Archive for the larry sanders show

Garry Under Wood

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Reality TV, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV History, Uncategorized, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by Tom Steward

2016 has been the Year of Death…or so clickbaiters will have you believe. I’m sure at any given moment there is a steady stream of celebrities dying but what’s so remarkable about the glut of passings we’ve witnessed since the beginning of this year is that it’s concentrated around the great innovators of pop culture. Comedy and music have been hit the hardest and key artists have been dying with such frequency that two of the most significant names in television comedy on either side of the Atlantic, namely Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood, died within weeks of each other.

It occurred to me while taking in that Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood are both gone from the world that the pair were almost counterparts in their understanding and reinvention of television in America and Britain. Though both took fairly traditional career routes into the TV of their native lands – with Shandling a sitcom writer and Wood a variety star – they mastered the medium by keenly observing its conventions and then satirically reproducing them. The self-reflexive sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and talk-show set The Larry Sanders Show both featured note-perfect facsimiles of longstanding TV formats with a knowing (distinctively buck-toothed) smile at their absurdities. Wood’s As Seen on TV featured a myriad of TV flow pastiches including commercials and soap operas, the latter of which was Acorn Antiques, a devastating summation of the budget-constrained, storm-in-a-teacup melodrama that had been commonplace in regional daytime dramas in Britain since the seventies.

Wood and Shandling were also too overflowing with brilliance and creativity to accept their place in the TV hierarchy. Wood began her TV career as winner of the talent show New Faces performing her own comic songs on the piano, earning her a place as a novelty act on the consumer affairs and erotically shaped vegetable discussion programme That’s Life. Rather than continue to plug the remaining – and increasingly unlikely – spaces for traditional vaudeville performance in a changing TV ecology, she diversified into playwriting, sketch comedy, character stand-up and pop culture parody. Her focus on the latter meant that Wood was ahead of a curve of self-referential television comedy that is typically seen as coming into existence when it became male. As Seen on TV first aired in 1985 which significantly pre-dates the supposed watershed moment of televisual self-awareness with Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’s The Day Today in 1994.

Shandling’s career could have gone two ways. Instead it went a third that was almost the same as the first two. After writing for sitcoms such as Sanford & Son as well as a successful stint guest-hosting for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Shandling seem destined to graduate either to an eponymous sitcom or late-night talk vehicle. He did both and neither. Shandling sold It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to cable station Showtime after networks balked at the idea of a show that actively drew attention to the mechanics and artifice of the studio audience sitcom. It was a revolution in TV form. As Shandling once explained to Ricky Gervais: ‘Either I did a talk show or a sitcom about a talk show.’ Of course he did the latter. The result was The Larry Sanders Show, set behind the scenes of a continually fledging late-night talk show, while commenting wittily upon it.

Their commitment to raising the bar of television comedy was so wide-ranging that neither stopped at satire. Both Shandling and Wood embraced comedy that was as real as it could be, and that eschewed the synthetic qualities of much comic material on TV. In Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, the naturalism of both visual style and performance was staggering and well beyond what audiences were used to seeing. Needless to say, The Office and its mock-doc ilk would never have existed without this breakthrough. Wood’s comic characters were drawn with such observational realism their dialogue could have been telegraphed from an encounter on public transport and she frequently emulated the fly-on-the-wall documentary but as a route to pathos rather than irony or sneer, something Shandling also achieved with The Larry Sanders Show. In particular, the ‘Swim the Channel’ segment of an As Seen on TV episode has rarely been bettered.

Of course, there are massive differences. Wood is far less cruel to and awkward with her characters, and Shandling much more provocative in his humour. But it’s hard to imagine we’d be watching half (and that’s being generous) of the comedies we currently do without either of these two colossuses.

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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.

