Archive for Stephen Colbert

No Olds Barred

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV History, TV News, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 6, 2016 by Tom Steward

In a week when voters decided they didn’t have a problem with a man in his late seventies running the country, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s still a place in television for the old. While host of The Late Show Stephen Colbert managed a ten-minute skit based around The Twilight Zone – a show that first aired in 1959 – nineties science-fiction procedural The X-Files continued its revival on Fox. An anthology series about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson began and the miniseries Shades of Blue showcasing the anachronistic acting talents of Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta plodded along (and that is exactly the right word!). British television seems no less geriatric these days. Friends’ Matt Le Blanc was this week announced as the new co-host of motoring journal Top Gear, alongside – I might add – star of nineties light entertainment Chris Evans, who in turn has recently relaunched the pub-based variety talk show TFI Friday which had ceased broadcasting in 2000. How is it possible that so many programs and people from television’s past are now to be found dominating the airwaves? Well, there’s really not that much effort required to revive something that has never been away.

old

In Rod we trust.

Syndication and the proliferation of TV channels and services mean that TV of decades past is never far from our screens. It’s a short road from endlessly recycling a show to providing some extra material to pad it out. That might explain the programs but what about the people? Well, in each case, we’re talking about personalities who have managed to stick around long enough to become institutions, or have just come off their own revival. While the idea of J-Lo as an actor is now strange enough to make her performance in Shades of Blue seem jarring, her judging for American Idol and appearances on just about every music awards show on the air makes it a much smoother transition for regular viewers. Matt Le Blanc had endeared himself to the transatlantic public once again with Episodes and Top Gear is merely the crowning of that – although I suspect the BBC will be happy with anyone who falls short of creating an international incident! As to Chris Evans, Channel 4 had yet to replace TFI Friday with anything as exciting in that slot – and believe me it wasn’t very exciting – so broadcasters’ lack of ambition is also a factor.

 

What’s harder to explain is why we’re suddenly so interested in material from the past. No-one who talks about Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story fails to mention that it has been twenty years since the events surrounding the arrest and trial of O.J. Simpson took place. TV may be a medium that prides itself on currency, but looking back over the decades has become another badge of honour. That’s what made Colbert’s Twilight Zone parody so bizarre. Weeknight talk shows are compelled to restrict their discussion to what’s been happening in that day’s news, and yet this trip down memory was motivated by nothing but fandom and ridicule-ripeness. I don’t know what to think about an X-Files revival (has anyone ever?!) but it’s an interesting case of throwing good money after bad in the wake of Fox’s breakout original programming like Empire. The youngest major network – if we’re still thinking in those terms – Fox has a particular problem letting go of the past. The Simpsons and Family Guy are now decades old, the network is home to a number of movie reboots, and this year primetime Fox vehicles provided a platform for the comebacks of Rob Lowe and John Stamos.

old 2

Surely it’s a Z-File by now!

The number of revivals, period television, and veteran stars on primetime television is staggering. For example, ABC airs two sitcoms set in the eighties and nineties respectively, a drama set in the forties, an anthology series set in the eighties, a revival of a seventies TV franchise, a movie about Bernie Madoff, while featuring among its big names Don Johnson, Ed O’Neill, Tim Allen and Geena Davis. With the increasing competition and likelihood of cancellation, it may seem that TV ruthlessly cuts away that which is ageing, but in fact it seems more accurate to say that a job on TV is a job for life. One thing is certain; there is absolutely no property out there in TV land that is exempt from returning to our screens. I did mean the landscape of television not the recurring nightmare-oriented nostalgia network back there but actually both work just as well!

