The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.


Tom Shales

February 2007 Archives

Calling Doc Severinsen

February 19, 2007 3:37 PM

Could it be that at long last, late-night king David Letterman is getting fed up with the zany inanities, forced cackled laughter and imbecilic interruptions of his long-time bandleader Paul Shaffer?

Shaffer made an annoyingly disruptive dope of himself on the first night of Letterman's recent mock-event "Ventriloquist Week II" -- rattling on and on about some obscure ventriloquist he used to see on "The Ed Sullivan Show" -- and Letterman did little to hide his extreme disinterest, and displeasure, on the air. Shaffer couldn't take a hint and kept babbling. Letterman's crack staff produced an archival photo of the old ventriloquist in an effort to shut Shaffer up.

Then on subsequent nights (this was last week), there seemed to be less intrusive intervention by Shaffer and definitely fewer cutaways and reaction shots of him ordered up by the director in the booth (or the basement, apparently where the control room is located in the Ed Sullivan Theater where "Late Show" is taped). One longs to think that Letterman read the riot act to Shaffer after the night of his chronic logorrhea -- or that Dave had someone else read it to him, which is more Letterman's style.

He delegates pummeling and firing and unpleasantries like that.

Shaffer's job is surely secure, however. Letterman is legendarily loyal to long-time allies, and his partnership with Shaffer goes way back 25 years to Letterman's first show at NBC. Also, it would be hugely awkward to try to introduce a new bandleader at this late stage of the game. Dave needs a foil, and that director needs someone to cut to.

On some nights, to be fair, the two get clicking and complement each other beautifully. More and more, however, Shaffer's attempted cracks and quips curdle, and those dreadful shrieking "songs" he devises to introduce various segments are as helpful as sandbags falling from the rafters. He's a show-stopper, but in the wrong way.

If only Shaffer would take a cue from Max Weinberg, band leader on NBC's ever-fresh "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." Weinberg, whose band is the best in all of late-night TV, speaks when spoken to and then usually from a script. He and O'Brien are a perfect team.

Shaffer does have an awe-inspiring catalog of classic and obscure tunes in his creepy bald head (is he trying to look like Peter Lorre in "Mad Love"?), and comes up with clever tunes to play guests on. But that faux-hipster lounge lizard routine is weary, tired, pooped.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to my genius godson, age 12, for his helpful observations in preparing this cranky but well-intended bloggerino. If anyone wants to print up "Squelch Shaffer" t-shirts and bumper stickers, meanwhile, I'm in for one of each.....

Did 'This Week' Snub Anna Nicole?

February 13, 2007 1:56 PM

Sometimes the so-called high road is a dead-end.

Every Sunday morning, "In Memoriam," a regular feature of ABC's resurgent "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," lists famous figures, as well as members of the American military, who died during the previous week.

But on last Sunday's broadcast, the "In Memoriam" list included no mention of Anna Nicole Smith, whose figure was nothing if not famous and whose death had, of course, sent the tabloid and mainstream press into predictable feeding frenzies (it would be even more predictable to lament the excess coverage,
so why bother?).

Maybe Ms. Smith doesn't meet "This Week's" standards for newsmakers, but it seemed callous, churlish and snobbish not to list her among the departed. She had seemed in life poignant as well as grotesque, and her passing ought to have been noted as a matter of record.

We'd hate to think "This Week" was developing a New-York-Timesy kind of haughty self-importance, especially when topical jokes from TV comics are featured at the end of every show.

Thoughts on the Grammys

February 13, 2007 11:37 AM

Has Mary J Blige stopped thanking people yet?  The rambling diva was one of the reasons CBS's telecast of the 49th Annual Grammy Awards ran into local-news time Sunday. Blige won more than once but it was the first time, when she began rattling off a list of friends that started with "Jesus Christ," that she took dishonors for tortuous fatuousness. Blige later told the huge audience in the huge Staples Center that it's when you're in the valleys that "you know who you are" but it's also on the peaks when "you learn who you are." People in Hollywood often have hard times remembering who they are. But Blige assured the crowd: "I am growing into a better human bein'," and good for her.

The show was gorgeous in HDTV but got off to a terrible rip-offy start: the much ballyhooed reunion of The Police consisted of one brief song ("Roxanne," about a hooker) and poof, they were gone. Anyone tuning in late missed it. Meanwhile in the I-Want-One Department: Justin Timberlake sang part of one song self-shot and self-illuminated with some kind of high-tech, hand-held Hyper-Handycam. He sure wasn't getting a picture like that with a telephone.
An audio bleep of Chris Rock near the very end of the show was a clue it had all been on nervous tape-delay.It was wonderful to see and hear Smokey Robinson sing "The Tracks of My Tears" again, but those HD close-ups suggested he could well have revised the lyrics from "Take a good look at my face" to "take a good look at my facelift." Well, whatever it takes.

Viewers should be told that a McDonald's commercial in which children pursue red balloons was a shameless rip-off of an award-winning French film called -- surprise -- "The Red Balloon." It's a classic of its kind and it looked crummy for some ad agency to rip it off like that. The original director was Albert Lamorisse, or so my aging memory seems to think.

Too bad the telecast did not include the nutty nut commercial featuring Robert Goulet that premiered during the Super Bowl.  It's hilarious absurdity, the premise of the ad being that if you don't eat a certain kind of nut, Robert Goulet of all people will sneak into your office and mess it up. Hilarious -- but as Howard Stern noted on his radio show the next day, nobody could quite remember the name of the nut. The one in the can, that is. For the record, it's Emerald.

As for the Grammys, as you have doubtless read elsewhere, the ratings weren't bad -- like they were last year -- and the show helped give CBS the night opposite a powerful ABC line-up.

Still, more people watch amateurs screeching on Fox's "American Idol" than tuned in for the Grammy show's spotty line up of so-called professionals  -- most of the pro's as freaky as those aspiring idols are, just better coiffed and with bigger back-up bands.  And in Timberlake's case, cooler toys.