Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

You can still find remnants of the species Talkshow Americanus here and there on what used to be called “the dial.” In the middle of the night, stations and cable networks run talk shows somewhat similar to what a previous TV generation grew up with. The format: A group of engaging people sitting around talking about something that might conceivably be of interest to other human beings.
Alas, these new “talk shows” are scripted phonies. They’re infomercials in talk-show drag, and the people sitting around are hired actors or friends of the sponsor, and they talk about such matters as regaining sexual potency.
But in format and structure, these shams bring back memories of talk shows as they used to be-back when guests did not just trot out with a prepared collection of one-liners that producers had already heard during “pre-interviews.” The host utters Pavlovian prompts, and the guest not only salivates but spits out the programmed responses. One result of this degradation: We’ve had a couple of generations grow up with no real idea of what an anecdote is.
One reason is that anecdotes are considered too long. They take too much time. That time goes to the host for some smart-alecky crack that will elicit a quick laugh from the studio audience. The host couldn’t care less what the guest is talking about, because he’s barely registered who the guest is. He’s about as interested in the guests and their stories as the Soup Nazi was in his customers’ private lives.
The recent death of Buddy Hackett cues memories of those talk shows as they were, and they were at one time an American pop-art form. Brilliant men perfected them to that state: Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and, in his own patented antagonistic way, David Susskind. Even Merv, bless his heart, had actual, if insanely superficial, chats with his guests, and it was possible they might say something he hadn’t heard before.
Hackett told not just jokes, but stories. He was hardly a master of erudition or a wit of the old school (unless the old school is P.S. 94 in Brooklyn). But he liked to talk, and the hosts had the sense to sit back and let him. They weren’t in fear of losing control of the show if it went a minute or two without them talking.
Jack Paar was probably the greatest conversationalist who ever held forth on the air. Yes, he did a lot of talking himself, but in addition to a monologue with its assortment of jokes about events of the day, he told long, funny stories about things that had really happened to him, especially humiliating things.
But Jack listened to and enjoyed his guests’ stories too. If a guest was tanking, Jack helped out. If a guest was soaring, Jack upped the altitude even higher with a few choice contributions. On many a night, Jack was stratospheric.
Dear Jack, Great Jack, a man who has weathered many a medical storm during his lifetime, suffered a stroke earlier this year. He rests now in a rehab clinic for stroke victims in Connecticut. With unspeakable cruelty, fate has, temporarily we hope, robbed this meisterspieler of the ability to speak. It’s like Pavarotti being unable to sing. It’s just the damnedest injustice, even in a world full of them.
Johnny Carson, Paar’s illustrious, living-legend successor at the “Tonight Show” desk, was more the stand-up comic than Paar had been, but he relished a good talker immensely, and he’d actually let them talk. Johnny got involved, and he got us involved. He could make a conversation between two people as entertaining as the most stupendous act ever to set feet, or hooves, on Ed Sullivan’s stage.
All that’s over. Conan O’Brien and David Letterman are the best of the bunch now, but it’s hard for a guest to engage either one of them in a genuine conversation, to hold to one subject for more than a fleeting moment. O’Brien’s monologue and comedy bits do so well that he may be suffering the curse of the overpraised; he thinks the audience will feel cheated if he isn’t talking.
Harrison Ford, a recent guest, likes to take his time with an anecdote, and he actually knows what one is, but Conan felt obliged to head him off at more than one pass. A story can’t have a beginning, a middle and an end anymore. It can only have an end.
One night back in David Letterman’s NBC days, one of his guests was Robert Morley, the portly actor with a Brit’s gift for storytelling. He’d been a frequent and always funny guest of Paar’s. But Letterman didn’t know what to do with him. He looked at him the way the monkeys looked at the slab in “2001.” He couldn’t handle an anecdotally oriented guest. He might as well have tried to interview kelp.
With a “serious” newsmaker guest such as Al Gore, Hillary Clinton or even George W. Bush, Letterman actually does conduct interviews-good ones-and sometimes such guests do their best unscripted work on his show. But he expects anyone in the entertainment business to treat this as a gig and to deliver what’s been promised-and, most of the time, rehearsed, albeit without Dave present.
One night when Buddy Hackett was on with Letterman, he sneaked in a long story, the kind that was his specialty, and at the end of it, the drummer in the band improvised a rim shot. Hackett got angry. On the air, he told the drummer, “Don’t do that,” because, he said, the audience would assume he and the drummer had worked it out in advance and that his spontaneity was faked. Even Buddy Hackett, who could be a pretty crude and scatological comic, had too much integrity for what the “talk show” has sadly become.