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Late Risers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

Over the summer, two of the most important seats in late-night television were vacated. Unlike last year, when NBC’s The Tonight Show promoted Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and CBS’ The Late Late Show traded like for like – to maintain the quota of British late-night hosts at exactly one – each of the replacements was not the heir apparent. Host of CBS’ Late Show David Letterman was succeeded by Stephen Colbert, who came in from Comedy Central, having been host of The Colbert Report and contributor to The Daily Show, and not long-time Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, Letterman’s protégé who had, like his mentor, smashed the orthodoxy of the genre. At least Colbert was recognized as a great innovator and radical presence on TV – as well as a nifty enough entertainer – when he was awarded the Late Show crown. Utterly unlike newcomer Trevor Noah, who was bumped several pay grades when he went from Daily Show contributor to taking Jon Stewart’s job as host. In fact, Colbert was the more likely of the two to take over The Daily Show. Former contributor and frequent guest host John Oliver was a shoo-in to take over until HBO made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. After that, the choice was anyone’s guess. But Noah was no-one’s.

That's Colbert baby!

That’s Colbert baby!

Noah and Colbert have wildly different briefs. To emulate Letterman, Colbert is obliged to be as challenging and groundbreaking as possible while Noah is the steward of a culturally necessary ritual, and cannot dismantle its beloved format. As such, Noah might seem to have the harder job. But Colbert’s fluent presentation masks his deft deconstruction of late-night talk formula. He has replaced the monologue with political analyses. Guests tend to be public figures with cultural significance rather than celebrities hawking their wares. It’s a forum for news and current affairs and a showcase for high culture. Fallon’s breakthroughs by contrast have been primarily vaudevillian and even Ferguson’s reinvention of the genre as burlesque slapstick went in the opposite direction to Colbert. It’s not just the fluency with which these changes have been implemented, but also how assured, joyous and endearing Colbert is while doing it. This he may have learnt from Fallon’s head-start, but Colbert pursues it the name of something far more significant. The sad irony is that Colbert is exactly the personality The Daily Show needed to preserve its legacy, while Noah is not. Two weeks in to Noah’s reign and the added value of Jon Stewart’s easy-going charm has finally been calculated in full. A solid comic mind is simply not enough.

Stewart covered a multitude of sins with his asides and interludes of self-mocking, and without them we can see just how little content there is in the average Daily Show news item. Noah has exposed this, but I don’t level the blame at him. It takes a particularly kind of host – a Letterman or Carson, for example – to engage the audience without losing them when holes appear in the format. Noah has his long, pregnant smile, but to the live studio audience and the viewers at home, it reads as a stumble or a stall, even in the strongest segments like his brilliant mash-up of the Trump mythos with that of African dictatorship. Moments like this reassure us that the quality of mock-journalism has not dropped off, but in this case a pair of safe hands will not suffice. We need someone who can convince us they’ve revolutionized The Daily Show when nothing has changed, not a competent caretaker. Conversely, Colbert’s Late Show coup seemed bloodless, yet was a conceptual genocide. Fallon has proved it’s possible to succeed in late-night television by being a vessel for the greatness of others, and indeed Stewart leaned on Oliver and Colbert in exactly that way when they were Daily Show contributors, so Noah cannot be written off yet.

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

The Daily Show and Late Show are probably the two late-night talk formats that matter most culturally – with the possible exception of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk. The former is so because it is the closest America has to a reliable news source; the latter because Letterman made it a hotbed of comic artistry in the 90s. But because American TV is an inherently commercial animal, they require a certain kind of salesmanship to help audiences buy into them. Colbert’s hate-resistant persona is the perfect medium while Noah’s workmanlike anonymity may not be, at least not in the long-term. But can Colbert sustain these unimaginable highs?

Letter Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

After 21 years as host of CBS’ Late Show and another 11 on NBC’s Late Night, David Letterman announced his retirement from late-night television last week. Letterman made the announcement on last Thursday’s Late Show in a characteristically loose and ambling stream-of-consciousness monologue full of pathos, bathos, self-deprecating humour and sardonic wit. It was a welcome contrast from Jay Leno’s mawkish farewell and crocodile tears on the eve of his (second!) departure from The Tonight Show in February. Even in goodbyes, the gulf in class between the two late-night hosts is palpable. Because while Leno’s conservatism (both political and comedic) kept late-night talk shows rooted in the past, Letterman opened up the genre, overturning conventions from within and dispensing with formality in favour of funny.

