Archive for the tonight 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.

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?

Cry Me A Rivers!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2014 by Tom Steward

Look, I never said this was a news blog (except in applications for paid blogging positions!). Besides, I have to leave a period of time between a celebrity’s death and blogging about it so it doesn’t look like I’ve been knocking off television legends to give me something to write about. Three weeks ago, at age 81 comedian Joan Rivers died, as she lived…in surgery (don’t you dare tell me Joan wouldn’t appreciate a joke like that!). She will undoubtedly be remembered as a stand-up who, unlike many of her generation, was as relevant the day she died as when she first started out. Let’s not forget that Rivers was the comedian who said the unsayable about the widows of 9/11. But she had a real gift for television, and was particularly adept at using everyday formats – talk shows, entertainment news, red carpets – to sneak in provocative and edgy comedy.

Here's Joany!

Here’s Joany!

Rivers got her big break on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1965, where she would continue to appear as guest and guest host until the mid-1980s when a rift between her and Carson caused her to be blacklisted from the talk show until this year. Her caustic manner and matter-of-fact handling of other personalities on this and her Fox talk show vehicle The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was a refreshing departure from both the sycophantic hosting and demure women associated with the genre. It paved the way for her later television career spent trashing celebrities both to their faces and in absentia on the E! shows Live from the Red Carpet and Fashion Police. It also showed that Rivers could insert her brash, no-holds-barred comedy into regular television without ever disrupting it. She didn’t revolutionise late-night talk shows but made them far less deferential and more assertively direct.

Joan Rivers never seemed to be snobbish about what kind of television she was prepared to do. In later years, she would frequently appear on home shopping network QVC to hock her line of costume jewellery. In 1996, she became a reporter on E!’s Live from the Red Carpet, a job more usually reserved for young, up-and-coming, vacuum-brained celebrity enthusiasts. This was as much because she knew television was a business as it was to do something interesting and shocking with bland, formulaic TV. Playing herself on Louis C.K.’s artful sitcom Louie, Rivers castigates the stand-up for leaving a gig in a casino because of its corporate and commercial diktats, addressing her reputation as a ‘sell-out’. Her red carpet interviews are proof enough that Rivers could transform the most banal role into comic art. Acerbic, fast and wounding, she made it entertaining and intelligent with savage mockery replacing awed reverence.

Rivers has been on TV screens weekly since 2010 in E!’s panel show Fashion Police. The highlight of each episode, for both viewers and co-hosts it seemed, was the comedian’s throwaway similes about celebrity dress sense, which would frequently incorporate a ruthless and tasteless commentary on pop culture. No death appeared to be too soon to joke about, no disaster or ailment a taboo, no imperfection beyond satire. Year upon year, the show demonstrated perfectly how Rivers could condense her act into TV’s rigid dimensions without becoming any less sick and twisted. Her 2011 appearance on a Season 2 episode of Louie was a long overdue recognition of Rivers’ standing in comedy, as she becomes Svengali to the disillusioned comic. But she is represented according to a tension between commerce and art that has always been part of her persona, and one that she has managed to resolve without fuss.

The goon squad are coming to town!

The goon squad are coming to town!

Like most celebrities who want to survive in contemporary TV, Rivers allowed her life to be scrutinised onscreen in a reality series. Her relationship with daughter Melissa was the subject of Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best and her family dynamic was addressed in Celebrity Wife Swap where she swapped her daughter for Bristol Palin (for reasons best known to the producers). Perhaps her most unremarkable television work, if only for the foot-binding conventions of reality shows that do not permit idiosyncrasy, they are still testament to Rivers’ canny understanding of where to be in TV at the right time. With all the low-end TV she’s been involved in; some might be inclined to write off much of Joan Rivers’ time on the box. But she definitely found her niche in each genre she tackled, and never sacrificed what made her comedy special for the sake of being on television.

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.

