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Scott Larson

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A tale of two chat shows

A while back I drew a comparison between late night talk shows in Ireland and the U.S., with a sidelong glance at British chat thrown in for a good measure. I am inclined to return to the topic because, a couple of weeks ago, two parallel eras in late night chat came to a close. Well, not exactly parallel but at least partially simultaneous.

As most everyone knows, Jay Leno ended his 17-year run as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show. At more or less the same moment, a man named Pat Kenny ended his ten-year stint as host of the preeminent television talk show on the Irish airwaves, The Late Late Show, which airs on Friday nights on RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster. It is interesting that these transitions coincided and that, in both cases, the host was succeeded by a younger, hipper man who had spent years hosting a talk show in the same network’s B slot.

As personalities, Leno and Kenny could not be more different. The New England-born Leno is a comedian in his heart and soul. Under his auspices, The Tonight Show was first and foremost a comedy show, with the chatter essentially a secondary aspect. And Leno’s comedic sensibility played to the blue-collar mainstream. Politics was always a big part of the humor, but he played it pretty straight down the middle. While he did not have sufficient time to find a durable hook for making jokes at Barack Obama’s expense, he had a great 16 years making endless jokes about Bill Clinton’s lechery and George W. Bush’s doofus image. Kenny, on the other hand, was basically a public affairs type. With the bland earnestness of the school pupil who always raises his hand first, he attempted a strange balancing act (a long entrenched Late Late tradition) of serious social and political discussions and celebrity fluff. He could not tell a joke to save his life and he made an entire Catholic country feel self-conscious when he could not keep his eyes from wandering below the chins of guests like Dolly Parton—whom he never failed to have on when she was in the country.

Kenny’s successor is Ryan Tubridy, who has been hosting an eponymous show on Saturday evenings for some years now. The trappings of Tubridy’s show would be more familiar than The Late Late’s to American viewers—with the desk and the couch and a funky house band fronted by a somewhat goofy personality. Tubridy’s bread and butter is his wit, but he is not a comedian. He does not do a monolog, but he peppers his interviews and forays into the audience with lots of quips and one-liners. And his audience seems to consist of young adults out for a good time and a few drinks, who will not be in bed until dawn. Kenny’s audiences always seemed to be happy just to be out of the house for a couple of hours.

Leno’s last night (at least until he comes back in primetime in September) was par for the course for these occasions on network TV. It was a gushy tribute with lots of lump-in-your-throat moments, as Leno remembered everyone who had done him a kindness since his first night. And he graciously asked his audience to support his successor, Conan O’Brien—although likely the two hosts, for the most part, may simply be bringing their respective audiences to their new time slots. It all got to be a bit much, but Leno is a genuinely good guy who deserves a bit of indulgence. We won’t see Tubridy in his new role until the autumn, but O’Brien is already at work at the 11:35 p.m. slot.

Pat Kenny’s on-air sendoff contrasted with Leno’s the same way a backyard barbecue contrasts with a talent show. Benefitting from the kind of summer evening that is rare enough in Ireland, The Late Late was moved outdoors onto the grounds of RTÉ, where a large garden party was going on. As cameras followed Kenny around and he mingled with guests, it felt a bit like Playboy After Dark, but obviously without the bunnies. The whole thing only served to reinforce the image that RTÉ is ensconced in its own hermetically self-absorbed Dublin 4 (that’s the posh part of town) world, where all the right people know each other.

Given the ephemeral quality of the entertainment business, it is hard to believe that, after 55 years, The Tonight Show is only on its fifth permanent host. I can’t speak to what emotions people might have felt upon seeing Jack Paar replace Steve Allen or Steverino replaced by Johnny Carson, but I know the earth seemed to shift when Carson was replaced by Leno. Carson was an institution. He was very funny, but the conversation always seemed to be the main thing. The humor seemed to exist to smooth the chat. When Leno came on board, the priorities were switched. The emphasis was definitely on the monolog, the sketch bits and joke videos. The transition was complete from the era of Allen and Paar to that of Saturday Night Live.

Now, with the advent of O’Brien, things have moved another step into the future. A new generation is in charge, and the humor is of the ironic, post-modern variety that is familiar from other parts of the television wasteland. In a way, O’Brien’s version of The Tonight Show is not so much a talk show as a wry, knowing parody of a talk show. With Carson, the conversations with guests seemed more or less authentic. With Leno, they seemed like comedy set-ups. With O’Brien, they seem like improvisational exercises in a comedy acting class. Nothing about it is natural, except maybe in the natural way that male college students like to behave when they are together on their own.

I always found it worthwhile to check in on Leno at least once in a while because he seemed to have his finger on the political pulse. He was careful not to fall behind popular opinion, but he didn’t go out beyond popular opinion either. He might have gotten reactions of surprised outrage when, for example, he portrayed Michael Jackson as a pedophile, but you knew that the audience deep down was agreeing with him. As for O’Brien, despite the fact that he incorporates politicians into his bits, I’ve never gotten the sense that he really cares about politics. Jon Stewart he is not.

So I probably won’t check in as often with O’Brien as I did with Leno. I find a little bit of him goes a long way. The truth is that, with nightly comedy/talk shows, there is a fair amount of repetition. In the course of a week, the host will re-work a particular gag as many ways as he can. If you watch too many nights in a row, you get a serious feeling of déjà vu. And, anyway, this may not be the best time to be a nightly TV comedian. Everyone agrees that Obama is nowhere near as funny as Bill Clinton, let alone W. And beyond that, comedians seem to be treating the president delicately anyway. Many are falling back on Bush jokes or, in the case of David Letterman, jokes about the governor of Alaska and her children. But there is hope. One of the funniest bits of O’Brien’s inaugural broadcast (apart from the opener in which he realizes he has forgotten to move from New York to Los Angeles and proceeds to sprint across the country) was one in which Joe Biden was made to say all sorts of idiotic and inappropriate things to Sonia Sotomayor. Craig Ferguson, CBS’s B slot talk show host, had a better and briefer veep joke. Noting that Obama was abroad to address “the Muslim world,” he added, “But don’t worry. Joe Biden is running the country.”

Yes, the canniest and savviest appointment Obama has made to date was to pick a vice-president who would draw all the comedic fire to himself.

-S.L., 18 June 2009

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