MTV’s Carson Daly `a colossal tool’? You bet

Aug 20, 2001  •  Post A Comment

So then! It turns out that the awesome bumbling brain trust that runs NBC (and in time may run it into the ground) has chosen the equally awesome and bumbling Carson Daly to be host of the long-running but little-seen talkshow “Later,” a half-hour of hype and horseplay that follows Conan O’Brien in those weally weally wee hours of the morning.
Do you suppose Mr. Daly is aware of the fact that he has frequently been referred to as “a colossal tool” and other colorful terms for “clueless dork” by the multitalented Jimmy Fallon on the same network’s “Saturday Night Live”? Oh well, all in good fun, although one hallmark of “SNL” is that they usually assault people who shamelessly invite attack.
Mr. Daly is not multitalented. He does not appear to be even uni-talented. He is what might be called anti-talented. But teenage girls like him as the host of MTV’s daily paean to pubescent inanity, “Total Request Live,” and enjoy the way he tosses off such nifties as “[That was] `Smooth Criminal’ [by] Alien Ant Farm, No. 9” and “Wow, look at that.” So the apparently well-connected Daly gets a foot in the door at a real network and a job that should have gone to someone with charisma and ad-libability.
No talent, no problem
The Day of the Locust? More like the decade of the cockroach. This here millennium is not off to an auspicious start. Daly’s ascent is but another sign of a distressing revolution in what is still politely called show business: the rise and triumph of the professional amateur-the reign of the know-nothings, the preliterates (masquerading as post-literates) and the demonstrably inept.
Since television began, the folks sitting at home have looked at personalities cavorting on the screen and said to themselves, “I could do that.” In the new age of amateurism, they’re right, they could. The Carson Dalys are there because their very boobishness makes them unthreatening. Were Daly to show signs of wittiness or erudition he’d be out on his butt in half a New York minute.
In olden times, not all that olden really, TV and movies operated according to an unspoken but effective gentleperson’s agreement: The world could be divided into performers and audiences, the gifted and the giftless, and audiences stayed in their seats watching people who could do what the audience couldn’t. Oh but this was so exclusionary, so undemocratic. A tyranny of talent ruled, and at some point, the untalented began to bristle at the unfairness of it all.
Why should it be that only people with good voices and the ability to carry a tune should get to do all the singing? And so heavy metal and later, rap were born to give non-singers equal time with singers. This is not to say the rap world hasn’t given us artists and work of aesthetic merit and social significance. But mostly it’s a playground for punks. Its ersatz, posed “straight from the street” authenticity doesn’t last long when these kids land recording contracts, either, and begin supplying long lists of outlandish blandishments to be installed backstage at venues where they’ll appear. Think of all those poor droids who have to spend their time, say, removing all the red M&M’s from the bags or making sure the bottled water is fizzy Ty Nant instead of nonfizzed.
Being on television used to be a privilege not a right, something you earned by having honed a particular unique ability, or at least by being able to project a charm and affability that made viewers happy to see you. No more. “SNL” ridiculed old-fashioned ideas of entertainment with its ironically named “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” but never did the show or members of its cast present themselves as alternatives to professionalism. They were impishly rebellious; they were rascally renegades; but they weren’t amateurs. They weren’t some jerks off the street.
At some point the jerks off the street gained, if not the upper hand, virtually equal footing with that once-cherished minority, People With Something to Offer. MTV’s on-air “talent”-veejays and even “news” reporters-were groomed to come across as accessibly incompetent. They had to look like they didn’t give a damn and that they regarded the medium itself with contempt or at least disdain.
Too cool for TV
OK, they had agreed to be on TV, but, they all liked to imply, they were above it. They had better things to do. In place of talent, which was now a quaint and outmoded concept, they offered cool. Being cool involved not caring. Carson Daly strays from this model to one extent: He fawns and gushes and slobbers all over the “stars” from the music world who drop by to visit him on the “TRL” show. He plays along with the illusion, the hoax.
Many of these fabulous folks are at best marginally talented themselves, but the fickle finger of fame has pointed their way and they’re going to make the most of it until their business managers and accountants rob them blind or they get hooked on drugs and become a future up-down-up story for VH1’s self-parodistic “Behind the Music,” or the public simply wearies of them and moves on to the next blip on the radar.
Crowd-shot overload
Always central to the conceit is the blurring of the line between the stars and the fans. One reason the old “Ed Sullivan Show” clips of famous rock groups (hawked in 800-number infomercials) look so good now-and have historic, video-of-record value-is that it wasn’t yet common practice to show as much of the audience as of the artist on stage. You might see a couple of quick cutaways to shrieking teenies in the balcony as Elvis pelvis’d, but mercifully the camera held still and kept him in focus-and did the same for the Beatles or the Doors or the Stones or whomever.
Now the groups on stage have to share the show with frighteningly demonstrative, camera-conscious audiences. Every fan a ham. Honestly, it’s getting to be about a 50-50 proposition, with inept TV directors calling for more and more crowd shots and fewer glimpses of the performers.
Why do people want to see the audience? Thank heaven we haven’t quite reached the point where TV shows us as much of the crowd as of the players at an NBA game. At least in sports, directors are a bit more hesitant to cut away, though we’ve all seen big, crucial plays missed because the director was ogling some honey-bunny in the crowd. Fortunately they have video recorders in the booth capturing everything so they can usually pick up the moment and show it later.
Jack Paar used to joke to his audience that he really had no talent but had carved out a career anyway. Of course he had many talents-brilliance as a raconteur, wit as a monologist plus an exceptionally sharp eye for talent in others. And as my friend, producer and archivist Eric Kulberg, recently reminded me, Paar was (unlike, say, Jay Leno) a true auteur who produced his own shows, chose his own guests, infused the entire enterprise with his own sensibilities. It wasn’t just “The Jack Paar Program,” it was “Jack Paar’s Mind,” wide-open and hyperactive and endlessly inquisitive.
The notion that a person could have no talent and yet be a TV star was a joke back then. Now it is an everyday reality. Cable networks, with all that time to fill, certainly can’t sit around waiting for talented people to show up. They have to go with what they can get. Obviously, the “reality” shows endeavor to make stars out of underwhelmingly ordinary people-ordinary except for the occasional psychopath who sneaks past the “rigorous” screening process.
I want to go back to the old way, when the people on television were clever and smart and entertaining and thus, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said of the rich, different from you and me. Television for the people, not always of the people. On a recent edition of “TRL,” a teenage girl was given the thrill of a phone call from some rockster that she idolized and adored. Guess what: She did all the talking. He barely said boo.
The talent pool keeps shrinking, and despite the current rash of repurposing, the television universe keeps expanding. To say there’s not enough talent to go around is definitiv
ely truistic understatement, like saying George W. Bush is no genius or Dick Cheney shouldn’t go bungee-jumping. The Carson Dalys of the world get their 15 minutes of fame even if 20 seconds would constitute reckless over-exposure.
It can’t be stopped, it can’t be reversed, and probably not that far into the future, the people who even give a damn about it will be gone, after having been dismissed as old-hat and uncool. The generations who lovingly remember television as a showcase for talent and skill and genius will die out and disappear. The lunatics will run the asylum, and they won’t even be your better class of lunatic.