Analyzing, Evaluating the Return of the Late Night Talk Show Hosts
I wrote this for Newsvine and it was highlighted, briefly, by MSNBC, which bought MSNBC a few months ago.http://sbutki.newsvine.com/_news/2008/01/04/1202945-analyzing-evaluating-the-return-of-the-late-night-talk-show-hosts
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
"Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?"
We have all heard those age-old questions but here’s one we encountered this week: if comedy/entertainment talk shows return, minus their writers due to a strike, will the shows still be funny and entertaining?
Having watched NBC for last two hours I am prepared to answer that question and those hoping for an affirmative answer need to look elsewhere. Specifically, those looking for some humor – or at least planned humor as opposed to “oh, god, I can’t believe he thought THAT was funny” – will probably want to click their remotes over to CBS until the strike is over.
MSNBC was reporting that Leno had higher ratings for Wednesday night's shows than Letterman but I think that will change as viewers go to CBS to check out the funnier fare. Devotion to a host, Leno, will dissipate as they realize he's even less funny without his writers.
I watched CBS Wednesday night and NBC Thursday night. My hope is that other Newsvine writers will also watch these talk shows and publish their own reviews. This is all admittedly subjective and I’m sure some will say I have this all completely backward.
I don’t normally watch these shows but with all the media coverage – including some of my own – of the writers strike I wanted to see for myself how much difference these writers make. The answer, put simply, is "quite a big difference."
CBS is at a competitive advantage over NBC because David Letterman’s company, Worldwide Pants, owns and produces “Late Night”(Letterman’s show) and the “Late Late Show” (hosted by cheeky monkey Craig Ferguson). The NBC shows, in contrast, are owned by the network
Letterman’s company reached an agreement with the Writers Guild of America which allowed the two CBS shows’ writers to return. In contrast Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, the guild says, were forced to return on air by their employers, the network, without their writers.
As with the NBC shows Thursday, the main topic on CBS Wednesday night was the strike.You just knew that every ten minutes you were going to get hit by another reminder that the strike matters and that producers were greedy corporate whores.
For David Letterman’s top 10 list Wednesday he included, in a classy move, writers from other networks, including Comedy Central (whose shows return next week). The full top 10 list for Demands of the Striking Writers is here but the top three were:
3. I'm no accountant, but instead of us getting 4 cents for a $20 DVD, how about we get $20 for a 4-cent DVD?
2. I don't have a joke -- I just want to remind everyone that we're on strike, so none of us are responsible for this lame list.
1. Producers must immediately remove their heads from their [heinies].
Letterman also got off two decent llnes about the strike: 1) “I hear you at home thinking to yourself, ‘This crap is written?”’ 2) He said some awards show may be cancelled due to the strike so “something good has come of this.” Yes, admittedly, even those jokes weren’t particularly amusing.
That said after his fifth or tenth joke about how bad his new beard made him look I began to remember why I’d stopped watching him regularly, namely much of his humor is pretty predictable, albeit still not as predictable as Jay Leno’s.
Normally, I much prefer The Daily Show and the Colbert Report where the jokes are sharper and the material more creative.
Craig Ferguson was his usual fun, goofy self. Each time I watch him I think, “Man, I need to start watching this show regularly. Maybe this time I will.” When he told the audience that he had no guests for the show the crowd groaned and his response was classic. An enjoyable hour flew by, which is no mean feat.
Ferguson got off the best line about how the shows, though more NBC than CBS now, are having trouble finding guests willing to come on the shows.
“I just want to send a message to the D-list celebrities of Hollywood. You’re still welcome here," Ferguson said.
On Thursday Leno made one comment which made me smile until I concluded he was probably lying. He said the good part about having trouble getting actors booked on the show is that now he can avoid promoting "crappy" movies. But Leno's also been a bit of a smarky kiss-ass that post-strike I think he'll go right back to promoting movies via interviews regardless of how crappy they are.
That said, this whole situation is not the fault of Jay Leno, who I never found particularly funny even WITH writers, nor Conan O’Brien, who I’ve always liked. Not only were Leno and O’Brien returning without their writers, but both – since they are members of the guild themselves – had been told they could not write material of their own. Jay Leno got some criticism for his first show since he did a monologue which included material he had pre-written. While he defended the movie, some guild members thought he'd broken the rules.
After watching these shows Thursday I felt kind of bad for Jay and Conan because they were clearly unsure what to do without their writers. Having them do their shows without writers or any pre-written material is a bit like asking musicians to perform without using any previously planned or recorded arrangements.
A comedy show without writers is like a restaurant without food – the waiter can only do so much before the customers began to realize that the service seems to be realllly slow.
In short, they are expected to improvise for an hour.. or bring on guests and have extra-long interviews….. it’s just overall not a pretty picture.
Leno had a monologue Thursday night but it was weak. Whether that was because he tried to do it without pre-writing the jokes or he flubbed what was weak, dated material (one joke related to a stalker of Conan, which was news way back in November ) was unclear. Call me a wimp but I'm not a fan of stalker jokes in the first place.
"This is the loosest the show has been," Leno said at one point. By which I think he meant the filler had become the best part of the show.
My opinion may have been skewed by the fact that I consider Howie Mandel (Jay's main guest Thursday night) to be the anti-christ. You know things are bad when you wish he'd go BACK to the filler (bad holiday gifts). And is it any surprise that Howie crossed the picket lines? One more reason to dislike Howie, as far as I'm concerned.
Conan's show was more fun for a variety of reasons including simply that Conan has a more entertaining, charming presence than Jay.
Conan had several laugh-out-loud moments including when he spied on a page giving a tour of his tv studio and then acted mad, upset and confused over inaccurate and misleading information stated by the page. He confronted the page about it and hilarity ensued.
The first 20 minutes were pretty damn funny but then P. Diddy's personal assistant came on, giving Conan fashion tips and I was thinking that if I wasn't doing this story I would have turned off the show. Conan's musical guest was Kid Rock, who was pretty unimpresive.
The NBC hosts have said they had to return on air or else the other workers on the show, the non-writers, would have been fired. That makes sense except do the other workers really want to put on an inferior show night after night? For how long? I mean Conan is the best ad-libber out there, with the possible exception of Letterman, but my god, man, how long are they going to make him work this circus without writers?
As I finish up this review/analysis/summary at 2 a.m. I have just thought of another possible explanation. Hmm.... maybe…. maybe… stay with me here.. maybe the NBC hosts are intentionally making the show as lame as possible, hoping that their suckiness will spark the producers and the corporations that own the shows to get their fat assses out of the boardrooms and do some serious labor negotiating.
I am going to end this with the hope that this is their secret strategy – code named Operation Let’s Suck – and that I, for one, think it’s time someone told them “Mission Accomplished!”