Don’t believe me? Ok, let’s consider how many people in television have ripped off Letterman since he started compared to Leno. And Bill O’Reilly doesn’t count, he just happens to be a disgusting Republican who’s bad at his job. When you see an entertainment show in which the crew, the audience and members of the public feature as prominently as the talent, Letterman did that. Plagiarism of Letterman was so rife, it even prompted an episode of talk show docu-satire The Larry Sanders Show in which host Larry tries to imitate Letterman’s ensemble of backstage performers against the stern warnings of traditionalist producer Artie’s about the ‘talent moat’. Conversely, Leno was all about heritage and keeping the talk show anonymous, bland and without formal innovation.

Letterman made the tone of late-night talk television casual, its humour offbeat and its attitude embracing of the alternative. His interactions with sidekick and band leader Paul Schaffer were parodies-cum-deconstructions of talk show traditions and his shows meandered in ways that seemed to defy their Draconian time restrictions. Leno’s Tonight Show looked like a corporate junket or infomercial in comparison. Sarcasm, irony and the surreal were Letterman’s calling cards not the flash-in-the-pan satire that Leno used to peddle to appear relevant. Letterman’s skits, like the infamous Top Ten List and Oprah Log, jabbed at the heart of American popular culture rather than superficially brushing it with cosy lampooning, and he incorporated cult and sideways figures (Bill Murray, Harvey Pekar) into the canon of celebrity guests.

Liberace returns from grave as Letterman's last guest!

Liberace returns from grave as Letterman’s last guest!

Leno’s safe, nostalgic version of late-night talk beat out Letterman in ratings for most of the 90s until the CBS host gradually eeked out a lead in the 2000s, consolidating his primacy during Conan O’Brien’s ill-fated tenure on The Tonight Show prior to Leno’s return. However America thought of him in the ‘90s, European TV saw Letterman’s style as the future of light entertainment. Kings of British primetime talk television entertainment throughout the 1990s and 2000s Jonathan Ross and Chris Evans imitated Letterman’s informal, self-referential and participatory approach to television to the letter. MTV Europe’s Most Wanted, an influential music talk show from the early 1990s presented by Ray Cokes, was undoubtedly guided by Letterman’s improvisatory technique and onscreen use of the crew and viewers.

It’s unsurprising that the template for a new generation of late-night TV hosts should come from Letterman not Leno. Leno’s successor Jimmy Fallon is defined by a Letterman-like breakdown of late-night talk show form rather than the previous era’s intransigence. Current CBS Late Late Show host – and legal heir to the Late Show host seat – Craig Ferguson takes Letterman’s leisurely variety of hosting to a new level with his near-formless set-wandering. From Letterman, comedy elite late-night hosts Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert take their spiky personas and dry interviewing style. Although, Letterman isn’t done yet. In the closest thing to a real-life episode of Columbo, Letterman’s 2012 interview with David Cameron exposed the British Prime Minister as the vapid, disinterested moron he is.

By contract and tradition, Letterman was supposed to inherit The Tonight Show following Johnny Carson’s exit from the host seat in 1992. Letterman was beaten out by Jay Leno who ruthlessly made himself NBC’s preferred choice in the course of brutal negotiations. Leno would deny another Late Night host the right of ascension after forcing out Conan O’Brien from a brief Tonight Show tenure in 2010. Currently, Letterman’s CBS late-night follow-up Craig Ferguson stands in the position Letterman did 23 years ago, with a contract specifying that he should take over his network forerunner but facing the possibility of being bought out and replaced by a ringer. For the sake of innovation, creativity and comedy, I hope that TV talk show history doesn’t repeat itself.

The Residential Telection

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2012 by Tom Steward

I cannot tell a lie. As a flightless fledgling that has only ever developed use of his left wing part of me could not help but rejoice last week as Fox News atrophically awoke from its coma-deep political sleep and blearily wiped its coping-mechanism fantasy of a conservative America from its self-gauged sightless eye sockets. The humanitarian in me wept with relief as the network finally released its statistician hostages from their underground prison-all victims of a one-strike-you’re-out policy on including empirical evidence in reports-thanks to the efforts of negotiator Megyn Kelly, a woman who has made a career on telling comforting lies to people who have made bad life choices. As Kelly abandoned the obfuscation-forcefielded studio and walked the emergency-broadcast-network-after-zombie-apocalypse corridors to the quarantined chamber of facts, the façade fell away like actors in a fourth-wall sitcom coming out to meet their studio audience…only no-one was there except employees.