And Finale…

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2014 by Tom Steward

American TV seems to be in a permanent state of finale. The average season has more false endings than a Hobbit trilogy. Before the Christmas break, there’s the mid-season finale, which desperately tries to manufacture a television event out of a show taking a brief holiday. Some shows have started to invent finales and talk about them as if we somehow know what they’re supposed to signify. Fox’s The Mindy Project has just had its Winter Finale, which is apparently what you now call putting the show on hiatus for a couple of months at the end of January. Season finales only seem like a big deal because all a show’s stories build towards it as a point of climax. In reality, it’s only a matter of months before the show is back on again. Even series finales don’t preclude a show returning through revivals, spin-offs, movie sequels and reunions. The cast of Seinfeld have managed to reunite twice since the sitcom went off the air, firstly in a fictional reunion episode within the world of Curb your Enthusiasm and then in a sketch for this year’s Superbowl coverage. That’s a lot of endings for shows that never quite finish.

Seinfeld cast reunite at superbowl, which is also the name of Jason Alexander’s haircut.

I’ve been thinking about finales because American TV has just had a big one. After 23 years in the host seat, last week Jay Leno finally said goodbye to The Tonight Show. Like most finales, however, nothing is really ending. Jimmy Fallon will take over as host, which has been a forgone conclusion for years now given the high-profile and staggering popularity of his late-night NBC talk show. Few people would be prepared to believe that Leno is even giving up the show. Leno first left the job in 2010 ceding hosting duties to Conan O’Brien. Within a few months, he had clawed back the job from his successor, as acknowledged in O’Brien’s Olympic-themed jab at his predecessor on the eve of Leno’s departure. Yet everyone acted as if something was in fact ending. Leno cried, celebrities queued up to say goodbye, and Garth Brooks played – which really is the nuclear option. The Tonight Show is going back to its home in New York and is now hosted by someone capable (though bafflingly so!) of gaining consistently huge ratings for a show whose popularity has balked in the last decade. Sounds more like a salvage operation than a send-off.

You can never come back from Garth Brooks.

Another American TV finale was in the news recently. The latest season of weight-loss game show The Biggest Loser held its final weigh-in last week, with the winning contestant having undergone a loss of weight so severe that she appeared to have another kind of eating disorder. The usual Muppet-mouthed looks of aghast pride from the trainers were replaced by horror, concern and confusion when they laid their eyes on her emaciated body. The show has always been self-righteous about the good it does for public physical and mental health. Yet by incentivising maximum possible weight loss without any healthy weight caps and filling its contestants’ heads with cod psychobabble in motivational-speak, The Biggest Loser falls prey to the pitfalls of many reality shows in neglecting its responsibilities of care to the members of the public it features. The season finale is usually a cause for self-congratulation as the show parades its reduced-sized versions of that year’s contestants and pats itself on the back for helping them, all the while of course revelling in sensational images of obese people eating cake naked. But this year’s finale revealed the dangerous and unhealthy extremes that the show’s premise could be taken to.

Trainers on The Biggest Loser react to body-shock win!

It’s good to have an end in sight. TV is such a massive and sprawling thing that it’s helpful to set limits and boundaries now and again. But rarely do they actually represent something that could be actually be called an ending. Finales help TV continue, renew and keep track of itself but all their talk of being done for good needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Like The Tonight Show goodbye might just mean adieu and as we’ve seen with The Biggest Loser finales might take you further than ever wanted to go in too short a time. And with that, Watching TV with Americans enters its Valentine’s Finale followed by its mid-mid-year finale. It’s time for me to say an emotional, longwinded goodbye as I leave you…for a couple of weeks. Remember to eat in the meantime and only play Garth Brooks while I’m away.

Conan The Destroyed

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

 

After weeks of speculation, as much of it on-air as off, NBC finally announced this week that Jimmy Fallon would take over hosting duties on The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. The network press release clearly stated that Leno had presented The Tonight Show uninterrupted for 21 years. But when interviewed Leno said ‘this time it feels right’ as if he had been replaced before and somehow managed to take back the host seat. Of course, if you’re not party to the Stalinistic effort to re-write late-night television history, you’d know there was a spindly-legged ginger elephant in the room.

