Sunday, November 15, 2009

TV: The nightly talk shows

Between the never ending voice overs on 'entertainment' shows and so many 'news' programs doing 'sit downs' (as opposed to actual reporting), it can seem like the blather never ends on TV. And no where is that more true than on the most yada-yada format of all: Talk shows.

The talk show. Wrongly credited as beginning with Joe Franken in 1951, the talk show was around long before TV began broadcasting. For example, The Hedda Hopper Show began broadcasting on radio in 1939. Talk shows were always popular on radio (and sometimes they were dressed up as "variety shows" when they were just talk shows with a music interlude or two). When TV emerged, talk shows came along for the ride.

For the audience, talk shows are supposed to provide them a chance to get to know someone. For the networks, talk shows provide them cheap programming. And no network is more dependant upon talk shows this year than NBC -- or in a greater state of flux.

This time last year, Conan O'Brien was hosting Late Night With Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno was hosting The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Today, Jimmy Fallon hosts Late Night, Conan grabs The Tonight Show and Jay's been kicked into prime time with The Jay Leno Show.

By moving Jay to prime time, NBC was making a 'brave' move, some wags insisted. NBC was doing something 'new' that had never been done before. It was 'innovative'! First, there's nothing innovative about any talk show. Second, as is usually the case for late night TV hosts, Jay isn't doing anything that Jack Paar didn't do first years ago.

Jack Paar left as host of The Tonight Show and began hosting (also on NBC) a prime time program entitled The Jack Paar Show once a week. The Jack Paar Show? The Jay Leno Show? Again, nothing new is happening here. (Steve Allen fans and freaks, he did not leave The Tonight Show and go to prime time. He was already doing his prime time show on Sundays long before he left The Tonight Show.)

Well something new is happening for NBC's last hour of prime time and their late night line up: serious trouble.

Jay is tanking in the ratings, Monday through Friday. The hope was that he would at least come in third. It appears they should have hoped "at least fourth" because FX is hauling in significant numbers. Jay Leno's show is a bomb. Not 'the bomb,' a bomb.

And NBC thought they could screw people over. We're not speaking of the audience, we're speaking of station owners -- station owners, not NBC owned stations. We spoke to three owners who carry NBC programming and they're wondering how much longer they can afford to keep Leno on? They reminded us that it was ten years ago that NBC had to face the fact that they could keep producing Another World but the stations wouldn't just keep putting on a lemon that drove audiences away. They're toying with expanding local news or offering syndicated re-runs in place of Leno.

And the damage Jay does to the ratings goes far beyond that last hour of prime time. Local stations are seriously hurting with their nightly newscasts because Jay is their lead in.

NBC seems to think that as long as they make a profit, the ratings don't matter. Too bad for NBC, they only own 10 US stations. Almost 200 of the stations carrying NBC programming are affiliates and they're seeing declining ratings in the last hour of prime time and declining ratings for their nightly news.

What are audiences seeing?

We caught the show (all three shows, in fact) on Wednesday and the first thing we noticed was how cheap the show's opening was. It looks like photo shop done by a computer amateur as we go from one photo of Jay to another. As one of us observed, "It's only missing the refrigerator magnets." And then Jay walks out onto a set which made it look like he was trapped in a mall food court -- somewhere between the Chinese counter and the hot wings. He did a monologue that was notable only for including Jennifer Lopez -- which was only notable because it was a common thread over that night's NBC line up. Then Sandra Bullock joined the show. The intro to that was a series of clips from her various films starting with Two Weeks Notice.

Sandra was greeted warmly (we know and like Sandra) and she promoted her new film and then talked a bit about travel (which Jay tried to find jokes in but couldn't) and then about cookies. The interview never really got started and, quickly, it was over.

It was time for Jay to do "Craig's List Confidential" which resembles his headlines bit from Tonight only this allows him to really roll around in the gutter on his back as he goes for as many sexual references as he can. "10 Before 10" featured a 'celebrity.' No one we knew and the segment was pointless. In that way, it fit with the show.

We woke up for "JMZ" mainly due to the fact that Mikey Day was in a tight t-shirt, his pointy nipples practically daring us not to nod off. Mikey Day was in a bad skit (Florence Henderson runs a fight club) but made it work the same way he was in a bad sitcom (Kath & Kim) this time last year but made it work when he was onscreen.

Mikey had us fully awake and then the show was over. How much more awake might the audience have been if Mikey Day's bit had been earlier in the show?

Like the number of licks necessary to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, apparently the world may never know.

Conan. Jay's tanking in the ratings and Conan's not doing any better.

Why is that?

It probably doesn't help that he's wearing so much obvious make up. And all those male viewers he was supposed to attract? With that hair?

Hate to break it to everyone, but stick straight hair like Conan's doesn't 'curl' on the bangs on its own. Between the make up and the curled bangs, we wondered if we were watching a male comic or Hayley Mills getting ready to do a Disney feature in the sixties?

Conan oozes and drips drag queen. It's there in his mannerisms, it's there in his poses. In fact, he actually resembles Roger the alien on American Dad. Which would explain his need to be bitchy.

Jennifer Lopez? Oh, you know Conan couldn't pass up a joke about a woman.

Did we say woman?

Pluralize that.

Several times over.

A former beauty queen? You know she got dragged through the coals over a sex tape. And what was really appalling was that it was considered normal for sidekick Andy Richter to watch the tape (and apparently get off to it) but it was considered 'immoral' for Carrie Prejean to have made it.