Whatever joy I felt was tainted by the knowledge that my smug sense of self-satisfaction would be shared by another news network which also puts partisan politics before reporting news and skews the facts towards a prevailing ideology: MSNBC. Sure enough, the following day signature anchor Rachel Maddow was on TV instructing viewers-who she clearly thinks of as eternally living in an episode of Thirtysomething-to get popcorn before her rundown of the election results. But results were not the focus of the item. They were simply cues in a spoken-word liberal version of the national anthem, a diatribe that one day will be set to the theme music of The West Wing (‘O-bama-wiiiiiiiins’) and released by Baz Luhrmann to be bought by thick people. Though evidently meant to anger Fox News, I can imagine Bill O’Reilly gazing on in awe similar to Goebbels admiring the propaganda power of Eisenstein’s films.

When asked to account for the relish with which she recounted Obama’s election victory by fake conservative Stephen Colbert-who for once didn’t have to try too hard to look pissed off with a liberal-Maddow replied that ‘this week the facts have a liberal bias’. Tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but no less a shameless piece of media spin and political fabrication for it. By Maddow’s rationale, there are weeks where Fox News coverage is entirely accurate, as long a conservative has been successful at something in the previous few days. Whether she knows it or not, Maddow is on to something. Fox News and MSNBC have a symbiotic relationship. One political extreme needs an equally uncompromising polar opposite to counter the damage. They turn viewers into party extremists when all they want is political options in their news consumption. The only high ground MSNBC has is to say childishly: ‘Fox News started it’.

You don’t need to be a conservative to attack this liberal…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m gravitationally inclined towards many of the politicised views espoused on MSNBC. I think Maddow recognises the minutiae and complexity of political systems and endows every hour of TV with the societal-unravelling sophistication of a season of The Wire. There is no comparison between her multi-faceted understanding of the world and Bill O’Reilly’s PowerPoint flow diagram of a political consciousness. I admire the Reverend Al Sharpton as an activist, politician and orator greatly and I’d take his wisdom over the washed-up, day-in-the-sun extremists that Fox News recruitment drive after their inevitable ignominious failures any day. I credit MSNBC for steadfastly avoiding the showbusiness ethos that Fox News presenters adhere to, even if it costs them ratings. What I object to is the idea that it’s the job of TV news to present political perspectives, legitimise partisan affiliations and comfort viewers about the righteousness of their choices.

Totally balanced coverage

I didn’t always feel this way. I once found tiresome the myth of objectivity that British TV news divisions such as the BBC wrap themselves in. I thought it better than reporters relinquish the façade of balance and own their opinions rather than pretending their reports were unbiased. The illusion of giving equal weight to both sides of an argument seemed to me entirely artificial, not only because in many cases there was no ‘other side’ and only one right thing to do but also because there was usually a clear affinity with one side or the other. I thought it more productive to admit bias and make it work for the report, especially in humanitarian crises such as famines or disasters where there was a global consensus. After prolonged exposure to American TV news, however, I now long for a token alternative viewpoint and the masquerade of even-handed commentary.

‘Where were you tonight Barack?’

I could not help but mourn for neutral window-dressing after witnessing MSNBC’s veteran newsman Chris Matthews, most recently seen reacting to Obama’s lethargic campaign debate performance like a disappointed father at a school football game, interview prolific investigative journalist Bob Woodward about his new book on the financial crisis. Woodward is known for his evidence-based investigations which privilege factual rigor over politicised interpretation. Yet Matthews tried to brow-beat his guest into admitting that Republicans were more to blame for stalemated response to the crisis than Democrats even though Woodward’s extensive research concluded that there were comparable errors on both sides, a systematic failure of government not of party. Relief comes in the form of news satires such as The Daily Show that, though entitled to bias, attack the inadequacies of both conservatives and liberals. And yet it is this show that holds a reputation for political bias and partisan machinery!

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