Wednesday, February 18, 2015

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #9: ORIGINS OF THE LATE NIGHT TALK SHOW



Live from New York,- or wherever the hell you are, it's the internet, doesn't really matter and this, isn't even really live. I hope you all took advantage of that "SNL 40" special for the homework, they had plenty of examples of sketches from different eras that covered similar material and subjects to compare. Good. I don't understand why Eddie Murphy's bit was so short. Well, it's been a major week, ironically in Variety/Late Night since our last class. "Saturday Night Live"'s 40th Anniversary, and a little more in the realm of what we're talking about today, some very shocking of Jon Stewart's decision to leave "The Daily Show...". We've talked a bit about "The Daily Show...." and we'll talk more about it again, but, that was really, really startling news this week, still getting over it.

Anyway, late night talk shows. It's a host, a monologue, minor sketch, 1-3 guests and then goodnight. So, goodnight, we're with class today. 

Sit back down! I'm just kidding! Jesus, really, you thought that?! Alright, let's talk the origins of the late night talk show, and there are considerable, notable differences in how the show is approached, but essentially, most of these approaches start with the emcee. We said this before, but essentially the host will drive the format of the format and the show becomes a representation of the host. You really don't find permanent talk shows nowadays where there's a host but it's somebody else's vision, behind-the-scenes. Anyway, the modern talk show, started when Steve Allen, accidentally invented it on radio. Doris Day was late for an interview and he had to fill time, so he took the microphone, out into the audience (Yes, there were live audiences for some radio shows) and he started interviewing and reacting to them. That's when the light bulb kinda came in, that people would be simply interested in conversations. That's the real crux of talk, it's the talking to somebody, and idea that we're also being a part of the conversation.

Still, the first and most obvious thing we think of when we think of the late night beginning with "The Tonight Show..." and Steve Allen took over that spot in 1953, which was really kind of an overdone version of a local show he was already doing, but it was Pat Weaver, who created the "Today" show for NBC, who then came up with "Tonight", and it really was Weaver who foresaw the idea of variety-talk format, thriving in the late night hour, and strangely, it's really for the most remained NBC's domain ever since, and when you really go back, they say nothing's new, history keeps repeating, you can really a trace a lot of what we think of as Late Night Talk to Steve Allen, and the person who took over "The Tonight Show" when NBC put Allen up against Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar.

Allen, created like "The Man on the Street"-type interviews, and things that we kinda recognize as staples of late night, "Headlines" for instance, is a variant on him just reading things in the paper....- This is something that really gets on my nerves with Primetime, how everybody complains that, it's all the same and nothing that's ever new and fresh, very little is new and fresh in late night talk. Most of it, is somehow derivative of something from this far back, and we're literally, even something like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" as being a new approach, we're talking minimal distinctions, personality, approaches, perceptions, timeliness, we're not talking drastic differences, This really goes down, how you approach the format. Steve Allen, comic, all-around talent, old school, able to take anything and make fun, sometimes too much in a way that was belittling with rock'n'roll, Jack Paar came in, and was very different. Much more laid back, not really what you would consider a comedian, but he was sharp. He invented the monologue. Before Carson even, and he was the one, who really like to focus on the interview aspect. He was the first one to have political people on, there was a formality to the show, Allen was more by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Yet Jack Paar was rebellious. He fought and won a war in the press with Walter Winchell of all people, and even walked off the show for over six weeks after a contract dispute. Seriously, he was pulling some Dave Chapelle shit, like 40 years earlier. Seriously, very little is new, very little. He was hard to control, and remember, it wasn't until Carson took over, when any of the networks really seriously tried to compete with their own talks shows. NBC really pinned their spot down, and that's really why, when something happens at Late Night, and it usually happens at NBC, it really happens there.