The George Lazenby of late-night talk shows.

In late 2009 Fallon’s predecessor on Late Night with… Conan O’Brien took over from Leno as host of The Tonight Show having been promised the position years earlier by NBC while The Jay Leno Show began airing in primetime. In early 2010, the network attempted to move O’Brien from the current timeslot of 11.35pm to after midnight so that Leno could return to the original The Tonight Show spot with his new talk show following low ratings for both programmes. O’Brien naturally refused and left the network, leaving Leno free to return to his old job for four more years.

So who presents The Tonight Show?

Fallon taking over The Tonight Show only a few years after Leno resumed hosting is the latest in a series of slaps in the face for O’Brien, who after an aborted late-night talk show on Fox ended up with a signature 11pm vehicle on basic cable network TBS in late 2010. Prone to making light of his unexpected obscurity-his house musicians on Conan are self-effacingly named ‘The Basic Cable Band’-the melancholy sometimes seeps through. While comically feigning ignorance during an interview with Kelsey Grammer following a discussion of not getting recognition for doing cable television, O’Brien starts seeming genuinely forlorn.

O’Brien may have been written out of the Tonight Show story but he remains legendary in the history of another great American TV institution, The Simpsons. As writer and producer for the series between 1991 and 1993, O’Brien scripted some of the most undisputedly superb episodes the show has seen in its 24 years on the air (and, let’s face it, will ever see). In particular, ‘Marge vs. the Monorail’ in which Springfield invests in an ill-advised public transport system was a satirical highpoint with probably the best-written celebrity cameo (a tediously anecdotal Leonard Nimoy) and unbeatable dialogue and song-writing.

Other canon-worthy Simpsons classics penned by O’Brien include ‘Homer Goes To College’ and ‘New Kid on the Block’ which pioneered a sophisticated, self-reflexive humour for the show without losing the emotional resonance synonymous with the series from the outset. In fact, Bart’s unrequited crush on teenage babysitter Laura (Sara Gilbert) is positively heart-breaking. He created several characters, such as Ruth Powers (Louise to Marge’s Thelma) and the college nerds, who would return in future episodes. He might even be able to sue the creators of The Big Bang Theory for plagiarism. Perhaps that’s why TBS wanted him at the network.

‘You’re a lot less funny in live-action’

Despite a criminal lack of exposure for a comedian of his calibre, TBS’ Conan is more excellent TV from O’Brien. His sketches remain thoroughly witty and laugh-out-loud funny, as recent spoof discussion segment ‘PopeTalk’, which evaluated the chances of various contenders for the papacy in the manner of a talk radio sports phone-in show, attested. Many recurring bits, such as ‘Celebrity Survey’ in which projected celebrity Q&A responses are collated, seem like they’ll be around for decades to come. After only a couple of years on the air, we’ve seen some memorable interviews, not least a weird-off with Harrison Ford.

Conan: You ever think with all your flying, what you would do if the plane starts to go down?/Ford: Shit and die.

I don’t want to disparage Fallon as much as I want to praise O’Brien. Fallon’s skits and impersonations are first class, as his performance of Neil Young singing the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme tune amply demonstrated. In The Roots, Fallon has at his disposal not only the coolest house band in late-night television but also one of the finest hip-hop/soul outfits of modern times. Fallon’s emphasis on music and sketch comedy undoubtedly gives the late-night talk show a new dimension. But while O’Brien is a skilled, engaging interviewer, Fallon seems more like a teenager who has won a competition.

Class act that he is, O’Brien broke his silence on Fallon’s appointment yesterday only to endorse him and wish him well. He’d have been within his rights to lambast Fallon for taking his job. And call Leno a massive dick…but then there’s never a bad time and place for that.

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