chuckle or two. He never wore out his welcome. It is to be seen how long Kilborn can last with his over abundance of confidence. One of the disadvantages of hitting the road running is that the bits that already seem comfortable are that much closer to getting stale. Comedy can get old after awhile. Good conversation on the other hand, as rare as it can be, is always to be treasured. And TV has lost one of the best at that rare craft.

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