Anyway, once Carson really solidified what we think of "The Tonight Show", and his big shift, and there were a few, the monologue, the quick bit/sketch in the middle, a guest or two after, he really pushed the shows towards an entertainment-based show. While it was entertaining, even in it's early, it really kinda thought of as a nighttime compliment to "Today", that was really the compliment, but once there started to be serious competition, particularly from shows based in L.A., "The Joey Bishop Show", "The Merv Griffin Show", for instance, and they would get the Hollywood guests, this led to Carson moving the show to Burbank, and really turning this into a purely entertainment show. This is when, the show moved almost exclusively to a more comedic tone, overall. Not every show did that, but a good portion, some have tried to mix as much as possible the combination of informative material with comedy. Then, and now, and it's not particularly new. Bill Maher, for instance, with both "Politically Incorrect" and "Real Time..." is basically his variation on the formula from "The Dick Cavett Show". Get a few different guests, have them stay out, have this more intellectual conversation with them, although in Maher's it's his version of it. He's more brash, he's HBO, it's more combative of an approach. This is the real, synergy, when you get a good host, or a really great host 'cause he will take the talk show and mold it into his image and if he's talented the image will ultimately work to some extent. It's those differences that separate Johnny Carson from Magic Johnson. It really is. Do you want to focus on comedy more, or musical performances more, or sketches more, is it an in-depth interview, is it a more thoughtful interview, are you talking to random celebrities, etc. etc. This is why, Craig Kilborn left "The Daily Show..." for a better job at CBS and nobody thought much either way, and now Jon Stewart is the end of an era. It's not just what they did, it's how they approached the talk show format.



Sometimes, it's as simple as an attitude, sometimes it's timing, sometimes, it's aiming for a different and more unique audience. Mostly it's just using the tools of the past to create the kind of talk shows that the host wants to create. The monologue, is it a Mort Saul/Jack Paar, comedic look at every stort in the newspaper, is it an investigative and thoughtful look at the hypocrisy of the news like John Stewart, is a more free-flowing, stream of consciousness routine like Craig Ferguson, or do you not have a monologue, do you go right into the interviews? I mean, there aren't too many choices, they're all a variation on things that happened before. Is Andy Richter a sidekick/foil, is it Regis Philbin, is a robot skeleton named Geoff? This is where we get into the details and minutia, and how little those distinctions are. I mean, Jay Leno's right, every time somebody new comes in, they think they're gonna do it completely differently. They'll move the desk, to the bad over here, or all these changes, but no, after a while, you realize it's done like this for a reason. When you see and it hasn't been done, like right now, with John Oliver, who chose to focus, not only investigative news stories, following in "The Daily Show..." footsteps of satirizing the news by seeming like a real news broadcast, (Which actually crossed the line to where it became legitimate journalism, really) but they then chose to focus intently on stories that most everybody else, including "The Daily Show..." just couldn't get around to, and they got around to analyzing them more intently that anybody else. It's a spin on a something that came before, but from a new perspective. Much of what Jimmy Fallon's been doing and getting credit for, Ellen DeGenerous has been doing for years, he's just taking ideas and bits that she's been doing and filters it through his perspective. He'll tell you, he's said it a few times, how much he's been inspired by Ellen's show. I even said it a few times, "I think he'd be better for daytime than late night", this was when he started on "Late Night..."" It's just like sketch, the more you go back, the more similarities you see from those earlier shows.

And that leads us, into your homework. Last week, three sketch shows, compare and contrast with the past, this week, three talk shows. Yeah, I'm sure you all saw this one coming. I want you guys to compare two talk shows of today, just what consider, distinctive aspects of each show, this could be, a running sketch, an approach to the monologue, a way their conducting their interview or interviews, some shows like a Cavett or Maher or Graham Norton in England, they're more like a roundtable almost, and compare them to a late night talk show host from the past, who was doing something similar. This can be, David Letterman sticking himself to a wall to Steve Allen, getting ice cream poured all over him. Find some of your own, and see how they've change over time, see how they differ in approach based on the host, and just find any similarities or differences you can. Okay, three different shows from today, compared to three different shows from the past. Alright, okay. That's class today, Everyone.

Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow. And for those hearing impaired who couldn't hear me, "GOOD NIGHT AND HAVE A PLEASANT TOMORROW." 
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