Live of O’Brien

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

Yesterday afternoon G and I went to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank to be in the audience for the recording of Conan, the eponymous late night TBS talk show of Conan O’Brien. It’s an experience that goes far beyond the reaches of the hour that the recording takes place. Show time is 4.30pm yet the audience have to check in at the studio parking lot by 2.30pm at the latest and as early in the day as possible to get the best seats. Once checked in, you’re free to leave the parking lot as long as you return by 3.00pm. Not knowing this, and having checked in at the recommended time of 1.30-2pm, G and I had no time to do anything but aimlessly wander the vicinity of Warner Boulevard where the nearest attraction is Forest Lawn Cemetery, an area that is quite literally dead. Lest this start to sound like a yelp reviewer with a severe case of white people problems, I want to stress I completely understand keeping audience members half in the dark about check-in arrangements to ensure they arrive early and G found it entirely preferable to the Star Wars-premiere conditions of Conan’s New York show.

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When we returned from the land of the dead (actually we found a café with big salads so it was more Seinfeld than Six Feet Under), we were taken through a metal detector into a waiting area lined with black metal benches which had the atmosphere of a prison mixer. Actually the prison analogy remained apt as we were branded with a ‘WB’, which I believe stands for ‘Warner Bitches’, and processed through a street crossing deep with standing sewage water in a tribute to the epilogue of The Shawshank Redemption. The show even had a narc in the waiting area. One of the writers was strolling up and down the benches in search of people to turn the camera on in the ‘Craigslist Ads’ segment of the programme in which fake ads are juxtaposed with shots of the audience members who would likely post them. Lifers like me can tell the difference between a TV writer and TV viewer, although in layman’s terms this is also known as cleanliness. And he had a cup.

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At 3 the audience were lined up in groups and taken slowly in multiple stages through the Warner Brothers lots in scenes reminiscent of Day of The Triffids. While it was undoubtedly exciting to be where many of Hollywood’s finest movies (Angels with Dirty Faces, The Big Sleep) had been filmed, I have to say that all the Looney Tunes cartoons I’ve seen have been terribly misleading about what goes on here. Not once did I see Daffy Duck’s head being erased by an irate Chuck Jones! We arrived at a heavily air conditioned studio set, which TV expert G told me was for the lights and not as I suspected to prevent Conan’s skin from setting alight, and were seated with my urine-inflated bladder acting as an internal cushion. G and I were amazed at how small the set seemed and kept expecting a puppet version of the show to follow. The cameras magnify the set out of all proportion and it has an utterly different geography from the one we create in our heads when watching. G was especially thrown by how the guests’ walk from the stage curtain to the couch was literally a couple of steps.

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There followed multiple warm-up acts, starting with a fireman who demonstrated that the post-911 hero status of firefighters has significantly outlived that of cops (probably the lack of racial murders in the fire service). An MC discovered an audience full of drunks, meth manufacturers and slutty teens before Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band-who unlike most late-night house bands seldom feature in the programme-entertained with a lively, dad-at-wedding dancing funk and rock n roll double bill. There is an ‘Applause’ sign but it’s not the exploitative imposition that it is stereotyped as, its presence moving the show along and not forcing any reaction that isn’t already there. Not being a fan of bad sitcoms, teenage skaters and post-punk poachers the line-up didn’t do much for me. But the original segments were a TV bloggers’ dream. An irreverent ‘info’ button for programmes on a cable remote (Seinfeld: ‘You’ve seen this one’) and a clip from a new TV pilot starring alleged trumpet pumper La Bamba as a CIA assassin with limited knowledge of assembling weaponry.

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I realised that my knowledge of late-night talk shows tapings comes entirely from The Larry Sanders Show though having been there for real I can see why the prospect of a sitcom set there was so attractive. The musically-accompanied interludes between segments which are synced with ad breaks feature curious-looking interactions between guests, crew and talent not to mention the near-farcical stage invasions, all of which possesses intrinsic comic appeal. During the last of these interludes, G turns to me and asks ‘Is it nearly over?’ and I realise that as she’s always asleep by this point of the show and had never watched this far. After a bonus feature, a self-reflexive ‘end of the show song’ from the musically-gifted Conan, we were soon shuffled out into the lot, as I resisted the urge to crash through the parking barriers in homage to the final few minutes of Blazing Saddles.

 

 

 

 

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