The End of Raucous Late Night Television

And here’s Part 2 of the John Lydon vs. Tom Snyder exchange.

RELATED: Wendy O. Williams smashing a television set and Snyder interview. More on Williams’s Milwaukee charges here. Also, Williams vs. Mrs. Fields.

TANGENTIALLY RELATED: Weird Al Yankovic’s first national television appearance — on The Tomorrow Show — performing “Another One Rides the Bus.”

It’s also worth noting that Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show originally had the 12:30 AM time slot that NBC than gave to a rising standup comedian named David Letterman, who replaced Snyder’s thoughtful and often explosive interviews with “Stupid Pet Tricks” and interviews that involved Letterman more or less slipping into whatever celebrity junket was handed to him. Snyder would return to television thirteen years later — albeit in a more subdued form — to The Late, Late Show for a four year run. He eventually left, and he would once again see his show tailored for mass consumption — with the host replaced with Craig Kilborn and later Craig Ferguson. One might convincingly argue that Ferguson brings at least some smarts to the populist late night talk show. But when one considers the above explosive exchange with John Lydon and Wendy O. Williams’s smashing of television sets, it becomes clear that the days of late night television which attempted to grab viewers by the lapels or seriously challenge conventions are over.

Today, the only real intimate talk show interview — without a studio audience — is Charlie Rose. But compare Rose’s interviews, which involve Rose sucking up to his guests, with those of Dick Cavett’s, who regularly challenged his guests. Or Tom Snyder. Or even Mike Douglas. (Or even the early days of Bob Costas.) Television, which once specialized from time to time in provocative conversation, is now more content to waffle in conversational and intellectual mediocrity. And today’s 18-34 demographic, growing up without Snyder or Cavett, have no idea what they’re missing. (Terry Gross pretends to be a follower of this tradition, but as Curtis White has convincingly argued, she is not a true representative of public opinion.)

The interviews that I conduct for The Bat Segundo Show are an attempt to return to this abandoned long-form approach. I don’t claim to be as good as Cavett or Snyder. But I do hope that one day, radio and television will return to the conversation as a journalistic form, unsullied by avarice and the quids pro quo of publicists. Fortunately, the Internet presents an opportunity for today’s journalists to correct this considerable imbalance.

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2 Comments

  1. Hey, Ed. I appreciate the point you’re making, and I agree with your point about Rose, etc. (though I’m not sure what a “true representative of public opinion” means, even if I agree with Curtis White when it comes to Terry Gross). But I have to say a little something about Letterman. It’s not quite right to say that he was a “rising standup comedian” at the time. He’d already made his mark on the Carson show, and had already won an Emmy for his short-lived morning show, when he was tapped to host “Light Night”. You’re right that Letterman did not do the long-form interviews for which the Snyder show was known (in fact, he barely interviewed his guests at all when the show first started), and that his show was very silly (cf. “Stupid Pet Tricks”), but it’s misleading to say that he “slipp[ed] into whatever celebrity junket was handed to him”. He was clearly not interested in doing the typical celebrity interviews. In fact, many guests shied away from his show because he wasn’t slobbering over them. He asked some tough–well, more like strange or “uncomfortable”–questions. Not because he was like Dick Cavett talking to some intellectual, but because he didn’t revere the celebrity nonsense. A lot of that changed with the move to CBS, I think, and the new show, while not without its moments, was a different, lesser animal. In any event, it’s not fair to imply that Letterman was somehow an indication that the networks were dumbing down the late night airwaves. His show was one of the best and smartest things on tv at any time of day. Also, Letterman was a big fan of Snyder, and I believe he was instrumental in bringing Snyder back to television.

  2. Tan gently, I just finished doing my annual design judging at the California State Fair, and apparently, they’ve got Weird Al lined up for performing at the Fair this year! Since I get in free, I’ll have to go check out Weird Al when he plays.

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