This week, Scott Thompson at CHML wondered if all this fuss about the return of Conan O’Brien was worth the trouble. Some commentators this week have been suggesting that the old late night formula is tired and irrelevant and O’Brien needs to move on to something new. (Even the Christian Science Monitor has weighed in, which may be a new benchmark for irony.)
The conventional wisdom is that O’Brien should be doing what Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert are doing on Comedy Central. But even those guys put on a suit, hire an army of writers, have a desk, guests and a studio audience and have been doing their shtick for years. The only difference is that they do their monologue sitting down.
The new, if you want to get down to it, would be to not do a show on television. O’Brien could be the King of Twitter comedy, but the real money is still in late night, even on basic cable.
The guest segment is tiresome, even I will concede, especially when your guest is as giddy and high as Seth Rogin appeared to be Monday night. Less guests, more comedy, would be welcome on all the late night talk shows.
Then again, they wouldn’t be talk shows anymore, would they? Maybe that’s what people are really lamenting in late night, the lack of real conversation on television. Back in the days of Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, the conversation was the sexy part, the reason to stay up late. Witty, informed people shared thoughts, dropped their guard and allowed us into their worlds.
They guy who could carry that off today is the guy who probably more than anyone else drove the spike through the heart of late night TV–Garry Shandling. The brilliant Larry Sanders Show–which I’m still feasting on thanks to that 17-disc complete series box set from Shout Factory–was where everything changed direction, where what went on around and behind the scenes of a late night talk show was shown to be far more interesting than what went on during one. Shandling, a frequent Johnny Carson Tonight Show replacement host, lost interest in the banal desk and couch chit-chat. In a way he was driving for more reality in late night by fictionalizing it.
What’s really fascinating on the boxed set is Shandling today, showing up with a camera crew and visiting former Sanders Show players Rip Torn and Jeffery Tambor in several new “extras.” Bolderare his check ins with Linda Doucett–who played Hank’s assistant in the early years and was Shandling’s real life live-in girlfriend at the time–and Sharon Stone, a memorable guest star. The up-to-date sit downs are bracingly personal and extremely intimate–exactly what late night TV talk show segments should be if there were no agents, studios, pre-interview questionnaires and everything else draining the life out of the deal. Shandling just goes for the heart and the head and gets to where no one is allowed to get to on TV anymore–vulnerability.
Nobody could reach that high every night (even Shandling’s extras are hit and miss), but Letterman showed it can still be done in late night last week with that magic moment with the Chilean miner. O’Brien’s is capable, too, as he demonstrated toward the end of his Tonight Show run when no one was more vulnerable. This is where talk shows should be heading–back to the future, back to real conversation, back to so real you can’t look away.
At least that’s what the guy on the radio says. You can listen in here.