Conan managed to insult many women in his 'comedy' routine. Sarah Palin? Jokes that she fears pictures being taken of her will "steal her crazy." He opened by noting it was Veterans Day . . . which somehow turned into a joke about Kirstie Alley's weight. If that seemed 'fresh,' you haven't watched TV in ten years.

Ten years?

We'd guess that was the expiration date on his 'joke' about Bill Clinton wanting a divorce. As is always the case with Conan, the man came off better in the 'joke' than did the woman. Or as he put it at another point in the show, "You fellas know what I'm talking about."

Yes, all the 'fellas' live to scream support to a heavily made up 46-year-old man who appears to have just left rehearsals for Kiss Of The Spiderwoman.

He should have left rehearsals for his spoof of a Spanish telenova which, frankly, was stereotypical and offensive.

It was time finally for the first guest. Heather Locklear. We know Heather and we like her. And this week the CW airs her first episode on the new Melrose Place. But watching that segment, though we cheered Heather slapping Conan, we saw all that was wrong with the show.

A two-shot.

For the entire damn interview?

Where was the director?

You could have fallen asleep during that lengthy static shot.

Heather was in profile the entire time.

They couldn't give her some close ups? They had to keep Conan in the shot?

The slap?

Conan wanted to know how they did those Melrose slaps in the 90s. (He seemed to be confusing Melrose with the 80s Dynasty -- which Heather was also on.) So Heather talked him through it and then they attempted to do it but Conan forgot to turn his head and actually got slapped. Many a talk show host could have turned that into a funny bit. Conan didn't. And moved on. And then, a few minutes later, realized there might be a bit in it and attempted to revisit it. However, it was too late.

And that says a great deal about Conan's comedic timing.

The show never seemed to end and we grasped why viewers avoided it.

The show wound down with stand up comic Rodman and we think he's funny and assumed Conan would do a set up that would prepare the audience for that. See, Rodman sneaks up on you. He's not splashy, flashy the way Conan is. You're listening to the first joke, if you don't know his style, and thinking, "Hmm. That's interesti -- Oh, that's funny!" He sneaks up on you.

Instead of preparing the audience, Conan gave the verbal equivalent of a hard shove.

Next up was Latenight with Jimmy Fallon, NBC's only success in the ratings.

We watched with trepidation. We know Jimmy and like him and didn't see him doing a monologue well.

We were not mistaken.

Jimmy really can't do a monologue.

We'd recommend he do a comedic duet at the start of each show. Jimmy's humor comes from the start and stop. He can't just tick off and get laughs. He needs a rhythm and that works best with more than one person.

But before we got to the monologue, we had to see the walk on and we were cursing throughout that. Who put Jimmy in that outfit? They should be fired and he never again should walk onto a set with a jacket buttoned closed. This jacket had three buttons, appeared to have been borrowed from Richard Dawson's Botany 500 collection and made Jimmy look like a barrel.

We'd lose the suit period. No more suits. Among the things Jimmy has going for him -- when compared to all the other late night hosts -- is youth. So don't hide that.

After the monologue, the show improved measurably and, as Jimmy spoke with Jason Schwartzman and Joan Cusak, it became obvious why people were watching this show and not NBC's two other nightly talk shows: Jimmy's listening.

With Jay and Conan, their (scripted) remarks during interviews have nothing to do with what's just been said. It's why their interviews feel so canned. Like the young David Letterman who once occupied the slot, Jimmy can't resist the opportunity to jump in with a joke. That really requires listening.


It's something Amy Goodman always hopes her Democracy Now! audience doesn't do.

Last week, we were noting how little Amy Goodman cares about the Iraq War and Ty passed on the contents of one emotional defense of Goody that was sent in. To the Goody freak, we ask: Did you catch this week's shows?

In the Iraq snapshot on Monday, the following appeared:

Today the US military announced: "Contingency Operating Base Speicher, Iraq – Two U.S. Army pilots were killed when a helicopter experienced a hard landing in Salah ad Din Province, Nov.8. The names of the deceased are being withheld pending notification of next of kin and release by the Department of Defense. The names of service members are announced through the U.S. Department of Defense official website [. . .]The announcements are made on the Web site no earlier than 24 hours after notification of the service member's primary next of kin. The incident is under investigation." And they announced: "AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – A Marine attached to Multi National Force – West died as the result of a non-combat related incident here Nov. 8. The name of the deceased is being withheld pending notification of next of kin and release by the Department of Defense. [. . .] The incident is under investigation." The announcements bring the number of US service members killed in Iraq since the start of the illegal war to 4362.

3 deaths announced on one day and 2 of them from a helicopter crash. We couldn't wait for Goody's segment! But we knew she wouldn't do one so the only question was whether or not she'd even include it as a headline. Check Monday and check Tuesday. Find where Goody informed her audience that a helicopter crashed in Iraq killing two service members and that a third was announced dead.

You won't find it. She had other things to do. She who used to lecture The New York Times about 'sins of omission.'

Oh, how the fickle finger of fate has flipped her the bird.

She's as tired as the talk show format. Which is where Fallon could really benefit. His energy shouldn't be bound by 'the rules.' Jimmy's at his best when he's doing it different. And when Carly Simon (whom we know and love) finished the one song she was brought on to perform ("You Belong To Me," from her just released Never Been Gone album), Jimmy was all over her but the audience couldn't hear it. It was a real shame.

Jimmy doesn't need to do his show the way Conan did it or the way Jay would do it, he needs to do his "Jimi Thing" (nod to Dave Matthews). NBC would do well to stop trying to plug him into a formula and grasp that he's the solution, not a variable. That's what the ratings are saying as well -- not that NBC appears able to listen these days. Like Jay, Conan and Amy, NBC just knows how to blather on endlessly.
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